Every English major knows the slagging that comes with announcing your choice of study. Close friends and concerned relatives play it off as a momentary lapse of judgement, or quote employment statistics that they hastily looked up on their phone. Why not pursue something that benefits the world, like medicine or engineering? we’re told. Surely veterinary science is a more respectable occupation. Listen, what good is it thinking about stories?
I was old enough to remember when the internet became commercially available, but too young at the time to really grasp what it meant. I sometimes imagine someone going back in time to the 1980s to tell people that soon mankind will have access to unlimited information on his phone. Surely, it would be the cause for incredible celebration. Before a person was limited to what they knew, and knowledge was hard to get to, being locked away in libraries and universities. The idea of being granted admission to instant information once seemed mythic or biblical. With such insight, a person could do anything.
In the short amount of time it took for the internet to become omnipresent we’ve quickly elapsed the phases of it being a source of information, then a chief means of communication, and soon after entertainment. However, these last few years has made the World Wide Web a stage for something else entirely: conflict. From Chinese hacking to the Russian meddling in the elections, wars are now fought on the internet. In many ways, (mis)information has become a more powerful weapon than the atomic bomb. Ideas and beliefs, created by behind closed doors towards a political purpose, can be spread across the globe in an instant. Even if purportedly based in facts, the way the story is told can be slanted any number of ways. Consider how differently Fox News and The Daily Show report on the same event, each pandering to their audience.
Rural America will be a focal point in the upcoming presidential elections. Each candidate, appealing for support, is going to tell a different story about the countryside. Because it’s politics, it will be assorted versions of the same reality—citing problems and finding someone to blame for them, and trying to appeal to emotions and fears in way that brings people to the polls. I don’t think anyone looks forward to being assaulted by the propaganda machines. Still, there is a lot at stake for rural communities, and it goes beyond politics. The story that you tell of who you are, in many ways, is ultimately who you become. The identity of rural America is up for grabs.
The prevailing narrative of the countryside has been one of decline. Poverty is high, the population is aging, and the talented people are moving to the cities. It is certainly not seen as a place for the young, ambitious and progressive. However, as rural sociologist Ben Winchester points out, that’s not the complete picture. In many cases, the research suggests that people who left rural America in their twenties are now moving back in their thirties and forties, giving an opportunity for small towns to diversify their economies and build up their communities. In addition, trends show that many professors and other professionals are retiring to the countryside, helping reverse the “brain drain” that has plagued low population areas. Winchester suggests that to keep up this trend rural communities “need to start telling better stories about themselves,” emphasizing the beneficial aspects of living outside urban areas.
It would be inaccurate to say it any other way: the image of rural America has taken a hit in the last few years. Recent politics has energized a them-verse-us mentality that has come to represent the countryside of the United States to the rest of the world. It now tends to be seen as a place that is alienating to minorities and rigid in its views. It gets tagged with unkind words such as “backwards” and “bigoted.” Still, however, I don’t think such labels give the complete picture.
There’s another story worth fighting for. Individuals and groups across the United States have stood up against this perceived narrowmindedness. For example, not long ago the Center for Rural Affairs released a statement asserting that “amidst the turbulent political times for immigrants in our country, the Center for Rural Affairs reiterates its commitment to advancing a set of values that reflects the best of rural America… We are committed to equity and inclusion for all residents of rural America.” The Center has recently begun several initiatives that promote opportunity among all rural residents, looking to further build an integrated community.
There are reasons to be optimistic and plenty to be proud of in the American countryside. A new study from the Movement Advancement Project shatters the stereotype that the countryside is no place for the LGBT community. It was traditionally thought that most LGBT individuals move to the cities to find a greater level of acceptance. Nonetheless, statistics show that 20% of the LGBT community resides in rural America. The report suggests that they choose to remain or move to the countryside for the same reasons as everyone else: tight-nit communities, the landscape, and a healthier living. It was also found that the highest rate of same-sex parents occur in rural regions. That’s the sort of inclusiveness that doesn’t get talked about enough.
As the new election cycle approaches, rural America will be offered various versions of itself. Each politician will pander to what they believe will benefit their campaign. Instead, it’s time rural America defines itself on its own terms. Let’s use the opportunity to highlight the best parts of living in the countryside and the people working to build supportive communities.
That’s a better story to tell.
This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman.