In her recent New York Times story, “Suicides, Drug Addiction, and High School Football,” reporter Juliet Macur investigates the problems of Madison, Indiana, a small town on the Ohio River. Macur starts off by limning the picturesque location and the wonderful things the place has to offer, describing it as “the prettiest little town.”
Having graduated from nearby Hanover College a couple of years ago, I can attest to the beauty and charm of Madison. It is pretty, all right, and the people there are a good cross-section of the American Heartland: some are impressively hard-working, good-hearted, and devoted to God, country, and family, and others are less so.
Macur’s article, however, soon takes a turn toward the sinister, describing an epidemic of drug abuse and suicide plaguing the town.
As anyone paying attention to the news these days can attest, however, this epidemic is by no means confined to small-town Indiana. Rather, it has become sadly commonplace throughout the depressed towns and rural landscapes of middle America. Although the use of one town as an example of a social situation is a valid journalistic technique, nearby Austin, Indiana, would have been more apt, given that it has the state’s highest rates of heroin abuse and AIDS. Austin, however, is not nearly as picturesque as Madison, and hence its decline might seem to Macur and the Times rather less tragic because less steep.
Madison, Macur writes, “is at the center of a drug-trafficking triangle connecting Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Louisville. It is battling life-and-death problems.” Yes, Madison is battling serious ills, but it is by no means at the center of drug trafficking. The place is 25 miles from the nearest interstate, tucked along a bend of the Ohio River, far from being a natural crossroads. That may be why Macur writes as if data were the plural of anecdote, telling us of a waitress whose son committed suicide, a dishwasher whose daughter died of complications from drug abuse and left behind a drug-addicted infant child, a suicide of a recent high school graduate, and a suicide in Indianapolis of another Madison native.
Madison by the Numbers
Macur concedes that the unemployment rate in the county where Madison resides is around the national average and the median household income and poverty rate are unexceptional, but “beneath all that are the crises that threaten to drag this town under: suicide, depression, child neglect, abuse and addiction to drugs.” The suicide rate in the surrounding county is 3.2 times the national rate, she notes.
She does not, however, identify the suicide rate specifically in Madison. “At least three students in the [Madison High School] class of 2015 and one from 2014 have committed suicide,” Macur writes instead.
Those are awful, tragic incidents, and they certainly suggest that Madison is no longer an idyllic small town for every one of its residents. The data, however, contradict Macur’s characterization of Madison as being in the throes of a catastrophe. The number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches is below the state average. Graduation rates, while declining, remain above the state average. The average SAT at the high school is above the Indiana average.
Disciplinary problems are where Madison falls short, with higher rates of both in-school and out-of-school suspensions and student absenteeism almost three times that of Indiana and twice the national average. Macur suggests that the over-prescribing of opioid drugs is at the heart of the town’s problems, saying that Madison has been “hit especially hard by the opioid crisis,” yet she offers no data on opioid use in the town. In fact, Macur mentions in passing, “Madison won a national award for being a ‘stellar community.'”
More “Redneck Porn”
After painting her overly bleak picture of the town, Macur proceeds to dangle one seeming glimmer of hope: Madison Consolidated High School’s football team, the Cubs, and head coach Patric Morrison. Morrison is definitely a good guy. He understands that his job as head coach affects much more than just football, and he makes a personal commitment to the well-being of his players, similar to what Coach Ken Carter did at Richmond High School in Richmond, California, an area also affected by drugs and violence. Macur devotes much of the article to Morrison.
Small towns are clearly on the decline in the United States, but instead of making a convincing case that Madison is truly representative of the problems and identifying the factors behind the alleged pathologies, Macur creates a sentimental drama in which a dedicated football coach rescues his players from incipient self-degradation while the world crumbles around them. The apparent rise of suicide and drug addiction in a formerly thriving town is a dramatic backdrop, but the failure to explain the causes makes her implied solution—individuals such as Morrison deploying compassion—a dubious proposition.
Without such information and lacking insights into causality, Macur’s story is just another instance of “redneck porn,” in which coastal elites hold their noses long enough to observe the inmates of small-town America for a few days and predictably find them greatly wanting. One motivation for such articles is evident and natural to the human condition: the great satisfaction of pontificating about people beneath one’s social station.
Another observable motivation, however, is political: the need to find some great evil to blame for the election of the coastal elites’ personal Satan: President Trump.
Poor, mostly white, Christian conservatives in red states are an easy target. They have no outlets through which to speak up for themselves, and the mainstream media never speak for them, just about them. Macur’s sympathy for the residents of Madison is evident, but her refusal to identify any cause of their woes other than pharmaceutical corporations renders her article a stealthy dose of coastal superiority. Ruth Mayer, who wrote “I detest Trump, but a ‘Redneck’ Fixed My Prius With Zip Ties” perfectly exemplified this attitude, explaining, “I have been so angry about Donald Trump this past year. I have been angry at my country for electing this man, angry at my neighbors who support him, angry at the wealthy who sacrificed our country and its goodness for tax breaks, angry at the coal miners who believed his promises.”
This undying anger seems to blind coastal elite types to the fact that the decline of small-town America long preceded Donald Trump’s election, and that Trump’s strongly and repeatedly stated sympathy for ordinary Americans, backed up by policies intended to remedy the fundamental causes of their problems by giving them a chance to repair their local economies, is exactly what moved so many people in these communities to vote for him.
Half-Century Struggle over Government’s Role
As in the 1960s, our federal government’s policies increasingly favor coastal elites and their satraps while making things difficult for strivers in the nation’s heartland.
The Left has been doing everything it can to prevent the United States from securing its borders, which has increased job competition at the low end of the scale and driven people into protracted unemployment. The Left has fought furiously against work requirements and drug testing for government welfare recipients, thus trapping people in the squalor of the welfare system instead of moving them toward self-reliance. They have fought school choice every step of the way, denying parents the chance to make the best decisions for their children, trapping kids in inferior schools based solely on their ZIP codes and creating dependency on government by making generations of good people unemployable.
All of these policies and countless others place an undue burden on small towns and rural Americans as well as those trapped in the inner cities.
Such favoritism toward the powerful is the inevitable outcome of big government: the most aggressive and self-centered people will use government force to turn things to their advantage. It should surprise no one, then, that government policies that destroy local economies and create dependency, plus the constant rebukes by leftists of poor and working-class people in the “flyover” states, have led to widespread despair.
The targets of this rhetoric, however, were smart enough to see how fabulously the decades-long habit of voting for Democrats has worked out for Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and countless other such places. In 2016, Hillary Clinton deepened this impression by refusing to take the time to remind voters in America’s depressed areas that she knew of their existence, let alone their problems. She then had the gall to go to India, of all places, and chastise middle America for not voting for more of the same in the last presidential election.
What Madison—and Middle America—Needs
However good Macur’s intentions might have been, her story ultimately contributes to the self-aggrandizement of liberals on the coasts, providing another brick in the wall upon which they are perched and looking down their noses at the plight of ordinary Americans. If they were truly interested in helping these Americans, the power brokers on the coasts would stop promoting policies that do them such tremendous harm. Instead, they would work to empower the American public and allow people to make their own choices in life.
Madison doesn’t need pity: it needs freedom.
[First published at American Greatness.]