My Hometown Has the Key To a More Peaceful America
I grew up in Booker, Texas. Booker is a tiny farm town in the Texas panhandle with no stoplight, no Dairy Queen, and no real industry that isn’t tied directly to the Earth. I have been reflecting on Booker while watching the presidential election and our deteriorating national dialog recently. In fact, I often think of Booker when big news breaks. I wonder how the news would play there. I wonder how Booker would handle riots, protests, and terrorism.
The thing is, we didn’t have any of those things in Booker. In all the time I lived there, I don’t remember any violent crime, no political uprisings, and not a single riot. Booker is the kind of place where people don’t lock their front doors. We used to leave our car keys in the ignition overnight. One local shop owner used to leave his store open and unattended during the day with a wooden box serving as cashier and a sign that read, “Please pay the marked price. We operate on an honor system.” No one in Booker breaks into someone’s home, because if they did, they would be greeted by name. And that’s just awkward for a burglar.
I realize that Booker is an incredibly small sample size: per capita crime may not be much different in rural areas than it is in cities. And I realize that absence of open conflict is not always a good thing: sometimes uprisings are necessary to overthrow oppression. But I think there was one more factor that kept Booker a safe place: personal access. In Booker, we knew our neighbors. In fact, everyone in town was only one or two degrees separated from everyone else.
- That guy bagging your groceries? Your kids are friends with his kids.
- The cop who pulled you over last week? He sits in front of you at church.
- The neighbor across the alley who plays loud music late at night? Last fall he loaned you his trailer to help finish the float for the homecoming parade.
This is how relationships work in small towns. It’s not that everyone is friends with everyone else, nor that everyone lives or believes the same way. But everyone is aware of everyone else. Aware of their humanity. Aware that they don’t exist apart from their families, their common fears. And this awareness makes it much harder to “other” people. Suspicion starves in connected communities.
I think Americans need to treat one another like we did in Booker. It’s not just moral decline or political corruption that have led to our volatile national ethos. Anonymity has played a big role. There’s a reason we behave more badly while driving than we do while meeting someone face-to-face. Our cars and IP addresses and gated communities give us a level of anonymity that incubates a license to misbehave. Likewise, there’s a reason we were surprised at Donald Trump’s election victory: people did something in the privacy of a ballot box that they wouldn’t cop to in public. When we are disconnected from the common we are emboldened to forsake the common good.
Maybe I’m naive. Or maybe you can take the boy out of Booker, but not Booker out of the boy. But it is my strong belief that all of our American factions would find deeper peace if they only knew one another. My red-dirt rural relatives wouldn’t be so prone to liberal bashing if they actually knew some liberals. My fellow church-goers would be less homophobic if they had more gay friends. My agnostic college buddy would be less skeptical about people of faith if I wasn’t the only Jesus-follower in his life. Who knows? Maybe even Trump and Hillary supporters could get along if they shared a blanket on the cold bleachers at a Friday night football game.
I’ll admit it: I may be prone to idealizing my hometown. Heaven knows it has its share of problems which I have not included in this post. But if there’s something Booker gets right, it’s known-ness; a connectedness that is tragically absent from our current cultural experience.