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Local Cultures

The cliché is that modern commerce, media, and travel have washed out local cultures. A mall anchored by a Bloomingdale’s in Massachusetts is just like one in Arizona. Starbucks here is like Starbucks there. Everyone coast to coast listens to the same songs and watches the same cable and streaming channels. Except for the weather, the American experience is just about the same.

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Curry, Baptism in Kansas, 1928

And yet: We repeatedly run into evidence that at some level, perhaps a quite deep level, America’s local cultures are persistently different, perhaps increasingly different. One example is politics. There is some evidence that Americans increasingly cluster by political leanings–gerrymandering aside–as they look to be among folks who share their tastes. Another example is how interracial and same-sex couples prefer to live in large center-cities. Localities thus become more culturally distinct because “birds of a feather” more easily flock together, sorting themselves into homogeneous enclaves. Beyond that process, however, there is evidence that localities themselves still–even in this globalized era–shape cultural tastes, actually “coloring” the birds’ “feathers.”

Two recent papers from different corners of the social sciences make bold claims about very long-lasting psychological effects of centuries-old local cultures. One study, published in a psychology journal, finds that residents of what were long ago coal-fueled industrial regions of Great Britain have especially “adverse” psychological profiles today because of that history. The second study, this by economists, finds that residents of what were long ago frontier counties of the United States are especially likely today to be “individualistic” and hostile to government because of that history.

Claiming that historical cultures reproduce themselves for generations is not new. Historian David Hackett Fischer (no relation), for example, argued in great detail in his 1989 book, Albion’s Seed, that regions in the U.S. vary culturally today in ways based on who settled them centuries ago. That the Puritans landed in New England and the Quakers in Pennsylvania still matters. Similarly, psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argued in their 1996 book, Culture of Honor, that variations in local rates of lethal violence can be explained by where groups from particular places in the British Isles came ashore–specifically, that immigrants from highlands herding regions brought with them a predilection to respond heatedly to personal challenges which lasts to this day. Long stretches of generations begetting generations and yet cultural distinctiveness lasts.

The two new studies expand the claim.

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Chain Migration

What’s an ivory-tower social scientist to do when he looks up from his cluttered desk and realizes that a handy but obscure academic term has become a mortar round in the culture wars? “Chain migration” used to have a serviceable technical meaning. Then, anti-immigration forces–anti-legal immigration forces–now joined by President Trump decided that chain migration is a tidal wave of foreigners submerging the American Way of Life (although more Norwegians would be OK). And it did not help that Senator Durbin further confused matters by saying that the phrase hurts the feelings of African Americans whose ancestors came in chains.

Here’s what immigration scholars have meant by the term: “People immigrate to locations where they find connections and a measure of familiarity.” “Migrants who already live in the destination…. help their friends and relatives by providing them information, money, and place to stay, perhaps a job, and emotional support.”

Immigration restrictors use the term, however, to refer to a specific version of chain migration: family reconstitution, the process by which naturalized American citizens can bring in extended kin who can bring in extended kin who can… etc. The idea is that each legal immigrant will, especially once a citizen, open the door to dozens of others. In fact, this is, as is well explained by an article in Vox, a great exaggeration. Each immigrant brings in very few extended kin and even those arrivals usually take decades.

But this post is about what real chain migration brought to America over the course of our history. Here is a pretty common story: A teenage boy sails into New York City to join and room with his older sister and her husband; they had made the trip two years earlier. Not speaking English, he nonetheless quickly gets a job from another immigrant of the same origin. He lives for several years in a neighborhood that is an enclave of aliens from his home region. Years later, after much adventure, he returns a wealthy man to his city of origin and brings a wife from there back to New York. This successful man is a link in a chain of migration. This man is Fredrick Trump, the president’s grandfather. (A recent Politico story looks at the family histories of other anti-immigrant activists.)

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It’s over a year now, but academics, journalists, and political junkies still cannot get their fill–nor can I–of addressing the question, Why Trump? The obsession is understandable. Aside from the clear and present dangers his administration poses to the nation, there is the compelling puzzle of how so many Americans could vote for a man who…. well, whose own leading appointees call him an “idiot” and a “f**king moron.” As I wrote before, the social science question is not why he won. Trump’s electoral college victory can be blamed on many small incidentals (and, perhaps most deeply, on the Founding Fathers’ suspicion of popular democracy). The big question is why Trump did so much better than other also out-of-the-mainstream but less outlandish candidates like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ross Perot.

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(source)

Discussion has largely focused on whether Trump’s special appeal to white working class (WWC) voters which helped him win the Republican nomination and then key swing states arose more from those voters’ economic anxieties or more from their cultural anxieties. Journalist German Lopez’s recent review in Vox of several studies leads him to conclude that “the evidence that Trump’s rise was driven by racism and racial resentment is fairly stacked.” That “Trump! Trump! Trump!” has become a racial taunt underlines Lopez’s claim.

In response to such assertions, conservative columnist Ross Douthat reasonably responded that both motivations mattered and that economic concerns should not be dismissed as an important source of Trump’s appeal. Liberal columnist Kevin Drum responded that Trump’s racist support was no different than that of past GOP candidates and, anyway, it’s all besides the point, because his election is former FBI Director Comey’s fault. Neither Douthat’s nor Drum’s responses is compelling–nor is it compelling to reduce Trumps’ supporters to racists. Better understanding of the Trump phenomenon is both intellectually interesting and potentially important. So, I return to the topic of a post about a year old, “Explaining Trump,” only this time with much new data and debate to integrate.

