Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Pardon Me, Your Contempt Is Showing

Much of this series has revolved around the naked contempt demonstrated for rural residents, in one form or another; the assumption that rural communities are cultural wastelands, that we’re all uneducated hayseeds, that we are not authorities on our own lives and experiences. There is an underlying assumption that people who live in rural communities are all a bit behind the times, as otherwise, we’d be living in urban areas, where all the action and culture and society is. People electing to live in rural communities are written off as lesser, and this lies at the core of the urban/rural divide in the United States.

The sheer level of contempt reserved for people in rural communities really came into flower in August, with the earthquake on the East Coast, rapidly followed by Hurricane Irene. As Andrea wrote here at the time, the immediate response to the earthquake was one of smug contempt. It wasn’t just a West Coast-East Coast divide, as emerged in the days and weeks following the quake. Initially, yes, many people on the West Coast were mocking panicked East Coasters as they dealt with an experience some of them had never had, in an area very seismically different from the West Coast, in buildings not equipped to handle an earthquake.

But as the quake sorted itself out and everyone calmed down, the second wave of responses rolled in, and they included a lot of hate targeted at rural areas. Many people operated under the belief, as Andrea pointed out, that the earthquake caused no major damage. The focus of news coverage was on urban communities, a classic issue, and people continued to make dismissive, mocking comments about the quake. Yet, in parts of rural Virginia, homes were devastated and communities were destroyed. Those communities were painfully reminded that they didn’t matter, at all, and were repeatedly told that their residents were just panicking needlessly over a minor earthquake.

Days later, Hurricane Irene swept up the coast. Again, there was much talk about how it was overhyped and almost no damage was done; one of the reasons, of course, that damage was limited in urban areas was because people were very, very prepared for the storm. They were warned and they took it seriously. Meanwhile, rural Vermont was devastated. Communities were cut off for days, requiring airlifts of supplies from the National Guard. But those communities weren’t in the news; again, the overwhelming response was blase, with comments about how the overhyped hurricane didn’t cause any damage.

It’s not just that these communities didn’t matter in the eyes of many observers, ‘no damage anywhere important,’ but that they were actively erased, and the commentary from urban areas was often strikingly contemptuous. That image of lawn chairs after the earthquake circulated and everyone had a good laugh over it, underlaid with a sense of smug satisfaction; a natural disaster we could all laugh at, because nothing happened. Meanwhile, people were trying to figure out what to do with condemned homes with no insurance coverage, while their governors refused to declare a disaster to provide access to federal assistance. Virginia applied for such protections after the hurricane, but not the earthquake.

There’s a naked, ugly, almost angry contempt people in urban areas reserve for rural communities, and it’s a twisted, unpleasant thing. In the wake of the hurricane, some ‘progressives’ suddenly claimed to care about rural issues, taking care to excoriate each other for belittling Irene while there was serious damage in Vermont, but almost immediately afterwards, they returned to their ways, again ignoring rural areas and rural issues in favour of topics they found more interesting. They totally ignored the impact of the earthquake on rural communities, even though that information was made readily available; instead, both Andrea and I got hate mail for the piece that ran here.

I live at a strange straddle of the urban/rural divide, something I’ve discussed before. Most people who read me casually or only see a few pieces of mine assume I am a resident of the Bay Area, since they see I’m from Northern California and the Bay Area is the only thing there, right? So people feel very comfortable letting their contempt fly around me, assuming that I am one of them and will join them. And when I point out that no, their assumptions are actually wrong and I am living in a rural area, there’s not even a hint of embarrassment, just a little ‘well of course you’re different.’

Different, yes. I don’t deserve contempt because I’m articulate and people like reading what I have to say. The assumption is made that I am an outlier, unusual for a rural area; even rural people, people in my own community, think I’m an aberration, because these attitudes about who has value and who does not are so engrained. Some people assume I’m someone from the City who moved up here because I thought it would be romantic and fun and cutesy to live somewhere rural, when in fact I was born in Ukiah and have spent almost all of my life, except for when we lived in Europe, within a 30 mile radius of Fort Bragg, except for a brief stint in, wait for it, rural Vermont and an even briefer one in Oakland and San Francisco.

That contempt is so internalised that people patronise themselves, assuming that it’s not possible for people like me to come from rural communities. And urban people carelessly dismiss the residents of urban areas, assuming that no one like me lives in them, and that if we do, we’ll understand we are not the ones who were meant by that contemptuous commentary. Maybe they think we privately join them, in the security of our living rooms, sneering at the communities we live in because we can’t possibly take them seriously?

The very word, urbane, tells you what people in urban areas think of people who live in rural communities. It’s not possible to be sophisticated if you’re not from a city, and anyone with any sort of polish who happens to live in a rural area must be there entirely by accident, must have been shaped by exposure to the city, must privately think the neighbours are all hopelessly irredeemable hicks.