Fear, the Achilles Heel of the Midwest

My oldest friend with whom I’ve shared a house for almost thirty years was born and raised in Nebraska and insists I’m an Easterner. I’m not. Despite being raised in the community around a university that nicknames itself “Harvard of the West,” I don’t want to be. My mother comes from the prairies of Iowa and South Dakota, my father from a small town in Illinois, and I’m a child of Chicago. City-bred, yes, but in basic values, Midwestern.

Down-to-earth, fair-minded, hard-working, open, holding equality and common sense above all. Pretension, ostentation, and getting high on yourself are the major crimes. Belief that the values above are unique to the Midwest is the major fault. Fear of strangers seems a universal human trait, but no worse in the Midwest than anywhere else, and there was a time when working hard earned acceptance to those different from ourselves. I can hear acquaintances and friends saying, “I don’t like people of other races, but I believe they should get a fair shake,” or “He’s okay. He’s a hard worker.”

So what happened? When did fear rise to triumph over all other values? I know that being city-bred made me an object of suspicion to the small town Midwesterner. I come from a place of chaos, mob-rule and violence. A stranger. Suspicion of government was longstanding, also—for those who worked for government were lazy, lacking ambition, and given to cheating. But these were homilies, agitated by a visiting relative from the city, the street-worker leaning on his shovel, the slowness of a postal worker, or tax season. Minor disruptions in the order of things. Neither was race a major issue, for people of other races were few and far between.

No, I believe the disruptions of the Sixties struck at the heart of the Midwestern value system. The social changes erupting in the universities, with their freedom from all sexual restraint, promotion of drugs, and rejection of the general social order struck deep. Already suspicious of the “elitism” of education, with its implication of inequality, this was an attack on all fronts, not by members of another race, but by their own. As a member of the “elite” of an earlier generation, I supported many of the issues of the Sixties, but saw a lot of the disruption as adolescent rebellion. Over the years, however, the rebellion ossified into unceasing attacks on every element of the social order, and its power has grown to the law of the land. Thus, the fear of being taken over has become reality, and I, tough I still support many of the issues, have become as angry and frustrated as my rural cousins at its sanctimonious, blind multi-fronted judgmental destructiveness.

As though this alarm wasn’t enough, soon the counterrevolution of Reaganomics joined the attack. The massive loss of jobs in towns that depended on single corporations, the simultaneous immigration that changed whole workforces in some factories, the systematic removal of independent businesses through mergers, the widespread rise in elite wealth joined by government corruption, and the loss of livelihood itself, all fed the old homilies and made clear to Midwestern small town populations how little their lives were within their control. Since their whole value system is based on the power of the individual, there is little wonder that fear began to swamp positive values.

The deliberate playing on fear to gain power is not new, but the use of the Internet to destabilize a society is a crime so huge that it has yet no name that can carry its enormity. It may well become the crime of the Twenty-First Century, as immeasurable in its horror as the Holocaust of the Twentieth. Watching Donald Trump at a rally, swelling like a blowfish at the screams of hatred rising from the mob is a sight not to be forgotten. And then Trump/Bannon and company discovered the Achilles heel—race. Led by the demagogues, aided by massive immigration, fear of others became the power of hatred, and all other values fell beneath the trampling of the mob.

I’m still in the grips of helpless disbelief. I want to yell: “Do you see what you’ve become? Do you hear yourselves? Remember what you were. The Heartland. The ordinary down-to earth, fair-minded, heart of the nation—unvarnished, unpretentious, carriers of common sense. Look at yourselves and learn the dangers of fear. You’ve listened to your pastors preach on the hatreds that lie buried in the human heart—now you’ve lived the result. You’ve given away your greatest belief—the power and responsibility of the individual—to a mindless mob drunk on hatred. For centuries, your pastors have preached the tolerance and mutual respect of the Golden Rule—which you’re trampling underfoot. For one moment, return to your common sense and look at the messages of fear and hatred coming at you from the Internet. Do they make any sense at all? Wake up!

To the other side, my liberal friends and their descendants, the progressives? That’s another blog.

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