Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Small Town Hicks and Simpletons, Conventional Wisdom, and Quotes

This post is more about what urbanites know - or think they know - about those simple, ignorant, dull but colorful people who live in small towns.

What got me started was this quote:

"If you would be known, and not know, vegetate in a village; If you would know, and not be known, live in a city."
Charles Caleb Colton (1780 - 1832)
(The Quotations Page)

Around 1700, he may have been right.

Who Was Charles Caleb Colton?

After a little nosing around, I found this micro-biography:

"COLTON, Charles Caleb Colton (c 1780-1832) clergyman, sportsman, gambler, suicide, and author of the aphoristic Lacon (2 vol. 1820-1822)"
(Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Edinburgh, W.R.Chambers, 1914)
("Introducing Reverend Charles Caleb Colton," The Charles Caleb Colton Website)

("Lacon" - "Lacon: or, Many things in few words: address--to those who think," by Charles Caleb Colton - is available online on Google Books.)

Vegetating in a Village - and Loving It

I've lived in a few cities, and in a town so small that the most prominent citizen was a turtle made out of truck wheels. That doesn't make me an expert in urban and rural cultures, not a certified one anyway, but I couldn't help noticing a few things along the way.

For example, small towns and cities are both populated by people. Some are alert members of vibrant societies. Some aren't. And a few are jerks. I haven't noticed any great difference in the ratios between, say, San Francisco and Dunseith, North Dakota.

I've lived in a small town, Sauk Centre, for the last 23 years. It'll be 24 years around the end of this month. This isn't the idyllic land of Huck Finn clones and wooden apple barrels that one stereotype of Small Town America would predict. It isn't the cesspool of inbred sociopaths and religious nuts of another stereotype. And it certainly isn't the abode of comic simpletons you see in "Green Acres" reruns.

Life in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, isn't perfect: but it'll do. Like the title of one section of my Brendans's Island website says: "I Love It Here!"

As for vegetating in a village; and the tranquil, slow pace of small town life: I think that each of us determines how much we use our brains; and how much we try to do. If anything, I'm busier here in Sauk Centre, than I was when I lived in San Francisco.

What 'Everybody Knows' May Not Be So

Sometimes conventional wisdom is right. Like 'if you drop a hammer on your foot, it'll probably hurt.' Sometimes, not so much.

C. C. Colton's assumption about vegetating in a village - and the anonymity of urban life - has some basis in fact. In a city, it's virtually impossible to know everyone you see downtown by sight. There's just too many people for that. On the other hand, my experience was that I got to know people in places I was at frequently about as well as I know people here in Sauk Centre.

But I'm getting off-topic.

Reverend Colton's observation about people who live in villages may have been somewhat accurate. In England. Around 1800.

Two centuries later, I doubt that there are any Brigadoons in the British Isles. Here in America, there are spots where cell phones won't work and you need a satellite dish to get television programming - but living 'off the grid' is an option, not a necessity.

I was going to write more about stereotypes and the reality of urban and rural living, here in America, but it'll be easier to copy something I did in April, 2008:
This may not happen again for a long time. I agree with part of an article in the Huffington Post:

Californians as a group "are a people in a state already surfeited with a smug sense of superiority and, as an ironic consequence, a parochialism and insularity at odds with the innovation, prosperity and openness for which California is rightly known."
("Obama: No Surprise That Hard-Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter"
Huffington Post (April 11, 2008))

Urban Sophisticates / Small Town Hicks: Reality Check

For decades, I've seen indications that the stereotype behind "Green Acres" and similar comedies is not merely false: it's inverted. (Green Acres fans: please don't take offense. I thought the show was funny, and nobody came off as particularly sharp.)

Stay with me, please: I'm not trying to create another 'victim' group.

The stereotype is:
  • Knowledgeable, up-to-date, broad-minded city folk
  • Ignorant, decades out of touch with current events, dangerously narrow-minded country folk
There may have been a time when this reflected reality. In the days before the Internet, television, radio, telegraph, and the printing press, a person's - or a community's - knowledge of the world depended largely on personal, face-to-face, contact.

In a time when people seldom traveled more than a few miles from the place they were born, those who lived in cities had an enormous advantage over those in the country.

People who lived in cities had opportunities to meet and talk with many more people than people who lived in the country. And, city dwellers were more likely to meet people from other cities, or even other countries.

Where the country bumpkin might know the king's name, the city sophisticate might know what the king had for breakfast that morning, and be comparing several versions of what the king and the ambassador from abroad were discussing.

That was then.

Old Assumptions Meet the Information Age

I just got through listening to, and watching, a message that the Pope read, for the American people, in anticipation of his visit next week. I plan to watch part of it, although I'll be over a thousand miles away, in Minnesota.

That message is available to people living in downtown Manhattan; Winnemucca, Nevada; and Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

A person doesn't have to live in the heart of a great city to be informed. Not now. For example, I live in a small town in central Minnesota, with a population of about 4,000.

The stereotypical small town hick might, possibly, know who was president, but wouldn't be informed about affairs outside his little twarf. This resident of a small town, in a few minutes, pulled together this list of headlines: And, glanced through the stories.

Living outside a major metropolitan area no longer means being isolated from national and world events.

In fact, I suspect that people in rural areas are more knowledgeable of urban conditions, than the reverse.

It's not that rural people are smarter, or more interested.

What's going on in urban areas permeates the media. It's hard not to know something about New York City, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities.
  • Real-life minutia, from the latest grass fire outside Los Angeles, to traffic problems in New York City, dominate the news. It takes a major tornado outbreak to get something that detailed about life in the heartland on national television.
  • Fictionalized accounts of life in cities dominate entertainment media. Having lived both in urban and rural America, I know from personal experience that "Law and Order," for example, does a better job of portraying urban life, than "Green Acres" does for rural living.

Wake Up, Everyone! It's a New World!

I don't expect that 'sophisticated' people in California, and elsewhere, will give up that "smug sense of superiority and ... parochialism and insularity" any time soon. It's too comfortable a garment to cast off easily.

But, people who really believe that the natives of rural Pennsylvania are armed and dangerous xenophobic religious chauvinists are living in a world of yesterday: one that never really quite existed.

It's time for the rest of us to get on with the business of living in the Information Age.
("The Effect of Information Technology and Media Preoocupation with Urban Events on the Relative Sophistication of Urban and Rural Populations," Another War-on-Terror Blog (April 13, 2008))
I plan to be back Wednesday, with another regular post for the Sauk Centre Journal.

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