Midwestern Values of Community & the Common Good

Here is a video about a local shooting of a man in his home by an officer. You might think this would lead to outrage, but these Midwesterners in typical fashion are calm. Instead of outrage, they simply want resolution and understanding. That is the complete opposite reaction of what I’m used to seeing, especially in other parts of the country.

In my post about the North/South divide, I made an argument that there are cultural differences between Northern and Southern states. Specifically, I wrote about my experience of living in Iowa as compared to my experience living in South Carolina. One difference I noted was that Southerners tend to treat their family as their community and Northerners (or, at least, rural Midwesterners) tend to treat their communities as family.

In watching the above video, it jumped out to me how important ‘community’ was to these people. They explicitly talked about community rather than about individual people or individual families. This is an event they all are experiencing together. And it is an event that threatens the fabric of their community. To attack the officer for his actions would feel like an attack on the whole community.

These people may become more angry later if it turns out the shooting was unjustified or if the officer doesn’t act adequately remorseful. But, for now, their immediate concern is ensuring a sense of community is maintained.

This community-obsessed culture makes sense when you consider the history of the region. Small family farmers in these rural areas were extremely isolated early on when these towns first formed. They depended on and still depend on one another. This is the origin of Midwestern neighborliness.

It’s easy to forget communities like this still exist. This is the most clear example I’ve seen in a while.

It reminds me of the speech Zach Wahls gave. Zach is a native-born Iowan who was raised by gay parents. Some might find it strange that Iowa would be one of the first states to legalize gay marriage, but along with the community-centered culture there is an egalitarian sense of everyone deserving to be treated equal.

Zach naturally used a conservative defense of gay marriage. He didn’t portray his life as being special nor that he wanted special treatment. He didn’t portray himself as defending gay rights but as defending human rights. There is a conflict-avoidance in this attitude. It’s not us vs them but us together as a community (and society just being community on the largescale). Zach made it even more clear by stating that his family was a normal Iowan family and by describing himself as a hardworking Iowan. He said, “And if I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.”

Growing up in the Midwest, this way of viewing the world is a part of my sense of reality. It’s not that Iowa doesn’t have it’s own ideologues that like to fear-monger and stir up trouble, but such people just seem against the grain of the culture here. They are more the exception than the rule. I made this argument in another post. As evidence I quoted a Tea Party speaker to show how different the Tea Party is in Iowa as compared to other states:

Doug Burnett, the event’s first speaker, urged the crowd to stress the positive rather than the negative.

“Let’s watch our words.  Thoughts become attitudes, attitudes become words and words become actions.  I hear too often people saying, ‘I’m scared.  I’m scared for my country. I’m scared for my way of life’ and I don’t doubt the sincerity of that sentiment, but I do question the accuracy of the words.

“Scared is negative.  It’s powerless.  It’s debilitating.  Scared is what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night to that bump, right?

“We’re frustrated.  We’re angry.  We’re concerned and trust me, many times I look at our elected leaders and I see the boogey man, but we are the Tea Party and we aren’t scared of anything.  Are you scared?  We don’t do scared.

“Think of words that are positive and accurate, like ‘I’m engaged. I’m empowered. I’m moved to action.’”

A Tea Party that is positive instead of fear-mongering. Watching the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe such a thing exists… and yet it does exist, at least here in Iowa. Even the Tea Party in Iowa isn’t interested in dividing the community.

Whether a defender of gay rights or member of the Tea Party, Iowans seek a common vision to unite the community. When something threatens that sense of community, the response is to bring community closer together.

14 thoughts on “Midwestern Values of Community & the Common Good

  1. Thanks for sharing insight into Miwest Mind………please continue to post similar information. I am particularly interest in midwestern culture in the Ozark Mountains. Thanks! Yeshe

    • I’ll keep the Ozark Mountains in mind, but it’s not a specific region I’m personally familiar with. I’ve never spent a lot of time in the area of the South Midland dialect, although my mom’s family originates from Southern Indiana and Kentucky which is part of this South Midland. This region has a cultural and religious tradition related to that of Appalachia and the Upper South. This cultural middleground formed the Civil War border states (some of the few states in the Union to allow slavery). I did visit Kansas City in high school. That is where the Unity Church originated, the New Thought church I was raised in.

