The Promise Of Flatness
January 13, 2018 3:33 PM   Subscribe

 
The Midwest has that developmental luxury of really being settled post-Revolution and having vast expanses of cheap, agricultural land. Hence the straight lines cordoning off one state from another and mile-grid road systems, the kind that only long meticulous city planning can provide. You can see the impacts of all that planning and agriculturalism that still show through today. As Colin Woodard writes in American Nations, the 'Midlands' are "pluralistic and organized around the middle class," and reject the sort of government intrusion that the Yankees centered their life around in the Northeast.

And all that space means sprawl and car culture. Endless Olive Gardens, Best Buys, and strip malls. Suburbia. Large roadwork projects.

Then there's my confusion as a Hoosier after moving to NYC and my boss tells me Texas is part of the Midwest. I say, ok maybe it is technically by some official definitions, but it's not nearly the same culturally, and thus not part of the Midwest. "You're so Indiana," he responds.
posted by hexaflexagon at 4:14 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


I would contend that the Midwest, as it sits at this point in time, is the incubator/proving ground for the full litany of neo-con/far right theory and dogma put into action.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:24 PM on January 13 [10 favorites]


hexaflexagon, just cite the Civil War on his ass. flyover country may include the midwest, but absolutely, Texans and Hoosiers are different animals. Plus, Texas is actually literally iconic as The West, you know, fucking cattle drives and big hats and shit. Your boss is an ignoramus.
posted by mwhybark at 4:25 PM on January 13 [12 favorites]


Not to riverboat wrassle this into a Hoosier thread, but Thorzdad, as you well know, Indiana is the leading-edge indicator for this kind of reactionary politics for at least a century. So in that sense perhaps hexaflexa's boss can be forgiven their ignorance. I left. I have a lot of pals who stayed, and they are awesome. Unfortunately they are in the pronounced minority.
posted by mwhybark at 4:30 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


Our bland, featureless Midwest

Bizarre. The Great Lakes states are breathtakingly beautiful, not "vast visual repetition: mile upon mile of cornfields, block upon block of crumbling factories."
posted by jpe at 4:44 PM on January 13 [42 favorites]


he cites localism as something that substitutes for regional consciousness of being midwestern - the problem with this is that the locales differ very much

a small michigan town, a small michigan city, a michigan college city, a michigan factory city and a michigan lakeshore town are all very different - and really, you go much farther north than mt pleasant or big rapids you're really not in the midwest anymore, you're in the great, mostly canadian, north

i've sensed that indiana is quite different also, but i've never lived there ...

chicago is very different than detroit

and no, we are not all repressed - some of us can be blunt and outspoken

actualy, jpe, i often wonder if the great lakes states, at least the parts near the lakes, aren't their own region
posted by pyramid termite at 4:50 PM on January 13 [13 favorites]


This fella could over think a plate of beans.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:15 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


Then there's my confusion as a Hoosier after moving to NYC and my boss tells me Texas is part of the Midwest. I say, ok maybe it is technically by some official definitions, but it's not nearly the same culturally, and thus not part of the Midwest. "You're so Indiana," he responds.

Your boss was ignorant of basic geography and proud of it. New Yorkers can be the most parochial people in the whole world.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:19 PM on January 13 [12 favorites]


[I'm going to suggest people read the article in question instead of just jumping in with random hot-takes about the Midwest.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 5:25 PM on January 13 [13 favorites]


Here's my hot take on the Midwest: it's awesome and I love it and I miss it.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:38 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


Interesting idea, that Midwesterners don't have a regional identity because they think of themselves as default Americans. It's similar, as he touches on, to the treatment of white males as default humans. A lot of recent politics can be explained, I think, by threats to those two comfortable assumptions. How do you place yourself when you're no longer the default? Do you welcome others as real Americans (and real humans), too? Do you fight to restore your position as the default, to push others back into their particular places? Or do you take on particularist identity politics yourself, as the Angry White Male?

I don't know the American Midwest well enough to map it out, but I suspect that there's enough variation in it that we'll continue to see all three responses. Which (if any) will win out?
posted by clawsoon at 5:42 PM on January 13 [12 favorites]


A fella could think that, I guess.

The article approaches, but doesn’t reach, the reality that the Midwest is too huge to be a region. Hell, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, considerably larger than the state in which I currently reside, lives somewhat uneasily with the rest of its state, much less the neighboring states, much much less far off Indiana or Ohio.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:50 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


I don't have an identity as a midwesterner, at least not until someone from the East Coast starts being snotty about the fact I grew up in Central Time (see aforementioned parochial New Yorkers). However, I think that has more to do with the midwest not being some homogenous blob (of whiteness, which is always implied) than it does with assuming you're in some way so quintessentially American that you don't need a regional identity. Minnesota definitely has a distinct identity, one that's often quite closed to outsiders. My "Midwesterness" was never going to be enough to make me Minnesotan.* I have a Chicago identity, not so much an Illinois identity. My boyfriend has a Detroit identity and a Michigan identity.

*It's odd. I knew people not from Minnesota who definitely did have access to this off-limits Minnesotan identity, but it was unclear what separated them from the rest of us. It was clear to me early on that I was never going to be Minnesotan.
posted by hoyland at 6:03 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


Interesting idea, that Midwesterners don't have a regional identity because they think of themselves as default Americans.

First, I don't think that's true.

Second, we sure as heck develop one when we leave: "Why's everyone rushing around like a crazy person? Why is everyone an jerk/so cold/so rude around here?"
posted by leotrotsky at 6:06 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


Which States Do You Think Are In The Midwest?

For whatever reason, I define this based on the states housing Big 10 universities (before Penn State joined in 1990).

So, it’s Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.
posted by cnanderson at 6:07 PM on January 13 [21 favorites]


Interesting idea, that Midwesterners don't have a regional identity because they think of themselves as default Americans.

This is a pretty common phenomenon. In many ways the English suffer the same problem - their identity was being in charge of the Empire and now that's gone...

The narcotics probably aren't helping but I had a hard time pulling any kind of unifying theme from the piece, at least partly because I had a hard time telling when he was engaging in Midwestology and when he was engaging in the performance thereof as ritual, like he discusses at the ~1/3 mark. "The Midwest has placed itself as some kind of psychic hearth of America" was the closest I got.
posted by PMdixon at 6:09 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


A song about the (Hoosier) midwest by my pal, the genius tunesmith Dale Lawrence, as recorded in West Layfaytte in (or maybe Hoboken, but I think this was at Zounds with Science on the boards), 1979.

The Midwest Can Be Alright

An appreciation, even if the author of the piece gets the band's dates a little wrong.

Much of Dale's work in The Gizmos and Right to Left and the Vulgar Boatmen reflects this idea, that the Midwesterner is the default American, and that that lack of identity is painful and problematic. Don't be fooled by Wikipedia, the band is Dale's, and his deliberate, career-long self-obfuscation is a part of this whole puzzle of Midwestern, specifically Hoosier, identity.
posted by mwhybark at 6:10 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


Minnesota definitely has a distinct identity, one that's often quite closed to outsiders.

