American Nations

by Colin Woodard

 

We Americans carry a bunch of different identities: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, race, political affiliation, and so on. Depending on your values, some of these identities may be important to you, or not at all. Colin Woodard argues, however, that there is another identity that is both impossible to ignore and virtually unknown: that of our respective “nations.”

These unseen nations strongly influence our values and help to sort our other identities. American Nations MapSome nations are individualistic, others communitarian; some diverse, others intolerant; some authoritarian, others egalitarian. The values of each nation derive from those of the original European settlers of the territory, as indicated in the names of New France, New Netherland, and El Norte. Other nations are founded by religious minorities, Caribbean slavers, or Scots-Irish immigrants, and others derive their values from settlement patterns in the western half of the continent.

This paradigm seems refreshing to me. I know the concept of regional differences isn’t new, but Woodard backs up most of his claims with historical evidence, and he explains historical events in ways that seem to fit his interpretation. For example, his account of the Civil War demonstrates how the so-called “border states” came into being, and why “conservative” Appalachian areas such as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee largely opposed the breakup of the Union. Going further back, Woodard views the Revolutionary War not as a unified continental effort, but more akin to a series of “national” wars of liberation. Instead of, “The war in the north meets the war in the south at the decisive Battle of Yorktown,” Woodard describes each nation’s reaction to the war, and puts regional opinions and activities into greater context to explain why the war happened the way it did.

An obvious criticism of this model struck me pretty early on. How can the most important identity in American culture be something that 99% of people have never heard of? We know about regional differences, but Woodard defines these differences in very specific, distinct ways. Would most Americans understand how a Bostonian was different from a New Yorker or a Philadelphian? Do eastern Marylanders understand themselves to be part of a culture that’s centered in Virginia? Do Montanans align with Georgians politically because they consider themselves to have the same values, or is it a looser, “lesser of two evils” coalition? Woodard has well-defined nations, and I think that’s a plus, but culture isn’t always clearcut. Every state and locality in America has a slightly different feel, which makes me wonder when it’s appropriate to identify one nation, and not another.

There are other questions I have as well. Woodard calls southern elites “slave-lords,” and that works for most of his historical account; I’ll forgive him the use of that term for the hundred years after the Civil War, for even though slavery had been defeated, southern blacks were not full citizens in any sense. After the civil rights era, though, I question Woodard’s assessment of Deep Southern culture. For one thing, it seems like he excludes black Americans from his monolithic “Deep South.” They’re an identifiable ethnic minority with a different set of values, so I question why this never becomes one of Woodard’s nations.

Secondly, Woodard seems to believe that while southern culture has changed with the times, it’s still a culture based on traditional values including racial inequality, just as it was at the time of the Civil War. Is he really trying to say that the federal government hasn’t, at the very least, dragged the Deep South, kicking and screaming, into a modern, tolerant America? The Deep South described in American Nations would abhor, even in 2015, a nation that allows minorities of all types the same political rights as anyone else. American NationsThe lack of an ideological alignment between Woodard’s Deep South and modern American society and politics, and the lack of a real neo-secessionist moviement, present a problem to Woodard’s thesis. Perhaps Americans are loyal to the idea of the United States, or they’re just afraid of the federal government; whichever it is, Woodard doesn’t address this dilemma.

If I can get in one more challenge to American Nations, it’s to Woodard’s prognostications about our future. Throughout our history, Woodard says, we’ve held our federation together, sometimes by a bare thread, often through sheer luck. The inference that one might draw from this is obvious: the United States of America is an unstable coalition that will fall way easier than we’d like to think. He reminds us that only a couple of decades before the fall of the USSR, a prediction of that collapse would seem equally outlandish. In comparing the longevity of the US to that of the USSR, Woodard’s implying that we might only have decades left as a single country before we splinter. While he doesn’t actually predict a timeframe for this dissolution, he quotes academics who believe that El Norte (stretches of the southwest that had been colonized by Spain) will cease to be part of the US within a hundred years.