As before, distinctions must be made, even after setting aside the question of why Trump won the electoral college. We must separately address the question of who became key Trump enthusiasts from the question of why he managed to get 46 percent of final vote (while Goldwater in ‘64 got only 38 percent, Wallace in ‘68 14 percent, and Perot in ‘92 19 percent).

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(December, 2017. It turns out that a year ago, I was so disoriented by the election and administration-elect (like most Americans) that, while I had drafted this post as a break from those obsessions, I forgot to post it.  [Jay Livingstone points out that I did post this a year ago. Oh, well, a different sign of that time’s distraction. As I wrote then:] “Meanwhile, for something that’s totally different … or maybe not.”)

In 1969, singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, who died this year [2016] at 79, had a country music hit which also won the Country Music Association song of the year award: “Okie From Muskogee.” “Okie” became the Vietnam-era anthem for millions of “Silent Majority” Americans who resented the insult to their ways of life they saw in the antics of 1960s anti-war protesters and do-your-thing hippies.

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take no trips on LSD / We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street / We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

Merle Haggard, then

Merle Haggard, then

Haggard would later tell conflicting stories about the song that largely defined his career. At various times, he described it as a joke, a satire, a defense of his Okie father, and a justified rebuke to young kids who were bitching about America while soldiers were dying for their freedom to bitch. “I wrote the song to support those soldiers,” he once said. “I thought about them [hippies] looking down their noses at something I cherished very much and it pissed me off,” he said more recently. Though celebrated at the Nixon White House in 1973, by the end of his career Haggard was, in sharp contrast, performing for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2010, he said, “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection.” And he regretted, according to Rolling Stone, being seen as the “Poet Laureate of Pissed-Off White People” (see here, here, here).

Whatever Haggard’s intentions and regrets, the song became bigger than he. Country music audiences demanded it and cheered its flag-waving defense of Middle America. Many fans whose closest connection to rural America was wearing cowboy boots nonetheless saw themselves as culturally country and Haggard as their champion.

That was almost 50 years ago. Today, “Okie From Muskogee” also serves to tell us something about change in the parts of America that Muskogee represented.

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Current events suggest that the progress in American social history, recently stalled, is now being turned around.

The long-run story of the American people is of the slow, swerving, incomplete, but steady expansion of participation in its voluntaristic culture. As told in Made in America, once-dependent and subordinate categories of people–women, immigrants, employees, the propertyless and the poor, ex-slaves, youth, the very elderly–have been able over the last three centuries to become more autonomous authors of their own lives, able act both independently for themselves and freely in concert with whomever they wished to join.

This extension of independence with community depended largely on the expansion of security–security of life, of fortune, of an assured future. And that, in turn, rested on economic growth, scientific advance, and critically, government protection against life’s perils–institutions of law and order, public education, public health, disaster relief, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and much more.

The last few decades have seen a slowdown in the underlying processes that had expanded voluntarism. The economic fortunes of working class Americans stagnated. Many both experience and anticipate a life less assured than that of their parents. Science keeps delivering, but neither the economy nor the government are currently sustaining the actual security and the sense of security that enable forceful individual and community action.

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There is a fashion among scholars of America to characterize the “American character,” a fashion that waxes and wanes, writes a dean of social historians, Peter Stearns, in his new essay “American Selfie.” Sometimes sketching a national portrait fits the cultural mood–say, during the bluster of the Cold War–but at other times Americans seem such a disparate assortment of types that trying to describe any one American character seems foolish. Sometimes the portraits depict bright figures–say, Americans as ambitious do-gooders; at other times they expose dark forms–say, Americans as ambitious narcissists. And sometimes the sketches show American character undergoing dramatic change, usually for the worse, while other times they depict a stolid American character that, for better or for worse, has been constant since the nation’s founding.lexington_minuteman_its_in_the_eyes.jpg

In “American Selfie,” Stearns addresses in particular my book (after which this blog is named), Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (2010), which he treats as the latest effort to describe an American character of enduring continuity. I appreciate that Professor Stearns felt the book worthy of such attention. My purpose in this post is to address two particular criticisms that he raises. The first, which I dispute, is that Made in America ignores or dismisses evidence of profound change toward less associational life and fewer personal connections, a loss of community. The second, which I largely accept, is that Made in America, like other books arguing continuity, insufficiently explains how a singular national character can stay so constant so long.

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American families have changed a lot over the last half-century or so: Americans are marrying later, typically after cohabiting; divorce and remarriage are creating variations of “blended” families; most mothers now work outside the home; more fathers spend more time with their children but fewer of them live with their children–just to hint at some of the tumult in family life. The question of this post is whether, given all this change, Americans continue to value  family life or have family bonds significantly weakened? I addressed the marriage part of this question in the previous post; this one addresses family life beyond the couple.

Americans certainly worry about “the” American family. In a 2000 Wirthlin poll, about three in five said that they thought the “state of the American family” was either “not very strong” or “weak.”[1] In a 2006 Pew survey, by over two to one, more people said that family life is worse “these days” than said it was now better than before.[2] And yet: Only a few years later in another Pew survey, 40 percent of respondents said that their families today were “closer” than were the families they grew up in–about three times as many (14 percent) who said that their current families were less close.[3] The contrast between the two Pew surveys not only reflects our localism bias (the closer things are to us–our families rather than others’ families–the better they look), it may indicate a mismatch between popular perceptions of “the” family and personal experience.

Let’s take a look first at some behavioral indicators of family bonding and then at some measures of family feeling and see how they have changed over recent decades.  Some of the findings may be surprising.

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