And so could one say of any given one of the New England states, but no one would say that speaking of a New England regional identity is treating them as a "homogeneous blob."
posted by PMdixon at 6:12 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


Midwestern states are states that border one of the Great Lakes but not an ocean or a bay. This maps the prior Big Ten definition exactly.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:14 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


The Midwest is where you say "ope" if you almost bump into someone or something.
posted by drezdn at 6:15 PM on January 13 [16 favorites]


I should note that Dale's tune was composed as an answer tune to this one.

Can't Stand the Midwest

Dow Jones and the Industrials, 1979.
posted by mwhybark at 6:16 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


I've lived multiple years in Minnesota and Indiana, those two states could not be more dissimilar. The midwest is an essentially meaningless term wrt regional identity, it just covers too much area/population.
posted by Ferreous at 6:20 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


The Midwest is where you say "ope" if you almost bump into someone or something.
I just learned that this was a thing that I did about a week ago, despite having done it my entire life. Sometimes it also comes out as "oope."

BUT

I don't think it's just a Midwestern thing, I think we're just hankering for difference so much that we latched onto it. Non-Midwesterners, what noise do you make when you almost run into someone, or almost drop something or almost spill something on yourself?
posted by leotrotsky at 6:20 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


I didn't think I "ope'd" either until I caught myself doing it last week.
posted by drezdn at 6:26 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


fta: (Such is the extractive quality of Midwestern economic history that some historians have proposed that we take seriously the painter Grant Wood’s irritated description of the region, in his 1935 pamphlet Revolt against the City, as a colony of the East.)

"Proposed that we take seriously"? How could you possibly hope to understand the region otherwise.
posted by fleacircus at 6:27 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


I've always thought of myself as Midwestern, but not because I thought I was a default American; maybe because my mom (and therefore my whole mess o' maternal relatives) are from the Eastern Seaboard and so my Midwesternness stood out to me when I was among my cousins, and my mother occasionally laughed or winced at some particularly Midwestern things her children did.

I can tell when I'm in the Midwest because people understand "that's not the best idea you've ever had" to mean "IF YOU DO THAT YOU'RE GOING TO LOSE A HAND YOU MORON" and when I leave the Midwest I say things like, "Okay. Thank you. Thank you!" in a particular tone and people don't get that I mean "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. CUT IT THE FUCK OUT!"

(frimble and I were joking about the last one the other day because we both say it to our children and our kids know we mean "Stop. Now." while their German partner and my Floridian husband both find it a bizarre and incomprehensible use of "thank you.")

Indiana is different from Chicago is different from Minnesota, but in all those places indirectness, understatement, and conversational forms that give other people the space to save face are a shared currency, and I know when I'm NOT in the Midwest because suddenly getting more and more polite doesn't reliably signal to others that I'm getting more and more pissed off.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:31 PM on January 13 [41 favorites]


I've lived multiple years in Minnesota and Indiana, those two states could not be more dissimilar. The midwest is an essentially meaningless term wrt regional identity, it just covers too much area/population.

...until the Minnesotan and the Hoosier move to New York or LA and find they've got a lot more in common with each other culturally than their co-workers. There's a set of shared cultural norms and shorthand that the region shares.

When I was in law school (in the Midwest even!) full to the brim of coastal types, my contracts prof was describing a case involving some farmland. He stopped and said to the class:
"I bet none of you have any idea what tile is."
*I raise the only hand in class*
"It's for drainage"
"Where are you from?"
"Indiana."
"Well that explains it."
posted by leotrotsky at 6:31 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


For whatever reason, I define this based on the states housing Big 10 universities (before Penn State joined in 1990).

Also crucial to understanding the midwest: the foolish arrogance of the Big Ten.
posted by fleacircus at 6:33 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


Non-Midwesterners, what noise do you make when you almost run into someone, or almost drop something or almost spill something on yourself?

Fuck?
posted by hexaflexagon at 6:37 PM on January 13 [7 favorites]


New Yorker here who has never even been to the midwest, let alone lived there, and I say "oop" when I almost run into someone/drop something/spill something.

...Sometimes it is "fuck" though.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 6:44 PM on January 13


Midwestern states are states that border one of the Great Lakes but not an ocean or a bay. This maps the prior Big Ten definition exactly.

Except for Iowa.
posted by hwyengr at 6:54 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


My two favorite midwesterners: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Jim Harrison.
posted by valkane at 6:56 PM on January 13


PMdixon: This is a pretty common phenomenon. In many ways the English suffer the same problem - their identity was being in charge of the Empire and now that's gone...

An interesting difference pointed out in the article is the situation of the Midwest as a colony of the Eastern seaboard. In that sense, it's maybe more Ulster than England. But... but... my vague impression is that WWII and the postwar period changed that relationship. The jeremiads against Eastern bankers, railway tycoons, and whores-of-Babylon that are a regular feature of Midwestern rhetoric from the Cross of Gold to the Depression seemed to disappear after the war. Was Midwesternern-as-default-American even a thing before the war?

It's possible that I'm mixing up Western rhetoric with Midwestern rhetoric and this is all a jumble of half-formed impressions.
posted by clawsoon at 7:10 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


Except for Iowa.

Ope.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:10 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


Sadly, even here in Minnesota getting more and more polite does not reliably signal to others that I am getting more and more pissed off.

Also, do you know what happened today? A total stranger bagged my groceries over my objections - I have my own backpack, also need to pack everything for biking - and then got all shirty with me when I asked him again to stop. It was...it was like the Upsidedown of the Midwest, somehow, and it really threw me.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 PM on January 13 [9 favorites]


Yeah, I read.
posted by valkane at 7:25 PM on January 13


Ew, what even is this Great Lakes definition of the Midwest? I guess one would have to care about college sports for that to matter. Of course, team sports are a major facet of Midwestern life, but it's hard to quantify how that's different here than in other places. But yeah no, that definition would put Missouri in the South, which, well, that would only be half right. Missouri is in most people's definitions of the Midwest, it seems. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota, on the other hand, are plains and northern plains states, from where I sit in Missouri, even though North and South Dakota have a good bit of culture in common with upper Midwestern states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

But yeah, there's a good span there—parts of Ohio are essentially indistinguishable from Pennsylvania, and on the other end you might as well be in Indiana. Cleveland has as much in common with Detroit as Chicago. Cincinnati and St. Louis both have their own particular regional ethnic cuisines: goetta, a kind of Germanic breakfast sausage, is Cincinnati's thing, and St. Louis has Provel cheese (made in Wisconsin, don'tcha know) and toasted ravioli. Both cities split across state lines into arguably more southern territory. There are so many microbreweries across the Midwest, too—interesting beer and pride in its creation are kind of universal. (The whiteness of craft beer is also sadly ubiquitous.) It also seems like many of the Midwest's cities have their own varieties of pizza, for better or for worse: thick, rectangular Detroit-style; doughy deep-dish Chicago-style, cracker-thin St. Louis–style. (I know, "If you even call that pizza," say the East Coasters.) There's so much interesting stuff happening in the Midwest in a culinary cul-de-sac sense; ethnic traditions become regional traditions, like hotdish in the upper Midwest.

