"THE AMERICAN SONG WE HAVE HEARD"
This is a story about contrasting ways of looking at a country. From the national perspective or from the local. On a screen or on the street. Through the lens of some fabled past or the lens of some foreseeable future. Through the eyes of those who gripe on the sidelines or through the hearts of those who "say 'Yes' to everything."
Between 2013 and 2017, James and Deborah Fallows traveled America. Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a private pilot but he did not just fly over so-called "flyover country." He and his wife, a writer and researcher in her own right, landed again and again and again. They touched down in Eastport, Maine and West Point, Mississippi. In Caddo Lake, Texas and Guymon, Oklahoma. In Greenville, South Carolina and Vermillion, Ohio. Thirty towns in all, from coast to coast. And in each they found something you rarely encounter on cable news, something foreign to those who gripe on the sidelines. That something was optimism.
Last week, the Fallows published Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. Since their message mirrors exactly what I found in my own coast-to-coast bike trip last summer, I jumped on the book and dove in. What I found was more than optimism. What I found was America. Not the drug-ridden dens of nightly news, though the Fallows don't deny the opioid crisis. Not a nation "deeply divided," though most of "our towns" are in red states. Not the angry, bitter America that dominates national politics. None of that tired story.
Instead, by talking to Americans not about politics but about their lives, by looking not at where we once were but where we are headed, the Fallows found America the Resurgent. "I have seen the future," James Fallows writes in this month's Atlantic, "and it is in the United States."
Say what? Isn't that the kind of mindless boosterism that brought us the Gilded Age, the cycles of boom and bust, suburban sprawl, and Fast Food Nation? That would certainly be the view from Congress or from cable news. But follow the Fallows (sorry, couldn't resist) and snapshots of America emerge, not on screens but as if in a darkroom, where the lights are slowly going up.
Our national narrative now speaks of growth and progress on both coasts, decay in between, but Our Towns puts that simplistic conceit to rest. Dateline. . .
-- Holland, Michigan: "We quickly noticed traits that we eventually learned to associate with towns on the rise. Residential buildings and new hotels. Multiple restaurants, and a brewery. Viable stores that are not part of a national chain. Corporate headquarters that have moved downtown. A nearby college student base. . ."
-- Riverside, California: "When Loveridge first came to Riverside, more than half of the days per year had Stage 1 smog emergencies. . . Now entire years go by with no Stage 1 alerts."
-- Columbus, Mississippi: "The most modern-looking aspects of this part of Mississippi are centered around the Golden Triangle Regional Airport. . . Just beyond it is a sprawling, modern steel mill. . . Nearby are large factories making truck engines, helicopters, drones, and other advanced devices, paying wages equal to several multiples of the local household income. . ."
-- Allentown, Pennsylvania: (Yes, Billy Joel's "Allentown") "The overall economy of the Lehigh Valley has expanded, diversified, and continued to grow. . . "
But the Fallows are not mere economic boosters. In each of "our towns," they find libraries holding classes and meetings, reaching out to kids. They find riverwalks and pedestrian zones getting people outdoors, downtown. They find refurbished factories. They find upstart schools serving struggling students. And they find "a certain kind of public and civic life. . . at odds with what 'politics' had come to mean in national coverage."
So why does it seem, as Louis CK observed, that "everything's amazing but no one's happy?" The question harkens back to how you see the country. Local/national. Past/present. And above all screen/street. As James Fallows notes in The Atlantic, 64 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. But 85 percent are upbeat about their own towns, their own lives. Fallows doesn't explain the paradox, but I will.
Step into a living room. Turn on the news. OMG! The country's going to hell, going there 24/7. Sit back. Complain. Despair. Long for some fabled past. Or you might, as John Prine sang years ago, “blow up your TV, throw away your papers, move to the country. . .” Not the country of television, the country called America.
In closing, Our Towns quotes a University of Virginia professor: "In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot more positive narratives out there -- but they're lonely and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody."
And that, say James and Deborah Fallows "is the American song we have heard."