I came to the big city relatively late in life. Cities seems to me places suited entirely for the young. Their so-called charms — quirkiness, edginess, anonymity, diversity — are in the main young people’s delights. Older folks don’t want edginess. We want quiet, order, discipline. We want clean streets.
We want small towns.
My “enlightened” city friends, many of whom hail from Midwestern hamlets and villages, have few good things to say about small towns or their residents, whom they regard as homophobic, narrow-minded yokels, defined primarily by their very backwardness. President Obama, a smug Chicago resident, echoed this elitist sentiment perfectly when he accused small-towner Midwesterners of bitterly clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.”
I am obviously not familiar with all small towns, but I have lived in a dozen or more villages in my lifetime, from Eldon, Missouri (population 4,895) to Chester, Illinois (8,400). Never did I own a firearm nor was I much preoccupied with religious beliefs (though I have considered taking up both since I moved to the big city). I certainly don’t recall much bitterness among my small-town neighbors. In fact, I have always found the people of the backroads and small towns have more love of their country and their fellow human beings than suburbanites and city folks combined.
Not long ago I attended a city council meeting in a central Illinois town of 10,000 people. Midway through the meeting an elderly lady stood and addressed the eminent council members. The folks living across the street from her, she complained, kept their trash cans out front all week long. It was a disgrace. She wanted the council to do something about it. The councilmen exchanged uneasy glances. At length the mayor said, “I’ll talk to them, Blanche.” And I’ll bet he did.
Busybody? Petty? Maybe. But I was rooting for her. To my mind it has always been the Blanches of this world that have maintained order, discipline, and good morals in a community. In contrast, on my city street there is garbage ankle-deep from one end to the other. My apathetic neighbors consider it entirely appropriate to finish a can of beer or a bag of burgers and toss the waste in the middle of the street or (more likely) in my front yard. The alleys are often impassable due to the volume of trash dumped both legally and illegally. What I wouldn’t give for a few Blanches on my block.
Another time, when the company that collected the town’s refuse suddenly went bust, this same mayor (who also happened to be the commander of the local VFW Post) jumped in his pickup and dutifully hauled away the elderly’s trash. When was the last time you saw your suburban or big city mayor do that?
WHEN I WAS A young man, small towns were still places where manners, morals, and good behavior were strictly enforced, where people were harshly judged by their neighbors, and where “everybody knew everything about everybody else.” In those days if a man did the wrong thing, if he was a drunkard, if he took up with another man’s wife, if he refused to work, he was ostracized by the entire community. He was made to feel a sense of shame and guilt. Maybe he would reform or maybe he would pack up and slink off to the city where such ill behavior was tolerated and judgment was reserved. Fear of ostracization and the community’s judgment kept the vast majority of people on the straight and narrow, and this allowed society to function smoothly and civilization to advance.
Sentimentalists, of course, considered such things cruel and unenlightened. It was wrong to judge others, regardless of what they have done. Worse, sometimes the innocent children of that drunkard or the bastard child of some unmarried girl were ostracized too. There was only one remedy for this: judgment, shame and guilt had to be eradicated completely. Better an entire society slide into decadence than one innocent child suffer.
This, quite naturally, opened the floodgates for all manner of pathological behavior. The result of this “anything goes” mentality has been sky-high divorce rates, rocketing out-of-wedlock births, countless one-parent families, the methamphetamine epidemic, and all of the other attendant pathologies. Sentimentality’s triumph has been small town America’s downfall.
But not completely. I suspect sentimentality may have had its day. From what I have seen “anything goes” is on its way out. People are rethinking the wisdom of withholding judgment. Maybe a good healthy dose ostracization is just what this country needs.