Patrick Thornton at Roll Call says it’s time to stop making the heartland the “real” America.
I’m from the rural Midwest. I now live in Washington, D.C. All of this talk about coastal elites needing to understand more of America has it backward.
My home county in Ohio is 97 percent white. It, like a lot of other very unrepresentative counties, went heavily for Donald Trump.
My high school had about 950 students. Two were Asian. One was Hispanic. Zero were Muslim. All the teachers were white.My high school had more convicted sexual predator teachers than minority teachers. That’s a rural American story.
In many of these areas, the only Muslims you see are in movies like “American Sniper.” (I knew zero Muslims before going to college in another state.) You never see gay couples or even interracial ones. Much of rural and exurban American is a time capsule to America’s past.
And on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, they dug it up.
The first gay person I knew personally was my college roommate — a great man who made me a better person. But that’s an experience I would have never had if I didn’t go to college and instead decided to live the rest of my life in my hometown.
That was when I realized that not supporting gay marriage meant to actively deny rights to someone I knew personally. I wouldn’t be denying marriage rights to other people; I would be denying marriage rights to Dave. I would have to look Dave in the eye and say, “Dave, you deserve fewer rights than me. You deserve a lesser human experience.”
When you grow up in rural America, denying rights to people is an abstract concept. Denying marriage rights to gay people isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons.
To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.
We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.
We must start asking all Americans to be their better selves. We must all understand that America is a melting pot and that none of us has a more authentic American experience.
With a few changes to the narrative (I’m the gay roommate and I live in Miami, not Washington), this is my story, too. I grew up in a nice quiet suburb of Toledo. It was pre-1960 Norman Rockwell with the 99.9% white Christian population, the soda fountain, the bakery, and everyone voting the straight Republican ticket. The other difference is that my parents knew it was a bubble and encouraged me and my siblings to get out of town as soon as we could. (I remember my mother being disappointed that I went to Miami because my grandmother lived twenty miles from campus. Yeah, like a 19-year-old theatre major is going to hang with his grandmother.) But for the rest of it, Mr. Thornton and I are on the same page and I concur wholeheartedly.
I also know that this part of the country has had it rough, not just in the last twenty years and not just economically. They have seen jobs go away, shipped overseas by large corporations; agriculture taken over by big business, and kids graduating from high school take off for Minneapolis or Denver or Miami because they want to find a better place to be themselves. A lot of them have done it not in defiance of their upbringing in rural America but at the urging of it. Ask most people in small town America if they don’t want their son or daughter to have a chance at a good education if not at Harvard than at The Ohio State University. In short, they aspire to become coastal elites.
Yes, they worry about the coarsening of the culture, of the changes that multiculturalism has wrought in the society as seen in the films and on TV, but they’re also the ones with the satellite dish and the subscription to People and can name the Kardashians by height and hair color. But they’re not hypocrites; they’re human. It’s natural to be curious about other ways of life as long as theirs is still safe to come home to. (If you think I’m being elitist or over-generalizing, I refer you to John Steinbeck’s observations of America in Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962). Steinbeck was many things, but an elitist he was not.)
We all come from small towns. Even if you grew up in a neighborhood in the Bronx, Liberty City in Miami, or the South Valley of Albuquerque, you had a community of family, neighbors, schoolmates, church/temple/meeting that was your small town. The values they share are not that much different than those in Perrysburg, Ohio, or Van Meter, Iowa: safety, security, companionship, and hope. To say that one experience is better than another only enforces the walls of the bubble.