Roving thoughts and provocations

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In the Land of No News

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Oklahoma, 1995

Home for me is an interstate highway in the middle of the country after dark. You could be anywhere, but you know exactly where you are. The coastal freeways, Interstates I-5 and 95, are busy and quotidian, but in the states that coastal people call “flyover country,” the big roads are our great, comforting Eisenhower modernity. The asphalt draws its lines over an uneven land, and the green signs order geography: odd numbered roads run north and south, even ones east and west; higher numbers north and east, lower south and west.

In the Great Plains, you can not only register the route numbers and count the miles, once day breaks you can usually see what the next hours of driving hold. But flatlands have their own vulnerabilities. If in these last few months you tried to drive southeast from Lincoln Nebraska to Kansas City Missouri as I did, you would have found Interstate 29 flooded and the bridges over the Missouri River closed. But a detour down Nebraska State Route 75 reveals detail you might miss if you take only the big roads. Southeastern Nebraska shows the contrasts we can expect, as a nation, from the effects of climate change: from the flooded riverbank you can already see field upon field of painfully parched corn. The billboards on the state roads become more intimate: Jesus, underage drinking help, gambling help. At the gas station, by the cash register, clear plastic canisters meant for candy offer 99-cent mini bottles of vodka and energy drinks.

A bit further south, in the red clay of Kansas, the farmers have their own billboards: usually opposing abortion, with a lonely exception promoting wind and solar power. The suburbs of the cities clustered around I-70 make themselves known with God-in-a-box churches, the temples of the non-denominational Protestantism that dominates the spiritual life of the country and, in considerable measure, defines the Republican Party. The billboards near the big cities alternate between hospitals offering speedy procedures and restaurants offering the fast food that sends you to them. If you break south on I-35 for Oklahoma, with a mind to going to the state fair, you’ll soon see the little oil rigs of the state’s many wildcatters. At the fair you can get your fill of bacon covered in chocolate (and more than a little self-aware irony about what mid-Americans eat). If you don’t like waiting in lines for rides you can buy a gold pass and avoid them — another sign of the firstclassification of everything in the land of the free.

These are wonderful places to see by car, if your idea of pleasure is entering the Flint Hills, the rolling prairie that spans from eastern Kansas south into north-central Oklahoma, with a full tank. But to most Americans today, places like this are all but invisible. The one way the country sees all of its parts these days is through sports. Each Saturday college football reminds tens of millions of Americans of the states and the capitals, the regions and the rivalries. When Nebraska left the Big 12 and joined the Big 10 athletic conference, it challenges a dividing line that is important in the middle of the country and seemingly unintelligible elsewhere: between the Midwest and the Great Plains, between the old Northwest Territory and their immediate surroundings and the flatlands to the south and west which were settled much later, exploited for their oil, and in many places turned into Indian reservations.

Each college football team, in its own way, recalls local history. Amidst the pageantry of an Oklahoma home game in Norman, you hear forty thousand people call “Boomer!” and forty thousand answer “Sooner!”, recalling the two groups of settlers who first staked their claims. Each Oklahoma touchdown brings a full colonial reenactment, with horse-drawn wagons and whooping men followed by nubile women (cheerleaders) turning cartwheels over the desired land (the endzone). Everyone in Norman on Saturday night is wearing crimson. Is this conformity or noncomformity? Everyone looks and acts the same, everyone seems to care about the same thing. But really this is difference, even defiance: nowhere else in the world will you find in one location several thousand young women wearing short red dresses and cowboy boots.

Lincoln, Lawrence, and Norman are among America’s most attractive cities, where the opportunity for social advancement provided by big state universities are sources of local pride. Like most of the big college towns in the middle of the country, they have the art shops, the bookstores, and the cafés that coastal people say they miss in American life. What they do not have is presence. If you watch the national news on television, you see two kinds of American places: the kind where things are happening, and the kind where things have already happened. CNN and Fox speculate about the present in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles (and during campaign season, in “battleground” or swing states like Iowa and Ohio). Everywhere else in the country, things do happen, but always without warning—and rarely with anyone to witness them. Now that the local newspaper is all but dead, there are few sources of news in the traditional sense. Television is best suited to the transmission of images of things that have already happened. So if a levy breaks or a bridge is destroyed, a news team might fly in, but it reports not in the here-and-now but in the hereafter.

We should have bailed out the newspapers back in 2008: it would have cost a tiny fraction of what we spent on bailing out the banks. But since this opportunity was missed, only this fantasy remains: what if, to legally describe themselves as news channels, our national television carriers had to post a correspondent and a production team in all fifty states, and devote a certain amount of their air time to stories generated by these crews? What if CNN and Fox had employees who actually prepared for things that might happen and ran segments about what they like to call “developing stories” throughout the United States of America? What if Fox and CNN anchors, in other words, had to be as well briefed as the crews that cover college football for ESPN? The sportscasters actually go places, read reports, and have informed opinions about the present. As a result, sports is the only arena where the whole country still exists in anticipation, week by week, on more or less equal terms.

So long as a large swath of the country only exists in retrospect, the people who live there will understandably vote for the party that they regard as conservative: they are not part of the national story of those who disregard them, and will naturally see themselves as preserving the true America. The cities of the Great Plains are varied: Obama got an electoral vote from the second congressional district in Omaha in 2008, and in recent weeks, small numbers have turned out for “Occupy Lawrence” and “Occupy Norman” protests. But the countryside and the states as a whole will vote Republican in 2012 no matter what: no matter who the candidate might be, no matter the state of the economy. Obama will campaign in Michigan and Ohio, midwestern swing states, each of which has about as many electoral votes as Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma combined. But no force on earth (there might be one in heaven) can prevent the 2012 electoral map in the Great Plains from looking as crimson as the stands of Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. But of course that stadium, and its university, and all the universities that make people proud in the Great Plains are public institutions, funded by the states with help from the federal government, dependent upon the idea that some citizens ought to pay more for facilities that all can enjoy. They will only endure so long as public servants value public goods and wealthy citizens pay taxes.

Our country is divided, now, between those who have the most to lose as public goods diminish but whose pride and politicians tell them that they can go it alone, and those who are willing to pay for public goods but feel ever more distant from a country they cannot really envision. A long drive gives me a sense of home, for which I’m grateful; we’ll all need better ways of seeing one another if we want the homeland to have anything that resembles a common future.

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