Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

I continually wonder how we can move forward as a society when we are so disconnected from our own past.

Ideological myths are strange. It doesn’t matter if the known facts contradict them. They can be refuted endlessly, but they continue as if nothing has changed. Their very power seems built not on passively being misinformed, but actively being in denial.

Military vets march against the Vietnam War, Washington D.C. (1967)

Vietnam veterans lead a march against the Vietnam War, Washington D.C. (1967)
White House Collection / National Archives

The Vietnam War is a great example of this.

Anti-war protesters came from both political parties, came from both urban and rural areas, came from both those with and without college education, came from radicals and average Americans, came from both veterans/soldiers and the general population. It wasn’t just a small group of malcontent hippies.

Some of the most radical protesters were the veterans and soldiers who knew about war firsthand because they and their friends had made personal sacrifices. I’ve even heard of Vietnam veterans who fought off the riot police when peaceful protesters were attacked, and that was the only incident during that era when the police retreated from protesters. There was even mass resistance among active duty military.

Anit-Vietnam War protester spits on soldier in G.I. Joe cartoon. (Cartoon: G.I. Joe)There are at least thousands of myths and they involve political issues across the board. The facts outnumber the myths, but it is easier to repeat a myth than to debunk a myth. Most people are too lazy and uninspired, too tired and overworked to spend the time trying to dissect complex issues that don’t fit into the tidy boxes of political myths.

Instead offering complex analysis, I’ll just offer the evidence about the Vietnam War for anyone who cares about reality over myth:

http://blogs.e-rockford.com/applesauce/2011/01/03/why-do-republicans-remain-hawkish-about-the-afghan-war-when-americans-generally-are-not/

Nor were Republicans especially hawkish about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. In a Gallup poll conducted in June of 1967, a majority of Republican respondents said Vietnam was a mistake, while only one-third of Democrats agreed with them.

Even as American forces were leaving Southeast Asia and communist forces were overrunning Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia, most Republican respondents in a 1975 Gallup poll opposed any further U.S. military aid to the friendly governments in those countries.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Against_the_War

Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) is a tax-exempt non-profit organization and corporation, originally created to oppose the Vietnam War. VVAW describes itself as a national veterans’ organization that campaigns for peace, justice, and the rights of all United States military veterans. It publishes a twice-yearly newsletter The Veteran, previously published more frequently as 1st Casualty (1971–1972) and then as Winter Soldier (1973–1975). VVAW considers itself as anti-war, although not in the pacifistic sense. Membership varied greatly, from almost 25,000 veterans during the height of the war to fewer than a couple thousand in subsequent decades. While the member veterans were a small fraction of the millions that served between 1965–75, the VVAW is widely considered to be among the most influential anti-war organizations of that era.

http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=1656

In April of 1971 the war was raging in Indochina. The vast majority of American were sick and tired of it and wanted the war to end. Thousands and thousands were actively demonstrating their opposition to the war as the US government was losing more and more support for its Vietnam policies.

Soldiers in Vietnam were refusing to go on combat missions. At home, veterans formed a national organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). It was in April of 1971 that VVAW held its first national demonstration to protest the war in Vietnam. The demonstration was named “Operation Dewey Canyon III” (Dewey Canyon I and II were secret operations into Laos that were never reported to the American people). It was held in Washington DC from April 18th to April 23rd, and was the most powerful antiwar demonstration held up to that time; it sparked off a series of major demonstrations that made it clear that the American people wanted the US out of Indochina.

http://libcom.org/history/vietnam-gi-resistance

The U.S. government would be happy to see the history of the Vietnam War buried and forgotten. Not least because it saw the world’s greatest superpower defeated by a peasant army, but mainly because of what defeated the war effort – the collective resistance of the enlisted men and women in the U.S. armed forces, who mutinied, sabotaged, shirked, fragged and smoked their way to a full withdrawal and an end to the conflict.

Military morale was considered high before the war began. In fact, the pre-Vietnam Army was considered the best the United States had ever put into the field. Consequently, the military high command was taken quite by surprise by the rapid disintegration of the very foundations of their power.

http://www.isreview.org/issues/22/feat-franklin.shtml

No, it was not Vietnam but the United States that ended up divided by America’s war. And the division cut even deeper than the armed forces, biting down into the core of the secret government itself. When members of the intelligence establishment joined the antiwar movement, they had the potential to inflict even greater damage than mutinous soldiers and sailors. The perfidy of the Central Intelligence Agency in Vietnam was revealed by one of its highest-level agents in South Vietnam, Ralph McGehee, author of Deadly Deceits: My Twenty-Five Years in the CIA. Philip Agee decided in 1971 to publish what eventually became Inside the Company: CIA Diary because of “the continuation of the Vietnam war and the Vietnamization programme,” writing, “Now more than ever exposure of CIA methods could help American people understand how we got into Vietnam and how our other Vietnams are germinating wherever the CIA is at work.” In that same year, two of the authors of the Pentagon’s own supersecret history of the war, Anthony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg, exposed it to the American people and the world.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/public-good-vs-splintered-society-pt-3/

There is the book The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke which analyzes how a legend formed around the claim that many Vietnam vets were spit upon by protesters (Damn hippies!) when they came home. In that book, he attributes the origins of this legend to movies such as Rambo: First Blood where there is a scene of Rambo raging about the injustices he met upon his return:

Colonel Trautman: It’s over Johnny. It’s over!

Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!

Of course, this ignores that the anti-war protesters directed their anger and criticism at the political leaders and not the soldiers. It also ignores the fact that a fair number of Vietnam vets became anti-war protesters. But facts never get in the way of a good story.