I appreciate that they mentioned Bob Pollard and Neal Stephenson. Neil Gaiman, who now lives in Minnesota with his wife, Amanda Palmer, would be a good addition to the pantheon. As Jonathan Franzen would probably agree (I'm surprised it didn't mention Franzen, but maybe everyone else is getting as tired of his mishegas as we are), the Midwest is a place where small mythologies can take on their own lives. There's a reason pivotal scenes in American Gods happen in Cairo, Illinois; Gaiman has mentioned that this is all very deliberately Midwestern. "Small town with a dark secret" is a very Midwestern trope.

But people are people everywhere. People yearn everywhere. F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise is such an East Coast novel, but I've related to it nonetheless, perhaps for its Catholicism and obscure mythologizing, which feel as Midwestern as anything—and in fact, Fitzgerald split his youth between Minnesota and the East Coast, so it all makes a lot of sense, really.

In artists, it can lead to self-destructive behavior, to the pursuit of danger in the belief that one’s actual experiences have furnished nothing in the way of material.

I know this very well. I've seen it in friends from here and from Ohio and all kinds of places in between. Minds with aspirations greater than their surroundings but without resources to match get up to all sorts of trouble. It makes me think of all the art and music that came out of the Midwestern BMX scene. Low expectations and little to no knowledge of the prior art can also be one of the most freeing things, because it opens you up to creating something new. I remember being so surprised to learn later on that my Midwestern college was once home to one of the great literary salons at one time, because it's not something most people would've known anything about in the part of St. Louis where I grew up. So few of us went on to places like that, and we all knew each other through various programs.

That was a comforting thought at one point in my youth, that anywhere I might go in Missouri I'd probably know at least one person from one of my summer programs. And that makes me think of the couple I've known the male half of since those days, a guy whose birthday I share, whose life as a smart, ambitious guy in a small Missouri college town basically resembles a method actor's cosplay of a 1950s film about McCarthyism. He's a Mason, a Kiwanis Club member, a career small-town politician whose social-media posts, posing with what's starting to become a comb-over of some sort, with his impeccably coiffed younger wife in front of their Christmas tree, performatively opening presents, with their several midcentury wall clocks, going to local cultural events, are written and photographed for posterity, for plausible deniability and blandness, like something out of All the King's Men. Their life together appears to have no interiority; it's like if Bowling Alone hadn't yet been written. They've had aggressively posed and photographed parties that basically resemble Mad Men, if one were to take it as a model, rather than a cautionary tale. It's spooky as all get-out. But that's the thing about the Midwest—it's the perfect backdrop for whatever regressive (or progressive!) fantasy life your heart might desire. Monorail!

This brings to mind the prestige of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, those wine-and-cheese events in the English department, and workshop culture in general, the insularity and sameness of it. It makes me think of Midwestern college radio stations. It makes me think of the backwardness of small Midwestern offices that have had the same office manager for the better part of a few decades, with a dull paper cutter and unbreakable Swingline staplers to match. It reminds me of that odd sort of hoarding of supplies that occurs in those environments of artificial scarcity, of a friend and former colleague's wry notion that whoever dies with the most office supplies wins.

As for "ope," I always thought it was and said it as "oops," myself, even though it made no sense to say "oops" when you hadn't actually bumped into someone and just had to "sneak past ya." But we all say it, just like we all ask, "Where are you at?"
posted by limeonaire at 7:26 PM on January 13 [15 favorites]


I cannot reveal much but I tangentially knew this writer through someone else in the Midwest in the 1990s and I can tell you that there was not a "unifying theme" and there was a lot of "performance," even then. I grew up in Michigan and I felt like this piece was messy and reminded me of arguing about deep philosophical matters with white Midwestern boys.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 7:27 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


a bizarre and incomprehensible use of "thank you."

So "thank you" in the Midwestern American English can have a similar function to "sorry" in English British English, i.e., as a placeholder for a mutually understood level of disapproval that can be inferred from tone and context?

If so, I wonder whether other dialects of English spoken by other self-effacing/understated cultures use other politeness particles for this role.
posted by acb at 7:29 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


The article seems to be sometimes countering, but sometimes embracing, the idea of the Midwest as boring and low-key.

I think he's a bit facile about politics and "snowy-whiteness". Yes, Trump won most of the Midwest(not MN or IL)-- but Obama won almost all of it too. The rural areas are very conservative, but guess what, they are in New York State too.

As for whiteness, we certainly do have some very white states out here: Nebraska 83%, Iowa 90%, Wisconsin 84%, Ohio 83%, Missouri 83%. (Data quickly grabbed from Wikipedia by subtracting out Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans.) But then we have Illinois, 63%, which is less white than the country as a whole (70%). And there are some awfully white states outside the Midwest-- Massachusetts 76%, Vermont 95%, Idaho 84%, Oklahoma 73%.

But really, I think there's the Midwest, and then there's Chicago. I felt a lot more at home in Boston than I would in (say) Rockford, Illinois.
posted by zompist at 7:33 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


The thing about the "that's enough now" thank-you is that it carries with it "I want you to stop but I am also not interested in making it a big deal". People from elsewhere often don't get that. It's not just that you're expected to translate "thank you" into "stop it", since Midwesterners also sometimes say "stop it"; it's that "thank you-stop it" is a different phrase than "stop it-stop it". "Thank you-stop it" is an addition to the lexicon, not a substitution. If anything is uniquely Midwestern about it, it's the idea that you should always create a lot of backing off and face-saving options.
posted by Frowner at 7:35 PM on January 13 [12 favorites]


[I'm going to suggest people read the article in question instead of just jumping in with random hot-takes about the Midwest.]

Hot dish, surely.

Willa Cather: “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.”

As someone who has driven across Nebraska many times, I would agree, other than the two very large Cabellas stores, which punctuate the drive nicely.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:40 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


I'm in a midwest dev Slack where this definition has been a topic of conversation on multiple occasions. Mostly the thing that gets me is that states that get excluded, I don't know what else you'd call them. What is Ohio if it's not in the midwest? What is Nebraska if it's not in the midwest? I've lived in both and I'm comfortable saying they both are even if the landscape looks different. Ohio's got a bunch of Rust Belt stuff going on, but that's an economic thing, not a geographic one. Aside from the different economic climate, I find living in Nebraska to be intensely familiar, and I felt generally pretty good about moving here. Someone earlier today asked me how I'd feel about the notion of moving to somewhere like Portland or SF, and it's weirdly intimidating for reasons entirely unrelated to cost of living. Even if I don't feel like the midwest likes me, I feel like an outsider in predictable ways.
posted by Sequence at 7:49 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


Midwestern states are states that border one of the Great Lakes but not an ocean or a bay. This maps the prior Big Ten definition exactly.

Pennsylvania is not the midwest.

(Or perhaps Philadelphia is not in Pennsylvania.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:55 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: I've always thought of myself as Midwestern, but not because I thought I was a default American...

