Representation Matters & Shit-Town is a Shitty Podcast

I am starting to see the occasional confederate flag in my home town.

To say this makes no sense is an understatement. Even ignoring that our ancestors died fighting that symbol or that the Republican Party, which led Lincoln to the Emancipation Proclamation, was founded as a labor movement in small-town Wisconsin, I still live so far north that a lot of Canadians live south of me. There is absolutely nothing “deep south” about North Central WI.

I’ve been annoyed with urban liberals lately. How often do we talk about representation? Our Facebook feeds are filled with articles calling out Scarlet Johansen’s problematic casting and praising the perspective Samantha Bee adds to late night and affirming how Get Out finally lays bare white liberal racism. We are rightly calling out each White-Male-Only women’s healthcare summit the Republicans host.

But we see no irony in simultaneously sharing another article written by some big-city researcher who spent a week with the disenfranchised at the dirtiest bar in the Rust Belt and now wholly understands the 2016 election.

The latest version? I’m watching people fawn over S-Town as some miraculous piece of radio. The Atlantic called it a “Monument to Empathy” because — if I am reading the article correctly — Reed eventually figured out that he was talking to a real person. They forgive an entirely nonsensical narrative arc — with its core promised answers left totally unresolved — because Reed appears to display genuine feelings for his exploitee by the time things wrap up.

He actually cares for a rural! How monumental!

But even the “real” feelings he develops are problematic. Reed seems drawn to McLemore because he finds what he wants to find in him. “The condescension here towards rural life — the disdain for obesity, tattoos, and “Jeebus” — comes not from the coastal elite but from someone who has grown up in the woods.” McLemore hates himself, and Reed, seeing shared knowledge in that self-hate, permits McLemore to be wise in other fields as well, so much so that he continues to affirm McLemore’s branding of Woodstock as “shit town” even as evidence overwhelms McLemore’s capacity to be reliable.

Don’t see the problem? Ask yourself if the people of Woodstock want the “shit town” depicted in the podcast to be their national reputation. Do you think Manitowoc enjoys the Averys as their spokesfamily? How valuable is Honey Boo Boo as an economic development strategy for McIntyre?

Sure, maybe this will generate some gawker tourism that floods a couple of “quaint” establishments with some extra cash, but what kind of marketing budget is required to offset this bad press? No wonder rural America is pushing to defund public radio. How can one of these “chosen” small towns possibly attract the new businesses and professionals they need with such a force stacked against them?

In the era of media empires, with only six companies owning almost all media, small town America can’t fight back if these outlets don’t care to make a strong commitment to representation. With small-town presses gobbled up by USA Today and Gannett, we have a hard enough time telling our own stories in our own communities.

Come on, Atlantic? Where is the small-town version of City Lab?

The single story of small town life in America is being constructed almost entirely by big city media outlets that do little to hide their scorn for fly over country. It feels often enough as if scouts are sent out in search of our most mentally unstable to then prop up as representations of typical life in Such-n-Such, Small Town. And if these execs can’t find exactly what they want, they just manufacture the storyline they’re after. (Check out that before image of Duck Dynasty if you don’t believe me.)

It’s not just the devastation this narrative does to small communities working to attract and retain a more diverse workforce. The narrative also empowers the worst among us by normalizing bad behaviors under the guise of “rural living.”

When the confederate flag starts showing up in Norther WI, you realize how badly you are losing the battle of cultural norms. No one is learning that locally. They are picking that up from execs in NYC and Nashville and LA who are choosing to inject pride into these ills by connecting them inextricably with other cultural staples like country music and farm life and outdoor recreation.

I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist here. It does. But we have our own version of it. And when we start seeing other people’s racism tacked on to key and typically positive pieces of our culture, it becomes all the more difficult to fight.

Yes, there is a lot of hate coming out of rural America right now, but I think it’s telling that the President fueling that hate is a media mogul from NYC.

I’m proud to live in a small town. Small towns have been and must continue to be important to the fabric of our country. Small towns like Dixon and Hope have produced recent presidents. Small towns are proving better for entrepreneurship. Small towns in the midwest are doing more to lift people out of poverty. And school segregation is a real trick when you only have one high school.

But it’s more than that. There are exciting narratives taking place in small-town America. On a typical week here, I interact with progressive farmers, service-minded IT professionals, award winning coffee roasters and beverage makers, green energy innovators, feminist thought leaders, emerging and established artists, oh and a guy who was called the next Tolkien whose book was just optioned by Lin Manuel Miranda.

The unemployment rate in my thriving small-town county just fell to 2.3%. So when you subscribe to that next podcast by an urban adventurer who tracked down our unemployed to glean some insight into Middle America, ask yourself who exactly is in that 2.3% and how comfortable would you be letting them represent you to the nation.

There are many voices in small town America. Let’s let a few more speak for a change.