Obviously, the Vietnam War was traumatizing to the American psyche similar to the Civil War. Both wars created a generation of physically and psychologically battered veterans many of whom felt victimized and resentful. And out of that trauma was born a sense of isolation and a sense of the individual being against the world. Rambo describes this in his words directly following the above speech about “all those maggots”:

Colonel Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.

Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field without a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Col. Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group. Don’t end it like this. Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! (Throws M-60 at wall and then slight emotional pause. He drops to the ground in a crouched position out of breath and very upset) Wha…I can’t…oh, I jus–omigod. Where is everybody? Oh God…I…I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these fucking guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this fucking car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (upset pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fuckin’ blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s fuckin’ screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, jus like–! (frustrated he grabs at his bullet chain strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And ehe.. MY FRIEND IT’S ALL OVER ME! IT’S GOT BLOOD AND EVERYTHING! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his fucking insides keep coming out, AND NOBODY WOULD HELP!! Nobody help me. He sayin’ plea I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well (upset and breaking down) WHY I can’t find your fucking legs. I can’t find you legs. (softly now) I can’t get it out of my head. I fuc..I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. (Almost inaudible) I can’t put it out of my mind…fucking…I can’t…….(totally sobbing now)

For the Rambo at the heart of our culture, the past is never past. The violence is continually relived.

Rambo, of course, was overly simplistic melodramatic violence porn. Maybe for that reason it had such an impact on the American psyche. Rambo expressed something that Americans felt, something that Americans wanted to believe. It gave all of the conflicts and doubts an emodied form. It put it all into the context of a story. And stories have a way of informing our perceived reality, our shared sense of identity.

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/9723-reversing-the-vietnam-war-verdict

Historian Howard Zinn included this paragraph on the opposition to the Vietnam War by American soldiers in his People’s History of the United States:

The capacity for independent judgment among ordinary Americans is probably best shown by the swift development of antiwar feeling among American GIs — volunteers and draftees who came mostly from lower-income groups. There had been, earlier in American history, instances of soldiers’ disaffection from the war: isolated mutinies in the Revolutionary War, refusal of reenlistment in the midst of hostilities in the Mexican war, desertion and conscientious objection in World War I and World War II. But Vietnam produced opposition by soldiers and veterans on a scale, and with a fervor, never seen before.

According to the Washington Peace Center:

During the Vietnam War, the military ranks carried out mass resistance on bases and ships in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, U.S., and Europe. Military resistance was instrumental in ending the war by making the ranks politically unreliable. This history is well documented in Soldiers in Revolt by David Cortright and the recent film Sir! No Sir!

One of the key reports on GI resistance was written by Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr. and published in the Armed Forces Journal of June 7, 1971. He began:

The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.

By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.

Intolerably clobbered and buffeted from without and within by social turbulence, pandemic drug addiction, race war, sedition, civilian scapegoatise, draftee recalcitrance and malevolence, barracks theft and common crime, unsupported in their travail by the general government, in Congress as well as the executive branch, distrusted, disliked, and often reviled by the public, the uniformed services today are places of agony for the loyal, silent professions who doggedly hang on and try to keep the ship afloat.

According to the 2003 book by Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, Gen. Creighton Abrams — the U.S. military commander in Vietnam — made this comment in 1971 after an investigation: “Is this a god-damned army or a mental hospital? Officers are afraid to lead their men into battle, and the men won’t follow. Jesus Christ! What happened?”

http://www.amazon.com/Spitting-Image-Memory-Legacy-Vietnam/dp/0814751474

One of the most resilient images of the Vietnam era is that of the anti-war protester — often a woman — spitting on the uniformed veteran just off the plane. The lingering potency of this icon was evident during the Gulf War, when war supporters invoked it to discredit their opposition.

In this startling book, Jerry Lembcke demonstrates that not a single incident of this sort has been convincingly documented. Rather, the anti-war Left saw in veterans a natural ally, and the relationship between anti-war forces and most veterans was defined by mutual support. Indeed one soldier wrote angrily to Vice President Spiro Agnew that the only Americans who seemed concerned about the soldier’s welfare were the anti-war activists.

While the veterans were sometimes made to feel uncomfortable about their service, this sense of unease was, Lembcke argues, more often rooted in the political practices of the Right. Tracing a range of conflicts in the twentieth century, the book illustrates how regimes engaged in unpopular conflicts often vilify their domestic opponents for “stabbing the boys in the back.”

Concluding with an account of the powerful role played by Hollywood in cementing the myth of the betrayed veteran through such films as Coming HomeTaxi Driver, and Rambo, Jerry Lembcke’s book stands as one of the most important, original, and controversial works of cultural history in recent years.

http://www.amazon.com/Turning-History-Vietnam-Veterans-Against/dp/0814736351

The anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States is perhaps best remembered for its young, counterculture student protesters. However, the Vietnam War was the first conflict in American history in which a substantial number of military personnel actively protested the war while it was in progress.

In The Turning, Andrew Hunt reclaims the history of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), an organization that transformed the antiwar movement by placing Vietnam veterans in the forefront of the nationwide struggle to end the war. Misunderstood by both authorities and radicals alike, VVAW members were mostly young men who had served in Vietnam and returned profoundly disillusioned with the rationale for the war and with American conduct in Southeast Asia. Angry, impassioned, and uncompromisingly militant, the VVAW that Hunt chronicles in this first history of the organization posed a formidable threat to America’s Vietnam policy and further contributed to the sense that the nation was under siege from within.

