Damnation: Rural Radicalism

Damnation is a new show on USA Network (co-produced by Netflix). It’s enjoyable entertainment inspired by history and influenced by literature.

As Phil De Semlyen at Empire summarizes the background of the show, it is “a 1930s saga of big business concerns and poor, struggling families, with possibly a sprinkling of Elmer Gantry-like religious hypocrisy, crime and demagoguery thrown in for good measure. “It’s set in the Great Depression and based on true events,” Mackenzie tells Empire of this heady-sounding mix, “It’s about strikers and strike-breakers in Iowa, almost the Dust Bowl, which is bloody interesting.” A bit Steinbeck-y, then? “Kind of. A little bit more amped than that, but yeah.”” And from a Cleveland.com piece by Mark Dawidziak, the show’s creator Tony Tost explained in an interview that,  “They’re unquestionably two of my favorite writers… The world of John Steinbeck as presented in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Cannery Row’ was a big influence, as was Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, ‘Red Harvest,” which is set in a Western mining town. All of that went into the soup when writing ‘Damnation.’ ” In mentioning that interview, Bustle’s Jack O’Keeffe writes that,

While the show’s creator has named The Grapes Of Wrath as a touchstone for the series, it also calls to mind one of the most acclaimed period films of the past decade. The 2007 film There Will Be Blood covers the first three decades of 20th Century America, stopping just shy of the Great Depression. However, the small-town rivalry between a suspicious preacher and a business-minded capitalist that arises in There Will Be Blood seems to mirror the central conflict present in Damnation. Damnation seems to be drawing from some pieces of American fiction about the sociopolitical realities of this particular era.

In an interview with Cleveland.com, Tost admitted that Damnation’s influences don’t stop at Steinbeck or the violent filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Tost also listed iconic western director Sam Peckinpah, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, and the non-fiction book Hard Times: An Oral History Of The Great Depression among his many inspirations. While Damnation may have invented the details of its story, the creative forces behind the show seemed to do their homework when it came to capturing an accurate picture of what life was like then.

While many of the show’s influences are set 80 years ago, the most surprising source for Damnation may be 2017. Tost told Cleveland.com in the previously mentioned interview, “If you look at the 1930s — a time when there was increasing distrust in institutions, there was fear of finding meaningful work, there is this onslaught of new technology taking away jobs — the relevance [of the show to 2017 audiences] is almost inescapable.”

In a Fayetteville Flyer interview, Tost describes “it as 1/3 Clint Eastwood, 1/3 John Steinbeck, 1/3 James Ellroy. That is, it takes some characters you’d normally see in a tough western, plops them in the world of Grapes of Wrath, and places them in the sort of pulpy paranoid narrative you see in Ellroy’s novels.” About the research, he says:

It’s a blast. Back in my academic days, my field of study was American literature from 1890 to 1945 and I wrote a dissertation on the influence of new technologies in the 20s and 30s on the American imagination. Then I wrote a book about Johnny Cash which delved into the same time period from a different angle, looking at the music and preachers and myths of Americana. So by the time I came up with Damnation as a TV show, I had a good feel for the period, I think. I’ve done plenty of research since then: oral histories and historical accounts of the period and so forth. We have a person who works on the show who daily does research into various arenas we’re interested in, whether it’s carnivals or bootlegging or pornography or baseball or what have you. Largely, I subscribe to David Milch of Deadwood’s advice: do a ton of research, then forget it, and then use your imagination. So Damnation mingles official history with fiction. I sometimes call it a “speculative history” of the time period.

And about “parallels between that period and today,” he states that there are, “Too many to list. I think that’s one of the things that got us the series order from USA network. Populist anger, fears about technologies and immigrants taking away jobs, fascist tendencies, fears of environmental apocalypse (dust bowl), life and death struggles over who is or isn’t a “real” American. The parallels are often spooky.”

