Knowledge Doesn’t Matter

Does knowledge matter?

I was having a discussion about that question with a friend. He isn’t an anti-intellectual, but he is one of those post-Enlightenment New Agey liberals who mistrusts rationality. To give you an idea of the type of guy he is, he didn’t cite evidence for his argument, but instead cited a lyric to a song. To give you a further hint, my dear friend in support of his view referred to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant… don’t even get me started on Haidt.

I, on the other hand, am a fierce defender of truth. Damn it, just give me some red-blooded truth and give it to me raw. It was only my friendship that made me hold my tongue in that discussion. I will never understand any person, whether conservative or liberal, who thinks truth doesn’t matter or who will devalue it in any way.

Truth. Not just information, not just knowledge, but all of that and the insight, the wisdom that goes with it. Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth that enflames the senses, pierces the heart and sets the mind ablaze.

Truth isn’t some tiny detail. Truth is reality itself. We breathe truth for if you try to stop breathing, I swear to God, you quickly will know it. Now, that is the force of truth. It ain’t no intellectual game. We have to start getting serious about this reality we all share.

The force of truth can at times hit you like a brick wall. I personally love that sensation. It means I’m awake and still alive. My face smacks up against something that doesn’t move and I start to suspect that there might be something fundamental in front of me. So I reach out into the dark, find a switch, turn it on… and well damn there is a wall right there. What kind of fool tries to walk through a wall? A fool walking in the darkness of ignorance,  I tell ya.

But truth is usually more subtle than that. It creeps up on us. Little bits of info piling up, a comment here and an example there, an observation here and an insight there. Then before ya know it, a new understanding begins to dawn. Usually, though, something finally brings it all together.

I’ll give you two examples, one of each variety: a face-smacking wall and a slow dawning.

The first example is my having learned about sundown towns.

That bit of truth came at me from an angle. I was reading about regional cultures when the author, David Hackett Fischer, made a comment another author’s work (Sundown Towns). So, good truth-seeker that I am, I bought that other book and began reading it. That other author, James W. Loewen, was talking about my particular region. He even mentioned a town I live right next to. Once upon a time, that town had a bunch of black families… and then shortly later all the blacks disappeared. Where did they go? This happened a thousand times over, all across the North.

I knew racism existed in the North, including systemic racism, but I didn’t have a clue that it was so pervasive. I just figured Iowa was naturally a white place where blacks didn’t live in the past. I figured blacks had little interest in living here, until recently that is. I assumed blacks simply went to the big cities because that was where the jobs were. I assumed most blacks wanted to live with blacks in black neighborhoods and ditto for whites with whites, as that has been the basic order of the society I’ve grown up in.

It never occurred to me that after the Civil War large numbers of blacks moved all over this freaking country in every state and in every town, rural and urban, North and South, East and West… but that they soon found they weren’t welcome in many of these places, not welcome in particular neighborhoods or in some cases entire states. Only after this great migration did they all head to the big cities seeking safety in numbers.

I was ignorant of this piece of history. Plain and simple, I was ignorant. Worse still, my white privilege allowed me to remain ignorant for so long. My white skin color and my white Midwestern heritage corresponds with the dominant white culture. Just because I’ve had black friends doesn’t change this condition. My only excuse is that I was ‘educated’ to be ignorant in this way. Sad but true. Ignorance must be learned… and so ignorance must be unlearned.

Reading Loewen’s book on the topic was an educational experience, a brick wall that bluntly forced me to reassess what I thought I knew.

The second example has to do with affirmative action and white privilege.

Over the years, I’ve come across mentions of the relationship of racism to the Populist and Progressive Eras.

For example, I came across the intriguing fact that the KKK supported universal public schooling and the banning of child labor. The reason they took this position was because kids, black and white, were competing for the same jobs that KKK members wanted for themselves. So, if you got the kids out of the factories, you had to justify it by sending them somewhere and public schools made for a good way of keeping the kids occupied, and as any good KKK member knows you particularly want to keep those black kids occupied or else they’ll cause trouble.

Another example I’ve learned about in the past is that black farmers didn’t get the same funding that white farmers received. This was done intentionally, of course. It is no big secret at this point. Just another data point in a long history of racism.

For whatever reason, I didn’t quite fully and coherently think about this in a larger context. It didn’t quite come together, beyond knowing about the general history of racism. I knew many of the details and incidents. And I knew the individual pieces might fit together in various ways. But it took someone else to clearly connect the dots before I saw the picture it formed.

The person in question is another author, Ira Katznelson, and the guilty book is When Affirmative Action Was White. It isn’t a matter of the original intention of many progressive reforms. Racism was rampant, but most people weren’t overtly thinking in terms of racism. Even so, racism was able to trump other concerns by co-opting the policies that were implemented. It became white affirmative action by default. The wording of progressive reform didn’t state it as white affirmative action, but that was the result successfully implemented by the racists in power who wished to maintain their grip on power. Progressivism was just a convenient front for old racial injustices. This is how Jim Crow was rooted in the New Deal.

Framing white privilege as affirmative action helped me to see the profound impact that it has had. It wasn’t just racist policies in the South or even isolated racist incidents in the North. It was a systematic strategy that was nationwide, even if the strongest impetus was in the Jim Crow South. With this new framing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

Ignorance is a strange thing. We can’t know we are ignorant for we are ignorant of our being ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know that there is something we could know, until something forces us to begin to know and then the comfy sweater of our ignorance begins to unravel.

Ignorance upon ignorance, generation after generation. All of this ignorance, individual and collective, took a long while to be learned. It took our entire history, in fact. And so it will take a very long time to unlearn. We should see others in this more forgiving light, especially older generations. But a forgiving attitude can be a hard thing to hold onto when the stakes are so high. Culpability must be accepted, even if the blame game isn’t helpful.

In this regard, my parents are typical of their generation… or I should say they are typical of white Americans of their generation… a generation, by the way, that was born and raised when Jim Crow laws were at their height and were well into adulthood when the Voting Rights Act was passed. If anything, they should personally know of the effects of racism better than I know it for they saw it when it was truly powerful as a blatant political force. But they don’t know what they don’t want to know, don’t know what offers them no personal benefit to know. No surprise to that normal human response toward uncomfortable truths.

My mom doesn’t see white privilege at all, even though she obviously benefited from it. My dad’s thinking is a bit more nuanced. But all my dad can offer, when his good fortune is pointed out, is that God must have been looking out for him. I guess God disproportionately looks out for whites and in particular middle class white males. It never occurs to him to consider the possibility that he is no more worthy of divine intervention than all the poor minorities. I’ve heard that Jesus message is specifically about helping the least among us, but I guess that doesn’t apply to issues like racial oppression and prejudice. God, after all, is a conservative, maybe even a right-winger. There are even rumors that God is white.

Joking aside, my parents are as much the product of their environments as I am of mine. They simply believe what they were raised to believe, speak what they were taught to know. It is their truth, even if it isn’t objective fact. I don’t wish to deny my parents’ sense of truth in their pride in having worked hard or even that God has looked kindly upon them. Those are their truths. But a personal truth becomes an untruth when uprooted from the larger truth of our shared reality. The trick is to begin with the truths you know and from there expand your vision. Attacking someone’s truth, however, creates fear and doesn’t encourage them to expand their vision.

I can feel righteous at times, but it’s hard to maintain righteousness. We are all ignorant to varying degrees and in various ways. Still, I want to be righteous about truth and righteous for the right reasons. It really does matter. For that reason, I want people to see the truth, be it a brick wall to their face or a dawning of the light.

More than anything, I respect not just truth but a passionate zeal for truth. We can’t let ignorance get us down, not even our own. We have to be brutally honest, especially with ourselves. Words must not be minced.

Now, here is the kind of thing that inspires me, that gets my juices going. Tim Wise is a truth-teller about racism, if there ever was one. Listening to him speak, I had to restrain myself from yelling out loud ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’. Maybe it isn’t the eloquence of an MLK speech, but it sure does hit the spot. All the MSM BS makes me downright hungry for a healthy heaping plateful of simple straightforward meat-and-potatoes truth-telling.

Vicious Cycle of Politics

There are two related thoughts that have been on my mind today.

I was thinking about American history, as that is what I’ve been reading and writing about lately. I see these repeating patterns and it can seem odd to me. Things keep changing and yet they don’t. The odd part, to my mind, is that so few seem to notice or think it all that important.

My first thought is about religious tolerance and inclusion.

Earlier in American history, Protestants had most of the power and they oppressed all other religions. Those they feared the most, however, were Catholics, Quakers and Baptists because they were competing Christianities. After centuries of persecution, Christians started forming alliances for practical reasons of trying to maintain what they perceived as a Christian society.