Based on extensive interviews and in-depth primary research, including recently declassified government files, The Turning is a vivid history of the men who risked censures, stigma, even imprisonment for a cause they believed to be “an extended tour of duty.”

http://www.amazon.com/New-Winter-Soldiers-Veteran-Perspectives/dp/0813522420

Richard Moser uses interviews and personal stories of Vietnam veterans to offer a fundamentally new interpretation of the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement. Although the Vietnam War was the most important conflict of recent American history, its decisive battle was not fought in the jungles of Vietnam, or even in the streets of the United States, but rather in the hearts and minds of American soldiers. To a degree unprecedented in American history, soldiers and veterans acted to oppose the very war they waged. Tens of thousands of soldiers and veterans engaged in desperate conflicts with their superiors and opposed the war through peaceful protest, creating a mass movement of dissident organizations and underground newspapers. Moser shows how the antiwar soldiers lived out the long tradition of the citizen-soldier first created in the American Revolution and Civil War. Unlike those great upheavals of the past, the Vietnam War offered no way to fulfill the citizen-soldier’s struggle for freedom and justice. Rather than abandoning such ideals, however, tens of thousands abandoned the war effort and instead fulfilled their heroic expectations in the movements for peace and justice. According to Moser, this transformation of warriors into peacemakers is the most important recent development of our military culture.

http://www.amazon.com/Protest-Survive-Underground-Newspapers-Vietnam/dp/0275978613

Drawing from more than 120 newspapers, published between 1968 and 1970, this study explores the emergence of an anti-militarist subculture within the U.S. armed services. These activists took the position that individual GIs could best challenge their subordination by working in concert with like-minded servicemen through GI movement organizations whose behaviors and activities were then publicized in these underground newspapers. In examining this movement, Lewes focuses on their treatment of power and authority within the armed forces and how this mirrored the wider and more inclusive relations of power and authority in the United States. He argues that this opposition among servicemen was the primary motivation for the United States to withdraw from Vietnam.

This first book length study of GI-published underground newspapers sheds light on the utility of alternative media for movements of social change, and provides information on how these movements are shaped by the environments in which they emerge. Lewes asserts that one cannot understand GI opposition as an extension of the civilian antiwar movement. Instead, it was the product of an embedded environment, whose inhabitants had been drafted or had enlisted to avoid the draft. They came from cities and small towns whose populations were often polarized between those who wholeheartedly supported the war and those who became progressively more critical of the need for Americans to be involved in Vietnam.

http://www.amazon.com/Soldiers-Revolt-Resistance-During-Vietnam/dp/1931859272

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Trinity In Mind: Rhetoric & Metaphor, Imaginal & Archetypal

Story. Culture. Knowledge.

Two elements: pattern and communication. What are the patterns of our communications along with the patterns of cognition and experience underlying them? How do we communicate these patterns when our very attempt is enmeshed in them?

It’s not just an issue of rhetoric and metaphor. It’s a stepping back and looking for a pathway to higher ground. A meta-language maybe is needed, but not meta in a way of making language abstract and detached. Death can’t speak for life.

I’ve never been in love with language. This could be seen as a flaw of mine as a self-identified writer. Admittedly, language is sort of important to writing. What I appreciate is communication, the essence and the impetus thereof, the desire to express, to be heard and possibly understood.

I have nothing against language. It just is what it is. My lack of love isn’t a hate; it’s a wariness. I’ve often found too superficial writers who’ve fallen in love with language. There can be a trap in linguistic narcissism. Even great writers can get caught up in their own cleverness. In these cases, it’s not always clear they’ve fallen in love with language itself or just the sound of their own voices.

Compelling language takes more than catchy phrasing and aesthetic sensibility. A writer or any other user of language has to first and foremost have something worthy of being shared and to be given voice. Language, however rarely, can touch something deeper. Then language isn’t just language.

It’s not the writer that matters, but the Other that is speaking through the writer. This deeper level is the imaginal and archetypal, the creative source.

Along with my lack of verbal romance, I have other ‘failings’ as well.

I’m prone to anti-climactic conclusions. This is because most of life feels anticlimactic to me. What can I say, I write what I know. The anti-climactic relates to another ‘failing’.

I’m also prone to a passive voice. Every writing manual I’ve read warns against this, but good advice never stopped me. It seems to me that a passive voice communicates something an active voice can’t, and that something obviously isn’t readily accepted by modern mainstream society or at least the English-speaking portions.

An active voice requires someone or something that takes action, but as I see it not all or even most of life involves action that is willed, directed or otherwise caused by actors. Still, the active voice is rooted in traditional storytelling. The question is: Are there other stories to tell and/or other ways to tell stories?

Our language determines our reality. So, what consensus reality is being reinforced by writing manuals? I’m not arguing against standard English writing. Certainly, I’m not arguing against compelling language and the active voice is more compelling; rather, I’m considering what we are being compelled by and toward.

The standard of compelling shouldn’t be its own justification. A soap opera is compelling. In fact, the average soap opera is more compelling to the average person than the greatest of art. Most people are compelled, usually mindlessly, by ideas and beliefs, metaphors and narratives that aren’t necessarily of much worthiness.

How do we judge worthiness? What is good writing versus what is great art? Does ‘good’ writing imply communication that is moral and true, whatever that might mean? What exactly is good and bad about the active versus the passive voices?

The most dangerous part about rhetoric is that we forget it’s rhetoric and mistake it for reality.

Trinity In Mind: Story, Culture, Knowledge

Story. Culture. Knowledge.

These three are the Trinity of my mind, of my personal reality.

I always return to these, but not usually at the same time. They all connect, though.

Culture and knowledge are how we typically speak of story without realizing it. Story interests me the most, in some ways. It’s because story can so easily be dismissed as mere entertainment that it has so much power.

