Small Town Values


What is there to do in a small town? The same thing there is in a large city. There are the same books, the same movies, the same sports, and for the most part the same social activities. There’s also ready access to wilderness and outdoor activities that folks from the cities often drive for hours to find. What’s not there in small towns? Well, for the most part there aren’t any night clubs where people are going to be impressed by your ride or your suit, and the local selection of shoes probably doesn’t include anything being worn this week on the CW (and if that’s how you judge the sort of place you want to live, then frankly I’d just as soon you stay in the city).

The people at the GOP convention weren’t able to define small town values when pressed on the subject, but I can give you my definition: small town values mean judging people more on their actions, and less on their possessions.

No. Just … no.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and I live in Chicago now, and I can say that once you start generalizing based on location or size you start limiting the question, making it about some kind of standard, instead of about people.

Not judged for your possessions? I went to Catholic school where there was a dress code and, in the younger grades, uniforms. I always laugh when people say uniforms will make kids less likely to judge one another on what they have, because … okay, you’re all wearing the same plaid skirt, but you know what you judge then? Socks. I’m not kidding, socks. Certain styles are cool. Certain others aren’t. Shoes. Barrettes. Kids are mean as hell and lots of the kids I knew didn’t go to Catholic school because they were Catholic, they went to Catholic school because their folks were rich and the Catholic school was mostly white.

Designer jeans, fancy shoes, we may not have had a nightclub to show off our outfits at but we damn sure had TV and school dances, and even if all you could shop at was Target or Wal-Mart, the high school hallways were as much a catwalk as anything on Project Effing Runway. Everybody knew what your father did, if your mother worked or not, that you were the one who’d had head lice or couldn’t afford a new coat, where you shopped and ate out and what you did on weekends. Kids got cars with bows on them from their folks and kids took three buses to get to school and back or drove some old beater and because there were only a few dozen of us everybody knew who belonged to what group. And as a teenager, with so little to define you, you reached for what was easiest, for what you could see. I don’t think that’s confined to towns of 10,000 or less. I really don’t.

I was judged for my actions, my values, my work, what I had instead of what I didn’t have, only once Ileft that small town, and that may be a function of age and experience, it may be that that’s what kids do and adults are less prone, less than the place itself. I don’t know if things would be different, had I stayed where I was raised, and done my work there. Maybe opinions would have changed. I don’t know. But that’s a different thing, than saying it’s about location, and that people in the city are more likely to do that to you than people in a small town. Your actions matter just as much in a city; in fact in some ways I think they matter more. We’re all mashed up close together here, I don’t pull my weight, you feel it faster. Still, who the fuck knows. The point isn’t that you are where you live, the point is that you are what you are, and Devilstower gets to that, eventually:

Hard as it is for some on both sides of the divide to believe, small town people are exactly as smart, dumb, good, bad, close-minded and curious as those who live in the cities. Small town values are American values, but no more American than “New York City Values” or “San Francisco Values.” In fact, their values are the same values.

And not for nothing, but “San Francisco Values” is just code for “gay,” and “New York Values” means Jew, and pointing out Barack Obama was a “community organizer” is just a nice way of saying he’s a Black Communist, and anybody who thinks it’s about more than that for the GOP is kidding himself.


