Try Tolerance in a Small Town

It’s been a long time since I cared about a country song. Perhaps that’s because when I heard Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather” back in 2010, I thought that country music would never, ever achieve such greatness again, so I tuned it out. (I was never much of a country fan in the first place.) But just when I thought I was out, country music pulled me back in — alas, this time for culture-war reasons. The latest angry new controversy centers on a country song, Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town.”

If you haven’t followed the fight, it’s simple enough to explain. Aldean released a song that seems to endorse small-town vigilante violence. If you “carjack an old lady,” for example, or “cuss out a cop” or “stomp on the flag,” Aldean warns, that “might fly in the city,” adding an expletive. But in a small town you’ll face potential consequences from “good ol’ boys, raised up right” to a possible meeting with “a gun that my granddad gave me.”

To make matters worse, Aldean filmed his music video for the song in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn. Like many small towns in the South, it turns out Columbia has a terrifying history of racist violence, including a 1927 lynching and a 1946 race riot that “nearly resulted in the lynching of Thurgood Marshall.”

I want to give Aldean the benefit of the doubt. I’ve seen no evidence that he selected the site because of its history. Columbia is one of the closest small towns to Nashville, so it’s quite likely the town was chosen more for its convenience than for its history. But still, that history hits home.

I lived in Maury County for 12 years. That’s where my kids spent most of their school years. My parents have a farm in the county and live in Columbia. That was one stop in my small-town-Southern life. I was born in Opelika, Ala. (population: roughly 19,000 at the time), and raised in Georgetown, Ky. (population: about 10,000 when we moved there). And my kids spent most of their childhoods living in a house in the countryside, closer to Mount Pleasant (2020 population: 4,784) than to Columbia (2022 population: 45,792). Most of these places might be cities to the Census Bureau, but to the rest of us they are towns — small places with their own distinct histories.

But I don’t want to talk about Aldean’s song as much as I want to talk about small towns and the latest installment in our distressing tendency to pull everything into the American culture wars, including geography. America is now decades into the “Big Sort,” the name the journalist Bill Bishop has given to the tendency of like-minded Americans to cluster together. The dynamic is one of the dominant features of our politics and our culture. White, rural America is very, very red. Diverse, urban America is very, very blue.

The result is a series of starkly different experiences for different American populations that directly depends on whether you’re an outsider or an insider. And nowhere is that more apparent than in America’s small towns.

There was a time when I was an unabashed defender of small-town American life. I had a marvelous childhood growing up in Georgetown. I spent wonderful days as a kid visiting my grandmother in the tiny town of Byhalia, Miss. My own kids were deeply connected to their church, their school and their community in Columbia. But like the fish that doesn’t know that it’s wet, I didn’t realize how much my experience, and that of my family, was shaped by our status.

My grandfather was a respected middle school principal in Columbia. My grandmother was such a pillar of the community in Byhalia that city leaders named the local library after her. And while I didn’t always fit in perfectly in Georgetown, it wasn’t that hard to grow up as a conservative Republican in rural Kentucky.

But I now have a different view of small towns, one based in part on how they sometimes treat those they perceive as outsiders. Because I’ve had that experience as well, and it can be grim enough that it makes you listen to Aldean’s song not as a silly, celebratory “bro-country” anthem, but rather as an exaggerated version of the exclusion and rejection that all too many people feel.

Over the course of our 12 years in Columbia, my family slowly but surely progressed from insiders to outsiders, beginning with the adoption of our youngest daughter, a beautiful girl from Ethiopia. My other two children, who are blond with blue eyes, were never followed by store employees; my youngest daughter was. My older kids were never told by their schoolmates that parents didn’t allow them to play with “kids like you,” or that it wasn’t “safe” to come to their house. Or that their “muddy” faces weren’t welcome on a hayride at a local farm. My youngest daughter has had all those experiences. She has also been told that slavery was necessary to “help” Black people to be ready for life in America.

No, none of this came from our friends, who were appalled right along with us. But we were forced to see a different part of our community, one that made our family feel far less like we were truly at home.

And it got worse later, when politics was layered on top of race. I don’t want to rehash the harassment that took place after I left the Republican Party and emerged as a Never Trumper. But it was incredibly jolting to suddenly feel as if my wife and I couldn’t walk into our own church or our kids’ schools without risking direct confrontations. There were people who would literally turn their backs on us rather than speak to us.

And that’s when I realized a truth that should have been blindingly obvious from the start: The measure of a community isn’t how it treats insiders, but rather how it treats outsiders. It is easy to be kind to your friends and allies. And when you experience that kindness, it can turn a small-town community into something like a security blanket. This is where you belong. But when you experience cruelty, a small town can be something else entirely. It can make you feel trapped and uneasy, as if there is no place to rest, as if your home isn’t truly your home.

What is your experience like if you’re the only Black or brown person in a sea of white? What is your experience if your household is a blue island in a red ocean, or a red island in a blue ocean? How much grace is extended to you when you fall or stumble? How much tolerance do you experience when you disagree? That is the measure of a place, not its love for its favorite daughters and sons.

I don’t write this to pick on small towns. (Just this week, my mother wrote a touching letter to the editor of The Tennessean outlining many of the good things that are happening in Columbia.) I’ve seen the same dynamic play out in urban subcultures and on college campuses, which are often small, insular towns all their own. I’ve been the red island in a blue ocean, and I have the scars to prove it.

I fear that we’re trapped in a vicious cycle. As communities grow less tolerant of dissent, they drive out dissenters. The dissenters flee to places that welcome their points of view — and then often become just as intolerant as the ideologues in their former homes.

I’m not the only one who recognizes the ways in which small towns can feel as though they’ve turned against you. I started this newsletter with one Jason Aldean song, so I’ll close it with another. “Try That in a Small Town” isn’t his only song explicitly about small-town life. He has another, “Rearview Town,” and its lyrics are profoundly different. “I’m outta here,” he sings, “Looked in the mirror one last time / and watched it disappear.” A few brief references make it clear that it is not politics or ideology but rather an unhappy breakup that has soured the singer on his former home. But the sentiment of feeling trapped and unwelcome is eerily similar: “I could tough it out, but what’s the use? A place that small, it’s hard to do.”

That’s what happens when a small town withholds its sense of community and acceptance. It becomes someone else’s “rearview town,” and our polarization continues apace. It’s easy to recognize that insular reality in communities far away, in places we perceive as believing different things from what we believe ourselves. What’s important is to recognize that reality in our own communities as well. It’s empty to critique life elsewhere if our own cities and towns don’t model a better way.

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