Damnation: Rural Radicalism

Damnation is a new show on USA Network (co-produced by Netflix). It’s enjoyable entertainment inspired by history and influenced by literature.

As Phil De Semlyen at Empire summarizes the background of the show, it is “a 1930s saga of big business concerns and poor, struggling families, with possibly a sprinkling of Elmer Gantry-like religious hypocrisy, crime and demagoguery thrown in for good measure. “It’s set in the Great Depression and based on true events,” Mackenzie tells Empire of this heady-sounding mix, “It’s about strikers and strike-breakers in Iowa, almost the Dust Bowl, which is bloody interesting.” A bit Steinbeck-y, then? “Kind of. A little bit more amped than that, but yeah.”” And from a Cleveland.com piece by Mark Dawidziak, the show’s creator Tony Tost explained in an interview that,  “They’re unquestionably two of my favorite writers… The world of John Steinbeck as presented in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Cannery Row’ was a big influence, as was Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, ‘Red Harvest,” which is set in a Western mining town. All of that went into the soup when writing ‘Damnation.’ ” In mentioning that interview, Bustle’s Jack O’Keeffe writes that,

While the show’s creator has named The Grapes Of Wrath as a touchstone for the series, it also calls to mind one of the most acclaimed period films of the past decade. The 2007 film There Will Be Blood covers the first three decades of 20th Century America, stopping just shy of the Great Depression. However, the small-town rivalry between a suspicious preacher and a business-minded capitalist that arises in There Will Be Blood seems to mirror the central conflict present in Damnation. Damnation seems to be drawing from some pieces of American fiction about the sociopolitical realities of this particular era.

In an interview with Cleveland.com, Tost admitted that Damnation’s influences don’t stop at Steinbeck or the violent filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Tost also listed iconic western director Sam Peckinpah, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, and the non-fiction book Hard Times: An Oral History Of The Great Depression among his many inspirations. While Damnation may have invented the details of its story, the creative forces behind the show seemed to do their homework when it came to capturing an accurate picture of what life was like then.

While many of the show’s influences are set 80 years ago, the most surprising source for Damnation may be 2017. Tost told Cleveland.com in the previously mentioned interview, “If you look at the 1930s — a time when there was increasing distrust in institutions, there was fear of finding meaningful work, there is this onslaught of new technology taking away jobs — the relevance [of the show to 2017 audiences] is almost inescapable.”

In a Fayetteville Flyer interview, Tost describes “it as 1/3 Clint Eastwood, 1/3 John Steinbeck, 1/3 James Ellroy. That is, it takes some characters you’d normally see in a tough western, plops them in the world of Grapes of Wrath, and places them in the sort of pulpy paranoid narrative you see in Ellroy’s novels.” About the research, he says:

It’s a blast. Back in my academic days, my field of study was American literature from 1890 to 1945 and I wrote a dissertation on the influence of new technologies in the 20s and 30s on the American imagination. Then I wrote a book about Johnny Cash which delved into the same time period from a different angle, looking at the music and preachers and myths of Americana. So by the time I came up with Damnation as a TV show, I had a good feel for the period, I think. I’ve done plenty of research since then: oral histories and historical accounts of the period and so forth. We have a person who works on the show who daily does research into various arenas we’re interested in, whether it’s carnivals or bootlegging or pornography or baseball or what have you. Largely, I subscribe to David Milch of Deadwood’s advice: do a ton of research, then forget it, and then use your imagination. So Damnation mingles official history with fiction. I sometimes call it a “speculative history” of the time period.

And about “parallels between that period and today,” he states that there are, “Too many to list. I think that’s one of the things that got us the series order from USA network. Populist anger, fears about technologies and immigrants taking away jobs, fascist tendencies, fears of environmental apocalypse (dust bowl), life and death struggles over who is or isn’t a “real” American. The parallels are often spooky.”

So, even as it follows the general pattern of known history, it doesn’t appear to be based on any specific set of events. It is about the farmer revolts in Iowa during the Great Depression (see 1931 Iowa Cow War, 1932 Farmers’ Holiday Association, & 1933 Wisconsin Milk Strike), the kind of topic demonstrating traditional all-American radicalism that triggers the political right and makes them nostalgic for the pro-capitalist political correctness of corporate media propaganda during the Cold War. But I don’t think the fascist wannabes should get too worried since, as we know from history, the capitalists or rather corporatists defeated that threat from below. The days of a radical working class and of the independent farmer were numbered. The show captures that brief moment when the average American fought against the ruling elite with a genuine if desperate hope as a last stand in defending their way of life, but it didn’t have a happy ending for them.

The USA Network can put out a show like this because capitalism is so entrenched that such history of rebellion no longer feels like a serious threat, although this sense of security might turn out to be false in the long run. Capitalist-loving corporations, of course, will sell anything for a profit, even tv shows about a left-wing populist revolt against capitalists — as Marx put it, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” The heckling complaints from the right-wing peanut gallery are maybe a good sign, as they are sensing that public opinion is turning against them. But as for appreciating the show, it is irrelevant what you think about the historical events themselves. The show doesn’t play into any simplistic narrative of good vs evil, as characters on both sides have complicated pasts. One is free to root for the capitalists as their goons kill the uppity farmers, if that makes one happy.

As for myself, the show is of personal interest as most of the story occurs here in Iowa. The specific location named is Holden County, but I have no idea where that is supposed to be. There presently is no Holden County in Iowa and I don’t know that there ever was. All I could find is a reference to a Holden County School (Hamilton Township) in an obituary from Decatur County, which is along the southern border of Iowa (a county over from Appanoose where is located Centerville with an interesting history). Maybe there used to a Holden County that was absorbed by another county, a common event I’ve come across before in genealogical research, but in this case no historical map shows a Holden County ever having existed.

The probable fictional nature of the county aside, there is a reason the general location is relevant. Iowa is a state that exists in multiple overlapping border regions, between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, between the Midwest and Far West, between the Upper Midwest and the Upper South. It is technically in the Midwest and typically perceived as the Heart of the Heartland, the precise location of Standard American English. The broad outlines of Iowa was defined according to Indian territory, such as how the northern border of Missouri originally formed. What became a boundary dispute later on almost led to violent conflict between Missouri and Iowa, based on the ideological conflict over slavery that would eventually develop into the Civil War.

Large parts of Iowa has more similarity to the Upper Midwest. It is distinct in being west of the Mississippi River, one of the last areas of refuge for many of what then were still independent Native American tribes and hence one of the last major battlegrounds to fight off Westward expansion. Iowa is the only state where a tribe collectively bought its own land, rather than staying on a federal reservation. As for southern Iowa, there is a clear Southern influence and you can occasionally hear a Southern accent (as found all across the lower edge of the Lower Midwest). That distinguishes it from northern Iowa with more of the northern European (German, Czech, and Scandinvian) culture shared with Minnesota and Wisconsin. And the more urbanized and industrialized Eastern Iowa has some New England influence from early settlers.

Maybe related to the show, southern Iowa had much more racial and ethnic diversity because of the immigrants attracted to mining towns. This led to greater conflict. I know that in Centerville, a town once as diverse as any big city, the Ku Klux Klan briefly used violence and manipulation to take control of the government before being ousted by the community. The area was important for the Underground Railroad, but it wasn’t a safe area to live for blacks until after the Civil War. In Damnation, some of the town residents are members of the Black Legion, the violent militant group that was an offshoot of the KKK (originally formed to guard Klan leaders). In the show, the Black Legion is essentially a fascist group that opposes left-wing politics and  labor organizing, which is historically accurate. The Klan and related groups in the North were more politically oriented, since the black population was fewer in number. In fact, the Klan tended to be found in counties where there were the least number of minorities (racial minorities, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities), as shown in how they couldn’t maintain control in diverse towns like Centerville.

One of the few blacks portrayed in the show is a woman working at a brothel. I supposed that would have been common, as blacks would have had a harder time finding work. In a scene at the brothel, there was one detail that seemed to potentially be historically inaccurate. A Pinkerton goon has all the prostitutes gathered and holds up something with words on it. He wants to find out which of them can read and it turns out that the black woman is the only literate prostitute working there. That seems unlikely. Iowa had a highly educated population early on, largely by design — as Phil Christman explains (On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality):

This is a part of the country where, the novelist Neal Stephenson observes, you can find small colleges “scattered about…at intervals of approximately one tank of gas.” Indeed, the grid-based zoning so often invoked to symbolize dullness actually attests to a love of education, he argues: 

People who often fly between the East and West Coasts of the United States will be familiar with the region, stretching roughly from the Ohio to the Platte, that, except in anomalous non-flat areas, is spanned by a Cartesian grid of roads. They may not be aware that the spacing between roads is exactly one mile. Unless they have a serious interest in nineteenth-century Midwestern cartography, they can’t possibly be expected to know that when those grids were laid out, a schoolhouse was platted at every other road intersection. In this way it was assured that no child in the Midwest would ever live more than √2 miles [i.e., about 1.4 miles] from a place where he or she could be educated.7

Minnesota Danish farmers were into Kierkegaard long before the rest of the country.8 They were descended, perhaps, from the pioneers Meridel LeSueur describes in her social history North Star Country: 

Simultaneously with building the sod shanties, breaking the prairie, schools were started, Athenaeums and debating and singing societies founded, poetry written and recited on winter evenings. The latest theories of the rights of man were discussed along with the making of a better breaking plow. Fourier, Marx, Rousseau, Darwin were discussed in covered wagons.9

If you’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, you know that many of these schools were founded as centers of abolitionist resistance, or even as stops on the Underground Railroad.

The rural Midwest was always far different than the rural South. Iowa, in particular, was a bureaucratically planned society with the greatest proportion of developed land of any state in the country. The location of roads, railroads, towns, and schools was determined before most of the population arrived (similar to what China is now attempting with its mass building of cities out of nothing). The South, on the other hand, grew haphazardly and with little government intervention, such as seen with the the crazy zig-zagging of property lines and roads because of the metes-and-bounds system. This orderly design of Iowa fit the orderly culture of Northern European immigrants and New England settlers, contributing to an idealistic mentality about how society should operate (the Iowa college towns surrounded by farmland were built on the New England model).

