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 3 of 3)

What's the point of self-knowledge?

Recently I wrote about the book You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney.  The blog where the book started has the subtitle, "A Celebration of Self Delusion."  I followed it up with another post highlighting Confirmation Bias and a recent news article about a study that showed giving people facts that contradict their beliefs will actually make them more entrenched in their positions despite the factual evidence to the contrary.

Why celebrate delusion?  What's the point in making the case that there's no point in making a case?  It might seem like I'm saying we might as well not even try to understand each other or get along since we're so illogical that it's an impossible endeavor.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  It's about helping each of us realize we don't have a monopoly on logic and truth and the "correct" way of thinking.  It's about adding a fair amount of reasonable doubt about ourselves to counter our instinctive sense of assurance in the absoluteness of our own thoughts and feelings so that we're more reasonable when encountering the differing thoughts and feelings of others.  If I know what I have to say is influenced and shaped by biases, irrational emotions, and logical fallacies, then I should more readily accede there is room for me to be complemented, supplemented, or even corrected by what others have to say.  We need self-knowledge, in other words, to help us be more open to other-knowledge.

This is the third in my series of posts on Colin Woodward's book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.  It's based on the idea 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.  In Part 1 I introduced each of the eleven nations he describes and in Part 2 I summarized how they were founded and developed through to the Civil War.  In Part 3 we'll look at how they have developed since and continue to define our political battles to this day.

Because that's the point of this exercise, the self-knowledge that we are defined by these identities that have existed, in most cases, for hundreds of years and aren't likely to change anytime soon.  To help us see our national delusions and biases so that we might be more open to listening to and working with the other nations.  There is not now and never has been one pure American identity, but even so we have been and remain a single country and need to figure out how to get along.  Instead of trying to remake each other in our own images, we need to accept that our political opponents are just as "correct" as we are in their claims of "being American"; instead of evangelization, we should focus on negotiation.  There's been--though at times barely--room for all of us under this one tent for hundreds of years now, so instead of constantly demonizing each other we need to work on how to live with each other.  We needn't feel anger about the "wrongness" of those from our other nations or fear that their differences will entirely overwhelm our ideals and values, but should instead trust that the overall balance will remain and seek to work out how we can continue to coexist.  Conviction and disagreement are okay, but hostility will only lead to harm.

In the interest of self-knowledge, I should share my own biases because I'm sure they color how I present and spin the ideas and information in Woodward's book.  I live in the heart of the Midwestern Midlands, pretty close to dead center of it's largest bulk on the map (whereas much of the Midlands are strips, not masses).  Kansas City is split by two Midland states, Kansas and Missouri, and very near Iowa, a third.  Yet even though my immediate area is pretty solidly Midland, none of the states are clearly so; the northern half of Iowa is Yankee, the southern half of Missouri is Appalachian, and the western half of Kansas is Far West (along with a bit of Appalachia in its southeast corner), so the states might go different ways in different elections because their non-Midland parts are each different.

Probably not me, though.  I am and always have been a Midlander, but I also have some pretty strong Yankee and even New Netherlander leanings that can make it hard for me to empathize with Appalachian and Far West concerns at times, and I see little of value in Deep South values.  To unpack that: Completely Midland, my background is Mennonite, a pacifist, farming, Dutch and German (and other non-British) religion so typical of that nation (the book actually mentions Mennonites a number of times when describing the region).  We're open to diversity and plurality but suspicious of individualism, with a strong concern for community.  We don't like the cultural imperialism of Yankeedom, nor the aristocratic ideals of the Deep South--it was actually a Mennonite compliment to call someone "common."  Yet I am drawn to the Yankee concern for the "common good" and a government of, by, and for the people that we use to pursue that common good.  And, like them, I believe it happens through education and can tend toward intellectual elitism.  As I said, I'm sure these biases show in the ways I've chosen to present this information.

As do Woodward's in the book itself.  I don't know if he originated there, but he lives in and has written about Maine, so I assume he's a Yankee.  I think he did a pretty good job of not being pro-Yankee in the book and for the most part described strengths and weaknesses for most of the nations, but he couldn't seem to come up with much of anything positive to say about the Deep South and that's where his biases were most obvious.  Again, you'll see that in what follows, particularly since it confirms my own.