So, even as it follows the general pattern of known history, it doesn’t appear to be based on any specific set of events. It is about the farmer revolts in Iowa during the Great Depression (see 1931 Iowa Cow War, 1932 Farmers’ Holiday Association, & 1933 Wisconsin Milk Strike), the kind of topic demonstrating traditional all-American radicalism that triggers the political right and makes them nostalgic for the pro-capitalist political correctness of corporate media propaganda during the Cold War. But I don’t think the fascist wannabes should get too worried since, as we know from history, the capitalists or rather corporatists defeated that threat from below. The days of a radical working class and of the independent farmer were numbered. The show captures that brief moment when the average American fought against the ruling elite with a genuine if desperate hope as a last stand in defending their way of life, but it didn’t have a happy ending for them.

The USA Network can put out a show like this because capitalism is so entrenched that such history of rebellion no longer feels like a serious threat, although this sense of security might turn out to be false in the long run. Capitalist-loving corporations, of course, will sell anything for a profit, even tv shows about a left-wing populist revolt against capitalists — as Marx put it, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” The heckling complaints from the right-wing peanut gallery are maybe a good sign, as they are sensing that public opinion is turning against them. But as for appreciating the show, it is irrelevant what you think about the historical events themselves. The show doesn’t play into any simplistic narrative of good vs evil, as characters on both sides have complicated pasts. One is free to root for the capitalists as their goons kill the uppity farmers, if that makes one happy.

As for myself, the show is of personal interest as most of the story occurs here in Iowa. The specific location named is Holden County, but I have no idea where that is supposed to be. There presently is no Holden County in Iowa and I don’t know that there ever was. All I could find is a reference to a Holden County School (Hamilton Township) in an obituary from Decatur County, which is along the southern border of Iowa (a county over from Appanoose where is located Centerville with an interesting history). Maybe there used to a Holden County that was absorbed by another county, a common event I’ve come across before in genealogical research, but in this case no historical map shows a Holden County ever having existed.

The probable fictional nature of the county aside, there is a reason the general location is relevant. Iowa is a state that exists in multiple overlapping border regions, between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, between the Midwest and Far West, between the Upper Midwest and the Upper South. It is technically in the Midwest and typically perceived as the Heart of the Heartland, the precise location of Standard American English. The broad outlines of Iowa was defined according to Indian territory, such as how the northern border of Missouri originally formed. What became a boundary dispute later on almost led to violent conflict between Missouri and Iowa, based on the ideological conflict over slavery that would eventually develop into the Civil War.

Large parts of Iowa has more similarity to the Upper Midwest. It is distinct in being west of the Mississippi River, one of the last areas of refuge for many of what then were still independent Native American tribes and hence one of the last major battlegrounds to fight off Westward expansion. Iowa is the only state where a tribe collectively bought its own land, rather than staying on a federal reservation. As for southern Iowa, there is a clear Southern influence and you can occasionally hear a Southern accent (as found all across the lower edge of the Lower Midwest). That distinguishes it from northern Iowa with more of the northern European (German, Czech, and Scandinvian) culture shared with Minnesota and Wisconsin. And the more urbanized and industrialized Eastern Iowa has some New England influence from early settlers.

Maybe related to the show, southern Iowa had much more racial and ethnic diversity because of the immigrants attracted to mining towns. This led to greater conflict. I know that in Centerville, a town once as diverse as any big city, the Ku Klux Klan briefly used violence and manipulation to take control of the government before being ousted by the community. The area was important for the Underground Railroad, but it wasn’t a safe area to live for blacks until after the Civil War. In Damnation, some of the town residents are members of the Black Legion, the violent militant group that was an offshoot of the KKK (originally formed to guard Klan leaders). In the show, the Black Legion is essentially a fascist group that opposes left-wing politics and  labor organizing, which is historically accurate. The Klan and related groups in the North were more politically oriented, since the black population was fewer in number. In fact, the Klan tended to be found in counties where there were the least number of minorities (racial minorities, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities), as shown in how they couldn’t maintain control in diverse towns like Centerville.

