Guest Post: Examining the Middle West
Uncle Sam started life trim, young, self-assured — in fact, he started out as a woman. Before Sam personified this union, beautiful lady Columbia, draped in spangled colors and carrying the tablets of wisdom, stood as our image. Today, perhaps this country ought to be represented by something different still: a chimera, a conglomeration of unrelated beasts mashed together with little sense of artistic proportion: bulging a bit here, spilling over a bit there, lacking in coordination and balance.
We have grown monstrous in size, and out of balance in development. The once-slim republic has swollen with the more than 300 million who now dwell herein. It is no original insight, either, to point out a growing polarization in our politics and balkanization in our culture, nor to mark a loss of shared memory, identity, and meaning in a population so huge. Even while mobility and the internet cut distance, in some ways, down to nought, they also allow us to sort ourselves into silos of the like-minded. What’s more, the platforms they provide support a kind of mass-marketing that, paradoxically, pushes our cultural life towards a flavorless uniformity.
It is a double problem, then, where the weakening of local, in-person community by these technological advances (and their related cultural shifts) pushes us toward a disconnection from our neighbors and towards a conformity with those who live across the country. This is because truly local communities thwart uniformity by developing unique identities in virtue of the very particulars of place, person, and history that make them the place they are. They temper polarization, too, by forcing members of the community into interactions as neighbors and not merely as avatars of competing political identities. Of course, we know of the dangers of tribalization and insularity that can arise when locales become too internally focused, but it could be that today we have overreached a balance between the local and the cosmopolitan in a way that invites a new kind of tribalism, one based less on shared life and place and more on ideology or patterns of consumption.
This, at last, brings us to the issue at hand, which is why it is that the Midwest, of all places, has something unique to offer in this state affairs, and why it is really necessary that it offer it. The country needs this middle region’s voice in its affairs, its contribution to culture, its stories. Were the cultural life of this country to be left in the hands of the residents of only 3 or 4 major metropolae on the coasts, we would see the increase of the troublesome situation already present: a media and entertainment industry marketed towards the well-to-do urban progressives, and a corresponding media, mostly online, marketed to toward the working class, more rural, conservatives. Two vast socio-political parties who increasingly fail even to argue with one another in any meaningful way, so little do they share.
The culture is incomparably richer and healthier when its genetic pool is more diverse — when it is a meeting of local cultures more varied and particular, but sharing in a certain fundamental self-conception. There was a time when the cultural life of this country did not come primarily from those few massive cities, a time when the Midwest was home to some of its finest and most distinctive writers, painters, and architects. It can be again, and the polity would be better for it. This region was able, in its particular way, to remind its neighbors of their shared American story and character.
But, more than this, the Midwest does retain today its own specific character, and just as the Southern or Mountain States have their own unique savor and point of view, so too does this heartland. But there is something especially important about this middle region, which, apart from its geographical centrality, has been a historical bulwark of, well, normalcy. It has been neither really progressive nor reactionary, not given to enthusiasms, and sceptical on all sides of radical movements. While the country has rocked with its cultural tremors and political upheavals the Midwest has lumbered along with its block parties, parish picnics, and potlucks as if they had been carrying on from the beginning of time. This is slowness, perhaps, but never backwardness: the Midwest was generally well ahead of its neighbors to both south and east on civil rights, spurred the reformist and union movements of the Gilded Age, and gave the country some of its finest and most innovative works of culture. Beneath these contributions is the solidity and scepticism of rural, farm life and the personal amiability of the small and mid-sized town. Our large cities too are different from cities elsewhere — Chicago, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and so on — are still shaped by and embedded in the cultural life of the rural quilt fabric they dot like gems.
More still, this part of the country, stretching in rolling green hills, high bluffs, and cupped valleys from the Platte to the Ohio has its own particular genius. This landscape (whose calmness hides its vasty sublimity from the too-quick, searching eye), the pioneer history of those who settled it, its farmers, laborers, and lumberjacks, its droughts and hard times lend it a character all its own and a certain story to tell, too. Today, some Midwesterners themselves have begun to forget this character, but the whole country would be the poorer for not having known it.
To put it simply, it is good for the country to hear the Midwest’s voice, and good for for the Midwest to exercise it. This is because in hearing it, the nation has a better shot at being more integrated and balanced, and in speaking it, the Midwest might become more truly itself. In a writing as short as this, we will have to content ourselves more with an impression than an argument, and indeed libraries could be filled with more thorough treatments of the social phenomena referenced and of what it is that defines the Midwestern spirit. Perhaps it is enough, for now, to suggest that there might be a valuable, balancing element in what Bill Bryson called the dull, amiable, serene Midwestern soul — an element worth sharing.
Nathan Beacom is a writer living in Des Moines, Iowa.
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