Monday, March 23, 2015

Government Dysfunction and The Federated Nations of America (28 Dec. 2013)

 Both difference and similarity are in the eye of the beholder;
it depends only on how long and how deep he cares to look. 
— Rich Erlich .ca. 1963

      In Ursula K. Le Guin's ambiguous utopia The Dispossessed (1974; ch. 6) and in her 1994 story "Solitude," we get the idea that "a planet looks smooth," to the naked eye "from orbit," and elegantly simple. The closer you get, though, the rougher the surface appears, and more complex. There's a similar idea in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), where we have various views of different levels of the ocean. Looking down from the ship's deck at the ocean surface, you might see "vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds. For leagues and leagues it undulated round us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat" (ch. 58). If you contemplate the ocean from the masthead, however, and go into a Transcendental reverie and fall into the water, you'll drown (ch. 35), or if you fall in from the deck while looking down at a whale carcass, you might not have a chance to drown but get more gorily dead, torn apart by sharks (ch. 66). Or if you become a "Castaway" and look into the depths long enough and deeply enough, you might see "God's foot upon the treadle of the loom" and speak it, and be called — and be — mad (ch. 93)>. Or, in the deepest depths, you might see whales making love, or "the nursing mothers of the whales" (ch. 87).

      The point is not that planets are really smooth or rough, or that the nature of the ocean, or universe, is beautiful or malign. One crucial point for both Le Guin and Melville (among other points) isn't that any of these views are wrong but that all are incomplete.
      I've been thinking about such matters listening again to Colin Woodard's 2012 American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, or at least the US, Canadian, and northern Mexican parts of North America (minus the southern tip of Florida, the figurative foreskin of North America, which is "Part of the Spanish Caribbean").

      From some place between the Moon and Mars, Earth to the naked human eye would look like one round ball, maybe a little flattened but smooth and unified and uniform. To the figurative eyes of a visitor from somewhere well beyond Mars, human culture might look like "Terran culture": a culture for all the humans on Earth. As I've joked, to a silicon-based life-form with a sensorium totally alien from ours, all us carbon-based creatures might _______ alike (where you fill in a word impossible for us to pronounce that designates a set of sense of which we cannot conceive) — and he/she/it, a truly alien Alien, might need a lot of practice to tell a human from a horse or hibiscus.

      Colin Woodard doesn't take a really close-up view of North American cultures, since really fine-grain analysis would show differences county to county in the USA — hell, differences among neighborhoods where I grew up! — nor does he back off so much that it might make sense to talk of "American Culture" or "Euro-American culture," much less "Terran."

      He is, however, working from a well-chosen distance, and one that yields results I find believable and, in a time of continuing culture conflict and governmental dysfunction, highly important and useful.

      I grew up in the Lake View District of Chicago and went to college in Champaign County in central Illinois, except for a year in upstate, quite rural New York State. I currently live in Ventura County, California, an area between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

      Chicago is a border city according to Woodard, in "Yankeedom" but just north of "The Midlands": i.e., on the border between the now secularized successors to the New England Calvinist Puritan Yankees and what you'll recognize as "Middle America." Going to the University of Illinois, I passed from very much the Land of Lincoln and mildly Leftist Democrats through modern moderate Republicans — not the postmodern radical variety — and into "Greater Appalachia": the University of Illinois was and remains a Yankee/Midlands enclave in the Bible Belt.

      At Cornell U in Ithaca, New York, I lived in a fraternity house with a number of Jews from New York City, with "the City," as New Yorkers called it, the heart of the geographically very small nation Woodard calls "New Netherland": a diverse, tolerant, and very commercial kind of place. Ithaca, New York, is another enclave, in Yankeedom, perhaps, but bordering on The Midlands and with a lot of big-city folk at the University. All around Ithaca and Cornell, though, is an area somewhat-local boy Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, summed up with a quote from one of his grammar school friends who'd shot a squirrel: "It had fur; I had a gun; end of story." Campaign County, Illinois, is farming country; Tomkins County, New York (home of Cornell U), though, is country country: really rural and in some places proudly redneck.

      When I returned to the U of I from Cornell, driving my new (for me) highly-used used car I bought from a Cornellian from the City, I had to get those — sorry, them — New York plates off fast, and when I went for car repairs I had to drop my Chicago accent and speak the way we did "Right cheer in Champaign cahnty" (and the spellings there are phonetically correct, or at least close).

      There are indeed three main North American subcultures in Illinois (Woodard's "nations"), and three or four in New York State, and I had to learn to move among them.

      In Ventura County, CA, things are equally complex.

      In California terms, I live in "south-central-coastal California," and that thoroughly pedantic phrase is necessary. Woodard has my area as part of "El Norte," which is northern Mexico and the southern tiers of California and Arizona, and, reasonably enough, much of New Mexico and Texas — with a substantial salient into Colorado. If I get on Amtrak's Coast Starlight and head north by train to see relatives in San José and friends in the Bay area, Greater Portland, and on up to Vancouver, BC — which I've done — I've hit and traveled through "The Left Coast," which needs no explanation. If I get in the car and head east from the Pacific coast, I'm very soon in "The Far West": Barry Goldwater territory for you older readers, cowboy country for everyone.

      Woodard's count may be wrong, and some of his borders may be off, but he's working from a useful "distance" in viewing the Federated Nations of America, USA division, and our neighbors and fellow-nationals in Canada and Mexico. (Hey, I feel more at home in Toronto, Ontario, part of "The Midlands" and a Great-Lakes City like Chicago, than I do in Charleston, South Carolina, part of the Deep South). And what Woodard and his predecessors in this field have to tell us is important.

      We are not "one nation under God" to start with because we are not a nation at all — not in the way Japan or Norway are nations — and also because saying that we are or are not exceptionally chosen by God is likely to start an argument among your fellow Americans.

      The United Kingdom has managed to muddle along for a good while now confederating at least three nations, four if count Northern Ireland — though where I grew up we most certainly did not — and there's no reason to think the American Federation will break up any time soon. The unpleasantness of the 1860's is not something most Americans want to repeat, however much some Deep South folk (and others) regret the Lost of Cause in resisting "The War of Northern Aggression" and might welcome a re-match: In The Great Big Book of Horrible Things (2012), Matthew White gives the death toll of the Civil War as 620,000 military and 75,000 civilians (p. [299]), so a second go-round seems like bad policy.

      Short of a break-up, the American nations necessarily will need to live together, and such "peaceful coexistence" may require a convoluted strategy of Double Think where most of the time we pretend that we don't have a confrontation of subcultures working from very different world-views, assumptions, and premises — while at other times we acknowledge that many of our practical, mundane disagreements stem from serious differences, differences with deep roots in our histories, ethnographies, ideologies, and values.

      If the English, Scots, and Welsh can go a couple centuries without murdering one another in large numbers — and if the various varieties of French have long refrained from slitting each others' throats — we, too, we various American nations, may muddle through. Meanwhile, let's get moving again on significant reductions in nuclear armaments: much of the US military is Deep South and Appalachian, and if we're moving toward Civil War II, I'd prefer they didn't have nukes. 

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