The farmer revolts didn’t come out of nowhere. The immigrant populations in states like Iowa were already strongly community-focused and civic-minded. With them, they brought values of work ethic, systematic methods of farming, love of education, and much else. As an interesting example, Iowa was once known as the most musical state in the country because every town had local bands.

Unlike the stereotype, Iowans were obsessed with high culture. They saw themselves on the vanguard of Western Civilization. With so many public schools and colleges near every community, Iowans were well educated. The reason school children to this day have summers off was originally to allow farm children to be able to help on the farm while still being able to attend school. These Midwestern farm kids had relatively high rates of college attendance. And Iowa has long been known for having good schools, especially in the past. My mother has noted that so many Iowans she knows who are college-educated professionals went to small rural one-room schoolhouses.

Another factor is that Northern Europeans had a collectivist bent. They didn’t just love building public schools, public libraries, and public parks. They also formed civic institutions, farmer co-ops, credit unions, etc. They had a strong sense of solidarity that held their communities together. As the Iowa farmers stood together against the capitalist elites from the cities (the banksters, robber barons, and railroad tycoons), so did the German-American residents of Templeton, Iowa stood against Prohibition agents:

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9 [Bryce T. Bauer, Gentlemen Bootleggers]). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

Damnation is a fair portrayal of this world that once existed. And it helps us to understand what destroyed that world — as vulture capitalists targeted small family farmers, controlling markets when possible or failing that sending in violent goons to create fear and havoc. That world survived in tatters for a few more decades, but government-subsidized big ag quickly took over. Still, small family farmers didn’t give up without a fight, as they were some of the last defenders of a pre-corporatist free market based on the ideal of meritorious hard work — the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer with its vision of agrarian republicanism, in line with Paine’s brand of socially-minded and liberty-loving Anti-Federalism.

On a more prosaic level, one reviewer offers a critical observation. Mike Hale writes, from a New York Times piece (Review: ‘Damnation’ and the Sick Soul of 1930s America):

Any fidelity to the story’s supposed place and time is clearly incidental to Mr. Tost. He’s transposed the clichés of 19th-century Wyoming or South Dakota to 1930s Iowa, and doesn’t even get the look right — shot in Alberta, the locations look nothing like the Midwest.

Perhaps he was drawn to the contemporary echoes of the Depression-era material but wanted to give it some mock-Shakespearean, “Deadwood”-style dramatic heft. There’s a lot of literary straining going on — the characters are more familiar than you’d expect with the work of Wallace Stevens and Theodore Dreiser, and the sordid capitalism and anti-Communist fervor depicted in the story invoke Sinclair Lewis and Jack London.

I’m not sure why Mike Hale thinks the show doesn’t look like Iowa. He supposedly grew up in Iowa, but I don’t know which part. Anyone who has been in Western Iowa or even much of Eastern Iowa would recognize similar terrain. I doubt anything has been transposed.

Iowa is a young state and, as once being part of the Wild West, early on had a cowboy culture. Famous Hollywood cowboys came from the Midwest, specifically this region along the Upper Mississippi River — such as Ronald Reagan who was from western Illinois and worked in Iowa and John Anderson who was born in Western Illinois and was college-educated in Iowa, but also others who were born and raised in Iowa: John Wayne, Hank Worden, Neville Brand, etc (not just playing cowboys on the big screen but growing up around that cowboy culture). This isn’t just farm country with fields of corn and soy. Most of that is feed for animals, such as cattle. Iowa is part of the rodeo circuit and there is a strong horse culture around here. A short distance from where I live, a coworker of mine helps drive cattle down a highway every year to move them from one field to another.

But as I pointed out, none of this contradicts it also being a highly educated and literate population. I don’t know why Hale would think that certain writers would be unknown to Midwesterners, especially popular and populist writers like Jack London. As for Theodore Dreiser, he was a fellow German-American Midwesterner who wrote about rural life and was politically aligned with working class interests, including involvement in the defense of radicals like those Iowa farmers — the kind of writer one would expect Iowans, specifically working class activists, to be reading during the Great Depression era. That would be even more true for Sinclair Lewis who was from neighboring Minnesota, not to mention also writing popular books about Midwestern communities and radical criticisms of growing fascism — the same emergent fascism that threatened those Iowa farmers.

It’s interesting that an Iowan like Mike Hale would be so unaware of Iowa history. But maybe that is because he was born and spent much of his life outside of Iowa, specifically outside of the United States. His family isn’t from Iowa and so he has no roots here. I noticed that he tweeted that he “Was intrigued ‘Damnation’ is set in my state, Iowa. Didn’t expect the crucifixion, gun battles and frontier brothel”; to which someone responded that “If in Palo Alto, San Jose & NYC since ’77, IA hasn’t been ur state 4 awhile.” Besides, part of his childhood wasn’t even spent in Iowa but instead in Asia. And beyond that, many people simply don’t think he is that great of a critic (see Cultural Learnings, Variety, and Mediaite).

A better review is by Jeff Iblings over at The Tracking Board (Damnation Review: “Sam Riley’s Body”). The review is specifically about the first episode, but goes into greater detail:

Damnation is a new show on USA Networks set in the 1930’s during prohibition, the dust bowl era, and the social unrest during the unionization and strikes that accompanied the corruption of that time. It’s an intriguing look at a moment in American history when people began to wrest control away from a government bought and paid for by industrialists, only to have their movement squashed by the collusion of moneyed interests and the politicians they’d paid for. The series begins in Holden, Iowa as farmers have formed a blockade around the town so no more shipments of produce can reach the city. The powerful banker in town, who owns the newspaper and the Sheriff, has bribed the market in town to keep his food prices low, to price the famers out of making a profit on their crops so they’ll default on the loans he’s given them. A preacher in town fans the flames of the farmer’s unhappiness and gets them to revolt against the banker. Who is this mysterious preacher, and what does he have planned? […]

Damnation is clearly well researched, and the true-life stories it uses to flesh out its world are there to service the narrative, not overburden the show. 1930’s America was a desperate, bleak time, where moneyed interests controlled everything. The game was fixed back then, with politicians in the pocket of industrialists and wealthy bankers. The people had nothing more to give, since the wealthy had taken nearly everything from them. It’s a very relevant tale. Almost the same exact thing is going on again in present day America, which I would imagine, is one of the points of Damnation.

Iblings writes in another Damnation review of the second episode:

Tony Tost and his writers room delve into the history of the Great Depression in order to mine forgotten aspects of our political and social movements. It’s incredible how prescient much of the struggles of the farmers depicted still are problems today. Price fixing, bank negligence and dishonesty, politicians in the pockets of big business, the stifling of the labor movement when it’s needed most, and the inherent racism and protectionism of white Americans towards other races are all as topical today as they were in the 1930’s. It’s as if little has actually changed 100 years later. Damnation may be a historical television series, but it’s speaking to the America of today.

And about the third episode, he writes:

There are a few interesting moments I want to point out that really stuck with me. The first is the opening scene of a couple watching their kids playing baseball and taking great joy in it. When the wife goes into the shed to get the kids some cream soda, there are nooses hanging from the ceiling and Black Legion outfits hung up on the walls. The man then exclaims to his wife, “If this isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.” Damnation uses this banal setting, and these uneventful people to show how the American dream was an exclusionary ideal. They look like normal people you’d run into, but underneath this veneer are racist secrets. This prejudice was pervasive back then, but in Trump’s America this type of hatred and racism has become the norm once again. It was disgusting then, and it’s disgusting now.

What I like about the show is how it portrays the nature of populist politics during that historical era. The show begins in 1931, a moment of transition for American society in the waning days of Prohibition. The Great Depression followed decades of Populism and set the stage for the Progressivism that would follow. The next year Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected and later on re-elected twice more, the most popular president in US history.

What many forget about both Populism and Progressivism is the role that religion played, especially Evangelicalism. In the past, Evangelicals were often radical reformers in their promoting separation of church and state, abolitionism, women’s rights, and such. Think of the 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech given by William Jennings Bryan. This goes back to how Thomas Paine, the original American populist and progressive, used Christian language to advocate radical politics. Interestingly, as Paine was an anti-Christian deist, the leader of the farmers revolt is a guy falsely posing as an itinerant preacher, although he shows signs of genuine religious feeling such as sparing a man’s life when he sees the likeness of a cross marked on the floor near the man’s head. However one takes his persona of religiosity, the preaching of a revolutionary Jesus is perfectly in line with the political rhetoric of the period.

I also can’t help but appreciate how much it resonates with the present. The past, in a sense, always remains relevant — since as William Faulkner so deftly put it,  “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” In a New York Post interview, the show’s creator Tony Tost was asked, “How relevant is the plot about the common man battling the establishment today?” And he replied that, “I wrote the first two episodes, like, three years ago, but contemporary history keeps making the show feel more and more relevant. I’m not necessarily trying to do an allegory about the present, but history is very cyclical. There’s some core elemental conflicts and issues that we keep returning to. In a way, the present day almost caught up.”

As with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, Damnation has good timing. Such hard-hitting social commentary is important at times like these. And in the form of entertainment, it is more likely to have an impact.

* * *

State of Emergency: The Depression and the Plots to Create an American Dictatorship
by Nate Braden, Kindle Locations 510-571
(see Great Depression, Iowa, & Revolts)

“In September 1932 Fortune published a shocking profile of the effect Depression poverty was having on the American people. Titled “No One Has Starved” – in mocking reference to Herbert Hoover’s comment to that effect – Fortune essentially called the President a liar and explained why in a ten page article. Predicting eleven million unemployed by winter, its grim math figured these eleven million breadwinners were responsible for supporting another sixteen and a half million people, thus putting the total number of Americans without any income whatsoever at 27.5 million. Along with another 6.5 million who were underemployed, this meant 34 million citizens – nearly a third of the country’s population – lived below the poverty line. [1]

“Confidence was low that a Hoover reelection would bring any improvement in the country’s situation. He had ignored calls in 1929 to bail out banks after the stock market crashed on the grounds that the federal government had no business saving failed enterprises. With no liquidity in the financial markets, credit evaporated and deflation pushed prices and wages lower, laying waste to asset values. Two years passed before Hoover responded with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created to distribute $300 million in relief funds to state and local governments. It was too little, too late. The money would have been better served shoring up the banks three years earlier.

