The national media spent the last year sending reporters out to the middle of the country, trying to figure out what makes us tick. Some of the articles have featured places I’ve been and even people I know, but they never get the story exactly right. No matter where the story takes place or where it appears, you can be sure of one thing. Rural people are broke, uneducated, likely using opioids, on disability of some kind, and generally mad at the world. How else can we explain the results of the 2016 election?
Well, drugs are a problem, population in rural Missouri is declining, and crop and livestock prices are lower than we’d like. I don’t think any of those things explains the last election, and most of the rural people I know lead generally happy and fulfilling lives.
But you’d never know that when you read about how others see us, and that’s a problem. For example, my alma mater has once again made the news, as a former dean in the Medical School at the University of Missouri has filed a discrimination suit against the school. Buried deep in the complaint is a quote attributed to the present “senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion” at the school, calling outstate Missouri resident students “bumpkins, hicks and illiterates who lived in Hootersville.” Wow.
He’s obviously au courant with the literature, as the tone of all these articles is almost always condescending, and the people from rural areas who appear in these essays are treated like citizens of some lost civilization discovered by an archaeologist traveling in the deepest jungles of Central America, stumbling upon a heretofore unknown tribe with strange rituals - like county fairs, church on Sunday, and drag races on Saturday night. I can only imagine what will happen when one of these journalism school graduates shows up in Missouri during deer season!
Two more articles for my file appeared recently, both long pieces examining the dystopian hell that is life in rural America. Writer Noah Rothman calls essays in this rapidly expanding genre “decline porn,” which nicely captures the tone of the journalism and the guilty pleasure that both writer and reader take in the travails of presumed Trump voters.
Some journalists drop in on folks living in single wide trailers for bleak portraits of lives in disarray, but others concentrate on those who have “lit out from the territories” - Huck Finn in reverse - as they flee some small town for civilization.
The typical essay introduces a protagonist, someone who has made their escape from Lenox, Iowa or Kahoka, Missouri. They’ve returned to their hometown, and despite the love they feel for their family members left behind, by the end of the piece they are ever so glad to return to more agreeable precincts in New York or San Francisco or even Kansas City.
In whatever small town that serves as the center of this journalistic expedition, they are suffocated by unhappiness, sadness, economic decline and an ubiquitous bigotry just below the surface that encompasses race, sex, sexual identity, and, if Kahoka is any indication, James Joyce. A recent Washington Post deep dive (The Homecoming ) into Kahoka featured the subject of the article carrying a copy of Ulysses to the county fair. The locals are not impressed. What hope is there for a place that disses James Joyce?
After reading the article, that I’m kind of impressed with Kahoka. Mom and dad are proud of their daughter, happy to have her home -even for a short while. They welcomed their new son-in law and his family with open arms. The locals avoid the political scene in the conversations reported in the article and continue to go about lives seemingly well-lived in a small place. Imagine a life in which politics isn’t the center of every conversation! The Washington Post can’t, and the editors had to have been disappointed.
The Wall Street Journal weighed in with a series of articles on rural America, the latest about a young lady who journeyed from a small Indiana town to San Francisco, by way of Carnegie-Mellon.( One Striver's Small Town Regrets) She kept up with all the news from home, the article tells us, learning who was on food stamps, who got arrested, and who overdosed. Those being absolutely the only datum one needs to know about fly-over country, I suppose.
Anyway, she arrives back home - journalist in tow - and off we go. In days gone by, when young people returned to their place of origin, all they brought home for the weekend was dirty laundry. Times changed, and parents began to worry about kids coming back with tattoos or some part of their body pierced. Now, no trip to the home place is complete without a member of the fourth estate riding shotgun.
As journalist and anthropological subject enter Kingman, we vicariously revisit the scenes of what was clearly an unhappy childhood and learn the strategy she used to avoid the “dismal prospects that hobbled many in her rural generation.” Everybody pulled her down, it seems, telling her that “she was getting too big for her britches,” and, whenever she appeared too smart or too ambitious, reminding her not to be “too proud of herself.”
