What I Learned in the Midwest

Six years ago, my wife and I moved to Fargo, North Dakota for my job at Concordia College across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota. Growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, my view of the country looked a lot like the famous 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.”
New Yorker's View of the World

As a kid, a friend’s father tried to convince us that North Dakota didn’t exist (a take on the Bielefeld Conspiracy gag) and it seemed somewhat plausible. Even as I prepared to move, most of my understanding of Minnesota was informed by The Mighty Ducks and, like most people, what little I knew about North Dakota came from the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fargo. In other words, I was profoundly ignorant about the people, the culture, and the geography of our new home.

Six years later, in early June of this year, my wife and I packed up and moved back east to Saratoga Springs, NY for my new position at Skidmore College. In that time, I have had the pleasure of teaching many remarkable students and working alongside some wonderful colleagues. We have made lifelong friendships with people who are smart, progressive, and cosmopolitan, and who violate nearly all of the stereotypes of Midwesterners (except for calling soda “pop” — that’s actually real).

I’ve learned an incredible amount during these years and have come away with some perspective that I don’t think I would’ve had if I’d never left the East Coast. Here are four important things I’ve learned from living in the Midwest:

1. There is no Midwest. Ohio is different from Michigan, which is different from Minnesota. But Grand Rapids, MN in the Iron Range is also different from Minneapolis. Indeed, some of the identity of being an Iron Ranger is constructed in opposition to the culture of people from “The Cities.” While most Minnesotans and North Dakotans I know identify as Midwestern, evidence shows the percentages identifying as Midwestern are lower than for people living in Indiana. In my experience, North Dakotans especially are more likely to specify that they’re from the “Upper Midwest.”

But when it comes to understanding “the culture of the Midwest,” the divides of urban and rural, major city and small city are far more profound than the differences between Midwest and East Coast. The cultural difference between Chicago and NYC is smaller than the cultural distance from Minot, ND and St. Paul, MN. The caveat I would offer is that many urban dwellers in the Midwest are only a generation or two removed from a farm and tend to have greater familiarity with rural life than I have encountered in the East.

An important lesson to an ignorant East Coaster like myself is that “The Midwest” is far from monolithic.

2. If the American Dream is alive anywhere, it’s in the Midwest. With a little help from a 577 page surprise bestseller by a French economist with a name we’re stilling learning to pronounce correctly, we’re in the midst of a national conversation about inequality. It is now well-established that income and wealth inequalities are as great as they have been since the Gilded Age and that the extent of inequality is far greater in the U.S. than in Europe. Likewise (or perhaps consequently), the United States has much lower social mobility than Europe or Canada. Many social scientists and political figures alike fear that the toxic combination of high inequality and low social mobility seriously jeopardizes the dual promises of meritocracy and middle class prosperity that make up the American Dream.

But social scientists have also shown the United States is not uniformly unequal. As the Equality of Opportunity Project has shown, the states of the western Midwest (WI, MN, ND, SD, NE, IA, MT) are among the most equal and socially mobile in the country (see figure).
Social Mobility

Though I grew up with it, when I go back to New York or New Jersey now, I’m stunned by both the concentrated poverty and the extreme wealth. Fargo, a city of almost 200,000, has a booming economy and one of the largest Microsoft campuses and still can’t support a Banana Republic. Meanwhile, nine of the forty-five Gucci stores in America are within 20 miles of each other in the New York area. Of course, major Midwestern cities, like Minneapolis, have greater wealth and poverty, but they simply cannot compare to the intergenerational durability of wealth and permanence of poverty in either the Northeast or, especially, the South. If the American Dream of hard work and upward mobility is alive anywhere today, it’s in the Midwest (actually, it’s in Denmark or Norway where social mobility is much greater).