“With each cold, hungry winter that passed, political discussions grew more radical and less tolerant. Talk of revolution was more openly voiced. Harper’s, reflecting the opinion of East Coast intellectuals, pondered its likelihood and confidently asserted: “Revolutions are made, not by the weak, the unsuccessful, or the ignorant, but by the strong and the informed. They are processes, not merely of decay and destruction, but of advance and building. An old order does not disappear until a new order is ready to take its place.”[2]

“As this smug analysis was rolling off the presses, the weak, the unsuccessful, and the ignorant were already proving it wrong. Most people expected a revolt to start in the cities, but it was in the countryside, in Herbert Hoover’s home state no less, where men first took up arms against a system they had been raised to believe in but no longer did. On August 13, 1932, Milo Reno, the onetime head of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, led a group of five hundred men in an assault on Sioux City. They called it a “farm holiday,” but it was in fact an insurrection. Reno and his supporters blocked all ten highways into the city and confiscated every shipment of milk except those destined for hospitals, dumping it onto the side of the road or taking it into town to give away free. Fed up with getting only two cents for a quart of milk that cost them four cents to bring to market, the farmers were creating their own scarcities in an attempt to drive up prices.

“The insurgents enjoyed local support. Telephone operators gave advance warning of approaching lawmen, who were promptly ambushed and disarmed. When 55 men were arrested for picketing the highway to Omaha, a crowd of a thousand angry farmers descended on the county jail in Council Bluffs and forced their release. The uprising just happened to coincide with the Iowa National Guard’s annual drill in Des Moines, but Governor Dan Turner declined to use these troops to break up the disturbance, saying he had “faith in the good judgment of the farmers of Iowa that they will not resort to violence.”[3]

“The rebellion spread to Des Moines, Spencer, and Boone. Farmers in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota declared their own holidays. Milo Reno issued a press release vowing to continue “until the buying power of the farmer is restored – which can be done only by conceding him the right to cost of production, based on an American standard of existence.” Business institutions, he added, “whether great or small, important or humble, must suffer.” While advising his followers to obey the law and engage only in “peaceful picketing,” Reno issued this warning: “The day for pussyfooting and deception in the solution of the farmers’ problems is past, and the politicians who have juggled with the agricultural question and used it as a pawn with which to promote their own selfish interests can succeed no longer.”[4]

“Reno and his men had laid down their marker. Aware that the insurrectionists might call his bluff, the governor stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, but he kept his Guardsmen in Des Moines just in case. The showdown never came – a mysterious shotgun attack on one of Reno’s camps near Cherokee was enough to persuade him to call off the holiday – but others weren’t cowed by the violence. The same day Reno issued his press release, coal miners in neighboring Illinois went on strike after their pay was cut to five dollars a day. Fifteen thousand of them shut down shafts all over Franklin County, the state’s largest mining region, and took over the town of Coulterville for several hours, “exhausting provisions at the restaurant, swamping the telephone exchange with calls and choking roads and fields for a mile around” the New York Times reported. Governor Louis Emmerson ordered state troopers to take the town back. Wading into a hostile, sneering crowd who shouted “Cossacks!” at them, the police broke it up with pistols and clubs, putting eight miners in the hospital.

“The rebels were bloodied but unbowed. Vowing to march back in to coal country, strike leader Pat Ansbury told a journalist, “if we go back it must be with weapons. We can’t face the machine guns of those Franklin County jailbirds with our naked hands. Not a man in our midst had even a jackknife. When we go back we must have arms, organization and cooperation from the other side.” Shaking his head at the lost opportunity, he made sure the reporter hadn’t misunderstood him. “This policy of peaceful picketing is out from now on.” Reno conducted a similar post-mortem, acknowledging that his side may have lost the battle but would not lose the war: “You can no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution. I mean the revolution of 1776.”[5]

“Not only were farmers burdened by low commodity prices, they were also swamped with high-interest mortgages and crushing taxes. In February 1933 Prudential Insurance, the nation’s largest land creditor, announced it would suspend foreclosures on the 37,000 farm titles it held, valued at $209 million. Mutual Benefit and Metropolitan Life followed suit, all of them finally coming to the conclusion that they couldn’t get blood from a rock.

“It was also getting very dangerous to be a repo man in the Midwest. When farms were foreclosed and the land put up for auction, neighbors of the dispossessed property holder would often show up at the sale, drive away any serious bidders, then buy the land for a few dollars and deed it back to the original owner. By this subterfuge a debt of $400 at one Ohio auction was settled for two dollars and fifteen cents. A mortgage broker in Illinois received only $4.90 for the $2,500 property he had put into receivership. An Oklahoma attorney who tried to serve foreclosure papers to a farm widow was promptly waylaid by her neighbors, including the county sheriff, driven ten miles out of town and dumped unceremoniously on the side of the road. A Kansas City realtor who had foreclosed on a 500-acre farm turned up with a bullet in his head, his killers never brought to justice. [6]”

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Forgotten Midwest

The Sporcle website has a quiz for mapping the states of the United States. Sasha Trubetskoy posted a map of the results (or see the version with the state names) and along with it are the results (and the results are unscientifically confirmed by another online quiz):

 

Iowa is at the center of the main clump of least remembered states. But Iowa is also at the center of what most people think of as the Midwest. Apparently, the Heartland is terra incognita for most Americans. People fly over it in planes and in their minds, just some vague nowhere in the middle of the country.

What Is Kentucky?

I was looking into the data and history on Kentucky. My motivation was diverse. I was thinking about violence, but I was more generally considering what makes Kentucky such a unique state.

North of Kenutcky, there is Ohio and Indiana. That is the earliest settlement areas of the Midwest. These particular Lower Midwest states are as influenced by Southern culture as Kentucky is influenced by Midwestern culture. Hence, the hybrid name of Kentuckiana.

In my visit to Kentucky, I mostly saw the central part of the state. Traveling through rural areas, I was surprised how much it felt like the Midwest. It wasn’t all that different from nearby Indiana, where my own Kentucky ancestors moved to. The main difference is that the barns in Kentucky are painted black because many of them were originally built to dry tobacco, although these days much of the land is being used for grazing cattle, just like in the Midwest.

Many of my Kentucky ancestors were of German heritage, another commonality with Midwesterners. Near where they lived, there is a Shaker village. The Shakers are more commonly associated with the North. Here in Iowa and throughout the Midwest, there are many Quakers and Amish as well, two other religious groups that are also found in the Upper South but not the Deep South.

Furthermore, the limestone country straddles the border region of the Upper South and Lower Midwest. My Kentuckiana family worked in the limestone industry about a century ago. Limestone country is some of the most beautiful land in the country. The streams and rivers cut through the limestone in wondrous ways. All of this border region is defined by water, where it flows and where it gathers.

Western Kentucky is a narrow part of the state. This is where it touches the narrow part of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln’s early life began in Kentucky, involved years in Southern Indiana, and then later on as an adult his political career began in Illinois. That was a common path of westward movement for many families.

The whole state of Kentucky stretches westward, defined by that very movement of the population pushing the boundary of civilization. At that western edge, the state touches upon the Mississippi river, the last great boundary of the frontier. Just across that water is Missouri with a similar set of cultural, historical, and geographic issues as Kentucky. I’m not familiar with this part of Kentucky, but I’m sure there are some old river towns there and I’m sure more industrialization happened because of it.

To the South of Kentucky, Tennessee stretches lengthwise as the twin of Kentucky. They are like two children who were adopted by different parents. Both grew up in an early history of violence. Tennessee remains one of the most violent states in the country, and yet Kentucky has somehow become one of the least violent states in the country. However, the memory of Kentucky violence is not buried all that deep.

This brings me to Eastern Kentucky and especially the Southeast stretch. This is where Appalachia dominates. So, this is where is found the long history of the worst rural poverty, the most infamous violence and fueds, and of course mining and labor organizing.

Here the state borders Virginia and West Virginia. It is through these states that Kentucky had its strongest influence of what would later come to be thought of as Southern culture. Virginia was the earliest slave colony, where a completely different line of my family was part of the first generation of slaveholding aristocracy. A couple centuries after the colonial settlement, West Virginia broke away because of the Civil War, but that wasn’t just a political split but also a cultural split. West Virginia was more defined by Appalachia and the Scots-Irish settlers.

The struggle for control of Kentucky involved many divides. It was the birth state of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s family, like Daniel Boone and my own family, left for various overlapping reasons. There was a lot of legal conflict there and so it was a highly litigious society, because of the complications of the metes and bounds system in creating property boundaries (a British system that was used throughout the South and parts of the early Midwest, specifically Southern Ohio). There was also the slave issue that pushed many people further west toward the free territories and states.

Even after the Civil war, there was still a class war element to this. The Black Patch Tobacco War was an expression of this (the Black Patch is Western Kentucky where the soil grew a dark tobacco). There was the first developments of big agriculture. A monopoly had formed that was squeezing out small tobacco farmers, and they weren’t happy about it.

The pressure on small family farms was common throughout the Midwest as well, but the difference was the response. This is where Kentuckians showed their Southern side by organizing the Night Riders who were the strong arm of the small farmers’ association. These Night Riders terrorized anyone who didn’t join the Association. Property was destroyed and people killed. They didn’t wait for distant government, state or federal, to help them with oppressive big biz and a local plutocratic ruling class. They had a tradition of taking care of their own problems.