      The Midwestern area I’m most informed about is from Ohio through Indiana and Illinois over to Iowa and up into Minnesota and Wisconsin. This is mostly the Great Lakes part of the Midwest which includes the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest. This is the region of the North Midland dialect (which also includes Northern Missouri, Nebraska, and Northern Kansas). Among those states Iowa is a little different geographically, but Iowa culture (especially Eastern Iowa where I live) is heavily influenced by the close proximity of Illinois (I live right off of I-80 connects to Chicago) and the Upper Midwest.

      My parents’ families are from Indiana which I know fairly well, both parents having grown up in Northern Indiana (slightly different culture and dialect than Southern Indiana which is more influenced by Appalachia). I was born in Ohio and grew up in Illinois and Iowa (after high school in South Carolina, I moved back to the same city in Iowa). One brother is presently living in Minnesota. Some people think Ohio is too far East to be part of the Midwest, but it has much of the same basic culture and dialect. The reason for this is many Midwestern settlers, especially in the North Midland, came through Ohio.

      If anything, you should teach me a thing or two about the Ozark Mountains.

      However, I am at present doing research on the genealogy of my mom’s side of the family from Southern Indiana and Kentucky. This might begin to give me some more insight into the Ozark Mountains region. My thoughts in the past have been focused on my personal experience of the Upper Midwest and the Deep South, and so I’ve given the states in between short shrift. The several summers after high school that I spent in North Carolina did give me my first glimpse of how different the Upper South is from the Deep South. In my research, I discovered that North Carolina was a common beginning point for many immigrants who came through Kentucky into the Midwest which culturally influenced some of the Southern parts of the Midwest.

      This is an area of the US I want to understand better. I was first intrigued by this with states like Kansas. It was Kansas that fought against the influence of the slave-owning South and so joined the Union during the Civil War. It was once a very progressive state sith a lot of social reform and experimentation. It was a major center of Spiritualism in the 19th century which originated in and was popular across the Midwest. But today Kansas has become more conservative like Southern States. It seems the Lower Midwest and Upper South has always been the battleground of American cultures.

      • Thank you Benjamin!
        I was raised in Rochester New York (which I think as a good deal of the Midwestern ideals you write about, maybe mixed with a bit of Yankee-ness……but mostly midwestern/midland I think), and raised in a Quaker meeting (urban). My parent grew up in small Indiana towns, and had a good mix of small town midwestern honesty, with a deep appreciation for multiculturism…..a mix of old fashioned and modernity.
        I have lived as an adult in Catskills of New York,northern Minnesota, Santa Fe , New Mexico, southern Oregon, southern Louisiana and now Ozarks of Arkansas.
        I am seeking to stengthen my “root culture” after exposure to many different “foreign” sub-cultures……the root I identify with is Midland (particularly Quaker)..culture.
        I am surrounded here with Appalachian (Scotch Irish ) culture….but I suspect there is a fair percentage of midwesterness here (from immigration).
        Some research about the German immigration in the northern Ozarks shows some midland influences here since 1800’s.
        There are elements to Appalachian culture that I appreciate and that I am quickly accultuarting to………but it’s like grafting some branches on a midland root stock. Please continue to shed light on midwest culture (upper and lower)……….and especially any Quaker connections.
        Though I grew up among Quakers who were leaning to left and even far left, I personally tended toward the Quakers of 1700’s colonial America…..and Quakers from Iowa, Ohio (Conservative Branch) seem to most represent both a tradtional Christianity with a Quaker Universalism…………..in other words I am fleeing from the Left wing and the right wing, the north and south, east coast, west coast……..seeking the middle middle. I live now a little south of the middle middle……….so my inner eyes to northern Ozarks!

