I am trying to read another of my birthday books, American Nations by Colin Woodard. Four tries, I have yet to make it out of the introduction.
It should be a natural. It is clearly based on both Joel Garreau's Nine Nations of North America and David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, two of my insist-you-read books. (Though admittedly, I don't think any of my sons have read either, whether that is in spite of or because of my encouragement.) Woodard is trying to refine and expand on those ideas. He comes from Maine, and the reviews suggested he favors the Yankeeland culture in his description of the history of the continent. Right up my alley, one would think.
I kept stumbling over his biases from the first paragraphs, rehearsing how I might get people past them and on to the better analysis of the book's core. In particular, I was thinking how I might inveigle my southern friends to keep reading, as his credit to the Appalachian culture started off as grudging, and his criticism of the Deep South seemed a bit one-sided.
A few pages later, as he went into greater detail about those regions, the grudging quality turned into condescension, and the one-sidedness into open contempt. He's not even trying to see, as any historian or anthropologist might, what forces and choices were in play in those cultures. Whether he eventually gets to that is irrelevant. His view is that of the gosh-darn-it-missed-the-60's liberal, uncritical in accepting that sacred world-view. It's hard to believe that there is a region whose inhabitants have no redeeming features whatsoever.
In describing New Netherlands, that NYC and environs culture originally founded by the Dutch, he declares they nurtured two virtues considered subversive by the other nations: a PROFOUND tolerance of diversity, and an UNFLINCHING commitment to the freedom of inquiry. All-caps mine, of course. Woodard is, at least, a professional writer.
See, I'm betting they flinched once or twice about that inquiry thing, and when I think of Newark, New Haven, or Brooklyn, tolerance is not the first word that comes to mind. Not that they are bad at that, especially compared to the rest of the country, but we can't just be cheerleading when we are supposed to be objectively evaluating. That sort of language is the glittering generality of the politician trying to butter up the voters, telling them how noble their culture is. Appalling.
When writing about El Norte, the mixed culture a hundred miles in each direction from the US-Mexico border, he quotes only Hispanics, and their view of what has happened, is happening, and will happen in the future. Then he projects how things will be even More So in 2050. Jeez, that's brilliant, eh? That's the sort of analysis you can only get from the 90% of the population who are sentient. It is wrapped around an interesting idea that I had not known: that the northern parts of Mexico are seen as very American by the other parts of Mexico, and regarded with some suspicion thereby. Was it worth the crap paragraphs I had to wade through to learn that? Maybe.
Here's the thing. I'll bet he's right in a lot of this. The New Netherlands and Tidewater additions seems sensible, as do his redrawings and reconnections of the other borders. There is probably a lot to learn here.
I'll keep trying, but I think I'm going to just have to remain ignorant.