Poor Omaha. Iíve been noticing my adopted hometown cropping up more and more frequently as shorthand. Fargo is ďout thereĒ (or, more accurately, ďup thereĒ) as a place of unimaginable isolation. Buffalo represents postindustrial irrelevance made all the more poignant by the fact that it is in New York. El Paso conjures images of cowboy boots and snap-button shirts. Seattle used to signify the sleepy, rained-soaked periphery until Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Microsoft changed everything. But Omaha is just Omaha: Itís the emblem of banal provinciality.
In a recent and fine review of a new book on Weimar Germany, the famous Marxist historian (whatever that means in the twenty-first century) Eric Hobsbawm uses poor olí Omaha to dramatize his experience. His family lived in Berlin from 1931 to 1933 when he was a young teenager. It was a time of vibrant creativity, and the youthful Hobsbawm ran with the leftist revolutionaries. But Hitler came to power. As Jews, his family saw the danger, and they retreated to England. The move ensured survival. At the time, however, the young Hobsbawm did not welcome the change. ďImagine yourselves,Ē Hobsbawm writes, ďas a newspaper correspondent based in Manhattan and transferred by your editor to Omaha, Nebraska. Thatís how I felt when I came to England after almost two years in the unbelievably exciting, sophisticated, intellectually and politically explosive Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The place was a terrible letdown.Ē
Maybe itís inevitable. Weíre in the middle: Middle West, middle America, middle class, middlebrow. The name has a memorable Native American singsong set of ending ahs: Omaha, Nebraska. Itís more euphonious than Des Moines, Iowa, and more exotic than Kansas City, Missouri.
Any yet thereís something wrong with Hobsbawmís analogy. I grew up on the East Coast. Iíve lived in Manhattan, and I enjoyed its vitality. Before coming to Omaha, I had no illusions. When I applied for an academic position at Creighton University, the department chair sent me a letter. He asked me to write and explain why I wanted to come to Omaha, which in a sentence of cold Jesuit realism he pointed out is not a terribly exciting or important city. I wrote back what must have been a satisfactory answer, got the job, and moved. But I didnít feel a terrible letdown.
People will sayin fact, they have saidthat my personal circumstances colored my experience. When I moved to Omaha, I was married with a small child, with another soon to follow. But my children are no longer so young, and Iím still not in despair. Omaha is provincial, but somehow that doesnít seem to matter as much as Eric Hobsbawm presumes.
New technology doubtless affects the experience of moving away from a vibrant center of commerce or politics or culture. The jet airplane, cheap long distance, the Internetitís not hard to stay in touch. Moreover, Americans are very mobile. The days are long gone when Atlanta or Minneapolis or Denver were dominated by a local establishment that insulated itself from outside influence. Even Salt Lake City has lost its feeling of Mormon exclusivity. A truly provincial culture requires smug, self-satisfied insularity. This is difficult to sustain as people hopscotch across the country, moving from job to job. Transience is the enemy of provincial culture, which is why California has been many things, but never provincial. Today weíre all Californians.
More important, the odd reality called America goes a long way toward explaining my lack of provincial isolation. Unlike most European countries, the United States has no clear center. Iím sure Father Neuhaus will harrumph, but New York does not predominate over the American imagination the way Paris does over the French or even London over the Englishand, after reunification, Berlin over the German. Our center of political power is in Washington, removed from the center of financial power in New York. Our globally influential media is split between New York and Los Angeles. Nashville is home to music empires. Harvard reigns haughtily over academia across the river from Boston. Muggy Houston, Silicon Valley, the rapidly expanding Sun Beltthereís no clear focal point for economic growth and innovation.
Because there is no obvious center to America, the provinces can be provincial without feeling so remote and left out. To a certain degree, weíre all out of one loop or another. Wall Street bankers have to fly down to Washington if they want to have a power lunch with lobbyists and congressmen. Media executives shuttle back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. Hard-driving young research doctors take jobs at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Nobel Prize winners are lured to Arizona State University. Former presidents never seem to stay in Washington. As a result, nobody important is a taxi ride away from everybody important.
Iíve noticed this feature of American society when Iíve chatted with foreigners. A few years ago, I gave a paper at Cambridge University. Over sherry, a faculty member politely asked me, ďI say, what is Omaha like?Ē I replied somewhat impolitely that it was like some midsized English city that I have never heard of. Except for the fact that there are ten times as many people, and one of the richest men in the world lives there (Warren Buffet). He nodded in incomprehension. More recently I met a Russian expatriate in New York. He asked me about Omaha. I told him if you left out the sense of isolation, the feeling that you were being constantly raped by the capitol, and the long history of ignominy associated with exile, it was pretty much like living in Siberia. He laughed.
Not all my friends share my equanimity. Some transplants cultivate a bitter sense of exile. They listen to NPR and keep a pile of New Yorker magazines next to the toilet. Still, the Hobsbawm analogy fails yet again. When I think about it, no transplants I know who regret Omaha have ever actually lived in New York, or, for that matter, Washington or Los Angeles. The exiles donít miss living in a vibrant world capitol. Instead, in conversation theyíll say that Omaha lacks ďdiversity,Ē by which they mean a critical mass of other people who think as they do about politics and morality. They condemn Omaha as provincial, but what they are really saying is that the city is not progressive. In their minds, Berkeley or Boulder are ideal, all the more so because they so completely combine homogeneity with progressive self-congratulation.
I donít want to give the wrong impression. Itís not as though Omaha is a treasure hidden in the cornfields. I donít mind living here, but, in all honesty, itís a Goldilocks city: not too expensive but not down and out, not too urban but not a small town either, not too sophisticated but certainly not Hicksville. If you come and ask residents what really sets Omaha apart, theyíll inevitably say, ďItís a good place to raise a family.Ē Thatís a true statementand the fact that I hear it all the time is the clearest signal of a provincial pride that would be almost irritating were it no so wholesome and modest (and which, in my more sour moments, irritates because it is wholesome and modest). As I tell my friends in New York, ďOmaha is easy: no strong positives, no strong negatives.Ē Thatís nothing to sneeze at, especially if youíre living in an expensive fourth-story Brooklyn walk-up or trying to sell your overleveraged house in Southern California. But then again, itís a city hard to get very excited about. Easy rarely hardens into fierce loyalty.
Time binds the heart. Catch me in a hypothetical mood, and Iíll tell you that Iíd rather live in New York. But after nearly two decades in this quintessentially provincial town, Omaha is my very real home. It would be painful to leave. And anyway, given our national dispersion, I worry that my fantasies about return would result in a letdown. Itís hard to move to the center and bask in its supreme importance when it wonít hold still.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.