One of the few blacks portrayed in the show is a woman working at a brothel. I supposed that would have been common, as blacks would have had a harder time finding work. In a scene at the brothel, there was one detail that seemed to potentially be historically inaccurate. A Pinkerton goon has all the prostitutes gathered and holds up something with words on it. He wants to find out which of them can read and it turns out that the black woman is the only literate prostitute working there. That seems unlikely. Iowa had a highly educated population early on, largely by design — as Phil Christman explains (On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality):

This is a part of the country where, the novelist Neal Stephenson observes, you can find small colleges “scattered about…at intervals of approximately one tank of gas.” Indeed, the grid-based zoning so often invoked to symbolize dullness actually attests to a love of education, he argues: 

People who often fly between the East and West Coasts of the United States will be familiar with the region, stretching roughly from the Ohio to the Platte, that, except in anomalous non-flat areas, is spanned by a Cartesian grid of roads. They may not be aware that the spacing between roads is exactly one mile. Unless they have a serious interest in nineteenth-century Midwestern cartography, they can’t possibly be expected to know that when those grids were laid out, a schoolhouse was platted at every other road intersection. In this way it was assured that no child in the Midwest would ever live more than √2 miles [i.e., about 1.4 miles] from a place where he or she could be educated.7

Minnesota Danish farmers were into Kierkegaard long before the rest of the country.8 They were descended, perhaps, from the pioneers Meridel LeSueur describes in her social history North Star Country: 

Simultaneously with building the sod shanties, breaking the prairie, schools were started, Athenaeums and debating and singing societies founded, poetry written and recited on winter evenings. The latest theories of the rights of man were discussed along with the making of a better breaking plow. Fourier, Marx, Rousseau, Darwin were discussed in covered wagons.9

If you’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, you know that many of these schools were founded as centers of abolitionist resistance, or even as stops on the Underground Railroad.

The rural Midwest was always far different than the rural South. Iowa, in particular, was a bureaucratically planned society with the greatest proportion of developed land of any state in the country. The location of roads, railroads, towns, and schools was determined before most of the population arrived (similar to what China is now attempting with its mass building of cities out of nothing). The South, on the other hand, grew haphazardly and with little government intervention, such as seen with the the crazy zig-zagging of property lines and roads because of the metes-and-bounds system. This orderly design of Iowa fit the orderly culture of Northern European immigrants and New England settlers, contributing to an idealistic mentality about how society should operate (the Iowa college towns surrounded by farmland were built on the New England model).

The farmer revolts didn’t come out of nowhere. The immigrant populations in states like Iowa were already strongly community-focused and civic-minded. With them, they brought values of work ethic, systematic methods of farming, love of education, and much else. As an interesting example, Iowa was once known as the most musical state in the country because every town had local bands.

Unlike the stereotype, Iowans were obsessed with high culture. They saw themselves on the vanguard of Western Civilization. With so many public schools and colleges near every community, Iowans were well educated. The reason school children to this day have summers off was originally to allow farm children to be able to help on the farm while still being able to attend school. These Midwestern farm kids had relatively high rates of college attendance. And Iowa has long been known for having good schools, especially in the past. My mother has noted that so many Iowans she knows who are college-educated professionals went to small rural one-room schoolhouses.

