Earlier this week, the New Republic’s Michael Schaffer published an immensely satisfying smackdown of the frustrating double standard the media tends to invoke when it comes to reporting about small towns. Culture war rules have firmly established that it’s fine for “real Americans” to slander cities as ungodly, anti-American dens of crime and iniquity.
Yet it’s all but compulsory for reporters writing about small town life to glop on the pious cliches about the honest, pure-hearted folk who allegedly populate these places, with their supposedly unwavering fidelity to family values, tradition, and the simpler things in life. These sepia-toned journalistic portraits of small-town life can be so treacly they run the risk of sending you into a diabetic coma.
But in reality, small towns are no simpler than anywhere else. And as anyone who grew up in such a place can tell you, small towns have their dark side. They can be vicious, bigoted, hateful places, and every bit as corrupt as cities. There’s a reason why Shirley Jackson set her chilling short story “The Lottery” in a small town. The town in the story was based on the place she was living in at the time; she and her family experienced ugly acts of ostracism and anti-Semitism there.
Thus we come to Maryville, Missouri, site of a now-infamous rape case, and various journalists’ not terribly persuasive attempts to whitewash the place, most notably the New York Times. But all the air freshener in the world can’t perfume the overpowering stench which practically wafts off my computer screen every time I read about the godforsaken place. As Schaffer usefully points out:
There are two ways the town could have lived up to the Times’ rose-colored description of its status quo ante:
1. Beforehand, by not sexually assaulting ninth-graders, videotaping the incident, and leaving a victim asleep on her front lawn in freezing weather.
2. After the fact, by not ostracizing the victim’s siblings, firing her mom from her job, dropping the case inexplicably, and burning the family’s house down.
Schaffer goes on to argue, persuasively, that both of the above scenarios are actually more likely, not less so, in a small town than in a more densely populated urban area. Among other things, there’s the problem of the quasi-feudalistic nature of rural life:
Turns out all that “close knit” small-town stuff turns out to kind of suck if you’re trying to get justice: When you’re so close-knit that your boss knows some of the families whose kids you’re trying to put in jail, and you just happen to get fired—that’s not a good thing.
The anonymity of city life comes with its own troubles, of course, including high crime rates. I wouldn’t want, or expect, journalists to gloss over these well-known problems. Why, then, is it okay for them to create absurdly idealized portraits of small-town life? Especially when, as is the case with Maryville, such portraits sugarcoat horrendous and widespread anti-social behavior and what appears to be a systematic attempt at obstruction of justice?