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Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008 12:20 UK

Small-town girl v big-city boy

Virginia-based author Joe Bageant claimed Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin as a fellow "redneck", in a recent essay for BBC Radio 4's Today programme. He meant it as a compliment. Here Jamie Stiehm, a city-dwelling political commentator, asks whether small-town values are all they are cracked up to be.

When an American refers to someone as "small-town", it's seldom clear whether it's meant as praise or scorn.

Trump Tower in Chicago

Sarah Palin declared psychological war on Barack Obama by setting up a 'small-town girl v big-city boy' dichotomy

It all depends on the speaker, subject, listener and ZIP code where the conversation is taking place.

For some, small towns are where virtues live: near the diner, yarn shop and swimming hole. For others, "small-town" is a synonym for smug narrow-mindedness.

Governor Sarah Palin, the political hurricane that made landfall in early September as the surprise Republican vice-presidential nominee, hit upon the deepest contradiction in the American character. It's as old as the fierce fight between two founding fathers - urbane Alexander Hamilton of New York and Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slave-owning gentleman of the land.

We Americans still have a romantic notion about the simple small town, which goes hand in hand with Jefferson's idealised "yeoman farmer". But in real life, most of us live in the busy, peopled world Hamilton envisaged.

Ms Palin declared psychological war on Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, right away by setting up a "small-town girl versus big-city boy" dichotomy.

In her hello-to-the-country speech, Palin zeroed in on Obama's work as a community organiser in Chicago before he went to Harvard Law School. That was in another metropolis known as Cambridge, a lively academic grove in Boston.

In a rare move for a political unknown, Palin made it personal between the man running for president, Obama, and herself. They are of the same generation: she is 44 to his 47, and represent bipolar extremes.

VIEWPOINTS
Jamie Stiehm
Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist based in Washington DC, whose essays on the 2008 presidential campaign have appeared in the liberal, pro-Obama Huffington Post. This is one of a series of comment and opinion pieces that the BBC website will publish before the election.
"I have the privilege of living most of my life in a small town," Palin told roaring Republicans at their convention.

"I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain... I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organiser, except you have actual responsibilities."

Gopher Prairie

But, just a moment, what's so great about being mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska? Whether Ms Palin ever made time to see the skylines and neighbourhoods of Philadelphia, Boston or Baltimore is arguably more to the purpose of governing the United States.

For like it or not, we are a nation composed of mostly city dwellers.

Sarah Palin
We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity
Sarah Palin quotes the late Hearst journalist, Westbrook Pegler

The 1920 census was the point in our social history when the population changed from living in rural and small communities to living in cities.

That shift is mirrored beautifully in the literature of the period, known as "The Revolt from the Village," as critic Carl van Doren put it in The Nation in 1921. This revolt was accompanied by a rush to breathe in the exhilarating big city by young men and women, as told in the autobiographical novel, You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe.

The most famous work in the anti-small town movement was the 1920 novel Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, who based fictional Gopher Prairie on his own Minnesota hometown.

The Nobel laureate author opened with a world-weary, ironical note: "This story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky… Main Street is the climax of civilisation."

Biographer Richard Lingeman, also the author of Small Town America, said Lewis' masterpiece launched "a conscious, definitive attack on the stuffiness, provincialism, smugness, conformity and cruel gossip of small town life, intended to puncture the myth once and for all."

World citizen

Yet here the heartland myth persists, in popular culture as well as partisan politics. Rock singer John Mellencamp's song, Small Town, tells the other side of the story told by Lewis: "No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from/I cannot forget the people who love me/Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town/And people let me be just what I want to be."

The lyrics are in an ode to his Indiana hometown.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama would have a hard time laying claim to small-town credentials
Mellencamp is a big Obama supporter, as it happens. Maybe the Democratic nominee would be well advised to take the singer on the road to help shore up his support in small towns in battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania?

One of the strengths of Obama's curriculum vitae, for some of his supporters, is its variety. Growing up, he lived in Hawaii and Indonesia. He studied in LA, New York and Boston and knows his way around Washington.

He's a world citizen.

He'd have a hard time claiming small-town status, though Springfield, Illinois, where he served as a state legislator, is a fairly small town where another lanky lawyer who ran for President once lived. (That would be, of course, Abraham Lincoln.)

No doubt certain strengths come from living in a small town, especially for politicians.

Bill Clinton, who hails from Hope, Arkansas, embodies the easy social connectedness which a small town upbringing can produce.

Everyone tends to relate to everyone else, up and down the social scale. People know the person you were in high school.

You might even be married to someone you knew in high school, as Palin told the world she was. "My guy," was how she introduced her husband, Todd Palin, to the cheering crowd that night.

You might even be pregnant in high school, as her daughter Bristol is - but somehow the redoubtable Palin has turned that into a small-town virtue, too.

Urban sophisticates

In her convention speech, she quoted anonymously Westbrook Pegler, the long-gone Hearst newspaper columnist and scourge of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity."

Was the subtext that urban sophisticates like Obama are somehow suspect?

Just what we need, a new culture war at home.

As if we Americans weren't demoralised enough already by the economy and the war in Iraq.

But there is no obvious reason why the big city guy has to lose this ideological battle.

Maybe he should engage and ask Americans: hey, whose world would you rather live in? Jefferson's or Hamilton's? Mine or Palin's? Wasilla or Chicago?

He'll have to watch out though, or the small-town girl will have him for lunch at the diner.




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Obama - Democrat
365
McCain - Republican
173
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