News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, October 12, 2009

It was not just Wall Street. Main Street failed years ago.

Intellectually and morally America is in decline. It has turned from a country that gets things done to a country that is mired in small-minded bickering and destructive abuse.  Its business community failed the country in massive dimensions, as the historic business narrative from Enron to AIG demonstrates.  Its politics have become the epitome of small-town, small-minded resentment and vengeance.  But the signal failure of America was not what Wall Street did.  The failure begins on Main Street and has a long history that can be traced through the decline of small towns and rural America.

A recent census report shows that the great plains is continuing its decline, which actually began about a century ago.  Some communities reached their high points during the early years of the 20th century.  Others reached their flourish during the 1950s.  But the indisputable fact is that small towns in rural communities are not places where young people and adults in their productive years want to live.  The reasons are provided in sociological studies, but they are more thoroughly and comprehensively examined in that genre of American literature called "the revolt from the village."

In my time at Northern State, I was struck by how a theme in American literature emerged with great consistency and frequency in student papers.  When writing about their hometowns, students showed a fondness and appreciation for small town life, but shrewdly identified detractions that make life in the rural communities undesirable and in some cases impossible.  A basic reason is that small towns just do not supply employment opportunities, especially for the college educated, and are devoid of the cultural opportunities that make life in a community mentally and culturally sustainable, let alone bearable. 

But the biggest detraction in small towns is typified by the town cafe, where people gather and spend the day gossiping.  And the gossip that student writers find offensive and repelling is not the community happenings and stories that have a basis in fact.  What they found so repulsive was the small-minded flow of malicious lies and speculations that characterized the conversation.  One young woman, who worked as a waitress at a town cafe during high school, recalled how the older people would gather over coffee and generate evil and destructive lies about other people in town. She recalls how town elders would gather at the hour school let out and comment on the students as they passed by the window of the town cafe.  All the comments were false and malicious, but she recalled how these elders reacted to one of her classmates, a young woman who came from a family of little means.  As the young woman walked by, they made comments about the young woman's sexual activity, her honesty, and her general worth as a human being.  According to the student writer, it was all false, but the malicious defamations spread throughout the town and gave the young woman a reputation that she had not earned in any way and was totally untrue.

Unlike most of the stories about the effects of human malice,  that one had a happy outcome.  The young waitress was so upset by the gossip that she talk to her employers and parents about it.  Her parents brought it up with their Lutheran pastor, who was a woman that the town elders said was a lesbian.  The pastor talked with school authorities and found that the maligned young woman qualified for a special program at a denominational college.  When she graduated from high school, she was able to leave the town and enter a program that gave her a job and a tuition scholarship at a college.

Another young woman from a town not far from Aberdeen was so offended by the destructive gossip that emanated from the town cafe in her town that she refused to return to the town even to visit her family.  Her paper about the town chronicled instances of malicious slander, but also other kinds of abuse.  Her parents were extremely upset by her refusal to return to the community and asked her academic counselor to intervene.  The matter was referred to another counselor who tried to resolve the problem by having faculty that the young woman respected talk to her.  The young woman never returned to her hometown as far as I know, but her family came to understand the reasons for her intense objections to her community.  They arranged to have their family holidays with relatives who lived in Aberdeen.

My own experience with some of the town cafe-centered community attitudes came when my wife and I were representatives of an agency that placed foreign exchange students at the high school and college levels.  In one case, we placed a young woman from Japan with a family that had two daughters of high school age.  We found that the town was divided into bitter, malicious factions and the family with which we placed the student was the object of vicious treatment by a faction that did not like the family.  The treatment was extended to the Japanese exchange student, and we received an emergency call from the agency with which we worked.  International good will came to an abrupt end on main street of that town.  The exchange student had called her parents with reports of what was going on in the town and the high school and the agency  informed us and asked that the exchange student be removed from the town immediately.  We were able to place the Japanese student in another home in Aberdeen.  The original family with which the young woman was placed decided that their daughters would be much better off if they attended a different school in a different community, too.  Their daughters transferred to the same school where we placed the Japanese student the second time, and the young women remained friends.  Within months, the family moved out of the small town and made its home in Aberdeen. 

The small-minded and malicious culture that pervades some small towns is chronicled in the works of Sherwood Anderson.  Sinclair Lewis has earned the hatred of small Midwestern communities by portraying the predatory and destructive malice  that pervades small town.  Willa Cather captures  the spirit-killing aspects of small town life, particularly in her novels My Antonia and  Song of the Lark
The protagonists in their works all leave the small towns in order to find productive lives.  A more recent novelist who writes of small town life is Jon Hassler, who died last year.  His novel Staggerford, a town featured in many of his novels, gives an appreciative perspective on small town life, but does not spare the negative aspects.  He does the same with academic life in the upper Midwest.

What these literary works attempt  is to show the destructive effects of people who form societies around malicious purpose.  Their only sense of power and consequence is to malign and destroy other people. People of this nature live in every community, but in some communities they dominate and even rule.  In other communities, they are kept in check by the more benevolent people.

As a journalist, I covered small towns from many aspects, including their school boards.  Some small towns were friendly, efficient, and comparatively free from factional animosities.  Others were characterized by constant fights, slanders, and accusations.  Those latter towns had a difficult hiring good teachers.   Their turn-over got as high as 50 percent a year.  Sadly,  children who needed the best kind of instruction did not receive it, and the town passed a mean legacy on to the children.  In one case, the parents petitioned out of the town's school district and sent their children to school in another county.  In other such towns, people simply moved out as soon as they had opportunity, leaving the towns to those who gave them such negative reputations.

That is the process that so many of my former students described in the papers they wrote about their hometowns.  They were anxious to get away from the small-mindedness, the malice, and the destructive environment they witnessed.  In the great plains, the outmigration continues while development corporations and committees fix on trying to create jobs that will retain and attract the young, and the talented, and the ambitious.  They cannot grapple with the fact that the culture is what the bright and talented find repeling.

To get a full sense of the forces that drive people away, one need merely browse through the South Dakota blogosphere.  The majority of blogs are devoted to maligning other people.  While they claim to discuss issues, they are filled with slanders, accusations, false representations, general scurrility, and all the other forms that character assassination takes.  While some bloggers who try to maintain a standard of sanity and decency struggle with commenters,  others simply turn their attention to more constructive pursuits.  As a fellow blogger put it to me recently, he noted that, aside from some national blogs, the blogosphere is devoid of anything that might termed creative or inspiring.  And so, he decided to join those who revolt from blogging.

There are more intelligent and informing ways to spend one's time and effort. 

It's the culture, stupid.  The culture from Main Street. 


Douglas said...

Interesting. I suspect the lack of economic opportunity is the prime factor however.

As for gossip, I get the feeling small communities are small enough everybody thinks they know everything, but large enough they really don't. Makes for some really interesting lies.

Rural communities are mostly devoid of new ideas, but local powers that be get a goofy new idea to suck money out of taxpayers to line their own, and they take any criticism of such ripoffs as a criticism of their person rather than their idea.

That attitude makes intelligent discussions of alternatives nearly impossible. Couple that with newspapers that won't allow the mere mention of a local business (even one long gone) and a whole new black hole of information exists in smaller communities.

Be very wary when the generic term "progress" is applied to a new method to suck out taxpayer's money. The most regressive, inefficient backward, thoughtless plans are most often labeled as "progress".

David Newquist said...

I agree on the conflict between people who claim they are instituting "progressive change" and those who resist. But from my experience, such tussles are more about whose ideas dominate than it is about what are good, beneficial ideas.

I have seen communities insist on changes that in fact were steps backward. A case is Aberdeen's new airport terminal. When it was built, the restaurant part that was a convenient attraction in the old terminal was eliminated. They put in a coffee bar which no one used, so now they have an empty place with no services or conveniences for travelers. It is a case of people wrangling over getting their way rather then making a clear assessment of what is needed and what can work.

thad said...

The citizens of South Dakota are getting older, and the middle of the state is losing population. I believe we need to reverse this by bringing in as many immigrants as possible to recharge our communities.

Being that we have social programs that are broke, we cannot place them on social security or medicare. However, America can offer freedom and the opportunity to better their lives. This is something no other country in the world can do.

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