Knowledge and story are at the heart of culture. They give form and expression. Culture is an ephemeral thing by itself. It’s normally invisible, until we seek out our sense of identity. Maybe more than anything, culture encapsulates our reality tunnel.

Story and culture determine what we consider to be knowledge and how we go about looking for it. They frame our sense of truth and reality. As such, they mediate the complex relationship between belief and knowledge.

I love knowledge, or rather I love truth, more than anything. I always have. I don’t know why truth matters, but I just know it does, know in my heart more than in my mind. I want to know the truth of everything  just because I do. It’s not so much the knowledge itself, but the sense of knowing; or else, when lacking, the ache to know, the intuition of something to be known.

I’ve come to realize, however, that story gets at truth like nothing else. Truth can feel impotent at times.  Truth needs story in the way lungs need air. People are convinced by story, not truth. A story that expresses truth is a force to be reckoned with.

I’m less clear about culture. It’s such a strange thing. I don’t know that I care about culture in and of itself, but I’ve come to understand that culture is what makes it all happen on the collective level. We don’t have culture. We are culture. It’s the whole fish in water scenario. We live and breathe culture.

I feel like I can never fully explain why these three things are so compelling to my mind. I’m not sure why it is so difficult to speak about all of this. Story becomes mere entertainment or otherwise a personal interest. Culture is simplified to notions about race and nationality. Knowledge gets reduced to factoids and data points. The profound nature behind them gets lost.

I wish I could write about these in a way that conveyed the depth of my sense of them… but you either grok them or not, I suppose.

Sin of the North, Sin of the South

As with culture, the sin of the American North is different than the sin of the American South. I would go so far as to say the culture and the sin are aspects of the same thing. 

To criticize the sin of one culture isn’t to excuse the sin of the other culture. It’s just to say they aren’t identical. It’s not helpful to make a criticism that doesn’t apply. Teasing out the specific differences is important.

I see a problem in trying to unite separate cultures into a single culture. This is what has been attempted in America for centuries. I don’t think it has been entirely successful and it isn’t clear that it ever will be successful. Cultures don’t change easily, even when politics is used to try to force basic conformity.  The underlying separate cultures remain along with their respective sins, but only a patina of commonality is created, an unhappy compromise at that.

This is an argument, related to my thoughts on secession, that I want to follow. I don’t know how much I support this argument or rather how much the evidence supports it. Let me make the case, anyhow.

Between the North and South, I see several areas that demonstrate the distinctness of each region. The most basic of these is the raw data on social problems (poverty, economic inequality, violent crime, obesity, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, etc) and on more neutral social conditions (union membership, gun ownership, religiosity, etc). The more complicated aspect more directly or obviously involves culture (ethnic immigration patterns, political traditions, economic patterns, etc). All of these factors overlap in various ways or can be interpreted as being interconnected, the question being do the correlations indicate a causal relationship.

I’ve already discussed much of this in my other writings and so I’ll keep it brief by using key examples. Let me begin by pointing out two common misconceptions — the divide between North and South is (1) a divide between urban and rural and/or (2) a divide between areas with and without a large white majority.

One example that truly hits home this regional difference is that of violent crime. The South overall has higher rates of violent crime than the North overall. Is it because the South is more rural? No. The rural North doesn’t have equivalent high rates of violent crime. Is it because the South is more racially diverse? No. The white majority rural South has higher rates of violent crime than is even found in the multiracial urban North. Heck, the majority white rural South even has more violent crime than the urban South, and so for certain blacks can’t be blamed. Even more specifically, most of the violent crime in the rural South is white on white crime.

The only thing that makes the rural South distinct is it’s heavy concentration of Scots-Irish population. I’d point out that the Scots-Irish have a very distinct culture that has become a point of pride for many white Southerners, especially in Appalachia. The fighting tradition of the Scots-Irish also has become identified with the Lost Cause worldview, and along with a fierce independent streak this has made the Scots-Irish culture symbolic of the entire Southern identity.

Another example is religiosity. This stood out to me when I was reading Chuck Thompson’s Better Off Without ‘Em, stated with dramatic flair (Kindle Location 322):

“It’s not just the overwhelming percentage of believers in the South, it’s the attitudes they bring to—or from—their religiosity. In 2009, a Pew Forum “Importance of Religion” study measured a number of variables (frequency of prayer, absolute belief in God, and so forth) to determine the degree of religious fervor in all fifty states.

“Led by Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, nine of the top ten most religious states were southern. Oklahoma ruined Dixie’s perfect record by sneaking in at number seven. Of all southern states, only D.C.-infected Virginia and Semitic Florida finished just outside the top fifteen, edged out by such powerful fanatics as the Mormons of Utah and the pious enigmas of Kansas. The bottom half of the list presented a representative cross section of the rest of the country: Michigan, New Mexico, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana, New York, California, Maine, and, cordially sharing most hellbound honors, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“Not only is the South the place where 50 percent of American evangelicals live, it’s also the region from which the national movement draws its ideas and through which most of its fame and profit are harvested. Rabid believers are disproportionately southern—with around a third of the national population (counting Texas), the South accounts for 55 percent of the “electronic church” audience.

“Nearly every important evangelical figure of the past century has come from the South (Californian Rick Warren being an exception). A recent Trinity Broadcast Network program touting the national influence of southern Christianity proclaimed that Virginia was the most important state for “birthing national leaders on the religious front.””

This passage caught my attention because Iowa was listed as one of the least religious states, according to Pew. Iowa is below the national average for stated importance of religion, belief in God and frequency of prayer, although 1% above the national average of stated church attendance. On all the measures, Iowa is 20-30% below the most religious states.