20 thoughts on “Small Town Values

  1. Human nature transcends population density and geography, and the Law of Averages generally prevails, imo. The anonymity that larger populations provide probably allows some people to get away with a bit more ‘undesirable’ behavior, but there’s no blanket of doubleplus moral & righteous behavior in small towns.
    (As an aside, this is true of the military, as well. Anyone who thinks it’s composed of 100% honorable, upstanding, do-no-wrong people is smoking some seriously gnarly stuff. There are plenty of assholes and dipshits serving, just like in any other organization.)
    When people talk about small town values (and ‘values’ in general), my take is that 99% of the time, it boils down to sex – be it Teh Gheys, strip clubs, prostitutes, sex toy / porno shops, etc. What they fail to mention is that every small town in the US&A has its share of conniving, money grubbing, fraudulent, Boss Hogg types and snobbish assholes who think they’re God’s gift to the Community – again, the Law of Averages prevails. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know this, but that doesn’t seem to bother people as much. You also know how extra-marital affairs simply rock the town with their scandalous scandalosity. (It’s because of the sex, which is way worse than fraud.)
    I’ve spent nearly half my life in a small town, and it has the classic mix of freaks, ostentatious big shots, poor folks, stone cold bigots, healers, gossip mongers, blue collar and white collar workers, hell raisers and community organizers. Hell, we even have some unabashed gay folks here (though not so many that we can’t let our children walk down the streets). We have crime (major and minor), unemployment, foreclosures, traffic violations, animal abuse, lawsuits, property disputes and even some occasional vandalism. Oh, and sometimes the home team loses a game(!).
    So, yeah, when people talk about ‘small town values’ it always makes me shake my head. Princess Palin may be the big fish in her small pond, but that doesn’t make her values any better than ours. And, frankly, a lot of small town folks don’t take too kindly to the type of ‘leadership’ she’s practicing and offering.

  2. Ripley… WORD!
    As for Princess Palin, she’s more like a barracuda suddenly introduced in a small lake; chomping down all the other fishes who for generations played by the rules in the comfortable niches they made for themselves.
    Funny thing ’bout unrestrained predators tho’; eventually, they eat all their resources and end up dying alone.

  3. Hard as it is for some on both sides of the divide to believe, small town people are exactly as smart, dumb, good, bad, close-minded and curious as those who live in the cities.
    Yeah, I find that hard to believe. At least around here, the smart ones are the ones who arefrom the small towns, as in got the hell out as soon as they could, and the ones who preferred to stay stayed in part because they wouldn’t last five minutes in the “big city.” And man, when you’re defining my home town as “the big city,” you have a frickin’ problem. The standard of competence is simply higher in a big city. You need to know more things to survive here. You need to move more quickly. You need tothink more quickly.
    I always read “small town values” as being code for “white, religious Christian, conservative know-nothings” since that’s been my experience of what people in small townsare, contrastively with what people in bigger cities generallyaren’t. (Hell, between seeing a guy in a pair of dress pants, dress shoes, and a dress shirt with ashort neat mohawk working in thebank, and seeing a Muslima in an elbow-length hijab and black jilbab leading a small child around the local fall fair this year, I’d say there’s hope for stodgy old Republicanoid Whitebreadville yet…)

  4. A., I grew up in a small Wisconsin town, too. Sussex, about 15 miles west of Milwaukee in Waukesha County. And I know exactly what you mean.
    Here’s what growing up in a small town felt like to me. It was difficult to get away with anything because everyone knew your parents and they weren’t afraid to mention where, when, and what they saw you doing. I don’t think we locked the doors on our house unless we were going away overnight and my folks left the keys to their cars in them, unlocked. As kids we rode our bikes everywhere and explored the surrounding countryside unsupervised.
    And here’s the really unusual thing about small town life to me. Our elementary school was 100% white. The high school was made up of about 5 surrounding communities and there was one black family in the entire student body. So I wasn’t exposed to minority cultures until I was an adult, which means I didn’t have ingrained in my psyche any stereotypes about people. I’m much more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, than say my stepdaughters who grew up in integrated Florida. They are truly biased and have difficulty seeing beyond color.
    Of course this was during the 60s and 70s, so much has changed in small town America, including the explosion of meth labs (pun intended).

  5. They write this stuff to convince themselves that they are not total, and I hate this word, douchebags.
    Black is White, Up is Down, Suburbia (which has existed for, oh, 70 years or so, and is full of white people who ran away from the scary new brown people) is central to the soul of all good Americans.
    Whatever, it’s all just more back asswards republican bullshit.