After spending several thousand words in her company, I’m thinking that, 20 or 30 years from now - should she revisit this essay - she might well wish she had taken that advice. Anyway, by the end of the essay, she’s trying to figure out a way to buy at least part of the farm where she grew up. Not what we expect from articles like this, and I hope she finds a way to return home.
In their attempt to figure out what makes people with baseball caps and pickup trucks tick, the emphasis is always on how awful life in rural America is. Rural Americans are starting to notice.
My friend Tony calls this genre “Journeys to the Heart of Darkness.” Tony is better read than I am, so that’s not what these pieces bring to my mind as I read about sadness, heartbreak, and addictions. It’s like a country song with no end, and it’s beginning to wear on this resident of Tarkio, Missouri, population 1500 hardy souls.
Yes, it is possible to live in a rural America and have a happy, successful, and even intellectually interesting life. We have the internet, although it’s often slow, and can access the sum of human knowledge just like our fellow citizens. Amazon delivers to our front door, and we can and do download books to electronic devices. Some of us have managed to carve out an economically successful life, and travel far and wide. Some of us struggle financially, but forego economic success for the rewards of family, church, and wide-open spaces.
I once spent some time with an accomplished and moderately famous writer from Manhattan and listened to her complain about the necessity of always wearing black. Heck, we’ve got more choices that that around here, since either Carhartt brown or camo is considered appropriate for any occasion. Don’t laugh at the value of a place that hasn’t seen a necktie since sometime in the 1960’s - more people than you might imagine value comfortable dress over stock options.
I spent the other day on a tractor, watching black cows graze on a vista that stretched for miles as the sun set on a beautiful early winter evening. At the end of the day, I could look back on what I’d accomplished, physically changing the landscape in a way that can be measured. It’s not for everyone, and not even something I’d want to do every day all day long, but a perfectly fulfilling and productive part of a career that brings me satisfaction and supports my family.
I’m happy, love the place I live, and after six decades in this place, can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m not alone in combining happiness, satisfaction, and a home far away from an ocean or a major media center. That shouldn’t have to be said, but dozens of stories I’ve read since the election have failed to find a single person willing to describe their lives in the way that I would describe mine. Although I must admit, I once tried to read Ulysses, and gave up 3 pages in.
Not every rural place is the same, and not every town visited in these stories has the same problems, although you wouldn’t know that from reading the articles. Some do indeed suffer because the factory or the mine closed. Some are shrinking because machines, chemicals, and biotechnology have replaced people in the production of food. Some are thriving economically, some are at depression levels of unemployment, and some struggle along. Some reject opportunities for change and growth, perfectly happy with a lifestyle that rewards those who value solitude and tradition.
A journalist who really wanted to describe what is happening in Middle America would talk about those differences, rather than painting with a broad and not very interesting brush.
It is not that the problems highlighted in these essays don’t exist, because they do. Obesity is a problem, drug abuse is growing, and economic opportunities are often less available than in other places. Having said that, none of these problems will be solved by solutions devised by experts in far away places or journalists parachuting in for a short stay.
If we want to avoid elections that give us unpalatable choices and divisive results, we ought to respect the different choices that people make and the different places they choose to live. If we want to learn about places that have long been ignored, we might talk to the people who live there, we might hire and promote journalists who come from there, and we might treat residents there with the same respect we give to any other fellow citizens. Maybe we could write about Kahoka, Missouri as an interesting and unique place, but still a part of the U.S.
Finally, we might pay attention to all of America all the time, rather than a horde of journalists descending on Middle America only when Republicans win national elections. The post-election journalism trying to help people who live on the coasts understand the folks who live between the Rocky Mountains and the Hudson River hasn’t really attempted to learn about the rest of America, but rather has only asked one question from the point of view of the journalist with readers in New York or Washington D.C.: “Why can’t these people be more like us?”
About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.