Via Andrew Sullivan, I came across an article that attempts to understand political differences in the U.S. by breaking the country up into eleven distinct "nations," each with its own distinctive culture and history. This approach, the author argues, allows us to understand better some of the apparently intractable problems we're facing, particularly with regard to issues of guns and violence.
Why is violence—state-sponsored and otherwise—so much more prevalent in some American nations than in others? It all goes back to who settled those regions and where they came from. Nisbett, the social psychologist, noted that regions initially “settled by sober Puritans, Quakers, and Dutch farmer-artisans”—that is, Yankeedom, the Midlands, and New Netherland—were organized around a yeoman agricultural economy that rewarded “quiet, cooperative citizenship, with each individual being capable of uniting for the common good.” The South—and by this he meant the nations I call Tidewater and Deep South—was settled by “swashbuckling Cavaliers of noble or landed gentry status, who took their values . . . from the knightly, medieval standards of manly honor and virtue.”
Continuing to treat the South as a single entity, Nisbett argued that the violent streak in the culture the Cavaliers established was intensified by the “major subsequent wave of immigration . . . from the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland.” These immigrants, who populated what I call Greater Appalachia, came from “an economy based on herding,” which, as anthropologists have shown, predisposes people to belligerent stances because the animals on which their wealth depends are so vulnerable to theft. Drawing on the work of the historian David Hackett Fisher, Nisbett maintained that “southern” violence stems partly from a “culture-of-honor tradition,” in which males are raised to create reputations for ferocity—as a deterrent to rustling—rather than relying on official legal intervention.
This kind of explanation appeals to the historicist in me, and does help to articulate why particular political attitudes seem to correlate with certain kinds of regional identity.
At the same time, I wonder whether it would be interesting to consider whether membership in a particular "nation" needs to be understood geographically. With the patterns of migration in the United States, particularly in the last fifty years, disrupting the kinds of ground in regional identities this article points to, at the same time that mass culture has generalized certain kinds of experiences beyond their particular regional identity, it seems to me that "nationhood" has a lot more to do in this instance with one's "elective affinities" than with one's geographic location (though clearly if you're geographically located in an area where most of your potential compatriots share particular elective affinities, the incentive is high to prefer those affinities yourself).
Anectdocally, what I'm suggesting can be summed by my own experience growing up in Connecticut (in the heart of Yankeedom), and nevertheless seeing a lot of guys with the Confederate battle flag on their t-shirts. I don't think it was all about being a Leonard Skynard fan.
To me though, the most interesting part of this is the way the article roots in the more communiarian and pacifistic tendencies of Yankeedom in the Puritan and Quaker history that the region shares:
Founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a new Zion, Yankeedom has, since the outset, put great emphasis on perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public’s shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats and other would-be tyrants. Since the early Puritans, it has been more comfortable with government regulation and public-sector social projects than many of the other nations, who regard the Yankee utopian streak with trepidation.
Again, this resonates strongly with my own sense of regional identity, though given the high percentage of Catholics that began to populate the region in the 19th century (particularly the Irish and Italians), I wonder whether their own sense of social solidarity simply merged well with the pre-existing trends within the region, or whether they reinterpretated their cultural and religious identity to match those trends. The article seems to suggest the latter.
But returning to the issue of violence, the article makes some interesting observations:
Scholars have long recognized that cultures organized around slavery rely on violence to control, punish, and terrorize—which no doubt helps explain the erstwhile prevalence of lynching deaths in Deep South and Tidewater. But it is also significant that both these nations, along with Greater Appalachia, follow religious traditions that sanction eye-for-an-eye justice, and adhere to secular codes that emphasize personal honor and shun governmental authority. As a result, their members have fewer qualms about rushing to lethal judgments.
The code of Yankeedom could not have been more different. Its founders promoted self-doubt and self-restraint, and their Unitarian and Congregational spiritual descendants believed vengeance would not receive the approval of an all-knowing God. This nation was the center of the nineteenth-century death penalty reform movement, which began eliminating capital punishment for burglary, robbery, sodomy, and other nonlethal crimes. None of the states controlled by Yankeedom or New Netherland retain the death penalty today.
The article's conclusion is not hopeful:
For now, the country will remain split on how best to make its citizens safer, with Deep South and its allies bent on deterrence through armament and the threat of capital punishment, and Yankeedom and its allies determined to bring peace through constraints such as gun control. The deadlock will persist until one of these camps modifies its message and policy platform to draw in the swing nations. Only then can that camp seize full control over the levers of federal power—the White House, the House, and a filibuster-proof Senate majority—to force its will on the opposing nations. Until then, expect continuing frustration and division.