Being Asked For Directions

I had a nice chat with a stranger the other day.

On my work break, a lady asked me for directions to the university hospital. I started to tell her how to get there, but I realized she probably didn’t know the town at all and I hate trying to give directions. So I decided to walk her there, since I had the time.

On the way, we had opportunity to talk. She said she is from China and came here as a cancer researcher. She was meeting a friend at the hospital.

She explained to me that universities in China are enclosed by a wall. I guess they are entirely separate from everything else. this town must seem chaotic and confusing to her, as there is no way to figure out where the city ends and the university begins. This is literally a college town where the university dominates.

It got me thinking about how different societies can be.

The US can be a rather disorderly place in many ways, even in a smaller town like this. We Americans aren’t the most talented when it comes to building a planned society. This country is a mess of competing interests and jurisdictions. And this can be seen here in the overlapping of city and university with the haphazard location of buildings that don’t share common architectural style.

Even the naming of streets in this town is mostly random. And how some streets connect can be hard to explain. All reasons I try to avoid having to give anyone directions.

All of that despite Iowa being the most orderly planned out state in the entire country.

I suspect China would be quite different in many ways. But I couldn’t begin to guess what a Chinese city or university is like.

Forgotten Midwest

The Sporcle website has a quiz for mapping the states of the United States. Sasha Trubetskoy posted a map of the results (or see the version with the state names) and along with it are the results (and the results are unscientifically confirmed by another online quiz):

 

Iowa is at the center of the main clump of least remembered states. But Iowa is also at the center of what most people think of as the Midwest. Apparently, the Heartland is terra incognita for most Americans. People fly over it in planes and in their minds, just some vague nowhere in the middle of the country.

Freedom and Public Space

Along the Upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa side, there is Fort Madison.

It is a medium-sized town, not exactly thriving but far from being in decline. It is an old river town that once had much wealth and still has many well-kept old houses. Some of the nicest and largest houses are located around a couple of parks in the center of town, just north a couple blocks from the downtown shopping area.

My brother moved there not too long ago and so I’ve since visited the town several times. He lives only a few blocks from these parks and only a few blocks from the river. It is a long and narrow strip of a town and so I guess everyone there lives within blocks of the river.

It is one of those places where you can sense the history. It is fairly quiet town now, but it had to have been a bustling at one time, back when the Mississippi River was more of a major transportation route. The old buildings still standing are of a wide variety of architecture. It has made me curious.

Much of the town has a standard Midwest feel, although of a river town variety. For example, there are the kinds of alleys I knew from my Midwestern childhood. Most of the houses wouldn’t be out of place in any other Midwestern smaller town. Still, there is much else that stands out. There are old federalist style houses. There are also quite a few houses with a clear Southern influence. One house across the street from Old Settlers Park reminds me of the houses in Charleston, SC, although it isn’t as narrow along the front.

Fort Madison was once a trade town. So, that allowed more diverse cultural influences for an old town so far north into the far reaches of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1850 census, when Fort Madison was a young city and Iowa was a young state. In that census, there were people from diverse places within the United States (Washington DC, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and from diverse countries (Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland).

Before being a trade town, it was the location of a major fort and hence the name. It was one of three forts in the new Louisiana Territory and the first permanent fortification on the Upper Mississippi. That touches upon the sense of history of the place.

The Mississippi River was the last natural boundary for the frontier. It is a massive river that back then would have been treacherous to cross. Iowa was one of the last areas Native Americans tried to hold ground to stop Westward expansion. Fort Madison was seen as an incursion and so immediately became a target of attacks.

One of the most famous Native leaders was Chief Black Hawk. He sided with Canada during the War of 1812. His first battle against US troops happened in Fort Madison and it was the only battle of the War of 1812 that happened West of the Mississippi. More than three decades later in 1838, he gave his farewell speech in Old Settlers Park, where today there is a plaque with a quote from that speech:

“I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now.”

As he described, just down the hill flows the mighty Mississippi. However, today the surrounding houses entirely block the view.

I walked to this park with my sister-in-law and niece. It has a large gazebo for bands and a playground. It’s quite beautiful with many old trees. The place is peaceful and it is hard to imagine the sadness Black Hawk must have felt as he gave that speech. As I stood before the plaque reading his words, I looked out across the park at the kids playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the park was filled with white kids. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked Native American in Fort Madison. The diversity the town once had never included the native population.

Where I live in Iowa City, there are two locations of former Native American villages. One of them was that of the tribe of Black Hawk’s medicine man. Iowa City was first settled by free blacks, many of whom were likely escaped slaves. Those free blacks sought the frontier for obvious reasons and I’m sure they were living there at the invitation of the local tribes.

In the pedestrian mall of downtown Iowa City, there is a small area that is called Black Hawk Mini Park. It also once was known as the People’s Park. It was the product of a fight for public space. On the side of the adjacent building there was a mural called “The Spirit of Black Hawk” that depicted the face of a Native American.

It’s telling that the freedom of public space often gets symbolized by Native Americans who lost their freedom and lost the very land they lived on, of which these parks represent a tiny portion.

