America’s Mythical Heartland

Here’s a brief description of two very different parts of the country.

The first is Ridgewood Avenue, that segment of U.S. 1 that links Holly Hill to Daytona Beach. Like most of U.S. 1’s 2,500 miles America’s original highway hymn to ugliness it isn’t pretty. It ruts and wears its way through rutted and wearied storefronts, pawn shops and porn shops, cash loan joints and used car lots, seedy delis and seedier motels, a few churches to spruce up hope and a television station’s steeple, higher than any other, to remind the faithful of what matters most. The place hasn’t changed that much from what it was in 1938 when Life magazine featured the highway as a mess of “hot-dog stands, signs, shacks, dumps and shoddy gas stations.”

The other place is Hill City, Kansas, a Census Bureau blip in the Great Plains’ wheat seas. Barely a town of two avenues and less than 2,000 people at the junction of U.S. 24 and U.S. 283, Hill City’s biggest claim to fame is a small oil museum (you let yourself in by getting the key from the motel across the road) and its Pomeroy Inn, a bed & breakfast run by Don and Mary Worcester out of a turn-of-the-century saloon, and where the cinnamon buns taste of Eden. Otherwise the place is an ode to the uneventful. The lead story in the weekly Hill City Times recently was about Gwen and Roger Cooper’s continuing progress on their soon-to-be-opened Gwen’s Hometown Cafe downtown, where shuttered storefronts are the main fare.

Now, which of the two, Ridgewood Avenue or Hill City, rates as the best illustration of the “heartland”? It would naturally be Hill City, and in purely geographic terms, it would have to be. But geography is the least of the word’s connotations anymore. The word is an ideological euphemism, a warm and fuzzy fabrication of that place that supposedly represents America’s hard-working, self-reliant, honest, friendly, God-fearing, and of course supremely white, supremely heterosexual core.

The myth of the heartland is so potent that it has become the conservative ideologue’s El Dorado, a geopolitical fiction without which Republicans since Ronald Reagan would have had no crutch on which to build their all-business, all-righteousness, no-tax, no-regulation America. It is to that El Dorado that George W. Bush retreats every time the more sclerotic realities of deficits or corporate corruption at the nation’s extremities risk infecting his presidency, every time “blue-state” liberalism appears to breach his program for the “Real America.” Because only in El Dorado can he make his fictions sound believable.

By posing against “heartland” backdrops such as Midwestern state fairs, Mount Rushmore or his beloved ranch in Texas, as he did in his latest “Home to the Heartland Tour” last August, Bush is saying something simple and appealing to those “red states” that gave his candidacy just enough legitimacy to become, with that Supreme Court nudge, a presidency. He is saying that a place like Hill City is the real America. A place like Ridgewood Avenue isn’t, or at least not as much.

And yet that version of the heartland has never really existed anymore than George Washington’s cherry tree or Jack Kennedy’s virtue. The true heartland is closer to the kind of Kansas Truman Capote portrayed in “In Cold Blood” (the true story of a family murdered by drifters), the kind of Texas John Steinbeck called “a military nation,” not just because capital punishment is a conveyor belt entertainment there, the kind of Oklahoma where whitebread, blue-eyed American fanatics blow up government buildings, the kind of heartland where Willa Cather’s proud pioneers homesteaded an acre for every buried memory of America’s Indian holocaust.

Economically, the “heartland” is the nation’s least productive, least self-reliant, most anemic segment of the economy, the biggest gobbler of government welfare in the form of farm subsidies, the most rapacious abuser, at taxpayers’ expense, of mining rights, grazing rights and water rights. As economist and columnist Paul Krugman noted recently, “blue America subsidizes red America to the tune of $90 billion or so each year.” To top it off, those heartland states’ murder, divorce, depression and suicide rates are higher than in “blue” states. Red-blooded conservatism has never seemed so grim, so hungry for hand-outs, so capably deluding.

But so many comparisons ultimately expose the idiocy of judging one part of America truer, or more American, than another. Hill City’s wholesome, if deserted, sidewalks aren’t any more American than Ridgewood Avenue’s prostitute-addled corners, nor is Manhattan, N.Y., any less of a heartland than Manhattan, Kansas. It would be nice if the president quit making such distinctions in his subtle ways. But he believes in those distinctions as honestly as he believes his own fictions. It isn’t up to him to make him realize that America is every square inch a heartland, or that it beats for a lot more hearts than his compassion has room for.

PIERRE TRISTAM is a Daytona Beach News-Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at ptristam@att.net.


More articles by:
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South