Sunday, January 15, 2017

276. The Heartland vs. New York

         For two new poems of mine in the Winter 2017 issue of GNU Journal, an online literary mag, go here and scroll down to pp. 34 and 35.  Then decide if your serene is ninny or deep, and see if the proverbs apply at all to you.

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        A recent New York Times article explored the meaning of “the heartland,” since it was voters in this region that gave the election to Donald Trump.  But what exactly is the heartland?  Obviously, it’s a central region  far from the coasts, but this is rather vague.  I have always taken it to mean the Midwest, where I’m from.  A recent survey said that residents of twelve states described them as being in the Midwest, which then includes everything from Ohio west to Nebraska, and from Minnesota south to Missouri.  But if you think of it as all of the nation that is far from the coasts, you would have to include everything as far west as the Rocky Mountains and as far east as the Appalachians, and states like Tennessee and Arkansas that have always been considered Southern.  Another definition sees the heartland as the nation’s breadbasket, which then includes all states with a large percentage of farmland: the states of the Great Plains -- the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma – plus Texas, Iowa, and parts of other states like Illinois and Missouri.  It has even been suggested that the heartland is where baseball is popular, which takes in the traditional Midwest.  Given these conflicting definitions, perhaps it is best to endorse the opinion of some historians that the heartland is above all a state of mind.

         So what is this state of mind, and how does it differ from New York?  I think at once of Midwestern values: a laid-back way of looking at things, as opposed to the fast pace and intensity of New York.  Midwesterners think of their part of the country as the norm, compared with which the rest of the country – which most definitely includes New York -- is abnormal or at least not normal.  “Come back to the real America,” a Midwestern friend once said to me, and he was only half joking; he really thought his part of the country was the authentic America, and the two coasts a kind of aberration.  This “authentic” America thinks of itself as quiet, sane, reasonable, not given to extremes.  It believes in what it thinks are traditional American values; it is patriotic, honors the flag, is usually – though not always – inclined to trust the government.  And it goes to church, meaning one of the well-established churches, Catholic or Protestant, rather than some new sect that is noisy, self-promoting, and evangelical; here too it shuns extremes.   

         All of which may be a myth, since there are Midwesterners who are not altogether sane and reasonable, who are vastly suspicious of government, and don’t go to church.  But in the 1930s and 1940s – yes, way back then -- I grew up in a traditional Midwest and can certify that it did once exist, and probably still does so, albeit in a modified form.

         The Midwest that I grew up in – Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago -- was suburban, well educated, professional, not grievously  wounded by the Great Depression, and very WASP.  It flourished on the very fringe of  Chicago, a great, noisy, hectic metropolis that both beckoned and repelled us Evanstonians, who flocked to it for jobs and shopping and theater, while at the same time distancing ourselves from it as an utterly corrupt (and Democratic) city that reeked of vice, crime, and liquor.  As regards the last, I must explain that Evanston back then was officially bone dry, and had been ever since the founding of Northwestern University, whose 1855 charter forbade the sale of liquor within four miles of the campus – a ban that preceded the development of the town itself.  Teetotaling Evanstonians looked with horror at Howard Street, the boundary between Evanston and Chicago, where liquor stores lined the south side of the street, as if eyeing Evanston with scorn and cupidity.  Not that all Evanstonians eschewed alcohol; the strange fumes emanating from the discarded bottles of one neighboring house, detected by me on childhood expeditions up the alley behind our house, told me otherwise, but to get the stuff one had to drive south to Chicago or west to regions just beyond the ban, a forbidden zone sought out regularly by bibulous Northwestern students.

         This heartland of my childhood was WASP to the core, and Republican.  WASP, but not rabidly so.  When a new family moved onto a block, one neighbor might say to another, “They’re Catholic, you know,” to which the other might reply with a muted “Oh.”  Likewise, “They’re Jewish, you know,” or more circumspectly, “They’re of a certain religion.”  Yes, there were African Americans (a term then unknown), but one hardly knew them, for they lived in circumscribed enclaves and weren’t allowed on the public beaches, except for one beach reserved for them.  The churches were aware of these practices, disapproved, but weren’t ready to launch a campaign to rectify the situation.  All in all, the status quo reigned supreme, and as I grew up I accepted it as the norm, even though that vast metropolis south of Howard Street was a mix of ethic groups – Polish, Swedish, Italian, Irish, and what have you – unknown to Evanston.

         And this heartland was also Republican, and in this regard the Evanstonians of my acquaintance did indeed show passion.  This was the era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, both of them deplored by white, middle-class Evanston.  Not every aspect of the New Deal was denounced, but Evanston Republicans thought of FDR’s greatly expanded Washington bureaucracy as a maze of inefficient agencies  overstaffed with plodding bureaucrats determined to damp down American enterprise with burdensome restrictions.   As for FDR, he was a disaster for the nation, triply and quadruply so when, against all precedent, he ran for a third, and then a fourth, term.  The denigration of the president was taken to a new level by my father, a corporation attorney, who argued fervently that the Commander in Chief wasn’t quite right in the head, having been stricken with polio years before.  As proof he cited a photo of FDR at his office in the White House, his desk topped with mementos and souvenirs accumulated over the years – Tinkertoys, my father called them, insisting that no sane man, and least of all a president of the United states, would clutter up his desk with such trivia.  (My father’s office desk was piled high with papers that only he could make sense of, but these were not Tinkertoys.)