From the outside, it does seem that white Midwesterners get an automatic pass on being Real Americans that no other group does. I'm sure that the WASPs who formed the initial core of the American state would find it bewildering to learn that the Swedes and Germans who they grudgingly allowed to settled the Midwest are now considered more default American than their own WASP descendants.
posted by clawsoon at 7:55 PM on January 13 [9 favorites]


I've always thought of myself as Midwestern, but not because I thought I was a default American

well, i can call myself midwestern because that's where i've spent almost all my life - but it's kind of hard for an irish catholic american to feel like a default american - and in my town there's more than enough diversity to make the notion of a default american just wrong
posted by pyramid termite at 8:04 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


State-level definitions of Midwesternness are doomed to failure, as is the concept of a binary, discrete Midwesternness.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:05 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


kevinbelt: State-level definitions of Midwesternness are doomed to failure, as is the concept of a binary, discrete Midwesternness.

You'll have to aim for a Platonic ideal of Midwesternness, then, which no person actually achieves but which you can measure a person's approximate distance from.
posted by clawsoon at 8:15 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


you will have to meditate daily for many many years and perhaps in this lifetime the achievement of true midwesternness will be yours
posted by pyramid termite at 8:17 PM on January 13 [11 favorites]


pyramid termite: you will have to meditate daily for many many years and perhaps in this lifetime the achievement of true midwesternness will be yours

Thank you. Thank you. Thankyou. Thank. You. Thaaaaaank yooooouuuu. Thank you.
posted by clawsoon at 8:33 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


Interesting that the author seems so anxious about people embracing their ordinariness. To me the constant reminder that you are one point on a repeating Cartesian grid is a key feature of “midwesterness”. Embracing the ordinary nature of your existence is a great stress relief strategy and makes genuinely unique features all the more precious. As a Kansan relocated to Southern California, I find the constant demand to treat every person as some original, special lifestyle pioneer to be exhausting. Also, low rent culture makes for good art and better bars. Nuff said.
posted by q*ben at 9:00 PM on January 13 [13 favorites]


You'll have to aim for a Platonic ideal of Midwesternness, then, which no person actually achieves but which you can measure a person's approximate distance from.

Some people might say instead that the notion of a unitary Midwesternness has less consistency and utility the more weight you put on it. But you do you.
posted by The Gaffer at 9:40 PM on January 13


you will have to meditate daily for many many years

Drive along I-70 for any period of time for an equivalent effect.
posted by hexaflexagon at 9:53 PM on January 13 [12 favorites]


It seems pretty obvious to me that a Midwesterner is the only type of American that one would plausibly mistake for a Canadian.
posted by Automocar at 9:55 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


Read the article, and have to echo and elaborate on stuff said upthread: The (Laurentian) Great Lakes basin is a North American treasure... I’ve often pondered if the world could make the basin a global meeting ground of sorts, with all the freshwater and whatnot.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 10:22 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


The Midwest is fuzzy, but it is basically the Old Northwest Territory: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and some of Minnesota.

Northeastern Missouri is Midwestern-ish. As is Eastern Iowa. Nebraska is not in the Midwest, it is in the Plains along with Kansas. Western Iowa is also in the Plains, and Southern Missouri is much more like the South than it is like the Midwest.

For an alternative take, I really appreciate the map at radicalcartography, which was linked in this post from a few years ago (which was excellent at the time but has suffered from a lot of link rot).
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:57 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


I have seen this Radical Cartography map before and thought then as I think now: Who in the world includes Illinois in the Midwest but excludes Indiana? I seem to recall one similar map that had Illinois as the number one state most mentioned as Midwestern, followed by Ohio, and Indiana third. Did no one notice that this state is the one in the middle of the Midwest?

As an aside, Indianapolis is the greatest city on Earth.
posted by koavf at 1:01 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


As a Kansan relocated to Southern California, I find the constant demand to treat every person as some original, special lifestyle pioneer to be exhausting.

I believe that people are far less different than we like to think.
posted by thelonius at 1:23 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Jonathan: don’t you find that downstate IL and Indiana feel pretty southern? Or at least really different from northern IL or IN; or Michigan? College towns excluded.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:31 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


And also: my concept of the Midwest accords largely with that of Jonathan Livengood. I’d split IL, IN, and Ohio and put the top parts in the Midwest.

There’s an interesting map in Kevin Phillips’ excellent American Theocracy that shows the movement of southern religion into states like IN, IL, and MO; and a light bulb went on when I realized it matched almost perfectly my conception of where the Midwest is.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:36 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


persona au gratin: There’s an interesting map in Kevin Phillips’ excellent American Theocracy that shows the movement of southern religion into states like IN, IL, and MO; and a light bulb went on when I realized it matched almost perfectly my conception of where the Midwest is.

What are the stereotypical Midwestern denominations? The maps that Google is showing me suggest a mix of Methodist and Lutheran.

It's funny to see how all-over-the-place the maps that Google throws up defining the Midwest itself are.
posted by clawsoon at 4:34 AM on January 14


As a native Michigander, I grew up with a fairly fixed notion of which states belonged in the Midwest—basically the Great Lakes States. I was surprised to learn that others included states further west, but now I think of them as the other Midwest.

But, connecting more with this article, I started to wonder why Michigan hadn’t developed its own culture and literature. The closest thing I knew were Hemingway’s Michigan stories. I’ve been glad to see people like Bonnie Campbell write about small town and country living here.

Also, even as a white Michigander, I think I’ve always seen the large black populations of Detroit and elsewhere as just as Michiganian as the white populations, as well as the newer Arabic and Muslim communities near Detroit and the Latino/Hispanic communities in Southwest Michigan. In fact, I think this is an advantage of the borders-defining-culture idea; everyone in our parish counts as us.
posted by willF at 5:05 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


that's an interesting assortment - this map does a fair job of showing the differing regions of the midwest and their possible boundaries - i'm not sure western new york and pennsylvania really belong - note that most of missouri and s illinois aren't in and the west halves of the dakotas, kansas and nebraska are out
posted by pyramid termite at 5:07 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


A friendly word of advice, from experience: if your personal geography of the midwest does not include Kansas, and you should find yourself there, keep that geography to yourself. To a Kansan, Kansas is not only a midwestern state, but often the only state whose midwesternness is not to a greater or lesser degree suspect.

This article puts an unforgivably positive gloss on a really nasty side of the midwest. Yes, there is a strong sense of "defaultness." It's not a special regional thing, it's garden-variety provincialism, which always expresses itself as the belief that one's own region is the standard and everyplace else is foreign and other, certainly too foreign and other to ever learn from or engage with. It's the idea that midwesterners are "real Americans" in contrast with "coastal elites" (a phrase apparently intended to include the residents of failed northeastern mill towns much poorer than anywhere I ever saw in the midwest whose economies were every bit as extractive as those of Youngstown or Gary or East Chicago). It's Midwest is Best t-shirts worn smugly by people who've never lived anywhere else.
posted by enn at 5:36 AM on January 14 [13 favorites]


Midwestern states are states that border one of the Great Lakes but not an ocean or a bay. This maps the prior Big Ten definition exactly.