Another factor is that Northern Europeans had a collectivist bent. They didn’t just love building public schools, public libraries, and public parks. They also formed civic institutions, farmer co-ops, credit unions, etc. They had a strong sense of solidarity that held their communities together. As the Iowa farmers stood together against the capitalist elites from the cities (the banksters, robber barons, and railroad tycoons), so did the German-American residents of Templeton, Iowa stood against Prohibition agents:

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9 [Bryce T. Bauer, Gentlemen Bootleggers]). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

Damnation is a fair portrayal of this world that once existed. And it helps us to understand what destroyed that world — as vulture capitalists targeted small family farmers, controlling markets when possible or failing that sending in violent goons to create fear and havoc. That world survived in tatters for a few more decades, but government-subsidized big ag quickly took over. Still, small family farmers didn’t give up without a fight, as they were some of the last defenders of a pre-corporatist free market based on the ideal of meritorious hard work — the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer with its vision of agrarian republicanism, in line with Paine’s brand of socially-minded and liberty-loving Anti-Federalism.

On a more prosaic level, one reviewer offers a critical observation. Mike Hale writes, from a New York Times piece (Review: ‘Damnation’ and the Sick Soul of 1930s America):

Any fidelity to the story’s supposed place and time is clearly incidental to Mr. Tost. He’s transposed the clichés of 19th-century Wyoming or South Dakota to 1930s Iowa, and doesn’t even get the look right — shot in Alberta, the locations look nothing like the Midwest.

Perhaps he was drawn to the contemporary echoes of the Depression-era material but wanted to give it some mock-Shakespearean, “Deadwood”-style dramatic heft. There’s a lot of literary straining going on — the characters are more familiar than you’d expect with the work of Wallace Stevens and Theodore Dreiser, and the sordid capitalism and anti-Communist fervor depicted in the story invoke Sinclair Lewis and Jack London.

I’m not sure why Mike Hale thinks the show doesn’t look like Iowa. He supposedly grew up in Iowa, but I don’t know which part. Anyone who has been in Western Iowa or even much of Eastern Iowa would recognize similar terrain. I doubt anything has been transposed.

Iowa is a young state and, as once being part of the Wild West, early on had a cowboy culture. Famous Hollywood cowboys came from the Midwest, specifically this region along the Upper Mississippi River — such as Ronald Reagan who was from western Illinois and worked in Iowa and John Anderson who was born in Western Illinois and was college-educated in Iowa, but also others who were born and raised in Iowa: John Wayne, Hank Worden, Neville Brand, etc (not just playing cowboys on the big screen but growing up around that cowboy culture). This isn’t just farm country with fields of corn and soy. Most of that is feed for animals, such as cattle. Iowa is part of the rodeo circuit and there is a strong horse culture around here. A short distance from where I live, a coworker of mine helps drive cattle down a highway every year to move them from one field to another.

But as I pointed out, none of this contradicts it also being a highly educated and literate population. I don’t know why Hale would think that certain writers would be unknown to Midwesterners, especially popular and populist writers like Jack London. As for Theodore Dreiser, he was a fellow German-American Midwesterner who wrote about rural life and was politically aligned with working class interests, including involvement in the defense of radicals like those Iowa farmers — the kind of writer one would expect Iowans, specifically working class activists, to be reading during the Great Depression era. That would be even more true for Sinclair Lewis who was from neighboring Minnesota, not to mention also writing popular books about Midwestern communities and radical criticisms of growing fascism — the same emergent fascism that threatened those Iowa farmers.

It’s interesting that an Iowan like Mike Hale would be so unaware of Iowa history. But maybe that is because he was born and spent much of his life outside of Iowa, specifically outside of the United States. His family isn’t from Iowa and so he has no roots here. I noticed that he tweeted that he “Was intrigued ‘Damnation’ is set in my state, Iowa. Didn’t expect the crucifixion, gun battles and frontier brothel”; to which someone responded that “If in Palo Alto, San Jose & NYC since ’77, IA hasn’t been ur state 4 awhile.” Besides, part of his childhood wasn’t even spent in Iowa but instead in Asia. And beyond that, many people simply don’t think he is that great of a critic (see Cultural Learnings, Variety, and Mediaite).

