Pubdate: Tue, 21 Jul 2009
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2009 The New York Times Company
Author: Timothy Egan
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


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 do justice to the complexities of
small-town life. And neither of these versions do 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 the Census 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.