Pennsylvania is not the midwest.

(Or perhaps Philadelphia is not in Pennsylvania.)


Delaware River opens onto Delaware Bay. It's why I included bay in the definition; specifically to exclude Pennsylvania.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:44 AM on January 14


Delaware Bay doesn't quiiiiite border PA, alas.
posted by Earthtopus at 6:30 AM on January 14


As an aside, Indianapolis is the greatest city on Earth.

You weren't born here, were you? Or, perhaps, you were born north of 116th street?
posted by Thorzdad at 6:59 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


As someone who says "oop" all the time, some things that stand out about the midwest for me are lack of diversity, religion, and inconsequentialness. The midwest is definitely getting more diverse, but growing up in a small town meant that when I went to college I had never met anyone who was jewish or who openly identified as athiest, for starters.

The inconsequentialness is something that I don't think gets talked about much other than maybe the occasional reference to the phrase "flyover country". Growing up in the midwest there is a real sense of detachment from the rest of the country and the world in the sense that you don't really matter to it because there is nothing about the midwest that is interesting. Media is produced on the coasts, laws and policy are produced on the coasts; the idea that anyone my would visit the area where I grew up for any reason other than family was laughable. Most things that you are exposed to from outside the midwest take the midwest for granted and are thoroughly uninterested in it unless it decides to elect Trump. Any reference to your existence in mainstream popular culture is noteworthy, no matter how small or depreciating. Literally the only reference in media to my hometown that I ever noticed growing up was a mention of a historical architectural feature downtown in a book I was reading for fun; it was used in the book as an example of ignorant fearmongering. After I left the midwest my go-to anecdote about it was a joke about how there was nothing there.

I do think this plays out on the national level a bit where midwesterners can be both reactionary and progressive, because it's so easy to identify as the underdog and the outsider lorded over by arrogant coastal elites. Elites that obviously don't know what's best for the midwest because they haven't paid it any attention. (At least that's the feeling; there's a good argument that the great monotonous mass of the midwest actually gets its way quite a bit.)
posted by ropeladder at 7:23 AM on January 14 [7 favorites]


I developed a Midwestern identity as soon as I found out there are people who don't know what a bubbler is and who pronounce the l in Milwaukee.

Yes I know those are primarily Wisconsin traits but at least in Illinois I have about a 50% chance of being correctly directed to a bubbler.
posted by brook horse at 8:18 AM on January 14


brook horse: are you from Osh Kosh?
posted by persona au gratin at 9:10 AM on January 14


clawsoon: Also Catholic (Polish, German, Italian) and some Jewish, too. Obviously it’s much more diverse now, which is so much for the better.
posted by persona au gratin at 9:13 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


“Bubbler” is also common in Massachusetts, from which I moved to Wisconsin. My neighbors attribute whatever they don’t like about my ideas and habits to my east coast upbringing in a way that’s pitying; [whatever] isn’t my fault, I just wasn’t raised correctly.
posted by carmicha at 9:29 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


As an aside, Indianapolis is the greatest city on Earth.

You weren't born here, were you? Or, perhaps, you were born north of 116th street?


Oh, come on. We don't need to gatekeep. Every city contains multitudes, and there's a lot of great stuff in Indy (although sometimes well hidden).
posted by leotrotsky at 9:30 AM on January 14


Seems to me "the Midwest" is where you are if you aren't anywhere else. That's why it gets used to describe Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri and Indiana, and why it's pretty much useless unless you're more specific about what part of it you're really talking about.
posted by Brachinus at 9:36 AM on January 14


persona au gratin: Nah, grew up close to Milwaukee. I was nearish it during college though, but only visited once or twice. My strongest memory is getting up at 6am to take the GRE there...
posted by brook horse at 9:36 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


This article puts an unforgivably positive gloss on a really nasty side of the midwest.

I've been living in Wisconsin for about twenty years, having spent my first thirty on the east and west coasts. And I feel like the whole idea of "Midwest nice" is a whitewash. Literally. The Christman article does mention, toward the end, the intense racial segregation of the Midwest, but doesn't go into the intensity of the racism. Milwaukee, where I live, is the most racially segregated major metro area in the U.S., and this isn't, as Christman frames it, just a "quarantine" of people seen as foreign because they are not white. It is the product of a very active, intense racism.

My daughter is a mixed Asian/white young adult. Around Thanksgiving, she was taking a walk in downtown Milwaukee where she lives, when a white man of around 40 loudly slapped one of his hands against the other right next to her face, and growled, "You don't belong here," as she walked by him.

My wife, leaving a diner with a friend, had to walk through a clot of glaring young men, who turned and followed, then chased them across the parking lot yelling "let's get the f*cking tr*nny and the n****!"

There is nothing nice about the racism and gender-policing here, of which those are just two tiny examples, though sure, I'll buy that in lily-white, gender-conforming social circles, emotions are repressed and passive aggression preferred over the overt variety.

When I first moved here, it boggled my mind to find out that most professors driving to my university would not take the closest highway exit, because that would require them to drive for a few blocks through a middle class African American neighborhood of well-maintained, two-story homes with nice lawns. "It's too dangerous," I was warned. "Take the next exit, which lets you out in a safe [read: white] neighborhood." So, OK, I will acknowledge that in speaking to me as a white person, these white professors never mentioned race in giving me helpful racist pointers about how to navigate. Actually acknowledging race in polite conversation is seen as a huge breach of decorum by white people. I guess that's the "Midwest nice?" It sure isn't helpful, when trying to talk about racism is considered a worse offense than being racist.

I can confirm that a lot of my white students see the Midwest as paradise, or at least the only place any reasonable person would want to live. It took me years to get used to the fact that when I advise high-achieving students to consider grad school, that a majority wouldn't consider leaving the state to do so. I mean, I grew up in New York City, so I'm familiar with the parochialism of people believing that they live in the best place on earth. But the NY version is driven by hubris--no other place could be so cosmopolitan and sophisticated and full of 24-hour eateries! The white Midwestern version is much more fearful. "The rest of the world is too dangerous, and how could I move somewhere where I don't know anyone, and anyway, my family needs me, grandma's getting old."

Meanwhile, for people of color, remaining here in Milwaukee is actively dangerous. While in the U.S. on average, sentences for African Americans convicted of drug offenses are ten times as long as those of white people convicted of the same offenses, here in Wisconsin it's a 40-to-1 ratio, the highest in the nation, and Milwaukee has the highest incarceration rate for African American men in the nation. African Americans are 7 times more likely to be pulled over by police for minor offenses like a broken taillight in Milwaukee than are white drivers. Wisconsin has the worst black/white disparities in standardized test scores, school suspension rates, and graduation rates. But don't worry--white people don't talk about these disparities, that would be racist.

To me, "Midwest niceness" seems much more sinister than cute.

But yes, I've found that I now "ope" when nearly bumping into someone or something.
posted by DrMew at 9:39 AM on January 14 [30 favorites]


I guess when I think about "Minnesota Nice" and the midwest as I know it, I think of them as holding a utopian promise that is not realized but could be. For instance, I love Minnesota. I grew up elsewhere, I've lived elsewhere, but I've chosen to live here not so much because of what Minnesota is at its worst moments but because of what seems to shine through at its best.