That says a lot. Iowa is similar to the Southern states in many ways. Iowa has many working class people, especially farmers and those in the agricultural business. Iowa is mostly rural, and like the rural South mostly white. Along with these, another factor correlated to higher religiosity rates is an older population and Iowa has one of the most aging populations in the country.

The only clear difference between people in the rural North and the rural South is ethnicity.

The North had more settlers from Northern Europe. One of the differences with Northern Europeans such as Germans was that they were very skilled farmers who were used to high quality soil. They knew what high quality soil looked like which is why they chose to settle in the American North and, once settled, they knew how to cultivate the soil to maintain its viability.

The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.

This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.

Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.

In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.

However, the South has always had its own native tradition of liberalism/leftism, not to mention reform-minded populism. It seems to me that, because of the effects of the Civil War, the Southern Left has been stunted and never given a chance to grow to its full potential. Many Southerns have come to think of liberalism/leftism as an ideology imported from the North and forced upon them by the federal government. Maybe the sin of the South has grown worse, or at least not lessened, because what Southerners perceived as non-Southern solutions being forced on them.

Whatever is the case, these are differences that make a difference. More than a century of political change following the Civil War hasn’t fundamentally changed this social reality.

The sin of the South was a caste-based society, later becoming a class-based society, that was built on slavery and the working poor. The sin of the North, on the other hand, was capitalism that was (and still is) brutal in its own way. There weren’t as many slaves in the North, but places like New York used a capitalist economy to profit off the slave trade. Northern capitalism has endless problems and I’m no fan of capitalism in general. Nonetheless, the sin of the North isn’t the same as the sin of the South.

This distinction seems important to my understanding, however one may wish to interpret it.

We are a united country, and that is what Abraham Lincoln was centrally concerned about. Even slavery for Lincoln was mixed up with maintaining the Union for he thought slavery would continue to undermine the country. Lincoln worried that, if secession were to happen, America would become balkanized like Europe. Instead of one big war, there would be endless small wars. I can see Lincoln’s perspective, but I think he put too much faith in the utopian ideal of unity.

The federal government could end slavery through force. What the rest of the country can’t do for the South is to solve it’s problems. We can send federal funds to deal with the worst issues of poverty and such, but the problem is structurally a part of the entire Southern society. Poverty doesn’t exist in such rates in the South because of a lack of wealth. The South’s economy is booming and yet the poverty persists. This is a problem of Southern culture and there may be little that Northern culture can do, besides exacerbating the problem by enabling those who are contributing to it.

By the way, the guilty parties would include some Northern corporations that go to the South to take advantage of weak regulatory enforcement and oppressive anti-union laws, the same reason corporations build factories in Mexico and China. This is corporatism, not free market capitalism. We shouldn’t allow American corporations to participate in social and economic oppression at home any more than we should allow it abroad.

Indeed, Northern culture has its own problems and contributes to the problems of others. Northerners have even sought solutions for those Northern problems. For example, a Northern city was the only place in the entire country that ever had a socialist government (i.e., the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists). Maybe the reason socialism couldn’t take hold in the North was partly because the South was so rabidly anti-socialist. Also, it is the anti-union South that has helped undermine the Northern unions by using unfair practices to lure corporations to build in the South.

The collusion of Northern capitalism and Southern aristocracy is a toxic mix.

I’m beginning to wonder if the North and the South have been getting in each other’s way and each bringing out the worse in the other. The culture of each region has its respective sin, but it also has the seed of potential for solving its own problems. Before public debate can ensue, there first has to be public awareness of the facts, conditions and cultures involved. Let’s be clear about the situation as it is, and then we can work from there.

After finishing this post, I realized I had forgotten one of my central points. I’ll just add it here at the end as an additional note.

Building up to the Civil War, both Northerners and Southerners were lobbing criticisms at one another.

In the North, slavery had been losing support for a long time prior to the Civil War. New immigrants were mostly coming to the North during this time and many went Westward to the frontier territories. These new immigrants didn’t want slavery to be expanded because they saw it as unfair competiion for Yeoman farmers.

White Southerners, however, had their own ideas about personal freedom. They saw the growing industrialization of the North as a menace to the Southern way of life, and it wasn’t only the aristocracy that felt this way. Many lower class whites countered the criticisms of slavery with their own allegations of Northern wage slavery where whites would simply be brought down to the level of menial labor.

Both sides made accurate criticisms. The average person wasn’t being offered a tremendous amount of freedom by either system. I’m sure Marx’s support of the Northern cause was mixed with much concern about the wage slavery of industrialized capitalism.

Northern Case For Southern Secession

I finished two books on the same day:

What’s the Matter with White People
by Joan Walsh

Better Off Without ‘Em
by Chuck Thompson

I’ve been in the process of reading a ton of books, but these are two I started some months ago and finally got back around to completing. I thought I might appreciate Walsh’s book more than I did, although it was still worth reading. Thompson’s book, on the other hand, was surprisingly insightful.

The authors are both Northern leftists and their books are, in a way, complementary. Both are about American culture and politics, both compare liberals and conservatives, and both focus on specific regions of the country. However, in another way, they are immensely incongruous. Walsh is a serious-minded do-gooder wanting to unite Americans in a common purpose. Thompson is a humorous travel writer advocating for secession so that the North and South can happily go their separate ways.

