Welcome to the Midwest conversation.
This posting launches a new blog by a Midwesterner for Midwesterners. The goal is to bring Midwesterners together, across city and state and county lines, across professions and specializations and political boundaries, to talk about the one thing that really unites us -- the future of our Midwest in this new globalizing world.
This goal is shared by the blog's two hosts, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and its Global Midwest Initiative (GMI). One of the Council's mandate is not only to educate Chicagoans about the world, but to define Chicago's place in that world. GMI extends that mandate to the Midwest. We don't see ourselves as a think tank, casting thunderbolts of wisdom from Chicago across the region: we're very aware that most Midwesterners don't see Chicago as the center of all virtue. Rather, GMI has been set up mostly as a place where Midwesterners can come together to discuss mutual problems and, with luck, find mutual solutions.
All this has been the focus of my work in the last few years. I'm a native Midwesterner -- born and reared in central Iowa -- who left early for a career as a foreign correspondent. After a long time away, I've worked my way back to my old home turf. Two years ago I published a book, Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism that seemed to strike a chord with a lot of Midwesterners.
My main point was that the Midwest, which virtually invented the Industrial Age and thrived mightily in that era, now finds itself in the Global Age on the wrong side of the American tracks. From big cities like Detroit to old manufacturing towns like Rockford and Kokomo to the little farm towns that give our region so much of its character, the Midwest is bleeding industry, jobs and, especially, young people.
The problem is the same across the Midwest, from Ohio through Iowa, for the simple reason that this region does two big things for a living -- heavy industry and intensive farming -- and globalization has turned both of them inside out. It's a regional transformation, but nobody has been was talking about this from a regional Midwestern perspective. Instead, all thinking and all political action has been locked up within state borders. In the midst of a regional crisis, each state kept on competing with other states as fiercely as their teams competed on football Saturdays. No one seemed to realize that the real competition these days can be 10,000 miles away, not next door across a meaningless state line.
Since the book came out, I've driven 28,000 miles around the Midwest talking with people about these issues. On the one hand, I've seen a lot of cornfields. On the other, I've discovered that I didn't tell anybody anything they didn't already know. Basically, my book just said out loud what many Midwesterners were already thinking. But they were doing their thinking in isolation, not knowing that good people in other cities and other states were facing the same problems.
So the voices were already there, even if the conversation wasn't. Over the past year, the recession has raised the voices and sharpened the issues. Here and there, conversation has begun, as Midwesterners ask whether their tired old region has a future or whether it, like the post-Civil War South and the Chicago Cubs, may be in for a bad century. Regions like northeastern Ohio and southeastern Michigan are trying to go beyond old political divisions to find new strengths. States like Minnesota and Wisconsin are beginning to cooperate across state lines. Big Ten universities, fiercely competitive, are looking for ways to collaborate on research and grants.
But even this cooperation goes on in silos. Community colleges from around the Midwest have met here at the Chicago Council. Farm extension directors from the land grant colleges are meeting and thinking. The Midwest Governors Association, a notoriously drowsy outfit, has stirred itself recently to strike deals on the energy economy and high-speed rail. But nobody is putting this all together in ways that could generate an economic revival that will recharge the region.
For starters, we need to talk to each other. Midwestern newspapers, under huge economic pressures of their own, have become too small and too local to do this job. In their places, bloggers are seizing the new technology to set up virtual roundtables. There are rust belt blogs and rural blogs and urban blogs -- all manner of blogs, many of them listed on this site. I hope that they will see this addition to their ranks as a place where all these issues can be hashed out.
My goal is to use what I've heard and learned on my recent travels to write about Midwestern issues -- from farming to industry, from cities to rural towns, from transport to education. I aim to have a new post up a couple of times a week, perhaps more often. The content will be opinionated and provocative, but buttressed by facts and on-the-ground reporting. What it won't be is politically partisan. Almost none of the big issues facing the Midwest fits into the platform of one party or another. Like so much of the Midwestern economy, the old liberal/conservative divisions belong to an earlier era. I wish one party or another had all the answers. It would make life so much easier. But they don't. Perhaps each can learn something from the conversation going on here.
All across the Midwest, good people are laying out good programs, writing thoughtful commentary, suggesting solutions for what ails us. I intend to give these ideas an airing. Sometimes, I'll just step aside and turn the blog over to other people's work, if they'll let me.
Comments are more than welcome. Naturally, obsecenity, defamation and hate mail are not, so comments will be moderated and, if necessary, weeded out. But my intention is to do this weeding with a light hand. We seek vigorous debate and a clash of ideas. The challenge facing the Midwest is too great to fall victim to the slash-and-burn politics that litters the American public square these days.
We Midwesterners have work to do. So let's do it. Let the conversation begin.