Licking the Taboo

In the run-up to the 2010 elections, a divorce and midlife crisis steers William Lang Jr., a forty-one-year-old freelance journalist and diehard New Yorker, away from NYC to a small rural town in upper New York State. Having  taken on an assumed identity as Jack Stone, his right-wing alter ego, he settles in for a year among the conservative residents of Littleton, a one-street town. Except for the occasional letter back home, he cuts himself off from his former life and throws himself headlong into experiencing the new one he plans to write about.

A journey that begins with preconceived notions about “small town” Americans careens unexpectedly when William disregards the cultural taboos that keep liberals and conservatives apart.  Drawn into a relationship with Sue Ellen, a Littleton townie, his world is turned upside down as he lives-out the stresses at the heart of the nation’s cultural divide.

What does it mean to be an American these days? Asking this simple question boomeranged in an unexpected way. Separating this New Yorker, who lived on a perch overlooking Central Park West, from the three hundred million Americans dispersed across the continent proved more difficult than it seemed. Looking west across the Hudson, the divides out there had to be artificial, just cartographer lines drawn on a page, or so I’d believed. Perhaps my civics lessons went too well in school. E Pluribus Unum meant something beyond the Latin jargon on the backs of coins. The seed of this expression had been inscribed in the nation’s founding documents by thoughtful men, sons of the Enlightenment, and passed down through the generations to us all. Those parchments written in such a careful hand on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives ring as true today as ever. 

Notions of civic responsibility swirled around in my head while I watched two public officials locked in a crazed 2010 pre-election debate on cable television. Coarse men vied to be our representatives, custodians of our democracy. I shut off the TV and sat in the dark apartment contemplating America and my place in it. 

Three friends were with me when I broached the perfectly legitimate basis for my next journalism project—a year of living in a Podunk town in western New York State to see how people on “the other side” of the political and social divide live. My friends thought I’d gone completely off my rocker, yet my idea seemed tame when compared to what reporters embedded in Marine units along the Afghanistan/Pakistan frontier were doing to bring us the story of our military adventures overseas. My friends eagerly consumed the unfiltered reports from the battlefront, but knocked my more tame ambitions. Believing the threats on the domestic front were potentially as destabilizing to the nation as those originating on foreign shores, undeterred by my friends’ objections, in spring 2010 I began my journey. 

What follows are this New York City reporter’s twelve-month findings of what it means to be a liberal American living among the conservative residents of Littleton, N.Y.