After posting the rather clever Massachusetts Stereotypes in the post-before-last, I browsed around the many other stereotype maps and images: New Hampshire stereotypes, New England stereotypes, England stereotypes...American, European, regional. The beauty of the one I displayed, and many that I like, is that it is essentially affectionate, and a community's expression. It is balanced, not trying to pick on any group in particular. Labeling Cambridge "Commies" and the islands "White Caribbean" would be offensive in many contexts. Describing SW NH as anarchists, and the Lowell/Lawrence/Methuen/Haverhill section as mill towns an methadone would also rankle if some Los Angeles comedian put that forward. But taking them all together, it becomes family banter, teasing. It might sting a bit but we bear up under it for our own good. And because it preserves our ability to take soft shots at others in the family. But most of the stereotype maps were just mean and bigoted. You would only think they were funny if you agreed with the bigotry and had a mean streak of your own. There was no affection for many of the groups on your map, just contempt.
Garrison Keillor was charming and successful because even as he made fun of Central Minnesota and later, American arts and music culture, it was clear that he had a real affection for them both. Inasmuch as any of us shared in the cultures he lampooned - I was a Lutheran when he first came out, and my previous group identification had been the musicians, actors, storytellers, and poets on the fringes of success - we also winced and considered ourselves warned. There was irony in his Hopeful Gospel Quartet but more of his continuing desire to live among them. He brought in chorales from flyover country that were darn good. But when Keillor didn't actually love the culture he was talking about, it turned vicious quickly.
Over at Maggie's, Barrister links to an article about Lee Jussim's* research on stereotypes, which shows they are often accurate. We apparently think this way because it's efficient - a shorthand for navigating the world. Theodore Dalrymple has written on the necessity of stereotypes as well - that without this 80% accurate instant evaluation, we would be unable to raise children or move about safely. So which is it? The easy answer is that the American ideal has always been that we start everyone at zero, every time, on anything of importance. We have never even approached this ideal, but we can at least say we have done better than others, and have held the ideal as desirable across many political persuasions, in good weather and bad.
*Dr. Jussim is showing up a lot in articles I have been reading this year.