Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


America, Know Thyself (Part 1 of 3)

So just what does it mean to "be American?"

I've been watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions the past two weeks, and everyone seems to have a different answer.  And they frame the debate as though there really is only one right answer that we all should come to accept and anything else is just wrong.  "That's not who we are as Americans," I just heard.  So who are we as Americans?

In America, do we stand united behind a common good or are we only united by our sense of individualism and our essential disunity?  Are we a pluralistic society that values diversity or do we have a core set of common beliefs?  Are we a Christian nation or do we defend everyone's right to have their own beliefs and religion?  Does safety and security require we sacrifice some individual rights?  And which ones?  This is just the tip of the iceberg, but ask any random ten Americans these and similar questions and you're likely to get ten different sets of answers.


One fascinating and illuminating answer comes from Colin Woodward in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.  His premise is that we've never truly been united in our beliefs and values, that we have eleven different sets of ideals that go back to the continent's founding and beyond--sets that often contradict and compete with each other--and that our history has been one long process of negotiation, of fighting for influence and power that still carries on to this day.  There isn't and never has been one America, he writes, but several Americas.  And we don't have one set of "founding fathers" and ideals, but many that still inform our competing identities today.

America's most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular.  Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another.  These nations respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the U.S. frontiers with Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Illinois, or Pennsylvania.  Six joined together to liberate themselves from British rule.  Four were conquered but not vanquished by English-speaking rivals.  Two more were founded in the West by a mix of American frontiersmen in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Some are defined by cultural pluralism, others by their French, Spanish, or "Anglo-Saxon" heritage.  Few have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture.  On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.

A few ideas before introducing the nations.  First, "nation" ≠ state/country.  Woodward uses the term to define a cultural group defined by a geographical region.  Some of the nations align with U.S. states, while other states are conflicted as political bodies since they are split between two or even three national identities.

Second is the idea that once a culture is geographically established, it is very hard to change and only does so gradually and incrementally.  Those who move into an established nation find themselves adapting to and adopting its ideals, cultures, and values instead of changing it.  Thus, a nation like New Netherland retains its underlying Dutch identity even though it's been New York for most of its existence, for instance.

Third, our continent's famed mobility--and the transportation and communications technology that foster it--has been reinforcing, not dissolving, the differences between the nations. . . . since 1976 Americans have been relocating to communities where people share their values and worldviews.  One of the ways this is seen is the increase in landslide victories by political candidates in different areas.  In fact, political results are one of the ways Woodward convincingly supports his theory, along with linguists' dialect maps, cultural anthropologists' maps of material culture regions, cultural geographers' maps of religious regions, campaign strategists' maps of political geography, and historians' maps of the pattern of settlement across the continent.

Finally, these are, of course, generalizations and there are individual and group exceptions within each region.

So what are the nations?  We can start with one that will be most familiar thanks to how they've controlled the historical narrative:


Yankees are the Puritans who founded New England.  They had a vision of starting a new religious nation as a vision of God's people on earth.  They've always placed a strong emphasis on community and the "common good," achieved through education and local government, a strong anti-aristocracy bent and a focus on the middle class; their elitism is not based on class, but on education.  Their missionary zeal has led them to work toward homogenization and a preference for theocracy.


The original opponent of Yankeedom was Jamestown's Tidewater, going back to their roots in England in the classism of the ruling Normans over the common (Puritan) Anglo-Saxons.  The controlling goal of Tidewaterites was to become gentry, the educated, elite, aristocratic class with the liberty to pursue high-minded ideas and ideals.  A strong emphasis on civilized culture and authority and tradition.  Home of country estates and dinner parties.

Tidewater has been strongly aligned with the Deep South for much of its history and has been in gradual decline as the other nations have expanded and grown.

The Midlands

Founded by English Quakers to be a land of religious freedom and plurality and populated along the way by German farm groups like the Amish, this has always been an area characterized by a small community focus and productive work ethic.  Pacifist and non-confrontational for much of its history, it's also resistant to tyranny and aristocracy.