Political Alliances and Reform

“Our opponents have stripped the discussion of rights of all its complexity.”
~ Howard Schwartz, Beyond Liberty Alone, Kindle Location 1349

I had a direct experience of this over these past few days. I was involved in a political debate. It was on a facebook page for a local group, Reform the Johnson County Criminal Justice System. Before I go into the details of the situation, let me briefly explain the background of the group.

The group was formed because of a particular issue that was being fought against, but it quickly broadened in scope. It attracted many people from a wide variety of ideological perspectives. Over time, some people grew dissatisfied. Many liberals, progressives, and similar types left the group and joined another group. The main guy who organized the group was one of those who left. He passed the keys onto at least one other person, Sean Curtin.

Sean is a lawyer and a libertarian. He is very much an activist. I get the sense that he dedicates his entire life to his politics. He seems devoted and is a decent guy. However, he is a tad dogmatic in his right-wing politics. There is a slight reactionary slant to his libertarianism, but someone was explaining to me that he has been moving (or, because of circumstances, has felt pushed) leftward toward greater alliance with liberal and progressive reformers.

I like to see alliances. This is what makes me a liberal. I’m all about seeking mutual understanding. That is often easier said than done. Sean had sent me a friend request on Facebook and I accepted. I remained ‘friends’ with him for a while, until his dogmatism irritated me enough and I unfriended him.

That wasn’t that long ago when I unfriended him. I hadn’t interacted with him since. For some reason, I was drawn to comment on a post on the group’s Facebook page. He joined in along with some others. It didn’t lead to fruitful discussion. No mutual understanding followed from it, to say the least. Instead, Sean deleted the entire discussion thread. He essentially silenced his opponents. Not very libertarian of him, I must say… or maybe all too typically ‘libertarian’, in that it is liberty for me and none for thee.

The discussion began because of a video talking about “personal responsibility”. This led to talk about rhetoric in terms of language and ideas. It was just when I thought the discussion was getting interesting that it got deleted. I think I understand why. The direction that I was pushing the discussion toward was one in which a libertarian position has little defense. Right-libertarianism can’t handle much direct scrutiny of its ideological rhetoric, because it falls apart or else becomes quite wobbly.

From Sean’s perspective, betraying his idealized principle of liberty by shutting discussion down was more acceptable than allowing any further scrutiny of that ideal and the related ideological rhetoric upon which it is based. That is why I began with that quote by Howard Schwartz. Libertarianism, in its extreme right-wing form, necessitates a simplification of thought and hence a narrowing of debate.

As such, someone like Sean can move pretty far to the left on many issues, but he can only go so far. This leftward shift can even include acknowledging racial bias. It’s just that it has to be kept within a limited framework of analysis. To question too deeply into racism would point toward its structural nature. This enters into dangerous territory of larger social injustice issues that erode at the very foundations of the economic system that libertarians so strongly uphold.

This was the direction in which the discussion was headed. And this is why Sean had to end it before it got too far. This is problematic for any attempt at an alliance for reform. If an alliance is dependent on the lowest common denominator, including reactionary politics into a reform group can bring the agenda down to an extremely low level. This is an even greater problem when reactionary attitudes are held by the leader of a reform group.

This incident has made me question any hope for an effective alliance between the left and right. I haven’t given up hope, but I’m feeling circumspect. Maybe Sean and other libertarians will surprise me in how far they might go, when push comes to shove.

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy

The most recent issue of my local alternative publication, Little Village, had two articles that caught my attention (Vol. 17, Issue 162, Sept. 17-30 20014). Taken together, they made an important point. I suspect that wasn’t an accident for they were printed close together as the first two articles presented.

The first article is, “The Truth About TIFs”. It is written by Matthew Byrd.

Like many other places, TIFs have been a big issue around here, as they should be since TIF funding comes from the money taken from the taxpaying public.  Here is how it has played out in this local area. A neighboring town, Coralville, has used TIFs to draw businesses away from the town I live in, Iowa City. A TIF has been used for the the large mall built in Coralville which had major impact on Iowa City’s downtown. Iowa Citians like to call it the Death Star. We used to have a nice downtown that had normal stores, but now it is filled with mostly bars, restaurants, art galleries, and expensive gift shops. The TIF-funded mall played a role in gentrifying Iowa City.

That said, Iowa City’s government has embraced this gentrification with its own TIFs. A highrise was built in downtown Iowa City using a TIF. It is a big fancy building that will add yet more expensive apartments to downtown and with room for yet one more expensive shop on the ground floor. In building this highrise, the city got rid of the benches in front of this new highrise. The area where those benches were used to be called the “People’s Park” and it was an important public space that has now been made into the front yard for the wealthy inhabitants of the highrise.

This wasn’t the original intent for TIF funding.

As the article explains, “the image of TIFs is considerably less rosy in execution than it appears in conception, particularly when it comes to the intellectual core of TIF law: the focus on blighted neighborhoods. T?he idea that TIF funds are supposed to be used to revitalize poor neighborhoods is paramount, to the point that it’s written into Iowa State Code. As the Iowa Department of Revenue explains, “Iowa code recognizes two primary purposes for [TIF funding]; namely, to eliminate slum or blight and to promote economic development.””

