No "United" in the United States

Several years ago I had dinner with Dick Gaughan, a Scottish musician acquaintance. (That’s pronounced Gawwk’n for those of you who are Scots-impaired.) Dick, an old lefty, led off the conversation with the provocative remark, “The United States is breakin’ up, lad.” Not to be outdone by another’s glib remark I retorted, “Really, Dick? I’ve not seen the memo.” Don’t mess with the pros; Gaughan came back with this gem (assume a Scottish accent): “Seriously, man. You’re from Massachusetts and I’m from Scotland, but I’ve just come from Texas and I you and I have way more in common than you have with anyone in Texas!”

Gaughan was right; aside from the occasional system shocker such as 9/11, there is no such place as the United States of America. The USA is a repository of atomized individuals, special interest groups, clashing ideals, and regional variations masquerading as a nation. There is nothing that unites us other than the U.S. dollar–no ideology, no shared values, no mutual concerns, and certainly no common god. On the latter score, I must admit that I don’t give a damn what happens in Bible Belt regions such as South Carolina or South Dakota. In my heart of hearts, I sincerely doubt God would have ‘em if the Rapture they await actually happened!

The only thing wrong with Gaughan’s claim is that it lacked perspective. Our current red state/blue state rhetoric is merely a public acknowledgement of what has long been the case. Back in 1981, the year Reagan assumed the presidency, journalist Joel Garreau published The Nine Nations of North America, a frothy little volume that broke down the continent into regions that shared values and culture. He correctly identified, for instance, that northern Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire were part of greater Quebec, just as much of the Southwest and southern California belonged to “Mexamerica,” and “Dixie” was a nation unto itself. 

Fast forward to 2011, the year writer Colin Woodard published American Nations. Garreau’s study was mostly sociological in nature; Woodard’s contribution is historical. He notes that there really never was a United States. From the outset, settlements in the Chesapeake, Deep South, Appalachia, the New Netherlands, and New England were more different from each other than from their parent nations. The American Revolution served to magnify, not obliterate, those differences, and Manifest Destiny merely added greater diversity. In Woodard’s telling, what we call the United States is an abstraction based on two events of great symbolic (but mythic) importance: the Revolution and the forced repatriation of the Civil War. Moreover, he argues that Garreau was overly charitable; there are eleven distinct regions, not nine. (See above map.) I have quibbles with some of Woodard’s borders–I’d include most of Eastern Canada in an entity I’d dub Greater New England, for instance–but he’s just as right as Gaughan; the United States is an abstraction rooted in myth and sentiment, not reality.

This brings me peace of mind concerning the upcoming presidential election. I think it very likely that Mitt Romney will win–and by a comfortable margin. Such a prospect would have distressed me in the past. Romney is a despicable man; he’s a smug, dishonest, dissembling, rapacious venture capitalist whose values lay on Wall Street and the Cayman Islands, not Main Street or Rhode Island. He will be a Mormon version of George W. Bush who will pack the Supreme Court, gut personal liberties, dismantle Obamacare, line the already gilded pockets of robber barons, and send young folks off to foolhardy wars.

So why am I not worried? Because Romney will do it all of this in the name of a phantom, the United States. I don’t live there; I live in Massachusetts (or “Yankeedom,” if you prefer). We’ll still have gay marriage, free speech, reproductive rights, state healthcare mandates, labor unions, and weekly protests against every damn war Romney concocts. We’ll also be way better educated and have far higher wages than the fools in Greater Appalachia, the pious and pompous in Dixie, or the libertarians in the Far West. That’s because we’re really Canadians at heart, which is what we’d be politically in a world in which logic ruled rather than inertia and myth.

Here’s the memo: The United States doesn’t exist.


Epaminondas said...

It does
It has
It will

America am chai, dude (ette)?
From a bronx born, civil rights working, woodstock attending, yankee, southern educated, maine living, cardio researcher, and business STARTER who has spent from ~1987-2004 almost as much time OUT of this great, varied, polyglot goop melanged culture nation than in it.

What your scottish friend doesn't get, and never will, is that this is a place of PERMANENT REVOLUTION.
Progressive, conservative what have you. Everyone is pushing and pulling, all the time, and it's ALWAYS BEEN THAT WAY. Even on Dec 8 1941, when FDR was afraid to split the nation by declaring war on the Nazis.

What Romney MAY do, which the present occupant has simply been an epic fail at, it is setting up conditions to let more people make more money to make their families MORE SECURE and able to pursue happiness without regard to any govt,, ANYWHERE.

It's that simple

Phoenix Brown & Lars Vigo said...

An aggregate of people without government isn't a nation; it's not even a tribe. A collection of atomized individuals who don't share common values and are not united under a common government is merely a hermitage in which individuals interact randomly and without mutual concern. Want to see places where people have no central government to speak of? Try Afghanistan, Somalia, or the failed nation state to the south known as Mexico.

Honestly, today's conservatives are more pathetic than the do-your-own-thing hippies of the 60s.