Thursday, September 25, 2008

Small Town Values: They're Not What You Think They Are

"She's from a small town with small-town values." — Fred Thompson, convention speech

We keep hearing a lot about “small town values” in this campaign. At the Republican National Convention a few weeks ago, you could hardly go more than a few minutes without someone referring to those “small town values” that make America great and that are embodied by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. As I’ve reflected on this phenomenon this week, I have been asking myself, “what exactly do we mean by ‘small town values?’” What are these values, and are they somehow different from, and superior to, “big town” or “city” values, their seemingly obvious counterpart? It may come to surprise you that I’ve come to the conclusion that small town values are the values that make America great, but not in the way you might expect.

During the RNC, the Daily Show sent its correspondents down to the convention floor to ask delegates to explain what exactly they meant by “small town values.” The response was mostly a meaningless mash of platitudes with little real meaning: small town values were described as “common sense,” and "real values;" delegates offered up "fishing," "1950's America," and perhaps the only substantive issues were "church" and "traditional marriage." Small town values have become part of the Republican rallying point for their renewal of the culture wars that have dominated our politics since the 1960s and which Barack Obama threatens to cast aside once and for all. By changing the discussion of this election from one about issues, the future, and the great challenges we face as a people, the Republicans spent their time trying to recast the election in the same comfortable terms they have used to win election and after election. Small town values became a flash point for this cultural divide, which is why it is all the more important that we closely examine this concept for what it is really worth.

To define small town values, I first want to talk about all the things they aren't, or shouldn't be. They aren't a cover word for racism, intolerance and homophobia. Too often, I believe "small town values" are meant to connote homogeneity. What people really mean when they talk about "small town values" is they desire a return to an idealized past when all people in the community looked the same, went to the same church, did the same things on the weekends; in short, an America defined not by its diversity, but by its conformity; a consumer driven, cookie cutter, segregated country of neatly manicured lawns and white picket fences. In this idealized world, communities are free from the terrors of crime, drugs, and moral failure. People know their roles and accept them.

If there is a set of values behind this idealized world, they are not the values that define modern America. Nowhere in this set of values is there room for diversity, religious freedom, racial equality, or freedom of conscience. In this small town, everyone accepts the same "common sense," meaning that which the majority deems is correct. Minorities and their views are rendered invisible and intolerable. This conception of small town values is small and mean. It demeans the true character of small town values by making them about judgment, conformity and control. It debases the true meaning of small town values by using them as a wedge to drive people apart rather than a basis for coming together.

In my view, "small town values" means the values of a community of individuals that are aware of the challenges and struggles of their neighbors, and come together in good faith and compassion to assure that they are cared for to the best extent that the community can provide. My model for small town values is not the artificial world of "Leave it to Beaver" but the small shtetl's of my Jewish ancestors in Eastern Europe, or at least the idealized version of them. Obviously using this model has its deficiencies, for it uses as an example a homogenous social group that doesn't share the stresses and tensions of a diverse and multicultural society. Yet putting these concerns aside, it still has much to teach us. In the shtetl, it would be intolerable for a community member to lack the basics they need to survive. No matter their social class, the community would see to it that they be given an education from a young age and that they had food to eat and a place to sleep at night. If they were sick, the community would find a way to get them health care.

Small town values are values that recognize the value, integrity and importance of the life of every member of the community by virtue of the fact that they are a neighbor. In the small town, the duty to care for one another stems from a strong sense of community and of belonging to one place that is shared intimately by its members. They are values that do not allow us to turn away our eyes from hunger and homelessness in our streets. They implore us to be involved members of our communities, working to make a difference in the lives of our fellow citizen.

It is these values stressing faith and compassion in each other, shared purpose and shared responsibility, a sense of ourselves not simply as Jews or Christians of Muslims, or Whites or Blacks or Hispanics, but as Americans, as citizens of a one nation. It is a great nation and a large nation of nearly 300 million people, and yet it must be governed by small town values; values that focus on our connection with each other, that turn us all into neighbors in this great small town we call America. You can be born in a small town but lack "small town values" if you are brought up to care only about yourself, your narrow interests, and your bottom line. And you can grow up in the biggest city in the country, but if you have compassion for and faith in your fellow citizen and a sense of shared responsibility for your country, you may possess better "small town values" than a person from the nation's tiniest hamlet. Growing up in a small town doesn't show you have small town values. Most significantly, it is by serving your community that you show how much care and devotion you have to real "small town values."

When Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama for being a community organizer, in effect she was mocking the small town values that she herself claims to represent. Barack Obama is running for president on a campaign that represents the real small town values that should be guiding our nation forward - with policies that will strengthen working families and companies that create jobs in America, fight for health care for every American and recognize our responsibilities to each other and by extension the rest of the world. When Barack Obama worked in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago helping people find jobs and services to help them take care of themselves and their families, he embodied the small town values that do make America great - and he did it in one of the biggest cities in America. Small town values aren't only for small towns. They can exist anywhere, because they are values that inform a politics and worldview that transcends the narrow confines of the small town, and they MUST do that if America is to grow stronger, united and more peaceful in the years to come.

So thank you, Sarah Palin, for reminding us that small town values are crucially important in this election. But let us now realize that it is the Democratic party, led by Barack Obama, that promises to actually use real small town values to improve our nation, our communities, and our world.

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