A scholar in upstate New York takes the measure of rural stereotypes by looking at his own family, then reflects on Barack Obama's messages, 2004 and today.">
Jon Cardinal and Drew Crawford, seniors at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, hike in the Adirondacks during the college's Peak Weekend, 2005
Photo: Courtesy of Jon Cardinal
In the past few weeks, Senator Barack Obama has faced harsh criticism from Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain and Democratic rival Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for comments he made to a group of wealthy San Francisco donors.
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," said Obama. "And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Although I believe Senator Obama’s comments have been misconstrued for political reasons, I do think that this controversy provides our country with an opportunity to evaluate the all too common occurrence of elites on both the right and left looking down their noses at the “rural rubes” of America. Hardworking rural people are frequently stereotyped in the mainstream media as simple-minded bigots.
Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, in "The Simple Life"
Photo: Fox Broadcasting, via IMBd
We see the all-too-intelligent Paris Hilton “reality” show The Simple Life featuring humor that, as rural politics author Brian Mann writes, “rises on the conceit that rural Americans are laughable, repressed, half-witted rubes, easy targets for the barbs of urban irony.” We laugh at the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” which makes millions of dollars at the expense of rural people around the country. One of their jokes that I’ve always found particularly demeaning is that Al Gore lost his bid for the White House in 2000 because a bunch of ignorant rednecks didn’t know how to operate the voting machines in Dade County, Florida ““ that if the voting machines had been designed like video poker or cigarette machines, the country and the world would be better places today. I know this is supposed to be humor, but I’m afraid humor easily becomes conventional wisdom.
Here on the St. Lawrence campus, we constantly hear jokes about the “hick” and the “redneck,” as if these words were not direct assaults on a way of life, equivalent to racist or sexist or anti-Semitic attacks. People host “redneck” parties, calling for their friends to wear flannel shirts and hunting hats and act as if you’re a Bible thumpin,’ Dale Earnhardt lovin,’ black person hatin,’ gay bashin,’ gun totin,’ trailer park livin,’ dumb slob. Can you imagine the outrage that would emerge if a party were held with a theme that played off of societal stereotypes of black people or Jews or women or Native Americans or other such groups?
In politics, academics and strategists advance theories that rural people vote for the Republican Party and against their economic interests because they’ve been duped by the Republicans' use of cultural issues like abortion and gun rights. Although this is sometimes true, the situation is far more complex. In fact, one of the primary reasons why rural people have a sense of resentment toward the Democratic Party is not because of its stance on abortion, gay rights, gun rights or any of the other wedge issues but because of the apparent contempt that some of the party’s elites hold for all things rural. These hardworking people see candidates come into town and propose economic programs that will help make their lives a little easier while at the same time attacking their deeply held religious beliefs and their family tradition of hunting. These candidates don’t recognize some of the underlying reasons for racism and anti-immigration sentiment in small town America.
Senator Obama, however, did voice such acknowledgment several weeks ago with his speech on race. He said that “most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race”¦. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch.” More often than not, rural people have worked themselves to death to provide good lives for their families, so, as explained by Senator Obama, “when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime”¦are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”
A farming family in Ogdensburg, New York, in the 1980s
Photo: Eskimo Jo
In short, rural people are one of the last groups in America which society deems to be fair game for attack. You can call a rural person a dumb, racist, gun crazy, religious zealot without even turning a head. To many in our urban areas and in our wealthier communities, this characterization is a no-brainer. But I would advise those people, after they've branded a “redneck” an ignorant rube, to look in the mirror and realize that they may be acting like ignorant elitists, unwilling or too lazy to look deeper into the complexities of our society. Because the truth is that there are just as many racists in cities and among the wealthy as there are in small towns and among the working-class; racism is a disease that plagues all of our nation. They would find that people use guns in rural areas mostly for sport whereas people use guns in cities to kill other people or to protect themselves out of fear of crime. They would realize that people are deeply religious in cities and towns alike, and that our society as a whole struggles with its acceptance of homosexuality; otherwise, we would have risen up by now and ended the injustice that says our GLBT sisters and brothers aren’t entitled to the same rights that straight people are.
My passion for this topic comes from the fact that I am one of those “rural rubes.” I was born and raised twenty minutes down the road in Ogdensburg, New York. I come from a solid working-class family. My mom wakes up every day at five in the morning and works as a homecare nurse for the elderly and poor, and after a long day of taking care of the marginalized of society and taking care of her own family, retires to bed at midnight. My dad works in the Ogdensburg Psychiatric Center’s maintenance shop and does beautiful carpentry work on the side. His relentless, backbreaking work has helped put both his kids through college while my mom’s salary has helped to make ends meet for the two of them at home. We own a hunting camp where my dad used to love to go snowmobiling and deer hunting until his son went off to college and wanted to go do the Washington Semester and his life became consumed with working overtime to make my dreams come true. When I’m home on break, on Sundays, my dad will turn on a car race and switch the station between that and whatever is on the History Channel or the Discovery Channel because, despite the common assumption that you need a college degree or a PhD or you need to have studied abroad to have intellectual curiosity and an admirable intelligence, this high school graduate never gets sick of learning about world history or deep sea fish or the evolution of man — or of putting his college-educated son in his place when he misquotes a fact or theory.
Jon and his parents, Margaret and Kevin Cardinal
Photo: Courtesy of the author
And there will be my mom, running in to tell me about a newspaper article she’s read about the North Country economy or national politics and then heading back to make us a big dinner for us to share peacefully together, meanwhile taking phone calls about her patients. My parents are simply proud, hardworking people who are attempting to live good lives and trying to give their children better chances than they may have had.
This story is not unique to my family. In my involvement in the North Country, I’ve come across this same story time and time again. It is a faith in simple dreams ““ in the idea that if you work hard and live a decent life, you can achieve the American Dream. This is the small town American story. In fact, this is the American story. All of us can relate to a little of this. This is why I become so angered when rural people are treated as outcasts, as if they weren’t part of the American Dream ““ as if they shouldn't be protected from outright ignorant attacks like other groups are.
Barack Obama delivers the keynote address — "The Audacity of Hope" — at the Democratic National Convention, 2004, in Boston
Photo: Stephan Savoia, for AP
Although I had always loved history, my intense interest in politics didn’t emerge until the late months of my senior year in high school. I can vividly remember the first full political speech I ever watched live on television: Senator Obama’s 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention. What really caught my attention was his ability to unite and to point out what we all share in common. This was best captured when he declared before a booming crowd that “the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an 'awesome God' in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States”¦We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
I will always remember the feeling I had while listening to that speech in July of 2004. And I hope that we can embrace our differences — racial, economic, gender, cultural and yes, rural versus urban, knowing that we can learn a lot from each other while recognizing all that we share in common. Only then will we, together, grow in the common dream of living a decent life and creating a brighter future for our children.
Jon Cardinal is a senior at St. Lawrence University and a 2007 Harry S. Truman Scholar.