Obviously, I don’t believe that. I think there’s more to being an American than living in a region with a defined cultural history. Americans clearly have different values in different places, values that often conflict with one another. We fight for our values tooth and nail. But values can change. Woodard’s assessment of Yankeedom (New England and large swaths of the midwest) changes over time, from intolerant utopianism to a more inclusive communitarianism. Woodard traces these cultural changes among the nations, and then bafflingly concludes that our nations are perpetually incapable of finding common cultural ground; in his view, we’re just a collection of nations with diametrically opposed views, similar to Huntingon’s Clash of Civilizations, but on a smaller scale. I disagree with this assessment; I think there’s more that brings us together than pulls us apart. But only time will tell who’s right.

Anyways, I thought American Nations was really great. Woodard assembles our shared cultural history into a completely new model, and backs it up with solid evidence. I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, but  Woodard’s created a fascinating account and a concise, readable narrative. I’d recommend this book to any student of American history.

The Chronicles of Prydain

by Lloyd Alexander

 

I loved these books as a kid. I don’t always regress towards children’s books, but sometimes I tire of more “adult” fare, or I just need to go back and enjoy something I’ve already read. This is one of those times. Ironically enough, though, it took me way longer to finish this children’s series than, say, a Wheel of Time entry, despite the comparative brevity. Why? I hate to say it, but I think some of the magic might be lost on a twenty-five-year-old. Maybe it’s because I’ve been retrained by heavier tomes like Wheel, but it was hard to get into a fantasy that seemed to just zip along, moving from scene to scene without giving the story a chance to rest. A longer book isn’t always a better book, but it’s important to let tension build awhile before resolving a conflict.

The two hundred or so pages of each of the five books in the series have our hero Taran embarking on an adventure, usually to save his beloved Prydain from the evil Arawn Death-Lord or one of his buddies. At the start, Taran is just some young gun- a hot-headed Assistant Pig-Keeper- but he grows in each novel, as a young man and a leader. The Chronicles of PrydainThe books all follow the classic quest structure; while each has a different feel, and though the object of the quest changes, they all fall into that general category.

The installment I enjoyed most, Taran Wanderer, has Taran riding around the countryside in search of knowledge; he sets out to learn where he comes from, and when he fails to find a satisfying answer, he looks for other ways to define his identity. As he travels from village to village, learning new crafts and ways of life, the book becomes more like a parable or a fable than an adventure novel. This tonal shift, along with the slower pace and the lower stakes, really sets the fourth book apart from the rest.

At some point I realized that I was reading these books not in isolation, but as part of the larger fantasy canon. I’ve read a good bit of the stuff by now, and pretty early on in The Book of Three I found myself comparing aspects of the series to other famous fantasies, both earlier and later. Alexander supposedly based the Prydain series on Welsh mythology, which I know nothing about, but it’s impossible to miss the influence of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King on these books. Likewise, it was clear to me that Alexander inspired authors like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan to create their famous fantasy series. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman, asked about the similarities between Rowling’s Harry Potter and one of his own characters, responding, “I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White.” There are countless examples of this across the years, and it’s fun to try to pick out what came from where.

An unfortunate result of a genre that’s constantly borrowing from itself, however, is that the stories might not seem as fresh as they did the first time you read them. I felt that there was nothing in Prydain that wasn’t done in a more original way in another fantasy book or series. Though this obviously isn’t really Alexander’s fault, it took away from what was clearly supposed to be an exciting narrative. I ended the series unable to recall what excited me so much about it in the first place.

No, Alexander’s Prydain novels don’t hold up too well as an adult, not as well as, say, The Golden Compass. But they’re meant for children, so whatever.

Lord of Chaos

by Robert Jordan

 

Here’s my problem with what’s going on in Wheel right now: Jordan keeps setting things up, spending up to a hundred pages on a prologue that purports to introduce the novel’s central conflict, and then spends the rest of the book following the same characters he’s followed the entire series. Lord of ChaosI’m used to it by now, but it’s still frustrating not to have any idea of what the book’s themes and issues will be. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jordan, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care very much, and each new book seems like just a continuation of what’s already been going on.

That being said, and despite lacking a clear structure, there are two events that make Lord of Chaos especially interesting. The first, concerning the Aes Sedai, furthers a plot line that had been building since the end of The Shadow Rising. I actually gasped when I realized what was happening; my girlfriend immediately knew what was going on, remembering it as a “turning point” for the series. It was honestly pretty rad.

