The Melting Pot Boils Over
Driving west across New Jersey recently, I was relieved to see the mile markers drop to single digits, and finally to zero. I was struck by a sign posted at the state border that read: “Welcome to Pennsylvania: America Starts Here.” As someone who grew up in Ohio, that seemed to make perfect sense. New Jersey is, perhaps, more “America” than Manhattan; nothing in America is less American than New York. Still, New Jersey isn’t really “America.”
Continuing my trip—I was traveling to visit my mom in Dayton—I wound westward through a 15-mile-wide sliver of West Virginia that serves as a de facto DMZ between the mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions. As I crossed the bridge in Wheeling, Ohio’s welcome sign declared “Ohio—The Heart of it All.” Indeed, the media had yakked a lot last year about the sweet irony of forcing the warring nations of the former Yugoslavia to sign their peace treaty in the “heartland.” There’s no doubt you’re in what the French would call l’Amérique Profonde when you pass through hundreds of miles of open fields or talk to the residents with their hard, earnest faces and blandly confident accents.
Going back east, however, I encountered that same “America Starts Here” sign at the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border. Now, this was confusing. Was Governor Tom Ridge, who signed the sign, implying that West Virginia—or for that matter, Ohio—was less American than Pennsylvania? After all, there are several un-American anomalies unique to Pennsylvanians, not the least of which is something called “Dutch” cooking. (When in Pennsylvania, starvation isn’t always a bad thing.) Anyway, this got me thinking about which places are really “American” in America.
From watching Hollywood movies, you might make the mistake of thinking California is “America”, but the only reason those dry hills and weird L.A. cityscapes are featured so prominently is because directors are too lazy to pack up a camera crew and go somewhere else. Californians are nationally reviled as kooky, New Agey, politically-correct weirdos who lounge in their hot tubs while race riots, mud slides and brush fires rage around them. Clearly, California is not “America.”
The South isn’t “America,” either. Although they’ve produced things that all Americans love—Elvis, greasy breakfast food, racism—they have those dumb accents. And they’re too slow. The ex-Confederacy has ceded the cultural and political dialogue of this country to the Yankees ever since Appomattox. National TV anchormen reflect the cultural norm—ever wonder why neither Tom Brokaw nor Dan Rather drawl? America is so unsouthern that we import cultural icons like Peter Jennings and Michael J. Fox from Canada. No one would give the South a second thought if it weren’t for the Super Tuesday primaries held once every four years.
You can’t count Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming or Montana, either. Sure, mountains get a nod in “America the Beautiful,” but real Americans are suspicious of people who live in the hills. Mountains are for “Deliverance” extras, militia types and flying over. There isn’t much farming there, either. “America” has lots of cows, lots of corn, maybe some grain. You also have to have some minorities—at least a few token ones—and the Rockies are as white as a freshly-bleached piece of Xerox paper.
The Pacific Northwest doesn’t even pretend to be “American.” The only thing Washingtonians and Oregonians have in common with the rest of the United States is that they hate Californians, except more so, because Californians mostly live in Portland and Seattle. It rains all the time, conifers outnumber deciduous trees, which are both outnumbered by dead trees, and bait shops in the middle of nowhere offer double cappuccinos. Americans go to Javaland to test their mellowness with caffeine. It ain’t America.
Then, there’s the stupid states, the places where there’s no proof that anyone actually lives. Idaho, according to a half-decent River Phoenix movie, has a lot of empty space scarred by flat highways, but that’s pretty much what you’d suspect. Then there’s Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, etc.
Indiana is only notable as the inconvenient place separating Chicago and Cleveland for no good reason. The Northeast has a lot of stupid states like that. (Who the hell cares about Rhode Island, Maryland, Rhode Island, or Delaware?) New Jersey, long the butt of New York-based comedians’ gags, is more than 50 percent paved. Now that’s stupid. The ultimate stupid states are Hawaii and Alaska. Three decades after statehood, national maps rarely even show these add-ons, and 48-star flags are quickly snapped up at yard sales. Puerto Rico, if granted statehood, would become another stupid state schoolchildren remember to forget.
You can make a case for the Plains states, but not that many people actually live in places like Kansas, Nebraska or Iowa. There’s certainly something very “America” about all those amber waves of wheat and stuff, but there’s the whiteness problem again. Also, they don’t have any real cities. Cities, of course, are the least American thing of all. Nonetheless, the ideal American state would contain one or two decent-sized cities surrounded by a lot of suburbs, surrounded by oceans of agribusiness. Think of California, but with rainfall and without the Californians. Also, ever since “Children of the Corn” and Bob Dole, most real Americans get the willies when they think about the Great Plains.
Our national consciousness centers around the hard-ass Anglicans who landed at Plymouth Rock, but New England is, ironically, not America. They have those weird accents up there, for one thing. They eat seafood that doesn’t come in cubes. Even the conservatives are liberal. The states are all too small. It’s cool, but it just ain’t America. New York, with half its population living in one apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the other half in heart-shaped tubs in the Catskills, is too schizo to be American. In fact, New Yorkers pride themselves on the very un-Americanness other Americans deride.
So, we’re left with the original Northwest Territory, the area running west from Pittsburgh, south to the Ohio River and just west of the Mississippi River. Minnesota and Iowa are out, however, because it’s so cold there that everyone talks like they’re in Denmark. Also, there are liberals there, and Americans are not liberal. We’ve already ruled out Indiana, but let’s also delete Michigan, which is definitely a dumb state for having both a Lower and Upper Peninsula. What the hell were their cartographers thinking?
Which leaves us with Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and western Pennsylvania. Delete Pennsylvania because of the strange food. Illinois goes because of Chicago, and it has that New York State identity duality problem between urban and rural. I was in Wisconsin recently, where several people made strong arguments for the land of dairy being, in fact, the “real America.” Actually, Wisconsin has a lot going for it—a few decent-sized cities surrounded by suburbs and lots of farmland in between, conservative whites mixed with enough blacks to be noticeable but not to have any political influence and a pretty average geographical size. Still, it’s all the way up there on the Canadian border, and to me any state that purports to be America has to be in the middle of the country.
Although it’s the last holdout, and I would love to see the place of my origins declared as the only American state in America, Ohio doesn’t quite pass the test of Americanosity either. My hometown, Dayton, used to call itself “America’s Most Average City,” and that was true. Its generic demographics made it a favorite site for pollsters and product testing. The trouble for Ohio is that it’s all city—most of the state’s inhabitants live in one of eight cities, making it one of the most urban places in the Union. America isn’t urban, you know.
Some of you touchy-feely types (hello California!) might conclude from the preceding that there is no such thing as a generic America; that the United States is a brilliant hodgepodge of cultures, mannerisms, architecture, music, foods and attitudes, and that the amalgamation of this social cocktail has created a country that is unique in its diversity and tolerance.
But these days, the only thing Americans have in common is hatred. They hate immigrants from countries other than the ones they came from. They hate members of other races, other religions, other genders, other sexual orientations. The rich hate the poor, and the poor hate them right back. Americans read hate in the newspapers, watch hate on television and talk hate on the radio. Forget business—the business of America is mutual contempt.
America ends here.
(Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist and freelance writer based in New York City, has written for Might magazine, Maximumrocknroll, P.O.V., the New York Press and numerous other publications.)