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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chron Gets Middle America Wrong Again: Globalization was Good for My Small Town

Posted By on Wed, Jul 16, 2008 at 11:20 AM

By Benjamin Wachs

It can be painful when San Francisco media tries to write about the Midwest.

They can't seem to understand that it's a … oh, what's the word I'm looking for...real place. With real people, who live lives every bit as passionate, engaged, and complicated as hipsters and activists on the coasts. (Or at least the passionate and engaged lives we would lead if we weren't stuck in transit).

Some of them protest wars. Some of them ride bicycles (really!). Some of them are very good artists. Yet somehow we tend to miss all that. When it comes to culture, we see them as philistines. When it comes to politics, they're hicks. When it comes to race, they're bigots. And when it comes to globalization, they're hapless victims. And that's just a Mark Morford column. The rest of us get in on the act, too.

Exhibit Z on this last point is last week's column by regular Chron (syndicated) columnist David Sirota, called "America's Road to Conformity."

A meditation on the evils of our "homogenized" culture, Sirota recounts a weekend he spent in the "bucolic suburbs of Lafayette, Ind," which – like every other place in the Great American Road Trip – has nothing unique to listen to, no place original to eat, no interesting book stores, no good movie houses, and nothing worth seeing. It's "fast-foods, gas-guzzling SUVs, and subpar Will Smith movies" all the way. (Damn the Midwest for making so many Will Smith movies!)

Now if I were going to write a column on "America's road to conformity" I might have done it from Disneyland, or Nashville, or the very first Wal-Mart … one of the cultural production centers that churns out product intended for the global marketplace. But no: Sirota chose suburban Lafayette, Indiana.

Which is odd because Lafayette isn't a suburb - or suburban: it's got industry, a downtown, plenty of apartment and student housing, and is the county seat.

I know because I grew up there, and what Sirota missed about Lafayette is exactly what the Chron, and most of San Francisco media, doesn't understand about how global culture really works in the U.S.

Lemme quickly explain how Lafayette rolls. I promise the big scary Red State monsters will stay under the bed.

Sirota begins by bemoaning the fact that no trace of authentic local cuisine can be found in Lafayette. No local specialties or regional secrets. American homogeneity had taken it all away. That would be a pity...if Lafayette had ever had anything like that in the first place. But despite being a Midwestern town, Lafayette was somehow never famous for its down-home cooking. There were good cooks, but no signature dish ever graced the local watering holes, unless you count fresh sweet corn, which for the record they do still have.

On the other hand, they now have Thai food … which I can tell you they didn't have five years ago. They now have Vietnamese food, a truly new development. There are better-than-average Italian places and charming little bistros, all locally owned.

This isn’t hapless victimization of small town America: This is a huge improvement.

I remember, when I was a kid, how excited everybody was when a Greek restaurant opened up, because that's what we had for ethnic cuisine. It was "want to go to the Parthenon?" or nothing. Now cheesy tex-mex competes with authentic Mexican restaurants, Indian buffets, an Irish bar, and even a great little restaurant on the West Side that serves Baja cuisine. It's pretty good too.

I don't blame Sirota for missing all of this if he was just dropping in for a weekend or staying at a hotel out near the highway. These places can't afford giant billboards off the interstate or tourism brochures, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It's just arrogance to assume that there's nothing behind the Applebees.

The "homogenization" of culture, instead of reducing the choices people in Lafayette have, has expanded them considerably.

Next let's take book stores: It's true Lafayette now has a Borders … but Sirota seems to think that there were already a lot of bookstores in place for it to drive out of business. N'uh uh. Back when I was a kid the biggest repository of books outside of the public library was Vons Books and Music – which is still open, as it happens, and has expanded. At some point Lafayette and West Lafayette kids developed a taste for alternative music, so Vons sells that now. At some point comic books and manga got big in Indiana, so now Vons sells them too.

That vicious global culture increased the number of book stores, and the kind of books available. Terrible. Just terri … wait a minute, that’s good. Isn’t it?

What about movies? Well, Sirota's got a point there: Lafayette still suffers from the curse of the big budget multiplexes. But a foreign film series at the University that was just getting started 10 years ago has really taken off: every week now a bunch of small-time cinemaphiles get together and watch something foreign nobody's ever heard of on a big screen. And of course, there’s always Netflix.

It turns out movie buffs in my home town don't complain about global cultural products: for them, it's a godsend. Forget homogenization: it's the way they access the world's diversity.

Are you getting the idea? Because it's true across the board. Sirota has a point when he complains that the "national," "homogenized" culture has made everyplace more like every other place. But what he missed … and Bay Area defenders of "authentic" culture always miss … is that for most of the country this is also a process of incredible DIVERSIFICATION.

You can now get locally owned Thai food in the middle of Indiana. Sweet. There's an artist cooperative in downtown focused on local crafts. Amazingly good sushi is prized. The local music scenes are active … and home grown music still thrives. I was thrilled at how many more bands Lafayette had to offer now than when I'd grown up there … and it hasn't hurt the cradle of Bluegrass music a bit. The fiddlers are still there, fiddling away.

Which is not to say there hasn't been hardship: I was around when factories shut down and jobs moved to Mexico. People are still bitter. But … and here's my point … where do we get off telling people in the heartland that they're inauthentic just because they like the same shit we borrowed from South America, Europe, and Asia? Why is us eating sushi and listening to indy rock a statement of sophistication while for them it's "homogenizing?"

Coping with global homogenization is a big deal here in SF: It's a big deal in middle America too – and they manage it every bit as carefully as we do, even when they come to different decisions. If they have a bunch of Cracker Barrels and outlet malls, that's because they've got plenty of space to put them (usually next to the hotels where the out-of-town writers stay and look down their noses at local people). It doesn't mean they've never heard of culture – and it definitely doesn’t mean they’re getting scammed out of their authenticity and into global oblivion.

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Benjamin Wachs


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