Middle of Nowhere

When the Washington Post released an article claiming to have found “The Middle of Nowhere,” I expected Ely, NV — my childhood home, the primary location of my forthcoming memoir — would top the list. I came to accept being ignored, growing up in an isolated Western mining town. But being excluded from the list of most isolated towns in America is an indignity too far! Especially when the article discussing that “honor” focuses on the inequitable distribution of economic opportunities that such isolation causes.ElyIsolation

We deserve recognition on our “merits,” but ironically being excluded perpetuates the vicious cycle the article is trying to expose.

Let’s get the parochial beef out of the way first. Two other Nevada towns, Battle Mountain (#5) and Tonopah (#10), made the list even though Ely is farther from the nearest city with population over 75,000. Ely is 247 miles from Salt Lake City, 238 miles from Las Vegas, and 364 miles from Reno. #10 Tonopah, NV is only 211 miles from Las Vegas, and #5 Battle Mountain only 220 miles from Reno — by Interstate — 80!

“The Wickersham Brothers”; courtesy Dr. Seuss.  No resemblance to actual Wickershhams in Ely intended or implied.

Like the “Who” heard by Horton, Elyites unite in shouting “We Are Here!” (I loved “Horton Hears A Who” — not only for the message, not only because my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Horton, but because we actually had “Wickersham” brothers in Ely! But I digress…)

In the words of a White Pine County High School, anti-referee basketball cheer, “Nuts and Bolts, Nuts and Bolts, We Got SCREWED!”

But why should we care? As people who still strive to seek a “just” society, we should be concerned about economic advantage or opportunity being granted merely on accident of birth. Being born into a small, isolated, economically deprived town is as much an accident of birth as being born wealthy, in the religious majority, or into the systemically favored ethnicity.

How does this impact?

First, representation: What others see of places like Ely, NV is a minuscule sliver compared to what we would see of places like LA and NYC. City dwellers see themselves constantly and are reinforced in their narcissistic self-perceptions. The unrepresented consider themselves “less”, while the over-represented consider themselves divinely chosen, laden with “manifest destiny.” We know where that takes us.

I am late to the game understanding this, but when people do not see themselves represented, or when the representations they do see are consistently, stereotypically, negative and prejudiced, those people are at risk. The psyches of both the unrepresented and over-represented are negatively affected.

This representational feedback loop initiates an insidious spiral in belief of what, who, and where matters. If it’s not on TV, it’s not important. And if you have a new brand and want to establish its cachet? You take it to an already famous city and the cycle repeats. I am loath to make the comparison but will do so in solidarity, over the underlying mechanism and its impacts: just as Katherine Johnson and her team of black, female mathematicians were “hidden figures” at NASA, Elyites and denizens of every small-town don’t exist or contribute, in the minds of a vast majority. We are not people. We become props for politicians, demonized hicks and rubes, too “lazy” to move to where the jobs are. (Again, the comparison is not directly equivalent. I DID move out of Ely to establish myself elsewhere. I understand that in racial issues this is not an option… one cannot simply decide to no longer be black, or Mexican.)

What societal structures could compensate for the plight of isolation? The same that could be applied to other accidents of birth, like race or (frequently) wealth.

Ward Mountain, behind Ely, NV.

I think of philosopher John Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” for establishing just societies, and wonder if it might also be applied to establishing how we fund governmental infrastructure, nationwide. Rawls’ thought experiment was to ask citizens to dream up the rules for a society, but to do so without the knowledge of their position in that society. So a straight, white, man would think twice about writing rules in his favor, because after the rules are written he may find himself a Filipino lesbian.

Turn that idea onto planning resources for American towns. Imagine you are to design the community of your dreams, but you are behind a “veil of ignorance” and you do not know to which community you will be assigned after the massive infrastructure project is completed. What would you wish on Ely, Nevada, if you might have to live there? Then perhaps we ought wish that on every community now, at least striving to set a baseline minimum that levels out the geographic disparities?

Ely’s lone skyscraper, The Hotel Nevada.

What are the baseline minimums our society should be wishing on every community in this nation? How can we stop out of control feedback loops from creating a deadly, damaged society? Racism, Economic Inequality, Isolation: It seems we might ameliorate many of our nation’s problems if we intentionally set our governing efforts toward short-circuiting these various vicious cycles in which “the rich get richer.”

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