The dark side of this is that the Night Riders ended up being hard to distinguish from the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks joined the Association at higher rates than whites, because they were hurt the most by the suppression of tobacco prices. Still, none of this mattered to the racially-motivated opportunists. Some of the terrorism was directed at innocent black farmers. They were either killed or sent packing, and their land and property was stolen (or bought cheaply at the threat of violence).

This shows a weird mix of Southern and Northern social patterns.

The violent mob way of dealing with the problem was Southern. This was also seen in the Southern-tinted edge of the Lower Midwest — for example, the KKK was a big player in Southern Indiana. A similar thing was found with the Italian Black Hand and the later Mafia in Northern cities, but my point is that this wasn’t a common way of dealing with problems in places like the rural Upper Midwest or even the Northern parts of the rural Lower Midwest (Italian immigrants and their descendants have never been a majority in the Midwest and so that ethnic culture never defined the Midwest).

Yet the Kentucky history of sundown towns where blacks disappeared from entire communities and regions is more typical of the rural North than of the rural Deep South. As in the Lower Midwest states, the blacks in rural areas had been large in number and then disappeared. This is how blacks ended up in concentrated numbers in big cities, such as Lexington or Chicago.

There used to be many blacks in rural Kentucky. However, when I visited there, I didn’t see a single black person in the rural areas. Similarly, the first settlement in the Iowa town I live in (Iowa City) was a free black community and some nearby towns had a fair number of black families a century or so ago. Then most of the blacks disappeared from the area for most of the 20th century, until recent years when they’ve begun to return.

In the rural Deep South, there aren’t many sundown towns. People forget that the rural Deep South has a large black population, as it has had since it was first settled. However, the rural Upper South is more like the rural North in this aspect.

This difference is seen in the diverging trajectories of Kentucky and Tennessee. They were split during the Civil War. Lincoln understood the symbolic and strategic importance of Kentucky. This is why one of the early actions the Union army took was to secure a famous Kentucky racehorse because of its symbolic value. The Confederates took another good racing horse that was sired by it. However, it was the Union that won the state, for the same basic reason West Virginia split off, there was too much of the population that saw little personal benefit from being loyal to a slave owning aristocracy. Also, the Northern cultural influence was quite significant.

Tennessee is clearly Southern, but Kentucky is different. It isn’t part of a single region. Rather, it connects quite diverse regions. The Lexington metropolitan area is quite a different world from rural Appalachia. In 2002, an Eastern Kentucky sheriff was assassinated during a political rally. That is an area of all kinds of violence, once famous for moonshine and now famous for illegal drugs. It is what people think of as Kentucky, but it is just one part of the state.

Still, I don’t mean to even dismiss that small corner of Kentucky or the whole of Appalachia. I’ve written about how it is misleading to speak of blacks as having weak and broken families (see here and here). Black family ties and communities are surprisingly strong, when considering all that they have going against them. Stronger in many ways than what is found among middle-to-upper class whites.

The same goes for poor whites in Appalachia. They actually put a lot of value on family and religion, just like blacks. In some ways, it is because their values are so strong that they are so poor. They refuse to leave their families and their homes, their land and their communities just to chase dreams of wealth and social mobility. They are traditional conservatives, something mainstream American conservatives don’t understand with their obsession about some unbalanced notion of fiscal conservatism, economic well-being and success at nearly any cost.

That is something rural Appalachians do share with rural people all over the country. Many people see them as having been left behind. That might be the case for some of these people who feel trapped by circumstances, but I wouldn’t generalize. These poor people could move, but they’ve chosen not to. Besides, where are they going to move to? The entire country is economically hurting. Would being poor elsewhere be an improvement? Sure, in the big city, they could get better access to public services and maybe better education… but at what cost? They would lose everything and everyone they know. They would lose their roots and their cultural identity.

My family left that world behind. They chased the American Dream and slowly climbed the social ladder. My Indiana-born mother, descendant of poor Kentuckians, went to college and became an upper middle class professional. She assimilated into mainstream culture, including losing her Hoosier accent. Yet, for all the sacrifices made, the middle class is now under attack as has been happening a long time for the poor working class. Not unlike the Black Patch Tobacco War or the Appalachian mining strikes, big business is making life hard for so many people and so few feel that big government is on their side.

States like Kentucky are more representative of America than others may think. Kentucky isn’t just some backwater frozen in time. Kentuckians are a part of what it means to be American.

* * * *

An additional thought:

I realized that I had left out one of my favorite things. Kentucky and some of the nearby states have something that defines the region more than anything else, at least in my mind. It is what defines this particular culture and how it manifests in communities and politics.

I became familiar with this type of culture through my experience of North Carolina, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina is another fascinating state with an unusual history. Some consider its early rebellious population as being the true starting point of the American Revolution.

Like Appalachia, all of North Carolina wasn’t as easily accessible. It formed an area of refuge between two great slave societies, Virginia and South Carolina. This laid the foundation for a different kind of political tradition, more progressive than its coastal neighbors.

This can be seen in the many diverse communities, communes, monasteries, retreats, and colleges. The reason I was in North Carolina was as an employee for several summers at the Black Mountain YMCA camp. It previously had been a well known alternative college that attracted some of the greatest thinkers at the time. That was my introduction to a different kind of Southern culture than I had grown familiar with from years living in South Carolina.

In the mountains, roads crisscrossed in such a way that I felt like I might come across almost anything around the next bend. There were hidden nooks everywhere and thick forests covered the land. There is a sense of freedom in this that people have sought for centuries.

Appalachia is similar the Upper South in general, specifically Kentucky. Even on the western side of Kentucky, there are rolling hillsides and winding roads. It’s not like the parts of the Deep South that have been heavily developed and it’s not like the flat farmlands to the horizon of much of the Midwest. It’s inferior soil and rocky landscape has protected it. A very different feel from Iowa, for example, which is the most developed state in the country. Big agriculture tried to rule Kentucky, but the conditions weren’t right for it. There just aren’t many massive farms in Kentucky, as found in the Midwest.

So, the land is cheaper. If you want to live on your own private mountain or start your own alternative community, a place like Kentucky is a good choice. The Upper South was less known for building infrastructure, but there are enough roads for travel purposes. For good and bad, there is a tradition of being against big government and high taxes. The live-and-let-live worldview allows a certain kind of freedom, even though in the poorest areas it also leads to some not so nice results. A fair number of rural Southerners still like to take care of their own problems, if we are to go by the data.

I wouldn’t want to go tromping through the poorest of Appalachia any more than I’d want to walk through the poorest of inner cities. Still, that has little to do with the average person living in these places. If we ended the War On Drugs, there probably would be great and positive changes seen in poor communities all over the country. There is a long history for why poor people, blacks and whites, have a lot less trust of outsiders and of government. There is a reason that so many poor people, rural and urban, learn to take care of their own problems, as best they can.

I wouldn’t be the first person to see a cultural connection between poor white Southerners and poor black Northerners. Those poor black Northerners mostly descend from poor Southern populations. It is a common culture. Many of the rural blacks who left Kentucky ended up in Northern inner cities. Even some of the rural whites who headed north also found themselves in similar circumstances, although like my family it was a bit easier for them to escape through upward mobility, not always though. The prejudice against Southern whites was strong among Northern whites because they were competing over the same jobs with the same white privilege.

Anyway, I was wanting to note that the Midwest did have some of the same community traditions as the Upper South. That is seen with the communities of Amish, Shakers, and Quakers. The Amish have been successful in refusing to fully assimilate to mainstream American society, not unlike certain populations of Appalachians. It was more challenging, however, in the more highly populated and developed Midwest to escape the forces of and demands for assimilation.

I find it comforting that there are still communities and populations that have managed to maintain some of their traditional cultures and ways of life. Outsiders may think that the self-isolated Amish and rural Appalachians are backwards, but that is being dismissive. Some people even think monks choosing a life of asceticism in a monastery is also backwards. Everyone who doesn’t perfectly assimilate is somehow wrong or strange. As an immigrant nation, the dominant society has become obsessed with assimilation, sometimes force entire populations to assimilate against their will or at least to destroy whatever culture they had before.

I’d like to see a revival of the American tradition of resistance to assimilation. I don’t mean simply assimilating to yet another monolithic culture, such as a blanket Southern identity. I’d like to see communities be more independent, not just culturally but also economically and most important politically. That is what a place like Kentucky reminds me of, a place where the forces of assimilation and resistance have been fighting it out for a long time.

I don’t mean to romanticize rural life or poor communities. I just see how the dominant society and how big biz has destroyed the independence that Americans once had. Independence has to be built on identity, on the sense of who you are in your immediate community and relationships.

* * * *

Possible Sundown Towns In Kentucky
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

General Info On Sundown Towns in Tennessee
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

Terror in the Night
by Ron Soodalter, Kentucky Monthly

Blacks, Gun Cultures, and Gun Control: T.R.M. Howard, Armed Self-Defense, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Second Amendment Foundation

The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars
by Tracy Campbell

Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America
by Elliot Jaspin

A History of Blacks in Kentucky: In pursuit of equality, 1890-1980
by George C Wright

Origins of the New South, 1877–1913: A History of the South
by C. Vann Woodward

Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950
by James C. Klotter

Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century
edited by Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, Altina Laura Waller

Everyone Code Switches

Living in a college town, I deal with people from different places. I notice how, as a parking ramp cashier, I treat customers differently. I’m guilty of judging people by appearances and by accents. I’ve worked this job for so long that I unconsciously categorize people, you might say I profile.

It doesn’t alter the quality of my customer service or anything like that. But it amuses me because of how it does effect how I act.

I think this comes from having spent much of my life split between two distinct regions. I had to learn a new way of talking and acting when I moved to the Deep South as a kid. When I returned to the Midwest after high school, I still had a bit of the Southern accent that I had picked up. It also took me a while to stop referring to all of my customers as “Sir” and “Mam”. There were many ways of speaking that I had to drop from my repertoire, but they remained within my mind.