Jews had also been a persecuted minority, but they weren’t Christians. Catholics were bad enough. Accepting and tolerating or even cooperating with Jews, now that was going too far. Nonetheless, alliances began to form. Americans began to speak, instead, of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Muslims have now become the newest popular scapegoat. Muslims are perceived as the enemy of both Christianity and Judaism. This has strengthened the Judeo-Christian bond even further, even going so far as creating an unhealthy pact between the US and Israeli governments. However, as with Catholics in earlier Protestant America, Muslims are growing in numbers and becoming normalized.

It is simply a matter of time before Muslims will become part of the club. Americans in the future will speak of Islamo-Judeo-Christian tradition of Mosaic monotheism. So, then it will be the Mosaic monotheists against everyone else. Then, of course, a new enemy will arise that “Real Americans” will join together in order to fight.

Repeat and rinse.

This cycle is so predictable. It’s almost boring in how obviously predictable it is. I feel inane in even pointing it out. Why can’t we just skip forward a few cycles and save some time, not to mention lives?

My second thought is about socialism and capitalism.

Here is a video to give you an amusing way of looking at the issue:

This is the best portrayal I’ve ever come across about the problems of dogmatically polarized ideologies.

Each side is inseparable from the other, each existing in a vicious cycle of reactionary political rhetoric and power-mongering. One side wins, becomes full of themselves and goes too far. Then the other side takes power, becomes full of themselves, and goes too far. And the cycle continues, ad infinitum.

I was thinking about this because of reading about the Southern Plains and California.

Those living in the Southern Plains were originally motivated by the capitalist rhetoric of free soil that became popular with the early Republican Party. Then the railroad and industrial tycoons got greedy and eventually Wall Street collapsed which led to the Southern Plains farmers to be inspired by the rhetoric of agrarian socialism, interestingly using rhetoric not dissimilar to what was used with free soil politics. In both cases, rural farming was romanticized, whether it was seen as opposing slavery with free soil or opposing capitalism with agrarian socialism.

With the Great Depression, larger numbers of these Southern Plains farmers headed to California. Of course, they couldn’t be independent farmers there as land was owned in massive tracts by wealthy landowners and so instead many of them became poor migrant laborers. That was in some ways a fate almost worse than death in their minds, but the rhetoric of their agrarian tradition wouldn’t let them see how they were being taken advantage of. They moved into the factories as the Cold War pumped a bunch of federal money into the defense industry. Becoming middle class and respectable, these same people embraced capitalist rhetoric again.

Now, a second era of massive economic turmoil has hit us. People are criticizing capitalism and once again discussion about socialism has arisen, especially among the new generation. Heck, socialism is quickly growing in popularity, in this era when the Cold War is mere history to many Americans. Before long, the demand for left-wing reform will become strong again and even go mainstream.

It’s an endless cycle. It keeps repeating, I suspect, because of a collective amnesia about history. The switching back and forth tends to happen over several generations. By the time it switches back the other direction again, there aren’t many people left who have living memory of what came before.

What if this endless cycle is part of the problem. When neither side can win, when both sides keep repeating their same mistakes over and over, maybe a third option is in order.

Southern Californian Birth of Salvific Corporatism

I’ve been utterly fascinated by the rise of the religious right and its bizarre relationship to neocons.

The social and political transformation happened because of a specific migration pattern. It was made most famous by the Okies, but was part of a larger migration. Beginning prior to the Civil War, many waves and streams of migration went to the West Coast from the Western South, including Texas along with what some call the Southern Plains or the Southern Midwest. This migration slowed down around the 1970s and shifted direction. Like others who left the South for the North, many of these Southern Californians and their descendants headed back to Texas and the Southern Plains/Midwest.

Combined with other migrations from the East, California was transformed. Most significantly, as the North/South divide began to take shape in the East, it also nearly split the California in two with Northerners in Northern California and Southerners in Southern California (see: The Golden State in the Civil War by Glenna Matthews, The Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards,  Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 by John W. Robinson, and The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands). This set the stage for the 20th century migrations of Evangelicals.

What is interesting and truly strange is how vast the transformation was.

Even before the migration, these people were very religious, but it was a religion that was mostly grounded in rural farm communities. These people weren’t right-wingers. They were New Deal Democrats, labor unionists, socialists and other varieties of liberal and left-wing radicals. The region they called home was particularly a hotbed of agrarian socialism. The righteousness of their radicalism was born out of their religiosity.

They were on a moral crusade to save their way of life against corrupt capitalists and monopolizing industrialists, especially railroad tycoons. This began, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the Populist Era in the last decades of the 19th century. These people were further radicalized by the Great Depression which was when socialism really took hold. Oddly, this was when a mass migration began to set their eyes on California, but their native ideological roots were left behind for the most part. They were uprooted and when they were replanted in California soil new fruits would come forth.

There are two reasons for this.

First, they were independent farmers back home, but in California they became laborers for massive farms the likes not seen often back on the Southern plains. Their populist rhetoric romanticized the farmer. This very agrarian ‘free soil’ rhetoric made it hard for them to see the Californian farming elite as bad guys, even as they were being taken advantage of.

Second, as time went on, more of them got factory jobs. They were living in an area that boomed because of the vast wealth pumped into it by the federal government’s military defense funding. These former migrants became middle class and respectable. Their entire way of life, including the vast wealth of their churches, was dependent on government funding and the Cold War that fueled it all. This formed a marriage between Evangelical Second Coming eschatology and Cold War patriotic propaganda, a marriage that gave birth to a deformed child of a corporatist military-industrial complex that saw its purpose as saving all of the world’s soul.

In American politics, this took shape as the Southern Strategy. Nixon, a native Southern Californian, began the Southern Strategy and used it to great success. Reagan inherited it and revved up this style of propaganda to levels maybe never before seen in American politics. He was a native Midwesterner with an easygoing personality of Midwestern sunny optimism which he brought to Hollywood. Allying with Southern Evangelicals, he was able to cross the boundaries between North and South in California and in America at large. He took the dark vision of Evangelical End Times and made it a capitalist salvific vision of unending progress and profit.

As the Cold War began to slow down and then ended, the migration pattern reversed. Many Southern Californians headed back to their cultural homeland. With them, they took their weird Californianized ideology and they Californicated Texas along with the Southern Plains. Former Democratic strongholds became Republican majorities. This was a new Solid South, but one with the most modern techniques developed in California.

Here is how Darren Dochuk describes it in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (Kindle Locations 7783-7806):

Many Southern California evangelicals found the South’s new suburbs promising as well and played a direct role in populating (and politicizing) them. Indeed, as much as evangelicalism’s repositioning within Southern California dulled some of its power, a fourth force of change— more migration— blunted it altogether. This time, the migration was outward-bound. During the 1980s and 1990s, Southern California’s political economy underwent dramatic restructuring as a once spectacularly strong defense sector began to lose government contracts, its fight against inflation, and, generally, its luster. A declining tax base (exacerbated by Proposition 13) coupled with rising costs further tore up local neighborhoods. Orange County— once the epitome of California’s cold war boom— went bankrupt, marking a very real end to decades of unimpeded prosperity. Cold war defense suburbs that ringed Los Angeles County suffered similar burdens of adjustment, as did the evangelical communities that had banked their livelihoods on this economy. In reply, countless evangelical citizens and their institutions picked up and went east. Some , like James Dobson and his organization, Focus on the Family, were enticed by boosters and cheaper living to a newer defense community tucked away in the Mountain West: Colorado Springs. More often they simply returned to the place from whence they came: the western South. In a dramatic reversal, California began losing southern migrants in the 1980s, Oklahoma and Texas reclaiming them. Retirees, job seekers, and the homesick now steered their automobiles east on Interstate 10. Writing about this rising trend in 1983 that was remaking the Texas “oil patch,” social scientist William Stevens declared that the “great surge of post– World War II westing migration” had “bounced off the West Coast and ricocheted back to Texas.” He added that “both money and people” were making the trip. 13

This reverse migration was also primed to “Californiaize” Texas political culture and Republicanize Texas politics, pundits noted. To be sure, they overstated the case for the former, since Texas political culture was always protective of its character. And by the 1980s, Texas and the entire western South boasted a political and cultural authority that the rest of the nation now envied. This was the new epicenter of the new political economy , a home for NASA, Texaco, and Wal- Mart, emblems of the Sunbelt’s high-tech, resource-based, service economies and financial clout. In the late 1930s, Houston politician and philanthropist Jesse H. Jones had given an impassioned speech to students at John Brown University in tiny Siloam Springs , Arkansas , imploring them to take control of their region by applying a frontier mentality to its development. It was time, he said, for the western South to become strong and independent of northern industrialists’ grasp. Thanks to the work of educator-entrepreneurs like John Brown, George Benson, and R. G. LeTourneau, two generations of Christians had internalized this message and, with the aid of federal funds and venture capital, helped turn the western South into the colonizer rather than the colony.

