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Why Should We Care?

 

The good people in the PR office of my university sometimes get a little exasperated with me. They ring me up and say such-and-such an eastern newspaper, or such-and-such a metropolitan magazine, would like to interview me about some story it is doing about North Dakota. To which I reply, not interested.

 

This response is based on experience. The story already is written. Eastern reporters call to get snippets of local color to fit into a predestined scheme. Give them what they want, and you end up patched into some story you realize afterward you don’t want to be identified with.

 

Which raises the whole issue, one I don’t talk about much, of the image of North Dakota as expressed elsewhere. We seem to care about this a lot. I’m going to try to explain why I don’t care much about it.

 

Do you remember “The Emptied Prairie,” that depressing article, and the even more depressing photographs, that appeared in National Geographic in 2008? Reviewing that piece today, it’s easy to understand why the reaction hereabouts was so angry. “Ghost towns stud North Dakota,” the author intones, underneath a photograph of an abandoned farmhouse and some desiccated bones, “and this empty house is just one bone in a giant skeleton of abandoned human desire.”

 

Disregarding the overwrought prose, and the artificial photographs, both of which are staples of National Geographic, there remains the characterization of North Dakota as a perverse wasteland. Nothing in the piece is specifically false; it’s just grossly selective, offering no other way of viewing the place other than that of the visiting firemen who work for National Geographic.

 

Now comes the same magazine with a cover feature, “Bakken Shale Oil: The New Oil Landscape.” A different author, but the same photographer, this time offering spectacular images of an industrializing prairie, peopled by skilled laborers who are, in the author’s words, “almost heroic.” Almost, but not quite, I guess.

 

The content of this new article is utterly predictable, describing a “fracking frenzy” providing energy for the nation and opportunity for individuals, but of course, “at what cost?” I’m not ridiculing the question, I’m just laughing at the idea anyone would turn to National Geographic for the answer to it.

 

Lengthen your memory, and consider “Tough Times on the Prairie,” the magazine’s characterization of North Dakota in 1987. Tough times, for sure, and here are the people of the prairies, carrying on in Norman Rockwell fashion, apparently oblivious of what the omniscient author knows, that their way of life is doomed, doomed, doomed. Like the other articles, the voice of the 1987 piece is essentially colonialist. A land out of time.

 

How about we just get over this? How about, the next time some fly-by-night think tank in California or New Jersey sends out a press release saying North Dakota ranks first in efficiency of pencil sharpeners, or forty-seventh in kindness to bunny rabbits, we refrain from giving the distributors free publicity? Why should we care? Might we not consider the questions of our wellbeing for ourselves, and come up with our own answers?

 

Excessive interest in external validation signifies a lingering insecurity not befitting of North Dakota in the 21st Century. How are things going? Let’s take a look around and decide for ourselves.

 

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