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David Brooks illustrates how clueless Easterners can be without local knowledge about My Midwest

A frequent theme in this blog is the importance of local knowledge for development. David Brooks helpfully illustrated in his column today on my home region the Midwest. He brilliantly demonstrates how outsiders can get lost in the jungle in a region not their own.

Brooks’ Midwest is:

that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas.

Mr. Brooks is apparently unaware from his vantage point on the Far Eastern Coastal Rim that central New York is still in the East, not the Midwest. And there has never been a single Midwesterner in two centuries who ever thought they were in the same  region as Arkansas.

The Midwest has lost a manufacturing empire but hasn’t yet found a role.

Um, Mr. Brooks, were you aware that the Midwest has a few farms? Actually some of the best farmland in the world? and that it produces gigantic agricultural exports for the whole world?

Describing the electoral losses of the Democrats, he says:

The old industry towns in the Midwest were the epicenter of the disaster.

Great insight, except for the fact that the only places Democrats won in the Midwest were in the old industry towns.  Mr. Brooks, you have just earned a one-month scenic tour to chat with the nonexistent Republican House members in Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, and Toledo, Ohio; Detroit and Flint, Michigan; South Bend and beautiful Gary, Indiana.

So just to sum up how far a columnist can get without local knowledge, Mr. Brooks has produced some interesting facts that were not facts about a Midwest that was not the Midwest.

If you need a local guide through those remote wastelands, Mr. Brooks,  I am at your service. I’d like to talk to you about some of your other columns I really like about things you know about.

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64 Comments

  1. Brooks description has considerable overlap with what Joel Garreau called The Foundry in his 1984 book Nine Nations of North America, which extends from New Haven to Chicago, excluding Manhattan (and including some of Ontario). Underneath that is Dixie, and beyond it is The Breadbasket, extending to the Rockies. The Midwest may be an enormously malleable concept, but I don’t think I have ever heard anyone include either central NY or Arkansas in it.

    http://www.rumormillnews.com/pix6/9RegionsOfNorthAmerica.GIF

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Mike Shearn wrote:

    Actually, David Brooks is pretty close to the truth, and you are lack “local knowledge” and seem uninterested in doing you homework. You either did not read the article, or did not comprehend it. He is writing about areas the Demos lost.

    As far geography goes, true Buffalo and Pittsburgh are in eastern states but have and have always had much more in common with the Midwest (Cleveland, Chicago, Duluth, Cincinnati, etc.) than the East Coast. You might also note that the premier agricultural college in the world is in Ithaca, NY.

    True, Arkansas is a bit of a stretch, but are you willing to boot part of Missouri out of the Midwest? If the Ozarks are Midwest, than so is part of Arkansas. A point for argument, perhaps, but not for ridicule.

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Johann Amadeus Metes wrote:

    I’d argue that Brooks has a point. The people of western and upstate New York, as well as the people in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia, probably have more in common with the people in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana than they do with the folks in Manhattan.

    While I doubt that any New York state residents consider themselves midwesterners, the “midwest” is a bit plastic. Here in Michigan we think of ourselves as being a midwest state, but then so do the folks in Iowa and probably some in North Dakota as well.

    Arkansas, though, is probably considered southern by most Americans, including most Arkansans.

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  4. DickMulliken wrote:

    It’s always fun to see David pick his real America du jour. My really true real Amercia is rural — not those ctiy people Brooks champions. Out here you aren’t real unless you have a lot of acres in wheat or milk 75 or more Holsteins. The rest of you are just a bunch of liberals or conservatives. And you all should go away.

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  5. red wrote:

    —–As far geography goes, true Buffalo and Pittsburgh are in eastern states but have and have always had much more in common with the Midwest (Cleveland, Chicago, Duluth, Cincinnati, etc.) than the East Coast. You might also note that the premier agricultural college in the world is in Ithaca, NY.

    True, Arkansas is a bit of a stretch, —

    Certainly Ithaca NY is in the Midwest because it is Agricultural Elite Central – that’s where the whacky liberal hippies go to study to grow the finest marijuana. So is Maui because of the pineapples. True, Florida is a bit of a stretch because of the alligators….

    What fools these liberals be…..