TIFs help blightned neighborhoods about as much as the war on poverty helped the poor. In the end, public money always seems to get redirected to the already well off. The poor get underfunded schools, unemployment, and mass incarceration while the rich get privatized education, outsourcing, and government contracts to build and operate the prisons. One of the purposes of TIFs was to create and maintain low-cost housing in neighborhoods where investors wouldn’t otherwise build or renovate.

This brings me to the article immediately following the above one, “High Rises and Higher Rents”. This article is by Shauna McKnight.

Basically, there is too little housing for too many people. Also, the housing available is simply too expensive. The article begins by pointing out that “[a]pproximately 30%” of Iowa City’s population lives below the poverty line, “compared to Iowa’s average of 12%”. On top of that, “55.6% of renters in Jonson Country are cost burdened” which is “the highest rate in all of Iowa”.

Affordable housing isn’t keeping up with the demand of population growth, specifically an increasingly impoverished population because of the recession and other factors: “the vacancy rate in Iowa City sits at half of one percent. In a normal, healthy market there is typically a five percent vacancy rate.” As the article continues a bit further on, “the problem is that the wages in the area haven’t kept up with the cost of living.” This forces many poor working class people to look for housing further away in the nearby rural areas and small towns. Cheaper housing just means more expensive travel costs. Also, where someone lives determines their opportunities such as the school their children will attend.

Many people can’t win for losing. This isn’t limited to Iowa City, that is for sure. Still, rural farming states like Iowa are being hit harder than the states in other regions. This is why the younger generation is fleeing which creates a death spiral for the local working class communities. A particularly disheartening piece of data is how, “one in five working families in Iowa have incomes that cannot meet their basic needs. This can lead to a cycle of poverty that persists across generations.”

This is where the TIF issue comes in. Why is the local government giving money to promote the building of housing and shopping for the wealthy?

“The issue of affordable housing has thrown a spotlight on The Chauncey building—which will hold both commercial spaces for area business and luxury housing units. The city plans to pay &1 million to set aside five units of affordable housing in the complex (the remaining units will be luxury condos and apartments).”

That is the official solution for the housing problem, really? We the public will pay a million dollars to get five more units of affordable housing in this town. We are being fleeced. I sometimes feel like this town has been taken over. If the local government isn’t serving most of the local population, then who is it serving?

To Be a Stereotype or Not

I was at work last night. I’m a parking ramp cashier. My job is basically customer service, that and taking people’s money so that I’ll let them out.

I don’t tend to react too much to anything that customers do or say. I just put on my blank professional face and do my job.

So, last night, a car pulled up with two young Asian guys. They were likely college students as the biggest increase in the University population has been Asians (Is that a stereotype?). I only mention this to give context to the interaction. The passenger leaned over and said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I say. The question he asks me is, “Do you like to eat hunted deer and rabbit meat?”

That amused me. He was stereotyping me. Part of me would’ve liked to have asked in return, “Do you eat raw fish and clubbed dolphins?”

It doesn’t bother me when people try to stereotype me because they usually fail to put me into the right stereotype. Yes, I’m a working class Iowan. Yes, I wear Carhartt clothing. Yes, I’m of German ancestry. But, no, I wasn’t raised in nor have I ever lived in any rural area. No, I’ve never hunted nor owned a gun. And, no, i haven’t spent my whole life in Iowa, much less the Midwest. I’m less of an Iowan than many people I know. Still, I know people who have lived here their entire lives and they don’t particularly seem any different than people I’ve known in entirely separate regions.

I may look like a rural Iowan, but I spent much of my life growing up as an upper middle class city boy. I suppose I’m comfortable looking working class because my mom raised me with a working class sensibility. I’m not interested in standing out. That makes me a more typical Midwesterner. In Iowa, there is no clear distinction between someone who grew up in a rural area and someone who grew up in an urban area, especially as in both cases it is the same Standard American English. This also might relate to how Midwestern farmers have a long history of ensuring their children are well educated, including often sending them off to college. This seems particularly evident living in Iowa City, a college town, where urban and rural populations mix freely as you only have to drive to the edge of town to find farm fields.

Of course, none of my family were farmers. I’d have to look back to the 1800s to maybe find an ancestor who farmed. But I can’t offhand say for certain that I know of even distant relatives who were farmers. However, my mom’s family is as close as the Midwest gets to what is stereotypically known as rednecks.

I don’t mind stereotypes all that much, except when they directly relate to prejudice. I wasn’t worried about suffering oppression by Asian college students and so it was a harmless incident. Sometimes stereotypes are even accurate, and some people even embrace stereotypes in pride and defiance. As for me, if someone assumed I was a depressed artsy intellectual, then they’d be right. But I’ve never tried to fit into a stereotype. I don’t dress like a depressed artsy intellectual. I do carry a backpack which has caused some people to think I was a college student because after all this is a college town, but I have no college degree.