If you can see through the veil, you can see the other Minnesota, and sometimes I do see it - where we claim our true status as an immigrant state and a Muslim state, and where we see and value our Latino and Somali citizens, for instance; where we see ourselves as on Native land and actively work to make Native presence and history visible and valued in everyday life; where we see ourselves as part of the Great Migration, where we value the connection to Chicago and points south and east which has brought more Black citizens here. We are our Muslim, Latino, Hmong, East African, African-American and Native communities, as well as being shaped by people of European descent. There is this other Minnesota where this is recognized and upheld instead of fought and hated, and there are moments and places where this shines through.

What I love about Minneapolis is that I live in a racially diverse immigrant neighborhood, not half a mile from the AIM center. I love that I - someone who grew up in a very homogeneous place - can walk down my street and meet people from all over this country and the world, and that I live in a place where I can't forget that we're on Native land, and all the while I'm here in the middle of the country surrounded by some of the most beautiful farmland in the world, some of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

If I were to make a slogan against the state of the world today, it would be "We are all Minnesotans". If you come for the Somalis, you're coming for Minnesotans and fuck you sideways. If you're abusing Native women, you're abusing Minnesotans and fuck you twice.

There is another world that hovers just out of sight, and it is a world so beautiful and congenial to me that I can't leave even if it's not yet real.
posted by Frowner at 10:03 AM on January 14 [17 favorites]


Milwaukee, where I live, is the most racially segregated major metro area in the U.S.

Perhaps, but Omaha is definitively the most dangerous city in the U.S. in which to be black. The homicide rate (not the overall numbers, obviously) is higher here than anywhere else. Much of that is directly related to the segregation. The Omaha metro area is reasonably well integrated for hispanics and asians, but black people are stubbornly confined to "North O.", and--as the song goes--"911 is a joke in this town".

Also, as an ex-Michigander; Michigan is barely midwestern. They call it part of the midwest, but having lived in a bunch of places around the U.S.; i always seem to fall back on Joel Garreu's "Nine Nations of North America" thesis; and Michigan has more in common with Pennsylvania than it does with Nebraska or Kansas.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 10:24 AM on January 14


Isn't it more "whope" than "ope", though? That's what I say! Born rebel, here!
posted by Chitownfats at 10:44 AM on January 14


"It's too dangerous," I was warned. "Take the next exit, which lets you out in a safe [read: white] neighborhood."

This has been my experience of Milwaukee as well. I moved here last year and got lots of advice about the "dangerous" parts of town. Don't go more than a couple blocks north of your place, that's a bad neighborhood! Avoiding these streets, don't got to that McDonald's, etc. Without fail, these always turn out to be areas that are predominantly people of color. As an autistic woman it's made navigating Milwaukee safely inordinately confusing. I am not able to pick up on cues that tell me whether or not an area is actually going to be dangerous for a lone woman (or pair of female-presenting people, if I'm with my partner), but I also know that the advice I am given by my family members is heavily based in racism.

Hell, my father-in-law works a couple blocks south of where we live, and his entire office repeatedly says how dangerous the area is, and how they would never go up where we live. Yet I have felt perfectly safe here; for fuck's sake, they put bows on the trees during the holidays and are in the process of painting all the electric boxes with cute murals. Does that sort of stuff happen in "bad" neighborhoods? I doubt it.

My area is on one of the few places in Milwaukee that doesn't feel totally segregated, and I think that's because it's kind of on the border of two neighborhoods. A couple blocks north and it's almost all people of color (predominantly black). A couple blocks south and it's all white professors (LITERALLY, I have been told multiple professors at my university live there). Where I am, there's quite a mix, although I would say it leans a little heavier towards young black people than any other group. Which is, of course, why it's still considered a "dangerous" area. So yeah, I really don't trust warnings about "bad neighborhoods" anymore.
posted by brook horse at 10:46 AM on January 14 [9 favorites]


I think Michigan still has some of its founding/white settler attributes. People emigrated in very large numbers from both New York and Pennsylvania when it was first settled - the opening of the Erie Canal and the proximity to Pennsylvania via Canada helped this along. And the Great Migration from the south in the early 20th century played a big role. We aren't typical Midwest. Even our cities and towns are named for their NYS equivalents. And I think families and upbringing and tradition have kept some of those attributes alive.

Can I point to specific examples? No.

Also Ohio sucks and we need a way to keep those people at a distance.
posted by disclaimer at 10:48 AM on January 14


No Southern Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio are not The South. Although I won't dispute that the Ohio and Wabash valleys are different in many ways from the Great Lakes.

I don't think it's possible to define "The South" independently of the existence of legal slavery as as a dominant economic system in 1860. The historic slave/free schism explains a lot of culture, politics, and political differences. Racism south of the Ohio River is strongly influenced by Reconstruction and Jim Crow, which supported a labor-intensive agricultural system. Agriculture north of the Ohio never depended on slavery and mechanized early. (Although many small communities in the 20th century had manufacturing and mining as a base.) Racism north of the Ohio is very strongly influenced by the Great Migration and the idea that minorities can handle jobs Whites won't do but make bad neighbors.

Ohio (the state) gets into the Midwest by virtue of the historic realities of the original Northwest Ordinance. Ohio was as remote as London for the purposes of bulk shipping at the start of the 19th century. Missouri is technically a Border State, but I don't object to having it in the same category as the other upper Mississippi states. Whether Kansas is Midwest or Plains is not something I care about.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:18 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


If you want a common thread uniting White Midwesterners from Canada to The Ohio River, it's the following logic:
Jim Crow was racist, I don't approve of Jim Crow, therefore I'm not a racist.
Which was one of the few political shibboleths shared by my Suburban Chicago and my Wabash Valley kin.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:30 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]


Former Kansan here, whose world has just been rocked (slightly). How is it that people perceive the Plains states to not be within the Midwest?

The geographic center of the contiguous US is in Smith County, KS.
posted by GrammarMoses at 12:28 PM on January 14


Are the plains states even significant in US political culture? There’s the liberal coastal states, the South, and the True American Midwest. Then there’s the ........ plains states, home of ........?
posted by monotreme at 1:34 PM on January 14


The midwest is definitely getting more diverse, but growing up in a small town meant that when I went to college I had never met anyone who was jewish or who openly identified as athiest, for starters.

I'm sorry, but I have to beef with this constant and unending conflation of Midwesternness and small town life. As if New York and California don't also have small towns full of parochial white folks. The vast majority of the populations (more than 75%) of Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio live in cities. The Midwest as small town idea really grates on me as someone who has lived most of my life in a large Midwestern city, where there has always been more diversity than it gets credit for. In fact, this statement itself is ridiculous on its face as an indictment of Midwestern diversity, because Cincinnati is one of the most important sites in Reform Judaism.

The Midwest was the home of some of the country's greatest labor victories (many achieved by socialist and anarchist immigrants), it received millions of black Southerners during the Great Migration, and many cities in the Midwest are receiving more immigrants today than many other places in the US.