Thus, the Great Amnesia took over American politics and the American populace. It was as if the Populist and Progressive Eras had never happened. Ignorant of the past, Americans became puppets whose strings were pulled by a plutocracy that had nearly all former restraints removed. They didn’t need democracy for they had Capitalism and God… or rather they had a Capitalism that was their God… along with some culture war issues to prettify his divine visage.

As Thomas Frank sums it up (What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, p. 5):

… the Great Backlash [is] a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues-summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art-which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements-not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars-that are the movement’s greatest monuments.

The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and deunionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their “New Economy” collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers’ fantasies of “globalization” and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.

The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause.

In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of economics. The movement’s basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern-that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country’s return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. “Reagan made himself the champion of ‘traditional values,’ but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority,” wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. “What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the twenties: the repeal of the New Deal.

This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement’s true believers even more. Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining. _____

Backlash theorists,(as we shall see) imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well connected-the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious eastern elite-pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of stringpullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here, after all, is a rebellion against “the establishment” that has wound up cutting the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.

Like a French Revolution in reverse-one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy-the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right. It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued all manner of rightwing economic nostrums from history’s dustbin. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.

America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest

In my post about Okies, I considered a factor that few know about or understand. Here is a small part of what I explained:

Midwestern culture has become so widespread in American society that it is almost invisible. Midwestern English, specifically in the area centered in and directly surrounding Iowa, became Standard American English which is to say that when someone of this region speaks it is perceived as there having no accent. Ronald Reagan became the great conservative leader from California was born in western Illinois which is part of the region of Standard American English. It was because of Midwesterners such as Reagan that Midwestern English became so common in Hollywood (and so common on nationally broadcast radio and television); by the way, John Wayne also came from this region, having been born in Iowa. This invisibility of Midwestern culture goes along with the invisibility of German-American culture, as the Midwest is the main region where Germans settled and most people don’t realize that there are more Americans of German ancestry than of any other ancestry. Both my parents are largely of German ancestry.

This has been something on my mind for a very long time.

In its most basic form, it relates to an earlier history. The Middle Colonies, as explained by Ned C. Landsman in Crossroads of Empire, helped create a regional culture of multiculturalism that became representative of America in general, despite not being among the earliest of the colonial settlements. This is partly because the population grew there so much faster than in any other region. It was largely because of this fast population growth that the North was able to win the Civil War.

The regional culture of the Middle Colonies had great impact on the Midwest specifically and on the North generally, and because of the Civil War its impact became truly national. The Midwest gets lost in all of this vast history. The regional culture is to Americans as mud is to a mudfish, and it is about as culturally sexy to Americans as is mud.

A big part of this influence was the German immigration. Germans were the single largest group of immigrants in American history (with several large waves of immigration over several centuries), and so they are now the single largest ancestral group of modern Americans.

German culture had a fate not dissimilar to British culture. After the American Revolution, Americans sought to create a new culture independent of that of Britain. After the First World War, Americans also sought to create a new culture independent of that of Germany. There was a nation-wide oppression of all things German which was magnified further with the Second World War. German influences remained, but they became less visible as had the British influences. Both British and German culture have merged almost seamlessly into a general American culture. The influence is there, but few ever notice it or think much about it. It’s just there in the background.

For the first centuries of American history, Germans were a cultural force to be reckoned with. They fiercely defended their culture and large areas of the Midwest were almost entirely German with public schools that taught in German and newspapers that published in German. That American tradition of Germanic culture was almost entirely annihalated in its outward forms. For example, a big reason behind Prohibition was because ethnic groups such as Germans prided themselves on their breweries and loved to drink. There was, however, a revival of German influence after the Second World War when there was a mass immigration of Germans escaping the Nazis, some of them Jews and some of them not but all of them bringing German culture.

So, unlike the English, Germans were able to make a comeback and claim their place as “Real Americans”. The English have always had the taint of oppression from our shared history of war. It is easier to forget and forgive the World Wars in Europe, especially since the Germans who came to America mostly fought on the American side or at least didn’t fight for the enemy (with a few exceptions such as Nazi scientists who came by ‘invitation’, so to speak). However, the British attacked the American colonies (i.e., on American soil) and that is a stigma that will probably remain for as long as the United States continues. The Japanese, likewise, will always have that stigma for Americans.

Nonetheless, Germans have never regained the prominently visible place they once held. Midwestern culture is almost synonymous with German culture, but you wouldn’t know that unless you have closely studied regional history. Even many people living in Midwestern states are oblivious to their own history. In Upper Midwest, they love to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage and yet Scandinavian history is small compared to the German heritage.

Standard American English (or General American) has its origins in the Middle Colonies and the later Mid-Atlantic states, but it didn’t take full form as we know it now until it developed further in a specific region of the Midwest. From there it spread West and through modern mass media became the dominant dialect. It has become so normal of a way of speaking that few notice it, including scholars, when those outside of this small region speak General American.

Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, etc. These were the purveyors of Standard American English and the Midwestern culture that went with it. Interestingly, the purveyors of this have become even more widespread as the influence of the United States has spread. American English and hence Midwestern-originated Standard American English has become the most common form of English taught and spoken in the world, so common that even the BBC has begun to use more American English because its worldwide audience has demanded it.

The same goes for religion. The Methodists of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest helped create much of modern American Christianity which spread far and wide, even helping to make the South so strongly religious. However, Midwesterners aren’t known for being dogmatically, politically and vocally religious. Ask most people what Christian denominations are most common in a state like Iowa and they couldn’t even guess.

In the Okie post, I went into great detail about religion. I specifically detailed alternative religion and spirituality. The heretical and/or secular thought of modern American society has much of its origins in this same area of Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. New Age spirituality and New Thought Christianity (Prosperity Gospel, as labeled by Evangelicals) have become so widespread that, like Midwestern dialect and German culture, it has become normalized and amorphous. No one thinks of these things as being Midwestern, for sure. Most people probably assume they were created ex nihilo in that crazy state of California on the West Coast, West of the West.

Many don’t know of the massively influential history of socialism that existed down in states such as Oklahoma and up in states such as Wisconsin, both regions influenced by the Midlands culture of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest as it was carried by the migration patterns going West and then, in the far extent of the Midwest, heading both South and North. Socialism was another popular aspect of German culture and, more generally, Northern European culture. It had been these radical left-wingers during the Populist Era during the 1890s that helped to force the hands of the powerful in eventually creating progressive reform.

This all began with the Quaker colony of William Penn (aka Pennsylvania) along with the Dutch colony of New Netherlands (aka New York). These both introduced a concentrated German influence that was injected into the central regions of early settlements. In time, this influence made itself known in so many ways as to no longer be recognized. It was simply American.

The ancestors of these early settlers, unlike many Appalachians for example, don’t usually identify as ‘American’ on census records and they’ve never tried to force their culture onto the rest of the country. I suppose it was just the fate of history that they ended up having such a powerful impact. And it was the result of being so culturally successful that they were so easily forgotten about.

The Midwest is called the Heartland for reasons beyond it being the center of the most productive farming in the US and in the world. Farming is important and made our country wealthy, but there is a deeper current to why the Midwest captures the American imagination.

It is where Dorothy seeks to return from Oz. It is Superman’s adpted home. It is the future birthplace of Captain Kirk. It is where new things are hoped for and things of the past are longed for. It is a place of renewal. It is where greatnss is seen in the simple. Or so that is how it is seen in the landscape of the American Dream.

It is the Heart of America. A heart that still beats.

Religious Adherents: Concentrated in Central US

I was perusing various maps of data. I visited a favorite website of mine that has a great set of maps of religions in the United States. One stood out to me just now. It is a map of religious adherents:

Map of Religious Adherents as a percentage of all residents, 2000


The pattern of the highest concentrations of religious adherents doesn’t follow the pattern one would suspect. It doesn’t follow the Bible Belt (the Bible Belt may get the most attention, but maybe its not deserved). It doesn’t split between the North and South or between the East and West.

It is mostly situated in the central core of the country. Besides the Mormons, it sticks close to the 100th Meridian and the Great Plains.

I was wondering what religious patterns it does follow. The only two maps that show some similarity are those of the Methodists and Catholics, but I don’t know why that might be or if it is significant at all. It’s very intriguing, whatever its cause.



Oklahoma: A State of Confusion

Here is an insightful article with a good comments section and another discussion on a forum:

South by Midwest: Or, Where is Oklahoma?

