Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Place in Time (Part VI)

This is final installment of a series of posts about the role of regionalism in U.S. history.
What might all this discussion of regionalism mean for you? That of course depends at least a bit on who “you” are, i.e. where you’re coming from in some literal or figurative way. (I, for my part, am the grandson of an Italian immigrant whose extended family, much of it Irish, is almost exclusively Mid-Atlantic by birth. But by marriage, education, and temperament, I am decidedly a Yankee in cultural affiliation.) Insofar as these regional themes I’m talking about have any reality, they include plenty of exceptions. You can find Chinese food in Tulsa (maybe not good Chinese food), and hear good bluegrass music in Manhattan (maybe not real bluegrass). Even overwhelmingly Republican Texas has Democratic pockets – which may soon become more than pockets as the racial complexion of the state changes. There are plenty of reasons, and ways, the nation-state will hold. Like our motto says, e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).

On the other hand, there’s no reason to think the borders of the United States will remain permanent. Considered solely as a matter of topography, there’s nothing particularly cohesive about a stretch of continent that’s marked by large stretches of forest, plains, desert, and mountains, and which over the course of the last few thousand years has been the home of a wide variety of peoples who interacted with each other was well as lived in relative isolation. And many of our state boundaries – consider the rectangles that constitute the Dakotas, for example – are really matters of fictive convenience. Should the pressures, internal or external, become great enough, different pieces of the nation could break off or recombine in ways that are hard to foresee, but not exactly random, either.

Does that thought sadden you? At times it saddens me, though I’ll confess I find myself exasperated enough with the kinds of things I hear or see coming out of South Carolina and find myself thinking our lives would be a lot easier if we went our separate ways. I get annoyed at the way Idahoans complain about the intrusiveness of the federal government, even as they depend on it for the roads, jobs, and markets that keep it afloat. In recent years I’ve heard secessionist noise coming out of Texas, to which I feel inclined to say, “erring sisters, go in peace,” especially since I regard the circumstances by which Texas entered the Union to be highly dubious. On the other hand, I’m not sure any of the rest of the nation was much, if any, less so as a matter of moral legitimacy.

The real point of this particular conversation is less about making predictions or arguing for the value of one part of the country over the other than it is asking you to consider what you consider important about your national identity. What do you think it means to be an American? Is it a landscape, a set of habits, or a series of ideas? Are the things you value rooted more in one part of the continent than another? How bad would you feel if some part of it were to break off? And lastly, and more importantly: where – and how – do you want to live? If you’re lucky, you may have some choice in the matter. Try and exercise it wisely.