Its settlements--a collection of mutually tolerant ethnic enclaves--served as a buffer between the intolerant, communitarian morality of Greater Yankeedom and the individualistic hedonism of Greater Appalachia, just as they had earlier on the eastern seaboard.  New Englanders and Appalachian people often settled among them, but neither group's values took hold.  The Midland Midwest would develop as a center of moderation and tolerance, where people of many faiths and ethnicities lived side by side, largely minding their own business.  Few Midwestern Midlanders were Quakers, but they unconsciously carried aspects of William Penn's vision to fruition. . . . 

In the Midland zone, foreigners, Catholics, and others found a society untroubled by diversity but skeptical of slave labor, warfare, and the cult of the individual.

Greater Appalachia

The settlers of Appalachia were from England's borderlands, the Scots and the Irish.  Characterized by a fierce individualism and a warlike bent, always ready and willing to fight for their individual liberty and personal sovereignty.  They don't like to have anyone impose anything on them, whether the community concern of the Yankees or the aristocratic structures of Tidewater and the Deep South.  Their values and culture can be seen through their establishment of bluegrass and country music, stock car racing, and Evangelical fundamentalism.

New Netherland

New York City has always been a bit different than any other American city, and that can be traced back to its roots as a Dutch commercial center.  Characterized by a pragmatic concern for commerce, a tolerance for difference, and the freedom to pursue economic success, it's always been a home to immigrants: In 1643 Father Isaac Jogues, a Jesuit working in New France, estimated New Amsterdam's population at 500 and the number of its languages at 18.  It's also always been a center for culture, just as the Netherlands was the most modern and sophisticated country on Earth [at New Netherland's founding], producing art, laws, business practices, and institutions that became the standards for the rest of the Western world.

The Deep South

The Deep South took the aristocratic goals of Tidewater and added to it the ideals of the classical Roman republic culture, by way of the slave trade.  The founders of the Deep South didn't come directly from England, but from the plantations of Barbados after they ran out of island land and needed space to expand their trade.

"The planters are a genuine aristocracy, who cultivate themselves in a leisure founded on slavery," London Times correspondent William Russell reported from South Carolina on the eve of [the Civil] war.  "The admiration for monarchical institutions on the English model, for privileged classes and for a landed aristocracy and gentry is undisguised and apparently genuine."

New France

Not as important in the big picture of U.S. development and politics, New France is the most purely liberal of the nations and took the most peaceful, respectful, and cooperative approach to dealing with Native Americans.  Most of New France is today in Canada and around New Orleans, which is a hybrid New France-Deep South city.

El Norte

The Americans with the oldest European heritage are New Mexicans of Spanish descent, as Spanish missions worked their way north from Central and South America before the English and other Europeans established their east coast colonies.  Spain was the major world power at the time, and had the stated goal of turning both of the American continents into a Catholic Empire (along with their failed armada and attempts at conquest back home).  Their power waned as they reached the American west of California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico--they introduced horses and the first "cowboys" and much of what we think of as cowboy culture--though, and the far north reaches of their American empire became isolated and necessarily self-sufficient.  Today the political border cuts El Norte in half, and its people find more in common with each other regardless of country than they do with either of their distant capitals in Washington D.C. and Mexico City.

By spearheading the effort to snuff out the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish had earned the lasting hatred of the English, Scots, and Dutch, who regarded them as the decadent, unthinking tools of the Vatican's conspiracy to enslave the world.  This virulent anti-Spanish feeling became deeply ingrained in the cultures of Yankeedom, Appalachia, Tidewater, and the Deep South.  It would be visited upon the people of El Norte in a heightened form in the nineteenth century, buttressed by Victorian notions about racial mixing that inform anti-Mexican racism to this day.

The Left Coast

The Left Coast was established in competition, as the eastern nations struggled to establish their respective cultures as the dominant one in this new territory.  The Yankees did everything they could to shape government and education, but were outnumbered by the flood of Appalachian fortune seekers.  What resulted was a hybrid.  While the Yankees failed in their broad mission, they did have a lasting effect on coastal California from Monterey north.  The coast blended the moral, intellectual, and utopian impulses of a Yankee elite with the self-sufficient individualism of its Appalachian and immigrant majority.  The culture that formed--idealistic but individualistic--was unlike that of the gold-digging lands in the interior but very similar to those in western Oregon and Washington.