In reading Joan Walsh’s book about her Irish family, I was hoping for something akin to Joe Bageant’s writings on his Scots-Irish family. She is smart and she does offer me some perspective on an ethnic group with which I have little direct experience. Bageant, however, is a much more entertaining writer (Thompson being more similar to Bageant in writing style).  Walsh maybe takes herself too seriously. Besides, her mainstream liberalism irritated me on occasion, very different from Bageant’s left-wing outsider viewpoint.

Criticisms aside, I liked her positive intentions and I liked the way she expressed her position. She does a good job of explaining how our country became so divided and maybe why it doesn’t need to be that way. It was her personal anecdotes about her family that drew me in the most. Like a good liberal, she was sympathetic toward even those she disagreed with.

I don’t know what Chuck Thompson identifies as, but he doesn’t act like a well-mannered housebroken liberal. He presents himself more as a cantankerous rabblerouser. I didn’t hold his opinionatedness against him for he remained amusing, even when or especially when ranting. I realized that few people would read a book like his without it having entertainment value.

The main reason I picked up his book was simply because it was provocative. Not many people these days advocate for the South to secede, and those who do tend to be right-wing Southerners rather than leftist Northerners. You’d think he would advocate for Northern secession, but he seems attached to the United States as the name of his country and so thinks the South should reinvent the Confederacy, although for some reason he feels reluctant to letting the South take Texas.

He played up the hyperbole and some would perceive his writing as mean-spirited. He used caricatures for humorous effect, but he also used a massive amount of data to make a serious argument. Although I’m well read about the North/South divide, even I learned a fair amount from his book. I discovered some new authors that I’ve added to my reading list.

The comparison and contrast is fascinating between these two books I finished. I typically come across more books like Walsh’s where the argument is for unity of the country, for compromise and cooperation, for everyone trying to get along. But Thompson points out we’ve been trying to do that for a long time and maybe it’s time to give up on the myth of a single American identity that is supposed to be embraced by all, whether willingly or through coercion.

Here is what Thompson writes about this dilemma of diversity and division (Kindle location 4911):

“Nothing really new there. As Abe Lincoln said of slavery in the run-up to the Civil War, “Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the entire controversy.”

“It takes little imagination to apply that statement to many of the fundamental divisions still hamstringing the country: religion, abortion, federal governance, taxation, education, health care, assistance for less fortunate neighbors, distribution and ownership of public wealth and resources. These are philosophical and moral problems with no definitive answers, issues that simply come down to one side thinking them right, and the other side thinking them wrong.

“In his “House Divided” speech, Lincoln also said that he did not believe the American house would fall. “I do expect it will cease to be divided,” he said. “It will become all one thing, or all the other.”7

“But Lincoln was wrong about that one. Unity hasn’t ever really come. Slavery is gone, but the cultural milieu that produced it and a raft of other cultural toxins still exists.”

I’m in agreement with Thompson.

Having grown up between the two regions, I’ve experienced the cultures of both the North and South. I’ve spent recent years reading every book I could get my hands on about this topic. I’ve thought long and hard about it. I’ve written about it over and over. I honestly don’t feel confident that there is enough commonality to hold these regions together.

(Plus, I’d add an argument for secession based on minarchism and decentralization. Our country is too vast, our population is too large, and our government is too unwieldy. We definitely don’t have much of a functioning democracy at this point. For the sake of civil liberties, I suspect we’d be wiser to opt for a smaller direct democracy or rather democracies and, while we’re at it, smaller localized economies. Small is beautiful, as it has been said. Secession would be good for all involved.)

In the earliest history of this country, the South had become dominant in both the military leadership and in federal politics. After the Civil War, the North took the lead role for quite a while. Now, the South is coming back into power and reasserting its influence over the whole country. It’s an endless vying for control of the nation, but it never leads to any fundamental unification of culture and certainly no common vision of politics and economics.

As accurately portrayed by Thompson, this divisiveness is experienced and expressed most strongly in the South. No other region of the country has such a strong sense of shared identity. The Civil War may not have brought the country together, but it sure did bring the South together.

I was never called a Yankee and I never thought of myself as a Northerner until I moved to South Carolina in middle school. It never previously occurred to me that I was part of a region called the North, although I may have vaguely been aware of the Midwest as a region. To the degree I thought about identity at all, I would probably just have considered myself as American.

Living in South Carolina, I regularly saw the Confederate flag. It used to fly over the capitol when I was growing up there. Even though the South lost the battle for being a separate country, they did succeed in creating a separate national identity that is only rivaled in distinctiveness by some Native American nations.

Thompson makes a strong argument for why this is problematic. The reasons he gives are many, but one in particular stood out. The core of the problem is that, in thinking of themselves as separate from the rest of the country, Southerners act as if they aren’t part of America’s shared societal enterprise. Instead, they act like competitors looking out for their own interests and no one else’s.

On the political front, there isn’t now nor has there ever been a Solid North in the way that a Solid South exists. The South essentially has a one-party system. This doesn’t lend itself to playing well with others in a democratic society. Thompson has doubts that a one-party system can be considered as democratic at all, and I suspect many Southerners would agree in a sense by asserting they live in a republic, not a democracy.

The economic role the South plays isn’t dissimilar from that of Mexico and China, countries that aren’t known for having well functioning democratic political systems. They don’t protect workers’ rights or the environment. They leave their population poor and under-educated. And they disenfranchise their citizenry.

Southerners, or rather the Southern political elite, refuse to raise their own local and state taxes to pay for their social infrastructure and social services, preferring to suck on the government teat of federal funding which means the rest of the country pays to keep the South from turning into something like a third world country. They take what little tax money they do take in and give massive subsidies to corporations so as to lure them away from other states. Overall, the South is an economic drain on the United States.

On top of that, their luring corporations to move to the South has caused people to move to the South looking for the jobs taken away from them. This increased population is giving the South increased representation in Washington and hence increased political power.