Is the U.S. state of Oklahoma considered a southern state?

So, what defines Oklahoma?

Religion or political party?

Oklahoma is part of a geographical region characterized by conservative and Evangelical Christianity known as the “Bible Belt“. Spanning the southeastern United States, the area is known for politically and socially conservative views, even though Oklahoma has more voters registered with the Democratic Party than with any other party.[213]

Census region?


Oklahoma is placed in the South by the United States Census Bureau,[92] but lies fully or partially in the Southwest, and southern cultural regionsby varying definitions, and partially in the Upland South and Great Plains by definitions of abstract geographical-cultural regions.[93] Oklahomans have a high rate of EnglishScotch-IrishGerman, and Native American ancestry,[94] with 25 different native languages spoken.[14]

Because many Native Americans were forced to move to Oklahoma when White settlement in North America increased, Oklahoma has a lot of linguistic diversity. Mary Linn, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and the associate curator of Native American languages at the Sam Noble Museum, said that Oklahoma also has high levels of language endangerment.[95]

Six governments have claimed the area now known as Oklahoma at different times,[96] and 67 Native American tribes are represented in Oklahoma,[45] including 39 federally recognized tribes, who are headquartered and have tribal jurisdictional areas in the state.[97] Western ranchers, Native American tribes, southern settlers, and eastern oil barons have shaped the state’s cultural predisposition, and its largest cities have been named among the most underrated cultural destinations in the United States.[98][99]

While residents of Oklahoma are associated with stereotypical traits of southern hospitality – the Catalogue for Philanthropy ranks Oklahomans 4th in the nation for overall generosity[100] – the state has also been associated with a negative cultural stereotype first popularized by John Steinbeck‘s novel “The Grapes of Wrath“, which described the plight of uneducated, poverty-stricken Dust Bowl-era farmers deemed “Okies“.[101][102][103] However, the term is often used in a positive manner by Oklahomans.[102]


Shifting public opinion?

Now, the Southern Focus Poll, conducted by the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, provides strong support for including such states as Texas, Kentucky and Oklahoma in the South. On the other hand, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware and the District of Columbia don’t belong anymore, if they ever did.

Fourteen polls, surveying a total of more than 17,000 people between 1992 and 1999 show, for example, that only 7 percent of D.C. residents responding say that they live in the South.

Only 14 percent of Delaware residents think they live in the region, followed by Missourians with 23 percent, Marylanders with 40 percent and West Virginians with 45 percent.

“We found 84 percent of Texans, 82 percent of Virginians, 79 percent of Kentuckians and 69 percent of Oklahomans say they live in the South,” says Dr. John Shelton Reed, director of the institute. “Our findings correspond to the traditional 13-state South as defined by the Gallup organization and others, but is different from the Census Bureau’s South, which doesn’t make sense.”


Oklahoma Land Regions

A particular settlement patterns of veterans after the Civil War?

Oklahoma, with its rich, fertile soil and undeveloped resources, was attractive to Southerners ruined by War and Reconstruction.  They came in droves, hoping to better their lot.  Many of them were Confederate veterans.  Settled in 1887, Wynnewood, like most of the towns in Indian Territory, was populated nearly exclusively by people from the Old South states, and today the southeast quadrant of the state is still known as Little Dixie.

What about the significant numbers of Germans, Czechs, and Union soldiers/veterans in Oklahoma?  What about the socialists, progressives and populists? Don’t they count?

The Californian Confusion of Okies: Context is Everything

I recommend the book American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California by James N. Gregory.

It basically lives up to what it sets out to do and what I expected of it. It’s a quality history of the so-called Okies. It remains a useful analysis despite it having been published in 1989, but I’m sure a lot of new historical research could be added all these decades later; indeed, I will add some of that myself here in this review.

There is a more recent book that might be helpful in adding context to this older book. The book I have in mind is From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuk. I’ve only started reading it, but it seems promising. The difference with it is that it focuses on the larger migration beyond the Okies. I may review it at some point.

Before I get into the meat of my review about American Exodus, I’ll offer something the author quoted near the end of his book in explanation of what it meant to be an Okie. This is from Woodie Guthrie in his describing his own Okie heritage (Kindle Location 3376):

Though my mama came from Arkansas
and my daddy came from Texas, and though we all came to Oregon from
Colorado by way of daddy being stationed at the Mare Island Navy
base in California during WWII, I nevertheless must admit that
I think of myself as an Oakie.
Let me tell you what being an Oakie means:
Being an Oakie means being the first of your whole family to finish
high school let alone go on to college …
Being an Oakie means getting rooted out of an area and
having to hustle for a toehold in some new area …
Being an Oakie means running the risk of striving out
from under a layer of heartless sonsabitches only to discover
you have become a redneck of bitterness worse than those
you strove against …
Being an Oakie is a low rent, aggravating drag, but it does
learn you some essentials … essentials like it isn’t a new car
that pulls over to help you when you are broke down with the
senile carburetor; it is somebody who knows what it is
to be broke down with a hurt machine.

The rest of my review will go into more detail, both about what is in the book and what isn’t in the book, both about the objective data and my personal way of connecting to it. So, let me begin.

The reason I decided to read American Exodus is two-fold. First, I was recently visiting California for the first time. Second, part of my visit involved visiting family or visiting places where family had lived. As I’ve been doing genealogical research, I thought it would be useful to gain some historical and cultural knowledge about the area. Living in the most western  section of the eastern half of the US, this was one of the books that offered an interesting way of looking at the relationship between the East and West in terms of one particular migration.

My father’s great uncle and great aunt on his mother’s side moved to California from Texas sometime in the very early 20th century (not sure when), but I doubt they moved for reasons of poverty and desperation as did the Okies. My paternal grandmother (the niece of my father’s great uncle and great aunt) along with my aunt moved to California from Indiana during the 50s and she too had been born in Texas. On the other side of my family, my mom’s uncle (my maternal great uncle) and his family moved to California from Indiana also in the 50s, but they were also of a more Southern culture as various lines of the family had spent many generations (many centuries, in fact) in the Upper South: Southern ‘Hoosier’ Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

None of my family was a part of the Okie migration, but that wasn’t unusual for most who ended up in California. The migration from Texas, the Western South and the Southern Plains had been going on in the decades before and in the decades after the Dust Bowl era. Besides, my family was going to California mostly departing from the Midwest, but they would have been in good company with many Midwesterners and other Northerners who went West (in California, I came across a Danish village called Solvang that was settled by Danish Midwesterners, some of the leaders from my home state Iowa).

My dad’s Texas great uncle and great aunt are family members I never knew and so I have no personal connection.

Even though Texas is very distant from my personal experience, I have been fascinated for a long while with the similar histories of Texas and California (both being former parts of Mexico and before that the Spanish Empire which means both have a local Hispanic populations that are older than the United States). The connection between Texas and California was only magnified by so many Texans (as Okies and otherwise) moving to California (many of these immigrants included millions of Hispanics and blacks, a fact the author does mention, though not in great detail as that isn’t the focus).

Texas played a special role for Okies, as the author explains. Many Okies had a combined sense of pride and shame about where they came from. Texas with its (self-proclaimed) proud history of revolution (ignoring all the violence and oppression) seemed like a more respectable place than somewhere like Oklahoma and so many took on the cowboy attire as a cultural signifier; although interestingly the entire cowboy culture originated from the Spanish and was passed on by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to white Southwesterners and then to Okies.

It should be noted that the Mexico originally included most of Texas as well as parts of Oklahoma and Kansas. And, prior to that, the Spanish Empire included all of Florida through all of Texas along with the entire Gulf of Mexico coastline in between including all of Louisiana; everything going north from there including all of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota; and nearly everything West of that all the way to the West Coast. As I pointed out in another post, in reference to the concentrated numbers of Hispanics in a quarter of the North American territory of the United States:

“Mexicans aren’t invading America. Americans invaded Mexico (and the former Spanish Empire).”

I would have liked to have seen in the book more analysis of how white Southern culture and Mexican/Tejano/Norteno culture in some ways merged together in the Southwest and in Southern California, a merging that was far from complete and that coincided with much conflict of course.

I would also like to have seen the relationship between whites and blacks in the Okie’s home states and in California. Located in Oklahoma was what has been called Black Wall Street which became famous with the Tulsa race riot.

Now, that would have made an interesting historical note to the story of Okies: poor white Okies came from a state that once had some of the richest black people in America, and then that thriving black community was violently destroyed by racist whites only a decade before the Okies began heading out to California. That would put into context some of the conflicts blacks and whites had in California, a place where blacks finally felt free to fight back in a fair fight as the Okies had no majority advantage to suppress them as they did back home.