Continuing to issue these bromides of the Midwest as small town and white is not only offensive and plays into coastal stereotypes of us, it's also just plain ignorant of Midwestern history.
posted by mostly vowels at 2:45 PM on January 14 [26 favorites]


Jonathan: don’t you find that downstate IL and Indiana feel pretty southern?

Yes and no. Southern Illinois and Indiana are definitely different than the flatter, more northern parts of Illinois and Indiana. (I have relatives that live in southeastern Illinois, basically on the border with Indiana, and I went to high school in southwestern Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis after living in north-central Illinois until I was 12. So, I am pretty familiar with the north-south differences in Illinois, at least.) But I wouldn't say that southern Illinois and Indiana are all that much like the South. I think they have more of the feel of a "border state," which to a northern Midwesterner might feel pretty South-ish. Compare them to somebody from Georgia, though, and they will, I think, pretty quickly look much more Midwestern than Southern.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:13 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


I'm going to assert the left half of PA is definitely the midwest and is culturally distinct from anything near Harrisburg. Mountains, no?
posted by pan at 9:22 PM on January 14


Appalachian people, who are often considered "Southern" but whose mountain culture is not really the same as "The South," migrated in great numbers westward along the highland country of Kentucky, Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, and Missouri, eventually ending up in the Ozarks. (Although most people thought Winter's Bone took place in Appalachia, it was set in southwestern Missouri.)

This is what we mean when we say S. Illinois feels like "the South." It's not the south of plantations and slavery, it's the "southernness" of the hillbillies.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:37 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]


The great thing about pyramid termite's map is that a whole range of Plains states is split down their middles. Those are N. Dakota, S. Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. The eastern half of these states is in the Midwest. The western half is in The West! Western South Dakota is the Badlands, Custer, and big Sioux reservations. The archetype of the Wild Wild West, Dodge City is in western Kansas. The politicians who drew the state boundaries didn't recognize this, and now we're still arguing about whether or not they're really Midwestern.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:43 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]


Appalachian people, who are often considered "Southern" ....

This is a post that starts with a common regional prejudice and rationalizes it with bad geology and ethnography. Wouldn't this mean that Ohio and Pennsylvania, which actually have Appalachian mountains and highlands are more "Southern" than Indiana and Illinois, where "highland" is the euphemistic name of suburbs? (What Indiana and Illinois have instead is highly eroded Karst.) Historically, the "southern" connection wasn't apocryphal hilljacks moving their stills down the Ohio valley (from Pennsylvania), it was fur-trade canoes traveling the Mississippi watershed, followed by flatboats (Lincoln!), followed by riverboats. Later that evolved to the railroad which was replaced by the interstate system.

The rural poverty I'm intimately familiar with isn't of the happy hillbilly myth. It's the "small industry town left to hang 50 years ago" type.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 5:12 AM on January 15


This is what we mean when we say S. Illinois feels like "the South." It's not the south of plantations and slavery, it's the "southernness" of the hillbillies.

I don't think so. I think talking about southern Illinois as the South is a way for most of the state's population to wash its hands of Illinois's history of violent racism (some of which was located in Chicago, but nonetheless).
posted by hoyland at 6:30 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Also Ohio sucks and we need a way to keep those people at a distance.

Can we please, for the millionth time, NOT DO THIS? I think (hope) you're probably joking (something about MI/OH sports rivalry, maybe?) but omg whenever people here say shit like this (and it happens a lot), I feel distinctly unwelcome and it really hurts. Like, seriously really hurts.
posted by cooker girl at 8:19 AM on January 15


Those are N. Dakota, S. Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. The eastern half of these states is in the Midwest. The western half is in The West!


They are split by the 100th meridian West, A handy guide for rainfall amounts and farming vs. ranching.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:39 AM on January 15


Historically, the "southern" connection wasn't apocryphal hilljacks moving their stills down the Ohio valley (from Pennsylvania), it was fur-trade canoes traveling the Mississippi watershed, followed by flatboats (Lincoln!), followed by riverboats. Later that evolved to the railroad which was replaced by the interstate system.

Historically the southern connection was that these states populated from the bottom up from mainly southern migrants. The National Road hadn't been completed and the rivers were the fastest way to get anywhere. Migrants came predominately from southern states (Kentuckians, North Carolinians, Virginians, Marylanders) due to soil exhaustion from overaggressive farming, along with antislavery migrants like Quakers.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:52 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Also Ohio sucks and we need a way to keep those people at a distance.

Can we please, for the millionth time, NOT DO THIS? I think (hope) you're probably joking (something about MI/OH sports rivalry, maybe?) but omg whenever people here say shit like this (and it happens a lot), I feel distinctly unwelcome and it really hurts. Like, seriously really hurts.


I guarantee you (speaking as a Hoosier) the only folks with a strong antipathy for Buckeyes are Michiganers, and that rests entirely on:

1. The Ohio State University
2. Ohio state troopers doling out speeding tickets like candy to out-of-state lead-footed Michigan drivers.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:01 AM on January 15


Also the michigan toledo war. Which we won.

Cookergirl: I have no real antipathy for Ohioans. It was a joke. I have plenty of fine upstanding Ohio citizens in my family tree.
posted by disclaimer at 11:08 AM on January 15


Sure, I have ancestors who came west from Virginia. That doesn't make me Southern to any degree that matters now that I live in The South. Similarly, having German and Irish surnames on my family tree 200 years ago doesn't make me meaningfully German or Irish.

I think hoyland neatly describes how Great Lakes folk use "southern" as a way to NIMBY out of difficult conversations about racism. But, people from southern Indiana do the same thing, which leads me to believe that The Midwest is not The South (because the South is racist and we are not) is one of the great ideological shibboleths of White Midwestern culture. For my grandparents, that involved a lot of bragging about ancestors who enlisted in the Union and praise of Dr. King from a safe distance.

There are other markers of White Midwestern culture which are not distinctive in isolation but add up in aggregate.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:13 AM on January 15


Among the differences, I spent the morning at an Southern MLK Day parade. My Midwestern hometown treats MLK Day as a Labor Day that's horribly inconvenient for the academic schedule.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:11 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Discussing the dangers of regionalism in the USA, I would say we're ever more in danger of cultural capture by the "coasts", because the oceanic coasts of the USA seem to be the only places where one can keep a job as a journalist or an essayist. You could say that both midwesterners and coastal types misremember all of the wars and commerce in the Midwest; to a bewildering extent. Like, a double erasure.

So then, how's this distorted, coastal vision of the midwest?

As a New Orleanian, the midwest is the Upper Valley-- part of the greater Mississippi River Valley. That fertile inland Sea was the cradle of ancient american civilization, from Poverty Point to the Mounds near Vicksburg, up to great trading Capital of Cahokia. Then, it was the great water road of New France, centered on Chicago. That city was founded by a Sable man from Sainte Dominque to connect Montreal to New Orleans. We're still connected by the MISO energy grid.