Meanwhile, we in the North (and West) are enabling the South to rob us blind. I take this personally, as I happen to live in one of those states that pays more in federal taxes than receives in federal funding. Why am I helping Southerners to live beyond their means? If the South has such a booming economy, isn’t it time for them to take responsibility by carrying their own weight and paying their own way?

None of this is to imply that I have an overall dislike of the South or that I think most Southerners are bad people. It’s just that the South has some serious dysfunction going on and Southerners keep voting the same people into power. Nothing is likely to change in the South, at least not in the near future. Like Thompson, what concerns me is that the South might end up changing the rest of the country instead and I doubt such changes would be positive.

For some concluding thoughts, I’ll let Chuck Thompson explain what liberals like Joan Walsh don’t understand (Kindle location 4923):

“In the same fashion that people across the South had denied culpability to me, had winked at all the issues that needed addressing in their own part of the country, every one of those who’d gathered at the Globe had in some form or other insisted that they themselves did not embody the predictable characteristics and behaviors (I’m not calling them stereotypes, I believe I’ve provided enough evidence to back up my contentions) that I was using to portray the less attractive side of Dixie.

“We aren’t crazy religious—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who you’re thinking of.

“We aren’t dedicated political obstructionists—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who you’re talking about.

“We aren’t racist—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who have a problem.

“We aren’t the ones keeping public school budgets at barely functional levels—that’s just a small percentage of southerners that don’t appreciate the inequities in the system.

“We aren’t against basic rights for workers—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who you have an issue with.

“We aren’t single-issue abortion voters or the ones who have a problem with gays—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who the media unfairly fixates on and uses to vilify the rest of us.

“All of these statements may be true. The majority of southerners are not loudmouthed, uneducated, redneck fuckwits flying Confederate flags from the backs of their Kia and Mercedes lynch wagons. To what extent they were ever true many of these notions are comically outdated. Operative word “comically,” which is why I’ve employed them from time to time in this book, since few things are as hilarious to the northerner as a well-placed Snuffy Smith zinger.

“What the majority of southerners are, and have always been, however, is willing to allow the most strident, mouth-breathing “patriotic” firebrands among them to remain in control of their society’s most powerful and influential positions.

[ . . . ]

“Maybe the fanatics do represent a minority, say one in three southerners—that’s a fair guess, in my estimation. That’s still an extremely potent one-in-three that the rest of the South enables—or succumbs to—or aligns with—or votes for—year after year, decade after decade, century after century. Theirs are the voices that perpetuate the agenda because theirs are the voices that ring with the most sincerity, that are most bereft of apology, that in their bellicosity resonate as the most authentically “southern.” If there’s one thing about the South that hasn’t ever changed it’s the hypnotic influence of the angry crusader.”

How to Speak of Culture?

How to speak of culture? I’ve struggled to find a language that can capture the essence and form of culture, make visible what otherwise gets taken for granted.

Speaking about culture’s role in society is like trying to have public debate about racism after the ending of slavery and Jim Crow. You can point to the proven fact that racial prejudice is shown in psychological research and in analysis of the results of the justice system, but none of this will convince many people who aren’t already convinced because it isn’t part of their cultural reality. Racial prejudice isn’t so much an ideology as an implicit social system that pervades every aspect of life, with no conscious knowledge or intention being necessary.

Like racism, no single person or group is solely responsible for the culture that results. There is no plan behind culture, nothing that culture is trying to accomplish beyond its own continuation. Cultural narratives need no reason other than fulfilling the human need for being told a story about the world, about humanity.

Culture relates to ideology, ethnicity, religion, community, economics, ecology, to about anything you can think of. The complexity of it is that culture isn’t any single thing, rather is the glue that holds it all together and so allows it all to be enacted coherently within a society. This is essentially what is referred to as a reality tunnel, culture being how a reality tunnel plays out in the real world of societal action and social interaction. It is through culture that a reality tunnel manifests and maintains itself.

It is cultures within cultures, all the way down. Cultures overlap, merge, form confluences, and form new lifeways and mazeways. Cultures are amorphous when you try to grasp them, yet distinct enough to survive massive change over centuries and even millennia.

In some ways, a culture is a prison. It determines how and what we think, perceive and act. On the other hand, culture is what gives form to what freedom potentially can mean. A culture is a set of possibilities. Cultures, in clashing, form new cultures with new possibilities.

Multiculturalism is a nifty trick of trying to keep open as many possibilities as is possible.  However, a society will disintegrate if too many possibilities create incoherence. Americans have created a society where have been loosened the bonds between culture and social conditions, where the factors of culture can shift and realign.

This is why culture holds so much power over the American mind. The present-day culture wars are just skirmishes that only appear to be more central for the deeper underlying forces that incite them. The culture wars are superficial antagonisms compared to the battles of the Revolution and the Civil War.

It’s not like any single culture is going to win and annihilate all the others. The diverse cultures continue on in the world, albeit transformed in the process. Particular cultures may seem to disappear, but it is rare for a cultural tradition to completely die once established in the larger society, although it may become buried deep under layers of historical events and sociopolitical changes.

Cultures have memetic power. This is why regional cultures have such persistence. The first major establishment of a culture is a sociological imprinting, the duckling of society forever after following.

It gets frustrating. Culture isn’t a war, isn’t team sports, isn’t partisan politics. We underestimate culture as a social force. We think we control it when, in fact, it controls us. We are the products of culture. We aren’t just enculturated. We are culture itself in embodied form.