Here is the passage where the author goes into greater detail about Okies and blacks (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 2273-2286):

Even as some whites were learning new lessons, others clung tenaciously to racial animosity. And if we are looking again for central tendencies, it would have to be said that racism remained the subculture’s dominant voice. Many Southwesterners found purpose in speaking out against rather than for interracial understanding.

This became quite evident in the 1940s, when the racial composition of California underwent a fundamental change. Black migration accelerated dramatically during World War II, nearly quadrupling the state’s Afro-American population by 1950. Where Okies and blacks met there was continual tension. Sociologist Katherine Archibald observed the conflict in a Bay Area shipyard. Blacks were resented by most whites, she noted, but especially by Okies, who “found it hard to accept the casual contact between Negro men and white women to which Northern custom had become indifferent-sitting together on streetcars and buses, standing together before lunch counters or pay windows, working side by side in the same gangs.”” Grumbling that “it’s the niggers who are taking over California,” Okics talked loudly, she added, about lynchings and other bloody remedies. “What you need round here,” one Southwesterner told her, “is a good old-fashioned lynching. Back in my home state we string a nigger up or shoot him down, every now and then, and that way we keep the rest of them quiet and respectful.”””

Apparently it was not all talk. Violent incidents, including cross burnings and even murders, occurred in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, settings where defense work brought the two groups of Southerners together. At the end of the war a brief florescence of Ku Klux Klan activity in southern California was linked to Southwestern whites.’

Southwesterners enjoyed no monopoly on racism, of course. Nor did California, with its legacy of anti-Asian sentiment, need instructions in white supremacy. Black newcomers met resistance from many quarters. But some white Southwesterners brought a heightened militancy to the subject. Both because interracial contacts at work and school were new and because their self-esteem at this juncture was so fragile, vigorous racism became a prominent feature of the Okie response to California. Charles Newsome remembers the transference. “The people out here [Californians] looked down on the Okies but the Okies looked down on other people too at the time.””‘

Here is another passage where he explains how shocking California was to the Okie sensibility (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 2226-2249):

Settlement in California imposed a number of unfamiliar ethnic encounters on migrants from the Western South. Coming from a region where blacks and in some settings Hispanics were the only significant minorities and where white Protestant supremacy was an unquestioned fact of life, the greater diversity and somewhat more tolerant habits of California offered a serious challenge.”

Some found themselves working for Italian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, Armenian, or perhaps even Japanese growers; others for Hispanic labor contractors or once in a while a black contractor. They competed for jobs with Hispanic and Filipino workers, sometimes finding that these groups were preferred by certain growers. All this was confusing. “We thought we were just 100 percent American,” recalls Martha Jackson, who arrived in California as a teenager in 1937. “1 had never heard of an Armenian, I had never met an Italian and I never had seen Chinese or Japanese or Mexican people…. We thought their grandparents didn’t tight in the Civil War or Revolution.””`

The new encounters were especially difficult because of the contempt Okies experienced at the hands of so many white residents. Accustomed to a social structure which guaranteed them ethnic privileges, they read California’s arrangements as an inversion of accustomed patterns. “I have not noticed the California critics condemning the Filipinos, Japanese, or any other foreigners,” William Siefert wrote to Fresno’s major newspaper. “But when United States horn citizens come here, they say we cut wages and lower their standard of living.””3

“Just who built California’?” another writer asked rhetorically before revealing his ignorance of California’s ethnohistory:

“Certainly not the Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, etc., that you let stay inside her borders…. The aliens are perfectly welcome, but the real citizens must stay out…. Not one word of protest did I hear [about foreigners]. But let a citizen front the East come out here and try to make a home and be a respectable person and one hears plenty.”

James Wilson encountered similar complaints among the migrants he interviewed in Kern County. Among those who would speak freely of their feelings of discontent, several blamed Mexicans, Japanese, and Filipinos, all of whom, one Oklahoman claimed, “git the cream of the crop, they git the jobs.” “That is where a lot of our trouble is,” he continued, “the country is too heavily populated with foreigners … the farmers ain’t got no business hirin’ them fer low wages when we native white American citizens are starvin’.””s It was had enough, Clyde Storey* maintained, that Californians refused to “treat you like a white man,” but to encounter a sign reading “No White Laborers Need Apply” at the ranch belonging to former President Herbert Hoover was in his mind the most painful irony of all.” A young Oklahoman summarized the fear that pressed heavily on the self-esteem of many migrants: “they think as much of a ‘Nigger’ uptown here as they do white people.”” It was not true, of course, but the decline in their own social position, combined with what most Southwesterners saw as a substantial elevation in the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, perhaps made it seem so.

Without question the most troubling feature of the California ethnic system for Southwesterners centered on interactions with blacks. A tiny black population shared the farm-labor occupational strata with Okies in the San Joaquin Valley. Excluded even from the FSA camps, living mostly in isolated enclaves in some of the larger towns, blacks, as always, suffered far more serious economic and social discrimination than any whites. Still they enjoyed certain opportunities not common to the Southwest, and these offended the sensibilities of the newcomers. The superiority of white over black was the bottom line of plain-folk culture, and any change in the status of black people was very deeply felt.

The most obvious breach in segregation etiquette occurred in the schools, some of which admitted black students to the same classrooms as whites. Ruth Woodall Criswell recalls the resulting trauma in her household. It was “the first time in my life I’d ever gone to school with anyone except just white children.” Her parents “could hardly reconcile themselves to the fact. At first they didn’t seem to mind so much about the Mexican and Chinese but the blacks bothered them.”””

With clashes of culture and ethnicity, politics took on new meaning. Back in Texas and the Southern Plains, Okies had often been New Deal Progressives, union members and sometimes even socialists or communists. These tendencies were magnified for some Okies who found themselves on the strike lines with minorities. Other Okies turned reactionary which magnified, instead, their worst traits of racism and religious bigotry. It was a mix.

Maybe that is why country/folk music became so central to Okie culture. It was something all Okies could agree on.

I’m a Midwesterner and don’t have much Southern soil left on my family’s Southern roots.

However, I did spend 8th grade through college in South Carolina and several summers in North Carolina. Then I moved back to Iowa and have been here since. My time spent in the Deep South and the Bible Belt has made me endlessly fascinated by Southern culture. The transplantation of that culture to California equally fascinates me. As the book makes clear, California is where Southern culture and politics was transformed and nationalized. It is the originating point and the incubating place of so much of the contemporary clashes in our society, from Nixon’s Southern Strategy to the religious right, from country music and protest folk music to cowboy movies made in Hollywood.

American Exodus was helpful in my seeking to understand my Californian family members and the culture of the state they moved to. My grandmother was raised a Southern Baptist, although she became a Methodist in Indiana. It is interesting how much she changed by having moved to the Bay Area which is a very different place from the Southern California area her aunt and uncle lived in. My mom’s Hoosier family are much more of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist tradition that I suppose they brought with them from Appalachia, and so they would have meshed more with the Okie population.

Helpful as the book was, the author doesn’t fully explain to my satisfaction certain aspects of the changes that happened in this regional migration and cultural transplantation.

I already pointed out the political aspect. During much of their history well into the 20th century, the Southern Plains and Texas were known for radical and left-wing politics along with many alternative and even utopian communities (including some socialist), not necessarily or entirely the conservatism they are known for today. These were also bastions of New Deal Progressivism and the Democratic Party, and indeed many Okies and other Southwestern migrants remained or became liberal Democrats and labor unionists in California (something the author does note).

I can’t emphasize enough how socialist was this region. Texas and the Southern Plains was a breeding ground for agrarian socialists. It was a massive populist movement, and Oklahoma was the center of the storm. Okies came from an extremely radical political tradition.

The region Okies came from had been a place of great conflict, especially during the 19th century. The antebellum period saw the first Anglo-American settlements and then the conflict of slavery. Some Okies came from former slave states and some from former free states. Two examples will suffice. There was Bleeding Kansas which became a major battleground. And there was Texas that was founded by slave owners, partly for the reason that the Mexican government abolished slavery.

It has been famously asked, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Likewise it could be asked, what’s the matter with Oklahoma and what was the matter with Okies?

Many things transformed the culture in these states during the mid-to-late 20th century and much more transformed the culture as it was transplanted to the West Coast. In California, there was a mixing together of all kinds of ideologies, religions, social systems, cultural traditions, and races/ethnicities. This exaggerated certain aspects of those who moved there while suppressing other aspects. There is a strange and complicated history behind Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the rise of the religious right, specifically as they came to national attention largely via Southern California.

I would point out a couple further shortcomings or problems with American Exodus.

