Tuesday, August 26, 2008

17 Days...


In honor of my blogiversary, coming up on Sept. 13, I've been re-posting my favorite pieces written in the early days of What Tami Said--back before anyone was reading. Here's one that originally appeared in February of this year.

Fear and loathing in the flyover states

I don't have much patience for smug attitudes about the Midwest. I was born and raised here, and though I have traveled all over the country, for now, I have chosen to make my life here. There are progressive people in the Midwest...there are radical people in the Midwest...there are creative people in the Midwest...there are erudite people in the Midwest...there are wealthy people in the Midwest...there are cosmopolitan people in the Midwest, just like on the coasts.

The Midwest does have it's own unique personality that encompasses some of the lore about the flyover states.

Here in central Indiana, folks won't let you pass by without speaking. Mind you, I'm not talking about just "hello." I once helped a woman reach a box of detergent at Wal-Mart and was treated to a lengthy dissertation on the proper use of Borax. Everyone wants to talk about the weather, the Colts, the price of gas, Aunt Fanny's bursitis...whatever. Folks go out of their way to make you feel welcome. And in my view (and I am so biased), Midwestern friendly is more genuine than Southern friendly. Midwesterners don't smile and purr at you because it is polite, they genuinely want to know you.

People know their neighbors here. When we moved into our home a year ago, the previous owners left a lengthy letter welcoming us and introducing us to the families next door. Within days of moving in, both had stopped by with goodies. When it snows, Brent, our neighbor who has a snow blower, clears our sidewalk and driveway just because it is the neighborly thing to do. The families on my street know my name and my dog's name, too. We share yard tools and waves. I like that.

Folks are generous in the Midwest. I mentioned to a friend this morning that I needed to buy some wood for a fire on Superbowl Sunday. Five minutes ago, she and her husband dropped off a giant tub full of wood, because they had it to spare. People do stuff like that here.

There are plain, regular folks in the Midwest--not a lot of pretention. And though I tend to enjoy the company of misfits, and sometimes find the homogeneity of this area tiring, it can be comforting not to have to put on airs.

Now, a word about racism. It can definitely be found here, just like it can be found in New England, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. Invariably when intolerance comes up, folks in the Midwest and the South get the shaft. Those incidences of nooses being hung up and down the East Coast last year were viewed as anomalies, because racism is the province of ignorant rubes. But, as a black woman, I know better. Yes, I found Chicago one of the most racist and segregated places in the country. But--and this may surprise some--most of the folks smack in the center of the great red state of Indiana have proven more than tolerant, but actually embracing.

There is a reason, though, that Midwesterners get branded as racists and xenophobes. I think it can be attributed to an aspect of the Midwest personality that scares me with the 2008 presidential election on the horizon and the welfare of our country hanging in the balance.

An article in the Jan. 30, New York Times called "Seeking a Change, but Finding Few Choices," looked at people in the town of Columbia, Tenn., an exurb of Nashville. The folks in Columbia are disenchanted with the Republican party, but mistrustful of Democratic frontrunners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“We have nobody representing us,” he continued, adding that he was “sad to say” he had voted previously for Mr. Bush. He was considering sitting out this election altogether. “Anyone but Obama-Osama,” he said, chuckling at a designation that met with mirthful approval at the table.

In interviews around the courthouse square, voters stuttered over Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in matchups with Republicans, particularly Senator John McCain, whose military credentials give him solid regional armoring. Some white voters voiced outright alarm over Mr. Obama, and though he is a Christian, allusions to his supposed Muslim ties were frequent, as were suggestions that he remained a disturbingly unknown quantity.

White men, in particular, expressed general fearfulness — over a possible terrorist attack, over an unnamed threat from Muslims, over Hispanic immigrants and over the weakening economy. These fears led them to reflect positively on Republican candidates, perceived as more hard-line on most fronts. SOURCE
I know Columbia is in the south, but the lower Midwest isn't so far from the south in distance and thought. I can be at the Kentucky border in less than an hour and a half, in Nashville in less than three hours if I put the pedal to the metal. Like the residents of Columbia, Tenn., who I'll bet are friendly, generous, salt-of-the-earth types, I've noticed that not all, not most, but too many Midwesterners are, by nature, fearful, incurious, averse to the unfamiliar and perhaps too trusting of authority, especially if that authority looks like them.

So, if Rush says Obama is a secret Muslim who won't salute the flag and Hillary is a "feminazi" who will open U.S. borders to brown hoardes, then some of these good people believe. Because if they don't, al Queda will take over the country, all Americans will lose their jobs and their neighborly, safe existence will be over. That's what the people who prey on the fearful, incurious and trusting say, anyway.

I don't quite understand it. Maybe there is something a little mind numbing about the simple life and too many amber waves of grain. John Mellencamp, a son of the Hoosier state, attempted to explain it on "Real Time with Bill Maher:" (relevant content is in the first part of this clip)



Call it naivety or whatever, I hope my good neighbors in the Midwest aren't "swindled" into voting against their best interests this time around. I disagree with Mellencamp and Maher: There is no honor in being naive or cynical. It is good to be honest and to believe in the honesty of other people. And it is good to be smart, knowing that everyone who looks like your neighbor isn't honest, and everyone with a funny name isn't the enemy.
Image courtesy of Arby's at Flickr.

1 comment:

Erica said...

Wow. I moved to South Carolina last year after living in Ohio and Indiana my whole life. I couldn't figure out why the Southern hospitality reputation wasn't quite as friendly as I would have expected, and reading the third paragraph it suddenly clicked... it's too artificial. I never felt like the Midwestern stranger wanted to be my best friend, but I also didn't feel like they're being nice just because they had to.

Now you've made me all homesick :)

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