Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Good news for rural America? or pablum propaganda by coastal elites?

This BBC headline surprised me yesterday:

The untold good news story of America today

Well, what really surprised me was the fact that the good news story is about small-town America--or at least features a limited number of America's small towns.  The story is by Tim Geoghegan, reporting from Blue Earth, Minnesota, population 3,353.  Blue Earth is just one of the towns visited by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows, who write for The Atlantic and who have just published their most recent book Our Towns:  A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

Geoghegan writes of the book:
Fallows is convinced the country at a local level is in a state of renewal that defies the predominant narrative of political dysfunction and inaction. 
His book reveals a proliferation of experiments and adaptations in cities like Holland in Michigan and Sioux Falls in South Dakota that cause him to think America has become "more like itself again". 
Serious though the country's problems are, he says, the future is brighter than you would ever guess from national news coverage which fixates on the "trench warfare" of politics.
It's exciting to hear that good things are happening in rural and small-town America--at least in some locales--and it is also isn't surprising to those of us who follow rural and "flyover state" trends.  (Here's a recent post about an Iowa town that would likely have been eligible to be featured in the Fallows book -- good, local-driven things are happening there).  But the whole book sounds a bit pollyanna-ish--like the Fallows set out to tell a certain type of story and then found the facts to back it up.  I'm also guessing the authors were pretty selective about which towns they visited (and subsequently featured) as they flew across the country, presumably making many stops.  Are there some places they visited but then did not include in the book because the town did not fit the desired narrative?  Yes, great things are happening in rural America, but I hate for the nostalgia to overwhelm or mask the (perhaps?) more widespread reality of rural decline and despair. I'm recalling  this old-ish Carsey publication that sets up a taxonomy of four rural Americas and reminds us of the diversity of among rural places. 

The book has been reviewed positively by various folks on amazon.com, but I am going to cut and paste here three negative reviews--if only to be provocative. Here is the first:
I had high hopes for this book, having spent time in various locations in the Rust Belt. But the book was a real disappointment. These authors come off as elite coastal dwellers looking around "flyover country" aghast, and very surprised that there are schools and pools. 
One central theme is that all immigrants are good, no matter how they arrived here, because native born Americans do not like to work, except for entrepreneurs clever enough to own coffee shops or other such vital businesses. They are constantly trying to justify how people could actually live somewhere that they themselves only want to fly in and out of. 
Their political views are very apparent. They will describe someone and state that he did not say his political affiliation, but obviously was a Trump voter. I think these two writers need to go back to Slate and The Atlantic, where they comfortably worked for many years. I never regret buying many books, but this is one of the few that I wish could be returned for a refund.
Here is the second:
This could have been a great story. It turned a good idea into a boring slog. The authors brought no originality nor feeling to the places they visited. It should have been correctly described as a journey to interview various schools across the US. Such a disappointment. The writers are too wrapped up in themselves and wasted their opportunity.
Here is the third: 
I wanted to love this book. I really did. After seeing the authors on the Today Show, I immediate downloaded this book, and jumped right in hoping that it would create a desire to visit each and every one of these American gems. But,alas, it did not happen. I had hoped to choose one from Column A and one from Column B and have the feast of a lifetime. However, in reality all I got was a cup of hot tea and a fortune cookie. I wish that the authors had created a laundry list of characteristics that were instrumental in causing a reborn in each town they visited. Instead, I felt that I often had trouble trying to make sense of a disjointed narrative. If each town had been judged for progressive thinking, innovative programs, schools that actually prepared their students to join the working world with an actual skill that is in demand in our modern society. I thought it interesting that recent immigrant were assimilated into the local economy because they were willing to work in places like slaughter houses because Americans refused to do those. Is it the social safety net that gives people free this and free that to the point that it did not make to give up the freebies and go to work at a job they did not enjoy. A pilot must have excellent navigational skills, but it seemed that the authors often lost their way in a quest to arrive at a comprehensive conclusion as to what makes each of these towns tick. Finally, I think that the authors and the readers would have been better served if the authors had not injected their own political bias into a book that wanted to be a travel guide but instead became a bully pulpit.
There is enough negativity there--though some of it is clearly politically motivated--to deter me from reading the book.  Regardless of the politics, I just find myself skeptical of the message the Fallows' are peddling--or fearful that it will permit readers to say, "oh, everything is ok in the flyover states."  Yes, lots of things are ok, but government assistance and investment are needed too. 

Further, the Fallows lose credibility with me when they consider Sioux Falls, South Dakota, population 153,000, a small town--or even a "town" among the "our towns" of the book's title.  Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota and the 145th largest city in the nation.  It's also the 47th fast growing, according to wikipedia.  It is simply not a small town.

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