I’ll start with the simpler criticism. The author occasionally, although not often, would make statements that seemed to imply some kind of positive bias toward Okies. I came across it a number of times in my reading, but I’ll offer the last one I came across (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 3228-3232):

Southwesterners were not alone in donning cowboy styles. Nor was the style particularly new. Well before the Dust Bowl migration, rodeos, Western Day celebrations, and a sprinkling of cowboy hats signified rural California’s Western heritage. But the look grew significantly more popular in the closing years of the Depression and became associated with the Okie subculture in the same nonexclusive way that governed most of the group’s symbols and institutions. A marker of sorts, it was not the defiant group uniform adopted by some subcultures (zoot suits, for example, by young blacks and Chicanos in the same period). Okies sought legitimacy from their symbolic statements. Choosing references they assumed to be widely respected, the distinction they valued was that of being the best Americans around.

Southwesterners, according to the author, were simply seeking respectability by dressing differently than those around them. Racial minorities, on the other hand, were adopting a “defiant group uniform” in their doing the same. Really? I’d say that the cowboy image was the very symbol of defiance. Okies even celebrated their defiance of a mainstream culture that they despised or pretended to despise, although less so after Southwestern culture became more mainstream. This defiance by Okies, in fact, is described by the author in this very book.

A simpler explanation is that young Okies in particular, in seeking peer approval, dressed up in the latest popular fashion among young Okies. The same explanation would apply to young blacks and Chicanos. That is just what young people do.

This is a minor complaint, though. I suspect the author for a brief moment fell into romanticizing the Okies, just as the Okies had romanticized their own Southwestern culture.

The romanticizing by Okies of cowboys holds an odd historical element. The defiance of cowboys came from their status as outsiders. Cowboy culture along with open-range ranching originated in Spain and was spread to America through the Spanish Empire. It came to fruition in the frontier areas that would later be annexed by the United States. The first cowboys were of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry. In the highly ordered society of the Spanish Empire, cowboys had greater freedom than most in that they were itinerant workers that traveled freely between ranches. The imperial control was weakest on the frontier which was known for rebelliousness and revolutionary tendencies, even before any Anglo-American ever set foot there.

My other criticism is more complex and involved. The author at one point in the book had a minor discussion comparing the Okie influence on California with the Midwestern influence on California. This grabbed my attention.

I’m a Midwesterner and so is most of my family. I was born in Ohio where I lived in my early childhood and then spent several years in Illinois, but I ended up in third grade living in Iowa for a few more years. After spending almost a decade away from Iowa in my latter school years and thereafter, I returned to Iowa and have remained since. An Iowan is what I identify as and the Midwest is what I most personally know about. It is from this perspective that the following passage stood out to me (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 3365-3368):

A group identity may not carry very far unless it is tied to specific institutional vehicles. This may be one of the reasons why Midwesterners have not made the same kind of demonstrable cultural impact on California, despite massive numbers and sometimes avid home-state loyalties (Iowans for example). Of course, the fact that Iowans were never cast as social outsiders made a powerful difference, but so did the Southwesterners’ proprietorial control of several institutions that were relatively new to California.

There might be some truth to this, specifically about institutions. I couldn’t say which institutions that Midwesterns might have had proprietorial control of. However, that is far from concluding that “Midwesterners have not made the same kind of demonstrable cultural impact on California.” It is because Midwestern influence was so massive and powerful that it was so diffuse throughtout and so well integrated into California culture.

Southwesterners stood out so much as a sub-culture in California for the very reason that they were essentially a minority group there, thus competing against other minority groups in a very public clash of politics. Minorities tend to get a lot of attention from the mainstream media and from politicians, and maybe this is because they often seek attention in their seeking recognition. It also might just be a cultural difference among regional groups. Midwesterners are perceived as being so normal, so typically American as to be bland and boring. Another thing about Midwesterners, unlike Southerners and Southwesterners, is that they tend to be very moderate in both their politics and their religion. Midwesterners are good at blending in. Seeking attention/recognition just doesn’t seem to be a part of Midwestern culture.

Midwestern culture has become so widespread in American society that it is almost invisible. Midwestern English, specifically in the area centered in and directly surrounding Iowa, became Standard American English which is to say that when someone of this region speaks it is perceived as there having no accent. Ronald Reagan became the great conservative leader from California was born in western Illinois which is part of the region of Standard American English. It was because of Midwesterners such as Reagan that Midwestern English became so common in Hollywood (and so common on nationally broadcast radio and television); by the way, John Wayne also came from this region, having been born in Iowa. This invisibility of Midwestern culture goes along with the invisibility of German-American culture, as the Midwest is the main region where Germans settled and most people don’t realize that there are more Americans of German ancestry than of any other ancestry. Both my parents are largely of German ancestry.

Didn’t it occur to the author that it was odd that so many Californians speak Standard American English which originated in the Midwest?

Spending so much time in Iowa, I speak Standard American English. My dad also speaks Standard American English, more or less. My mom, even though she was born in central Indiana like my dad, inherited an Appalachian/Hoosier accent from her family. However, her cousin who was was born in central Indiana as well spent most of her childhood in California and doesn’t have a trace of accent. She speaks Standard American English, despite never having lived in the region from which originated Standard American English. It’s interesting that my mom’s family living in the Midwest had a Southern accent and only gained a more typical Midwestern accent by moving to California.

Also, consider this from a different angle.

The Midlands culture that forms the backbone of the Midwest isn’t limited to the Midwest.

Midwestern influence ended up being very broad as the migration pattern from Pennsylvania westward eventually spread north into Canada and south as far as the hill country of Texas. The very western area of the South that this book is about was heavily influenced by Midwestern culture, especially by way of German immigrants, long before there were any Okies in California. This influence of the Midwest was, therefore, carried to California by Midwesterners and by many Okies as well.

Along with this, consider the religious issue.

How did the South become so Evangelical in the first place? The South originally was one of the least religious regions during the colonial era and into the early American period.

It took Methodist circuit riders and Baptists from the North to begin the process of creating a more strong religiosity in the South, especially the Deep South; but initially these religious outsiders were perceived by Southerners as radical and intrusive. As explained in Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Kindle Locations 138-144):

The surprise, of course , is that evangelicals struggled for many decades to prosper among whites in the South. So long has this region been regarded as the cultural hearth of evangelicalism in the present-day United States that it takes some doing to imagine a past that was radically different, a time when a diverse, contentious spiritual culture seemed unlikely ever to become the “Bible Belt,” let alone its proudly proclaimed “buckle.” But much of what follows is an effort at doing just that— recovering a world marooned from living memory in which evangelicals, far from dominating the South, were viewed by most whites as odd at best and subversive at worst.

One of the earliest Baptists in America was Roger Williams, a former Bostonian Puritan who founded Rhode Island. The only Evangelical tradition native to Southerners is Presbyterianism which was mostly concentrated in the Upper South of Appalachia, and many of the earliest Scots-Irish who brought Presbyterianism there came through the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania.

However, even early Appalachia was less overtly religious for a number of reasons. The South in general and the frontier South in particular tended to be more often settled by single male immigrants (whereas, in the North, entire families or even entire villages moved together and settled together). Even when Appalachians did settle down in families, it was more difficult to build religious infrastructure as Appalachians were less motivated in building roads and towns, preferring to live in kinship groups spread far apart from others. Presbyterians also had the problem early on in finding enough preachers for it originally had been the practice for all preachers to be trained in Britain which meant some congregations lacked a preacher for extended periods of time.

The First Great Awakening (i.e., period of revivalism) had its most noticeable activity in New England, but its influence was felt throughout the colonies. At that time, Baptists were the driving force behind separation of church and state. Interestingly, long before the Okies, the Scots-Irish settlers in California were likewise the driving force (against New England settlers) behind separation of church and state. The later Okies were ironically also largely of Scots-Irish descent and so ended up fighting against the secular tradition of their forebears. If not for those first Scots-Irish, New Englanders might have successfully made California a religious state as their religious descendants helped make the South religious. New Englanders sought to establish Protestantism in California and promoted religious social reform, such as the blue laws that became common in the South.

From Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Kindle Locations 3621-3639):

However well funded and organized they were, the Yankees had little luck with their efforts beyond their coastal beachheads. They successfully lobbied to get the state legislature to pass laws protecting the Sabbath, but the California Supreme Court was by then dominated by Borderlanders from the mining districts, who declared the law invalid. San Franciscans on the whole rejected Puritan morality. “In California, the Sabbath is ignored by the masses,” the San Francisco Bulletin reported in 1860. “The more abandoned resort to gambling saloons where, with drugged whisky and logwood wines they manage to stake their previous week’s earnings on a throw of dice or a doubtful game of pasteboard.” Yankees had influenced the Left Coast, but they could not make it a commonwealth of saints.14

The central problem, of course, was that from 1850 onward the overwhelming majority of California’s Left Coast residents—and those of the state as a whole—weren’t Yankees. The Gold Rush had drawn people from all over the world: Appalachian farmers, Chilean and Australian miners, Irish and Italian adventurers, and hopeful Chinese laborers. In a land whose colonial culture was yet to be defined, few were willing to simply follow the Yankees’ lead. Catholics rejected it altogether in favor of their own dreams that California, on account of its relative isolation and Spanish heritage, might serve as a refuge from Protestant America. They, too, had their schools, missions, orphanages, and colleges: Italian Jesuits were issuing degrees at Santa Clara while Berkeley was still a prep school. When voters elected delegates to the territory’s constitutional convention in 1849, Yankees were a distinct minority, outnumbered by Borderlanders and norteños. California’s first two governors were San Francisco residents, but both were from Appalachia.15

While the Yankees failed in their broad mission, they did have a lasting effect on coastal California from Monterey north. The coast blended the moral, intellectual, and utopian impulses of a Yankee elite with the self-sufficient individualism of its Appalachian and immigrant majority. The culture that formed—idealistic but individualistic—was unlike that of the gold-digging lands in the interior but very similar to those in western Oregon and Washington. It would take nearly a century for its people to recognize it, but it was a new regional culture, one that would ally with Yankeedom to change the federation.

The other side of the First Great Awakening was Deism and Universalism with a smidgeon of atheism and other heretical thought thrown in. Many of the revolutionary generation, including many of the founders and signers, were Deists, Universalists or otherwise (by today’s standards) not very traditional Christians.

The Second Great Awakening was most concentrated in an area of western New York that became known as the burned-over district. It was the Second Great Awakening that brought on the wave of Methodist circuit riders who reached into the backcountry of the Midwest and the Upper South. This is how Presbyterianism was brought out of its rural isolation and slumber. The Second Great Awakening was known for promoting grassroots democracy and progressive reform, in particular temperance, women’s rights, and abolitionism.

The other side of the Second Great Awakening was spiritualism, transcendentalism, Mormonism, and utopian movements. Many note that Quakers weren’t involved with the revivalism movement, but Quakers along with Shakers were the driving force behind spiritualism (as a side note, my paternal great grandfather was raised by Shakers). Like revivalism, spiritualism took hold in western New York and spread widely. Mormon also arose in that same area, also offered an alternative to revivalism, and then also spread West heading across the Midwest (I’ve seen the old Mormon wagon tracks that are still visible here in Iowa). Like the Evangelicals, Mormons later would support New Deal Progressivism and then even later identify with the religious right culture wars.

Mormonism has become more well known and almost mainstream at this point, but spiritualism had a great impact as well, way more than many today realize. Abraham Lincoln’s wife, and maybe Abraham Lincoln himself, was involved with spiritualist mediums and involved in spiritualist seances. Abraham Lincoln was certainly in the same social circles as many spiritualists, the most famous examples being Harriet Beecher Stowe (she claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been dictated to her by spirit authors) and a lesser known example being Robert Dale Owen (who was the son of an influential socialist and who was himself an influential socialist and politician who, for example, pressured Lincoln to declare the Emancipation Proclamation).

In the Third Great Awakening, the Social Gospel laid the groundwork for the Populist Movement and the Progressive Era which, in secularized form, laid the groundwork for modern liberalism and progressivism. The Social Gospel was, however, rooted in the progressive reform that was inherent to the first two Great Awakenings. Only later in the 20th century did such progressive reform become solely identified with and blamed on liberal elites and left-wing secularism, a fact that is typically omitted by conservatives, especially Southern Evangelicals.

The other side of the Third Great Awakening was New Thought Christianity, Christian Science, Theosophy and New Age Spirituality. All these were phenomena of the North, including the Midwest, long before they became associated with the West Coast. I was raised in Unity Church which was founded by Midwesterners and established in Missouri. Many Okies, of course, were from Missouri. It was because of various waves of Southern Plains and Midwestern immigrants that all of this alternative spirituality/religion ended up in California which is where my grandmother discovered it and how my parents became introduced to it. Like my mom’s cousin having to go to California to get a Midwestern accent, my grandmother had to go to California to get Midwestern alternative religion.

My point is that the Okies can’t be fully understood without the full context.

Okies get so much credit for influencing California culture and American culture because for one there was a mass media to report on them and second because they weren’t shy about grabbing the attention of mass media (e.g., all the Okies who became famous musicians and movie stars). But maybe this exaggerates their actual influence or obfuscates so many other influences both before and after their resettlement on the West Coast.

I’m sure iit won’t bother most readers that the author didn’t tackle this more difficult analysis. I won’t hold it against the author. I just felt the need to point out that it was missing since so few know about these intertwined aspects of history. Anyway, if the author followed my advice, his book would have become a cumbersome multi-volume project.

I’ll end on a positive note.

The author, even with my criticisms, was far from clueless about the larger historical context. For example, he acknowledged the similarity between the migration pattern of Southerners going to the North and to the West (my family being a part of both movements). Here is what he wrote (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 82-84):

One stream of the white exodus has been studied. Whites from the upper South and Appalachian highlands moved into Northern cities during the same decades that large numbers of Southwesterners were heading west. The two experiences appear to have much in common. Called “hillbillies” instead of “Okies,” white Southerners in cities like Chicago and Detroit acquired the same kind of socio-cultural definition as Southwesterners in California. Distinctive subcultures, shaped somewhat like those belonging to immigrant ethnic groups, emerged in both settings.

There are many other examples of the author offering historical context, specifically about various groups that moved to California. I learned much by reading American Exodus. It is a lot more interesting topic than I ever considered.

A book like this is inevitably limited in its intentionally narrowed focus. For me, though, the larger context is more interesting than the single topic by itself. Non-fiction books in particular are most valuable when not read in isolation, but that is the responsibility of the reader and not the author.

Voting Rights Act: a Last Defense Against Voter Suppression

An important case has attracted attention recently. It is about voting rights.

I will never understand why this is seen as a partisan issue, specifically why Republicans make it a partisan issue. If Democrats (or any other party) sought to suppress Republican voters (or any group of voters), if they sought to disenfranchise Southern whites, conservatives and fundamentalists, I’d be as strong of a critic of this practice as when Republicans have done the same in recent elections.

Why do Republicans, conservatives and libertarians lack principles about democracy? Or refuse to apply their principles in principled fashion? What do they fear about democracy? Why do they do to others as they would never accept others doing unto them? If their principles don’t include democracy and the constitution, what do they represent?

Here is one article making clear the issues at hand.

Millions Of Voters Of Color Will Be Affected By The Supreme Court’s Shelby Decision

As the nation awaits a decision in the Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, the future of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act hangs in the balance. The greatest legal protection for voters of color, Section 5 requires states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to submit all voting changes for federal preclearance before they can be implemented. Nowhere is its modern-day significance clearer than in the experience of voters of color in the 2012 election, when a tidal wave of voter suppression policies threatened to restrict full participation.

As the repeal has become official, let’s ponder the consequences. The reason the Voting Rights Act was passed in the first place was because certain states were practicing legal oppression of citizens and suppression of their voting rights.

Consider this in terms of the criminal system. With the Voting Rights Act, certain states were in a sense put into prison with the hopes of rehabilitation and one day release into normal life.Replace the crime of unconstitutional and anti-democratic political action. Replace it with some more mundane crime against one’s fellow citizens, let’s say: theft, murder or rape.

The criminal is caught, charged, given a trial, and imprisoned. After many years, the prisoner appeals for release. Would the appeal committee release the prisoner without looking at his record of behavior while in prison? One would hope not. If the thief, murderer or rapist had had stolen, murdered or raped while in prison, should he be released simply because he had been in prison for decades? Of course not.

Now, let’s analyze the original crime that caused these states to have this law enforced upon them. Since the Voting Rights Act was enacted, have these states committed these crimes again? Have they committed these crimes recently? Yes and yes. Have they been rehabilitated? Should they be released because of good behavior? No and no.

So, what is Section 5 all about and how does it specifically relate to recent political issues?

The greatest legal protection for voters of color, Section 5 requires states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to submit all voting changes for federal preclearance before they can be implemented. Nowhere is its modern-day significance clearer than in the experience of voters of color in the 2012 election, when a tidal wave of voter suppression policies threatened to restrict full participation.

