Sunday, November 11, 2018

Cultural Irony

I have already put forward the idea that separating from place is associated with more liberal politics. I imagine there is also significant overlap between political liberalism and people who are strong advocates of identity politics. It is risky to combine associations - 70% x 70% ˂ 50% after all.

Nonetheless, I will hazard the guess that these two also overlap, which is an irony.  The folks who have separated themselves from "my people" in a physical sense are the ones who are most concerned about what has been done to "my people" historically.  I don't just mean African-Americans by any means when I say this.  They may be down the row. I was first thinking of two gay men getting outraged about how Alan Turing was treated (which I will snarkily note they had known nothing about until the movie came out a few years ago) plus the comment thread of an article about the same thing.  I know, I know, comment thread. Not a fair measurement of anything.  Still I think this is common in most of the identity communities, and this was one that struck me most oddly. They were angry that one of their own was badly treated.  He was badly treated, but the intensity of identification is curious. He lived in another era, in another country, doing a job that most people can't well understand. They feel a kinship with him because he had similar sexual attractions.

I offer the following.  We used to identify much more by region, but as Americans keep increasing their internal migration decade after decade this continually weakens. New Yorkers still see themselves as a group apart, southerners still do (though the broad region is holding on as a brand more than individual states), Appalachia still does but is waning.  New England is a redefined brand as "liberal places" now, and Yankee* as a point of identification is defunct, possibly because it is entirely at odds with the new definition. Who else?  In church I will still hear people identify as midwesterners, not so much by individual state anymore. People will readily tell you they are "from California," but seldom that they are Californian. Texans will still say they are Texans, but half of Texas seems to have come from somewhere else it seems. Describing where one is from is more of a story now - my wife comes from A, but her parents grew up in B.  I lived in both C and D growing up, but my parents' families lived in C for generations. Most recently we lived in E because we went to college there and got jobs there right out of school.

Also, people would identify by their (usually European) ethnic group. That was the world I grew up in, in a mill city with many Greeks, French-Canadians, Poles, Irish, Swedes, Germans, and a few of just about anyone else who came to America at all. Jews, African-Americans, and Hispanics identified equally by those current categories and their immediately preceding residence, usually New York. (That is tactically bad with Yankees, BTW.  It slows your acceptance. They should have said Connecticut.)
The third previous identifier was religion, but fewer people have even a nodding acquaintance with one these days. Even among those who have a place of worship, they may have been raised in another confession, or been in in a different denomination at their last address. The old identifiers recede, so we must have new ones.  Those who tell us that these previous ways of viewing ourselves have been transcended in favor of all being one humanity, I observe that it hasn't worked out that way.  We just find new ways to divide ourselves into Bear Tribe, Eagle Tribe, Badger Tribe, Fox Tribe. The academic conceit that we need to have Others to exclude misses the point.  We like to have Us'n's, and that doesn't work well with big numbers.  For big numbers we can only have allies or annual ceremonial gatherings.

*To foreigners, a Yankee is an American
To Americans, a Yankee is a northerner
To northerners,  a Yankee is a New Englander
To New Englanders, a Yankee is a rural person from VT, NH, or ME.
To rural northern New Englanders, a Yankee is "someone who has pie for breakfast." Note that this is usually not a fruit or sweet pie, but one with meat in it, such as minced game, chicken, salmon, or ham related to the pork pies of Quebec. This seldom happens anymore.  We do still have some cheap bastards, though.


Sam L. said...

Then there's the "whatabout career military members"? Grew up one place (or many places if a parent was career military). My dad was a Texan and my mom a Missourian, and I was born and raised in Missouri. Joined the AF and was stationed always west of the Mississipi, north, south, east, and west. Met my wife on the east, moved to west, then north, and retired to where my wife grew up. Mostly, I'd say I am an open-skies person.

Grim said...

To Southerners, a Yankee is any American born east of the Mississippi and north of Virginia; a Damn Yankee is one such who later moved to the South.

RichardJohnson said...

To New Englanders, a Yankee is a rural person from VT, NH, or ME.

That depends on which New Englanders you ask. I believe that Peabodys(Governor Chub), Saltonstalls(Senator/Governor Leverett), Cabots, and Lodges(Senators) would be considered Yankees in Massachusetts. (Boston: Land of the bean and cod, where the Lodges talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God.)

The definition of Yankee in my New England home town was "old stock" whose ancestors had come to New England before the Revolutionary War. The highly respected neighbor whose ancestor was a Revolutionary War hero- from the same town- was a Yankee. He was highly respected because of his service to the town. Another Yankee neighbor had an ancestor who one of the judges who sentenced Charles I to death not that she ever said anything to me about her ancestor.

The town was comprised of basically three groups: Yankees (not very many); immigrants or descendants of immigrants from various European countries (we had a lot of Eastern Europeans), and people from "away" who had moved to New England for a job. My parents were from "away," so were not Yankees. A substantial proportion of my parents' ancestors were in the US before 1650, and all were in the US before the Revolutionary War, but were not Yankees. Though we later found out that one of our Quaker ancestors fled New England for Pennsylvania.

