Some experiences of life are so universally known that they’ve become cliches. Yet when they happen to us we still can’t avoid thinking of them as something remarkable, about which we must tell others as if we’ve made some new discovery about the human condition.
For example, “you can never go home again.” Conservative writer Rod Dreher surely knew this to be true, but he didn’t let it stop him from trying anyway. After leaving rural Louisiana for a writing career in DC and New York, he returned home after being moved by the community that surrounded his sister Ruthie when she died of cancer.
It did not go well.
A recent New Yorker profile of Dreher says:
Over dinner—Dreher, who was observing Lent, confined himself to oysters and crab cakes—I learned what happened when he moved back to St. Francisville. “The thing that I dreamed of and hoped for didn’t work out,” he said. “They just wouldn’t accept me—not my sister’s kids, and not my dad and mom. They just could not accept that I was so different from them. I worshipped my dad—he was the strongest and wisest man I knew—but he was a country man, a Southern country man, and I just wasn’t. All that mattered was that I wasn’t like them. It just broke me.” He fell into a depression and was diagnosed with chronic mono, then went into therapy and read Dante. When Dreher speaks, his emotions flow across his face with complete transparency, changing phrase by phrase. (His glasses, I realized, provide him with some emotional privacy.) As he told his story, he looked freshly wounded, as if it had all happened that morning.
Dreher is the classic misfit dreaming of greater things who leaves and ultimately finds them – but in the process discovers that he’s lost something important he can never regain. And that the things he achieved after leaving did not fully resolve the sense of disconnectness he’d felt growing up.
On the opposite site of the political spectrum, Millennial writer Caity Cronkhite wrote a lengthy polemic two years ago inveighing against the suppression of her educational ambitions that she’d been forced to fight through while growing up in the small Indiana town of Covington:
I returned to Covington Middle School that fall with a pit in my stomach. No one talked about AP classes anymore, because no one in my hometown knew what AP classes were. No one discussed their plans for college, because most of my friends’ parents had never earned any kind of degree past their high school diploma. No one encouraged me to take harder classes or do extra homework that would challenge me, because my teachers didn’t have time or resources to devote to a student who needed extra help. My teachers told me to stop raising my hand in class, because I was an annoyance to them and a distraction to the other students. No one wanted to hear what I had to say anymore.
My dad and I chattered over our dinner for several minutes before I noticed that my mother had said nothing. Her eyes were cast down as she pushed a pile of mashed potatoes around her plate, sitting in stony silence. I fell silent.
“You’re not going,” she said simply.
I didn’t understand, not right away. I looked at her, perplexed. “What do you mean?” I finally asked. I looked over at my dad, his mouth agape, staring across the table at my furious mother.
Her voice rose to a fever pitch. “You’re not going! No other kid does this—goes off and leaves when everyone else goes to a normal school and does normal things. It’s only you! You’re the only one who does this. You’ve only thought of yourself and you are not going.” Her face was red, and her tone was murderous. “You. Are. Not. Going.”
Cronkhite eventually made it to Carnegie Mellon, and now lives in San Francisco. Her childhood experiences clearly left a bitter taste in her mouth. These are only two examples, but there are a large number of people with a high degree of alienation from the place they grew up. Luckily for me I never experienced any of this, but I know people who did. These are particularly good stories to use as examples because they are already published in depth, Cronkhite’s the first person.
The easiest and most natural thing to do when reading stories like these is to critique the people telling them. Usually those who air these types of stories have their own quirks, as most of us do. But there’s no need to do that here, because you can read them for yourselves and draw your own conclusions. I’m more interested in what this pattern tells us about these smaller working class communities.
There’s been a lot written about the plight of working class towns, and how that fueled the rise of Trump. Many of their complaints about economic malaise, and how public policy has been explicitly set to benefit the already successful are true. But that doesn’t mean that these communities themselves don’t need to change. If they want things to be different, then they have to be part of the solution too.
I wrote last week about how pragmatism had helped undermine the Rust Belt and hosted a podcast with Dwight Gibson to explore the matter further.
Today I want to isolate one attitude that seems to underlie many of the experiences of people like Dreher and Cronkhite. It’s something that Cronkhite heard over and over: “What makes you think you’re better than anyone else?”
These small towns have a high degree of social order and social solidarity. Because they are small, the institutions that exist by and large are shared by the whole community. Almost everyone goes to the same school (save perhaps some in religious schools), shops in the same stores, attends the same festivals, etc.
Membership in the community thus becomes defined in terms of memberships in these institutions, rituals, and shared patterns of life. To opt for a different choice is seen as a rejection of the community, and also as a statement that a person thinks he’s better than the rest of the people in the community.
In short, these communities have a limited sense of multiple life tracks, diversity of social networks, etc. In bigger communities, one assumes there are overlapping communities, institutions, etc. and that the community as a whole is really a network of these formed by the overlaps. That’s much less the case in a small town or rural area.
I interviewed someone who was involved in attempting to start a charter school in a small town. There are some legitimate challenges with rural charter schools, but the key rationale of the broad based opposition they faced was that by seeking to start a charter school, they were perceived as declaring themselves better than the rest of the community. This was true even though most folks knew at some level the local public school was terrible and ill equipped to deal with any students outside the norm, like Cronkhite or Dreher.
Even just pursuing higher education can put you into the same category in some cases. That’s one reason there’s so much skepticism about college in these places. (And some parents also surely fear, and rightly so, that college means their kids will move away and rarely be seen again).
These towns need to find a way to move beyond that. Because people want different things out of life. They also have different skills, aptitudes, personalities, etc. So they need to be able to respond to those in building their life without being seen as a Judas. A one size fits all model is just not going to work in the modern economy.
This has consequences because especially the people who go to college and leave are the ones who can be sources of intellectual capital, leadership talent, even future investments back into their hometown. They can also help connect and orient that community to the broader world, even if they don’t move back. There has to be something of value in Covington having a person from there who is now based in San Francisco. Unfortunately, given how things went down, they aren’t likely to be able to take advantage of it.