(an excerpt from our book, The Midwest: God's Gift to Planet Earth)
The Midwest might as well be a foreign country to most Americans. Like most foreign countries, outsiders have heard of it, but the details of what goes on inside are pretty hazy. If you met someone from Poland, every question would be on the table. Likewise, all questions about this United States of Midwest are fair game.
“What states are there? Is Nebraska one of them? Did I just make that up?”
“What are the borders?”
“What’s the weather like?
“Do they have indoor plumbing?”
“What’s it look like? Any mountains? No, wait, it’s all flat. Flat. That’s right.”
“They speak French there, don’t they? Or am I thinking of Canada?”
This country-within-a-country situation gives us a foreign-ness, a mysteriousness, a sort of je ne sais quoi (as we’d say in our native Midwestern language) that has been used countless times in popular culture. Mysterious Midwesterners are everywhere, from Don Draper to Jay Gatsby, Jason Bourne to Magnum P.I., James T Kirk to Superman.
And really, where else can Superman come from? Part of his Midwestern heritage gives him his air of mystery, needing only a pair of glasses as his disguise.
“Wait, isn’t that Clark Kent?”
“No, it kind of looks like Clark, but Clark is from Nebraska, Superman isfrom Iowa. Or is Clark from Kansas and Superman is from Minnesota?”
The other part of his Midwestern heritage gives him a goodness that eliminates the need to explain his motivation to save a crashing plane. Because being raised by the Kent family in Smallville, Kansas, automatically creates an “Aw shucks, there’s no place like home, by golly, stopping that plane from crashing into all those people would just be the right thing to do” attitude.
I mean, if Superman were raised in suburban Connecticut — with a hedge-fund-managing father and a mother working her way up the corporate ladder at McKinsey — people would get confused when Superman would fly off to save the plane. “What’s he wasting time with that plane for? Shouldn’t he be using his super powers to create a new financial instrument with decent returns but, most importantly, high fees for his father?”
If Superman were Southern, he’d only save the non-gay passengers, who would, once saved, be open to an hour-long post-rescue soliloquy on the importance of trusting Jesus — and a couple of tips on sale items at Wal-Mart.
And if Superman were from the West, he would either be an out-of-control cowboy who would tell the plane to “Make my day, punk” before blasting it full of 45-caliber holes and crushing a shot of whiskey, or he would lazily fly out from his perch in Portland, but let the plane crash to the ground saying, “That’s what those people get for using such a polluting form of travel. They should have walked or ridden a single-speed bicycle. I bet those inconsiderate bastards even used plastic bags.”
Iowa-born painter Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic captures one major underlying feeling outsiders have about Midwesterners: simpleness. The only thing we like more than standing with our pitchforks and our ladies in front of our houses is rescuing a neighbor’s cat from a tree or offering a smile and some directions to a lost traveler.
Superman is unconflicted. He is good to his core. While Gotham-raised Batman is a rich playboy who runs with the city’s loose women when he’s not managing a multinational corporation that dabbles in weapons manufacturing, Superman resists the temptations of big city Metropolis. He subtly courts fellow Kansan Lois Lane (awww, those Midwesterners always stick together!) and still finds time to zip back to Smallville and see his “Ma” and “Pa” for a hug and some Jell-O salad.
“People from the Midwest,” remarked Daily Show host Jon Stewart, “no matter their political stripe, never look like assholes. They just look like nice people. I know there must be assholes out there, they just never look like it.”
But while our simpleness can come out as an honest work ethic, it can also be used to make us appear dumb as bricks. As if all we do is stand around with our pitchforks and our depressed wives, looking uncultured, and waiting for the second coming of Christ.
“Midwesterners: People in the ‘heartland’ area of America,” writes Urban Dictionary, “who are known for their cultural isolation and close-mindedness.”
Cold blooded, Urban Dictionary.
Their view pops up more subtly in the news. For instance, when Barack Obama was running for President in 2008, he made a trip to Europe that demonstrated his worldwide appeal. But commentators on NPR worried that this seeming no-brainer of a political move may come at a cost. Will a trip to Europe not, “play well with voters in Middle America?”
“Middle America!” I could almost hear Coasters screaming at their radios. “Would you get your act together?!?”
We Middle Americans were about to blow it for everyone! What was Bono doing scampering around Africa helping kids, when he should be taping public service announcements right here in the States to help the Heartland?
“Middle America needs your help,” the yellow-sunglassed Irishman would say. “Every day, these simple people crouch next to their barrel fires, sharpening spears at both ends, delineating borders with severed pig heads, and never trusting anyone who travels to Europe, or has a passport, or has curly black hair. Because every Middle American believes that outside of Middle America is the land of Godless sodomites, Communism, and Communist sodomites.
“For only a dollar a day, well, actually more like $98 per day to account for the average cost of living in the U.S., you can adopt a Middle American like Mike here.”
Cue: me looking up from my barrel fire, forlorn, drinking from a cracked pot, belly distended.
Bono would rest his famous hand on my shoulder. “With your money, Mike will be able to eat more than just skinned squirrel and methamphetamine. He’ll be able to drink more than grain alcohol and rainwater, and he will finally receive an education to lift him from ignorance.”
“I just wish I could listen to your music, Mr Bono,” I’d say, “but the region only has one 8-track tape player and well-worn copies of John Fogerty and George Benson.”
“It just breaks your heart,” Bono would tell the camera. “In the election of 2004 between Bush and Kerry, 62% of Middle Americans like Mike voted for Chuck Norris because they said they, ‘Like the way he takes care of business, like when he gets all pissed and kicks ass. America needs to do that to the USSR.’ The remainder of Middle Americans voted for Ronald Reagan, Jesus, or the Incredible Hulk. None of whom were on the ballot, except for Reagan, whose name pops up for every Midwestern election from City Council to President.
“Don’t let Middle America ruin the election of 2008. Give all you can.”