The Sunday New York Times these days seems to be edited by the descendants of Saul Steinberg, the New Yorker cartoonist who drew the famous Gotham-centric map of the United States. Steinberg’s map showed nothing much between the Hudson River and the Pacific except Las Vegas and a couple of mountains, and was intended as a parody of a parochial New Yorker’s view of the nation.
Day in and day out, the daily Times does a first-rate job of covering the U.S. Certainly, the Times’ Chicago bureau, led by Monica Davey, does a better job of covering the Midwest than any other paper, including Midwestern newspapers themselves.
But the Sunday Times, edited separately, regularly forgets that there’s a real nation out there west of Jersey City, filled with Times’ readers who often wonder whether those folks in Times Square think Steinberg was serious.
Periodically, the Times Sunday Magazine does a food issue, treating farming as something done on 20 acres in the Catskills as a hobby by ex-Brooklynites who’ve fled the city to get their hands dirty in a plot of heirloom tomatoes. The idea that most of this country’s food is grown on large spreads by professionals called farmers, many of them fourth and fifth generation, hasn’t penetrated. Certainly, large-scale megafarming needs reforms, but criticizing it and ignoring it are two different things.
Not so long ago, we railed against the lead review of several books on Chicago in the Times Sunday Book Review, written by an expatriate New York academic named Rachel Shteir, unhappily stranded in Chicago. The review pretty much ignored the books, got Chicago totally wrong, and said much more about poor Shteir than it did about the city.
Now it’s the turn of the Sunday Travel section, which dispatched a writer named Seth Kugel to drive through the ten states in the middle of the country, zigzagging north from Louisiana and Arkansas, through Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and the two Dakotas, ending in Fargo.
Kugel is an admitted “longtime city slicker,” a New Yorker with more knowledge about other countries than his own. His goal, he says, was to cure this ignorance. Alas, it didn’t work. In a month and more than 4,000 miles on the road, he seems to have found every cliché he brought with him, but not much else.
He heard an NPR station in Iowa warn drivers that corn stalks were high enough to block views at intersections. He ate a coconut cream pie in a Styrofoam container in Arkansas. He found small towns that proclaimed themselves “the ice cream capital of the world” or “the hay capital of the world.” He went to county fairs to watch the steer judging. Or found gas stations selling barbecue. Or saw front yards filled with old cars and rusting machinery.
All true. Drive around the Midwest and you see all this. But there’s more to this region, as there is to any region, and Kugel either didn’t see it or didn’t feel it was worth mentioning.
That Iowa NPR station, for instance, intersperses its cornstalk alerts with hours of classical music. And many of those clichéd small towns contain small colleges or universities with world-class scholarship.
He appreciated the lovely downtown in Pella, a prosperous Dutch-based Iowa manufacturing town, but illustrated it with a picture of a farmer driving his tractor through an otherwise empty intersection, captioned “traffic jam in Pella.”
Kugel is properly proud of the diversity in his New York neighborhood, where live Tibetans, Colombians, Pakistanis and Russians. He was pleased to find that the Midwest also has its immigrants – the Dutch in Pella, for instance, or the Czechs in Cedar Rapids, all of whom have been here for a century. Otherwise, he found a Mexican restaurant in northern Iowa. As far as immigration goes, that’s about it.
Too bad he didn’t detour nine miles off Iowa Highway 3, which he took into South Dakota, to visit Storm Lake, which has thousands of Mexicans and also Laotians, Somalis and other Africans. Or spend some time in cities like St. Louis, Des Moines or Omaha which (like most cities, including New York) are magnets for immigrants from many nations.
Mostly, Kugel writes that he was “gratified to be outside the New York City echo chamber” to hear “political views far different from what you find at home.” But when he heard them, he wasn’t pleased.
At a farmers’ market in Arkansas, he ran into a man selling bags of worm casings who informed him that President Obama was not born in the United States.
Well, good golly, Miss Molly, whoever heard of such a thing? Who knew that these birther blowhards still exist, and in Arkansas, of all places? Actually, Kugel could have saved himself the trip by taking a crosstown cab to Fifth Avenue and interviewing Donald Trump.
I once wrote that Midwesterners are tolerant, narrow-minded, cultured, cross, sophisticated and naïve in pretty much the same measure as other Americans.” But this middle of America does suffer from Steinbergian stereotypes – that there’s nothing but farms and small towns, slow-talking provincials, lots of parking spaces and soybean fields and not much else.
The Midwest has serious problems that this blog exists to discuss. It’s useful when these problems are reported in the daily New York Times and other papers. But to focus on the clichés and stereotypes, and ignore the goods and bads of reality, is just plain bad journalism.
On the other hand, it’s nice to know that we don’t have a monopoly on parochialism.