Friday, September 8, 2017

The Big Mistake That Small Towns Make

The following news story has me a bit agitated, because I grew up in a small town not unlike--or that far from--Creston, Iowa.

Photo of 5 males in KKK hoods leads to discipline against students in Creston, Iowa

These high school students--presumably football players, based on the local high school's response--staged a KKK-themed photo shoot in someone's field. To nobody's surprise--except, perhaps, the five males'--the damned thing went viral. Which brings us here, now.

I saw it when a fellow former Iowan shared on Facebook and asked, "What do you make of this?"

Well, since you asked, fellow former Iowan, here's what I make of it.

I don't think this is necessarily an Iowa thing. It's much more of a small town thing. Having grown up in a small Iowa town, I can say that small towns historically have been closed-off places. Once you get past the surface hospitality you'll find hostility to outsiders and even their own who might be perceived as smart, creative, ambitious or non-conforming in even the most harmless way. A kid with even one of those qualities soon learns at the hands of his or her contemporaries that it's best to get out and go where they can find opportunities and like-minded souls.

Until recently the disapproval and banishment was only a strong undercurrent in small towns. But in Trump's America hate has become the new country-chic, and its subtle expression a lost art.

Here's what I think is at the heart of this: small towns suffer from deep-seated inferiority complexes. They see the rest of the world competing and creating, they know they don't measure up, and this drives them crazy. They'd be much happier if the rest of us would just sit down, shut up and accept the status quot. Or, barring that, get out of town and stop rubbing their faces in it.

It's classic bully behavior.

It's classic bullshit, too.

There's a great documentary on Netflix (and YouTube!) that sidles right up to these issues--If You Build It. Here it is.

Watch it--I promise it's well worth your eighty-five minutes. You'll see how a small, down-on-its-heels North Carolina town lures an idealistic young couple (an architect and product designer) to help revitalize their struggling burg and its education system, then systematically cuts them off at every turn. And yet the couple persists, and in the end the town takes everything they have to offer before making it impossible for them to continue their work there.

It reminds me of certain advertising clients I used to work with, who said they were all for "innovation" but just didn't have the stomach for new ideas.

The result is that smart, creative, ambitious people flee small towns in favor of places where they can live and work in peace. And who, with a brain in their head and a dream in their heart, wouldn't?

Meanwhile, these little towns are left to jockey for a few handfuls of small manufacturing and meat-processing jobs, wondering where all their strength and vitality went.

It went with those smart, creative, ambitious kids when they left for college and the world's greener, more welcoming pastures.

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