Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Patronise Us While You Idealise Us, Will You?

The idea of a rural retreat to disappear to during the hot summer months, or periods of stress, is an ancient one; numerous cultures have a long tradition of retreats held in rural areas by the wealthy, and it can be seen here in the United States as well. Wealthy people have summer homes, and some of those summer homes are located in rural areas. Wealthy people like to retreat to those summer homes, or visit on the weekends, and get New York Times features profiling their quaint and humble abodes, and they create a very romanticised, idealised view of rural life.

It’s so rustic, they say. The Times reporter dutifully nods as they talk about backyard gardening and how quaint it is to know everyone in the town. How, gosh, it was just so funny that the mail lady learned their names so quickly! When these transplants take the big step move to rural areas, to escape the urban rat race, you know, they wax rhapsodic in saccharine newspaper columns about the delights of rural life, how they just feel so much more connected and in touch with their communities, and they love ‘the people’ they encounter. The same idealisation is seen with farming regions; people love to talk about family farms and community supported agriculture and some of them even set up little hobby farms and talk about how great it is to be a farmer.

These idealised visions of rural life are, of course, a far cry from the truth, but our truth, our experiences as residents of rural areas, is often ignored, unless it suits a specific narrative. Rural poverty will be discussed when people want to make Appalachian poverty porn or talk about the meth epidemic. It is not a topic for discussion when we are talking about the limited reach of social services in the United States and populations in urgent need of government assistance. Quaint sheds are featured in the Times, but actual rural shacks are swept out of sight, as are actual rural people; those small town folksy people that people love to talk about are often city transplants themselves, or sanitised rural people who perform for a living. Most of us are too messy, too dirty, too loud, too real, for the people who want to idealise us, and so we are swept out of sight.

At the same time that people like to talk about how quaint and personal and lovely small town life is, really, they just adore it, any time you want to use the cottage as a writing retreat, just let us know, they want to patronise us. They want to talk about how uneducated we are, how we are incapable of making decisions without guidance from our urban betters, they want to talk about how unpleasant and gross hunting season is, how we’re all just a bunch of hicks with no awareness of the greater needs of society. They especially like saying this when we’re doing things that piss them off, like informing them that they actually do need to pay property taxes on their summer homes even though they leave them vacant 10 months of the year while people in our communities go homeless.

This is a strange and paradoxical thing, the idealisation of a romantic version of rural life that doesn’t exist, paired with patronising rural life and people who live in rural communities. Are people aware that the vision they’re creating doesn’t exist? Are they aware that in one breath they’re talking about how lovely rural life is, while with the next, they are suggesting that the actual people who live in rural areas are just so much garbage? Do they know that those quaint, delightful truck farmers are actually human beings, not actors on a set?

I confess that I have a certain amount of contempt for people who approach rural areas with utter naivete, expecting this totally unrealistic vision that they’ve been fed about what rural life is, who then lash out when life here isn’t what they expected, but still go back to the city and talk about how wonderful it all is. All while agitating to harm the people in the communities they exploit, and while being snide and dismissive about ‘middle America’ and ‘hicks’ and ‘hayseeds’ from rural areas, people who obviously have nothing to contribute other than standing around waiting for some city slicker to show up and start a hobby farm.

They wonder why some rural people are rude? Well, perhaps because some rural people are just rude, true. But perhaps because we’re trying to lead our lives like everyone else and we don’t really have an interest in being caught up someone’s fantasy land. This is not Disney World, this is our lives. And when the people who patronise us and treat us with utter disrespect expect us to be friendly and nice, to live up to some kind of rural ideal, yeah, it sticks in my craw, and I know I am not the only one.

Why should we have to jump through hoops and perform for people who do not even really consider us human beings? Who hold a fixed vision of our lives in their heads and use it to patronise and talk down to us? Rural people, you know, we don’t actually know anything, we’re just waiting on those ag subsidies and voting against our own interests and hoping that maybe someday we can be real people, important people, urban people, who know what is what and think goats are just the cutest.