The Rural Purge

In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuahn refers to America as a culture where

the death of all the salesmen at one stroke of the TV axe has turned the hot American culture into a cool one that is quite unacquainted with itself.

Now, I think that he’s wrong, because hey. Disagreeing with McLuahn in general is kind of how you get started in media studies, even as you recognise the dude was right about a lot of stuff. Still I think he’s wrong in the idea that TV, in the 1960s, represented the death of salesmen (because sales and advertising are very different creatures).

Anyway, what he does touch on well is the idea that America, in the post-TV world, was transformed so that television was the method it used to examine itself. And now we’re going to talk, very quickly, about the Rural Purge.

The Rural Purge was, if you don’t want to click the link, an event where a bunch of TV shows that were reasonably popular and appreciated by the non-city dwelling American populace were cancelled, and they were replaced with stories seen as being more ‘urban.’ There’s something of a conspiracy theory around it, where there were conservative rurals of the time convinced that it was part of an attempt to erase them or destroy them politically. It’s much more likely in hindsight that it was an attempt to chase marketing and advertising dollars in the suburban areas.

McLuahn looked at an America transformed in the 50s and 60s by the presence of television, where America used television to form a self-image. From his perspective, then, the Rural Purge carried through on the autoamputation of media. People of the rural south could no longer see themselves in media, could not see themselves represented, and in so doing, could not trust the view of the world their televisions showed them. They were showing them ideas and ideologies and spaces that were alien. To McLuahn’s view, it’s very simple: By making the rural people invisible, television had excluded them from its own visual media. This follows upon that these people, these hardworking people, resent and hate the people of the cities for being ‘properly’ represented in media, and hate the media for making that choice.

In this way, the medium as a method for delivering advertising had acted in response to its incentive – money – and so doing, created a long-term distrust and shockwave that McLuahn would consider a medium unto itself. You could tell stories in the shape of that resentment.


Ta-Nahisi Coates writes about one technique of white supremacy is that it turns whatever terrible thing it’s doing into a virtue. Slave owners would complain about the burden of maintaining slaves, of caring for them, because they were incapable of caring for themselves. In the first suburbs, white rioters started fires and threw dynamite at buildings because the black people were lowering their property values. Right now, cops are shooting teenagers, and blaming it on those teenagers lacking trust in the police.

I wonder about this.

Right now, the most successful cable channel is the one that caters pretty heavily to aggrieved self-identifying white people. And that body of people are people who include those who remember the rural purge, who remember the identity of media as being ‘anti’ rural, who see ‘big city values’ as the problem. Yet at the same time that channel will trumpet its importance and espouse its own power, while still claiming to be constantly under attack from The Media.

The thing that I find really interesting here is that the Rural Purge played into a myth that America already kinda had going on: That there was an intractible divide between rural people and city people. That the people who grew up in the rural south and left to live in the city somehow lost all ability to understand the places they once lived.


Edit: There was a silly joke about autoamputation/abnegation in here that vanished up its own butt and has been removed.

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