In bringing forth my thoughts on culture, I’m forced to use different ways of speaking. I sometimes refer to history as if outward forms can be definitive or at least descriptive of the underlying pattern. At other times, I mention ideas and data from the social sciences. More often than not, though, metaphor is the language that feels the closest to how culture operates in the human mind.

Metaphor is the language of story. In becoming conscious of the metaphors we are using, maybe we can become conscious of the stories being told. Stories aren’t just words. They are living things, the divine fire of the imagination that lights our vision of the world.

The Riddle of Culture

Sam Harris has a fairly good article about the gun control debate, The Riddle of the Gun.

My own position is more or less similar. Like Harris and like most Americans, I’m for the right to own guns within reasonable limits such as basic gun regulation. I suspect that most liberals would agree with this, even if this gets distorted because liberals end up reacting to the right-wing extremists.

Harris apparently doesn’t see it this way. He thinks that the so-called liberal media represents the average liberal, but my sense is that the ‘liberal’ elite might be as far away from the average liberal as they are from those on the right. I think the position Harris is taking, not unlike that of Jonathan Haidt, is motivated by a desire to create an appearance of credibility by criticizing his fellow liberals. The problem, though, is that those like Harris and Haidt are just more liberal elites, maybe no less clueless than any other liberal elite when it comes to understanding most liberals.

The culture wars are the central problem to my mind, although not because of the wars part but because of the culture part. I’d rather have a culture discussion than a culture war. It would be much more fruitful. This is the other challenge that Harris fails to meet. Despite my mostly agreeing, I want more from an analysis than what Harris offers. His article lacks subtler nuance and depth of insight.

The issue of culture is something that I’ve been obsessing over the past few years. In an earlier post about gun regulation, I did touch upon the deeper problems involved… but my thoughts have continued to develop such as considering moreso the importance of regional data on violence. The key to connect it all is culture.

Harris sticks to the standard narrative. He wants to bring the discussion more to the data itself with which I agree. However, there is a lot of relevant data that rarely gets discussed and certainly Harris doesn’t venture very far into the vast array of interesting data.

Most of the time, the type of data discussed is limited to generalized national data. Sometimes the distinction of rural and urban violent rates will be brought up, but usually just to reinforce stereotypes about urban blacks. This data, however, is complicated by other data.

It is true that urban areas on average have more violent crime, including with guns, than rural areas on average. What isn’t true is that this is equal for all regions. In fact, the  opposite is true in the South. The rural South has more violent crime than the urban South. The rural South has more violent crime than the urban North, more crime than the rural North, and actually more violent crime than any other region in the country.

Two other factors relate to types of violence. One factor is that you’re not necessarily less likely to experience violence in rural areas. Rather, you’re more likely to experience violence from someone you know instead of from a stranger (this includes a high rate of ‘accidental’ deaths and a high rate of self-inflicted violence, i.e., suicides). Another factor is that there typically is an inverse relationship between homicide rates and suicide rates, but in the rural South both are high.

All of this is quite significant considering that gun regulation is the weakest in the South and gun ownership is the highest in the South. This data punctures the argument that higher rates of gun ownership have no correlation to higher rates of gun violence. Even so, the correlation may not be direct. My own view is that they both are connected through culture.

So, I’m not blaming guns in and of themselves. What I am blaming (as others have noted) is the gun culture that is prevalent in America, specifically the romanticizing of violence and the pushing of military-style tactical gear. More importantly, I’m laying responsibility upon the culture of the rural South which is a culture of honor that has a long history of weak government and vigilante justice (think of the Hatfield-McCoy feud). This is seen in exaggerated form on the borderland of Kentucky and Tennessee where, following the Civil War, the violence was ten times the national average.

Interestingly, it isn’t just those on the left making this argument. Thomas Sowell, the popular black conservative, wrote an essay about culture, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”. I haven’t read that essay, but I’ve read a number of reviews about it and aspects of it seem to hit upon an element of truth. Is it mere coincidence that black culture also came from the South?

This isn’t about blaming a region for all problems. My impulse is to seek understanding. What specifically might be the common factor between rural white culture from the South and urban black culture from the South? It’s not just an issue of the South as if a direction on a compass magically conveys an essence upon people. It’s certainly not to make a blanket judgment. What I want is to get at the root cause(s), the fundamental motivation behind diverse behaviors.

I’m less interested in knowing what motivates people to want to own guns and more interest in what motivates people to be prone to using guns and to being violent. Why is it the exact demographics that are the most violent are also the demographics most antagonistic toward the government? I don’t know about the urban black culture in the North, but I do know the rural white culture in the South believes that people should take care of their own problems. Similarly, what is the correlation to the Republican Party in terms of how the rates of violence consistently increase after a Republican administration takes office?

Of course, these two specific demographics have some good reasons for feeling antagonistic toward authority. Blacks have been one of the most oppressed groups in American history. Poor whites in the rural South haven’t experienced much privilege either. These are all people that have had to fight for their own way in the world, rarely with any help from those in authority. The problem for the gun regulation issue is that such demographics become pawns for the fight between elites.

I don’t think cultures are inevitably dysfunctional on their own terms, although sometimes that might be the case. This seeming dysfunction is a response to larger dysfunctions in society. The Scots-Irish are a good example of this. They have been pawns in America and in the past they were pawns in Britain. Their culture became so prone to violence because they found themselves amidst violence. In the victimization cycle, violence endlessly begets violence.

I don’t want to scapegoat this group or that. From my perspective, that would be avoiding the real issues that are much more profound and pervasive. The individual cultures manifest particular symptoms, but dealing with the symptoms won’t help in the long-term. There are different levels of culture. How do we dig down to the root level?