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.

What Is Kentucky?

I was looking into the data and history on Kentucky. My motivation was diverse. I was thinking about violence, but I was more generally considering what makes Kentucky such a unique state.

North of Kenutcky, there is Ohio and Indiana. That is the earliest settlement areas of the Midwest. These particular Lower Midwest states are as influenced by Southern culture as Kentucky is influenced by Midwestern culture. Hence, the hybrid name of Kentuckiana.

In my visit to Kentucky, I mostly saw the central part of the state. Traveling through rural areas, I was surprised how much it felt like the Midwest. It wasn’t all that different from nearby Indiana, where my own Kentucky ancestors moved to. The main difference is that the barns in Kentucky are painted black because many of them were originally built to dry tobacco, although these days much of the land is being used for grazing cattle, just like in the Midwest.

Many of my Kentucky ancestors were of German heritage, another commonality with Midwesterners. Near where they lived, there is a Shaker village. The Shakers are more commonly associated with the North. Here in Iowa and throughout the Midwest, there are many Quakers and Amish as well, two other religious groups that are also found in the Upper South but not the Deep South.

Furthermore, the limestone country straddles the border region of the Upper South and Lower Midwest. My Kentuckiana family worked in the limestone industry about a century ago. Limestone country is some of the most beautiful land in the country. The streams and rivers cut through the limestone in wondrous ways. All of this border region is defined by water, where it flows and where it gathers.

Western Kentucky is a narrow part of the state. This is where it touches the narrow part of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln’s early life began in Kentucky, involved years in Southern Indiana, and then later on as an adult his political career began in Illinois. That was a common path of westward movement for many families.

The whole state of Kentucky stretches westward, defined by that very movement of the population pushing the boundary of civilization. At that western edge, the state touches upon the Mississippi river, the last great boundary of the frontier. Just across that water is Missouri with a similar set of cultural, historical, and geographic issues as Kentucky. I’m not familiar with this part of Kentucky, but I’m sure there are some old river towns there and I’m sure more industrialization happened because of it.

To the South of Kentucky, Tennessee stretches lengthwise as the twin of Kentucky. They are like two children who were adopted by different parents. Both grew up in an early history of violence. Tennessee remains one of the most violent states in the country, and yet Kentucky has somehow become one of the least violent states in the country. However, the memory of Kentucky violence is not buried all that deep.

This brings me to Eastern Kentucky and especially the Southeast stretch. This is where Appalachia dominates. So, this is where is found the long history of the worst rural poverty, the most infamous violence and fueds, and of course mining and labor organizing.

Here the state borders Virginia and West Virginia. It is through these states that Kentucky had its strongest influence of what would later come to be thought of as Southern culture. Virginia was the earliest slave colony, where a completely different line of my family was part of the first generation of slaveholding aristocracy. A couple centuries after the colonial settlement, West Virginia broke away because of the Civil War, but that wasn’t just a political split but also a cultural split. West Virginia was more defined by Appalachia and the Scots-Irish settlers.

The struggle for control of Kentucky involved many divides. It was the birth state of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s family, like Daniel Boone and my own family, left for various overlapping reasons. There was a lot of legal conflict there and so it was a highly litigious society, because of the complications of the metes and bounds system in creating property boundaries (a British system that was used throughout the South and parts of the early Midwest, specifically Southern Ohio). There was also the slave issue that pushed many people further west toward the free territories and states.

Even after the Civil war, there was still a class war element to this. The Black Patch Tobacco War was an expression of this (the Black Patch is Western Kentucky where the soil grew a dark tobacco). There was the first developments of big agriculture. A monopoly had formed that was squeezing out small tobacco farmers, and they weren’t happy about it.

The pressure on small family farms was common throughout the Midwest as well, but the difference was the response. This is where Kentuckians showed their Southern side by organizing the Night Riders who were the strong arm of the small farmers’ association. These Night Riders terrorized anyone who didn’t join the Association. Property was destroyed and people killed. They didn’t wait for distant government, state or federal, to help them with oppressive big biz and a local plutocratic ruling class. They had a tradition of taking care of their own problems.

The dark side of this is that the Night Riders ended up being hard to distinguish from the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks joined the Association at higher rates than whites, because they were hurt the most by the suppression of tobacco prices. Still, none of this mattered to the racially-motivated opportunists. Some of the terrorism was directed at innocent black farmers. They were either killed or sent packing, and their land and property was stolen (or bought cheaply at the threat of violence).

This shows a weird mix of Southern and Northern social patterns.

The violent mob way of dealing with the problem was Southern. This was also seen in the Southern-tinted edge of the Lower Midwest — for example, the KKK was a big player in Southern Indiana. A similar thing was found with the Italian Black Hand and the later Mafia in Northern cities, but my point is that this wasn’t a common way of dealing with problems in places like the rural Upper Midwest or even the Northern parts of the rural Lower Midwest (Italian immigrants and their descendants have never been a majority in the Midwest and so that ethnic culture never defined the Midwest).

Yet the Kentucky history of sundown towns where blacks disappeared from entire communities and regions is more typical of the rural North than of the rural Deep South. As in the Lower Midwest states, the blacks in rural areas had been large in number and then disappeared. This is how blacks ended up in concentrated numbers in big cities, such as Lexington or Chicago.

