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Slicing America Differently,
This review is from: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Hardcover)
Given that North Americans by and large have been quite a migratory lot, is it possible that the author could label what we would normally and vaguely identify as "regional differences" as "nations" with powerful and distinct identities? Colin Woodard, historian and journalist would have us believe that even today the North American continent embraces eleven of these, which he describes as "rival regional cultures" that beg serious attention, if we are to understand and deal with North American politics, economics, and above all social values. Woodard would have us believe that "one nation indivisible" is a myth created and sustained to cover our incompatibilities and deter our further fragmentation.
Though I did not identify it as such at the time, my migration from Ohio to be educated in a Maryland highschool and later to take up a Fellowship to earn my doctorate in California in the mid-1970s involved substantial amounts of what we describe today as culture shock. Caught in the midst of what Woodard in retrospect calls "culture wars" I was mostly just humored by the bumper stickers worn on cars from the Pacific Northwest that read, "Don't Californicate Oregon," and "Water in Oregon is pasteurized: it flows through pasture after pasture,"--the aim was to deter the surge of unbridled urban expansion and development into pristine, "wide-open spaces."
Perhaps the key distinction here is that, according to the author, nations are what have culture; states try to create them. He reminds us that the dynamic of artificial boundaries, "bringing states into existence" are a result of colonization or political gerrymandering, and not necessarily coherent or coterminous with the cultures of the people enclosed by them. While most of us are familiar with this concept from analyses of the discord in sub-Saharan Africa, where European colonial powers carved up and negotiated political boundaries with little or no sense of the peoples, both sedentary and migratory living across them, we have not thought much about how the concept may apply elsewhere. Some are beginning to recognize in the bloodshed of revolution and in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, that this is the case as well in what we call the "Middle East." Woodard would extend this as well to the colonization of the North American continent with the eventual establishment of the United "States," where the cultural blocs he describes as "nations" thrive across boundaries, despite how politically and geographically fixed they appear on maps.
For the reader's reference I list here Woodard's eleven "American Nations," (along with his mapping of them), each with a couple of identifying cultural descriptions. I leave it to the reader of the book to enter into the complexity of the cultures, their development and their geographical reach, along with their alliances and their enmities that are detailed in the book itself:
1. First Nation: indigenous peoples, today reclaiming sovereignty and influence.
2. New France: liberal, earthy, egalitarian, including a nation in waiting (Quebec).
3. Yankeedom: once religious, now secular Puritan moralism, in pursuit of the greater good. Communitarian but authoritarian, feudal, and declining, but by migration extending its cultural influence over the northern Midwest and the Left Coast.
4. New Netherland: A global commercial trading society, tolerant, pragmatic and creative. Dutch in many ways, despite declining numbers of those of actual Dutch origin.
5. Tidewater: historically influential aristocratic gentry, declining influence due to its geographical isolation to the mid-Atlantic coast and the size and strength of its neighbors' cultures.
6. Deep South: British colonial origins in Caribbean slave plantations, polarized on racial lines, frustrated nation state, bellicose, currently struggling to maintain recently acquired political ascendency.
7. Greater Appalachia: Scots-Irish roots, warrior ethic, seeking above all individual liberty, culturally insouciant, often impoverished, rural.
8. The Midlands: Germanic, government skeptical, trying to mind its own business, passive and sometimes pacifist, includes the core of English-speaking Canada, as well as a swath across the center of what we commonly call "the Midwest."
9. El Norte: Hispanic, divided by a militarized border, growing, a potential reconquista.
10. The Far West: developed, colonized, and exploited by the seaboard nations, big business and federal controls.
11. The Left Coast: Related to Yankeedom in values, at war with a libertarian-corporate agenda of the Far West and the values of the Deep South.
The critical question which the book raises and which the interculturalist must ask, is: Does the cultural discourse, values and behaviors of these "nations" actually persist and acculturate the constant flow of newcomers from the other "nations" as well as from abroad, given the mobility of Americans and the constant stream of immigration? If so, how, and to what degree? What are the dynamics of hybridity? What is stable within them and what has shifted over time? How is the culture of each shaped and perpetuated? The author cites ample evidence in mental and behavior patterns that persist and, despite the ingrafting of substantial immigration and mobility, still bear fruit from their founders' cultural roots. We are reminded that these cultures are alive and well to the degree that they consistently and currently steer the efforts of politicians to get elected on both the local and national tickets and are inevitable predictors of legislative positioning on many national issues. They can also be traced linguistically by the present day distribution of accents and speech patterns.
Part One of American Nations is called "Origins" and addresses the period from 1590 to 1769. These opening chapters are dedicated to describing the detailed history of the founding of the first eight of these nations. It is briefly interrupted by a chapter describing "The Colonies First Revolt," which took place against the policies of King James in the 1680's, roughly a century before the wars for independence from Britain and from each other, commonly lumped together as the "Revolutionary War" were set in motion.