None of the Yankees in my hometown looked down on those who were not Yankees. The descendant of the Revolutionary War hero was a graduate of a respected New England college, and a dairy farmer. It is difficult to put on airs when you are shoveling cow manure.

The term Yankee, as you point out, doesn't mean much today because of current New England politics. New England's politics today is big government. A childhood friend recently won a seat in the state legislature this year without pointing out the reckless state spending that was destroying the state's economy. Yankees were frugal,self-sufficient types- the very antithesis of big government. Another reason the term Yankee doesn't mean much today is that the bloodlines are rather mixed these days. My sister-in-law from Massachusetts has Eastern European, Irish, and Yankee ancestry (including a President of Dartmouth College)- also an Indian/Native American in there.

In a recent visit to a second cousin in Florida, he told the story of his Southwestern mother marrying during WW2 a Navy flyboy from Chelmsford Mass. Her grandfather (my great-grandfather) whose older brother was a Confederate Colonel killed in the Civil War, told his granddaughter, "I hear you are marrying a Yankee." Her reply: "And a damn Yankee at that." She was a sweet Southern girl with a backbone of steel. That Yankee from Chelmsford illustrated the mixing of bloodlines, as his mother's parents were immigrants from Sweden.

Christopher B said...

There might be a bit of 'chicken or egg?' in your analysis. Does being sympathetic to identity based politics make you more likely to a new area, or does moving make you more susceptible to identity based (non-geographical) political appeals? I think sometimes we overstate the amount of moving going on in the U.S. Using my wife and I as examples, we both went to (different) colleges but within 200 miles of our homes. She returned home after college, then moved to a bigger city but still within about 200 miles of her home. I stayed in our home state but again about 200 miles from home. I have observed, especially with the longer move we made together about 5 years ago, that people migrating in are often missing the context of the locals. You didn't go to the local schools or participate in the local events when you were growing up so you don't have the natural frame of reference. You can pick that up if you have children of your own, or get involved in local activities but it takes time to build that local identity, and you'll still never really be from wherever you moved to in the way someone who grew up there is. We still say, after 5 years, that we 'live here' but are 'from our home state'.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Richard Johnson - Chelmsford? My Dad (b 1927) was from Westford most of his life, and would have been only a bit younger. Buried in Chelmsford. His second wife, also a Swede as my mother was (and she had many second cousins in Chelmsford and Lowell), still lives in Nabnassett (82 years there) and goes to the UMC church just over the border in Chelmsford. Your Swedes would have either been in the Lowell Mills or the granite quarries, or some of both.

Texan99 said...

You might say I identify only weakly with women as a group, particularly historical or traditional women. Still, it's quite easy to engage my deep sympathy with any story of a woman, however long ago or far away, who is stuck in a culture that treats her as a mindless chattel. It's not that I have deep family or cultural or geographical roots attaching me to her, it's that the story shows her subjected to the very treatment that I fear. If a social system has a lot invested in ignoring some important part of yourself, it's scary to think of having to live in it, invisible and discounted. I can easily see a gay man getting riled up over whatever Turing experienced (I'm not familiar with it), just as I can see a black man getting riled up over a story about slavery. They fear not only that a social system will conspire to prevent their opportunities, but may even refuse to acknowledge whatever they do achieve, because the achievement will be inconvenient to a prejudice that "people like them" can never amount to much.

The current climate isn't much given to ignoring women's achievements, so I'm mostly talking about formative experiences of my youth. They do stick with one to an unreasonable degree.

RichardJohnson said...

Your Swedes would have either been in the Lowell Mills or the granite quarries, or some of both.
Good detective work. The Yankee father- my second cousin's grandfather- of my Chelmsford cousin by marriage worked in the granite quarries. Courtesy of a lifetime in the quarries, I was recently told, he had outsize hands. Regarding where the Swedish males of my Chelmsford cousin's extended family worked, I don't know, but the quarries would be a good guess. Maybe how he met his wife.

While my Chelmsford cousin by marriage had a scholarship to MIT, his father didn't think much of education, so he went to work in the mills. More good detective work: mills or quarries. At least the Navy recognized his ability by making him an airplane pilot. He eventually improved his work status in the mills by getting a BS cum laude in textile chemistry. Unfortunately, it was a dying industry.

My sister-in-law has an aunt by marriage from Keene who is Swedish, whom I have met several times. Must have been a lot of Swedes in that northern Mass/southern NH area.

Jonathan said...

'The folks who have separated themselves from "my people" in a physical sense are the ones who are most concerned about what has been done to "my people" historically.'

Are their people the same ones who share their ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual tastes, hobbies, or something else? There's so much to choose from. (And for some individuals the relevant categories change over time.)

DCE said...

"We do have some cheap bastards, though." - AVI

No no no no NO!! That should be "We do have some frugal gentlemen of questionable parentage, though."

Now that I've fixed that, I can comment upon Mister Johnson's comment.

I am the product of a mixed marriage: My father's side of the family came to New England way back in 1620. My mother's side emigrated to New England from Finland back in 1930. So I guess you could say I am a half-Yankee, so that makes me halfway acceptable to a lot of my fellow townsfolk.