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  6. thm wrote:

    I think the definitive discussion on Brooks’s general knack for getting the essential details wrong is still:

    http://www.phillymag.com/articles/booboos_in_paradise/

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Marty wrote:

    I agree, never heard Arkansas called Midwestern.

    Upstate NY, tho—the old industrial cities along the Erie Canal, plus Rochester and Buffalo, could be considered part of the “Rust Belt” and in that sense lumped in with some Midwestern citries, for certain purposes.

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink
  8. dht wrote:

    A far more interesting point to me is that he ascribed the Dems losses to declining cities, even though Dems won in the cities. This was true around the country. Look at the elections maps of Texas, Nevada, etc. Even in those conservative states, Dems won in the cities. David Brooks seems to know as much about politics as he does about geography.

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  9. jest wrote:

    Uh, I think he meant Rust Belt, not Midwest. I guess a lot of the Rust Belt is in the Midwest. I’m not sure about this Arkansas business tho…

    But still, he has proved yet again that he’s not the brightest crayon in the box.

    Posted November 7, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  10. JMK wrote:

    I’ve always contended that to qualify as “midwestern” a state has to touch a great lake….so by that standard upstate NY and western PA would qualify.

    IA, MO, etc are great plains, not midwest. And AR? Come on…..

    Posted November 7, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  11. Nate wrote:

    I was born in the Midwest and after a spell living in the Sonoran desert, I have since returned. Hence, I have obvious midwestern cred. ;)

    Anyway, the Wikipedia article on the midwestern states fits well with the “midwest” that is commonly used by everyone that I know (or have known, for that matter). Once upon a time, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas might have been considered Great Plains states, but culturally they probably qualify as midwest. (Omaha, NE, for instance, is definitely more midwest than Great Plains.)

    Regarding Missouri as a Great Plains state, that’s new to me. Sure, the northern region of Missouri starts to resemble Iowa and Kansas, but the rest of the state is forested and/or Ozark foothills. Maybe that’s the distinction between Missour-EE and Missour-AH? :)

    Posted November 8, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  12. Jim wrote:

    There’s a lot of confusion here with people claiming that certain towns in Atlantic seaboard states are “like” midwestern towns. The confusion is inherent in the phrasing in most of them. If you have to defend Ithaca’s inclusion in the Midwest because it is “like” a Midwestern town, then you are also saying that it is not, in fact, a midwestern town. Things are not “like” what they are.

    There’s a lot of ways to make regions. Some of them are cultural, for example. And for that, maybe Ithaca and Goshen can be grouped together. If you want to talk about the industrial or educational regions, then the Rust Belt will do. But the Rust Belt and the Midwest are not the same area, even if they share large areas of overlap. Similarly if you want to talk about the Midwest as an agricultural center, then sure, include Nebraska. But if you think Indianapolis has a lot in common with a farm town in Nebraska you would be quite mistaken.

    As a geographical region, New York is not Midwest. It’s east, as the author said. Arkansas is not Midwest, it’s south. And yes, some people here do debate Missouri’s inclusion in the Midwest. But they claim liminal status themselves with their nickname. Arbitrary divisions are always a little awkward at their edges, and Missouri is the midwest’s edge.

    Posted November 8, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  13. ertdfg wrote:

    Wow, amazing to see all the people agreeing with Brooks.

    I grew up In Kansas, right on the Nebraska border… you know, WAY out west. Not Midwest at all now I guess… Weird, we used to be the Midwest. Oh well, guess not.

    Then I moved to Colorado, you know the West Coast… or something.

    What do we call Oregon and California in this redefinition of directions? The Far West?

    Posted November 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  14. van nutz wrote:

    “David Brooks” and “clueless”–that’s a redundancy.

    this message brought to you by the Redundancy Committee on Redundancy

    Posted November 8, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

12 Trackbacks

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  2. [...] Easterly asserts that David Brooks illustrates how clueless Easterners can be without local knowledge about My Midwest: A frequent theme in this blog is the importance of local knowledge for development. David Brooks [...]

  3. [...] Jesse Walker | November 5, 2010 Remember when David Brooks had a reputation as a close observer of American society? The man can't even get his geography right. [...]

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  9. By Saturday is for Sisterhood « The Confluence on November 6, 2010 at 10:16 am

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  10. [...] a good mocking of the Brooks column by Williams Easterly that points out how little Brooks knows about his subject. Particularly worth mocking is [...]

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