There used to be many blacks in rural Kentucky. However, when I visited there, I didn’t see a single black person in the rural areas. Similarly, the first settlement in the Iowa town I live in (Iowa City) was a free black community and some nearby towns had a fair number of black families a century or so ago. Then most of the blacks disappeared from the area for most of the 20th century, until recent years when they’ve begun to return.

In the rural Deep South, there aren’t many sundown towns. People forget that the rural Deep South has a large black population, as it has had since it was first settled. However, the rural Upper South is more like the rural North in this aspect.

This difference is seen in the diverging trajectories of Kentucky and Tennessee. They were split during the Civil War. Lincoln understood the symbolic and strategic importance of Kentucky. This is why one of the early actions the Union army took was to secure a famous Kentucky racehorse because of its symbolic value. The Confederates took another good racing horse that was sired by it. However, it was the Union that won the state, for the same basic reason West Virginia split off, there was too much of the population that saw little personal benefit from being loyal to a slave owning aristocracy. Also, the Northern cultural influence was quite significant.

Tennessee is clearly Southern, but Kentucky is different. It isn’t part of a single region. Rather, it connects quite diverse regions. The Lexington metropolitan area is quite a different world from rural Appalachia. In 2002, an Eastern Kentucky sheriff was assassinated during a political rally. That is an area of all kinds of violence, once famous for moonshine and now famous for illegal drugs. It is what people think of as Kentucky, but it is just one part of the state.

Still, I don’t mean to even dismiss that small corner of Kentucky or the whole of Appalachia. I’ve written about how it is misleading to speak of blacks as having weak and broken families (see here and here). Black family ties and communities are surprisingly strong, when considering all that they have going against them. Stronger in many ways than what is found among middle-to-upper class whites.

The same goes for poor whites in Appalachia. They actually put a lot of value on family and religion, just like blacks. In some ways, it is because their values are so strong that they are so poor. They refuse to leave their families and their homes, their land and their communities just to chase dreams of wealth and social mobility. They are traditional conservatives, something mainstream American conservatives don’t understand with their obsession about some unbalanced notion of fiscal conservatism, economic well-being and success at nearly any cost.

That is something rural Appalachians do share with rural people all over the country. Many people see them as having been left behind. That might be the case for some of these people who feel trapped by circumstances, but I wouldn’t generalize. These poor people could move, but they’ve chosen not to. Besides, where are they going to move to? The entire country is economically hurting. Would being poor elsewhere be an improvement? Sure, in the big city, they could get better access to public services and maybe better education… but at what cost? They would lose everything and everyone they know. They would lose their roots and their cultural identity.

My family left that world behind. They chased the American Dream and slowly climbed the social ladder. My Indiana-born mother, descendant of poor Kentuckians, went to college and became an upper middle class professional. She assimilated into mainstream culture, including losing her Hoosier accent. Yet, for all the sacrifices made, the middle class is now under attack as has been happening a long time for the poor working class. Not unlike the Black Patch Tobacco War or the Appalachian mining strikes, big business is making life hard for so many people and so few feel that big government is on their side.

States like Kentucky are more representative of America than others may think. Kentucky isn’t just some backwater frozen in time. Kentuckians are a part of what it means to be American.

* * * *

An additional thought:

I realized that I had left out one of my favorite things. Kentucky and some of the nearby states have something that defines the region more than anything else, at least in my mind. It is what defines this particular culture and how it manifests in communities and politics.

I became familiar with this type of culture through my experience of North Carolina, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina is another fascinating state with an unusual history. Some consider its early rebellious population as being the true starting point of the American Revolution.

Like Appalachia, all of North Carolina wasn’t as easily accessible. It formed an area of refuge between two great slave societies, Virginia and South Carolina. This laid the foundation for a different kind of political tradition, more progressive than its coastal neighbors.

This can be seen in the many diverse communities, communes, monasteries, retreats, and colleges. The reason I was in North Carolina was as an employee for several summers at the Black Mountain YMCA camp. It previously had been a well known alternative college that attracted some of the greatest thinkers at the time. That was my introduction to a different kind of Southern culture than I had grown familiar with from years living in South Carolina.

In the mountains, roads crisscrossed in such a way that I felt like I might come across almost anything around the next bend. There were hidden nooks everywhere and thick forests covered the land. There is a sense of freedom in this that people have sought for centuries.

Appalachia is similar the Upper South in general, specifically Kentucky. Even on the western side of Kentucky, there are rolling hillsides and winding roads. It’s not like the parts of the Deep South that have been heavily developed and it’s not like the flat farmlands to the horizon of much of the Midwest. It’s inferior soil and rocky landscape has protected it. A very different feel from Iowa, for example, which is the most developed state in the country. Big agriculture tried to rule Kentucky, but the conditions weren’t right for it. There just aren’t many massive farms in Kentucky, as found in the Midwest.

So, the land is cheaper. If you want to live on your own private mountain or start your own alternative community, a place like Kentucky is a good choice. The Upper South was less known for building infrastructure, but there are enough roads for travel purposes. For good and bad, there is a tradition of being against big government and high taxes. The live-and-let-live worldview allows a certain kind of freedom, even though in the poorest areas it also leads to some not so nice results. A fair number of rural Southerners still like to take care of their own problems, if we are to go by the data.

I wouldn’t want to go tromping through the poorest of Appalachia any more than I’d want to walk through the poorest of inner cities. Still, that has little to do with the average person living in these places. If we ended the War On Drugs, there probably would be great and positive changes seen in poor communities all over the country. There is a long history for why poor people, blacks and whites, have a lot less trust of outsiders and of government. There is a reason that so many poor people, rural and urban, learn to take care of their own problems, as best they can.