         When it came to foreign affairs, the Midwest of my childhood was decidedly – though not exclusively – isolationist.  It thought of itself as a sane, peace-loving heartland, immune to the warmongering of the east and west coasts, which it viewed as being obsessively concerned with the nefarious doings of totalitarian states in far distant places.  And the supreme isolationist was my father, who nursed vivid memories of World War I and how our allies had entered into secret agreements of which we naïve Americans had no knowledge at the time. 

         When World War II came, courtesy of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Evanston outdid no one in professions of patriotism, and immediately put a guard around our waterworks to prevent sabotage by the treacherous Japanese.  Even the rabidly isolationist Chicago Tribune, a fanatical foe of the president, proclaimed  MY  COUNTRY  RIGHT  OR  WRONG.  But my father was an isolationist to the end, denouncing government bungling (of which there was plenty) and insisting that there were secret agreements that we, the public, knew nothing about – a claim that in the end proved correct.  That we should go to war with Japan, when each was the other’s best trading partner, was insane.  “If the king of Sweden came over here and ran for president,” he announced, “I’d vote for him,” Sweden having remained neutral in both world wars.  In war-ravaged Great Britain my father would probably have been locked up for undermining wartime morale; here his extreme opinions were respected, but not shared, by our neighbors.  (An interesting question: were he alive today, would my father have voted for Trump?  It’s hard to say.  He might have admired the Donald’s contempt for the norms, his rejection of the politically correct, but he would have had trouble supporting a confessed woman-groper.)

         When, many years later, I came to live in New York, as a child of the heartland I was baffled by newspapers in languages I couldn’t read or identify.  My forays into the wilds of Chicago had only gone so far; I had never seen an Orthodox Jew before, or dined in a Chinese restaurant.  That New York differed greatly from the Midwest of my childhood was borne in upon me in a thousand ways.  New Yorkers are intense, highly motivated, cosmopolitan, opinionated yet tolerant, skeptical, diverse.  Nothing about them is muted; they sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate.  They think big, they talk loud, they do.  Are there exceptions?  Of course.  But the New Yorkers of my acquaintance are a far cry from the Midwest of my childhood, whose suburban confines stopped abruptly short of the vast, unruly, corrupt, and fascinating city of Chicago.  Yes, the “heartland” is probably above all a state of mind and therefore subjective – a state of mind far removed from such monstrous and complex conglomerations as New York.  And if many of us have forsaken the heartland for New York, we also retreat on occasion to our heartland for a bit of sanity and repose.  It’s hard to conceive of New York without the heartland, or the heartland without New York; they need each other intensely.

         A note on banks:  Followers of this blog know my love for banks, by which I mean the big international banks, the ones whose names everyone knows.  Consider then the captions of articles on page B1 of the Business Day section of the New York Times of Friday, December 23:

Money Laundering Case
Hangs Over Goldman

Deutsche Bank to Settle U.S. Inquiry
Into Mortgages for $7.2 Billion

Hedge Fund Math:
Heads or Tails, They Win

And inside, on page B2:

Justice Department Sues Barclay’s Over Mortgage-Backed Securities

How like that naughty New York Times to hit these guys when they’re down.  Give them a chance!  They may be able to explain transactions like money laundering and dealing in faulty mortgages.  After all, everyone does it – everyone in banking, that is.  So let’s not be too hasty.  Besides, the incoming administration will probably view these matters differently.  Too much regulation harms the economy and impedes prosperity, and prosperity is what we need. So Godspeed, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, and more power to you, Barclay’s!  Be patient and soon all will be well.

         Our president elect, like many a president before him, is not bothered by such trivia.  Among his new appointees to date are six (count ’em, six) graduates of Goldman Sachs: chief White House strategist, Secretary of the Treasury (how these boys like to get close to the money!), director of the National Economic Council, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a White House advisor, and another Sachsie likely to be named to a position that is as yet unannounced.  (For more on Goldman Sachs, see post #158, “Goldman Sachs: Vampire Squid or Martyred Innocent?” Dec. 21, 2014.)

          A note on profanity:  Apropos of post #263, "The Golden Age of Profanity," in which I confessed to indulging in an inordinate amount of indecent and inappropriate utterances, it turns out that, according to the AARP Magazine of January 2017 (p. 14), cussing has several benefits:

  • It shows a wider vocabulary, which indicates intelligence.
  • It has health benefits, helps reduce physical pain.
  • It helps us to communicate more persuasively and to forge better teams in the workplace.  (57% of workers swear on the job.)
I would add:
  • It relieves stress, helps us get through the day.
One caveat: If you swear too often (as I certainly do), the power of swearing won't be there when you need it.  So cherish those cuss words, nurture them, and save them up for that occasional necessary blast.

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          Browder poems: 
 For my short poem “I Crackle” and a stunning photo of me, go hereFor five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.   

          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  Maybe something on the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, where Jack Kerouac and I have spent precious hours, and after that, the changing skyline of New York. 

         ©   2017   Clifford Browder


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