I have no grand point to the post. I was just amused by how a foreign student perceived me in terms of how he perceived Americans and specifically Midwesterners. Many Americans, particularly from the coasts, often stereotype Midwesterners, not entirely dissimilar to how Southerners are stereotyped. I suppose people from other parts of the world see America through the lense of the American MSM that is mostly produced in coastal big cities. To a foreigner like an Asian, I could imagine the Midwest is largely known through movies: Wizard of Oz, Field of Dreams, etc (maybe some of the movies and tv shows of Superman’s youth; and who knows what else). It is quite likely that, to a foreigner, Iowa might as well as be Oklahoma, Tennessee or North Dakota.

Stereotypes are odd things. They aren’t always incorrect. Even when they are caricatures, there can be elements of generalized truths. Are there many Iowans who hunt and eat what they hunt? Sure. But stereotypes tend to go way beyond such simple probabilistic correlations. Even if I did hunt, what would that say about me? Not much.

This is relevant to my recent thinking. One book I finished reading a while back is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. It is about stereotype threat which is a heavily researched issue. One thing that is clear is that stereotypes can have very powerful results, even when there is otherwise no active effort of prejudice and oppression. Stereotypes have a way of becoming pervasive in all aspects of society and become embedded deep within our thinking, both in the thinking of those who benefit from it and those who suffer from it.

Did that Asian guy think I was less smart, less worldly or less worthy in some way simply because I looked like a lower class rural person? I’m sure that would be a common element to such a stereotype. How far away is that stereotype from that of the redneck, the hillbilly and white trash? For those who are perceived in that light their entire life, what impact would stereotype threat have on them? For those who live in a society that has treated them that way and expected that of them, what kind of life would that lead to? The structural prejudice directed at poor rural whites isn’t all that different from the structural racism directed at poor urban blacks.

Asians come to America and they don’t really understand the history behind such stereotypes. Many white and/or upper class Americans also don’t understand. Stereotypes are so powerful because of this lack of understanding.

Centerville, IA: Meeting Point of Diversity & Conflict

Let me bring a few thoughts together:

  • Midwestern diversity
  • KKK
  • civic organizations
  • organized crime

I’ll make the connections by focusing on the example of a city in Iowa, as described in Centerville: A Mid-American Saga by Enfys McMurry.

Founded in 1846, Centerville is a small town, once at around 8,000 population and now down to around 5,000. It is located in Appanoose County along the southern border of Iowa. This is a few counties southwest of Johnson County where I live in Iowa City, the home of the Hawkeyes. And this is a few counties southeast of Madison County which is famous for covered bridges and famous for it including the hometown of John Wayne and the temporary home of George Washington Carver. This location leads to a couple of central factors.

First, it was on the edge of slavery. Some of the early residents were abolitionists. And it became part of the Underground Railroad. However, being so close to slave state, escaped slaves and free blacks weren’t very safe living there for they could be easily kidnapped.

Second, it is an agricultural area, but it is also a mining area. This meant it attracted a wide variety of people. Despite it being a small town, its early population included immigrants from more than forty countries and sixty Jewish families. The Midwest (along with the Mid-Atlantic states) has always been where most immigrants have settled. This is why this is the median center and mean center of the United States.

Between location and population diversity, this made Centerville a site of conflict, a contest between political forces and social orders. This was magnified by the vast social change that happened after the Civil War. Blacks were moving North and one of the biggest immigration waves began. Society became very destabilized. It was also a time of increasing social freedom.

There were those who took advantage of these conditions and there were those who sought to enforce new order. There were many Italians in Centerville and with them came the Black Hand which was an early mafia. There was a peak of violence at the turn of the century and then another increase during the 1920s that peaked in the 1930s — see here:

Comparison by year of USA homicide rates

The Black Hand was organized crime, but it also played a role of civic organization in the Italian community. The mafia was a central part of the social order in the region of Italy where many of these immigrants came from. It was based on kinship and shared religion. This is hard for us to understand today. Civic organizations have become tamed and mostly impotent. They are now primarily social gatherings.

The KKK also had this dual role. They held typically conservative values. They sought to defend what they saw as good about society. Like the Black Hand, they would use criminal means at times to enforce their ideal social order. During the early twentieth century, the state and federal governments were far weaker than they are today. This was still the era of the Pinkertons being hired to infiltrate and fight the labor unions. Most power was private at that time. Vigilante and mob justice was common.

It was the early 1920s when the KKK seized political power in Centerville. They used force, threats, intimidation, coercion and about any means necessary. Having gained control of both political parties, their opponents covertly created a third party and ousted the KKK from power after only a few brief years. The KKK wasn’t able to get a permanent toehold and the former members became pariah. Iowa has a mixed history in relation to blacks, at times one of the most progressive and at other times not so much. However, it appears that Centerville was never a sundown town, unlike some other southern Iowa coal mining towns. Winterset, the hometown of John Wayne, was a sundown town.

It should be noted that the KKK wasn’t exclusively focused on blacks, especially not in a town like Centerville that had no large population of blacks. They had other more important agendas such as prohibition and enforcing family values and Christian morality. The prohibition aspect probably was central in an immigrant town like Centerville that included many ethnic groups that loved their drink. Prohibition was an extension of nativism. There is a long history in America of outlawing or trying to outlaw any substance or activity that becomes associated with non-WASP groups, be they a racial or ethnic minority.