I wouldn’t be the first person to see a cultural connection between poor white Southerners and poor black Northerners. Those poor black Northerners mostly descend from poor Southern populations. It is a common culture. Many of the rural blacks who left Kentucky ended up in Northern inner cities. Even some of the rural whites who headed north also found themselves in similar circumstances, although like my family it was a bit easier for them to escape through upward mobility, not always though. The prejudice against Southern whites was strong among Northern whites because they were competing over the same jobs with the same white privilege.

Anyway, I was wanting to note that the Midwest did have some of the same community traditions as the Upper South. That is seen with the communities of Amish, Shakers, and Quakers. The Amish have been successful in refusing to fully assimilate to mainstream American society, not unlike certain populations of Appalachians. It was more challenging, however, in the more highly populated and developed Midwest to escape the forces of and demands for assimilation.

I find it comforting that there are still communities and populations that have managed to maintain some of their traditional cultures and ways of life. Outsiders may think that the self-isolated Amish and rural Appalachians are backwards, but that is being dismissive. Some people even think monks choosing a life of asceticism in a monastery is also backwards. Everyone who doesn’t perfectly assimilate is somehow wrong or strange. As an immigrant nation, the dominant society has become obsessed with assimilation, sometimes force entire populations to assimilate against their will or at least to destroy whatever culture they had before.

I’d like to see a revival of the American tradition of resistance to assimilation. I don’t mean simply assimilating to yet another monolithic culture, such as a blanket Southern identity. I’d like to see communities be more independent, not just culturally but also economically and most important politically. That is what a place like Kentucky reminds me of, a place where the forces of assimilation and resistance have been fighting it out for a long time.

I don’t mean to romanticize rural life or poor communities. I just see how the dominant society and how big biz has destroyed the independence that Americans once had. Independence has to be built on identity, on the sense of who you are in your immediate community and relationships.

* * * *

Possible Sundown Towns In Kentucky
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

General Info On Sundown Towns in Tennessee
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

Terror in the Night
by Ron Soodalter, Kentucky Monthly

Blacks, Gun Cultures, and Gun Control: T.R.M. Howard, Armed Self-Defense, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Second Amendment Foundation

The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars
by Tracy Campbell

Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America
by Elliot Jaspin

A History of Blacks in Kentucky: In pursuit of equality, 1890-1980
by George C Wright

Origins of the New South, 1877–1913: A History of the South
by C. Vann Woodward

Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950
by James C. Klotter

Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century
edited by Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, Altina Laura Waller

Everyone Code Switches

Living in a college town, I deal with people from different places. I notice how, as a parking ramp cashier, I treat customers differently. I’m guilty of judging people by appearances and by accents. I’ve worked this job for so long that I unconsciously categorize people, you might say I profile.

It doesn’t alter the quality of my customer service or anything like that. But it amuses me because of how it does effect how I act.

I think this comes from having spent much of my life split between two distinct regions. I had to learn a new way of talking and acting when I moved to the Deep South as a kid. When I returned to the Midwest after high school, I still had a bit of the Southern accent that I had picked up. It also took me a while to stop referring to all of my customers as “Sir” and “Mam”. There were many ways of speaking that I had to drop from my repertoire, but they remained within my mind.

What many people don’t think about is that inner city dialect is a product of the South. I more often interact with people with an inner city dialect than a Southern one, but they are similar in certain ways. When I hear someone speak with a stereotypical inner city dialect, I naturally fall back to aspects of my Southern way of speaking.

This happened the other day. A black customer spoke with an inner city dialect. Instead  of saying a solid Midwestern “fine” in response to something, I said the (Deep) Southern equivalent, which is “all right” but without the last letters enunciated, more like “ah’righ”.

I would never speak this way to my fellow white Midwesterners. Sure, I’d likely respond to a white Southerner in that same way, but here in Iowa City I don’t run into too many whites from the Deep South or even whites from the inner city of Chicago. It’s mostly blacks who elicit this from me because around here it is only among blacks that I’m likely to hear the closest equivalent to a Deep Southern dialect.

When this happened, I realized what I was doing. I code switched. I didn’t code switch from white to black culture, but from Northern to Southern culture. It’s just that inner city blacks and I have both inherited a bit of the Southern culture.

I unconsciously look and listen for cues about people. I more or less treat people the same, but there are tiny shifts in how I act or speak. I only notice them when I’m actively thinking about it. It is more than just about black people or the rare Southern person I meet. For example, I switch the way I interact depending on how I perceive someone’s class. It is easy for me to code switch between middle class and working class, as I spent my life in both of those classes at different times. I know how to act in proper middle class ways, when needed.

All of this is based on my perception, of course. It is a superficial level of interaction, but that is what daily interactions tend to involve. Everyone does this type of thing and most people give it a lot less consideration. Even if you are aware of how you act in different situations, it isn’t easy to control. Although I couldn’t for the life of me intentionally speak with a Southern accent, I’d probably slide right back into it if I moved back to the Deep South.

These are the outward expressions of social identity. It’s not who we are at a deeper level, just the patterns of behavior we learn from those around us. We then carry these patterns with us for the rest of our lives, even if we leave an early influential environment that shaped us. We all have many selves, ways of acting and roles we know how to play. We can forget about some of these aspects of our identity, until something brings it out in us.