  2. I’ve only been to one Quaker meeting in my life, but I’ve been fascinated by Quakers for a long time. Thomas Paine’s father was a Quaker who raised him according to Quaker principles such as a plain-speaking style which is why Paine’s writing became so popular.

    I used to go to a Unitarian-Universalist church, and many of the members would switch between the UU and the local Quaker meeting. The two were just a few blocks apart. My brother lives in a nearby town which has a more rural feel for it, but many people who work in my town end up buying houses there because they are cheaper. In that town, there are two Quaker meetings (one conservative and one liberal) and there is a Quaker school which seems very nice. There are a fair number of Quakers at least in the area where I live, but I suspect there aren’t many Quakers in Western Iowa. The small rural farming towns often are heavily Catholic for some reason.

    The town I live in, Iowa City, is a small college town. It is basically built on the model of the New England type of college town. Iowa is probably the last state going Westward where the New England type of college town spread. I know you don’t find these kind of college towns in Western Iowa. Because of the type of town, Iowa City has more of an atmosphere and a culture that is similar to some Upper Midwest college towns such as in Wisconsin.

    When in I was in North Carolina, though, I did notice that there are many small college towns there as well. And North Carolina had that same mixing of college towns surround by more rural areas. But there is a big difference. I got the sense in North Carolina that the poor and uneducated were very poor and uneducated. I dated a working class girl there and her famjly had a distinctly working class identity. At the same time, they weren’t bigoted, just extremely fundamentalist.

    It’s hard to pinpoint the exact difference in Iowa.

    It could be partly education since Iowa has always had a tradition of public education. Plus, Catholics and Quakers love building schools everywhere they go. I think maybe the Catholic influence is the biggest difference between the Midwest and Appalachia. Catholicism is a very moderate and stable religion in many ways. Catholics don’t prosyletize or flaunt their religion. Quakers are also like that. It is a more subdued, accepting way of being religious. I also think of it being a more traditional way of being religious. For Catholics, religion is more of a community experience than a personal salvation thing.

    Another difference has to do with the working class mentality. It’s not so much an issue of manual labor. In Iowa, the working class culture is rooted in farming. Originally, most people worked their own farms on land they owned. So, they were working for themselves or for their families and in some cases helping out neighbors. Appalachia doesn’t have as big of a farming tradition from what I can tell. The land is hillier, rockier, and doesn’t have as much of that glacier-accumulated deep, black soil like is found in Iowa. Working class in Appalachia has always been rooted in mining which typically has meant working for someone else, working for a company.

    I’m not surprised by the German immigration into the Northern Ozarks. My mom’s family is largely German and as I pointed out past generations lived in Kentucky. German culture is actually another difference with farming culture. Germans had a long history with sustainable farming practices and so they knew how to make the most out of the good soil in the Midwest. Appalachia, maybe the Ozarks as well, had more Scotch-Irish and related immigrants who didn’t know much about sustainable farming and instead used slash-and-burn techniques. This causes erosion and can make land useless for future farming.

    There are two things I really liked about Appalachia.

    First, areas of it are absolutely beautiful. I visited Southern Indiana often as a child and it has that same Appalachian landscape. I feel at home in that kind of environment. It has the same kind lushness found in the Midwest. Eastern Iowa with all of its rivers and streams has a bit of that hilly landscape found in Appalachia, but with fewer caves.

    Second, I observed how much alternative culture exists in North Carolina, but I’m not sure how much this can be generalized about all of Appalachia. In my mind, I connect this to the hilly landscape. There is so much that is hidden from view that you never know what you’ll find. There are these alternative communities and small colleges that can be found in odd places in at least some parts of Appalachia. I worked in a YMCA camp in Black Mountain which is near Asheville, the latter being the Portland of the East Coast. The camp included buildings that were originally built as part of an alternative college that attracted some of the most innovative thinkers of the time. It is built on the side of a small mountain and you wouldn’t even know it existed because it is hidden by trees and only accessed by a single narrow road.

