Tuesday, July 25, 2023

An unforced error in a small town

 One of the latest kerfuffles to erupt regards Jason Aldean’s country song, “Try That In a Small Town.” The song itself is pretty forgettable but the setting for the music video has caused problems because of its connection to a lynching which does not pair well with the video’s depiction of scenes from the BLM protests.

Photo credit: YouTube screenshot (fair use)

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While the lyrics to the song talk about the seamier side of city life, they don’t explicitly mention race. Instead, Aldean recites a litany of crimes and offensive behavior of city folks:

Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
Ya think it's cool, well, act a fool if ya like

Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, ya think you're tough

Beyond the first couple of stanzas, the song is pretty much repetitive tough talk about what the “good ol' boys, raised up right” will do to city dwellers who try that stuff in their small towns. It’s a macho, chest-thumping message that isn’t for everyone, but okay.

The bigger problem that the setting for the video is the county courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee. This building in the county seat of Maury County was also the setting for an unfortunate event in 1927, and that’s where the controversy comes in.

As NBC News explains, in 1927, Henry Choate, an 18-year-old black man was accused of assaulting a 16-year-old white girl. Choate was jailed in Columbia, but a white mob broke him out of his cell, dragged him through town behind a car, and eventually lynched him in front of the same courthouse that provided Aldean’s backdrop. Taken together with the lyrics and pictures that allude to the BLM protests, many see a sinister side to the song.

In a tweet, Aldead defended the song and video, “These references are not only meritless but dangerous. There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it- and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage -and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music- this one goes too far.”

Aldean goes on to say, “‘Try That In A Small Town,’ for me, refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief. Because they were our neighbors, and that was above any differences.”

I’m a small-town guy myself, but to me, it’s a bit troubling that Aldean’s view of small-town community involves taking the law into his hands to force violence on outsiders. This isn’t real community, but a parody of it.

Rather than being the “Andy Griffith Show,” Aldean’s song and video are more like “The Hills Have Eyes” or “Deliverance.” The image of angry, rifle-toting rednecks isn’t really an image that most small towns want to convey these days.

America isn’t about small towns fighting big cities. The most unity that I can remember in America was after September 11 when small towns and big cities pulled together to help the victims of the terror attacks. Small town firefighters traveled to Manhattan and around the country people donated blood and prayed for the survivors and the families of the victims. Since then, I’ve seen that pattern repeated as Americans rally to help their brothers and sisters who have experienced disasters. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I saw Americans from towns of all of sizes load trucks with relief supplies and head to Houston. Now that is community.

As the artist formerly known as John Cougar Mellencamp sang in a much better ode to small towns, “Got nothing against a big town… But my bed is in a small town, and that's good enough for me.”

I don’t know whether Aldean was aware of Maury County’s sordid history when he filmed his video, but as much as I like small-town life, there can be a dark side to small towns.

Anyone who has ever moved into a small town from the outside knows how distrustful and cliquish small towns can be. If you aren’t from there, it can be really hard to become accepted. The cliques have the backs of their members but not necessarily everyone.

And yes, small towns can be violent and corrupt. Back when I wrote for The Resurgent, my wife was featured in one of my articles in which she detailed how a small-town police force seemed to have covered up her rape by a local basketball star. Sometimes, it isn’t that bad things don’t happen in small towns, but rather that they don’t get talked about.

All too often, as in Columbia, a lot of the violence that didn’t get talked about was violence against blacks. In many small towns, there was a lot of overlap between the local police and the Ku Klux Klan. They had each other’s backs but no one had the back of black men like Henry Choate.

When you combine those two factors, you find that small towns may not really be as safe and community-driven as Aldean’s lyrics would have us believe. In fact, statistics tell us that on a per capita basis (that is, when the data are adjusted for population size) small towns can be more violent than big cities.

Per a recent study by NeighborhoodScout that uses the most recent census and FBI crime data, the most violent town (of more than 25,000 people) in the country is Bessemer, Alabama. The suburb of Birmingham has just over 25,000 residents and has a violent crime rate of 33.1. This means that your odds of being a victim of a violent crime are about one in 30. New York and San Francisco don’t even make the top 100.