3. The Midwest has a deserved chip on its shoulder. The nation’s centers of power are on the coasts. The economy and the press are in New York. The government and military are in D.C. The culture industry is in L.A. And over half the nation’s population lives within 50 miles of a coast (39% live in coastal counties representing less than 10% of the country’s land (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/population.html)). As a result, the Midwest (especially the Upper Midwest) is too often neglected. A snowflake falls in Midtown Manhattan and CNN flies into crisis mode. It takes serious devastation (or an absolutely massive oil boom) for the Coastal press to take notice of little ol’ North Dakota.

One of the more cringe-inducing experiences in Fargo is seeing a visiting band or comedian take the stage and make a hackneyed joke along the lines of “Wow. I’m in Fargo. It sure is cold!” And here’s the thing: the crowd eats it up! Because it’s a form of recognition. All that talk about the “real America” from the likes of Sarah Palin? Those are desperate cries that “hey, we count, too!” Especially in places like Fargo, what I’d call “place entrepreneurs” engage in active PR campaigns to show that life isn’t as bad as you think way out here (e.g., the #ilovefargo hashtag on Twitter started by a local urban promoter).

There’s a defensiveness in the region that stems from a real neglect and a feeling of disempowerment. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that feeling of disempowerment is somewhat counteracted by the highly disproportional representation that these largely low population areas have in Congress (Obamacare’s “public option,” for example, was taken out of the bill by seven Senators representing 3.6% of the U.S. population).

4. It is a Christian country in the Upper Midwest. An acquaintance, a mother of two small children, told me a story about her move from Connecticut to Fargo. She enrolled her kids in a non-religiously-affiliated day care in Fargo and when she picked them up during the middle of the day, she found that they were saying a prayer before snack time. None of the parents seemed to have a problem with it. She pointed out that in CT, the parents would have flipped out. Now, it’s not because everybody in North Dakota is a pious Christian, but because Christianity is so assumed as a part of everyday life that having a quick prayer shouldn’t bother anybody. The level of diversity in CT makes that unthinkable. As one of the chaplains at Concordia College once told me, “this is Christendom.” It does not operate at the level of aggressive evangelism (in fact, most people I knew are progressive Lutherans). Rather, Christian is taken to be the default category.

The two facts that define New York and New Jersey where I grew up are incredible diversity and extreme inequality. I grew up with a lot of secular Jews and, during the December holiday season, the schools took great pains to have as many menorahs as Santas. Like the rest of the country, all parts of the Midwest are becoming more racially and religiously diverse. So, Christendom is in decline even the Upper Midwest, but there is not the public secularity of the East or the West coasts.


To many Midwesterners, these points may be blindingly obvious, but they are things I couldn’t see as an East Coaster. From my conversations with other coastal folk, I’m not alone. So, thank you to my Midwestern friends who put up with a loudmouthed New Jerseyan and taught me more about my country. To my East Coast friends and family, let’s try to reject that New Yorker cover vision of America.

Clearing Cap Space

Apologies to ThickCulture readers for all the sports talk recently. I’ll get more sociological again soon. I promise. I wrote the following as an email to my pal and historian of American sports, Dan Hawkins, but thought I’d post it here to get a wider response.

I’ve been following the latest NBA free agent rumors and pretty much every other sentence on ESPN is “clearing cap space.” I certainly remember a lot of talk about “cap space” going back to 2008 when teams started drooling over LeBron’s availability in 2010. But I don’t recall much talk about it before then. If memory serves, in the 1990s, people tended to talk about “blockbuster trades” more.

I have several hypotheses to help explain this observation:

1) I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m just more tuned into NBA post-2008, but I kind of doubt it. I feel less tuned in to the NBA than I was 1990-2002.

2) It’s a media effect. Maybe cap space was always a big issue, but because ESPN and its ilk have created a bigger “newshole” for sports coverage, they can cover acquisitions issues more closely. It seems like Bill Simmons and others responded to/created market demand for this sort of trade and signing speculation.

3) It’s a product of the superstar era. The modern game relies on superstars to a greater extent and so free agent signings have become more important means by which teams improve. Thus, “freeing cap space” to sign free agent has become a more common tactic.

