Shows like Green Acres.
Green Acres was the story of a lawyer, Oliver Wendell Douglas (that’s how we know he’s a lawyer), who decides to get away from it all by moving to the country. He was a success in the city, but here he is constantly humiliated by the locals upon whom he has made himself dependent. People like Mr. Haney, who had sold him the place, and Sam Drucker, who runs the general store. Even Eb Dawson, his farmhand, seems able to outwit him.
Green Acres is set in Greater Appalachia. It is less a place than a state of mind, a byword for white, rural poverty, the kind Democrats used in the mid-60s to sell Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Nixon and Norman Lear made everything more real. There was a “rural purge” of shows like Green Acres in 1971, poverty became a black and brown thing, and under the Nixon Thesis of Conflict, or Reaganism if you prefer, good people were to recoil from poor folks.
What if you were trying to make Green Acres today?
Most of our world would be easily recognizable to folks a half-century ago – cars are cars, homes are homes, and utilities are utilities. Hooterville, and the countryside surrounding it, would not look familiar. The Internet has transformed society, and made places like this redundant.
If one were creating an updated version of the show, Mr. Douglas would be a dot-com millionaire who could buy and sell the town, Mrs. Douglas a high-priced lawyer who could get his deals through any level of government, and the couple would act as Lords next to the peasants around them, barely acknowledging their existence.
As before, some of the show’s tension would involve the locals’ resentment of Douglas’ wealth, and the Douglas’ ignorance of that resentment. But in this version, the locals would be powerless. Some comedy would come from Douglas’ visiting friends, guest stars trying to open restaurants, coffee bars, B&Bs and art shops in town. There would be Asian or Mexican entrepreneurs, opening new businesses, taking what farm hand jobs that remained, bringing in relatives to work with them. Over time, the resentment would boil over. Mr. Drucker would run the Dollar General with a red hat reading “Make Hooterville Great Again.”
Eb Dawson, the farmhand, would be our breakout character. One week he would be a meth addict, the next week on opiods. Every few weeks a different drug. He would be in and out of rehab. Some weeks he might be stealing things from the Douglases, the next week bringing things back as one of his “steps.” (Often the things would have already been replaced.) He could also go in and out of religions, searching for what is wrong with him. There might be a running gag of him apologizing to “Arnold,” in the form of packaged ham at the Dollar General. The Monroe Brothers might be his dealers, cooking up drugs in their backyard, and everyone else would be excusing him.
I see Hank Kimball as a DEA agent. One week he could be Inspector Javert to Eb’s Jean Valjean, Ralph Monroe singing “I Dreamed a Dream.”
Except for our bigger cities, and our larger university towns, America’s whole countryside is now Greater Appalachia. All the pathologies Trump voters associate with the Inner City – the guns, the drugs, the lack of jobs, the hopelessness – they’re drowning in it. But the people there don’t feel responsible for dealing with the pathology. It’s easier to project it all onto others, to find a politics aimed at deliberately pissing off liberals and to try and send the foreigners away, rather than dealing with the real problems.
Drive through a university town today and you’ll be in a larger version of Green Acres. The professors have their suburban homesteads, there are burger chains for the students and Wal-Marts for the townspeople. They’re little blue dots in a deep red sea.
An interesting fact. Total driving is down this decade. “Experts” thought it was because people were moving closer to work, or because millennials don’t have licenses. Turns out it’s because people in rural areas are driving less. They can’t get to the Wal-Mart. They walk to the Dollar General, which is becoming rural America’s “Korean grocery.” Many of these outlets sell liquor and cigarettes, just like urban convenience stores. The result is a life of rural hopelessness that should have shocked us long before these people voted for Trump.
This illustrates an important point. Science, especially social science, is inexact. That happened in the 1960s as well. Social science told politicians to build high rise apartments for the poor, that it would give them dignity, make them change. It’s good, meaningful work which does that. Poverty is in our hearts, not in our surroundings.
Trying to see this through the prism of comedy might help those of us in TechLand start to understand both what is happening, and how we can help. Family farming is dead, unless it’s highly artisanal, and the “farmers” are urban hipsters who can get top price for their product by selling directly to restaurants or through urban farmers’ markets. Commercial seed is genetically modified, planted without tilling by large machines, and combines handle the harvest as well. Most of the land is in very few hands, or corporate hands in big cities.
Small towns are dead or dying. Their former gatekeepers – real estate agents, insurance agents, bankers – they’ve been replaced by apps. What jobs exist are in prisons and hospitals. The schools suck and they’re an hour away by bus. They’re run by outsiders and the pay is miserable. Newcomers are, like the fictional Douglases, a breed apart, accused of wealth and guilty of education. The same thing that is happening in rural areas is happening in exurbs, even suburbs and smaller cities. The difference is the scene, not the story.
Greater Appalachia is occupied territory. That is why rural-oriented legislators have gerrymandered everything. By denying TechLand the vote, they halt its spread, slow the occupation. Investment that would have been welcomed a half-century ago, because it would bring good factory jobs, is now resisted because if you don’t have high-end skills you can’t earn a living wage. Not many people work in a data center.
Asheville, NC, a few hours’ drive from Atlanta, is an example of what can happen.
I like Asheville. The restaurants are fabulous, and dog-friendly. The streets are filled with middle-aged and aging writers, computer programmers and semi-retired spouses, who have transformed this small city into an island of relative peace and prosperity. Go to the Biltmore Estate, hike the Smokies. There are wineries and art installations. There are jobs for the locals, in tourism, in service businesses, but they’re no longer running the place.
Gerrymandering means that the Asheville vote is split among several districts, the voices of the little blue dot aren’t heard in Raleigh. This gerrymandering extends to the cities as well. Even Raleigh’s voice isn’t heard in Raleigh.
This failure of democracy is slowing the growth of the little blue dots. I think that’s the point for Trumpistanis. Hooterville is determined not to be ruled by the Douglases, even if we are their only hope.