What many people don’t think about is that inner city dialect is a product of the South. I more often interact with people with an inner city dialect than a Southern one, but they are similar in certain ways. When I hear someone speak with a stereotypical inner city dialect, I naturally fall back to aspects of my Southern way of speaking.

This happened the other day. A black customer spoke with an inner city dialect. Instead  of saying a solid Midwestern “fine” in response to something, I said the (Deep) Southern equivalent, which is “all right” but without the last letters enunciated, more like “ah’righ”.

I would never speak this way to my fellow white Midwesterners. Sure, I’d likely respond to a white Southerner in that same way, but here in Iowa City I don’t run into too many whites from the Deep South or even whites from the inner city of Chicago. It’s mostly blacks who elicit this from me because around here it is only among blacks that I’m likely to hear the closest equivalent to a Deep Southern dialect.

When this happened, I realized what I was doing. I code switched. I didn’t code switch from white to black culture, but from Northern to Southern culture. It’s just that inner city blacks and I have both inherited a bit of the Southern culture.

I unconsciously look and listen for cues about people. I more or less treat people the same, but there are tiny shifts in how I act or speak. I only notice them when I’m actively thinking about it. It is more than just about black people or the rare Southern person I meet. For example, I switch the way I interact depending on how I perceive someone’s class. It is easy for me to code switch between middle class and working class, as I spent my life in both of those classes at different times. I know how to act in proper middle class ways, when needed.

All of this is based on my perception, of course. It is a superficial level of interaction, but that is what daily interactions tend to involve. Everyone does this type of thing and most people give it a lot less consideration. Even if you are aware of how you act in different situations, it isn’t easy to control. Although I couldn’t for the life of me intentionally speak with a Southern accent, I’d probably slide right back into it if I moved back to the Deep South.

These are the outward expressions of social identity. It’s not who we are at a deeper level, just the patterns of behavior we learn from those around us. We then carry these patterns with us for the rest of our lives, even if we leave an early influential environment that shaped us. We all have many selves, ways of acting and roles we know how to play. We can forget about some of these aspects of our identity, until something brings it out in us.

 

The Midwest, Is It Great?

I’m a big fan of the view that regions in the U.S. are more or less culturally distinct, although with plenty of overlap at the borders. As a Midweseterner, I have pride in my region, along with significant criticisms, but for the moment I’ll focus on the positives.

I’m not offering a serious analysis here. I just came across an article about the Midwest that offered some data and so I thought I’d share it. The article is This Is Why It’s So Great To Be A Midwesterner, According To Science by Sara Boboltz. It is a HuffPo fluff piece, but some of the data is nonetheless interesting.

Regional Differences In Personalities Confirmed In New Study

“Their findings: Friendly and conventional were the most common traits among people living in the South and north-central Great Plains region, while relaxed and creative were the most common traits for those in the Western and Eastern seaboard areas. New Englanders, on the other hand, were most likely to possess the traits of uninhibited and temperamental.”

Yeah, friendly and conventional. That sounds about right. This might seem strange in some ways, though, for these same parts of the Midwest are also historically known for their progressive and socialist politics. So, it is conventional in its own way, but not in the way the MSM media portrays what is conventional in the US.

By the way, there appears to be one state that is a good balance between Midwestern and West Coastal predispositions. That state is Wyoming. It rates moderately high on friendly and conventional while it also rates moderately high on relaxed and creative. Colorado also looks fairly balanced between the two.

Volunteering in America: Research Highlights

“Highest volunteer rate: Since 1989, the Midwest region of the United States has had the highest volunteer rate among U.S. regions for all adults, with a rate of 23.9 percent in 1989, and 30.2 in 2008. This is a shift from 1974 when the West had the highest volunteer rate.

“Largest number of volunteers: Since 1974, the number of volunteers in the South has almost doubled from 10.5 to 20.7 million, giving the South the largest number of volunteers of all the regions. Just between 2006 and 2008, the South has gained almost 300,000 volunteers. The Midwest comes in at a distant second in volunteer numbers at about 15.6 million.”

Two other regions need to be given credit. The West region doesn’t have the highest rate of volunteers, but apparently those who do volunteer make up the difference for they win the award for most volunteer hours on average. In the Northeast region, they are dedicated to fundraising and so at least they put their money where their mouth is. As for specific states, Utah and Alaska deserve respect in their volunteer activities.

Route 66, Midwest culture charm international tourists, study finds

““When Europeans travel on Route 66, most of their feedback is that it’s a very different experience from the big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., which can all seem very much alike,” Huang said. “Route 66 reveals the inner beauty of the U.S. Midwesterners are friendly, easygoing and enthusiastic. They’re proud to tell you what they have in their community and are willing to share their heritage, their history and their stories. A lot of tourists enjoy that.””

I’m not so sure about this study. It seemed rather limited and self-serving. Route 66 extends way beyond the Midwest.

Montanans, Alaskans Say States Among Top Places to Live

“Residents of Western and Midwestern states are generally more positive about their states as places to live. With the exception of the New England states of New Hampshire and Vermont, all of the top 10 rated states are west of the Mississippi River. In addition to Montana and Alaska, Utah (70%), Wyoming (69%), and Colorado (65%) are among the 10 states that residents are most likely to say their state is among the best places to reside. Most of these states have relatively low populations, including Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska — the four states with the smallest populations in the nation. Texas, the second most populated state, is the major exception to this population relationship. Although it is difficult to discern what the causal relationship is between terrain and climate and positive attitudes, many of the top 10 states are mountainous with cold winters. In fact, the two states most highly rated by their residents — Montana and Alaska — are among not only the nation’s coldest states but also both border Canada.

“With the exception of New Mexico, all of the bottom 10 states are either east of the Mississippi River or border it (Louisiana and Missouri). New Jersey (28%), Maryland (29%), and Connecticut (31%) join Rhode Island among the bottom 10.”

This seems less about the Midwest. It is only parts of the Midwest that show this pattern. What this actually shows is that the Midwest is split between Eastern and Western Midwest and between Lower and Upper Midwest. This corresponds to the parts of the Midwest that were settled earlier and those settled later, which corresponds to the concentration of populations in rural areas and big cities.

Pinterest Hits 10 Million U.S. Monthly Uniques Faster Than Any Standalone Site Ever -comScore

The popularity of Pinterest in the Midwest isn’t necessarily a good thing. I don’t have any strong opinion about Pinterest, but I’m not sure what value Pinterest adds to the Midwestern quality of life.

America’s Most Affordable Cities

“But the Midwest dominates when it comes to affordability, with 11 metro areas making the list, including five in the state of Ohio alone: Cincinnati (No. 3), Dayton (No. 4), Akron (No. 6), Toledo (No. 11), and Columbus (No. 20). Michigan landed three cities on the ranks: Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Warren. Even as Detroit languishes in the wake of banruptcy, the suburban hub of Warren, half an hour away, is experiencing an auto manufacturing renaissance of its own.”

The real story in the data is that it is extremely expensive to live in the West. That probably has to do with the combination of large populations and low availability of water. Many Western states are dependent on immense government funding to maintain their massive infrastructures.

Air Quality Better in Northeast, Midwest

“While a decade of efforts to reduce air pollution in the United States has improved air quality in many cities in the Northeast and Midwest, 175 million people are still exposed to dangerous levels of smog and soot, a new report reveals.”

Once again, the real story is that it sucks to live in other places. Having clean air shouldn’t be something that gets praise. Rather, clean air should be seen as a basic human right. The Midwest simply has less polluted air, relatively speaking. But we all share the same freakin atmosphere and so we all end up breathing the pollution, just that some get more of it than others.

Utahans Least Satisfied With Air Quality

“Meanwhile, residents of the northern Midwest are the most likely to be satisfied. South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming top the list, with 96% satisfied in each state. Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are also among this group, as are far away New Hampshire and Vermont. These regional similarities may be related to the climate or geography in these disparate parts of the country, or a matter of population density, or some combination of the three, as in Utah.”

Of course, it is nice living in low population states so that you aren’t constantly sucking on heavily polluted air. This is probably a large reason for why people living there love their states so much. However, those people in those states indirectly contribute to the pollution in the rest of the states by products they buy that are made and transported from elsewhere. It’s the old problem of costs being externalized onto others.

It is strange, though, that Utahans complain about their air quality. I wouldn’t think that Utah has higher rates of pollution than the coastal states. Maybe they are a sensitive group of people. The article blames it on a weather phenomenon that traps the smog where most of the residents live. Could that possibly be worse than some of the bigger cities famous for their smog? Maybe so.

Want a three-car garage? You’re more likely to find it in the Midwest

“For one, housing hasn’t grown evenly in all regions of the country. New homes are largest in the South, where the median floor area last year was 2,469 square feet; they’re smallest in the Midwest, at a median 2,177 square feet. (The median for the whole country is 2,384 square feet.) But over the past four decades, home size has grown the most in the Northeast: The median floor area of a new home there was 61% above the corresponding median in 1973. [ . . . ]

“Midwesterners, by contrast, appear more interested in garage space than living space: 38% of new homes in that region have garages built for three or more cars, well above all other regions. (Perhaps they need the room for their snowblowers and other winter gear?)”

I’m not sure why Midwestern homes would have less floor area. But it is understandable that Midwestern homes have larger garages.

Midwesterners do need more winter equipment. Plus, in my experience, Midwesterners simply love to do manual labor, such as doing their own yardwork or building things. Midwesterners love to have equipment that can be used to accomplish things, whether blowing snow or sawing wood. There is a self-reliant streak, which seems to make Midwesterners reluctant to hire out work, even among those with the money to afford it.

That is just a hypothesis. But I would like to see data about it.

States in West and Midwest Lead Nation in Teacher Respect

“Residents living in several states in the West and Midwest lead the nation in saying teachers in their communities are well-respected. Nevadans and Louisianans are among the least likely to say this about their local teachers — slightly more than six in 10 residents in each state say their teachers are well-respected.”

