Most people have a pretty clear idea of what the Midwest is like, even if they’ve never been there, and it’s no surprise that that image isn’t terribly positive. So when I tell people I tell people I live in Indiana, they usually respond with genuine pity or genuine puzzlement — a sympathetic pat on the back or a vaguely condescending “what’s that like?”, or, simply and directly, “why?”. Indiana, after all, falls into the category of flyover states, and the fact that the state bills itself as “the Crossroads of America” doesn’t do much to combat that image.
True, this is the land of shuttered steel mills and auto plants, where city governments and ordinary Hoosiers alike find it difficult to make ends meet in the post-industrial economy. About ten miles east of where I live is the town of Elkhart, where almost half of the RVs in the United States are manufactured, and which, consequently, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 18.8%, almost double what it was last November. About an hour northwest is Gary, the hometown of Michael Jackson and consistently one of the most dangerous, most economically depressed cities in America; its downtown area looks like Sarajevo in the early 1990s. Even South Bend, a college town that’s not all that college town-y, consists of a struggling downtown area that’s kept alive by the University of Notre Dame, and not much else. Thanks to media attention and political maneuvering – Barack Obama visited Elkhart as a candidate once and as President once – northern Indiana has become not only the poster child for the recession, but also an enduring image of the Rust Belt.
But it’s not just economic circumstance driving the Midwest’s poor reputation in the rest of the country; it’s also the vague perception that there’s something wrong with the people there. Take your pick of stereotypes: we’re supposed to be overweight and undereducated, rednecks and hicks who care more about fried food and guns than global warming and sound foreign policy. Urbane and sophisticated are not words that come to mind, but methamphetamine is. Even gentler caricatures make the entire region look thoroughly mediocre, as if its residents were as monotonously flat as the landscape (Garfield, for example, is supposed to be set in Muncie, Indiana). As a friend of mine, and a lifelong New Yorker, observed, it took Michael Jackson to make Indiana sound remotely interesting.
So it should have come as no surprise that the 2008 election stirred up long-simmering resentment against these Midwestern stereotypes. But the attempt to push back against them not only failed but turned into a train wreck, from both a political and a public relations standpoint. For every human interest story about voters thinking through the issues or discussing them rationally, there were two headlines about angry Wisconsinites, Ohioans, Minnesotans, and yes, even Hoosiers, acting out their worst stereotypes to a T. There is no question that the spectacle cemented the Midwest’s reputation as a hotbed of ignorance and fanaticism. Recently, Frank Rich passed a triumphant death sentence on “a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind.” In no uncertain terms, he wrote, the Midwest’s decline is all but complete – and devastatingly total.
Consequently, I’m no longer surprised when people ask why I, a young and (presumably) ambitious person, voluntarily live in this part of the country. The Midwest has been on the fringe for so long that it’s turned into a national punch line, one that allows people to believe that the entire place is infested with fringe lunatics or hopeless dullards.
It really does bother me that people let themselves believe that the sort of people who shout things at political rallies are anything close to the average Midwesterner. And it’s not it true that most Hoosiers are accurately represented by their fictional counterparts, who tend to be petty and incompetent (Jon Arbuckle, Major Frank Burns from M*A*S*H), stupid (Woody from Cheers), or just downright unpleasant (Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, Moe from The Simpsons). It can’t possibly be the case that there are disproportionately more idiots, rednecks, and bores per capita in the Midwest, and it’s certainly not true that you have to live in Indiana to have a distorted view of the world.
I suppose I ought to defend my adoptive home state at this point, but ultimately I’m just ambivalent about it. Yes, it is difficult to find people around my age and with my interests in a city whose population is mostly families or college students, because so many of them have migrated the two hours north to Chicago. Yes, it can get depressing when I can go an entire day during the summer (when the undergraduates have all gone home) without seeing someone who’s within five years of my own age and unmarried. And no question, there aren’t as many civic or cultural events in South Bend as there are in other places where I’ve lived, like Boston or Portland, Oregon.
On the other hand, I can’t really say that my life is that much worse for living here. Periodically, I get the vague sense that I’m not as fulfilled as I should be, but then again I think that’s a standard feature of the post-college early- to mid-twenties, at least for liberal arts graduates. Mostly, I’ve learned one big, take-away point. In the Big City, there are so many opportunities to do hip, artsy, “it” things that you can get your entire existence handed to you by the arts and leisure pages if you want. In northern Indiana, it takes a lot more imagination and effort to stave off boredom (but luckily, your social circles are probably just as bored as you are). Does that mean that one is necessarily better than the other, or that one offers a qualitatively richer way of life?
Let me put it this way: I’ve lived through three earthquakes in my life, and one of them happened in Indiana. Not bad for a flyover state.