A better review is by Jeff Iblings over at The Tracking Board (Damnation Review: “Sam Riley’s Body”). The review is specifically about the first episode, but goes into greater detail:

Damnation is a new show on USA Networks set in the 1930’s during prohibition, the dust bowl era, and the social unrest during the unionization and strikes that accompanied the corruption of that time. It’s an intriguing look at a moment in American history when people began to wrest control away from a government bought and paid for by industrialists, only to have their movement squashed by the collusion of moneyed interests and the politicians they’d paid for. The series begins in Holden, Iowa as farmers have formed a blockade around the town so no more shipments of produce can reach the city. The powerful banker in town, who owns the newspaper and the Sheriff, has bribed the market in town to keep his food prices low, to price the famers out of making a profit on their crops so they’ll default on the loans he’s given them. A preacher in town fans the flames of the farmer’s unhappiness and gets them to revolt against the banker. Who is this mysterious preacher, and what does he have planned? […]

Damnation is clearly well researched, and the true-life stories it uses to flesh out its world are there to service the narrative, not overburden the show. 1930’s America was a desperate, bleak time, where moneyed interests controlled everything. The game was fixed back then, with politicians in the pocket of industrialists and wealthy bankers. The people had nothing more to give, since the wealthy had taken nearly everything from them. It’s a very relevant tale. Almost the same exact thing is going on again in present day America, which I would imagine, is one of the points of Damnation.

Iblings writes in another Damnation review of the second episode:

Tony Tost and his writers room delve into the history of the Great Depression in order to mine forgotten aspects of our political and social movements. It’s incredible how prescient much of the struggles of the farmers depicted still are problems today. Price fixing, bank negligence and dishonesty, politicians in the pockets of big business, the stifling of the labor movement when it’s needed most, and the inherent racism and protectionism of white Americans towards other races are all as topical today as they were in the 1930’s. It’s as if little has actually changed 100 years later. Damnation may be a historical television series, but it’s speaking to the America of today.

And about the third episode, he writes:

There are a few interesting moments I want to point out that really stuck with me. The first is the opening scene of a couple watching their kids playing baseball and taking great joy in it. When the wife goes into the shed to get the kids some cream soda, there are nooses hanging from the ceiling and Black Legion outfits hung up on the walls. The man then exclaims to his wife, “If this isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.” Damnation uses this banal setting, and these uneventful people to show how the American dream was an exclusionary ideal. They look like normal people you’d run into, but underneath this veneer are racist secrets. This prejudice was pervasive back then, but in Trump’s America this type of hatred and racism has become the norm once again. It was disgusting then, and it’s disgusting now.

What I like about the show is how it portrays the nature of populist politics during that historical era. The show begins in 1931, a moment of transition for American society in the waning days of Prohibition. The Great Depression followed decades of Populism and set the stage for the Progressivism that would follow. The next year Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected and later on re-elected twice more, the most popular president in US history.

What many forget about both Populism and Progressivism is the role that religion played, especially Evangelicalism. In the past, Evangelicals were often radical reformers in their promoting separation of church and state, abolitionism, women’s rights, and such. Think of the 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech given by William Jennings Bryan. This goes back to how Thomas Paine, the original American populist and progressive, used Christian language to advocate radical politics. Interestingly, as Paine was an anti-Christian deist, the leader of the farmers revolt is a guy falsely posing as an itinerant preacher, although he shows signs of genuine religious feeling such as sparing a man’s life when he sees the likeness of a cross marked on the floor near the man’s head. However one takes his persona of religiosity, the preaching of a revolutionary Jesus is perfectly in line with the political rhetoric of the period.

I also can’t help but appreciate how much it resonates with the present. The past, in a sense, always remains relevant — since as William Faulkner so deftly put it,  “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” In a New York Post interview, the show’s creator Tony Tost was asked, “How relevant is the plot about the common man battling the establishment today?” And he replied that, “I wrote the first two episodes, like, three years ago, but contemporary history keeps making the show feel more and more relevant. I’m not necessarily trying to do an allegory about the present, but history is very cyclical. There’s some core elemental conflicts and issues that we keep returning to. In a way, the present day almost caught up.”