I don’t know that the KKK was involved in violence and murder in Centerville. They certainly weren’t pacifists nor did they care much about democratic process. What can be said is that they thrived during violent times of social upheaval.

The following peaceful era of the mid-twentieth century was a rare moment during a century of great violence. We are only now getting back down to those low violent rates. There is an interesting difference, though. The middle of last century was a time of extremely low immigration, but these past couple of decades have had extremely high immigration. So, the violence rates don’t correspond to the immigration rates.

The KKK, of course, associated the violent social disorder to immigrants and blacks. On the other hand, immigrants and blacks might have associated violent social disorder with groups like the KKK.

After the boom era of coal towns like Winterset, I imagine much of this history of diversity and conflict has been forgotten. The patriotism of war and the Cold War era oppression led to some combination of chosen assimilation and forced assimilation. It is just another majority white rural small town, although it does have almost 4% minorities which in a town of 5,000 is a couple hundred people.

I find it interesting that those original immigrant families from so many different countries are now simply considered white. I’m not sure the KKK would be entirely happy about that, but then again neither would the Black Hand. Both the WASP Americans and the ethnic Americans lost the battle for the soul of America. The winner is some new weird amorphous white American, a mutt that is a little bit of many things and nothing in particular.

This is how multiculturalism slowly becomes monoculturalism. I suspect the same fate will happen to the new generation of ethnic outsiders in America. In many regions of the US, regional identities dominate. But in the Midwest, to become assimilated simply means becoming American. That is the role of the Midwest, the Heartland of America. It is where multiculturalism is embraced and where it comes to die. No amount of diversity can defeat this process. There is a faith in this American assimilation here in the Midwest. Bring us your huddled masses and we’ll make Americans out of them. There may be some violence in the process, but unless you want to become Amish the process is near inevitable.

America is where the world comes together. What new thing will be born from this?

The Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

I’m a Midwesterner and specifically an Iowan. Like anyone else, I have a natural tendency to defend this place I consider home. Take for example when a commenter, Skepoet, said in a comment that the Midwest lacked diversity. I responded with pointing out a multicultural tradition in the Midwest.

At the same time, I always want to be as honest as possible, with myself as much as with others. I’ve come to realize, from further study, a major part of history outside the South that demonstrates how pervasive racism is in our society. I speak of sundown towns. I learned that even in my beloved Midwest, even in Iowa, sundown towns weren’t unusual. It wasn’t an accident that so many blacks ended up in the inner city. They were forced to live there when they were forced to leave the towns they had moved to following the Civil War. As I wrote in one post:

“A problem of freedom involves the opposite of being a part of a free people. Free societies/communities have often defined themselves by who is excluded. He references James Loewen’s work on sundown towns in this regard.

“I was generally aware that sundown towns existed, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them called that. They are basically towns where blacks weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) welcome after dark, so unwelcome that their lives could be in danger (such as being arrested, beaten, or lynched). I was even aware that towns unfriendly to non-whites have existed all over the United States. Racism is pervasive throughout American society. Still, I was surprised by how pervasive these sundown towns supposedly were, especially in the far North and far West.

“There was an era following the Civil War where an anti-racist idealism prevailed. It took hold most strongly in the Republican majority areas outside the South. Blacks were very much welcomed into towns across the country and blacks took up the new opportunities available to them. What I never knew before was that blacks had settled in so many small towns and rural areas outside of the South. Like Loewen before he did the research, I just assumed most areas always were lacking in minorities.”

I learned that this might have happened quite close to home.

“For example, a nearby town is West Branch in Cedar County. My brother and his family live in West Branch, and he has noted the old boys network that keeps that town from changing, despite all the other small towns nearby experiencing lots of change. A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there.”

“Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930.

“This appearance and disappearance of blacks happened all over around this time. During the 20th century, blacks increasingly became concentrated into big cities. Loewen was unable to find any legal documents, newspaper accounts or oral history about what caused the blacks to leave Cedar County, but he did find plenty of evidence to explain what happened in other places. In some cases, white mobs forced entire black communities to vacate a town, a county or larger area (Oregon was a sundown state in that there were anti-black laws enforced to keep any new blacks from becoming residents). Whether through official decree or unofficial policy, many of these places remained all white for most or all of the 20th century, some still remaining all white to this day.”

This is the history. Now for the present reality of that persisting history.

Iowa ranks worst in the country when it comes to racial disparity of marijuana arrests. Much of the Midwest also fits in with this same sad pattern. These are the very states that so often rank well on many other social measures. What makes me most sad of all is the fact that Johnson County, in which I live, is the third worst county in Iowa.

This supposed multicultural-loving Iowa City that is my hometown obviously needs some work living up to its own ideals. The racial influence (read ‘black’ population) from Chicago coming in from I-80 is turning out to be too much for the local population, even here in this liberal college town.

I don’t know why such a problem exists in a place like this. The police here don’t seem abusive or oppressive. What has led them to racially profile to such a degree? And what has caused them to think this was acceptable or even expected of them?

