Methland vs. Mythland: NY Times Op-Ed, by Timothy Egan

Like a brief, intense summer squall, a media storm passed over small-town America a few years ago, stripping away what was left of the myth of the rural idyll to reveal a cast of hollow-cheeked white people smoking meth behind the corn silo.

It was going to destroy the heartland, this methamphetamine epidemic, just as crack cocaine had done to the inner city. There was no George Bailey in this version of Bedford Falls. No John Mellencamp melodies on the soundtrack. Just toothless boys on bikes peddling some nasty stuff cooked up from cold medicine and farm products.

And then it all passed, as these things do, the damage done, leaving the impression of rural America as a broken land, scary. In the interim, the more traditional narrative, of country people somehow more authentic than city folk — “the best of America in these small towns” — came roaring back in the form of Sarah Palin.

In truth, neither of these images does justice to the complexities of small-town life. And neither version does anything to advance the cause of an honest rural policy, something that might help some of the worst casualties of global economic tumult.

People in small towns are more likely to be poor, more likely to lack health insurance, more likely, if they are young, to move out, according to government statistics. In the invisible margins off the interstate, the story about decline takes place in slow motion, rarely attracting a headline.

Palin may soon hit the speech circuit as a woman from another era with an itchy Twitter finger. At the same time, we have a much different look at modern rural life in a new book by the journalist Nick Reding — “Methland: the Death and Life of an American Small Town.”

Reding spent nearly four years charting meth’s course in Oelwein, Iowa, a town of about 6,000 residents nearly 120 miles northeast of Des Moines. There, the people who grow our food are argribusiness oligarchs, and the people who run our factories have cut their workers’ wages by two-thirds, dissolved the unions and shipped in illegals to work for a paycheck that would barely pay for dog food.

Meth is a symptom of this collapse, not a cause. And though its presence in small towns can be cancerous, it never took over rural America. The latest national surveys suggest that there are about 1.3 million regular users of meth — hardly an epidemic in a country where 35 million people said they had used an illegal drug or abused a prescription one.

Still, meth is different in at least one respect. Reding says it is “the only example of a widely consumed illegal narcotic that might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational.” It was given to starving Nazi soldiers to keep them in warrior mode on the Russian front. Now it’s a preferred stimulant for people working two jobs in low-wage purgatory.

“Rural America remains the cradle of our national creation myth,” Reding concludes. “But it has become something else, too — something more sinister and difficult to define.”

Of the 1,346 counties that shrank in population between 2000 and 2007, 85 percent of them were outside the major metropolitan areas, according to theCensus Bureau. Not far from Reding’s story, the town of Postville has lost half its population just in the last year after one of the largest immigration raids in Iowa.

Oelwein, like so many small towns trying to shape its destiny in an America that may have passed it by, has spruced up its Main Street, modernized its infrastructure and constructed a spec building ready for any employer who wants to move in. Alas, it’s the same story in thousands of Oelweins: if you build it, they won’t come.

When candidate Barack Obama made that comment about bitter people in small towns clinging to guns and religion, he was criticized as a clueless elite from the big city. No one paid attention to the first part of what he said:

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration.”

Every president said he would do something about it, Obama continued, but never did.

The mistake that Palin made was to cast small towns as more virtuous, morally superior in their struggle. The mistake that Obama made was to speak the truth. She can continue to pander all the way to the bank. But he has a chance to make a difference in places that are neither methland nor mythland, just overlooked parts of the same country.

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