The second major exciting event occurs at the end of the book, when several forces that have been mustering for the whole book- or even longer- final come head-to-head. I don’t wanna talk it up, but it was such a relief for the tension to finally break,  it single-handedly made the whole book worth it.

Anyway, in the spirit of keeping these things short, I greatly enjoyed Wheel of Time Episode VI: Stuff Happens in This One.

Ups and Downs in Redskins Fandom

I went to two Redskins games this season. On October 19, two of my closest friends met me at my house in DC about an hour before kickoff. We took an Uber to the stadium and had a blast as we watched the Redskins beat the Titans, 19-17. My RG3 jersey was somewhat irrelevant, since he wasn’t playing, but I didn’t mind so much. We took the Metro back to my place, getting home before five.

The other game I attended was against Tampa Bay on November 16. There were six of us, all familiar with our team’s yearly rite of disappointment. The season was virtually over. A win would be nice, but we weren’t going to be upset if we didn’t get it. Regardless of the outcome, we expected a reasonably pleasant experience. We did not expect to be stopped immediately when my girlfriend’s bag was too big to carry into the stadium, whereupon we were told we could leave it in the car that we didn’t bring. We did not expect to miss nearly an hour of the game standing in a security line, though we did take some small pleasure in sneaking the offending bag into the stadium. And we did not expect the team to perform so poorly that the stands had emptied out long before the game was over.

The tale of two teams isn’t new for the Redskins, and it’s nearly universal in American sports. Everyone has good days and bad days. The thing is, the bad days at Nats Park don’t include being stopped for having too large a bag. When you go see the Wizards, you don’t miss a third of the game waiting in a security line. And, importantly, Caps fans don’t have a voice in the back of their head telling them that simply supporting a team called the Washington “Capitals” is inherently offensive.

The Redskins organization has too many problems to count. On the day of the Titans game, as we approached FedEx Field, my friend asked me what I would do if I owned the Redskins. Without hesitating, I replied, “Change the name, change the colors, and move the team to DC.”

As to the first: The reasons are obvious and the change is inevitable.

As to the second: A rebranding to go with a name change would signal a fresh start for a team that has had a putrid reputation in recent years. It would sell merchandise, and I personally would like to see colors that align more closely with the Nats, Caps, and Wizards.

As to the third: Moving back to the city makes the team more accessible, for fans from the suburbs and the city. I’ve been to half a dozen Redskins games in my life, and I’ve come to expect a daylong affair. A city stadium would be more pleasant and convenient than FedEx, and would reconnect the team to local fans.

Of course, none of that addresses the woeful management of the team itself. I obviously don’t have any experience managing an NFL franchise, so I can’t say I’d do a better job in this arena. I do think, though, that I’ve seen enough football to recognize when it’s bad. And the Redskins are bad. The team makes short-sighted moves in the hopes of jump-starting a new era, without thinking about the next year or even the next game.

So yes, there are things I’d do different if I owned the team. But I don’t own the team. Dan Snyder does.

The team’s performance is shitty, the fan experience is shitty, and the organization has an ongoing PR nightmare, but none of that seems to matter to Snyder. Yes, I’m sure he’d rather have a winning team and a fun atmosphere at the games, but either he doesn’t care enough to actually let those things happen, or he’s completely incompetent. Either scenario should disqualify him from owning an NFL franchise, as should his tone-deaf response to the name controversy. Unfortunately, it won’t be easy to get rid of Snyder, and we can’t expect anything to change as long as he’s the owner.

So what can we do? Switch allegiances to another team? That’s a radical move. I don’t know how I could remain a fan of the Washington Nationals, the Washington Capitals, and the Washington Wizards, then every Sunday root for… the Baltimore Ravens? The Cleveland Browns? For me, there is no second team after the Redskins.

So I’m considering- just considering, at this point- simply putting my Redksins fandom on hiatus until it becomes a competent organization. No more going to games, no more buying shit, and no more thinking that next year is the year they turn it around.