As with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, Damnation has good timing. Such hard-hitting social commentary is important at times like these. And in the form of entertainment, it is more likely to have an impact.

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State of Emergency: The Depression and the Plots to Create an American Dictatorship
by Nate Braden, Kindle Locations 510-571
(see Great Depression, Iowa, & Revolts)

“In September 1932 Fortune published a shocking profile of the effect Depression poverty was having on the American people. Titled “No One Has Starved” – in mocking reference to Herbert Hoover’s comment to that effect – Fortune essentially called the President a liar and explained why in a ten page article. Predicting eleven million unemployed by winter, its grim math figured these eleven million breadwinners were responsible for supporting another sixteen and a half million people, thus putting the total number of Americans without any income whatsoever at 27.5 million. Along with another 6.5 million who were underemployed, this meant 34 million citizens – nearly a third of the country’s population – lived below the poverty line. [1]

“Confidence was low that a Hoover reelection would bring any improvement in the country’s situation. He had ignored calls in 1929 to bail out banks after the stock market crashed on the grounds that the federal government had no business saving failed enterprises. With no liquidity in the financial markets, credit evaporated and deflation pushed prices and wages lower, laying waste to asset values. Two years passed before Hoover responded with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created to distribute $300 million in relief funds to state and local governments. It was too little, too late. The money would have been better served shoring up the banks three years earlier.

“With each cold, hungry winter that passed, political discussions grew more radical and less tolerant. Talk of revolution was more openly voiced. Harper’s, reflecting the opinion of East Coast intellectuals, pondered its likelihood and confidently asserted: “Revolutions are made, not by the weak, the unsuccessful, or the ignorant, but by the strong and the informed. They are processes, not merely of decay and destruction, but of advance and building. An old order does not disappear until a new order is ready to take its place.”[2]

“As this smug analysis was rolling off the presses, the weak, the unsuccessful, and the ignorant were already proving it wrong. Most people expected a revolt to start in the cities, but it was in the countryside, in Herbert Hoover’s home state no less, where men first took up arms against a system they had been raised to believe in but no longer did. On August 13, 1932, Milo Reno, the onetime head of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, led a group of five hundred men in an assault on Sioux City. They called it a “farm holiday,” but it was in fact an insurrection. Reno and his supporters blocked all ten highways into the city and confiscated every shipment of milk except those destined for hospitals, dumping it onto the side of the road or taking it into town to give away free. Fed up with getting only two cents for a quart of milk that cost them four cents to bring to market, the farmers were creating their own scarcities in an attempt to drive up prices.

“The insurgents enjoyed local support. Telephone operators gave advance warning of approaching lawmen, who were promptly ambushed and disarmed. When 55 men were arrested for picketing the highway to Omaha, a crowd of a thousand angry farmers descended on the county jail in Council Bluffs and forced their release. The uprising just happened to coincide with the Iowa National Guard’s annual drill in Des Moines, but Governor Dan Turner declined to use these troops to break up the disturbance, saying he had “faith in the good judgment of the farmers of Iowa that they will not resort to violence.”[3]

“The rebellion spread to Des Moines, Spencer, and Boone. Farmers in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota declared their own holidays. Milo Reno issued a press release vowing to continue “until the buying power of the farmer is restored – which can be done only by conceding him the right to cost of production, based on an American standard of existence.” Business institutions, he added, “whether great or small, important or humble, must suffer.” While advising his followers to obey the law and engage only in “peaceful picketing,” Reno issued this warning: “The day for pussyfooting and deception in the solution of the farmers’ problems is past, and the politicians who have juggled with the agricultural question and used it as a pawn with which to promote their own selfish interests can succeed no longer.”[4]