4) NBA rules have changed. Here, I’m way out of my depth. Have there been changes to the regulations surrounding acquisitions that have made free agent signings more desirable?

Thoughts?

Is there Such a Thing as a “Tinder for Democracy”?

I have an curiosity about Tinder (strictly academic — I’m happily married), a dating app that lets you find singles (or “singles”) in your immediate vicinity and allows you to quickly zero in on the one you find most attractive.

An article in BetaBeat details how the site works:

You pick a gender (male, female or both), then decide how far or close you want them to be (10 to 100 miles away) and how old (18 to 50+.) It’s like ordering pizza. You can also write a tagline to describe yourself and add a few more photos for people who want to learn more about you(r looks) before making their choice.

Swipe right if you approve of someone’s appearance. Swipe left if you’re not into them. If you reject someone, the poor schmuck won’t be able to contact you. But if you both swipe right, you’ll be able to chat up a storm until you make plans for drinks at a mutually agreeable location.

What fascinates me about Tinder is that it’s a simple, elegant app that does one thing, facilitate hooking up. Across the world, organizations and city governments are engaging in “hackathons” designed to build apps to help solve civic problems. The White house just concluded their National Day of Civic Hacking where programmers/coders in 103 cities set to work on solving civic problems. The coders created an impressive set of apps and sites designed to address pressing local and regional issues. However, none of these projects, as important as they are will have the social impact of a “hookup app.”

I’m afraid our efforts to change political dynamics using social media is still reckoning with a question posted in a tweet by Jeff Jarvis:

Soccer Isn’t Popular in the US Because the Wrong People Watch it

If you listen to traditional media channels, you may be surprised to learn that soccer is actually a pretty big deal in the United States. Take for instance, Stephen Dubner’s usually engaging and informative Freakonomics radio, who trotted out a tired canard about how unpopular soccer is in the United States. The story starts with the ludicrous notion that the World Cup is unpopular because it isn’t American football.

It’s no secret that soccer continues to lag behind other U.S. sports in viewership and enthusiasm. For instance, 111.5 million Americans sat down to watch Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Meanwhile, only 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup Final.

I believe this is known as a “straw man” argument. Soccer is not as popular as American football? Nothing is as popular as American football! The 24.3. million people tuned in to the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup (a 41 percent increase over the 2006 cup, by the Way) is comparable to Game 7 of the 2013 NBA finals which captured 26 million viewers and more than the final game of the 2013 World Series which captured 19.2 million viewers. By contrast, it is much great than the 8.2 million that watched the last game of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. By Dubner’s ludicrous standard, no sport is popular in the United States because it isn’t American football.

Later on, Dubner cites a Harris poll noting that only three percent of Americans cite soccer as their favorite sport compared to 30 percent who cite Pro Football and 11 percent who cite College Football. More straw man. That same poll reports that only 4 percent cite hockey as their favorite sport and 7 percent cite basketball. Not to mention that this was an online poll conducted in English.. but we’ll get to that.

This is why a more interesting conversation about soccer in the United States has shifted from “soccer isn’t popular” to “soccer is only popular every four years.” Political Scientist Andrei Markovitz talks of the Olypianization of soccer, whereby Americans tune in to the big event (World Cup) every four years and ignore the sport in the interim (kinda like American politics.. sorry couldn’t resist). But even that isn’t true… the landscape is shifting rapidly, only it’s a little hard to tell because soccer is so fragmented.

First, soccer is a global game so it’s played all over the world. Second, the way soccer works is that there are really two leagues, one based on clubs and one based on country. The biggest event for countries is this month’s World Cup, but national teams play in tournaments between World Cups. There are regional tournaments aside from qualification for the World Cup itself. In the Central American, Caribbean and North American region — CONCACAF, there’s a tournament called the Gold Cup. In South American it’s called Copa Libertadores America, in Africa it’s the African Cup of Nations, and so on… In the US, these tournaments do pretty well. The CONCACAF gold cup does respectable, if not spectacular, ratings on TV in the United States. In 2013, 4.9 million people watched the final between the US and Panama. The 2012 Euro Cup averaged over 1 million viewers on ESPN, double that of 2008.