The Far West

Climate and geographical challenges have been the determinant factors in the development of the Far West, as the other nations skipped over it to the coast in their westward expansion because their established cultural practices wouldn't work.  It has always been more of an internal colony, first for the federal government as a puppet to large corporations (the railroads, for instance) and more recently for large corporations in opposition to the federal government.  It is characterized by a rugged individualism combined with an acknowledged reliance on outside support and resources for continued survival.

First Nation

The Native American culture was all but obliterated except in one area, Canada's far north.  Recent years have seen a reemergence of that culture and its entry into public life in that county.  Communalistic, environmentally minded, and female-dominated, the people of First Nation will have a very different approach to the global continent and the world.  And starting in Greenland, First Nation is building a series of nation-states of its own, giving North America's indigenous peoples a chance to show the rest of the world how they would blend postmodern life with premodern folkways.

That's a very quick introduction to the nations as they were founded and hints at their cultures.  What it means to be "American" depends on national membership.  The history of the U.S. is one long story of struggle for influence and dominance between these nations, with the worst conflicts being driven by the fundamentally contrary values of Yankeedom and the Deep South and the alliances they've worked to form in their support.  The conflicts and alliances have never simply been two-sided, however, and each nation has had and continues to have its impacts.  Consider the recent issue of immigration, for instance, from the perspective of only a few of the nations (the others are also considered in the book):

New Netherland and the Midlands had been explicitly multicultural since their foundation and so were places were it was viewed as normal for people of many languages, religions, and cultures to live side by side. . . . For both these nations, being "American" had nothing to do with one's ethnicity, religion, or language but was rather a spirit or state of mind.  When pundits speak today of America always having been multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual, they're really referring to New Netherland and the Midlands.  In these nations it's almost impossible to describe immigrant groups as having acculturated, as it's not at all clear what they would be acculturating to, beyond an ethic of toleration, individual achievement (in New Netherland) and, possibly, the use of English.  The American model of cultural pluralism originates in the traditions of these two nations. . . .

Meanwhile, historians at Harvard, Yale, and other Yankee institutions were crafting a mythic "national" history for students to celebrate, which emphasized the centrality of the (previously neglected) Pilgrim voyage, the Boston Tea Party, and Yankee figures such as the minutemen, Paul Revere, and Johnny Appleseed.  (The Puritans were recast as champions of religious freedom, which would have surprised them, while Jamestown, New Amsterdam, and the early Anglican settlements of Maine were ignored.)  In the Yankee paradigm, immigrants were to assimilate into the dominant culture which, from their point of view, was indeed characterized by the "Protestant" (i.e., Calvinist) work ethic, self-restraint, a commitment to "common good," and hostility to aristocratic institutions.  Cultural pluralism, individualism, or the acceptance of an Anglo-British class system was not on the Yankees' agenda. . . .

In the early twenty-first century, a new wave of immigration has prompted a heated debate about what it means to be "American" and what should and shouldn't be expected of a person who wishes to count himself as one. . . . 

In fact, both sides are evoking characteristics that were true of only a subset of North America's ethnoregional nations rather than "America" as a whole.  Certainly the Calvinist work ethic has always been central to the Yankee identity at the same time that it was anathema to that of the Deep South or Tidewater, where a leisurely "pace of life" has long been seen as virtuous.  (No Deep Southern aristocrat feared he would be kept from Heaven on account of idleness; much of the Yankee elite was haunted by this notion.)  "Englishness," language and all, was absolutely not at the heart of the Midlands and New Netherland identity, where multiculturalism was indeed the norm; applied to El Norte, theories of "Anglo-Protestant" cultural origins look comical.  Extreme individualism is central to the Appalachian and Far Western identities but has always been frowned upon in communitarian New England and New France.  "Liberty" in the sense Huntington thought of it was absolutely not part of the Deep Southern or Tidewater vision of the American identity, while representative government was championed by their slaveholding elite only to the extent that they themselves did all the representing.  Far from embracing multiculturalism, Yankees have spent their history either keeping outsiders away or trying to assimilate them (and the rest of the country) to New England norms.  It is fruitless to search for the characteristics of an "American" identity, because each nation has its own notion of what being American should mean.

In Part 2, we'll look more explicitly at the history and development of the nations and how they have each influenced and shaped the development of the United States.


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