Small Town

“…Educated in a small town, taught to fear Jesus in a small town…”
  • John Mellencamp, 1985
When Small Town hit the airwaves, I can’t say that my fourteen year-old ears were crazy about the song.  My primary musical interests lay in the more “classic rock” oriented tunes by the bands that had risen to prominence in the middle to late 1970’s.  Mellencamp’s “heartland rock” wasn’t my thing. 
Many years later, I had not only grown to like this ode to rural life, but found myself covering it in performances at various venues.  The music was straightforward, catchy, and fairly easy to imitate on an acoustic guitar (accompanied by a foot tambourine).  But of even greater interest to me was the idea behind the lyric:  that in less densely populated areas, there may be a greater tendency toward communal responsibility, personal authenticity, and general morality.  Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that in smaller towns, people were more likely to hold upright, respectable values, and perhaps even be more inclined to believe in Jesus?
The problem – if one can call it a problem – lay in the fact that I was in my 40’s before I started singing this song myself.  I had already read accounts of small-town killings (including one of a Declo, Idaho boy who murdered his father) and been the beneficiary of a kindness shown in a New York City subway.  I knew that the lyrics of the song weren’t necessarily true at all; that the lines separating good and bad, ethical and unethical, believer and unbeliever, cannot be drawn right alongside those that demarcate the big city’s edge.
Still, at least a smidgen of the idea behind my move to Hammett, Idaho in the summer of 2014 was that I might escape some of the frustrating activity that has become rampant in Ada County and its environs (and I’m not just talking about the traffic).  In an age when a Boisean can be fined and incarcerated for the alleged crime of discriminating against a practitioner of same-sex sodomy, I thought maybe country life would provide a bit of a safe haven.  I was, after all, deriving some of my income from tutoring math and English as well as offering private music lessons when I lived in Meridian.  Would the day come when I’d be staring at the inside of jail cell walls simply because I dared to tell a student that his or her decision to be sexually immoral was a poor one?
Recent experience with rural self-exile has only confirmed what I had previously learned:  moving to a small community will not automatically shield one from the retrogressive propaganda that seems to have infiltrated every “first world” nation on Earth.  The headline article in the October 20, 2015 edition of the Glenns Ferry Gazette revealed that the local school board was considering a policy that would grant unprecedented (and unwarranted) “rights” to students that identify as LGBT.  Apparently, the School Superintendent in this town of approximately 1200 people was in favor of adopting Policy 3281 (by the way, don’t the proper titles of these proposed laws always sound ominous – kind of like “Order 66” in the Star Wars mythology – you know, the one that turned a cloned military force against the good guys?).
Just two months later, on December 22, the Gazette published an essay by a local high school student.  Entitled My Vision for America, the regional prize-winning piece offered implicit support for homosexual activism while depicting as villains the unjustly embattled bakers who refused to provide a cake for a lesbian “wedding.”  It also portrayed as truth the idea that an unspecified white policeman “murdered” a black man – a presumed reference to one or more recent nationally-publicized cases that have as yet produced no homicide convictions.  In general, my analysis of the essay left me feeling that this young person was equating lawlessness with freedom while decrying reasonable behavioral boundaries as infringements upon liberty.  I felt compelled to write and submit a response. 
I spent a significant amount of time composing and refining my fairly short letter.  I even hand-wrote it, to make sure that I was in keeping with the newspaper’s requirement that letters be "signed originals."  I never assume that my work will be published, but I imagined it might stand a good chance of appearing in an upcoming edition.  Surely in the small town only ten miles from my home there would be some folks who would appreciate a rebuttal to ill-conceived opinions presented as fact. 
What I didn’t know was that the Gazette was fast approaching the end of its run.  A few days after personally submitting my letter, I received a phone call.  The paper’s editor informed me that my piece would not be published.  With only one issue remaining, the allegedly controversial nature of what I had written might leave some readers wanting to respond, but there would be no further Gazettes to accommodate those potential responses.  So the decision was made to let the teenager’s words go completely unchallenged… that is, unless I wanted my letter forwarded to the newspaper that is produced for the considerably larger town that lies thirty miles to the west.  The editor was willing to send it to them for review.
Aside from the fact that this offer made little sense to me – why would a Mountain Home newspaper print a response to an essay composed by a Glenns Ferry student and published in the Glenns Ferry paper? – it struck me as reminiscent of Pontius Pilate’s infamous hand-washing.  Here was a person in a position of (admittedly slight) authority that, in the interest of avoiding the possibility of controversy, felt perfectly content to send the possibility of controversy into the hands of someone else.  Moreover, was it not plain that by rejecting my purportedly “controversial” letter, the original essay’s genuinely controversial claims were effectively being defended?  I don’t make a habit of quoting Latin phrases, but in this case qui tacit consentire videtur seems applicable.
