NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
September 21, 2000
Another visiting fireman toured North Dakota this summer and wrote up the inevitable story of inevitable decline. Im talking about the piece by reporter Peter T. Kilborn in the New York Times on July 2, "Boom in Economy Skips Towns on the Plains."
North Dakota now holds in eastern perceptions the position held by Kansas in the 1890s and Oklahoma in the 1930s -- a gray place on the plains abandoned by anyone with any youth or gumption left. I get calls from reporters all the time (the last one was from Japan) asking where they can go to find the most human tragedy in the least amount of time and space. They have their lists of things to cover: abandoned churches and schools, dusty main streets with stores boarded up (preferably with a yellow dog lying about), old people reminiscing about the good old days, young people complaining theres nothing to do here.
The writers also all have their pat explanations for regional decline -- big farm machinery, fast cars, harsh climate. They are strong on description, but their explanations are clueless.
They really dont need me to show them where to go, I say. You want ghost towns, you can find them in every county -- take your pick. What I want to know is, why? Whats the fascination for readers in distant cities with ghost towns on the plains?
Partly its simply the journalistic imperative to maximize perception of tragedy. The erosion of society on the plains is a like a train wreck in slow, slow motion. Added to that is the tendency toward pack journalism, so that when one reporter writes up the wreck, others are irresistibly drawn to the same story.
All such narratives are suspect not only because of their selectivity but also because they are written on assignment with deadlines. It takes time to read the substantial literature in history and sociology that enlightens the regional condition. Its easier to find someone who will give you a quick quote, without the footnotes.
This sort of literature is harmless in its individual bits, but destructive in its cumulative effect, for two reasons. The first is that, as Kilborn rightly observes, decline feeds on itself. He quotes the mayor of Mountain saying, "The future is pretty dim right now." At that point its not just a guy from Mountain saying it -- its the New York Times, joining in a chorus with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Boston Globe and even the Fargo Forum. It must be so.
The other danger in this literature of decline is that it is not just human-interest material. Taken in sum, there is an agenda to it. All you conspiracy theorists out there, take a powder; its not a conspiracy of foreign devils in distant capitals. It is, rather, an emerging national consensus about what transpired on the plains in the twentieth century.
At the heart of this consensus is the conviction that human civilization has failed on the plains. People failed, and they left. This leads to a logical conclusion: the plains are empty of people whose wishes need be taken into consideration. The region is a frontier again, a place in need of a plan. So all sorts of people from distant places propose their plans.
The empty plains would be a good place to finish hogs factory-style. Or to establish a bison theme park and host safaris of tourists in khaki. Most people would consider hog farming and the buffalo commons to be opposite ideas, one environmentally rapacious and the other ecologically sound, but Im saying they are the same thing. Both are plans introduced to the plains by distant authorities believing that the desperate denizens of a doomed region should be grateful for the attention.
Here is a maxim for our post-colonial region, the Great Plains of North America. You have to have a plan for your country. If you dont, someone else will.
Source: Tom Isern, (701) 231-8339
Editor: Gary Moran, (701) 231-7865
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