The other type of competition in world soccer is league competitions. Here, soccer is gaining ground as well. If you compare the TV ratings of any one soccer league to traditional US sports, they don’t fare well. In the 2012 regular season, the NBA average a rating of 3.3 (roughly between 3-4 million US households). That’s a pretty strong compared to the ratings of our domestic soccer league (Major League Soccer – MLS’s). MLS’s meager ratings of between 100,000 and 300,000 households seems small. But the soccer space in the US is divided between a number of leagues. So to be fair, you add MLS’ 200,000 viewers to the 500,000 to 700,000 that watch the English Premiere League on Saturday mornings and the 800,000 to 1,000,000 that watch the Mexican League (LIGA MX) and soccer on a regular basis begins to approach the NBA in magnitude.

So why the view that the sport is irrelevant, even among people who should know better? The perception that soccer is “small time” in the US sports landscape is driven by two key factors. One, its popularity is fragmented as I’ve already discussed, so there’s not one league to focus on, bur rather a multitude of “foreign” leagues to discuss. But I think the other explanation is more pernicious, its perception comes for society’s sustained marginalization of “foreigners,” particularly Mexican immigrants in the United States. It is a means of drawing boundaries of “Americanness” around sports. Unwittingly, it is a way of identifying based on identity groups that suggest race and ethnic categorization, but do not explicitly state it.

Most telling in the Freakonomics radio piece is this throwaway line where Dubner’s doubts the prospect of soccer becoming as popular as American football.. as if that were the standard:

let’s be honest, it probably won’t. Many of the people who are most fanatical about the sport in the US have some kind of tie to Europe or South America or Africa.

This is intended to suggest that only those with close ties to “foreigners” appreciate the game.. a fallacy that need it’s own unpacking. But let’s take this at face value. Does he realize how many people he is talking about? There are roughly 50 million Latinos in the United States, many of whom “have strong ties” to soccer loving countries, primarily Mexico. I’m sure a smart guy like Dubner knows that Mexico is actually in North America so the exclusion of Mexico must be because it doesn’t fit the narrative they are trying to tell about the unpopularity of the sport.

Here’s the problem: Soccer is enjoyed by people who inhabit the United States, but because many of those people may be first or second generation immigrants, and in many cases many not speak English or have English as a primary language, it’s not culturally relevant to include in debates about the popularity of sport. Close to 5 million people in the US watched the Liga MX (Mexican soccer league) final between Leon and Pachuca, a number that compares favorably with the ratings for MLB playoff games, but it’s irrelevant because either it was watched in Spanish or watched by Spanish-speakers, I’m not sure which.

Sports media constantly refer to a “big four” American sports (Football, Basketball, Baseball and Hockey). Soccer when mentioned is still talked about as a foreign entity. A few days ago ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon opined that US National Soccer Team coach Jurgen Klinsman to “get the hell out of America” because he suggested Kobe Bryant should not be given a contract extension based on past performance. The inference was that this foreigner shouldn’t be commenting on American games.

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So if a person on US soil watches a game in Spanish, are they a foreigner? Are they tuning in to a sport broadcast in a foreign language and that’s what makes it foreign? This narrative of a “big four” underscores a troubling assumption. A sport is only truly “popular” in the United States if English-speaking, native born people follow it. When they do, then we can call it an “American sport.” I’d argue that there is a deep cultural marginalization going on when the preferred sport of the largest-minority ethnic group in the United States is viewed as marginal because it’s not viewed by “the wrong people.” To say people don’t follow soccer in the United States is a veiled way of saying that it’s not viewed by people that matter.