By the way, the same day I came across the above info, I also noticed an article about Iowa City being listed in the top 100 livable cities. There were 5 cities in Iowa that made the list:

“Cedar Rapids was named 29 while Ames ranked 31 and Iowa City was 46. Des Moines ranked 69 and West Des Moines ranked 76.

This is extremely typical. Iowa City, in particular, is always making these kinds of lists. One of the best cities for retirement, for raising family, for going to college, for economic growth, and on and on. Yes, Iowa City is a great town for a town of its size. It has great public transportation, bike lanes, lots of trails and parks, a lovely downtown, and high civic participation. I could go on and on about why I love this place.

This most recent list is about most livable which includes a wide variety of factors. But the question is:

Livable for whom?

http://www.aclu-ia.org/2013/10/01/racial-profiling-initiative-launched/

http://thegazette.com/2011/02/11/software-looks-for-racial-profiling-in-c-r-police-work/

http://www.resourcesforlife.com/docs/item6761

https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/iowa-ranks-worst-nation-racial-disparities-marijuana-arrests

http://www.dailyiowan.com/2013/06/11/Opinions/33431.html

http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/deeper-racism-iowa-beneath-white-obama-craze

Individualistic Community vs Collectivist Clannishness

My mind seems to be stuck on human biodiversity (HBD) thoughts, not in a negative way though. I can’t help but be continually intrigued by hbd chick’s blog postings.

Her most recent post is clannish paradox? which is very insightful. The part I wanted to focus in on, however, isn’t a new insight of hers:

another clannishness paradox that i’ve mentioned before is that individuals from clannish societies often feel very independent. here, for example, is taki on the greeks:

“The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to others’ dictates. His unruliness has helped him survive through the centuries of oppression, as well as to rise above adversity. But it has also made him unaware of the advantages of a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes. This has created a climate where cheating is a way of life, where the highest and lowest of citizens do not hesitate to use dishonesty, especially in politics.”

yeah. well, the misunderstanding there is that greeks are “individualistic.” they’re not. they’re clannish. and because they’re clannish, they don’t like outside interference — they’re not going to “submit easily to others’ dictates” and they’re certainly not going to have “a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes.” clannish people — like southern libertarians— don’t want outside interference (like from the gub’ment), so they seemindividualistic, but what they are, in fact, is independent-minded — but in a clannish sort of way. the true individualists — the non-clannish peoples — tend to be communally oriented. and they are rare.

It’s that last part that got me thinking. The last hyperlink brings you to another one of her posts. In the beginning of the post, she summarizes the non-clannish side of the paradox:

in societies in which the members are MORE individualistic, those same members are oriented MORE towards the group, the whole group, and nothing but the group (i.e. NOT their extended families or clans or tribes) than in societies in which the members are NOT so individualistic.

I came to these same insights from a totally different direction. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in different regions and among people of different ideologies. Just from observation, I began to notice these patterns. Further reading helped clarify my thoughts, but all of that was long before I came across HBD.

What hbd chick presents reminds me of a couple of things.

First, I’ve often written about reactionary conservatism and community-minded liberalism. Corey Robin wrote a book about reactionary conservatism and it really shook up my thinking when I read it. His theory gave me a framework to make sense of my own observations. When hbd chick writes about libertarian crackers, I suspect she is basically speaking of this same reactionary conservatism.

Second, I just so happened to have written a post today about individualism and collectivism. I pointed out how Iowa is one of those strongly individualistic states. In the past, though, I’ve also pointed out that Iowa is strongly community-oriented. This is something many don’t understand about much of the Midwest (maybe Indiana excluded; let us just call it Kentuckiana).

All of this only appears paradoxical if you remain at the level of ideological rhetoric. If you dig deeper, it makes a lot of sense.

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

My brother, Nate, and I were bicycling on Iowa’s country roads. We were on a day outing. We met in the Waterworks Prairie Park by the Iowa River, from where we traveled to a nearby town (Hills, Iowa) and then crossing Coralville Dam. On the way we passed farmland mixed with housing, and we talked as we cruised along. Healthy exercise and fresh air.

Iowa is one of the best states in the country for bicyclists, including professionals wanting to train, which is why there is such things as Ragbrai here (my brother has been biking a lot in preparation for that particular event). The reasons Iowa is great for biking is because of how the roads were planned in mostly square sections that goes back to the earliest settlements and farmland (Iowa was the first state or one of the first to be planned out in this manner). This type of planned community structure and civic infrastructure is part of the Midwestern DNA, unlike the haphazard (and litigation-prone) metes and bounds system that defined the early development in the South (legal problems with land ownership were behind Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln’s family leaving Kentucky).

The other thing Iowa is known for are all these small towns that are regularly situated in the counties, even in rural areas. Many of these farm towns have died out or are in the process of dying, but many of them still survive. The surviving farm towns, besides the county seats, have often had to reinvent themselves or else become ghosts of their former selves. Even with the rural population drain, the massive road infrastructure is maintained because it is required for the movement of farm equipment and farm produce.

One of the results of the rural population drain is that many of the young have left. Those left behind are older and getting older every year. These small towns are typically filled with fewer young families, especially as the family farms have been bought up by large corporations.

