I grew up in a Wisconsin town that, at its peak density, topped 700 residents. Throughout my childhood, I raised sheep to show at the county fair and listened to old country music, something I still do today although I often don’t admit it. I have a deep and genuine love for Wisconsin, for rural supper clubs that always offer a choice between chicken soup or an iceberg lettuce salad, and for driving back, country roads that seemingly are endless.
This love, though, is conflicting. How can I sing along to Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker, and Merle Haggard knowing that my current political views are in complete opposition to the lyrics I croon with a twang in my voice? Why do I justify patronizing restaurants that surely aren’t purchasing sustainably and ethically raised chicken and other meat, despite being located just miles from a farm?
Reading Phil Christman’s Midwest Futures brought these hypocritical tendencies front and center. In this slender book of essays, the Ann Arbor-based writer explores the ways in which the Midwest—a historically ambiguous area not defined by a map and a region where boundaries shift based on who you ask (Is Pennsylvania considered the Midwest? What about Kansas?)—is often misunderstood as representing American normality. Midwesterners, Christman argues, are seen as average. They’re thought of as an everybody and a nobody, similar to all Americans and yet not especially remarkable. They’re surely not like coastal elites.
Of course, there are dangerous implications that underlie these long-held notions, which Christman brilliantly unravels. He provides a perceptive take on how capitalism, environmental destruction, and oppression are intertwined throughout the region’s history. For example, Christman writes that the roots of manufacturing in the midwest are due to businessmen finding it easier to build a factory and then establish a settlement around it, rather than squeeze a large building into an already crowded city. These capitalists moved to and cleared lands that weren’t for sale, unsettling whoever and whatever was already there, in an effort to employ people and gain wealth. In other words, many small towns and cities currently reeling from the loss of factory jobs were founded on a strong belief in capitalism, a system that ultimately has failed them.
Similarly, Christman states that the notion of “settling” vast farmlands and prairies also relied historically on the understanding that the land was available, when in fact, it was occupied by Native peoples. As settlements arose and expanded, so did railroads. These transportation lines cut through natural landscapes, concurrently destroying the environment, ousting wild animals, and displacing Native populations. As Christman writes in one of his most pointed lines, “the ecocide of the Plains buffalo was simultaneously the intentional destruction of the Native economy.”
This, however, isn’t the only mention of the region’s racist past and present hypocrisy. While those living in America’s Heartland have a reputation for being nice—supporting a down-and-out neighbor, and stopping to help the person on the road with a flat tire–—they also have contributed to race-based oppression and aggression. Christman evidences the history of sundown towns, in addition to current acts of police brutality and the mistreatment of immigrants. Just because much of the region fought against the Confederacy doesn’t mean that its people are immune to racism, an understanding that runs counter to what is taught in schools in the Midwest, including at those I attended.
Christman is snarky, sarcastic, and undeniably funny, providing quips and facts I’d love to use the next time I argue with my family members about why they can’t vote for Donald Trump again. In an election year when many midwestern states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, are up for grabs, it seems especially crucial for liberals and progressives to understand these voters on a deeper level, for which Christman advocates. These residents certainly aren’t all the same, but they do occupy an area with a specific history and a dominating narrative about their perceived shared interests. As Christman says, Trump may gratify these voters’ desires to cling to an “old America,” but he certainly doesn’t represent their interests as small business owners, farmers, and manufacturers, who rely on natural resources that will continue to be impacted by the climate crisis he loves to dismiss.
As its title suggests, Midwest Futures is forward-looking, and while Christman writes with fact-based and intellectual arguments, I found the critical work validating and even hopeful. As Christman unpacks the complicated narratives surrounding the Midwest and argues for a sort of radical compassion for the very diverse people living in the region, the easier it is for me to understand my own complex relationship to the Midwest. The writer requires that we think more deeply about what can be gained from laying bare the hypocrisy hidden in the well-known stories about Midwestern values and life. Plus, his argument for understanding inspired a little bit of compassion for my nostalgic and contradictory self, who hummed George Strait’s “The Heartland” while writing this entire piece.
By Phil Christman
Publishing April 7, 2020