The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has a great term for what I think is going on: white habitus. This is the idea that the “separate residential and culture life” (103) of Whites creates a:

“racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (104)

A habitus that reinforces notions of what cultural norms and tastes are “American” and which are “foreign” is reinforced by this social and cultural isolation. To personally not like the game isn’t evidence of cultural bias, but arguing that the sport isn’t popular even when there is evidence to the contrary, suggests an ignorance derived from cultural isolation. Commentators on traditional media outlets (ESPN and FOX, for instance) as a space of cultural life reinforces the idea that to be American means to follow some sports and not others. Mike Wilbon is paid to “act a fool” for lack of a better term, but that doesn’t mean that he’s being culturally arrogant when he claims to know what constitutes an “American” sport. Things are changing however and I suspect that if four year’s time, when the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia, I won’t be compelled to write a post like this.

The Republican’s Latino Problem

Danny Vinik at the New Repubic has an interesting piece that makes the claim that the Republican Party’s problem with Latinos rest less on immigration reform and more on social spending and persistent messaging that is perceived as hostile to Latinos. The problem is more with the party’s base than with the party leadership:

The Brookings/PRRI poll found that 50 percent of Republicans believe immigrants are a burden on the country, compared to just 44 percent who say they strengthen the nation. On the other hand, 73 percent of Democrats say that immigrants strengthen the country.

This statistic highlights a dilemma for the party, appeal to a big chunk of the party base that is hostile to immigrants while attracting those immigrants to begin with. In the past, this dilemma was resolved by parties through patronage. David Roediger’s brilliant book, the Wages of Whiteness, tells of the patronage system as a ladder of opportunity for Irish immigrants, one many found more preferable than partnering with blacks to agitate for better wages. Hence, they chose the “wages of Whiteness” over actual wages. Neither the Republicans or the Democrats have patronage to give. I’m skeptical that an “improvement of manners,” to quote Richard Rorty, would do much to change the political equation.

In Memory of Yuri Kochiyama

You may have heard that long-time civil rights activist and Asian American icon Yuri Kochiyama passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. Readers can learn more details about her amazing life through boted Asian American scholar Diana Fujino’s biography Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama. Prominent Asian American blog Reappropriate also has links to several other articles from major media outlets about her passing.

Yuri Kochiyama, © ColorLines magazine

The biography and articles highlight how she grew up in the Los Angeles area and had a seemingly normal middle-class life. All of that changed after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As history records, this eventually resulted in 120,000 Japanese Americans (two-thirds of them being U.S. citizens) having their constitutional rights revoked and incarcerated, just based on their Japanese ancestry, in dozens of prison camps across the U.S., without any due process whatsoever.

Among those imprisoned were Yuri and her family and this experience forever changed her perspective on the state of race relations, racism, and the overwhelming need for social justice in the U.S. She eventually married a Japanese American GI and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she befriended a young Black nationalist named Malcolm X and in the course of her friendship, galvanized her determination to work toward social equality and justice on behalf of her community. She was there when Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

Thereafter, she became known for actively participating in the movements for ending the Viet Nam War, Puerto Rican independence (highlighted by being part of the group that occupied the Statue of Liberty in 1977), and for Japanese American reparations. In her later years in Oakland, CA, she kept up her activism and social justice work, particularly around the fight against racial profiling and rounding up of Arab and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, as detailed in the excellent documentary “Lest We Forget” that highlighted the similarities between Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and Arab & Muslim Americans after 9/11. Here at my institution, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, our Asian American student center is named the “Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center” on her behalf.

For me personally, Yuri Kochiyama was a hero and an inspiration. Like Yuri, I grew up in a predominantly White community and was entrenched in an assimilationist environment. I did not care about my roots as an Asian American, an immigrant, or a person of color — I just wanted to fit in and be like everybody else around me. In doing so, I was ignorant of all the racial injustices that had been perpetrated against people like me throughout U.S. and world history and that was still taking place all around me in different ways.

