Every Place Has Detractors. Consider Where They're Coming From.
“I am not the only Southern child,” writes Maggie Young, “who fled for more progressive, urban pastures as adulthood approached. Today, I occasionally cross paths with my fellow Bible Belt refugees. In coffeeshops, we swap stories of our dysfunctional families, relatives who plant themselves in church pews but would never apologize for the physical, mental, and emotional abuse they have inflicted on us. We bond over the post-traumatic stress of growing up in a conservative culture rotting away behind its Dixie facade.”
I grew up in one of the urbane, progressive pastures in which writers like Maggie Young now gambol: Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My father worked for a Democratic mayor; I attended a church so liberal that I did not realize until I went to college that "Lord of the Dance" was supposed to be a hymn about Jesus. I knew more people who had gone to socialist summer camp than I knew Republicans. Because as far as I knew, I had never met a Republican. 1
I am not the only child of such an upbringing who fled to a place where you could openly admit to having voted for a Republican presidential candidate without expecting to come under withering verbal attack. In Applebee's and Waffle Houses, we swap stories of the affordable housing activists who spent their free time lobbying against building high rises in our neighborhoods, ostensibly because it would change the character but really because it would destroy the light in the fourth-floor apartment they’d purchased in 1972; of the people who proclaimed their commitment to diversity and tolerance while doing their best to get any conservative socially ostracized or fired; of the outrageously bigoted way our neighbors would talk about “those people” (some combination of white, lower-middle class, religious, Southern, conservative); of the laboriously hypocritical indignities we were subject to, like complicated building-wide recycling schemes promoted by “environmentalists” who flew to Europe four times a year; of the white liberals who shook their heads at all those horrid racists, while trying to mask, with code words, their determination to isolate their own children from minority peers, except for a token handful who were solidly upper middle class.
Now, I could write a piece on how the real hypocrites are liberals, or a "pox on both their houses" sort of column on how everyone is terrible. But you know what? People are generally pretty all right. Flawed, but pretty all right. And so are places.
I certainly have a fraught relationship to my old neighborhood’s politics and culture. But most of my neighbors were good people, by Harper Lee’s definition: doing the best they could with what they had. Maybe not all the time, every minute. But mostly.
There is grave danger in judging a neighborhood, or a culture, by the accounts of those who chose to leave it. Those people are least likely to appreciate the good things about where they came from, and the most likely to dwell on its less attractive qualities. I might well have left New York for DC even if I had been as progressive as my neighbors. But as it was, I left worn down not merely by the expense and inconvenience of living in Manhattan, but also by the surprisingly constant slurs about my political leanings, the unsurprisingly constant need to decide, with strangers, whether I wanted to risk the awkwardness or abuse that often followed outing myself, or simply smile and pass myself off as a liberal Democrat. By the dates that soured when someone somehow guessed that I was not on Team Blue State, and the dinner parties that degenerated into ten-on-one attacks not just on my politics, but also on my character. By the time I left, I was in no mood to be generous about the citizens of my birth city. When a conversation turned toward New York City, I did not break out into singing "give my regards to Broadway."
However. I am, like many political columnists, kind of obstreperously opinionated. I think a lot about politics, and I care a lot about politics. I have trouble keeping those thoughts to myself. Even as right-leaning folks go, I was probably more likely than most to bring abuse on myself. I am, in short, an outlier, an especially bad fit for the city of my birth. Which is one of the reasons that I left for a place where right-leaning libertarians were not so unusual.
We can't count on expats to tell us “what it is like” to live where they came from; they can only tell us what it was like for them to live there. I often think of this when I see some conservative pointing to a quote from some self-exiled Muslim as evidence that Middle Eastern cultures are sick. Or when liberals cheer a self-exiled Southerner who reports that everything’s rotten below the Mason-Dixon line. Or any other person explaining how the group they left is fundamentally broken.
I do not dispute the truth of their personal experience. What I dispute is that any personal experience can be the full measure of a people or place. They are often correct about its faults. But they often miss the virtues of which those faults may be a side product.
For instance: Tight, cohesive communities provide a high degree of social support, particularly to vulnerable folks like the sick and the elderly and the grieving; they can also be nosy, controlling and somewhat hostile to outsiders. If you are the sort of person who hates the nosiness and doesn’t particularly care about the levels of social support such places can provide … well, you’re sure right that it’s nosy. But you’re not necessary right that it’s awful.
Now, an outlier’s view of the internal workings of their own culture can be a valuable thing. Their unique qualities put them in a position to see things that others miss. The danger is when this "survivor's account" is presented or received as “The Truth About X.” The account is valuable only if we hear it as “A Truth About X.”
Maggie Young's truth about the South will be more informative if you also wander below the Mason-Dixon and talk to some people who are still quite happily living there. But you'll have to make a field trip to find the people who know why you should stay, as well as the reasons you might want to leave.
As it turned out, my mother’s family were Republicans. My mother staunchly maintains that they made no effort to hide this from me. Such is the parochialism of a Manhattan childhood that it seems entirely plausible I simply never imagined that anyone I was fond of could be a Republican.
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