This morning, I woke to a dove moaning on my windowsill, a woodpecker pounding on a nearby cedar, and all the dogs in town barking at an unexpected hot-air balloon rising over the pine-capped hills to the south: frantic warnings that aliens were descending from the skies.
Small-town life is many things, but quiet isn’t one of them.
So I poured myself some coffee and sat down to look at the news. Riots in the major cities. Protesters massing to tear down monuments. Arguments about the coronavirus. Anxiety about the election. The news hooks change from day to day, but the news itself has been the same all summer: Common culture has failed. The viral epidemic is killing us all. The police are murderers. The political system has collapsed. The nation is in crisis.
I can’t be alone in asking, “What nation?”
Morning after morning, the news comes like news from Mars, and the media commentators seem not to realize that for many of us, the agitation is happening altogether elsewhere. Oh, it seems real enough, but real only in the way events in distant countries seem real. It’s just not our lived experience. It’s only a news report.
For most of my life, the elite commentators of America have sneered—from the great moral heights of their urban condominiums—at the nation’s small towns and rural countryside as backward places rife with intolerance. But it turns out, if the news is to be trusted, that the real home of prejudice is Minneapolis. Portland. New York. Chicago. Those are where a police shooting produces riots and looting. Those are where the failures of America’s racial policies manifest themselves these days.
At least it’s true that mobs aren’t rolling out, night after night, in Harding County, South Dakota. Or Beaverhead County, Montana. Or Nuckolls County, Nebraska. This spring, the coronavirus lockdowns made the cities a doubtful proposition. If you don’t have hundreds of restaurants to go to, if you don’t have Broadway plays and concerts, if you don’t have the colleges and museums, what recompense is there for the stress, noise, and congestion of city life? Add in worry about riots, and every major city in the news these days is suffering from an overstocked rental market, fleeing businesses, and declining commuter tolls.
The internet helped, of course. The coronavirus clearly has suggested to the big white-collar employers that if online workplaces actually function, then no reason remains for expensive offices in high-tax cities. And in exactly the same way, the virus lockdowns are teaching office workers that they can do their jobs just as easily from beyond the expensive commuting range of the big cities.
But the problem is more than the sputtering financial engines of urban life. What has been revealed in the months of lockdowns and rioting is that the large American cities are essentially ungovernable. The infection rates and the violence both demonstrate a sad truth: The political positions that win elections for big-city mayors are exactly the political positions that leave those mayors unable to govern.
Small towns have fewer problems with their police forces, in part because the members of the police force and the sheriff’s departments can’t be faceless. They’re neighbors, with all that being a neighbor means. Their children go to the same school as the children of those they police. Their spouses belong to the local book clubs and charity drives.
In the same way, small towns have fewer problems with their municipal governments. Oh, anywhere one lives, politicians are politicians. There’s always corruption and pettiness. But those things exist closer to the surface in small-town life, and they have an easier redress than rioting—in good part thanks to the fact that the mayor, too, lives in the neighborhood. The mayor is part of that whole web of school and book club and church.
The big cities pass laws to get people to follow the best public-health practices. Smaller places make do with manners. The coronavirus has mattered less in small-town America, in part simply because of the smaller number of people—but also in part because good practices are enforced by consensus rather than by the police. All Midwesterners will grumble about intrusive government, and some will openly refuse, if the state orders them to wear masks. But they’ll cover their faces meekly if their neighbors give them the fisheye in the grocery store. Those people are neighbors. And they can’t be escaped.
With 328 million people in 3.8 million square miles, America could spread its citizens a little thinner on the ground than the 27,000 people in each square mile of New York City. And by spreading out, some of the distinctly urban problems would evaporate. Want to be rid of the nonstop rioting in Portland? Leave town. Settle in a smaller place. Get to know your neighbors.
The more immediate political point, however, is that the problems of urban America are not the problems of all of America. Huge swaths of the country have been only lightly touched by the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the social unrest. The breathless news reports of endless agitation seem alien—not just to small-town experience in recent months, but to the entire small-town sense of the nation.
After reading the news, I walked outside to wave to the neighbors who were watching the hot-air balloon drift over the town. I drove up to the lake for a swim. I came home to sit at the window and do a little bird-watching before I settled down to work. An ordinary day, in other words. An ordinary America.
Joseph Bottum, Ph.D., is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is “The Decline of the Novel.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.