Reporter's Notebook

The ‘Our Towns’ Notebook
Show Description +

On this page you’ll find updates by James and Deborah Fallows, arising from their travels across the country for The Atlantic’s American Futures project and their 2018 book Our Towns.

Show None Newer Notes

‘INseparable’ Indiana

The central canal in Indianapolis, Indiana
The central canal in Indianapolis, Indiana Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Indiana Humanities has launched a two-year major program called INseparable, designed to improve connections and understanding between people in the state’s big cities and those in its smaller cities and rural areas.

This coming week, my wife, Deb, and I will be in four different Indiana cities as part of their INconversation series (in conjunction with New America’s Indianapolis program), to discuss what we’ve learned in other parts of the country and to hear about what is happening in their communities.

Details of these events are on the Indiana Humanities Calendar site, here. In short, we will be in:

Hope to see you in one of these places.

The West Virginia state capitol building, in Charleston. This picture was taken in 2010, at ceremonies for the death of the state's enormously influential long-time senator, Robert Byrd.
The West Virginia state capitol building, in Charleston. This picture was taken in 2010, at ceremonies for the death of the state's enormously influential long-time senator, Robert Byrd. Larry Downing / Reuters

Last week I mentioned how fresh and valuable I thought the new documentary Moundsville was, for presenting the hard-luck story of a West Virginia town that had lost its big factories and was trying to find a way ahead.

The setup of the story might seem familiar, from countless “lost hopes in the heartland” reports over the past few years. But its tone was quite distinct—and, as I argued in that piece, familiar to Deb and me from our reporting in similar towns in recent years. That is: The residents were clear-eyed about where the town now stood, and what its prospects were. But they spent little time on “Who did this to us?!?!” rage—which is worth noting mainly because reports of resentment, rage, and lashing out have been such a staple of recent political reporting from economically struggling areas. The difference in the Moundsville movie was the sense of humor, and of reality—and of agency, of people not carrying themselves as objects of trends starting somewhere else, though objectively big trends had displaced them, but instead as individuals with their own choices to make.

This is a setup for an endorsement of the op-ed this weekend by the novelist Robert Gipe, which The New York Times presented with the headline “Appalachia Is More Diverse Than You Think.” I read it as saying not that West Virginians and other Appalachians were “worse off” or “better off” or “angrier” or more or less “racist” than you thought. But rather that they were complex human beings, not markers on the simplified grid of pro-Trump/anti-Trump national politics.

For instance:

Many of my pro-Trump neighbors are frustrated and angry, but they are not naïve. They bear a hard-earned sophistication regarding the reliability of political promises …

What pains me and many of my neighbors in the mountains the most are divisive political posturing and partisan wrangling divorced from the realities of our economic struggles … We in Appalachia join our fellow Americans in asking: Who will encourage our best selves? Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?

The whole essay is worth reading, and I mention it for that reason and because it so strongly resembles what we have heard in many other places. In one form or another, people have been asking, “Who will encourage our best selves?” Thanks to Robert Gipe for highlighting the universality of this question, beyond all “red state”/“blue state” simplifications.