This has created many small communities with little sense of the future. The old people there remember the way things used to be. They fear and resist change, but in doing so they are typically unwilling to invest in the future. Some of these towns essentially collectively commit suicide because the problems they face are so great and no one wants to take responsibility to invest in the next generation that is likely to move away. It is a vicious cycle of self-destruction or else, in some cases, an unavoidable downward spiral.

The shrinking populations have a cascade of effects, but let me first describe how it used to be.

Iowa counties were designed so that any farmer could drive his horse-drawn wagon to the county seat and back in a single day. The Amish living here still travel by wagon, and under these conditions their traditional communities thrive. Counties are relatively small, but many counties used to have a number of towns where basic needs to could be regularly taken care of. In a typical town, there would be such things as grocery and farm supply stores, farmers’ markets, gas stations, repair shops, public schools, public libraries, etc. These were very civic-minded places, somewhat modeled on the New England ideal of local democracy.

The heart of the counties are the county seats where the courthouses and such are located and where parades and fairs are held, but the heart of communities used to be the public school and the downtown. The pride of any decent-sized town was the local high school football or baseball team. However, to save money, many of the small schools have been shut down and replaced by centralized larger schools where kids are bussed in from far away. This has had a terrible impact on these traditional farm communities. All that is left of many of the remaining towns are the houses surrounding a now mostly emptied downtown with a few struggling businesses. The Walmarts have put the final nail in the coffin of most of the small downtowns.

This has been true all across the Midwest. My dad grew up in Alexandria, Indiana. It was once declared Small Town USA. In the decades following the post-war boom era, factories have closed down or laid off workers. My uncle has remained their because of his love of the place, but he struggles to make money with his dentistry business. Most of these small towns used to have dentists and doctors with offices in the downtown, but rural residents these days typically have to travel a lot further than they used to just to get basic healthcare, if they get it at all.

To make matters worse, meth addiction has become an epidemic in the rural Midwest. Meth is a drug that grows amidst desperation, spreading that desperation further like weeds that even Roundup can’t kill. The best options available in such a desperate environment is to work at the slaughterhouse or work at Walmart or else work multiple jobs trying to support your family which leads you to be tempted by meth to give you that extra boost when you have no energy left. Of course, you can also go into the meth making business itself as meth can be cooked up easily in any kitchen or trailer.

Desperation also breeds politicians like Steve King. He is congressman of a district in western Iowa, the epitome of everything I describe. That district has the oldest average age of any population in the entire country. The reason Steve King is such an asshole is because he represents ornery old people who live in dying towns where there is absolutely no hope for the future. You have to have pity on a population so distraught that they would repeatedly vote for someone like Steve King. That is a group of people begging to be put out of their misery. They are angry at a world that has left them behind and they have every reason to be angry, even though in their anger they embrace a demagogue who can’t and won’t solve their problems.

These aging rural folk mostly come from farm families that have farmed for generations. They are the last of their kind. In many cases, their family land has been sold and their children have left them. Society no longer has any use for them and so they have no use for society. The shrinking few of the next generation that have stuck around aren’t following in the family tradition of being independent farmers. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer vision of America is a thing of the past. These last rural holdouts embrace reactionary politics because they are fighting for a lost cause. Only in fiction are lost causes ever noble.

Reactionary politics doesn’t result in constructive and sustainable policies. Fiscal conservatism becomes the rally cry of communities in retreat, communities full of people who have lost faith in anything greater that can be achieved. Building and maintaining town infrastructure is something that is done when it is seen as an investment that will one day payoff. To the reactionary mind, though, all change is seen as loss and destruction, even when it involves basic maintenance and simple improvements. Normal government functions become battles to be endlessly fought against. Local democracy can’t survive under such conditions, and so the remnants of civic-mindedness devolves into struggles for power. If the only self-respect in one’s view is resistance and refusal, it will be seized with a death grip.

Nate and I were discussing some of this on our jaunt about the countryside.

He lives in one of those small towns, West Branch. It used to be a very thriving town since the railroad used to pass right through the middle of it, but the tracks have been pulled up and it has partly become a bedroom community of Iowa City (where the University of  Iowa is located and where I live). West Branch is the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, the 31st US president. There is a federal park there that includes Hoover’s boyhood home and some other original buildings, and the park brings in some money into the town.

Having been in West Branch for many years now, my brother has gained an inside view on what goes for small town life these days. His town lacks the desperation of some towns as there are jobs to be had in the larger, more prosperous cities nearby. I doubt there are many people left in West Branch who make a living by farming their own land. Still, the old families remain and they try to maintain their grip on their community.

This plays out in a number of ways. The older generation resists improving anything for fear that it will attract more people to move into town. They’d rather let the town crumble than risk it growing into something new, prosperity and hope for new generations be damned. Others in town, often newcomers like my brother (and all families are newcomers who haven’t been there for generations), want to improve the town for they are mostly young parents and young professionals who are hopeful about the future.

It is a battle of the old power elite against the rising of a new generation. The old power elite consists of a group of families that have had immense influence. They hold many of the political positions and they treat the volunteer fire department like a private club. These families are represented by a generation of old white guys, many of whom are in their 70s. They are known as the ‘Dinosaurs’. The mayor died last year. Some of the older city council members don’t have have many years left before retiring, going senile or dying. It is a government run by nepotism and cronyism, a typical good ol’ boys network.

