The Country Mouse and the City Mouse

In an earlier post, Jonathan sums up Palin as a “frontierswoman.”  This seems to me to be true, but she also represents an old tension – between the city and the country.  The distinction between Moscow and pretty much all the rest of Russia seems to be awfully important to the few Russians I know; a similar tension exists between Paris and rural France, Prague and (especially) Moravia.  One of the commuting families at U.T. in the seventies split because, the husband explained, his wife could not imagine not living on one of the coasts. (Not surprisingly, similar commutes began happening here:  if Austin’s the sticks, how much more are the hinterlands.)   Some people identify with a city and some with the city.  I can hardly complain about such self-definitions, since I’ve always felt the powerful pull of place; it’s a key part to the identity of many of my family and friends.   Those of us from flyover country  speak of it with some irony, but also with pride:  all intensified and sometimes defensive because we feel others say it with disdain. 

If, as one wit put it, McCain/Palin gets all the votes of brides pregnant on their wedding days (maybe add in the grooms), then if we can add the votes of those with strongly felt country roots, the favored Obama/Biden ticket will need to resurrect all those dead voters Acorn was finding.  How well this plays out depends on how many understand these two – and, on the other hand, how many can’t.  They are hardly typical of “Jesusland” – but in important ways they represent it.  Plain talking, for instance, arises from the Puritan plain style, echoed in the American middle west & west.  (And embodied in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books my mother gave every grandchild.)  We speak with a tough wit, but, aren’t ironic about duty, loyalty, resilience, perseverance, active engagement, hard work.  We don’t consider them ambiguous; we assume they just are, in themselves, good. 

The West is different from the South and from the Midwest, but the music of all three is “Country Western.” We might call heartland culture pastoral but that ancient description doesn’t hint at its conflict-laden drama.  Sure, parts are pastoral (reflected in “My Front Porch Looking In”, for intance), but many aren’t (as in “Better as a Memory”). Country/western music is defined by a powerful self-reliance, an individualism that haunts these songs and our stories, evoking the loneliness of the prairie. It is the music of small town people like me (something I didn’t realize until in my twenties).  Its reaction to the city is sometimes defensive and sometimes assertive; sometimes it really doesn’t give a damn – an attitude part narrow mindedness, part stubbornness, but also part integrity. 

The distinction between the country mouse and the city mouse is another way of positing the difference between naivete and sophistication, simplicity and complexity, nature and culture.  Emerson describes his quest to find the Carlyles:  they welcome him, despite the fact he had written nothing they would have read – they are hungry for talk.  Carlyle, himself, had just begun his career – but Emerson describes their long walk, the wit and food at the dinner table in remote and rural Scotland.  Still, in those years Carlyle did some of his best work.  Cities have delights more thinly populated regions – without orchestras, opera, libraries, museums – don’t.  Its riches mean we are more likely to find someone with our interests.  I can understand that – a city offers much and parts of us can’t grow so well in the sticks.  But much goes on in the minds of those alone in the inky black rural night.

The city and country cultivate different virtues.  America’s individualism has been defined (Turner’s overused but useful insight) by its frontier.  Although that frontier closed in the lower 48 over a hundred years ago, its myths remain.  And they have vitality in Alaska – still wilderness, still frontier.  McCain, on the other hand, is an American whose family’s base was the service itself, restlessly patrolling our boundaries (and beyond). 

What McCain and Palin have in common is a mixture many of us understand as more characteristic of the heartland:  direct speech, confidence in human nature and human ability, humility before the size of our landscape and the power of our history, a belief in purpose and acts that are purposeful.  When we think about America, we think about that individualism, that self-reliance.  We think of Ben Franklin’s “God helps them that helps themselves” and Emerson’s idealism, Natty Bumppo & the astronauts, Gunsmoke & Marlon Brando struggling to stand in On the Waterfront, of Jimmy Stewart in movie after movie.

Obama sees the world in terms of ambiguity; he is a citizen of the quite ambiguous greater world and his resume and friends are peppered with ambiguous jobs and ambiguous projects.  Biden is what he is.  Both describe themselves in political terms.  Strikingly, Obama sees as his greatest decision the one he made that agreed with the majority of Illinois politicians and had no effect on anyone – he would not, he tells Rick Warren, have voted to go into Iraq.   McCain’s biography implies such a stand would be part of a day’s work.  Palin’s experience, much less than McCain’s but full of consequential decisions, would as well.  Neither votes “present” to life.  It isn’t just that we might not agree with Obama’s decision – it’s that it doesn’t seem a decision in the same way as one that has consequences.  

McCain and Palin are used to being deciders; they share a western outlook. Perhaps neither has been as immersed in nature as Palin’s husband, winning the 2000 mile snow machine trek four times.  Still, neither comes from the world of ambiguity.  McCain was molded by war – he learned humility and love in bonding with his fellow captives.  There is little ambiguous about what is right and what is wrong in such settings.  The weather in the great plains confronts us with its power; I can’t imagine how much more does the weather of Alaska.  The elements are a part of the Palins’ lives – not places on posters behind the urban desk where they gather petitions against drilling in it.  Those who fight nature are generally those who genuinely (and intelligently) love it.  Feelings such as these may be complicated but they aren’t ambiguous. 

Facing challenges doesn’t make for cynics.  These two candidates have not retreated from the complexity of urban life – they have brought to it a more active, self-reliant strain of the American tradition.  And some of us that love the world in which we grew up and often in which we live, the world in which Palin seems so at home, have found ourselves engaged in a way we hadn’t been.  If McCain felt Palin would solidify a base close to these roots, he also chose her because they are “soul mates.”  They share a desire to act, a sense of duty, a belief that acts demonstrate philosophy far better than words.  His choice gave us a more compelling and attractive perspective on his character.  He hasn’t changed but what we are likely to magnify about him has. 