  6. Yep, I too grew up in a small town. Not just small, but real small. At 4200 folks, we thought we were the shit, largest town in the largest county (area) in WA state. Now, I live just south of Seattle. That should give you a clue what I think of small towns. There’s an unspoken contest between high school seniors to see how quickly after graduation they can get the hell outta Dodge.
    Small towns don’t have a monopoly on stupidity, but they seem to attract more than their fair share. Gullible? Oy, you could sell them their own back yard. Try as I might, I can never get away from some old fool cornering me at the Safeway, asking if I’m still a commie bastard or telling me in disgustingly racist terms what he thinks of my candidate or my politics. Living in a small town is like living on a deserted island. You know there’s civilization out there but it’s too far away and too hard to get to.
    No one born in a small town ever leaves. It infects you like the measles. Once you have it you never really get rid of it.
    I visit my home town a couple of times a year. Parents still live there, as do three of my seven sibs. Once in a great while I might venture to the pub or a tavern only to see a classmate or three permanently perched on a bar stool or shooting the 4 millionth game of pool.
    They always ask the same questions, hear the same answers, make the same foolish comments – and with the exception of receding hair line, expanding waist line, and diminishing faculties they aren’t that different from when they were the creme d’la creme of our high school.
    Small town values? Give me a fraking break. Small towns, big towns, red towns, blue towns … they still have too damn many stupid people in them. I will always claim this little burg as my home town, I have to. I spent over 20 years there and like it or not, it shaped me. I can’t deny it, besides I’m not a Republican so revisionist history isn’t my bag.
    I don’t think I could ever move back. In a few short months I would either swallow a bullet or stake a claim to one of those bar stools.
    Wonder if bullets are good with hot sauce.

  7. From TOW:
    “Charles Wohlforth, in a Frommer’s travel guidebook on Alaska, described Wasilla as “the worst kind of suburban sprawl of highway-fronting shopping malls and gravel lots.””
    Wow. It’s like Vegas in 1960.

  8. Damn, you call 4200 a small town?
    The town I went to high school in was a big town — it had a few more than 3000 (District 5-2AA, baby!)
    The town I went to junior high in had about 400 people, and still does.
    The MSA where I live now has about 220,000.
    I miss being in a small enough town so I didn’t have developers wrecking my ‘hood.

  9. I grew up in a town of 350 people, went to high school there with less than classmates. I slowly learned that the reason small towns like mine were so “pure” is that one percent of 350 is only 3-4 people, but one percent of 100,000 is 1000 people. So, if any group of people contains 1% who are______(fill in the blank), there are very few of them in a town the size I grew up in. But, those 3-4 were still there, and were recognizable.
    So, my little town had a prostitute, with a regular stream of cars containing a single man stopping at her house. I know this because the house I was living in was across the street. I think Ripley nailed it. It is human values we should prize, not small town/big city/urban/rural/red state/blue state values.

  10. Oops, left out the “20” – My class rarely had more than 20 in it throughout high school. And, there were usually only 3 others in the town that were my age, all girls.

  11. More small town values. I graduated with 105 classmates, evenly split 53/53. The local newspaper did a survey of my graduating class some years later and found that within 9 months, 12 of the girls had a child.
    Let me do the math. That means that it is conceivable (no pun intended) that these young ladies were pregnant at the ceremony. 12 of 53.
    Not much to do in my hometown.
    Now for a strange piece of fate… Sarah Palin’s aunt lives in my hometown. And she’s a Democrat.

  12. The notion that “small town values” and small town, well, smallness leads to conformity to good values is absurd. Small towns are notoriously oppressive and frequently just as hierarchical as any other kind of total institution like a prison, or a convent, or an insane asylum. The typical “small town” in America isn’t really a farming town of equals, is it? What about small towns built around coal mines, or small towns built around manufacturing plants, or meat packing plants? No hierarchy? Everyone judged on “who they are” and not what their social status is? Give me a break. Every time there’s a murder, or a case where family abuse, alcoholism, etc… is revealed in a “small town” we are treated to the refrain “but it can’t happen here!” and, of course “but he was so well respected in the community!” Next we’ll hear that there’s no prostitution, meth use, lying, stealing, cheating and fornication in those small towns? There’s a reason that small towns are dying–people who can’t stand their smothering leave, young people who can’t find financial opportunity leave, artists, gays, non conformists leave and what is left is what is left–neither better nor worse than people in cities and certainly no more libertarian or open or honest than people in cities.