West Branch is a perfect example of fiscal conservatism. There is always money for the fire department, of course. It is the pride and joy. Otherwise, there is never money for anything and there is great resistance to raise taxes. Even when a federal grant was available, they wouldn’t take it to fix the sidewalks. Part of the reason was because the federal government has requirements about how work is contracted out which means they couldn’t use their typical practice of cronyism. So, the sidewalks go on crumbling.

The local government is governed by those who don’t want to govern. They see their sole purpose is to obstruct progress and maintain their control, and they have been very good at achieving this end.

For some reason, the city government likes to give public property away. They gave away the city park to the Herbert Hoover National Park because they didn’t want to spend the money to maintain it such as keeping it mowed, but now every time they want to have a public event at the former city park they have to get permission from the local representative of the federal government. They were donated a large old building and the property it was built on, a former retirement home as I recall. The land was worth $100,000 and the building was worth a $100,000. They gave it to one of their cronies for $5,000 which means the city took a loss of $195,000 and that is a lot of money for such a tiny town. Their justification was that this crony sometimes did volunteer work for the city. I wish someone gave me $195,000 when I volunteered.

They don’t like the idea of public property. I guess it sounds too much like communism. If they could give the entire town away, they might consider it as long as it went to a member of one of the old families. As libertarians like to say, government is the problem. These Dinosaurs are taking seriously the idea of shrinking their local government so much that it can be drowned in a bathtub. Some might call that self-destruction, but they would consider it a victory.

Like many conservatives, they see salvation in big business. The West Branch city council gave TIF agreement to a company with the promise that they would hire 100 residents. The company didn’t live up to their end of the deal when they laid off some people, but they gave the excuse that it wasn’t their fault because of the economy. So, the city council extended their TIF again. Only after the company broke their promise a second time did the city council revoke the TIF. Meanwhile, the city loss massive amounts of money in the taxes not paid.

If you add up all the money the West Branch government has given away or lost, it might add up into the millions. However, whenever any citizen group or committee seeks to do anything productive, the city council and the mayor will claim there isn’t enough money. That is fiscal conservatism for you.

The government of this town does the absolute minimum that it can get away with while keeping taxes as low as possible for town residents. They can get away with this partly because they live in the same county as the more prosperous Iowa City which means they get more county funds than they pay in county taxes. All of this pays for the public schools in town and helps pay for other basic maintenance. All that the West Branch government has to concern itself is that its few streets have their potholes filled and the snow plowed in the winter. The sewers probably need replacing and water pipes break every so often, but the infrastructure works well enough most of the time. The neat thing about infrastructure is that once it is built it can be neglected for decades before it becomes so big of a problem that it can no longer be ignored and shunted off onto the next generation.

A town like West Branch is a metaphor for our entire country. Like the rest of the country, it isn’t a bad place to live. The old white guys in West Branch government are like the old white guys in government everywhere else. This old political elite is part of a very large generation, the Baby Boomers (although the oldest of them are Silents or on the cusp), who have held onto power so long because they were followed by an extremely small generation, GenXers.

Many people, especially conservatives, like to idealize rural life. These days, though, rural life goes along with a lot of dysfunction, the side effects of globalized capitalism. Nearly everything is being concentrated into ever growing corporations, farms being no exception. Small independent farmers and business owners are becoming a rare species, the family farm and business rarer still. With factory farming, the land is being farmed even more intensively which means even less sustainably. I often doubt that we are on the road to long-term prosperity. It can feel that we are as much fighting against so-called ‘progress’ as we are looking for a progress worth fighting for. It is hard to blame old rural people for lashing out at a world they no longer understand.

I don’t think it is all doom and gloom, though. There are still plenty of small independent farmers fighting the good fight. Some have gone organic in looking for a niche market to make enough profit. There has been a growing market for locally grown produce. If the Amish can thrive in this modern society, there are far from being without hope. Besides,  even small towns like West Branch have their up-and-coming young generation looking to the future rather than the past. overwhelmed as they may seem by the old folk.

We typically look to the big cities on the coasts in determining the winds of change, but there remains a significantly large part of the US population living in rural states and not all of them are aging reactionaries. Driving through Iowa, one still sees plenty of progress. Many rural people gladly embrace new technology such as putting up wind turbines or renting their land out for those who put up wind turbines and beneath these behemoths the cows graze. Iowa is a leader in wind energy and most data shows the state doing relatively well compared to the rest of the country. The rural states to the west of the Mississippi fared extremely well even during the economic downturn. The economy could entirely collapse and there still will be a demand for corn, soy and wheat.

More important to my mind, I would note that the Midwest has been for a very long time one of the breeding grounds for progressive, populist and even radical politics. That fiercely independent spirit remains, even if the older generation has forgotten about it. If I were too look for the direction this country is turning toward, I’d probably look to a state like Wisconsin. The battles of local politics can be as inane as national politics, but I think the local politics might have more impact than we realize.