 

The Midwest, Is It Great?

I’m a big fan of the view that regions in the U.S. are more or less culturally distinct, although with plenty of overlap at the borders. As a Midweseterner, I have pride in my region, along with significant criticisms, but for the moment I’ll focus on the positives.

I’m not offering a serious analysis here. I just came across an article about the Midwest that offered some data and so I thought I’d share it. The article is This Is Why It’s So Great To Be A Midwesterner, According To Science by Sara Boboltz. It is a HuffPo fluff piece, but some of the data is nonetheless interesting.

Regional Differences In Personalities Confirmed In New Study

“Their findings: Friendly and conventional were the most common traits among people living in the South and north-central Great Plains region, while relaxed and creative were the most common traits for those in the Western and Eastern seaboard areas. New Englanders, on the other hand, were most likely to possess the traits of uninhibited and temperamental.”

Yeah, friendly and conventional. That sounds about right. This might seem strange in some ways, though, for these same parts of the Midwest are also historically known for their progressive and socialist politics. So, it is conventional in its own way, but not in the way the MSM media portrays what is conventional in the US.

By the way, there appears to be one state that is a good balance between Midwestern and West Coastal predispositions. That state is Wyoming. It rates moderately high on friendly and conventional while it also rates moderately high on relaxed and creative. Colorado also looks fairly balanced between the two.

Volunteering in America: Research Highlights

“Highest volunteer rate: Since 1989, the Midwest region of the United States has had the highest volunteer rate among U.S. regions for all adults, with a rate of 23.9 percent in 1989, and 30.2 in 2008. This is a shift from 1974 when the West had the highest volunteer rate.

“Largest number of volunteers: Since 1974, the number of volunteers in the South has almost doubled from 10.5 to 20.7 million, giving the South the largest number of volunteers of all the regions. Just between 2006 and 2008, the South has gained almost 300,000 volunteers. The Midwest comes in at a distant second in volunteer numbers at about 15.6 million.”

Two other regions need to be given credit. The West region doesn’t have the highest rate of volunteers, but apparently those who do volunteer make up the difference for they win the award for most volunteer hours on average. In the Northeast region, they are dedicated to fundraising and so at least they put their money where their mouth is. As for specific states, Utah and Alaska deserve respect in their volunteer activities.

Route 66, Midwest culture charm international tourists, study finds

““When Europeans travel on Route 66, most of their feedback is that it’s a very different experience from the big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., which can all seem very much alike,” Huang said. “Route 66 reveals the inner beauty of the U.S. Midwesterners are friendly, easygoing and enthusiastic. They’re proud to tell you what they have in their community and are willing to share their heritage, their history and their stories. A lot of tourists enjoy that.””

I’m not so sure about this study. It seemed rather limited and self-serving. Route 66 extends way beyond the Midwest.

Montanans, Alaskans Say States Among Top Places to Live

“Residents of Western and Midwestern states are generally more positive about their states as places to live. With the exception of the New England states of New Hampshire and Vermont, all of the top 10 rated states are west of the Mississippi River. In addition to Montana and Alaska, Utah (70%), Wyoming (69%), and Colorado (65%) are among the 10 states that residents are most likely to say their state is among the best places to reside. Most of these states have relatively low populations, including Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska — the four states with the smallest populations in the nation. Texas, the second most populated state, is the major exception to this population relationship. Although it is difficult to discern what the causal relationship is between terrain and climate and positive attitudes, many of the top 10 states are mountainous with cold winters. In fact, the two states most highly rated by their residents — Montana and Alaska — are among not only the nation’s coldest states but also both border Canada.

“With the exception of New Mexico, all of the bottom 10 states are either east of the Mississippi River or border it (Louisiana and Missouri). New Jersey (28%), Maryland (29%), and Connecticut (31%) join Rhode Island among the bottom 10.”

This seems less about the Midwest. It is only parts of the Midwest that show this pattern. What this actually shows is that the Midwest is split between Eastern and Western Midwest and between Lower and Upper Midwest. This corresponds to the parts of the Midwest that were settled earlier and those settled later, which corresponds to the concentration of populations in rural areas and big cities.

Pinterest Hits 10 Million U.S. Monthly Uniques Faster Than Any Standalone Site Ever -comScore

The popularity of Pinterest in the Midwest isn’t necessarily a good thing. I don’t have any strong opinion about Pinterest, but I’m not sure what value Pinterest adds to the Midwestern quality of life.

America’s Most Affordable Cities

“But the Midwest dominates when it comes to affordability, with 11 metro areas making the list, including five in the state of Ohio alone: Cincinnati (No. 3), Dayton (No. 4), Akron (No. 6), Toledo (No. 11), and Columbus (No. 20). Michigan landed three cities on the ranks: Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Warren. Even as Detroit languishes in the wake of banruptcy, the suburban hub of Warren, half an hour away, is experiencing an auto manufacturing renaissance of its own.”

The real story in the data is that it is extremely expensive to live in the West. That probably has to do with the combination of large populations and low availability of water. Many Western states are dependent on immense government funding to maintain their massive infrastructures.

Air Quality Better in Northeast, Midwest

“While a decade of efforts to reduce air pollution in the United States has improved air quality in many cities in the Northeast and Midwest, 175 million people are still exposed to dangerous levels of smog and soot, a new report reveals.”