The differences are worthy of note. In some states, it is nearly 9 in 10 residents who say teachers are well-respected. But pointing that out misses the fact that the majority of all Americans say teachers are well-respected. But you wouldn’t know that by paying attention to right-wing media or listening to conservative politicians.

Buying lunch out? Survey shows Midwesterners spend less than others

“The credit card company found that Americans typically buy lunch out almost twice a week and spend about $10 each time. Specifically, average national spending was $18 per week, or $936 per year.

“But spending patterns varied by region, and Midwest diners spend less on lunches out than people in any other part of the country, the results showed. They went out 1.7 times per week and spent only $8.90 each time, for a weekly average of $15.13.

“Southerners led per-week spending, going out twice a week and spending $10 each time, or $20 a week. Westerners spend $10 per lunch 1.8 times a week for a total of $18.

“Northeasterners lunched out the least, but spent the most when they did, dining out for their midday meal 1.5 times a week but dropping $11.40 each time, for a weekly total of $17.10.”

I don’t know what could possibly explain this. Maybe this relates to the Midwest being a more affordable place to live. So maybe it is also a more affordable place to operate a restaurant, and so cheaper prices for meals served. But it is hard to say. There could be many factors involved.

Anyway, I’m not sure this is evidence for Midwesterners being cheap or thrifty.

The Midwest Accent

“The examples of the cot/caught merger and the Northern Cities Shift serve to contradict the perception that Midwestern speech lacks any distinguishing characteristics. However, both of these developments have been in operation for several decades at least. Why haven’t they entered into popular perceptions about Midwestern speech? Perhaps they will come to be recognized as features of the dialect in the same way that dropping of /r/ serves to mark Boston speech or ungliding of long i (‘hahd’ or hide) marks Southern speech. But, considering the general stereotypes of the Midwest, it seems more likely that they might never be recognized. One thing about linguistic stereotypes is certain: they have less to do with the actual speech of a region than with popular perceptions of the region’s people. As long as Midwesterners are viewed as average, boring or otherwise nondescript, their speech will be seen through the same prism.”

This article is about a shift that is occurring in the Midwestern dialect, a shift that few seem to be noticing at present. It is a change that may lead to larger changes in American English. The Midwest has for a long time been a source of what is considered Standard American English. As Standard American English changes in the Midwest, it likely will shift across the nation.

I don’t know why this matters all that much. It does imply something culturally important about the Midwest. This is the Heartland and it is called that for a good reason. The Midwest has always been central. It is central in terms of geography, in terms of population concentration, and in terms of infrastructure. It is the crossroads of the country.

Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where’s Home?

“Both the survey and Census data indicate that the biggest differences in the characteristics of movers and stayers revolve around geography and education. In the Midwest, nearly half of adult residents say they have spent their entire lives in their hometown. That compares with fewer than a third of those who live in Western states. Cities, suburbs and small towns have more movers than stayers, while rural areas are more evenly split. Three-quarters of college graduates have moved at least once, compared with just over half of Americans with no more than a high school diploma. College graduates also move longer distances — and move more often — than Americans with a high school diploma or less, and employment plays a greater role in their decisions about where to live. By income group, the most affluent Americans are the most likely to have moved.”

That is interesting in a number of ways.

There are differences between more rural and more urban states. But many of the farming states still have most of their populations concentrated in urban areas. So, a rural state isn’t necessarily the same as having a majority rural population.

Something else that came to mind is that the Midwest tends to highly value education. But maybe the Midwesterners who get the most education tend to move away from the Midwest. I don’t know. There are a ton of college towns all over the Midwest, although I’m sure they don’t represent most of the population.

Anyway, it does fit the stereotype of the Midwest. One thinks of the region as a settled place with relatively stable communities. This would follow the aspect of the friendly and conventional Midwestern personality.

 

To Be a Stereotype or Not

I was at work last night. I’m a parking ramp cashier. My job is basically customer service, that and taking people’s money so that I’ll let them out.

I don’t tend to react too much to anything that customers do or say. I just put on my blank professional face and do my job.

So, last night, a car pulled up with two young Asian guys. They were likely college students as the biggest increase in the University population has been Asians (Is that a stereotype?). I only mention this to give context to the interaction. The passenger leaned over and said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I say. The question he asks me is, “Do you like to eat hunted deer and rabbit meat?”

That amused me. He was stereotyping me. Part of me would’ve liked to have asked in return, “Do you eat raw fish and clubbed dolphins?”

It doesn’t bother me when people try to stereotype me because they usually fail to put me into the right stereotype. Yes, I’m a working class Iowan. Yes, I wear Carhartt clothing. Yes, I’m of German ancestry. But, no, I wasn’t raised in nor have I ever lived in any rural area. No, I’ve never hunted nor owned a gun. And, no, i haven’t spent my whole life in Iowa, much less the Midwest. I’m less of an Iowan than many people I know. Still, I know people who have lived here their entire lives and they don’t particularly seem any different than people I’ve known in entirely separate regions.

I may look like a rural Iowan, but I spent much of my life growing up as an upper middle class city boy. I suppose I’m comfortable looking working class because my mom raised me with a working class sensibility. I’m not interested in standing out. That makes me a more typical Midwesterner. In Iowa, there is no clear distinction between someone who grew up in a rural area and someone who grew up in an urban area, especially as in both cases it is the same Standard American English. This also might relate to how Midwestern farmers have a long history of ensuring their children are well educated, including often sending them off to college. This seems particularly evident living in Iowa City, a college town, where urban and rural populations mix freely as you only have to drive to the edge of town to find farm fields.

Of course, none of my family were farmers. I’d have to look back to the 1800s to maybe find an ancestor who farmed. But I can’t offhand say for certain that I know of even distant relatives who were farmers. However, my mom’s family is as close as the Midwest gets to what is stereotypically known as rednecks.

I don’t mind stereotypes all that much, except when they directly relate to prejudice. I wasn’t worried about suffering oppression by Asian college students and so it was a harmless incident. Sometimes stereotypes are even accurate, and some people even embrace stereotypes in pride and defiance. As for me, if someone assumed I was a depressed artsy intellectual, then they’d be right. But I’ve never tried to fit into a stereotype. I don’t dress like a depressed artsy intellectual. I do carry a backpack which has caused some people to think I was a college student because after all this is a college town, but I have no college degree.

I have no grand point to the post. I was just amused by how a foreign student perceived me in terms of how he perceived Americans and specifically Midwesterners. Many Americans, particularly from the coasts, often stereotype Midwesterners, not entirely dissimilar to how Southerners are stereotyped. I suppose people from other parts of the world see America through the lense of the American MSM that is mostly produced in coastal big cities. To a foreigner like an Asian, I could imagine the Midwest is largely known through movies: Wizard of Oz, Field of Dreams, etc (maybe some of the movies and tv shows of Superman’s youth; and who knows what else). It is quite likely that, to a foreigner, Iowa might as well as be Oklahoma, Tennessee or North Dakota.

Stereotypes are odd things. They aren’t always incorrect. Even when they are caricatures, there can be elements of generalized truths. Are there many Iowans who hunt and eat what they hunt? Sure. But stereotypes tend to go way beyond such simple probabilistic correlations. Even if I did hunt, what would that say about me? Not much.

This is relevant to my recent thinking. One book I finished reading a while back is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. It is about stereotype threat which is a heavily researched issue. One thing that is clear is that stereotypes can have very powerful results, even when there is otherwise no active effort of prejudice and oppression. Stereotypes have a way of becoming pervasive in all aspects of society and become embedded deep within our thinking, both in the thinking of those who benefit from it and those who suffer from it.

Did that Asian guy think I was less smart, less worldly or less worthy in some way simply because I looked like a lower class rural person? I’m sure that would be a common element to such a stereotype. How far away is that stereotype from that of the redneck, the hillbilly and white trash? For those who are perceived in that light their entire life, what impact would stereotype threat have on them? For those who live in a society that has treated them that way and expected that of them, what kind of life would that lead to? The structural prejudice directed at poor rural whites isn’t all that different from the structural racism directed at poor urban blacks.

Asians come to America and they don’t really understand the history behind such stereotypes. Many white and/or upper class Americans also don’t understand. Stereotypes are so powerful because of this lack of understanding.

The Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

I’m a Midwesterner and specifically an Iowan. Like anyone else, I have a natural tendency to defend this place I consider home. Take for example when a commenter, Skepoet, said in a comment that the Midwest lacked diversity. I responded with pointing out a multicultural tradition in the Midwest.

At the same time, I always want to be as honest as possible, with myself as much as with others. I’ve come to realize, from further study, a major part of history outside the South that demonstrates how pervasive racism is in our society. I speak of sundown towns. I learned that even in my beloved Midwest, even in Iowa, sundown towns weren’t unusual. It wasn’t an accident that so many blacks ended up in the inner city. They were forced to live there when they were forced to leave the towns they had moved to following the Civil War. As I wrote in one post:

“A problem of freedom involves the opposite of being a part of a free people. Free societies/communities have often defined themselves by who is excluded. He references James Loewen’s work on sundown towns in this regard.

“I was generally aware that sundown towns existed, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them called that. They are basically towns where blacks weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) welcome after dark, so unwelcome that their lives could be in danger (such as being arrested, beaten, or lynched). I was even aware that towns unfriendly to non-whites have existed all over the United States. Racism is pervasive throughout American society. Still, I was surprised by how pervasive these sundown towns supposedly were, especially in the far North and far West.

“There was an era following the Civil War where an anti-racist idealism prevailed. It took hold most strongly in the Republican majority areas outside the South. Blacks were very much welcomed into towns across the country and blacks took up the new opportunities available to them. What I never knew before was that blacks had settled in so many small towns and rural areas outside of the South. Like Loewen before he did the research, I just assumed most areas always were lacking in minorities.”

I learned that this might have happened quite close to home.