11 thoughts on “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse”

  1. Amen. Ideas are good and useful things to have but they must connect to reality, otherwise they are just bullshit, and often dangerous bullshit at that. I think that is why so many of our journos and academics are worthless- they have never had to produce anything useful in their lives and it shows in what they write. We have running, a law professor who has never published, a lawyer who has never tried a case, a man who has showed not a smidgen of courage, that I can see. The only virtue I can see in this guy is that he may be too weak to do too much damage.Lets hope the flyover shows more sense than the cities, in dumping this creep.

    We visited in Texas, last June and then did some driving in the hill country. The people were very nice,but walking for any time was just unpleasant- hot and boring.The whole point of living in midtown Manhattan is that there is no need to have a car – you can walk almost anywhere,and enjoy it, or if needed,take the subway. I despise the poitical culture here,but for me this is still the place to live.De Gustibus etc.

  2. A couple of partially-overlapping categorizations which also seem to have a major impact on political belief:

    1)Hard America vs Soft America, in Michael Barone’s formulation…ie, people in jobs in which they are subject to rigorous evaluation vs people in jobs in which performance standards are diffuse or nonexistent

    2)Credentialed America vs Noncredentialed America…I note that many people in jobs in which advancement is largely credential-driven (viz K-12 education and many Civil Service jobs, in which an additional degree or college credits get you more money, whether they impact job performance or not) find it very disturbing that there are areas of American society in which success is much less dependent on credentials.

    3)Word people vs thing people, as we’ve discussed here before.

  3. I don’t think promoting this duality (city vs. country) is a good idea. Too much resemblance to the bolsheviks’ propaganda machine that was based on riling city “proletariat” against “peasantry”, and both these categories against “rotten layer of intelligentsia”.

    Also, this plays right into Democrats’ talking points about battle between redneck retards (80% of the country) and ever-wise urban cosmopolitan elite.
    As even this blog is a witness,
    -not all living in the cities are leftists.
    -not all professionals with successful career in business, trades or sciences live in the cities.
    -not all professionals/businessmen/scientists are leftists.
    Etc, etc.

    From this rather artificial and populist (in a bad sense) counterposing arises vulgar Marxism. I’ve lived through its consequences and don’t want to anymore.

  4. Thanks to you all – you cheered me up today.

    Tatyanya: The Soviet genius at turning an ancient contrast, the core of every Restoration comedy and literature back to the classics, into a bloody & political division shows (yet again) how they encouraged the worst in human nature. Your memories are a useful brake on too much chauvinism, but your fear of recognizing what has long been a staple of our cultural exchanges does not seem healthy – acknowledging our differences while assuming we are all in this together is our way. Generally, I think it works.

    I’ll agree I don’t do much embracing of the Democratic ticket here, but we in the heartland know we are missing out on a lot in the cities – sometimes we respect them & feel like bumpkins, sometimes we are envious and a bit nasty, and sometimes we just move there. City folk realize they miss the closeness to nature, the pace, the close-knit communities. Sometimes they move. As Shannon observes in his post and later comments, this is an identity that shifts. We understand each other because some of us have been the other at other points in our lives.

    And I sympathize with Renminbi’s point – perhaps because I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my forties. I love walking through Manhattan and am tired of being dependent on cars.

  5. Ginny,
    Don’t see where in my comment you found fear of any kind. I am not afraid even of socialists – I survived them; why would I be afraid of cultural differences between American urban and rural life? Been in much more harsh places than either. I only wanted to point out to the danger of opposing city and country ideology – I know exactly where it leads. Btw, since you mentioned all those cultural references preceding 1917 – what was the result of mutual suspicion of city and country? Utopia, various religious, hippie or artistic communes, attempts to combine both (failed, every one of them) – or the other extreme, the peasant rebellions against the cities, from medieval Germany to 19 cent China. Those evil “Soviets”, as you call them (they were not, technically, up until 1921) only exploited the mutual disdain that was already there, everywhere in the world, and is a natural side effect of industrialization – and used it as a tool for their own purposes. But they didn’t invent it; the desire to find a scapegoat – in this case “the city folk”, in the eyes of a rural bumpkin, as you say, or “those dim rednecks”, as I was shocked to hear from the mouth of my boss, have been ever-present in every society forever.

    If you want to underline that “we are all in it together”, I don’t see the point in encouraging the divide.

    And our differences lie not in the geographical location of our residence, or in the cliche they represent.

  6. Tatyana,

    The frontier and the rural play a major role in Americas self-defining mythology. Even Americans who families have lived in cities for generations, still like to think they could could rough it in the sticks.

    As Ginny says, it’s about our individualistic conception of ourselves.

  7. Re. & in agreement with Shannon’s point: My brother – who was finally forced to live in a bigger town than our village of 500 as head of an international company and whose favorite author appears to be Tom Osborne – was a big Giuliani fan. Bill Kristol was pushing for Palin long before anyone else. Both had found in politicians quite different from them on the city/rural continuum kindred spirits. But all share values we tend to equate (and I think with some truth) with the pioneer spirit demonstrated most clearly on the frontier.

  8. If “all share values…demonstrated on the frontier”, then where the “old tensions” you wrote about in your second sentence came from?
    I don’t see many attempts of national reconciliation from the Left based on “we’re all kindred frontier spirits, we all share the same rural values” lines. On the contrary.

Comments are closed.