Once again, the real story is that it sucks to live in other places. Having clean air shouldn’t be something that gets praise. Rather, clean air should be seen as a basic human right. The Midwest simply has less polluted air, relatively speaking. But we all share the same freakin atmosphere and so we all end up breathing the pollution, just that some get more of it than others.

Utahans Least Satisfied With Air Quality

“Meanwhile, residents of the northern Midwest are the most likely to be satisfied. South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming top the list, with 96% satisfied in each state. Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are also among this group, as are far away New Hampshire and Vermont. These regional similarities may be related to the climate or geography in these disparate parts of the country, or a matter of population density, or some combination of the three, as in Utah.”

Of course, it is nice living in low population states so that you aren’t constantly sucking on heavily polluted air. This is probably a large reason for why people living there love their states so much. However, those people in those states indirectly contribute to the pollution in the rest of the states by products they buy that are made and transported from elsewhere. It’s the old problem of costs being externalized onto others.

It is strange, though, that Utahans complain about their air quality. I wouldn’t think that Utah has higher rates of pollution than the coastal states. Maybe they are a sensitive group of people. The article blames it on a weather phenomenon that traps the smog where most of the residents live. Could that possibly be worse than some of the bigger cities famous for their smog? Maybe so.

Want a three-car garage? You’re more likely to find it in the Midwest

“For one, housing hasn’t grown evenly in all regions of the country. New homes are largest in the South, where the median floor area last year was 2,469 square feet; they’re smallest in the Midwest, at a median 2,177 square feet. (The median for the whole country is 2,384 square feet.) But over the past four decades, home size has grown the most in the Northeast: The median floor area of a new home there was 61% above the corresponding median in 1973. [ . . . ]

“Midwesterners, by contrast, appear more interested in garage space than living space: 38% of new homes in that region have garages built for three or more cars, well above all other regions. (Perhaps they need the room for their snowblowers and other winter gear?)”

I’m not sure why Midwestern homes would have less floor area. But it is understandable that Midwestern homes have larger garages.

Midwesterners do need more winter equipment. Plus, in my experience, Midwesterners simply love to do manual labor, such as doing their own yardwork or building things. Midwesterners love to have equipment that can be used to accomplish things, whether blowing snow or sawing wood. There is a self-reliant streak, which seems to make Midwesterners reluctant to hire out work, even among those with the money to afford it.

That is just a hypothesis. But I would like to see data about it.

States in West and Midwest Lead Nation in Teacher Respect

“Residents living in several states in the West and Midwest lead the nation in saying teachers in their communities are well-respected. Nevadans and Louisianans are among the least likely to say this about their local teachers — slightly more than six in 10 residents in each state say their teachers are well-respected.”

The differences are worthy of note. In some states, it is nearly 9 in 10 residents who say teachers are well-respected. But pointing that out misses the fact that the majority of all Americans say teachers are well-respected. But you wouldn’t know that by paying attention to right-wing media or listening to conservative politicians.

Buying lunch out? Survey shows Midwesterners spend less than others

“The credit card company found that Americans typically buy lunch out almost twice a week and spend about $10 each time. Specifically, average national spending was $18 per week, or $936 per year.

“But spending patterns varied by region, and Midwest diners spend less on lunches out than people in any other part of the country, the results showed. They went out 1.7 times per week and spent only $8.90 each time, for a weekly average of $15.13.

“Southerners led per-week spending, going out twice a week and spending $10 each time, or $20 a week. Westerners spend $10 per lunch 1.8 times a week for a total of $18.

“Northeasterners lunched out the least, but spent the most when they did, dining out for their midday meal 1.5 times a week but dropping $11.40 each time, for a weekly total of $17.10.”

I don’t know what could possibly explain this. Maybe this relates to the Midwest being a more affordable place to live. So maybe it is also a more affordable place to operate a restaurant, and so cheaper prices for meals served. But it is hard to say. There could be many factors involved.

Anyway, I’m not sure this is evidence for Midwesterners being cheap or thrifty.

The Midwest Accent

“The examples of the cot/caught merger and the Northern Cities Shift serve to contradict the perception that Midwestern speech lacks any distinguishing characteristics. However, both of these developments have been in operation for several decades at least. Why haven’t they entered into popular perceptions about Midwestern speech? Perhaps they will come to be recognized as features of the dialect in the same way that dropping of /r/ serves to mark Boston speech or ungliding of long i (‘hahd’ or hide) marks Southern speech. But, considering the general stereotypes of the Midwest, it seems more likely that they might never be recognized. One thing about linguistic stereotypes is certain: they have less to do with the actual speech of a region than with popular perceptions of the region’s people. As long as Midwesterners are viewed as average, boring or otherwise nondescript, their speech will be seen through the same prism.”

This article is about a shift that is occurring in the Midwestern dialect, a shift that few seem to be noticing at present. It is a change that may lead to larger changes in American English. The Midwest has for a long time been a source of what is considered Standard American English. As Standard American English changes in the Midwest, it likely will shift across the nation.

I don’t know why this matters all that much. It does imply something culturally important about the Midwest. This is the Heartland and it is called that for a good reason. The Midwest has always been central. It is central in terms of geography, in terms of population concentration, and in terms of infrastructure. It is the crossroads of the country.

Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where’s Home?