“For example, a nearby town is West Branch in Cedar County. My brother and his family live in West Branch, and he has noted the old boys network that keeps that town from changing, despite all the other small towns nearby experiencing lots of change. A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there.”

“Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930.

“This appearance and disappearance of blacks happened all over around this time. During the 20th century, blacks increasingly became concentrated into big cities. Loewen was unable to find any legal documents, newspaper accounts or oral history about what caused the blacks to leave Cedar County, but he did find plenty of evidence to explain what happened in other places. In some cases, white mobs forced entire black communities to vacate a town, a county or larger area (Oregon was a sundown state in that there were anti-black laws enforced to keep any new blacks from becoming residents). Whether through official decree or unofficial policy, many of these places remained all white for most or all of the 20th century, some still remaining all white to this day.”

This is the history. Now for the present reality of that persisting history.

Iowa ranks worst in the country when it comes to racial disparity of marijuana arrests. Much of the Midwest also fits in with this same sad pattern. These are the very states that so often rank well on many other social measures. What makes me most sad of all is the fact that Johnson County, in which I live, is the third worst county in Iowa.

This supposed multicultural-loving Iowa City that is my hometown obviously needs some work living up to its own ideals. The racial influence (read ‘black’ population) from Chicago coming in from I-80 is turning out to be too much for the local population, even here in this liberal college town.

I don’t know why such a problem exists in a place like this. The police here don’t seem abusive or oppressive. What has led them to racially profile to such a degree? And what has caused them to think this was acceptable or even expected of them?

By the way, the same day I came across the above info, I also noticed an article about Iowa City being listed in the top 100 livable cities. There were 5 cities in Iowa that made the list:

“Cedar Rapids was named 29 while Ames ranked 31 and Iowa City was 46. Des Moines ranked 69 and West Des Moines ranked 76.

This is extremely typical. Iowa City, in particular, is always making these kinds of lists. One of the best cities for retirement, for raising family, for going to college, for economic growth, and on and on. Yes, Iowa City is a great town for a town of its size. It has great public transportation, bike lanes, lots of trails and parks, a lovely downtown, and high civic participation. I could go on and on about why I love this place.

This most recent list is about most livable which includes a wide variety of factors. But the question is:

Livable for whom?

http://www.aclu-ia.org/2013/10/01/racial-profiling-initiative-launched/

http://thegazette.com/2011/02/11/software-looks-for-racial-profiling-in-c-r-police-work/

http://www.resourcesforlife.com/docs/item6761

https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/iowa-ranks-worst-nation-racial-disparities-marijuana-arrests

http://www.dailyiowan.com/2013/06/11/Opinions/33431.html

http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/deeper-racism-iowa-beneath-white-obama-craze

Individualistic Community vs Collectivist Clannishness

My mind seems to be stuck on human biodiversity (HBD) thoughts, not in a negative way though. I can’t help but be continually intrigued by hbd chick’s blog postings.

Her most recent post is clannish paradox? which is very insightful. The part I wanted to focus in on, however, isn’t a new insight of hers:

another clannishness paradox that i’ve mentioned before is that individuals from clannish societies often feel very independent. here, for example, is taki on the greeks:

“The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to others’ dictates. His unruliness has helped him survive through the centuries of oppression, as well as to rise above adversity. But it has also made him unaware of the advantages of a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes. This has created a climate where cheating is a way of life, where the highest and lowest of citizens do not hesitate to use dishonesty, especially in politics.”

yeah. well, the misunderstanding there is that greeks are “individualistic.” they’re not. they’re clannish. and because they’re clannish, they don’t like outside interference — they’re not going to “submit easily to others’ dictates” and they’re certainly not going to have “a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes.” clannish people — like southern libertarians— don’t want outside interference (like from the gub’ment), so they seemindividualistic, but what they are, in fact, is independent-minded — but in a clannish sort of way. the true individualists — the non-clannish peoples — tend to be communally oriented. and they are rare.

It’s that last part that got me thinking. The last hyperlink brings you to another one of her posts. In the beginning of the post, she summarizes the non-clannish side of the paradox:

in societies in which the members are MORE individualistic, those same members are oriented MORE towards the group, the whole group, and nothing but the group (i.e. NOT their extended families or clans or tribes) than in societies in which the members are NOT so individualistic.

I came to these same insights from a totally different direction. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in different regions and among people of different ideologies. Just from observation, I began to notice these patterns. Further reading helped clarify my thoughts, but all of that was long before I came across HBD.

What hbd chick presents reminds me of a couple of things.

First, I’ve often written about reactionary conservatism and community-minded liberalism. Corey Robin wrote a book about reactionary conservatism and it really shook up my thinking when I read it. His theory gave me a framework to make sense of my own observations. When hbd chick writes about libertarian crackers, I suspect she is basically speaking of this same reactionary conservatism.

Second, I just so happened to have written a post today about individualism and collectivism. I pointed out how Iowa is one of those strongly individualistic states. In the past, though, I’ve also pointed out that Iowa is strongly community-oriented. This is something many don’t understand about much of the Midwest (maybe Indiana excluded; let us just call it Kentuckiana).

All of this only appears paradoxical if you remain at the level of ideological rhetoric. If you dig deeper, it makes a lot of sense.

Borders of the Middle Border, Heart of the Heartland

I was reading my local alternative news and culture magazine, the Little Village. In the most recent issue, there is an article by Thomas Dean titled Mapping the Middle: What delineates the heartland. It is about how the Midwest is defined.

Dean mentions a mapping of the Midwest done by way of an online survey. He describes the results, from the Little Village article:

The eastern edges flow into New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma seem pretty solid on the map’s southern border. The western edges extend from the Texas panhandle as far as Idaho. And plenty of Canada is in “the Midwest,” too, extending on the north up to Calgary and Edmonton. Some responses even include Seattle, Las Vegas and much of northern Mexico. If the Midwest is a state of mind, this map redefines the idea of “expanded consciousness.”

The above links for the original website (sasaki.com) are now dead. I did find another article from the City Lab website (The Atlantic) that has info and also a map—Go Ahead, Try Drawing an Outline of the Midwest on a Map by Jennie Xie:

This is interesting survey as it includes respondents from all over the US and beyond. The map is interactive allowing you to look at the data according to where respondents were born and how long, if at all, they have lived in the Midwest. Depending on which category or categories is included, the Midwest’s boundaries shift, mainly centered in the same basic region but expanding or shrinking.

Dean mentions that, having taught in different states, he has had the opportunity to ask students about this topic. His “(unscientific) conclusion” was that, “The Midwest radiates out in a circle from the respondent’s location at the center.” He goes on to write:

When I asked the question in Michigan, Pennsylvania was often included; not one student mentioned either of the Dakotas, and I got only a smattering of the Minnesotas. When I asked students in Moorland, Minn. (just a wheat stem away from Fargo, N.D.), Montana and Colorado were popular answers, and it seemed as if they had never heard of Ohio and MIssouri. Nearly always, the responder’s own location was at the center of the circle.

That makes sense. We are subjectively biased, of course, the world extending outward from where we are. Besides, the Midwest is the Heartland and the heart is where your home is. Maybe that is why the results lead to such an extended defining of the boundaries of the Midwest by those outside of the Midwest. As I’ve argued, the Midwest is the standard by which many people judge being American. As America has grown, so has the Midwestern identity.

According to most mappings, Iowa appears to be about the center of what people think of as the Midwest. This is true for people born outside of the US and have spent no time in the Midwest. And this is true for those who were born in core Midwestern states and have lived in the Midwest their entire lives.

If you limit to Iowans who have lived in the Midwest their entire lives, you get the same boundaries as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

Dean concludes with this:

Oh, and by the way, as I’ve solidified my own Midwestern map over the years to conform to the U.S. Census Bureau’s, Iowa City is about smack dab in the middle of that.

I’ve come to this view for my own reasons. As a long-term Iowa City resident, I’m biased toward Iowa (specifically Eastern Iowa) as the center of the Midwest. Most Americans seem to basically agree in that Iowa is somewhere in or directly around the center of the mapped results. This makes sense as this is the precise area where originated Standard American English (also called General American).

Midwest began as what was called the Middle West. It was seen as the expanding frontier in the main corridor through which early pioneers traveled. It seems that the Midwest has been expanding ever since. At this point, it has come to define the public perception of much of the interior expanses of largely rual landlocked states, especially any state that has a history of farming.

Iowa was once the far frontier, the Mississippi Rivr being the last major boundary of westward flow of settlements. Now Iowa has become the approximate geographic center of the Midwest, the Heart of the Heartland.

The Midwest is a major theme in my blog. Among other posts I could list, here are some related posts:

Midwestern Values of Community & the Common Good

Midwest vs Coasts: history, culture & politics

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

American Borg: On Assimilation & Family

Midlands Mestizo: Pluralism and Social Democracy

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

Midwestern Green

Iowa State Parks: Past and Present

To Be Iowan…

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

Iowa Politics & the Younger Generations

Great Depression, Iowa, & Revolts

Radicals & Reformers of Indiana

Patchwork Nation: Evangelical Epicenters & Tractor Country

Appalachia Meets Midlands: My Kentucky & Indiana Family History

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

As the Heartland, what is in the heart of America? What was planted here? What has grown? What has come to fruition?

The Midwest is Middle America. Without a middle, there is no whole. The periphery, America’s coasts and borders, receives all the attention like the sweet juicy flesh surrounding the seed, but it is the seed that is the purpose of the fruit. Out of the seed grows what was in the seed to grow. The seed grows upward where the fruit is to be had, but the roots surrounding what was the seed holds it all in place. The center, like the roots, must hold for if it doesn’t nothing will remain to be held; a weakly rooted tree will topple. The center is what is at the core, the middle that defines the whole, the circumference measured outward from that point of reference, that point of stability.

In America, the middle has always been the Midlands and the former Middle Colonies, the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest that extends into the interior. It is the cultural middling point where cultures meet, clash, merge, and even out. It is the linguistic middle of Standard American English. It is the median and mean center of the United States population.

