“We live in a culture of disrespect.” “How can we stop the bullies?” These were the messages I took away from my first encounter with Fredericktown, Missouri last January, so it was with absolutely no illusions that I decided to work there.
For the past three months I've been humping around Madison County, Missouri, which is filled with natural beauty and plenty of wonderful people, establishing a free alternative community newspaper, or more accurately, reviving one that had gone defunct...twice. It's been a lot of hard work, not particularly remunerative, and frankly, has soon grown tiresome, at least the part walking on eggshells trying not to piss off the local bullies, who are numerous, and who themselves live to be pissed off. Then they know that something has happened to them, and they feel alive. They do a pile on, quickly quashing whatever possibility of alterity or dissent that might be in the air or building on the ground, and that's a good day. They have many good days.
Fredericktown, which is the county seat, is somewhat tragic; the people are largely there by default, and it's one of those “communities” that have been completely written off by the power brokers. Local U.S. Congresswoman JoAnn Emerson brought exactly zero dollars in earmarks back to Madison County in the last congress, yet they seem to adore her. She manipulates them with demagoguery 101 on the gun control issue and they buy it hook, line and sinker while she delivers nothing, zero. Cape Girardeau flourishes relatively speaking from her largesse, Farmington too, but not Madison County. There's no need to give Madison County anything; they wouldn't confront power if their lives depended on it (which they do), though there's every kind of privation. That is one of The Crier's crimes to be sure, bringing those privations to the attention of the readers, as well as her indifference to them.
People in Fredericktown are fond of talking about community pride, you hear it all the time, but seem to spend most of their waking hours canceling out each other's efforts, so little real progress is ever made. A predatory lender comes to town, they rent one of the prettiest buildings in the historic downtown and the local Chamber of Commerce hosts a ribbon-cutting. It's a death knell for the town, they know it, and they celebrate it because “at least the building's not empty any more.” One resale shop closes, a new junk store opens. Oh look the buildings are filling up! The few stores with quality merchandise beg for custom, while bling and kitsch rule. They commence the Fredericktown Revival Initiative, bore everyone to death with endless meetings, and take little action achieving a pittance of forward movement, completely disproportionate to the effort and time invested. They create a wonderful social space gallery called The Loft, and few people come, the walls where artworks used to hang are now empty, and so on.
We were hitting it out of the park with the paper, each issue finer than the previous one, but ad dollars were stagnant; we had the appearance of growth (new ads each issue) but no actual growth because just as many would “take a break.” Frustrating, and a lens that got my attention. Meanwhile, I was increasing circulation (warranted by the demand), translating articles into Spanish, planning extraordinary community events (now canceled because of the brouhaha). We lavished our intelligence and creativity on our readers, offered every kind of beauty and made many people smile. People got out their dictionaries, dusting them off, they told me so. That made me smile.
But the bullies, the miserable self-defeating bullies, were just biding their time. Could they ever really be open to the project of growth, which requires tolerance of and respect for diversity of opinion and modes of expression, or were they just waiting to pounce? I had begun to wonder. It very much felt like the latter. A mere toenail over the line, their line of military sacrosanctness, and we're finding out. Every other place I've ever lived parents organize to prevent military recruiters from preying on their youngsters. In Fredericktown they organize against the paper for suggesting that they should. In other places, parents simply don't allow the military to reach into their schools to indoctrinate their children. In Fredericktown they applied for it! and the JROTC program is considered to be just another club for the kids to choose from in the high school. Question its value in the newspaper and the very idea is met with outrage, advertisers are called by the high school drill sergeant, I'm told, threatened with boycotts. “High school drill sergeant” —what a chilling collection of words to my ears. In Fredericktown it's completely accepted as normal, and no alternative perspective is allowed, period, the end.
The other grave offense. A young marine graduates from boot camp, to even suggest a wish for a safer way forward is viewed universally as “disrespect.” Much is made of the fact that I didn't ask permission of those who submitted the announcement to alter it with a message of peace and love. I wasn't a good girl, I didn't ask mommy and daddy. The bullies didn't much like that, hierarchy and power relations (masked as manners) must not be upset. No new currents of thought can be introduced, it's not polite! Very big word around there, disrespect; they're always on the lookout for it, and always manage to find it when confronting a situation that might otherwise require thought, or action, most especially change. Hiding behind the outrage of offense to avoid confronting the possibility that other less violence-filled futures are possible, and even desirable. Good work, Fredericktown! (with an all-too-predictable assist from Bonne Terre, another foresaken hamlet that is answering its own question of to be or not to be? with a shrug and a Jagermeister).
Friends in Farmington had warned me that it was useless to try anything even remotely progressive in Fredericktown, that they were 100% committed to their downhill trajectory. “Fredericktown is Fredericktown,” people here say. “It'll never change. It's why they don't prosper.” Even before the first issue was ever printed a friend down thataway told me that revitalizing the paper “would be like putting jet fuel in a lawnmower.” I heard them but I like the tough cases, I learn the most from them. And to tell you the truth I still have some hope for Fredericktown, though I have to say it's not looking very good for The Crier's continuation at this moment, to say the least. On our own Facebook page I've been called a cunt, even worse, a “bloomberg cunt” (a reference to the mayor of New York City for those who are wondering). That one especially made me laugh. Even so, I am happy to continue the paper if it would be possible to do so, to continue to bring intelligence and reason, variety and diversity to the readers. But I am not willing for my efforts and the efforts of the amazing writers assembled under The Crier's masthead to merely decorate a town unwilling to truly support the paper, which would mean occasionally holding up their long and sacredly held beliefs to the light of day to see if they're in still intact.
Everyone knows what really happened, even if they prefer not to admit it. I challenged them on something vitally important (their children's lives and futures) and when they tried to blow me away with their collective outrage rather than consider the substance of the challenge, I didn't flinch. Not backing down, they wanted me to apologize for wishing for peace on this young man and all the other young men and women who might chance upon the announcement. Along with their town's dignity, they can count the paper, if it goes that way, as yet another of their losses. Whether they value it or not, it's theirs.
To the serious and dedicated people down there working tirelessly for years, decades, to improve things, and there are many of them, I may have stumbled upon the answer to their question: How to revive Fredericktown? Piss them off! Their indignation seems to be the only thing that really gets them going; (they're hurting so much) it's the only thing they can believe in.