Sure, Bessemer’s eight murders seem like a lot less than the 462 reported in New York City, but when Bessemer’s smaller population is taken into account, Bessemer residents are much more likely to be directly affected by violent crime than a New Yorker.

And Bessemer isn’t an isolated example. Three of the top 10 most violent cities on the list are in Alabama and eight are in the South. Small towns have some serious problems.

Granted, these statistics are for towns with more than 25,000 people, but smaller towns can be violent as well. The small town where I grew up, population 4,500, has had at least three murders and a seemingly random shooting in the past couple of years. That small number of total crimes among a small number of people makes it a very violent place statistically speaking.

So Jason Aldean presents an idealized version of small-town unity to begin with, but that’s his right as an artist. On the other hand, CMT has the right to remove his video from their rotation. That’s their right as well. It’s not a First Amendment violation or censorship or cancel culture. It’s a private company’s decision on how to run their network.

I’m willing to give Aldean the benefit of the doubt on his song. His production company says that he didn’t pick the location and the people involved may not have even been aware of the location’s history of lynching. Whatever the truth, Aldean is benefitting greatly from the controversy with streams up 999 percent and the song debuting at number two.

And if Aldean’s fans want to post memes marking them “safe from being offended by a country song” while simultaneously being snowflakes about the Barbie movie or a Bud Light commercial or the fact that Snow White isn’t white in a new version of the old story, that’s their right as well.

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But that brings us to the unforced error. This didn’t have to become a political issue. Republicans are now rushing to defend Aldean, a man who doesn’t really need a defense. At worst, Aldean is racist whose song is a dog whistle. At best, it’s a mediocre song with an unfortunate connection to a racist incident. Either way, Aldean is profiting quite handsomely.

But what do Republicans hope to gain from the incident? Maybe it’s a rally-the-base issue, but at some point rallying the base can become counterproductive to winning over new voters. That seems to be the case when Republicans rush to defend people accused of racism without regard for facts and appearances.

And that seems to be what Republicans almost always do. I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when the party criticized racist behavior. It may be that the last time was in 2019 when they mostly abandoned Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican congressman infamous for his racist comments.

On the one hand, Republicans need and seem to want to do better with minorities. On the other hand, they reflexively jump to the aid of people accused, often credibly, of racism. That’s a problem for the party in that they are throwing up roadblocks that prevent minorities from supporting them.

In 2020, most Republicans couldn’t bring themselves to utter the words, “Black Lives Matter,” and even today most have trouble acknowledging that black Americans have legitimate and unique concerns. Tim Scott, one of the few black Republicans, is also one of the few Republicans to be overtly sympathetic to black concerns about police.

I’m going to give Republicans some free and unsolicited advice: If you want to win support from black and other minority voters, stop doing things that make you look racist.

Remember that politics is, to a great extent, about perception. You may have the greatest ideas in the world, but if people think that you hate them, they aren’t going to give you a chance. It’s difficult to convey how cringy it is when white Republicans start explaining to minorities that they shouldn’t be offended by something that seems racist. That also goes for pushing stories that allege black racism or decry encroachments on white territory. See the Fox News’ coverage of “Snow White” mentioned above for an example.

At the very least, Republicans should just stop to think about how they sound to people who aren’t part of the Fox News set. Of course, I do believe that for some (on both sides) being offensive is the point. And others are just too deeply into their bubbles to know they’re being offensive.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Republicans need to get out and march with BLM protesters, but not rushing to defend everyone accused of racism would be a good start. In many cases, as in this one, it’s possible and even advisable to simply say nothing. And as Steve Berman wrote yesterday, don’t defend slavery (the same advice applies to defending and quoting Hitler). Just don’t. This is really the low-hanging fruit of racial politics and Republicans are still mucking it up.

If Jason Aldean wants to defend a song and video that have racial overtones for many, he is free to do so. Republicans, on the other hand, have no obligation to further muddy their reputation by getting involved in the spat. If they can profess neutrality with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they can be neutral in a fuss between a celebrity and the media. If they can remain silent about Donald Trump’s crimes, they can remain silent about a country music video.

And if they want to show their fealty to small-town life, they can sing the Mellencamp lyrics that describe a small-town utopia much better than Aldean’s combative words:

Educated in a small town
Taught to fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic, that's me

This, not grabbing your gun to fight off city folks, is the idyllic picture of small town life.

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