It wasn’t until my later years in college and after I started studying Sociology and Asian American Studies that I finally woke up, opened my eyes, reclaimed my identity, and pledged myself to do what I could to fight for racial equality and justice. That’s when I first learned about Yuri Kochiyama. She represented not just someone who was determined to draw on her personal experiences of racism to fight on behalf of others in similar situations, but as an Asian American woman, she stood in stark contrast to the stereotypical images of Asian American women as meek, submissive, exotic, and hypersexualized “geishas” and “China dolls.”

In other words, she gave all of us — men and women, Asian American or not — a different example of what Asian Americans, particularly women, are capable of. It is these examples and memories of Yuri Kochiyama as a strong, determined, committed, and inclusive activist and Asian American woman that I will carry forth with me.

danah boyd, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Technology] Social media is ubiquitous, and teens are ubiquitous on social media. And this youth attachment to social media is a cause for concern among parents, educators, and legislators concerned with issues of privacy, harm prevention, and and cyberbullying. In her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP, 2014), danah boyd, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, Research Assistant Professor at NYU, and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center, demystifies teen use of social media for communication. In particular, boyd uses ethnographic interviewing and observation techniques to examine the how, what and why of youth use of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Michael Salter, “Organised Sexual Abuse”

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how certain types of violence can occur, and organized multi-perpetrator abuse certainly fits into this category.  Ritual abuse, sadistic abuse and pedophilia rings are often things we see in episodes of “Law and Order,” without having to think of the reality of the victims that actually experience this type of cruelty.  In Organised Sexual Abuse (Routledge, 2013), Michael Salter attempts to bring to light this often-hidden and seldom-believed type of crime.   He describes his own experience being the caretaker of someone who was continuously abused and harassed well into adulthood, including his attempts to reach out to law enforcement and hospital workers, most of whom had trouble believing that this kind of abuse was actually taking place.  Salter also talks about the connection between views of hypermasculinity and abuse, and the ways in which violence is often a “collective masculine performance.”  Through in-depth qualitative research, Salter takes us, he proposes, into a horrifying journey of a reality that we cannot afford to ignore.

Patricia Ventura, “Neoliberal Culture: Living With American Neoliberalism”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Critical Theory] Culture is inescapably linked to questions of political economy. In Neoliberal Culture: Living With American Neoliberalism (Ashgate, 2012), Patricia Ventura explores the relationship between contemporary American culture and the ideology that seems to underpin much of American life. The book integrates a range of theoretical perspectives, including the work of Michel Foucault and David Harvey, with contemporary social policy and cultural studies examples. The examples, ranging from Las Vegas’ urban organisation and Oprah’s book club through to cinematic representations of the Iraq war, all support the central thesis that American culture has turned away from the welfare state settlement of the Cold War towards a much harsher social reality. The new settlement is one of increased personal responsibility for structural and systematic failures in contemporary America. The book seeks to situate the analysis in a broader global contact, focusing on issues around immigration and global trade to add context to the focus on Neo-Liberal cultural artefacts. The book concludes with two examples that offer hope for resistance to the march of Neo-Liberalism. Both are focused on food, using one of the basic aspects of our daily lives to rethink how America, and thus the world, will organise its resources in the future.

Benjamin Radcliff, “The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Big Ideas] Americans are very politically divided. Democrats say we need a more powerful welfare state while Republicans say we need to maintain the free market. The struggle, we are constantly informed, is one of ideas. And that it is in the worst possible sense, for neither the Democrats nor Republicans seem interested in evidence. They don’t want the facts to get in the way of their arguments.

In his remarkable book The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Benjamin Radcliff provides facts that should help both Democrats and Republicans, despite their many differences, decide how to proceed. He asks a simple, compelling question: do conservative or liberal public policies make people happier? After an extensive and sophisticated analysis of the data, he reaches an equally simple, compelling answer: liberal policies do.

Radcliff is a great friend of the free market; it is obvious, he says, that capitalism is the best economic system we have at our disposal. But he is also pragmatic: all the evidence shows that free markets alone don’t make people as happy as markets combined with robust welfare and labor-protection programs. There is a lesson here for both Democrats and Republicans. Listen up.