The Specious Midwest v. Coastal Elites Debate


To a foreigner like myself — I moved to the United States seven years ago, at the age of 18, to attend college in Minnesota and then in Iowa — the Midwest v. Coastal Elites argument has always seemed a little…off.

For one, the alleged differences between The Midwest and The Coasts (and/or Midwesterners and Coastal Elites) are often highly tendentious and over-determined. The Midwest’s popular association with deep, fundamental uncoolness, with uncool earnestness and uncool optimism and that uncool you-betcha moral compass, I never understood. Because the people who can’t believe I ever enjoyed living way out there always seem to care about the details, let me just say that I never had any trouble getting hold of a nice vintage dress, drinking an organic latte made from locally-roasted shade-grown beans, or watching a first-run art movie in Iowa; to the class of Americans that has learned to desire such things and can afford them, they will more or less always be available. I meet plenty of shockingly earnest young people here in New York City. The drugs are pretty much the same in both places.

At the risk of coming off a rube — and when I moved to the U.S., it was actually the fourth country I’d lived in — the Iowan relationship with consumer goods struck me as downright cosmopolitan. To a New Zealander raised before the age of online shopping, seeing actual designer clothes for sale in boutiques downtown and students who carried their books in Louis Vuitton Neverfull totes was a persistent source of astonishment: those things only existed as pictures in imported magazines, where I was from. (I put a lot of the coastal-Midwestern sneering, when I encounter it, down to New Yorkers needing to believe that they live somewhere cooler than anywhere else in order to justify paying more than 50% of your income as rent.) The question of “cool” is a misleading one anyway. There are, thankfully, plenty of people all over who would assert that a city or region’s “cool” or lack thereof is not of signal importance, that there are in fact more important things than being “cool.” Since I realized around age 12 that I would never be “cool,” anyway, that attitude has always struck me as the correct one.

The things that are supposed to be Midwestern, then, the out-of-date hairstyles and the social conservatism and the wrong cut of jeans, are not things I actually encountered much when I lived in Minnesota and Iowa. (Okay, I once had a boyfriend whose Iowan parents owned a Flowbee, but it was a joke.) The things that are supposed to be coastal, the good coffee and the liberal politics and the consumerism, I can report, have achieved significant penetration in the continental interior.

Susanna Daniel has an interesting essay about living in Madison, Wisconsin, and the differences between the coastal parts of the U.S. and the Midwest. (Daniel and I even lived in one of the same places: Iowa City.) Daniel critiques the superficial distinctions that many are all too quick to draw, but does note that Midwesterners seem to her to be “true-to-reputation, kind and friendly, but they aren’t particularly warm.” The six months I spent living in a small town in southeastern Minnesota were among the most lonely and socially unsuccessful of my life, but I don’t think some sort of innate Midwestern reticence was to blame — I was starting school in the middle of the year, with no orientation or class bonhomie, I missed New Zealand, I didn’t drive, and suddenly I couldn’t even get a drink at a fucking bar thanks to fucking MADD and the perfidies of U.S. highway appropriations. For what it’s worth, I also had trouble making friends when I lived in San Francisco. And Iowa City was much better, anyway. And I’d be lying if I said I never found myself having conversations “where the topics range from the weather to the menu” with friendly but not-particularly-warm New Yorkers, too.

Daniel writes:

Like any liberal, midsized city, Madison is home to a fantastic independent weekly newspaper, which has done me the favor of mentioning my book three times. The first was the only bad print review my book received, out of more than a dozen nationwide. But receiving an ugly review from the local indie paper is exactly like receiving an ugly review from your favorite hippie uncle-it’s hurtful and humiliating, but it doesn’t matter. The second mention was neutral, but my name was misspelled and the novel was summarized as a love story between two female characters (which it’s not). But that doesn’t matter, either. The third mention named Stiltsville one of the best local books of the year, and included a lovely write-up. Again, my name was misspelled, but here’s what really packed a punch: I was dubbed a “recent transplant” to the area.

This tag — “recent transplant” — she interprets as a kind of Midwestern social fatwa, a visa stamp reading “immigrant.” (Daniel has lived in the Midwest since 1999.) Now, maybe this is some kind of acquired Midwestern sympathy, some willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt speaking, but perhaps the paper just got its facts wrong, like it got her name wrong?

America’s investment in these geo-cultural assumptions also seems specious to an outsider like myself for another, more fundamental reason: Americans are the ones making them. I have never met a national population that holds so much in common, that tells such exalted stories of themselves and their creation as a nation. Americans are always so American. Americans are all much more alike than they are different. It’s like you guys don’t even know that what unites you — in terms of worldview, political outlook, self-conception, food mores, shared historical and cultural knowledge, television — is so much more important than anything that might divide you. Americans, of all people, are going to act like the public toleration of fleece jackets and clogs is some kind of big, cultural shibboleth? HA. You wanna see an intranational cultural divide, go check out the rösti fence. Then we’ll talk.

What I really want to know is why these imaginary differences were developed. Who benefits from the Midwest v. Coastal Elites narrative? Why has the storyline found such a sympathetic reception, when it is so obviously vulnerable to real-life critique?

Image via. In college, I knew a dude who had this shirt. He grew up in a town of, like, 1,500 people in north-central Iowa, the kind of town where meth and the price of grain were each a “thing,” and he thought the way the rest of the country perceived the region was fucking hilarious.

Midwest Living: The Weather Factor, The Friendliness Factor [Slate]

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