“Both the survey and Census data indicate that the biggest differences in the characteristics of movers and stayers revolve around geography and education. In the Midwest, nearly half of adult residents say they have spent their entire lives in their hometown. That compares with fewer than a third of those who live in Western states. Cities, suburbs and small towns have more movers than stayers, while rural areas are more evenly split. Three-quarters of college graduates have moved at least once, compared with just over half of Americans with no more than a high school diploma. College graduates also move longer distances — and move more often — than Americans with a high school diploma or less, and employment plays a greater role in their decisions about where to live. By income group, the most affluent Americans are the most likely to have moved.”

That is interesting in a number of ways.

There are differences between more rural and more urban states. But many of the farming states still have most of their populations concentrated in urban areas. So, a rural state isn’t necessarily the same as having a majority rural population.

Something else that came to mind is that the Midwest tends to highly value education. But maybe the Midwesterners who get the most education tend to move away from the Midwest. I don’t know. There are a ton of college towns all over the Midwest, although I’m sure they don’t represent most of the population.

Anyway, it does fit the stereotype of the Midwest. One thinks of the region as a settled place with relatively stable communities. This would follow the aspect of the friendly and conventional Midwestern personality.

 

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.

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.

Borders of the Middle Border, Heart of the Heartland

I was reading my local alternative news and culture magazine, the Little Village. In the most recent issue, there is an article by Thomas Dean titled Mapping the Middle: What delineates the heartland. It is about how the Midwest is defined.

Dean mentions a mapping of the Midwest done by way of an online survey. He describes the results, from the Little Village article:

The eastern edges flow into New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma seem pretty solid on the map’s southern border. The western edges extend from the Texas panhandle as far as Idaho. And plenty of Canada is in “the Midwest,” too, extending on the north up to Calgary and Edmonton. Some responses even include Seattle, Las Vegas and much of northern Mexico. If the Midwest is a state of mind, this map redefines the idea of “expanded consciousness.”

The above links for the original website (sasaki.com) are now dead. I did find another article from the City Lab website (The Atlantic) that has info and also a map—Go Ahead, Try Drawing an Outline of the Midwest on a Map by Jennie Xie:

This is interesting survey as it includes respondents from all over the US and beyond. The map is interactive allowing you to look at the data according to where respondents were born and how long, if at all, they have lived in the Midwest. Depending on which category or categories is included, the Midwest’s boundaries shift, mainly centered in the same basic region but expanding or shrinking.

Dean mentions that, having taught in different states, he has had the opportunity to ask students about this topic. His “(unscientific) conclusion” was that, “The Midwest radiates out in a circle from the respondent’s location at the center.” He goes on to write:

When I asked the question in Michigan, Pennsylvania was often included; not one student mentioned either of the Dakotas, and I got only a smattering of the Minnesotas. When I asked students in Moorland, Minn. (just a wheat stem away from Fargo, N.D.), Montana and Colorado were popular answers, and it seemed as if they had never heard of Ohio and MIssouri. Nearly always, the responder’s own location was at the center of the circle.

That makes sense. We are subjectively biased, of course, the world extending outward from where we are. Besides, the Midwest is the Heartland and the heart is where your home is. Maybe that is why the results lead to such an extended defining of the boundaries of the Midwest by those outside of the Midwest. As I’ve argued, the Midwest is the standard by which many people judge being American. As America has grown, so has the Midwestern identity.

According to most mappings, Iowa appears to be about the center of what people think of as the Midwest. This is true for people born outside of the US and have spent no time in the Midwest. And this is true for those who were born in core Midwestern states and have lived in the Midwest their entire lives.

If you limit to Iowans who have lived in the Midwest their entire lives, you get the same boundaries as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

Dean concludes with this:

Oh, and by the way, as I’ve solidified my own Midwestern map over the years to conform to the U.S. Census Bureau’s, Iowa City is about smack dab in the middle of that.

I’ve come to this view for my own reasons. As a long-term Iowa City resident, I’m biased toward Iowa (specifically Eastern Iowa) as the center of the Midwest. Most Americans seem to basically agree in that Iowa is somewhere in or directly around the center of the mapped results. This makes sense as this is the precise area where originated Standard American English (also called General American).

Midwest began as what was called the Middle West. It was seen as the expanding frontier in the main corridor through which early pioneers traveled. It seems that the Midwest has been expanding ever since. At this point, it has come to define the public perception of much of the interior expanses of largely rual landlocked states, especially any state that has a history of farming.

Iowa was once the far frontier, the Mississippi Rivr being the last major boundary of westward flow of settlements. Now Iowa has become the approximate geographic center of the Midwest, the Heart of the Heartland.

The Midwest is a major theme in my blog. Among other posts I could list, here are some related posts:

Midwestern Values of Community & the Common Good

Midwest vs Coasts: history, culture & politics

America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest

American Borg: On Assimilation & Family

Midlands Mestizo: Pluralism and Social Democracy

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

Midwestern Green

Iowa State Parks: Past and Present

To Be Iowan…

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

Iowa Politics & the Younger Generations

Great Depression, Iowa, & Revolts

Radicals & Reformers of Indiana

Patchwork Nation: Evangelical Epicenters & Tractor Country

Appalachia Meets Midlands: My Kentucky & Indiana Family History

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

As the Heartland, what is in the heart of America? What was planted here? What has grown? What has come to fruition?

