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Nov-L: NY Times: Methland vs. Mythland

Methland vs. Mythland

By Timothy Egan, New York Times


Like a brief, intense summer squall, a media storm passed
over small-town America a few years ago, stripping away what
was left of the myth of the rural idyll to reveal a cast of hollow-cheeked
white people smoking meth behind the corn silo.

It was going to destroy the heartland, this methamphetamine
epidemic, just as crack cocaine had done to the inner city. There
was no George Bailey in this version of Bedford Falls. No John
Mellencamp melodies on the soundtrack. Just toothless boys on
bikes peddling some nasty stuff cooked up from cold medicine
and farm products.

And then it all passed, as these things do, the damage done,
leaving the impression of rural America as a broken land, scary.
In the interim, the more traditional narrative, of country people
somehow more authentic than city folk — "the best of America
in these small towns" — came roaring back in the form of
Sarah Palin.

In truth, neither of these images does justice to the complexities
of small-town life. And neither version does anything to advance
the cause of an honest rural policy, something that might help
some of the worst casualties of global economic tumult.

People in small towns are more likely to be poor, more likely
to lack health insurance, more likely, if they are young, to
move out, according to government statistics. In the invisible
margins off the interstate, the story about decline takes place
in slow motion, rarely attracting a headline.

Palin may soon hit the speech circuit as a woman from another
era with an itchy Twitter finger. At the same time, we have a
much different look at modern rural life in a new book by the
journalist Nick Reding — "Methland: the Death and Life
of an American Small Town."

Reding spent nearly four years charting meth’s course in Oelwein,
Iowa, a town of about 6,000 residents nearly 120 miles northeast
of Des Moines. There, the people who grow our food are argribusiness
oligarchs, and the people who run our factories have cut their
workers’ wages by two-thirds, dissolved the unions and shipped
in illegals to work for a paycheck that would barely pay for
dog food.

Meth is a symptom of this collapse, not a cause. And though
its presence in small towns can be cancerous, it never took over
rural America. The latest national surveys suggest that there
are about 1.3 million regular users of meth — hardly an epidemic
in a country where 35 million people said they had used an illegal
drug or abused a prescription one.

Still, meth is different in at least one respect. Reding says
it is "the only example of a widely consumed illegal narcotic
that might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational."
It was given to starving Nazi soldiers to keep them in warrior
mode on the Russian front. Now it’s a preferred stimulant for
people working two jobs in low-wage purgatory.

"Rural America remains the cradle of our national creation
myth," Reding concludes. "But it has become something
else, too — something more sinister and difficult to define."

Of the 1,346 counties that shrank in population between 2000
and 2007, 85 percent of them were outside the major metropolitan
areas, according to the Census Bureau. Not far from Reding’s
story, the town of Postville has lost half its population just
in the last year after one of the largest immigration raids in

Oelwein, like so many small towns trying to shape its destiny
in an America that may have passed it by, has spruced up its
Main Street, modernized its infrastructure and constructed a
spec building ready for any employer who wants to move in. Alas,
it’s the same story in thousands of Oelweins: if you build it,
they won’t come.

When candidate Barack Obama made that comment about bitter
people in small towns clinging to guns and religion, he was criticized
as a clueless elite from the big city. No one paid attention
to the first part of what he said:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like
a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone
now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through
the Clinton administration and the Bush administration."

Every president said he would do something about it, Obama
continued, but never did.

The mistake that Palin made was to cast small towns as more
virtuous, morally superior in their struggle. The mistake that
Obama made was to speak the truth. She can continue to pander
all the way to the bank. But he has a chance to make a difference
in places that are neither methland nor mythland, just overlooked
parts of the same country.