November 02, 2012

Yo - it's the bad penny again, slowly climbing up out of the Valley of the Shadow. Got a ways to go yet, but I figgered to keep my hand in with a short recommendation.

If you were raised with the standard American education, especially one dating from the Eisenhower-Kennedy years, unless you've tried to continue it on your own, I think it's fair to say you've been led down the garden path, at least in regard to American history. Now, I always detested history as it was taught to me, so much so that I didn't pick it up again until I was well into my forties. But when I did finally resume - actually, begin is probably more accurate - reading history, the scales began falling from my eyes, and continue to do so, even today.

I just happened across a book a few days ago that I've been engrossed in ever since. It's by Colin Woodard, entitled American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and as the Boston Globe says, it "feels particularly timely now, when so many would claim a mythically unified 'Founding Fathers' as their political ancestors." It offers a different perspective on how the US came to where it is now, a provocative and stimulating one that meticulously debunks a whole lot of myths so many of us labor under. A few quotes:

Americans have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth. The original North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Islands, and from France, the Netherlands, and Spain, each with their own religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. Throughout the colonial period, they regarded one another as competitors — for land, settlers, and capital — and occasionally as enemies, as was the case during the English Civil War, when Royalist Virginia stood against Puritan Massachusetts, or when New Netherlands [New York City and environs] and New France were invaded and occupied by English-speaking soldiers, statesmen, and merchants. Only when London began treating its colonies as a single unit — and enacted policies threatening to nearly all — did some of these distinct societies briefly come together to win a revolution and create a joint government. Nearly all of them would seriously consider leaving the Union in the eighty-year period after Yorktown; several went to war to do so in the 1860s. All of these centuries-old cultures are still with us today, and have spread their people, ideas, and influence across mutually exclusive bands of the continent. There isn’t and never has been one America, but rather several Americas. [Emphasis mine]

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.

The event we call the American Revolution wasn’t really revolutionary, at least while it was underway. The military struggle of 1775–1782 wasn’t fought by an 'American people' seeking to create a united, continent-spanning republic where all men were created equal and guaranteed freedom of speech, religion, and the press. On the contrary, it was a profoundly conservative action fought by a loose military alliance of nations, each of which was most concerned with preserving or reasserting control of its respective culture, character, and power structure. The rebelling nations certainly didn’t wish to be bonded together into a single republic. They were joined in a temporary partnership against a common threat: the British establishment’s ham-fisted attempt to assimilate them into a homogeneous empire centrally controlled from London. Some nations — the Midlands, New Netherland, and New France — didn’t rebel at all. Those that did weren’t fighting a revolution; they were fighting separate wars of colonial liberation. [Emphasis mine.]
Right now, I don't necessarily agree with all of Woodard's conclusions - but I haven't finished reading the whole book yet, and I'll need to think some when I do. Still, it's a good read and very refreshing. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting set of maps displaying red/blue voting in last election ( does not argue with your point, but it does explicate some of the perhaps migratory patterns - assuming that the nations typically express a part of their culture in their voting patterns which on a national level pretty much means blue or red . . . most interesting . . .