  13. I’m in NE Missouri. Law enforcement regularly tells us that we are the Meth capital of the USA.
    So is Meth a small town value?

  14. When we moved to our small town in WI, it seemed that there were only about 12 different names in the phone book, and all of them were German. The woman across the street was superficially polite but didn’t trust me because she didn’t know any of my relatives and wasn’t related by blood or marriage in any way. You had to be very careful about saying anything about anyone because the people you spoke to were probably related in some way to the person in question. The positive side of this experience was that it was a great place to raise kids: easy to get into extracurricular programs (not too expensive and no waiting lists), with a school system that actually was aware of status bullying; we were close to Milwaukee for museums and the lakefront, and eventually we met some nice people (not surprisingly, most were from elsewhere). The negative side was the realization that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, for anyone over 18(except bars, of course). I would have been appalled if my children had chosen to stay.

  15. David Aquarius has it 100% correct. “Small town values” are nothing to be celebrated. Twenty years ago when I grew up in there was absolutely nothing else to do in town, and most of the typical things for kids to do were an hour away by car. So a typical Saturday night involved heavy drinking followed by a drive out to one of many deserted side roads. No way in hell I’d ever bring up my daughter in a “wholesome small town” environment.

  16. I will say this–there is one small town value that I see being exhibited ad nauseum by the Republicans: nosiness. In a small town, everybody’s personal business is everybody’s business. Decisions you make are second- and third- and fourth-guessed by everybody in town. And if they could, they’d make those decisions for you.
    I do not see that in even a mid-sized town, but in a town of 400, absolutely.
    Those are small town values I can live without, thenkeweverymuch.

  17. I grew up in a big town, a suburb of Denver. I have the distinction of having attended Columbine high school in Littleton Colorado. Second graduating class, except I didn’t graduate. I quit with a 4.0 average at the age of 16 in 1976. yeah, somethings never change. We moved to a small town in Missouri in 1985. I have no use for small towns or small town “values”. Substitute the values word for the judgements word. You can have small towns. I live in the middle of a big town of St Louis now where I can get a decent job and ignore people who decide they don’t like my looks. We got the hell out of there before our daughter turned 13 because we knew we had to save her from the small town ways. Translate==redneck.
    Small town values. feh.

  18. Wow! A real group of open-minded liberals! How impressive.
    I’m liberal enough that I think most Democrats are way too conservative…and I think you all are a bunch of narcissistic, self-congratulatory twats. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, in big and small towns (the biggest town I’ve lived in: Nagoya, Japan. The smallest: Reserve, New Mexico, population 277) and I have never noticed that big city people are superior in every way to those who live in small towns. Amazing. I have never noticed that you have to be smarter to live in a big city, although I have noticed that big city people often believe that you do and value the types of activities and talents that the big city does require. Small town life requires different ones, but to think that those are less valuable in a macro sense is…not very liberal.

  19. I came across your website and read the posts. I have grown up in and lived in both small towns and big cities, two being overseas. All my life never had a problem and was always welcome in all…untill the last 8 years in this small town. This small southern town in Central Texas is split in two factions, those who allow growth and those who do not desire growth. This town has become increaseingly extreme in its urgency of its viewpoints, its intolerance to change, and its enforcement of such, complete with its ability to let the locals do as they will to enforce such viewpoints, and the ability of the police to look the other way. If one does not fit into the local sterotypical idea of what they want or think you should be, even if you are local, expect much pressure to conform and very little justice otherwise if you do not, which is why the state is encouraging me to pursue advanced practice and studies…elseware from this particular town. I like many others, have become disseniloused with this paticular town and am moving on. Words are great, but the actions are more telling and have been for the last 8 years.

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