Universal Translator

Friday, November 11, 2011

New Book: American Nations

Well, I’ve found my new book.  It is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard. 

(I swear, having access to Kindle technology and the consequent ability to download interesting books immediately is bad for me.  This morning I came across an article by Woodard in this month’s Washington Monthly titled “A Geography Lesson for the Tea Party,” and that is where I learned about American Nations.  Fifteen minutes later, I had purchased it.)

Apparently, Woodard contends that North America (including Canada and Mexico) has 11 distinct and geographically contiguous regional states, and that a proper understanding of each of these regions’ individual cultures is necessary to understand the continent’s history and its current political makeup.  This seems to me a rather broad-based claim (although rooted in some truth, to be sure) and I think it’ll be interesting to see precisely where Woodard draws his lines and on what basis he makes these regional distinctions.

From the article, this passage caught my eye:

Throughout the colonial period and the Early Republic, they saw themselves as competitors – for land, settlers, and capital – and even as enemies, taking opposing sides in the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812 . . . .  Immigration enriched these nations – or, more accurately, the nations that were attractive to immigrants – but it did not fundamentally alter the characteristics of these “dominant” cultures; the children and grandchildren of immigrants didn’t assimilate into an American culture, instead tending to assimilate to the norms of the regional culture in which they found themselves.  There’s never been an America, but several Americas, and there are eleven today.  (emphasis added)

Well . . . maybe.  I won’t deny that there are significant regional differences and competing tensions between the various geographic parts of the United States, but there is more to it as well. 

After the Soviet Union collapsed I remember watching Yugoslavia break up, and I remember watching people in the Balkans self-segregate into smaller and smaller political groups.  I remember wondering why it was that people who had lived together as one nation for decades now found continuing as a single political entity anathema. 

Of course, maybe this kind of self-segregation is something that all human societies do.  To be sure, the United States attempted to break itself up – hell, we fought a bloody Civil War to decide whether the country’s constituent parts would remain whole or go their separate ways.  And maybe it is only because of that war and the fact the Union prevailed that we now are much stronger in our union.  Despite the many regional differences in our nation, in every single one of the 50 states our citizens proudly identify themselves as being “Americans” before anything else.

But I’ve long suspected that it was more than just fighting and winning the Civil War to preserve the Union that is responsible for our subsequent patriotism.  Say whatever you want about how the United States operates in practice, the idea of the United States is a beautiful thing.  The idea of the United States is that anybody – anybody – can be an American.  We don’t care about your skin color, your religion, your accent, your beliefs, or where you’re from.  To be an American, all you have to do is agree to abide by our laws and Constitution, agree to respect the principles of representative democracy, and recognize to those special “carve outs” for individual rights that may not be trampled on by the majority:  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of consciousness, equality before the law, etc.

The idea of America functions almost as a national, secular religion (if that isn’t too blatant a contradiction in terms), and I’ve long believed that it provides the necessary glue, the commonality we all need, to hold us together as a people.  As much as I complain and cavil about my country and the things done in its name, like everyone else I know I’ve never stopped being proud of the ideas for which it stands.  And the unifying nature of those ideals, to which we all consciously pledge our allegiance, vastly outweighs the more instinctive cultural differences found in the United States.

But, who knows?  Maybe Woodard will prove me wrong.

Should be interesting.

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