So, with that said, on to politics.  A couple paragraphs up I described how the different mixes of national identities within their borders make KS, MO, and IA each a swing state in different ways.  Yet they don't swing between eleven different positions, but back and forth between two, which is how we tend to frame our politics these days: blue or red, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.  How did we go from eleven identities to two?  Coalitions created by the Civil War that have never fully dissolved, just been tweaked and renegotiated.

Some excerpts from the book:

The nations have been struggling with one another for advantage and influence since they were founded, and from 1790 the biggest prize has been control of federal government institutions: Congress, the White House, the courts, and the military.  As the central government has grown in size, scope, and power, so have the nations' efforts to capture and reshape it--and the rest of the continent--in their image.  Since 1877 the driving force of American politics hasn't primarily been a class struggle or tension between agrarian and commercial interests, or even between competing partisan ideologies, although each has played a role.  Ultimately the determinative political struggle has been a clash between shifting coalitions of ethnoregional nations, one invariably headed by the Deep South, the other by Yankeedom.


With New Netherland on board [along with the Left Coast], the Yankee-led Northern Alliance achieved its current three-nation form.  Together it has consistently promoted a coherent agenda for more than a century, regardless of which political party was dominant in the region.  From the "conservative" administration of Republican Teddy Roosevelt to the "liberal" one of Democrat Barack Obama, these three nations have favored the maintenance of a strong central government, federal checks on corporate power, and the conservation of environmental resources.


The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonial-style economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible. . . . 

For the oligarchs the greatest challenge has been getting Greater Appalachia into their coalition [with Tidewater] and keeping it there. . . . 

Two factors worked in the oligarchs' favor, however: racism and religion.


Scholars have long recognized that "the South" as a unified entity didn't really come into existence until *after* the Civil War.  It was the resistance to Yankee-led Reconstruction that brought this Dixie bloc together to ultimately include even Appalachian people who'd fought against the Confederacy during the war.

Their institutions and racial caste system under attack, Deep Southerners and Tidewaterites organized their resistance struggle around the one civic institution they still controlled: their churches.  The evangelical churches that dominated the three southern nations proved excellent vehicles for those wishing to protect the region's prewar social system.  Unlike the dominant denominations in Yankeedom, Southern Baptists and other southern evangelicals were becoming what religious scholars have termed "Private Protestants" as opposed to the "Public Protestants" that dominated the northern nations, and whom we'll get to in a moment.  Private Protestants--Southern Baptists, Southern Methodists, and Southern Episcopalians among them--believed the world was inherently corrupt and sinful, particularly after the shocks of the Civil War.  Their emphasis wasn't on the social gospel--an effort to transform the world in preparation for Christ's coming--but rather on *personal* salvation, pulling individual souls into the lifeboat of right thinking before the Rapture swept the damned away.  Private Protestants had no interest in changing society but rather emphasized the need to maintain order and obedience.  Slavery, aristocratic rule, and the grinding poverty of most ordinary people in the southern nations weren't evils to be confronted but rather a reflection of a divinely sanctioned hierarchy to be maintained at all costs against the Yankee heretics. . . . 

From the time of the Puritans, the Yankee religious ethos focused on the salvation of society, not of the individual.  Indeed, the Puritans believed every soul's status had already been determined.  All that was left to do was to carry out God's work and try to make the world a more perfect and less sinful place.  As we've already seen, this led Yankees to embrace all sorts of utopian missions, from bulding a "City on the Hill" in Massachusetts to creating a model society in Utah based on the Book of Mormon to "saving" other parts of the continent by assimilating them into enlightened Yankee culture.  The Yankees represent an extreme example of Public Protestantism, a religious heritage that emphasizes collective salvation and the social gospel.  Whereas late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Southern Baptists and other salvation-minded denominations generally judged alcoholism as an individual failing of character, Yankee Congregationalists, Northern Methodists, Unitarians, and Anglicans viewed it as a social ill in need of legislative redress.  While Salvationists concentrated on saving the souls of the poor, champions of the Social Gospel fought for labor protections, the minimum wage, and other collective solutions intended to reduce poverty itself.  Whereas Private Protestants emphasized individual responsibility for one's lot in life, Public Protestants tried to harness government to improve society and the equality of life.  These two worldviews put the two blocs on a political collision course.