New France, though, was really only an interesting backwater to Haiti. S**hole colonies, really. Bienville treated with and tricked and warred upon the Natchez, but in the end, we lost La guerre de la Conquête, and had to flee the extermination of the Mi'kmaq and, after the Atlantic mixup of the Grand Dérangement, come down to the warmer parts of the colony in Louisiana, where at least we could be ruled by diffident Spanish for a while.

So there's a French part to the midwest, and an anglo part. But we lost that war, then another where we were being ruled by the brits, ugh, so no one remembers the french bits. New France is much more connected to the culture of the River than the Yankee/German/Nordic/Italian bits, which are more connected to that damned Erie Canal that put New Orleans out of business.

Of course, the USA in general is much more in touch with its Anglo side than any of our other forebears, probably because Andrew Jackson and that other war in 1812 consolidated the USA against native americans, french-brit colonials, Floridian remnants, and Black Republicans rising in Haiti, all at once--maybe the first time white nationalism totally, 100% swept the national imagination. The monument to that Ohio valley warrior and statesman, Tecumseh, is in Ontario, just across the border. Jackson is mounted all the way down at the other end of New France, at the other border, in front of our cathedral. Even their monuments can't stand each other.

The cradle of american civilization became the crux of american steamboat capitalism, after that war and through the civil war. The Crossroads. It got forested, ditched, tile drained, and mined into the bleakness everyone talks about. When I drive I-55 and I-57 to Chicago, I feel like the bleakness is that ghost of the american lifeway, the native ecosystem that has been so tilled and pumped and tiled that we can't even remember what it looked like. And look, the latest president will probably allow the US Army Corps to drain the last bits of that memory in Mississippi.

In between, there were some Ohioans starting trouble, at Harper's Ferry. Maybe Tecumseh lived, after all? Taking the basis of the american economy and liquidating the property into free people was the yeoman's work of radicals from the upper valley. In New Orleans, those were truly the gilded years. We still have a statue to Henry Clay, that silver-tongued devil of the Ohio valley who made our rich people filthy gaddamn rich. But it was an Connecticut-Ohioan fighting in Kansas and Marylanders saving their own that started the class war.

But no way was Reconstuction going to get in the way of the Swamp Lands Act, mining the richness of the Mississippi River Valley, killing all those Bison or breaking the prairie. Do we even remember the Lumberjacks who cleared all that forest into flatness? I feel like, if there's a divide in the Midwest, it's measured by the states that still have wetlands, and the states that nearly completely eliminated their wetland forest, as if it only reminded them of native americans and smelly french people.

Nowadays, New Orleans ships the powerful fires of Gulf of Mexico Gas, refined into PetroChemical Fertilizer from Donaldsonville up the valley, and corn comes back down; to be shipped across the world from Destrehan Plantation, To Europe and Russia and Japan, the Pax Americana Mais, the Iron Corn Flakes Bowl.

When the US Corps of Engineers talks to Congress about the need to dredge in the USA, they mean dredge the Inland Waterway of the River, they wave the flag and point out that no other nation has a breadbasket so connected to a waterborne export route. There's a war in Crimea, but a kind of bleak peace up and down the Mississippi River Valley.

The Gut of America, someone called it, the Gulf of Mexico is bright Green with the nitrate waste of Iowa tile drains in the summertime. Chicago reversed its river and sent the rest down to us through the sanitary canal.

Here in the lower valley, I think we're used to the amazing kindnesses of the USA, and the severe limits of that kindness. Of the fight coming from the union against slavery when the "free labor" vision of capitalism was threatened, and the apathy towards our newly reconstructed constitutions when their vision of capitalism was threatened.

I remember the white kids who came down and got blown up as freedom riders --they usually came from the upper valley. Cooler heads talked in New York, but the money for the Rosenwald schools came from Chicago, the flesh and blood came from the Midwest.

And the upper valley is always that place people always have fled to, when that dream of cashing in on the promise of the United States catches people up and out of our swelter. The Great Migration always seems to be happening, but people keep coming back and then leaving again--as if we're checking in on ourselves. Mamie Till made it to Chicago, but Emmet still got stuck down in the Delta. When our cousins and sons are making it in Chicago, it's a proof of that promise; when they come back, it's proof we were right--there's not so much difference between the bleak plains of Springfield vs the bleak flats of Greenville, just varying degrees of introspection and hostility underneath impeccable manners.

There's definitely something to the bleaknessness of the Delta in the lower Valley vs the Midwestern Delta and Ohio Valley. The bleaknesses of the Delta are often unspoken; it's not something the United States likes to discuss at all--but there are now different rememberances and memorials. It's understood by almost everyone that the lower Delta is a special american hell.

As you head north into the upper valley, there is less cotton, there are fewer reminders of the struggle over the immense wealth collected from forced labor, there are no markers for the Trail of Tears, no internment camps, not even a monument to Tecumseh; just some mounds and the dusty remnants of the inland sea that used to be the Mississippi River Valley. (Cahokia is kind of awesome, though, great museum!). In southern Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, no one much expects the promises to come true, the flatness of the landscape is cinematically juxtaposed with all of the different types of weird genocide and racism the USA has to offer.

But head to Springfield, IL, and well, the bleak flatness is enveloped in pride and a bit of resentment, because the myth is that that landscape is there because they want it to be there; rather than because it's an unassailable consequence of Russia's need for corn, NATO's need for peace, ADM/Cargill/Monsanto's need for profit and the Farm Bureau's death grip on state politics.

At least, that's what it seems like from down here. I have no idea about the jello salads, though.
posted by eustatic at 2:06 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


Yes, I was born in Indianapolis and anything north of 116th Street isn't even in Marion County, let alone Indy. In point of fact, I moved from the Westside to the poorest ZIP Code in Marion County and I will always love it more than any place on Earth.
posted by koavf at 2:47 PM on January 15


"I think (hope) you're probably joking (something about MI/OH sports rivalry, maybe?) but omg whenever people here say shit like this (and it happens a lot), I feel distinctly unwelcome and it really hurts."

I always find it humorous when Michiganders pull the "worst state ever" stuff on us. Like, yeah, pal, half of Detroit is on fire and the other half is unemployed, and Flint doesn't even have water, but our state's the one that sucks, sure.

In the interests of Midwestern solidarity, I will say that Michigan is actually one of my favorite states. GR, Traverse, Manistee. It's a beautiful state. I can't even deny that AA is a nice place.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:57 PM on January 15


As a New Orleanian, the midwest is the Upper Valley-- part of the greater Mississippi River Valley. That fertile inland Sea was the cradle of ancient american civilization, from Poverty Point to the Mounds near Vicksburg, up to great trading Capital of Cahokia. Then, it was the great water road of New France, centered on Chicago.

the great lakes do not empty into the mississippi river - also michigan has towns named after tecumseh AND jackson - not to mention quite a few french place names that we may or may not pronounce correctly

also i got married by a minister of the native american church whose certificate of marriage was in both english and french

also my daughter claims to not care about the red wings and is a fan of the habs

we haven't forgotten the french entirely
posted by pyramid termite at 5:12 PM on January 15


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