    Iowa, sadly, has had much of its beauty denuded because of farming. It was originally 90% wetlands which were drained and so now it is 90% farmland. When the first settlers came to Iowa, it must have been beautiful beyond belief. Eastern Iowa has maintained more of its original landscape because the hilly and rocky parts aren’t good for farming of course, but it is hard to compare to the most beautiful parts of Appalachia, although Appalachia can keep its hordes of ticks. Because of all the farming, Iowa can feel more monocultural if one doesn’t look very carefully. The uniqueness of Iowa doesn’t jump out at you as much and this fits the Iowan culture of humility. In Iowa, everything tends to be more out in the open, literally and metaphorically. You get what you see. Iowa lacks the aura of mystery that can be felt in Appalachia such as with all the winding caves and the old folklore.

    Some might even consider Iowa boring. We are the very definition of middle-of-the-road ordinariness. Iowa’s politics are neither liberal nor conservative, at least not in the sense that such things are understood in other parts of the country. Like you, I have a fondness for the middle. It’s seeming lack of uniqueness is what makes it unique. It’s simplicity is deceiving.

    • Thanks for you information. In emphasizing the farming aspect of Ozarks I seem to touch into the midwestern (and Quaker-like) values………..while emphasizing the wilderness, backcountry living, I seem to touch more into Scotch-Irish aspect of Ozarks. My local town of 500 seems to attract more midwestern thinking, while the surrounding county seems to highlight the Appalachian values.

  3. In all of this discussion, there is one part of America that I tend to not discuss much. It is the Southwest. I lived in Arizona for a while, although it was less than a year, but still long enough that I got a sense of the place. It is the only place I lived where I came into major contact with Native Americans. Maybe a quarter or a third of the people I worked with were Native American.

    The Midwest does have its Native American populations as well. This is particularly true in the Upper Midwest. Iowa also has the only Native American tribe that left its reservation in order to buy its own land to live on. But the Midwest isn’t as impacted by Native American culture in the way the Southwest has been.

    The Southwest is beyond my understanding for the time being. What I do sense of it is that it has a peculiar history, maybe not unlike the position the Midwest plays in American society. The Southwest is in the middle of the country like the Midwest. Both the Southwest and the Midwest act as border regions, border between the East Coast and the West Coast, border between the US and Canada in the North and border between the US and Mexico in the South.

    Radical politics have a history in both the Midwest and Southwest, the two regions where many alternative communities/communes were started in the 19th century. Also, earlier in history, the Scotch-Irish and Quakers both were pushing Westward and their was a battle of cultures to determine which group would define the growing country, a battle that I often think the Scotch-Irish have largely won. An America dominated by Quaker culture would be a very different place, maybe even a better place or at least a more peaceful place.

    • My soujourn of 3 and a half years in Santa Fe, definitely left an imprint in my persoanl culture……another branch grafted on my midland root. Will need to study more to articulate that distinctive southwest flavor. I also sojourned 3 1/2 years among Cajun culture, and 3 seasons in Finnish area of Northern Minnesota (though was not as immersed in the local cuture as Santa Fe and Southern Louisiana. Are you familar with the 11 nations of America thinking? He calls the New Mexico El Norte and Cajun country New France……they have definitely modified that Midland base! The Quaker xenophila has lead me to embrace the cultures as much as I can………but now I need to reinforce my basic operating system, after so many years “abroad” within other U.S.A. regional cultures.

      • By 11 nations, are you referring to Colin Woodard’ work? I started reading his book a few months ago, but I still need to get back to it and finish it. It is extremely interesting. I’ll be writing more about it in this coming year. That is my New Year’s resolution.

        • Yes….for some reason I have dwelt among many of these 11 regions………now coming back to the Midland foundation, feeling all the richer for my various sojourns!

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