But if the Northern alliance and the Dixie bloc have stood in near-constant monolithic opposition to each other, what accounts for the shift in power over the years?  The answer, the behavior of the three "swing" nations.

Neither of the continent's superpower blocs has ever truly dominated the U.S. government without first winning the backing of at least two of the swing nations: the Midlands, El Norte, and the Far West. . . .

The Midlands is the most philosophically autonomous of the nations, for centuries leery of both meddlesome, messianic Yankees and authoritarian Dixie zealots.  Midlanders share the Yankees' identification with middle-class society, the Borderlanders' distrust of government intrusion, the New Netherlanders' commitment to cultural pluralism, the the Deep South's aversion to strident activism.  It's truly a middle-of-the-road American society and, as such, has rarely sided unambiguously with one coalition, candidate, or movement. . . .

By contrast, the Far West's agenda has been clear: to escape the colonial domination of the Northern alliance while maintaining the stream of federal subsidies upon which its way of life was built. . . . 

Until the second half of the twentieth century, the other nations generally ignored El Norte, a national culture that controlled no state governments and was assumed to be on the road to extinction. . . . 

But *nortenos* began reasserting control over the political and cultural life of New Mexico, south Texas, and southern Arizona, and making deep inroads in Southern California.


There is, of course, much more complexity and nuance in the book than these excerpts can capture.  One idea he shares is the belief of some that, should the Mexican state ever collapse, the southwest states might secede to join the northern Mexican states in creating a new country around the national identity of El Norte.  He also has sections on New France and First Nation in Canada and how the inclusion of these two nations has taken that country in a different direction than the U.S.  It's a fascinating book and, as you can tell, I highly recommend it.

If you don't have the time or energy for an entire book but want to read more Woodward, he summarizes his ideas pretty well in an article I stumbled across.  He first describes the eleven nations (more extensively than I have) and their histories, then applies that frame to current politics (biases and all).  I've chosen a couple of paragraphs that represent it well, the first an introduction and the second an application, the most important point being that radical political movements will never achieve lasting success on the national stage because they simply won't be able to build a lasting coalition.

A Geography Lesson for the Tea Party

We’re accustomed to thinking of American regionalism along Mason-Dixon lines: North against South, Yankee blue against Dixie gray or, these days, red. Of course, we all know it’s more complicated than that, and not just because the paradigm excludes the western half of the country. Even in the East, there are massive, obvious, and long-standing cultural fissures within states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and Ohio. Nor are cultural boundaries reflected in the boundaries of more westerly states. Northern and downstate Illinois might as well be different planets. The coastal regions of Oregon and Washington seem to have more in common with each other and with the coasts of British Columbia and northern California than they do with the interiors of their own states. Austin may be the capital of Texas, but Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are the hubs of three distinct Texases, while citizens of the two Missouris can’t even agree on how to pronounce their state’s name. The conventional, state-based regions we talk about—North, South, Midwest, Southwest, West—are inadequate, unhelpful, and ahistorical. . . .

Our cultural balkanization ensures that the Tea Party movement—and radical political movements generally— will never achieve lasting success on the national stage: they simply won’t be able to build a lasting coalition. It’s also the reason U.S. elections have become such nail-biters, decided by the shifting allegiances of a relatively small number of voters from a small and recurring cohort of (mostly Midlander) battleground counties in a handful of swing states. It can also inform winning strategies to defeat the destructive and ultimately undemocratic Deep Southern program, whether it travels in Confederate gray, Dixiecrat suits, or leggings and tricorn hats.


And, finally, since I started by mentioning I was watching the party conventions, some footage from each that show the cracks in their coalitions, how the ideals of different nations compete even within each one.

Since it happened first, first the Republicans and interviews with delegates about abortion, how hypocritical it can be to emphasize individual freedom while endorsing laws that take it away, a clash between the Individualism of Appalachia and the Religion and Morality that enforce the Deep South's caste system:

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
RNC 2012 - The Road to Jeb Bush 2016 - Abortion Law & The Republican Platform
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Since turnabout is fair play, next the Democrats and interviews with delegates about inclusiveness, how hypocritical it can be to emphasize diversity while wanting to use education and government to make everyone the same, a clash between the Plurality of New Netherland (along with the Individuality of the Left Coast) and the Cultural Elitism of Yankeedom:

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Hope and Change 2 - The Party of Inclusion
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook


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