Easy Chair — From the December 2017 issue

On the Corner of Myth and Main

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There was a time when I didn’t know that I lived in Middle America. When I was very young, growing up in eastern Minnesota, I thought I was just an American — how sweet — and that I existed at the center of everything, not in some sort of gap between two more important places. I also didn’t know my class, which was “middle” as well. “Upper” was barely present in my town, and “lower” was simply “poor” — it was a condition, not a category. Poverty was visible everywhere: the farmhouses without plumbing, the old men in old coats trudging along the highways, the kid on my school bus who wore socks as mittens.

My sense of myself as a middle-class Middle American developed only once I moved “out East” to study at Princeton. There, I met one other student from Minnesota, one from North Dakota, and several kids from Ohio and Illinois. This made sense; my native region was simply less populous than the coasts, and didn’t boast as many elite prep schools. What surprised me, though, was being treated as a sort of exotic by my peers. Many seemed not to know where Minnesota was or how it was different from Montana. Or Nebraska. Or the yellow blur of states covered in corn and wheat. Remarkably, these ignoramuses seemed proud of their confusion with regard to basic facts of the atlas. When I tried to educate them, they tuned out. When they tried to educate me, however, on the difference between “the Vineyard” and “the Cape,” it was presumed that such information mattered. And I agreed. By the time I graduated I’d internalized the mental map of America I found there — the one with the indistinct, boring, bland, soft center.

Years later, after work brought me back to the Corn Belt, I began to question that view. Now I know that Middle America doesn’t exist — as a region or a culture or a meaningful intellectual construct. There is no such thing as the heartland. Flyover country — that vast negative space with the negative name — is an illusion you’ll never locate no matter how long and how hard you search for it.

It was a novelist from Montana, Thomas McGuane, who popularized the phrase “flyover country,” in an article for Esquire in 1980. He was trying to capture the condescension he’d sensed among Hollywood types who “seemed to acknowledge only two places, New York and Los Angeles.” I’ve worked with similar people, and they truly, deeply believe in Middle America. It’s the mythical place they blame for problems they’d like to believe they had no hand in creating, such as the elevation to the presidency of a New Yorker made famous by reality TV — a man whose rival grew up in Illinois and served as the first lady of Arkansas.

Among those who cherish the fantasy of Middle America is Michael Tomasky, a political columnist from West Virginia who wrote an essay for The New Republic in May titled “Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem.” Middle America — an “extremely large” place that “encompasses most of the country” — is, he acknowledges, home to “plenty of non-deplorables.” I would like to draw your attention to that term, which is like using “the non-depressed” for happy people. This is Tomasky’s way of signaling that the exceptional souls he describes aren’t quite to be trusted, perhaps because their zip codes suggest that they don’t mind living among bigots. What convinces me of this coded message is Tomasky’s insistence that he could never bear such company. “I would never consider living anywhere other than a major city,” he notes, “or at the very least a liberal university town, where the odds are slim that I would end up next door to an actual racist.”

Tomasky’s faith in the tolerance of urbanites and the non-racism of university towns is astounding. (One has only to mention busing in Boston or the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.) Nevertheless, he goes on to advise his fellow partisans that they

need to recognize a fundamental truth: All of these people in middle America, even the actual liberals, have very different sensibilities than elite liberals who live on the coasts. First of all, middle Americans go to church. Not temple. Church. God and Jesus Christ play important roles in their lives.

The ethnographic detachment of these statements is truly something to behold, as though Tomasky is speaking to his readers behind the backs of the poor natives, who lack the vocabulary to interpret his transmissions.

I could go on. Tomasky’s essay is the most egregious example I have seen of coastal condescension, but he is far from its only practitioner. For decades, self-described liberal elites have used “Middle America” as shorthand for a baseline condition they are proud to have risen above. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Middle American imaginary is that it was invented — or perfected, at least — by Midwesterners themselves.

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