The Midwest is Middle America. Without a middle, there is no whole. The periphery, America’s coasts and borders, receives all the attention like the sweet juicy flesh surrounding the seed, but it is the seed that is the purpose of the fruit. Out of the seed grows what was in the seed to grow. The seed grows upward where the fruit is to be had, but the roots surrounding what was the seed holds it all in place. The center, like the roots, must hold for if it doesn’t nothing will remain to be held; a weakly rooted tree will topple. The center is what is at the core, the middle that defines the whole, the circumference measured outward from that point of reference, that point of stability.

In America, the middle has always been the Midlands and the former Middle Colonies, the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest that extends into the interior. It is the cultural middling point where cultures meet, clash, merge, and even out. It is the linguistic middle of Standard American English. It is the median and mean center of the United States population.

Right now, the Emerald Ash Borer is slowly making its way across the Midwest. A couple of years ago it finally made it to Iowa and all the Ash trees I see in this Iowa town may soon be gone. The Norse World Tree Yggdrasil is considered to have been an Ash tree, out of which the first man was formed and the sugary sap from which was made the Mead of Inspiration. The Ash tree has long been rooted in Western society. It is a hardwood tree and so has been highly prized, including for use in shipbuilding. Consider how many immigrants came to America afloat upon ships built out of Ash wood. Yet now we are watching possibly a mass extinction of Ash trees, not just a single variety of Ash trees but all Ash trees.

How does the Emerald Ash Borer kill a tree? It does so by cutting off the flow of nutrients from roots to the crown. Where did this pest come from? It is an invasive species from Eastern Russia and Asia.

It is thought that the Emerald Ash Borer was brought to America along with a shipment of parts. This is one of those inevitable unintended results of globalization. The entire United States is itself an unintended result of globalization. The Atlantic colonies were part of the first major era of globalization. Many of the earliest colonies, especially Virginia and New Netherland, were simply intended as capitalist investments and not to develop into full-fledged societies, much less an independent united country. One of the earliest unintended consequences back then was slavery. Another unintended consequence was multiculturalism.

Many Americans today worry about the consequences of mass immigration, even though multiple waves of mass immigration have occurred every century since the colonies were founded. America is mass migration. It is the heart and soul of this crazy experiment.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on a plaque at the feet of the Statue of Liberty)

In these words is the only moral justification to be found for our having become an empire or what in doublespeak is these days called a global superpower. Call it what you will, but the US acts like an empire: colonial territories such as Hawaii and Philippines; regularly starting wars of aggression along with regularly invading and occupying countries; military bases in countries all over the world and naval presence in international waters all over the world; et cetera. The US is the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

(See the following: Manifesting America by Mark Rifkin, The Dominion of War by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, A Turn to Empire by Jennifer Pitts, and Among the Powers of the Earth by Eliga H. Gould)

I’m personally not in favor of my country being an empire (I say ‘my’ with some reservation for a subject doesn’t possess but is possessed by an empire, yet I must take some responsibility for it as I’m a direct beneficiary of its power). Nonetheless, if the metaphorical ‘we’ are going to be imperialists, we at least ought to stick to our moral justifications for doing so. We are an immigrant nation. This is our role in the world. Other countries accept us as big brother because every country has immigrants and descendants living in America. This is seen as everyone’s country. This is why the citizens of other countries mourned with US citizens after the 9/11 attack, and indeed the people who died in that attack were of diverse nationalities and citizenship. Without this moral justification for our empire-building, we are simply yet another big bully. Too many Americans want the benefits of being an empire with none of the responsibilities.

Multiculturalism is the tap root of the Tree of Liberty, whether for good or ill. In the 18th century, South Carolina had a African majority and Pennsylvania had a German majority. Further back in the 17th century, New Netherland had a Dutch majority, New Sweden a Swedish majority, the Spanish territories such as Florida with a Spanish majority and the French territories with a French majority. Even after being taken over by the British, New Netherland/New York still had a large Dutch population. Also, today much of the former Spanish territories that became the United States have continuously maintained a hispanic majority. Of course, the Native American territories had their native majority and once were the majority of the entire continent. These are the roots of the United States. This region of North America has never had a majority population that was of English descent.

One of the conflicts colonists had with the British government was over the rights of Englishmen. I wonder if the reason the British government was so uncertain about the colonies was the fact that there were so many colonists who weren’t Englishmen. I could understand as the ethnocentric ruling elite of an empire that they were wary of equally offering the rights of Englishmen to people who weren’t Englishmen. Those are the kinds of problems that come from empire-building. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in the colonies were also mostly Englishmen. So, they took quite seriously their supposed rights as Englishmen and took offense at their being denied.

Still, I wonder if it ever occurred to the mostly English-descended founding fathers, as they convened congress in Philadelphia, that they were surrounded by fellow colonists who weren’t Englishmen. Even back then, Pennsylvania was the Keystone. The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been. There was well-founded fears of despotic power arising after the defeat of the British military, and quite prescient considering what this country has become.

It is interesting how this colonial region of multiculturalism was also the region with some of the strongest advocates for British loyalty and political moderation. It was the keystone not just for political and military reasons but also for cultural reasons. The Quakers as well believed in the rights of Englishmen. However, the Quakers were different in their understanding of English constitutionalism. They saw their rights directly rooted in the British constitution. They believed in popular sovereignty and that reform must be sought through the constitutional process. Englishmen didn’t lack a constitution and so didn’t need to create one. They simply needed to improve the very constitution that had given them the rights of Englishmen in the first place. (It is sadly ironic that this is precisely what is now claimed of the US constitution that violently replaced the British constitution. Americans prize their constitution and speak of the democratic process of creating amendments. Yet the US constitution was created by a process no more democratic than the process that created the British constitution.)