Part Two tells the story of "Unlikely Allies, 1770 to 1815." By the beginning of this period, each of the eight eastern nations had formed substantial cultural roots, derived from class, ethnicity, common experience and regional interests. The period is marked, according to Woodard not by one, but six "revolutionary wars," between the nations as well as against their British overlords, and the attempts to found workable alliances despite stark culturally rooted divisions in both loyalist and independence minded camps. The shaky alliance, while it laid the basis for confederation and then union, was threatened repeatedly by secession from the very beginning and in fact consolidated the national identities in the not so "United" States. Independence did not necessarily equate with coherent democracy, sometimes explicitly rejected by the cultural discourse of certain nations and, where not, often eliminated on a practical level by wealth, class and disenfranchisement. The existence of democracy is still being fought over along these traditional lines.
Part Three is entitled, "Wars for the West," and traces the period 1816 to 1877. The first four chapters document the westward spread of Yankeedom, Midlanders, Greater Appalachia and the Deep South and the conflicts that occurred in the movements and cultural rub of the westward migrants with each other which often meant conflict not only of manners but verbally and physically bellicose behavior. This also, inevitably, meant the cultural and military conquest as well as genocide perpetrated on the native peoples whose lands were being appropriated.
Part Four, "Culture Wars: 1878 to 2010," begins with a history of the founding of the Far West, a more detailed description of the wars for the West that concluded the previous part. The story begins with mineral booms ends with industrial exploitation of the terrain and its inhabitants, at first the railroads in cahoots with the federal government, offering worthless farmland to settlers, then the mining conglomerates and other big business. The resultant deep resentment of the federal government is now exploited by both the cartels and the politics of the Deep South.
A chapter on "Immigration and Identity" follows, in which the author starts to answer many of the questions the reader may have about if and how these cultural "nations" sustain their original values and acculturate newcomers to them. In the author's own words, "Immigrants didn't alter `American culture,' they altered America's respective regional cultures", actually accentuating the differences among them. Accustomed as we are to looking at US diversity through the lens of hyphenated American groups in terms of their origins, we are not used to looking at their settlement patterns according to region and density in the influences that had on their acculturation in the various American "nations" where they settled. Immigrants did not become "Americans," because, according to the author, "It is fruitless to search for the characteristics of an "American" identity because each nation has its own notion of what being American should mean.
Religion is the topic of the next chapter, "God and Missions," helps to explain the great divide found in today's polarized religious climate, providing historical perspective on the secularization of Puritan communitarian ideals and the fundamentalist orientation of the Dixie bloc, exploding in the culture wars of the 1960's and persisting to this day Its influence on both the domestic and international policies as well as the search for individual identity.
The final two chapters of the book provide copious examples of how the nations and their alliances continue to influence contemporary politics, foreign policy, and the endless propensity to go to war. The epilogue discusses possibilities for the future or non-future of the union. This wrap-up is persuasive about how the influence of the archetypal cultures that shaped the earliest nations of America continues within and beyond the borders of the contemporary United States.
Frankly, I could not lay the book down, not only because I'm somewhat of a history buff, a discipline of which I find all too rarely utilized in intercultural work, but because it literally made me reflect on who I am, adding a dimension unfamiliar to the sense of diversity that I have lived out to this point. History can both explain how we got to where we are and substantiate who we are. US Americans often seem to be engaged in a search for self-esteem in order to build an identity frustrated by the very individualistic denial of the substance of diverse identities. In other words, "identity crisis" describes a vicious cultural circle. We wonder how neighbors and even family members can become so different from each other, trying to avoid stereotypes while experiencing rock solid differing perspectives, beliefs and values.
American Nations provides a perspective that led me to hear me repeatedly saying to myself, "Yes, of course! That's it. That's why." It helped me understand how and when I connected to and disconnected from others in the US context. We live and work in a time when cultural diversity has been promoted to the point where its significance is called into question on both practical and moral grounds, and in particular where the influence of culture is pooh-poohed despite clearly identifiable strains of cultural discourse in the pooh-poohers. There are many ways of picturing US demographics, e.g., urban and rural, red and blue States, diversity of ethnic origins, etc. Woodard's perspective helps us bring a lot of these together and helps us make better sense of them.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 14, 2012 9:23:48 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 14, 2012 3:13:20 PM PDT
W. Tuohy says:
Excellent "book review," reflecting serious thinking about the concerns of the book. However, I wish reviewers - especially those as thoughtful as this one - would spend less time and energy merely summarizing content ("book summary") and share even more of their critical thinking.
Posted on Nov 13, 2012 8:17:44 AM PST
Yes, an excellent review. Thanks for your effort - you clearly put a lot into this summary and your thoughts about the book.
I do think it useful to have reviews that attempt to summarize the book, as this one has - it provides a good concise overview of the book's content, not only for those who have not read it, but also for those of us who have and would like summary that they can refer to later. Both kind of reviews - those expressing opinions and those providing their take at a summary - are useful in my view.
Posted on Apr 1, 2014 7:16:22 AM PDT
Your comment on Oregon bumper stickers reminds me of one that was circulating in Florida at one time, directed at the ever-increasing "snowbird" population: "We don't *care* how you did it up North!"
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 23, 2014 9:23:01 AM PST
Robert F. Mclean says:
Here in Spanish Catholic/ Anglo Anarchist Northern New Mexico, the one thing we all agree on is how annoying it is when newcomers tell us how the smart people do it where I just came from. As Kurt Cobain put it "Forever in debt for your priiiiiiiceless ad-viiiice".
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