Thursday, February 19, 2015

An intriguing book with a hole in its gut

When you work on any serious political campaign, you can trust that somewhere there's a pollster who has attempted to understand the preferences and attitudes of the electorate for the purposes of micro-targeting "message development." The game is played by dividing people into demographic clusters based on location, economics and other variables. Searching in the bowels of my computer, I quickly found one such slightly out-of-date document that divided the voting population into 72 groups, labelling them with names like "Tuxedo Trails," "Only in America," and "Workin' on the Dream." You get the idea.

Journalist Colin Woodard has done something similar, recounting continental North American history by describing the component regions and people in terms of eleven distinct groupings. For the record, in order of founding, his labels are El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, Deep South, Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Left Coast and Far West. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is certainly thought provoking, especially since Woodard projects his lens forward as well as backward, playing with possibly scenarios that might include rearranging political boundaries to more comfortably organize our cultures.

For a taste of this, here's how Woodard frames the United State's most violent internal clash:

The Civil War was ultimately a conflict between two coalitions. On one side was the Deep South and its satellite, Tidewater; on the other, Yankeedom. The other nations wanted to remain neutral, and considered breaking off to form their own confederations, freed from slave lords and Yankees alike. Had cooler heads prevailed, the United States would likely have split into four confederations in 1861, with dramatic consequences for world history. But hostilities could not be avoided, and the unstable Union would be held together by force of arms.

Contrafactual history is fun, but what happened happened and here we are.

To a considerable extent the value of looking at history through this sort of typology depends on whether cultural patterns that may have predominated in one place and time persist over time -- and human migration. Woodard says they do:

[Migrants] assimilated into the culture around them, not the other way around.

... Our continent's famed mobility -- and the transportation and communications technology that foster it -- has been reinforcing, not dissolving the differences between the nations.

Well maybe. But he hedges by pointing out that by closely examining any particular region you can find pockets more like other regions ... if you carry that process of really digging into the data far enough, do his "national cultures" survive examination? If you look closely enough, do all generalizations about groupings fail? I'm skeptical about Woodard's methodology, but that doesn't mean that at the sweeping level of generalization at which he opines, he is not mining a fertile perspective.

Where Woodard's schema really does historical truth a disservice is in its treatment of the African-American experience in the U.S. Most African Americans came to the continent as slaves; most have their ancestry in Woodard's Deep South, a region defined by whites' response to an enslaved black majority. And since the Deep South's authoritarian caste system was created to ward off a slave revolt, the Black people of this subdivision of the country end up in this book treated as non-actors without a nation. The rich history of Black survival and of acts of rebellion disappear in this telling because they would muddy the picture of Deep South. At best, Blacks contributed some cultural embellishments:

From the hell of the slave quarters would come some of the Deep South's great gifts to the continent: blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll, as well as the Caribbean-inspired foodways today enshrined in Southern-style barbecue joints from Miami to Anchorage.

I don't know where Woodard thinks Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. came from. Yes, I know some Black people who have generations of ancestry in Yankeedom and Midland areas, but they are still Black in a way that transcends region in their own eyes and in the eyes of their neighbors. Moreover, perhaps Woodard might be faulted for omitting one additional North American "nation" whose members have a distinct culture: people of African descent from the Caribbean whose culture both in the islands and in the States is different again from that of people whose ancestors were from the Deep South.

I've demonstrated that it doesn't take much effort to pick away at this book's thesis. And I don't think the country is likely to break up and reconfigure borders any time soon as Woodard speculates. But, like the polling models I encounter in campaigns, this sort of project does make for interesting and occasionally useful thought experiments. If you read it, bring along lots of salt.

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