As soon as I say that, the voice in my head pipes up: “How do you know they won’t turn it around next year?” True, there’s no way to know for sure. We could even have a winning season, a playoff season; 2012 wasn’t that long ago. But the Redskins’ problems are deeper than poor performance.

If you do decide that the Redskins aren’t worth it anymore, and you must follow another team, choose wisely. Obviously, I’m not advocating anything as crazy as rooting for the Cowboys. We shouldn’t free ourselves from Dan Snyder’s clutches only to join the cult of Jerry Jones. Ditto the Giants. I think once you go down that road, you’ll be hard-pressed to explain how you were simply a Redskins fan taking a break. So think carefully. When the current nightmare ownership has passed, we can once again hail to the Redskins, or whatever they’ll be known as.

Or we could just become baseball fans.

A More Perfect Constitution

by Larry J. Sabato

 

I picked up A More Perfect Constitution at the campus book store when I was taking a summer class at community college. The book wasn’t on the curriculum for whatever class I was enrolled in, but I thought it looked interesting, so I went for it anyway. I know, it’s weird to buy a book for a class you’re not taking. But that’s how it went down, and here we are.

Sabato, a political science professor at UVA, argues that we need a Constitutional Convention to address several major problems with American democracy. While we could amend the Constitution the traditional way- with two thirds majorities in the House and Senate, followed by three quarters of state legislatures- Sabato believes the Convention would be an easier way to effect the major changes we need, and would foster a renewed interest in our democracy. I’m a bit skeptical; I think Sabato downplays the hurdles that would need to be overcome in order to even get to the Convention. Then again, he’s on TV regularly and I’m not; judge our opinions accordingly.

As to what Sabato actually wants to change, it’s kind of a lot. He puts forth proposals to reform all three branches of the federal government, along with many aspects of our social and political life. These ideas, as Sabato himself is eager to point out, are not exclusively ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in ideology, and most simply aren’t part of our political debate at all. A More Perfect ConstitutionFor example, one proposal would enshrine in our Constitution the duty of every American to perform some amount of service, whether military or civilian, public sector or private. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but it’s pretty far out there in terms of policy that’s on the table right now. Likewise, Sabato would like to tinker with term lengths for the President and members of Congress, an idea that doesn’t exactly have a grassroots movement behind it.

On the liberal side, Sabato wants two things: to get the money out of politics, and to make voting easier, with a national voter database. Both of these concepts, you may be aware, have only gotten more attention (and become more controversial) since A More Perfect Constitution was published in 2007. On the conservative side, Sabato proposes enacting term limits and requiring that the federal government balance its budget, an especially strange inclusion given that the majority of that section of his book seems to argue against the balanced budget amendment. I’m taking a wild guess- not casting aspersions- that Sabato feels the need to include ideas from opposing ideologies to bolster his own nonpartisan image. (Again, the view from fucking nowhere.) It’s a shame, because all of his other ideas seem earnest and well-conceived, the intricacies of when Presidential and Congressional elections happen being a good example. But, God forbid anyone would dare compare him to a Democrat, so we end up with a wishy-washy endorsement of a couple mediocre ideas.

Sabato didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his book, but I, for one, enjoyed reading about his proposals. His views on the shortcomings of the Constitution are meant to stir his audience’s mindgrapes and get us thinking about how we view the Constitution: what still works, what should be tweaked, and what long-overdue changes we need to make. Disagreeing with Sabato’s ideas is just step one towards coming up with your own solutions. As a patriotic American and a political junkie, I love this stuff.

I understand that not everyone feels that way, but I still think it’s important for all of us to think critically about our Constitution. As unlikely as it seems that one of these amendments (or any, for that matter) will gain momentum anytime soon, it never hurts to try to learn more about the way our government works. Why do Congress and the President always bicker over who has the authority to conduct war? How come the Supreme Court seems to make so many important decisions? And, most importantly, why does our government generally suck? You can’t answer these questions without understanding the Constitution, its origins, and its limitations.

The Constitution is not just a symbol, like our flag or our anthem; it is the foundation of our government and our way of life. Everyone in this country should have some basic understanding of what that means, and Sabato’s book is as good a place to start as any.