Theories and hypotheses

I have been developing a lot of theories and questions about American life (or subsets of it) on this trip:

  • Americans — myself included — don’t really understand class or regional differences. And for an unknown reason we are inclined to see differences up the social scale as snobbery and down the scale as stupidity. Perhaps there is a “culture war” of resentment (if not values) that is class-based. (Do you hear me, Democrats? We’re never going to win again until we get another Bubba or good ole boy like Clinton, who really liked everybody.)
  • Hotels charge a premium for exclusivity of guests. The difference between $60/night and $100/night rooms in Missouri is not in the room or services but in the expectation that people who can spend $40 extra for a place to stay are more “like you.”

But perhaps the most speculative is that Midwesterners generally believe that everyone knows (or should know) the same things. Everyone knows where Knute Peterson’s old barn was before it burned down in ’86 or where the train tracks go. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been in Des Moines in almost ten years, you should know that 2nd Avenue now goes all the way through past Oralabor Road or how to get to the airport now that the road is rebuilt. Never driven through K.C. before? That’s okay, everyone knows the downtown interchanges by heart — one almost might say genetically. (At least in the Bay State we give you road signs on major thoroughfares when something really important is about to happen.) Everyone knows the major regional news stories of the last five years.

(This might help explain why I’ve heard several people talk about “Mexicans” in ways that really set me on edge. Hispanics are — based on what I’ve heard — another monolithic group, who the Midwesterners see like themselves but completely foreign. “If only they would assimilate” then they could be part of the collective consciousness.)

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2 Responses to Theories and hypotheses

  1. Leslie says:

    I’m intrigued by the last paragraph. Can you elaborate, pretty please?

  2. Jeff Mather says:

    Over the last few years just about all of my extended-family relatives have at one time or another commented on “Mexicans” (by which they mean most varieties of Spanish-speaking folks). There’s never any talk about how they should all go home or how they’re chnging their respective states, which have had phenomenal growth in Hispanic populations.

    The white Iowans and Kansans acknowledge they’re hardworking, family-oriented people but seem vaguely afraid of their neighborhoods (if not them). But the two communities hardly mix outside of restaurants, which is a very un-Midwestern state of affairs. (I suspect not knowing how to tell the Hispanic folks “worth knowing” from the rest is mighty unsettling, at least to small-town Iowans.)

    Anyway, that’s a really roundabout way of leading into the fact that the Midwest 100 years ago was an incredibly diverse place ethnically. Swedes, Germans, Danes, Dutch — all of these groups have Midwestern communities today that celebrate their ethnic heritages, even though they’re more “diverse” now. At some point these groups had to find common bonds, and the result is now, I assert, a base of common knowledge.

    Recent immigrant groups (and more generally, non-white people) have had more difficulty joining the communities. The Iowans don’t seem to think they’re being exclusive and think that most of the effort needs to come from the new groups. I suspect this assertion has some merit but is mostly wrong.

    Consider the difficulty in Postville, Iowa where the Lubavitch Jews “immigrated.” The original town residents didn’t understand much about Judaism, and the newcomers didn’t understand the deep emphasis that Iowans put on neighborliness. If the NPR account is correct, there are efforts afoot to find common ground.

    Perhaps someone should take a look at what’s happening in Catholic congregations in places like Marshalltown.

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