Last autumn, one of my neighbours, Kenneth Payne, fortified by the courage available at one of our local bars, loaded his shotgun, walked across the road to the trailer home of best buddy Curtis Cook and emptied both barrels into Cook’s stomach.
While his friend bled to death, Kenneth sat down on his porch and telephoned a local family to say ‘no one’s going to bother your little girl anymore’. Kenneth claimed that Curtis had, earlier in the evening, confessed to molesting the neighbour’s eight-year-old child.
The next day, our town’s burghers ran out to tell curious metropolitan reporters ‘things like that don’t happen here’. Really? No local mentioned the story of our school headmaster’s daughter, who hid her pregnancy from her parents then drowned her child right after it’s birth.
What kind of monstrous hamlet do I live in? While few Americans have heard of it, you probably know it as the congenial, rural town lionised on BBC radio’s Letter from America, broadcast by Alistair Cooke, one of our few unarmed residents.
Like Alistair, I have made shameless use of the cartoon imagery of this convenient exemplar of unspoilt small town America. A few months ago, I wrote of our town’s heroic struggle to block McDonald’s opening a restaurant, a threat to our quaint rural character. The way I told it, we were gloriously defeated by the McLawyers who bullied us into bending our preservation laws.
I left out of the story the fact that our defence was sabotaged from within by some members of that fifth column of small businessmen found in every American town – the local real estate agents, shopkeepers and farmers who hoped to turn a quick buck on their properties once the planning rules were breached and broken.
I’ve written scores of bad-tempered columns about the brutish ways of America’s biggest businesses. That viewpoint is admittedly a bit unbalanced. To be fair, we must recognise that for sheer narrow-minded, corrosive greed nothing can beat the USA’s grasping, whingeing small businessmen.
And within that avaricious little pack, none are so poisonously self-centred and incorrigible as the small town businessmen of rural America.
During the presidential debates, Al Gore opened the bidding to win this pampered demographic by promising to slash inheritance taxes ‘to save our family farms and businesses’. Right now, if you inherit a farm or business worth up to $2.6 million (£1.8 million) you pay no tax at all. But that’s just not enough for what the fawning candidates call ‘local entrepreneurs’. Gore promised to raise the exemption to $4 million – only to be trumped by George W Bush, who would wipe away inheritance taxes altogether.
This group is the same that defeated Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1993 proposal to require all businesses to provide bare-bones health insurance for their employees, an expenditure of only 35 cents (23p) per hour.
Fortune 500 corporations expressed few qualms about the mandatory insurance plan as most big firms already provide some health care coverage for their employees. It was the swarm of Lilliputian entrepreneurs, under the aegis of their National Federation of Independent Businesses, who blocked the Clintons’ modest attempt to end medical care apartheid in America.
You name it – maternity leave, minimum wage, even health and safety inspections and rules barring racism in hiring – any meagre proposal to protect the lives and families of working people, and the NFIB’s small businesses legions have their swords out.
But we must never say so. Gore can shoot at big tobacco and big oil, Bush can vilify teachers and union workers, but any politician who breathes a word against rural businesses, farmers or the NFIB’s Scrooge battalions ends up as electoral roadkill.
Ten years ago, our town convinced a charitable foundation to pay for experts from Britain to tell us how to preserve our area’s rural character. We held meetings, referenda, elections. It was that active small town American democracy that makes the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland ga-ga with envy. At the end, the town voted overwhelmingly to adopt what became known as the UK Stewardship Plan to protect our green fields and prevent ugly sprawl.
Come by my town today and count the pustules of strip malls and fluorescent signs directing you to Bagels Hot, Cars Like New No Down-Payment, and Dog Burger where corn fields once stood.
Sensible British designs and a preservation-minded electorate could not overcome the me-first obstructionism of a hard core of small businessmen and farmers lusting to sell off their land to McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and housing speculators.
I wouldn’t equate rural shotgun murders and child molesting with the small town businessman’s penchant for despoiling the rural landscape. But they are covered over by the same cowardly silence. No politician, local or national, has the guts to break though the mythology of the struggling local businessman who cares and sacrifices for his community. This folkloric invention approaches saintliness when the discussion turns to rural, small town America with its treacly images of barbershop quartets, Farmer Brown on his tractor and the Main Street parade after the strawberry harvest.
What makes challenging this myth of happy small-town America off-limits is that it provides pleasant code words for the ugliest corner of the American psyche.
When politicians talk about ‘small-town American values’, ‘family values’ and the ‘hard-working small businessman’ everyone knows the colour of that town, that family and that businessman: white.
Pleasantville USA is implicitly placed against the urban jungle populated at the bottom by dark-skinned muggers and pregnant teenagers on the dole, and at the top by Jewish financiers of Hollywood pornography.
It would dangerously undermine this politically useful imagery if the public were reminded that small towns are filled with pale-faced citizens despairing and dangerous as any in the inner cities.
Nor could the NFIB win those special exemptions from taxes and planning regulations for small business and farms if they were not seen as struggling defenders of local communities but dollar-crazed and duplicitous operators who wouldn’t care if McDonald’s put a drive-though in the Lincoln Memorial.
Britain is not exempt from the political bullying power of small-town commercial cliques. It was sick-making to read of the Department of Environment’s proposal to remove 80 per cent of England and Wales from the Areas of Special Control of Advertising which, until now, protected the countryside from billboards. This is the first step in the Government’s loosening of rural planning strictures.
The DETR’s advisory quango, the Countryside Agency, last week dismissed preservationists fears as ‘a nostalgic yearning for a countryside that is long gone. You need to look forward if the countryside is to have vitality in the future’.
What is this ‘future’ that is so wonderful that you have to rush there at high speed, that requires billboards for Toys R’ Us? I’ve seen your future. It’s called America. I live there, among Taco Bell and Happy Meals.
Every landscape we build, wrote psychologist Norman O Brown, is our recreation of the interior of our mothers’ bodies. What does it say about Americans that when we look out over a natural vista we are seized with psychic anguish if we cannot locate a throbbing neon sign flashing Pizza hot!
And what makes that vision so irresistible to John Prescott and his sub-ministers? In our little town, it was George, the owner of the local lumber yard, who proudly organised successful business opposition to the UK Stewardship plan. With dollar signs in his eyes, he welcomed the McDonald’s and the boxy shopping mall that replaced several hundred acres of raspberry fields.
But small-town Georges forget that when they break down government regulations, it is big business that gleefully rushes through the breach.
This month, George was stunned by the announcement that Home Depot, the Wal-Mart of DIY stores, would replace a nearby corn field. And that means George is out of business. In small-town, neighbourly manner, I expressed my sympathy to George. If I were a better person, I would have meant it.
Gregory Palast writes the award-winning column, “Inside Corporate America” fortnightly in Britain’s Sunday newspaper, The Observer, part of the Guardian Media Group, where this first appeared. For comments or request to reprint, contact: www.gregpalast.com