I was listening to a local radio station the other day (99.9 FM The Hawk) and heard an advertisement for McDonald's. In it, a woman explained she used to be one of those "snobby intellectuals" who had been a "Russian major in college" and listened to "baroque chamber music", but thankfully McDonald's (with whatever wonderful offering they happened to have at $1.99) had cured her of all that.
This reminded me of the outpouring of negativity on the local newspaper's forum last summer toward people who buy their coffee at Starbucks (the original article is no longer available for free online, but you can still read the comments here), and, to a lesser extent, those who shop at the upscale open-air mall Promenade Shops (#27 in this page of comments is quite representative of that frame of mind) - to a lesser extent because there's also a movie theater that is extremely popular on the weekends and some affordable stores, so a wide range of people do find a reason to shop there.
I like going to Barnes&Noble and Fresh Market and my most recent discovery, the Life is Good store - obviously since it's an organic-clothing store, the T-shirts are more expensive than at the Gap, and it's a good thing the store is not located in an obvious spot with a lot of foot traffic, otherwise there would be even more hateful comments on public forums. It takes some thick skin to live in this area when you make a decent living for yourself.
Bill Villa at Lehigh Valley Somebody wrote a very thoughtful, eye-opening post in January on that same public forum mentioned above, which is popular precisely because it does not require registration and therefore allows a lot of disgruntled people to spew off their hatred and express their life dissatisfaction by gloating over other people's misfortune as well as (the focus of his post) making all kinds of offensive statements regarding people who are not white. A newspaper columnist justified the paper's stance as follows: "The tremendous traffic on our Web site is a selling point for advertisers and future subscribers. And the [Forum] comments, warts and all, attract a lot of those clicks." In other words, as Villa points out, "hate sells." It didn't occur to anybody that this wasn't doing the Lehigh Valley's image any good.
Villa and his wife became influential bloggers in the Lehigh Valley after Bill Villa's daughter Sheena was killed by a drunk driver in 2006 on the night of her 25th birthday. The way the Lehigh County District Attorney handled the case has pushed Villa to become a prominent voice of dissent who does not answer to the usual "powers that be." As an example, Villa describes the biased reporting in a recent murder case in this brilliant post. Even more shocking was the fact that (Villa alleges) someone who was not one of the blog's owners deleted comments regarding that post, and then wrote about it on the Internet, as explained here.
The man who allegedly did this, according to the Villas, is another Lehigh Valley blogger who's getting a little old to be called middle-aged. (So much for teenage pranksters.) That other blogger, who has a contentious relationship with the Villas, has allowed some disgraceful comments about the deceased young woman to remain posted on his blog, and an anonymous person has repeatedly posted the comments on the Villas' blog too. (They were first posted here, by Anonymous on September 29 at 8.34pm. You can find it by looking up "villa daughter was a mess" in the text. Also read the following comment. Last week a jury awarded the Villas over $3 million in damages for her death.)
The other blogger has also spoken in favor of the drunk driver here (Villa posted a response in the first comment), who he admits in this post "is the son of a prominent local attorney". He also says that "[the attorney's] firm occasionally represents the newspaper" that employs him. Not every grieving family can get the verdict it's hoping for, but the tactics described in the comment starting with "The Man Who Figured Out Martin's Scheme" are a bit over the top, at least for someone who's not from the Valley. Bill Villa has fought courageously so that justice would be done in his daughter's case, which has displeased many people. One wonders whether some have engaged in systematic character assassination as payback for his outspokenness. That has not stopped him so far. (Updated August 2009: For more information on the other blogger, please read this three-part series: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, which describes the shocking behavior for which the other blogger had his law license suspended, back in the days where this son of a one-time Northampton County district attorney was a practicing lawyer. I come from a family uprooted by war and genocide, and it took us decades of hard work to escape the poverty my grandparents had been thrown into. I can only imagine how crushing it was for those blue-collar people to see their own dreams of a better future destroyed by a lawyer’s behavior, especially at a time when they were so vulnerable. Update Jan 2010: charges against Mr Villa brought by the "other blogger" have been dismissed.)
And I don't want to imply Lehigh County is worse than Northampton County, which is the county where Lehigh University is located and where I live (for now). In Norco, the President Judge once said to a former FedEx employee who had stolen some of the packages he was supposed to deliver: "Any shoes? I frequently have things shipped to me by FedEx. I don't want someone else wearing my shoes. That upsets me." (The Express-Times, June 27, 2008), and that's just one example of her many one-liners that found their way into print.
There's been a few times in my years of teaching where a student I didn't particularly like was just above the threshold for this or that grade after the project or the final exam, and I could easily have given him or her the lower grade without the person ever realizing what had happened, just because I could. Every single time, I took a deep breath and gave the student the higher grade, because he had scored above the threshold and those were my rules. I don't need to negatively affect other people's lives to feel good about myself. That's my problem: I think I might have too much integrity for the Lehigh Valley. I really liked it for the first 2 1/2 years but that was before I knew what kind of people lived here.
I'm not going to pretend life is fun in the Valley for people who happen to take pride in being intellectuals. The fact that the Lehigh Valley has chosen to emphasize tourism for its renewal after the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy (positioning Bethlehem as the Christmas City, opening a casino) also suggests the locals are a lot more comfortable with taking the money of people they don't live with as their business model, and view minimum-wages jobs as a normalcy. (I haven't even talked about all the resentment toward Lehigh University yet, but this post is becoming a bit long.) With my PhD from MIT, I'm so completely out-of-place it'd be hilarious if it weren't so sad.
And yes, to go back to that McDonald's advertisement, I did study Russian in college, although I didn't major in it, and I happen to have liked it a lot. It's useful, even in the Lehigh Valley - for instance, you can notice a bit of a resemblance between the Lehigh County DA and Boris Yeltsin at the end of his years in power. I don't listen to baroque chamber music, but hopefully going to the opera compensates for that - I'm really keen on my title of snobby intellectual. It's a matter of pride for me not to be liked by people who don't share my values.
The real issue is, if people at the top of the power scale care so much about looking good and people at the bottom are so bitter, maybe I'd be better off elsewhere, because here I'm well aware that I'm on my own. That's life. I understand now why many young professors at Lehigh live in Lansdale (much closer to Philly) or off Route 78 in New Jersey. Several people have told me "we need more people like you here," but there's a big difference between need and want. The Lehigh Valley doesn't want people like me. I can't blame them - we're a disruption to the existing power order, especially those of us who look like students and turn out to be professors with too much idealism for their own sake. At some level, I'm not even sure the Lehigh Valley wants Lehigh University. The students are just a constant reminder that some people are well on their way toward a successful life away from here.
So I had an epiphany a few days ago: I am going to write a novel about this town. I can't believe I didn't think about it before. This is going to be so much fun, once I get around to it - I even have a couple of story lines in mind, but I have to finish my current projects first.