A new report, to be released next month by Advancement Project and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, comprehensively analyzes that experience for the first time, and recommends election reforms to ensure the ballot remains free, fair and accessible for all. (See a five-page summary with key data from the report here.) Entitled Lining Up: Equal Access to the Right to Vote, the report highlights the determined efforts of the two civil rights organizations, from the courtroom to the streets, to combat voter ID laws, challenges at the polls, deception and intimidation, proof-of-citizenship registration practices, unacceptably long lines, and the improper use of provisional ballots.

The report also tells the story through testimonials from African-American and Latino citizens who were impacted by – and stood up to – voter suppression laws and policies. Collectively, this illustrates the continued need for federal laws, such as Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, protecting the right to vote. In addition, the report explores the critical role of Section 5 in blocking legislative assaults on voting, and the continued voting problems in states covered by the provision. Findings include:

  • In states covered by Section 5 in the 2012 elections, more than 22.9 million Black, Latino and Asian-American voters were able to cast a ballot.
  • Laws that shortened early voting periods in 2012 contributed to long lines in some locations, which voters of color faced more. Black and Latino voters were reportedly two to three times more likely than whites to wait longer than 30 minutes to vote.
  • In 2013, 11 of the 15 states that are either fully or partially covered by Section 5’s protections – more than 73 percent – have introduced restrictive voting bills.


“While African-American, Latino and Asian-American voters came out in historic numbers in 2012, those numbers were possible only after voter protection organizations, community groups and voters themselves, who fought tirelessly to defeat restrictive laws across the country and other attempts to suppress voters of color,” said Katherine Culliton-González, Senior Attorney and Director of Voter Protection for Advancement Project. “Without the intervention of the Justice Department through Section 5, the impact of these assaults on democracy would have been far worse.”

Push to overturn Voting Rights Act tied to GOP voter suppression efforts
Zachary Roth

In 2012, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted caused an outcry when he ended early voting in the three days before Election Day for everyone except members of the military. The change would have made it harder for hundreds of thousands of Ohioans—disproportionately African-Americans—to vote. As Rachel Maddow and noted at the time, Husted brought in Consovoy to defend the move in court, after it was challenged by the Obama campaign. Ultimately, the court required that the early voting days be restored.

Also last year, Florida Republicans passed a law that cut back on the state’s early voting days. Among other changes under the new system, polls would have to be closed on the Sunday before the election—a day when many black churches help get their members to the polls right after services. The Justice Department blocked the law. As The Nation‘s Ari Berman recently noted, Wiley Rein was brought in by Florida to argue the case in court. Consovoy claimed that reducing early voting was necessary to combat voter fraud—though there’s almost no evidence of significant fraud occurring. The early voting days were ultimately restored, though long lines nonetheless plagued both early and Election Day voters in the Sunshine State.

To block Florida’s early voting cutbacks, the Justice Department cited Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows the federal government to stop any election changes in most southern states if they’re deemed to reduce minority voting power. It’s Section 5 that’s at issue in the Shelby County case that goes before the Supreme Court this week, and voting-rights advocates have held up the Florida case as an example of why the provision is still needed.

The Hayek-Pinochet Connection: A Second Reply to My Critics

Corey Robin points out an uncomfortable truth about Hayek. In response, libertarians argue that pointing out the truth is unfair and cruel.

Corey Robin

In my last post, I responded to three objections to my article “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children.” In this post I respond to a fourth regarding the connection between Friedrich von Hayek and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Though my comments on that connection took up a mere three sentences in my article, they’ve consumed an extraordinary amount of bandwidth among my libertarian critics. At Bleeding Hearts Libertarians, Kevin Vallier repeatedly accuses me of “smearing” Hayek with the Pinochet connection:

When Hayek was eighty he said that Pinochet was an improvement on Allende. This was a serious mistake in judgment, but it is not significant for Hayek’s body of work in any way. Why would it be?

Libertarian journalist Julian Sanchez says, “I don’t think anyone denies that was a grotesque mistake but…what? Hayek isn’t Jesus? Unsure why we’re supposed to care.” And again: “I mean, maybe…

View original post 2,538 more words

Antidote to Capitalist Realism

What to Say When They Say It’s Impossible

Here are ten smart responses you can use when people tell you
there’s no alternative to the capitalism that’s cooking the planet.
posted Jun 13, 2013
Raining exclamation points
Photos from Lana N/Shutterstock and Yes! Magazine

Those committed to building a more just future must question the taken-for-

granted “truths” that support the beliefs that capitalism is the only common-

sense possibility and that there is no alternative. We can’t leave this task to

the pages of peer-reviewed journals and classrooms of social theory—these

conversations can start with family and friends but must spread until we

create a new common sense. Here are conversation starters to address

some standard defenses of the status quo.

1. Alternatives could never work.

Does capitalism “work”? Even by its own indicators, as we’ve become

more capitalist—deregulating finance and promoting “free trade”—

economic growth and productivity have actually declined. Capitalism

does work for accumulating wealth and power in the hands of a few.

Is that what we want, or do we want a system that works for all?

2. Today’s globalized world is too complex to organize things any differently.

Of course the world is complex. But some things are also quite simple

—we live in a world where 1 billion people go hungry while we dump

half of all food produced. The gift of today is that we have the ability to

reflect and draw upon many forms, past and present, of non-capitalist

social organization, and to creatively experiment with blending the

best of these possibilities.

3. It’s either the system we have, or it’s no progress at all.

Doing away with capitalism doesn’t mean resorting to primitivism,

denying the poor their right to development, or abandoning all of our

washing machines. There are limits to the Earth’s resources, but we

can organize a productive, equitable, and sustainable social order that

includes many of the comforts of modern life and the benefits of technol-

ogy. In fact, getting rid of capitalism gives us the best chance of having

time to organize a sustainable system of consumption before it is too late

—staying hooked into capitalism may be the quickest route to primitivism.

4. Freedom can only be realized through a free market.

Attaching our values of freedom to the market is not just dehumanizing.

It also fails to recognize how one person’s “freedom” of economic choice

is another’s imprisonment in a life of exploitation and deprivation. There

is no possibility for true freedom until we are all free, and this will only

come through a much richer and deeper conception of human freedom

than one that consists of going to a grocery store and “choosing”

between 5,000 variations of processed corn.

5. Capitalism is the only system that encourages innovation and progress.

Progress toward what? And how does enclosing common knowledge

through intellectual property rights, or excluding most of the world from

quality education, or depriving half of humanity of the basic life-sustaining

goods needed for health lead to greater innovation? Just begin to imagine

the innovative possibilities of a world where all people had access to every-

thing they needed to live, to think, and to contribute to the common good.

6. Things could be worse.

They could. But they could also be better. Does the fact that we’ve lived

through bloody dictatorships mean that we should settle for a represen-

tative democracy where the main thing being represented is money? Fear

of change is a great tool to limit our imagination about human possibilities.

7. Things are getting better.

Can we really say that things are getting better as we head toward the

annihilation of our own species? Sure, the United States may have our first

black president and be making small gains in LGBT rights or in women’s

representation in the workforce. But let’s not neglect the fact that capital is

more concentrated, centralized, and in control than it has ever been. I think

we should give ourselves more credit than to settle for this “better.”

8. Change is slow.

Slow is not in the vocabulary of the corporations that are stealing our common

genetic heritage, or financiers who are getting rich playing virtual money games

that legally rob us all. The enclosure of our commons and the concentration of

capital is not happening slowly. Whether we acknowledge it or not, change is

happening— what is up for grabs is the direction of that change.

9. The best we can hope for is “green” and “ethical” capitalism.

This belief is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that within capitalism,

businesses can prioritize anything over the bottom line. But businesses that

commit themselves first and foremost to being fully ethical and green will find

it difficult to stay in business in the current system. There are great models of

ethical business— worker-owned organic farms, for instance—but these

cannot become the norm within an economic structure that concentrates

wealth and power in the hands of Monsanto. And while we should support

these alternatives, we need to recognize that we can’t shop our way to a

better world. We’ll only change the structure and scale up existing

alternatives through collective political struggle.

10. People don’t care.

People may be distracted by consumerism, may not have time or energy

outside of struggling to pay their bills, may be fearful, may lack access to

good information. Those things are different from not caring. The charity

industry is thriving precisely because so many people do feel implicated

in the revolting manifestations of capitalism. But this is part of the problem

—much of our outrage is being channeled away from collective political

action and toward “green consumerism” and charitable donations, as if

more capitalism could save us from capitalism. Despair, guilt, disempower-

ment— these are all symptomsof living within a system that rewards greed

& self-interest over our innate desires for compassion, care, and cooperation.

Andrea Brower wrote this article for Love and the Apocalypse,

the Summer 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Andrea is a Ph.D.

candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Auckland.

Adapted from an article originally published at


Reprinted under a Creative Commons License.