“Reno and his men had laid down their marker. Aware that the insurrectionists might call his bluff, the governor stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, but he kept his Guardsmen in Des Moines just in case. The showdown never came – a mysterious shotgun attack on one of Reno’s camps near Cherokee was enough to persuade him to call off the holiday – but others weren’t cowed by the violence. The same day Reno issued his press release, coal miners in neighboring Illinois went on strike after their pay was cut to five dollars a day. Fifteen thousand of them shut down shafts all over Franklin County, the state’s largest mining region, and took over the town of Coulterville for several hours, “exhausting provisions at the restaurant, swamping the telephone exchange with calls and choking roads and fields for a mile around” the New York Times reported. Governor Louis Emmerson ordered state troopers to take the town back. Wading into a hostile, sneering crowd who shouted “Cossacks!” at them, the police broke it up with pistols and clubs, putting eight miners in the hospital.

“The rebels were bloodied but unbowed. Vowing to march back in to coal country, strike leader Pat Ansbury told a journalist, “if we go back it must be with weapons. We can’t face the machine guns of those Franklin County jailbirds with our naked hands. Not a man in our midst had even a jackknife. When we go back we must have arms, organization and cooperation from the other side.” Shaking his head at the lost opportunity, he made sure the reporter hadn’t misunderstood him. “This policy of peaceful picketing is out from now on.” Reno conducted a similar post-mortem, acknowledging that his side may have lost the battle but would not lose the war: “You can no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution. I mean the revolution of 1776.”[5]

“Not only were farmers burdened by low commodity prices, they were also swamped with high-interest mortgages and crushing taxes. In February 1933 Prudential Insurance, the nation’s largest land creditor, announced it would suspend foreclosures on the 37,000 farm titles it held, valued at $209 million. Mutual Benefit and Metropolitan Life followed suit, all of them finally coming to the conclusion that they couldn’t get blood from a rock.

“It was also getting very dangerous to be a repo man in the Midwest. When farms were foreclosed and the land put up for auction, neighbors of the dispossessed property holder would often show up at the sale, drive away any serious bidders, then buy the land for a few dollars and deed it back to the original owner. By this subterfuge a debt of $400 at one Ohio auction was settled for two dollars and fifteen cents. A mortgage broker in Illinois received only $4.90 for the $2,500 property he had put into receivership. An Oklahoma attorney who tried to serve foreclosure papers to a farm widow was promptly waylaid by her neighbors, including the county sheriff, driven ten miles out of town and dumped unceremoniously on the side of the road. A Kansas City realtor who had foreclosed on a 500-acre farm turned up with a bullet in his head, his killers never brought to justice. [6]”

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Iowans and Alien Invasion

The Alien Invasion genre is more popular in Iowa than compared to most states, including elsewhere in the Midwest.

After being abducted by aliens a few times in a cornfield, you start to take the alien issue more seriously. Watch the movie ‘Children of the Corn’ and you’ll understand that great dangers lurk in cornfields. It’s not just dreams that are found in those fields. If you build it, you can’t be certain who or what will come.

Let’s just say that we are concerned. And we are also prepared, as another Iowan favorite is the Amateur Crime Fighters genre. Still, we are open to other possibilities, as we also like the Paranormal Romance genre. We’re undecided about the appropriate response to the unknown.

We don’t care much about the Fairy Tale genre, though. That is kid’s stuff. No one ever worries about a fairy invasion. Just don’t eat the food at the fairy banquet and you should be fine.

As for the Health & Fitness genre and the Money genre, we couldn’t care less. When the aliens invade, such mundane details of existence will be the least of our worries. Besides, the aliens offer free ‘health’ exams and, once they take over the planet, the entire monetary system won’t matter all that much.

We Iowans prefer to keep ourselves grounded with our enjoyment of the Humor genre. Maybe the aliens will turn out to have a sense of humor. Or even if not, it’s probably wise to not take things too seriously. The aliens will do what they will do.

* * *

Popular Genres in 9 Maps
Audible.com

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