From the Miami Herald

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin created a small scandal when she told a North Carolina crowd, “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

Palin’s comments tapped into a central myth of our national culture — that there is something fundamentally undiluted and authentic about small towns that is implicitly absent from larger cities. Small-town residents, the story goes, are honest, hardworking, religiously observant and somehow more American than the rest of America. But in his persuasive new book, journalist Nick Reding reveals the fallacies of this myth by showing how, over the past three decades, small-town America has been blighted by methamphetamine.

Over four years, Reding studied meth production and addiction in Oelwein, Iowa, a rural community about 300 miles from Chicago. With a population of just over 6,000, Oelwein serves as a case study of the problems many small towns face today. Once a vibrant farming community where union work and small businesses were plentiful, Oelwein is now struggling through a transition to agribusiness and low-wage employment or, alternatively, unemployment.

There is no more horrifying example of the drug’s ravages than Roland Jarvis, who began using meth as a way to keep up his energy through double shifts at a local meat-processing plant. Until the early 1980s an Oelwein physician would routinely prescribe methamphetamines for fatigued workers. When the plant where Jarvis worked was de-unionized and his wages slashed by two-thirds, Jarvis went from an occasional meth user to a habitual user and then a manufacturer. One night, in a fit of drug-induced paranoia, he attempted, disastrously, to dispose of his cooking chemicals. In the ensuing fire, he was so horribly burned that flesh literally melted from his body. Reding’s description of Jarvis now, using his fingerless hands to lift a meth pipe to his noseless face, is among the most haunting images in the book.

Reding tracks the decline and limited resurgence of Oelwein, while also examining the larger forces that have contributed to its problems. He links meth to the gathering power of unregulated capitalism beginning in the 1980s. It was then, he argues, that one-time union employees earning good wages and protected by solid benefits began to see their earnings cut and their benefits disappear. Undocumented migrants began taking jobs at extraordinarily low wages, thereby depressing the cost of labor. Meth, with its opportunity for quick profit and its power to make the most abject and despondent person feel suddenly alive and vibrant, found fertile ground. Meanwhile, in Washington, pharmaceutical lobbyists were working hard to keep DEA agents from attempting to limit access to the raw ingredients; ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, meth’s core precursors, were simply too vital to the lucrative allergy-remedy market. Though he avoids making the argument in such stark terms, Reding positions the meth epidemic as the triumph of profits over the safety and prosperity of America’s small-town inhabitants.

Methland makes the case that small-town America is perhaps not the moral and hard-working place of the public imagination, but it also argues that big-city ignorance — fueled by the media — toward small-town decay is dangerous.


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