Sunday, November 15, 2009

Are "Small-Town Values" Different Than Those of Big Cities?

In "Meet John Thune" New York Times David Brooks introduces Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) as a potential 2012 presidential candidate who espouses "small-town values".  By using this term without defining it, Brooks assumes his readers know what it means.  But what exactly are small-town values?   I have searched for a definition on the Internet, but only found a variety of commentary. From my personal exposure to popular culture, I associate small-town values with hard work, honesty, self-reliance whenever possible, mutual aid to others in the community, patriotism and a desire to honor the community's heritage and provide for its future.  The most moving depictions of small-town culture that I have found are Kent Haruf's Plainsong and Eventide, an exquisite two-novel sequence that paints a vivid picture of small-town life in the fictional eastern Colorado plains town of Holt.  These novels credibly depict small-town residents who triumph over negative small-town values such as xenophobia and social stratification.But do American small towns have a special claim to these values that cities do not?  There is no evidence for this point of view.  Great charitable works and nobile acts by individuals can be found everywhere.  When I visited New York City six years ago with my then seven-year old son Ian, we boarded the Newark Airport Airtrain to connect with NJ Transit for our ride into the city.  Ian, who had been queasy the whole trip, began to throw up as the AirTrain approached our transfer point.  A stranger standing across from us immediately took out his handkerchief and started cleaning Ian up  When I thanked him profusely,  he replied in a hearty New York dialect that he had five of his own children and knew what it took to care for them.  During our entire trip, whenever we looked at a map inside a subway car, people asked us where we were going and offered directions.

People like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, who have dealt with countless people from all over this country, assert that there is no distinction between the values of small towns and big cities.   Furthermore, Newmark asserts that those who promote "small-town values"  are "con-men" attempting to drive a wedge between people for personal gain.    On the other hand, David Brooks describes Thune's perspective as follows:
He says his prairie background has given him a preference for small companies and local government. When he criticizes the Democrats, it is for mixing big government with big business: the bailouts of Wall Street, the subsidies to the big auto and energy corporations. His populism is not angry. He doesn’t rail against the malefactors of wealth. But it’s there, a celebration of the small and local over the big and urban.
Implicit in this dichotomy is the notion that the "small and local" can exist independently of the "big and urban". Prairie-state conservatives like Thune decry the power of the federal government, ignoring the fact that it enabled prairie settlements to thrive by exterminating or removing the first Americans, building the railroads, the interstate highways and massive irrigation projects, promoting rural electrification and supporting the price of farm commodities.  Indeed, the "big and urban" giveth and taketh away.  The "free trade" championed by the right and center has hollowed out many a small town by driving manufacturing to places where costs are lower and regulations less onerous.

What do you think?  Is there a valid distinction between small-town and big city values?

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