Right now, the Emerald Ash Borer is slowly making its way across the Midwest. A couple of years ago it finally made it to Iowa and all the Ash trees I see in this Iowa town may soon be gone. The Norse World Tree Yggdrasil is considered to have been an Ash tree, out of which the first man was formed and the sugary sap from which was made the Mead of Inspiration. The Ash tree has long been rooted in Western society. It is a hardwood tree and so has been highly prized, including for use in shipbuilding. Consider how many immigrants came to America afloat upon ships built out of Ash wood. Yet now we are watching possibly a mass extinction of Ash trees, not just a single variety of Ash trees but all Ash trees.

How does the Emerald Ash Borer kill a tree? It does so by cutting off the flow of nutrients from roots to the crown. Where did this pest come from? It is an invasive species from Eastern Russia and Asia.

It is thought that the Emerald Ash Borer was brought to America along with a shipment of parts. This is one of those inevitable unintended results of globalization. The entire United States is itself an unintended result of globalization. The Atlantic colonies were part of the first major era of globalization. Many of the earliest colonies, especially Virginia and New Netherland, were simply intended as capitalist investments and not to develop into full-fledged societies, much less an independent united country. One of the earliest unintended consequences back then was slavery. Another unintended consequence was multiculturalism.

Many Americans today worry about the consequences of mass immigration, even though multiple waves of mass immigration have occurred every century since the colonies were founded. America is mass migration. It is the heart and soul of this crazy experiment.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on a plaque at the feet of the Statue of Liberty)

In these words is the only moral justification to be found for our having become an empire or what in doublespeak is these days called a global superpower. Call it what you will, but the US acts like an empire: colonial territories such as Hawaii and Philippines; regularly starting wars of aggression along with regularly invading and occupying countries; military bases in countries all over the world and naval presence in international waters all over the world; et cetera. The US is the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

(See the following: Manifesting America by Mark Rifkin, The Dominion of War by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, A Turn to Empire by Jennifer Pitts, and Among the Powers of the Earth by Eliga H. Gould)

I’m personally not in favor of my country being an empire (I say ‘my’ with some reservation for a subject doesn’t possess but is possessed by an empire, yet I must take some responsibility for it as I’m a direct beneficiary of its power). Nonetheless, if the metaphorical ‘we’ are going to be imperialists, we at least ought to stick to our moral justifications for doing so. We are an immigrant nation. This is our role in the world. Other countries accept us as big brother because every country has immigrants and descendants living in America. This is seen as everyone’s country. This is why the citizens of other countries mourned with US citizens after the 9/11 attack, and indeed the people who died in that attack were of diverse nationalities and citizenship. Without this moral justification for our empire-building, we are simply yet another big bully. Too many Americans want the benefits of being an empire with none of the responsibilities.

Multiculturalism is the tap root of the Tree of Liberty, whether for good or ill. In the 18th century, South Carolina had a African majority and Pennsylvania had a German majority. Further back in the 17th century, New Netherland had a Dutch majority, New Sweden a Swedish majority, the Spanish territories such as Florida with a Spanish majority and the French territories with a French majority. Even after being taken over by the British, New Netherland/New York still had a large Dutch population. Also, today much of the former Spanish territories that became the United States have continuously maintained a hispanic majority. Of course, the Native American territories had their native majority and once were the majority of the entire continent. These are the roots of the United States. This region of North America has never had a majority population that was of English descent.

One of the conflicts colonists had with the British government was over the rights of Englishmen. I wonder if the reason the British government was so uncertain about the colonies was the fact that there were so many colonists who weren’t Englishmen. I could understand as the ethnocentric ruling elite of an empire that they were wary of equally offering the rights of Englishmen to people who weren’t Englishmen. Those are the kinds of problems that come from empire-building. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in the colonies were also mostly Englishmen. So, they took quite seriously their supposed rights as Englishmen and took offense at their being denied.

Still, I wonder if it ever occurred to the mostly English-descended founding fathers, as they convened congress in Philadelphia, that they were surrounded by fellow colonists who weren’t Englishmen. Even back then, Pennsylvania was the Keystone. The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been. There was well-founded fears of despotic power arising after the defeat of the British military, and quite prescient considering what this country has become.

It is interesting how this colonial region of multiculturalism was also the region with some of the strongest advocates for British loyalty and political moderation. It was the keystone not just for political and military reasons but also for cultural reasons. The Quakers as well believed in the rights of Englishmen. However, the Quakers were different in their understanding of English constitutionalism. They saw their rights directly rooted in the British constitution. They believed in popular sovereignty and that reform must be sought through the constitutional process. Englishmen didn’t lack a constitution and so didn’t need to create one. They simply needed to improve the very constitution that had given them the rights of Englishmen in the first place. (It is sadly ironic that this is precisely what is now claimed of the US constitution that violently replaced the British constitution. Americans prize their constitution and speak of the democratic process of creating amendments. Yet the US constitution was created by a process no more democratic than the process that created the British constitution.)

The Middle Colonies were the swing colonies for the issue of revolution just as today the Midwestern states are the swing states for presidential elections. It is partly because this has always been where the mass of the population has been centered. The reason it is centered here is because the Mid-Atlantic is where most immigrants arrived and the Midwest is where most immigrants settled. This wasn’t accidental but quite intentional. They were multicultural havens right from the start. To the North and to the South, the other colonial governments were more wary about letting just anyone to settle in their area or even merely to dock their ship full of immigrant strangers. In the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania, a more tolerant attitude prevailed. This is the source of the Midwestern moderate sensibility.

During the revolutionary era, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Delaware embodied this the most clearly. He was born of parents of multi-generational Quaker descent. He married a woman of multi-generational Quaker descent. He lived among Quakers and associated with Quakers. However, he came to believe in wars of defense which the Quakers didn’t support and so he wasn’t a Quaker. This single point aside, his worldview was thoroughly Quaker. But even in this point of disagreement, his taking a moderate support of war only in cases of defense was very fitting for the Quaker attitude of moderation. Dickinson was in this way semi-pacifist. He believed violence should be avoided at all costs when possible. His understanding of defense was very narrow and strict.

Dickinson was a principled man. Oddly, as a reform-minded moderate, he was a key player in helping to make the revolution possible. He was the most popular pamphleteer until Thomas Paine (the latter also having had Quaker values instilled in him by his father). Without what Dickinson helped start and what Paine helped finish, the American Revolution may never have gotten very far, quite likely not succeeding at all. These Quaker-descended righteous men (with, at least in the case of Paine, Quaker-taught plain speech) knew how to articulate a collective vision of freedom that unified what was otherwise just a bunch of disparate gripes about government. Many have misunderstand Paine as a mere revolutionary. Paine also sought moderation in his own way, but he sought a moderation of power that would benefit the commoner rather the established elite. To the established elite, this didn’t seem moderate at all. For example, Paine was a deist which he saw as a middleground position where the divine was envisioned as a moderating force between morally unrooted radical atheism/secularism and authoritarian theocratic tendencies such as established churches. Both Dickinson and Paine sought moderation while remaining principled. Neither changed with the times, but the world around them shifted over their lifetimes. They found themselves criticized and forgotten by those less moderate and less principled.

My point is to show the power of this vision of moderation. Like Quaker pacifism and tolerance, it need not be a position of weakness for it holds the potential of immense strength, both strength of conviction and strength of influence. Not all moderates are neutral and passive. The greatest wisdom of moderation, however, is easily forgotten even by moderates. When moderation loses its moral center, it merely becomes a defense of the status quo. The center is what holds, but what is being maintained and for what purpose?

The proponents of moderateness are what hold this diverse country together. An empire wouldn’t be possible without them. That is the rub. Modern empire-building has necessitated this kind of conservative-minded liberalism, the latter thus becoming complicit with the former. Why not give Hawaii back to the Hawaiians, the Philippines back to the Filipinos, former Northern Mexico back to the Mexicans, and at least some of the former Indian territories back to the Native Americans? Why did we as a country expend so much blood in keeping the country together during the Civil War? Why do we want to be a great power on the earth? Why not just be free and independent communities that govern themselves as they see fit?

I love the Midwest for its moderation. I truly believe the Midlands has helped keep this country together, for whatever that is worth (I often do think there is worth in this, certainly Dickinson and Paine did). Still, the dark side of this bothers me. I see it in a status quo mentality. The attitude of tolerance only goes so far and often is only advocated when it is convenient and easy, when no sacrifices are required. This is the rot in the Tree of Liberty.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Jefferson proved to be less consistently principled than the likes of Dickinson and Paine, but still his words resonate as I don’t doubt that he believed them when he wrote them. What has often been on my mind lately is how the American Revolution was ideologically and politically lost by the principled reformers like Dickinson and the principled revolutionaries like Paine. Accordingly, it could be said that the American Revolution went too far and not far enough. Those who took the reigns of power were the very ones least interested in any liberty besides their own. It is strange how radical a moderate like Dickinson can sound compared to what came to pass.

I’ve never been sure about revolution, specifically violent revolution. It is hard to say that Canada is worse off for embracing slow reform instead of bloody insurrection. Canada has a more multicultural society than even the US. Plus, Canada has fewer of the problems found in the US: high poverty, high wealth inequality, low social mobility, etc. The American Revolution seems to have created a very divided country and made the Civil War inevitable. The British, instead, offered freedom to many slaves right after the revolution and many of them settled in free communities in Canada. I sometimes wonder if Canada is offering a better American Dream than America.

Is there something worth saving by moderation in America? Can we regain the moderate vision of John Dickinson? Or can we finally follow to completion the freedom-loving vision of Paine? If we are so incapable of worthwhile non-violent reform, what makes some people think that yet again more violence will solve our problems? How many more revolutions and civil wars do we need? What is this deformed tree of ‘liberty’ that has grown out of conflict? Should we hope to water it once again or just let it die from its own rot? What would we plant in its place? Or are there other seeds already planted that don’t need blood to grow?

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country–not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society–cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”
~ Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times