The Middle Colonies were the swing colonies for the issue of revolution just as today the Midwestern states are the swing states for presidential elections. It is partly because this has always been where the mass of the population has been centered. The reason it is centered here is because the Mid-Atlantic is where most immigrants arrived and the Midwest is where most immigrants settled. This wasn’t accidental but quite intentional. They were multicultural havens right from the start. To the North and to the South, the other colonial governments were more wary about letting just anyone to settle in their area or even merely to dock their ship full of immigrant strangers. In the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania, a more tolerant attitude prevailed. This is the source of the Midwestern moderate sensibility.

During the revolutionary era, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Delaware embodied this the most clearly. He was born of parents of multi-generational Quaker descent. He married a woman of multi-generational Quaker descent. He lived among Quakers and associated with Quakers. However, he came to believe in wars of defense which the Quakers didn’t support and so he wasn’t a Quaker. This single point aside, his worldview was thoroughly Quaker. But even in this point of disagreement, his taking a moderate support of war only in cases of defense was very fitting for the Quaker attitude of moderation. Dickinson was in this way semi-pacifist. He believed violence should be avoided at all costs when possible. His understanding of defense was very narrow and strict.

Dickinson was a principled man. Oddly, as a reform-minded moderate, he was a key player in helping to make the revolution possible. He was the most popular pamphleteer until Thomas Paine (the latter also having had Quaker values instilled in him by his father). Without what Dickinson helped start and what Paine helped finish, the American Revolution may never have gotten very far, quite likely not succeeding at all. These Quaker-descended righteous men (with, at least in the case of Paine, Quaker-taught plain speech) knew how to articulate a collective vision of freedom that unified what was otherwise just a bunch of disparate gripes about government. Many have misunderstand Paine as a mere revolutionary. Paine also sought moderation in his own way, but he sought a moderation of power that would benefit the commoner rather the established elite. To the established elite, this didn’t seem moderate at all. For example, Paine was a deist which he saw as a middleground position where the divine was envisioned as a moderating force between morally unrooted radical atheism/secularism and authoritarian theocratic tendencies such as established churches. Both Dickinson and Paine sought moderation while remaining principled. Neither changed with the times, but the world around them shifted over their lifetimes. They found themselves criticized and forgotten by those less moderate and less principled.

My point is to show the power of this vision of moderation. Like Quaker pacifism and tolerance, it need not be a position of weakness for it holds the potential of immense strength, both strength of conviction and strength of influence. Not all moderates are neutral and passive. The greatest wisdom of moderation, however, is easily forgotten even by moderates. When moderation loses its moral center, it merely becomes a defense of the status quo. The center is what holds, but what is being maintained and for what purpose?

The proponents of moderateness are what hold this diverse country together. An empire wouldn’t be possible without them. That is the rub. Modern empire-building has necessitated this kind of conservative-minded liberalism, the latter thus becoming complicit with the former. Why not give Hawaii back to the Hawaiians, the Philippines back to the Filipinos, former Northern Mexico back to the Mexicans, and at least some of the former Indian territories back to the Native Americans? Why did we as a country expend so much blood in keeping the country together during the Civil War? Why do we want to be a great power on the earth? Why not just be free and independent communities that govern themselves as they see fit?

I love the Midwest for its moderation. I truly believe the Midlands has helped keep this country together, for whatever that is worth (I often do think there is worth in this, certainly Dickinson and Paine did). Still, the dark side of this bothers me. I see it in a status quo mentality. The attitude of tolerance only goes so far and often is only advocated when it is convenient and easy, when no sacrifices are required. This is the rot in the Tree of Liberty.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Jefferson proved to be less consistently principled than the likes of Dickinson and Paine, but still his words resonate as I don’t doubt that he believed them when he wrote them. What has often been on my mind lately is how the American Revolution was ideologically and politically lost by the principled reformers like Dickinson and the principled revolutionaries like Paine. Accordingly, it could be said that the American Revolution went too far and not far enough. Those who took the reigns of power were the very ones least interested in any liberty besides their own. It is strange how radical a moderate like Dickinson can sound compared to what came to pass.

I’ve never been sure about revolution, specifically violent revolution. It is hard to say that Canada is worse off for embracing slow reform instead of bloody insurrection. Canada has a more multicultural society than even the US. Plus, Canada has fewer of the problems found in the US: high poverty, high wealth inequality, low social mobility, etc. The American Revolution seems to have created a very divided country and made the Civil War inevitable. The British, instead, offered freedom to many slaves right after the revolution and many of them settled in free communities in Canada. I sometimes wonder if Canada is offering a better American Dream than America.

Is there something worth saving by moderation in America? Can we regain the moderate vision of John Dickinson? Or can we finally follow to completion the freedom-loving vision of Paine? If we are so incapable of worthwhile non-violent reform, what makes some people think that yet again more violence will solve our problems? How many more revolutions and civil wars do we need? What is this deformed tree of ‘liberty’ that has grown out of conflict? Should we hope to water it once again or just let it die from its own rot? What would we plant in its place? Or are there other seeds already planted that don’t need blood to grow?

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country–not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society–cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”
~ Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

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.