General impression of "American Nations"

I've now read American Nations, and it's more or less what I expected: a middle-brow liberal journalist's comic book version of Albion's Seed. Actually, I was expecting a book at least a bit more intelligent and less polemical than the often bizarre American Nations news analysis advertorials I'd seen from Colin Woodard in various web outlets, but it's just 300+ pages of comparable drivel. Woodard's stated premise:
Americans have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth. [. . .] Each of our founding cultures had its own set of cherished principles, and they often contradicted one another. [. . .]

America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another. [. . .] Few have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture. On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.

I have very consciously used the term nations to describe these regional cultures, for by the time they agreed to share a federated state, each had long exhibited the characteristics of nationhood. [. . .] A nation is a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols. Some nations are presently stateless—the Kurdish, Palestinian, or Québécois nations, for instance. Some control and dominate their own nation-state, which they typically name for themselves, as in France, Germany, Japan, or Turkey. Conversely, there are plenty of states—some of them federated—that aren’t dominated by a single nation, like Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia, Canada and, indeed, the United States.

Regional divisions in the US are more "essential and abiding" than black-white differences -- and everything else. America's regions constitute "nations", yet racial differences are inconsequential. Yes, this really is the book's central conceit, which Woodard forgoes logic and historical accuracy throughout to uphold. We're talking about someone whose explanation for why blacker areas areas of Virginia vote Democrat is the "noblesse oblige" of the Tidewater's "aristocratic founders".

An isteve commenter claimed Woodard obviously identified with (and descended from) New Englanders. In fact, Woodard evinces a fair amount of loathing for early New Englanders. While he wishes to legitimate the sorts of concerns that animate MSNBC hosts and Atlantic bloggers by anchoring insane modern leftism in the American past, and while for status reasons Woodard and those of his ilk sometimes prefer to latch onto New England in particular, this does not mean Woodard actually has any liking for Puritans.

It's multicultural "New France", and the "highly communalistic", "environmentally minded", and "female-dominated" "First Nation", that come in for the greatest praise, with Canada overall being the model Woodard aspires to for America. As Woodard rationalizes it, it's only the "Deep Southern oligarchs" (and those duped by them) standing in the way of America's glorious future as Canada.

The compulsion of Woodard and his fans like JayMan to force all of history, politics, and ethnic conflict into Woodard's "American Nations" framework obscures much more than it clarifies about America. Differences between regions exist (some rooted in early history, and some not). There are much larger differences between different races and ethnicities and among those with differing economic interests and innate political predispositions within regions.

Anyone tempted to read this book would be well advised to skip directly to the "Acknowledgments and suggested reading" section. The books Woodard relies upon (including Albion's Seed and The Nine Nations of North America) are not without their own faults, but they contain much of actual interest concerning American history and regional differences. Woodard's "synthesis" adds nothing (apart from the oversimplification, anachronism, and distortion demanded by the inane overarching political agenda).

More broadly, I'd also recommend reading, e.g., Jonathan Haidt. People like JayMan, and Moldbug cultists, have a need for abstraction. But they settle on a muddled middle level of abstraction that makes little sense. There's benefit both in thinking about human nature generally, and in having a grasp of specific historical detail. JayMan and Moldbuggists are attracted to shiny, specious quasi-abstractions that promise them sweeping insights about history without the hassle either of making any serious effort to understand human nature or of actually having to learn much in the way of mundane historical fact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

glad to stumble over someone else who takes Haidt's work seriously. i was drawn to that book mostly (i suspect) out of neuroscientific proclivities, appreciate his illustrations of both commonalities and distinctions, and wish more people had a grasp of how to apprehend either/both without developing ludicrous tunnel-vision or over-extended anomie (might be redundant, i am still gedankenexperimenting with dimensions of 'anomie' since reading Haidt's citations of Durkheim).