This disappointing interaction was only the latest link in a chain of similar experiences; yet one more person telling me that my proffered points – the ones defending exclusive heterosexuality and, in this case,  certain law enforcement officers who have been found not guilty of wrongdoing – were the ones not fit to publish.  Over the course of time, I’ve witnessed the deletion of even my most measured comments from the websites of supposedly reputable news sources such as the Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) and ABC online.  I’ve had an article submission rejected by the Idaho Press-Tribune because I referred to homosexuals as deviants, even though that word has a legitimate and fitting definition that need not always be construed as negative.  Never mind the fact that the same paper had published an article by former Idaho governor Phil Batt in which a certain group of people were called “scumbags.”  Objectivity and consistency be damned, these editors seem to be saying.  We don’t want to upset anyone – or at least not anyone who might have enough power and influence to give us trouble.  Print with the prevailing wind!         
Lest I be accused of being ruthless for criticizing the writing efforts of some defenseless high-school kid, I should clarify a couple of things.  First of all, I contend that any person of any age who is enjoying some celebrity status (small town or otherwise) and whose publicly proclaimed views have gained for her or him an opportunity to compete for a cross-country trip and $10,000 in scholarship money ought to be able to handle a bit of backlash.  You wanna write?  Great.  Get accustomed to the idea that not everyone is going to agree with what you write, and some may make their disagreements known.  Secondly, in my own letter I acknowledged the relative inexperience of the person who had instigated the potential controversy, and stated that a considerable portion of the blame for the poorly fleshed-out perspectives in the essay ought to fall on the author’s educators and the contest judges who considered the piece worthy of praise.  Most teenagers – even the award winners – are still parroting much of what they’ve heard from their elder instructors, for better or worse.  I know; I’ve been there… in both positions, actually.
A fact that seems lost on many people (whether children or adults) is that in the end, not everyone can win.  It appears that the long tentacles of politically correct cowardice are reaching ever further into even the most secluded corners of Idaho and the world, and few are wielding weapons in an attempt fight them off, preferring instead to try to please everybody.  In May of this year, the aforementioned small town of Declo (population 300) attracted the attention of none other than the ACLU when school officials had the audacity to declare that boys should wear slacks and girls should wear skirts to a formal event.  If the insidious and seemingly ubiquitous lawsuit-happy busybodies get their way, local tradition-honoring citizens must give in.  And roughly one hundred miles down the road, a man who has supported area businesses, fulfilled his jury duty obligations, and attended or participated in various community events during the course of his eighteen-month residence in Elmore County won’t be allowed to have a well-considered, guideline-adhering letter published due to one person’s misappropriated concern about ruffling a few feathers.  Someone must always go away unrequited, and by desperately trying to avoid taking sides, the powers-that-be assume the default position of aligning themselves with those who are aggressively chipping away at time-tested, respectable, sustainable values.    
Speaking of feathers, my conversation with the editor ended with my assertion that perhaps it was fitting that the Gazette was going the way of the Dodo.  If a newspaper cannot be relied upon to present more than one side of an issue that is of considerable concern to its readership, what is the point of that periodical’s existence?  I doubt that the world really needs more cage lining material (okay; that will be the last of the bird references).  And is it any wonder that the advocates of destructive behavior continue to gain ground in the United States, when even the small towns raise their hands in surrender with nary a whimper?
It has been well said that the only thing that must happen in order for evil to triumph is for people to do nothing.  It is sad that even in a “conservative” state such as Idaho, we are approaching a point where morally inclined people can do nothing, because the positions of power and influence have already been infiltrated by those who are intimidated by any prospect of controversy. 
The student essay to which I attempted to respond depicted the sacrifices of immigrants in centuries past – immigrants who were willing to risk hardship in the hopes of finding a place where they could live free.  It is perhaps fitting that the events I’ve described unfolded at Christmastime, for I am reminded that the minority of the world’s population that is truly willing to risk it all in order to find freedom will one day acquire their heart’s desire in a new land.  The modern metropolis and small town alike will give way to the City of God.  That nation will be no republic or democracy, but a Kingdom whose ruler paid a visit to Earth two millennia ago.  And it will never end. 

If you'd like to read some poetically-expressed thoughts on people-pleasing, feel free to check out Please Let's Not.