Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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.


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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(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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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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In the aural kaleidoscope that is American music, one genre owns the title of “American Standards” and has been compiled into the “Great American Songbook.” These songs–“Stardust,” “One for My Baby,” “Manhattan,” “A Fine Romance,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Just One of Those Things,”and on and on–propelled by immortal performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, were heard around the globe to the glory of American music in the mid-twentieth century–and they still are. But should they own the title of “American?” How much do they actually represent America and its distinctiveness?


Jerome Kern & Ira Gershwin (source)

Instead, as many commentators have noted, the Great American Songbook is full of musical compositions that seem closer to the Old World than the New and of lyrics that more often call to mind airish literary soirees than earnest church suppers or neighborhood bars. I listen incessantly to the Great American Songbook, but still wonder about the deservingness of the title. (more…)

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Family Farms vs. Americanism

Although much of today’s debates around immigration reform is, on the surface, about legalities and economics and human rights, we know that below the surface–and sometimes above it–a lot of it is about cultural assimilation. Resisters worry that recent immigrants, usually meaning those from south of the border rather than those from, say, Europe, will not assimilate to mainstream American culture. And some on the immigrants’ side worry, at least privately, that the new arrivals or their children will assimilate too much and abandon their native cultures.

An earlier post reported evidence that recent arrivals from Spanish-speaking nations were assimilating at least as fast as those who had come from Europe a century earlier. Now, a new paper in Rural Sociology addresses the issue of immigrant assimilation from a wholly different angle: the continuing cultural distinctiveness of German-American farmers in the Midwest.


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Do Ideas Matter?

If you go to the Boston Review Web site, you’ll find the slogan “Ideas Matter” gracing the top of the homepage. Since I write a column for the magazine—and even wear a BR T-shirt announcing the slogan—I am not unsympathetic to the spirit of the claim. But in the social sciences, the idea that ideas matter has always been controversial. How much do ideas really matter? Do they affect individuals and societies more or less than do material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force?

Arguments one way or the other often address broad historical issues, such as the economic rise of the West. Does the credit go to the Protestant ethic (Max Weber) or the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)? Do differences between Asian and European societies result from Confucianism versus Greek thought, collectivism versus individualism, late versus early industrialization—or something else? Disputes over individual differences in behavior are similarly polarized…. (See the rest of this post at the Boston Review site here.)

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Artful History

In a Christmas Day review, film critic A.O. Scott wondered what “future archaeologists, digging through the digital and physical rubble of our long-gone civilization in search of reasons for its collapse,” would make of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the new Scorcese-DiCaprio “bacchanal of sex, drugs and conspicuous consumption.” Is the film a “diagnosis” of our pathology or  “an especially florid” example of it?

Trying to understand what a work of art tells us about its times is a task not only of art critics, but also of historical scholars. If a historian a century or two from now examined the cultural artifacts of the last several years – say, Beyonce’s latest release, a Twilight Saga movie, a pulp thriller about a serial killer, performance art in museums, reruns of Friends, a major Broadway production, or “Wolf” – how well could he or she describe the lives of average Americans today?

We can ask a similar question looking from our own time back to the 19th or 18th century. While a future historian will have all sorts of “hard” data about our era – business transactions, traffic records, news databases, government statistics, polls on what Americans think, maybe even NSA files, etc. – little material like that is available to describe Americans’ experiences before about the 1920s or so. We do, however, have a lot of art from long ago: songs, paintings, and particularly fiction. What can art tell us about life in an earlier America and about people’s thoughts and feelings in those times? (more…)

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