About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Never a More Pyrrhic Victory

I wanted to follow up on my last post about Cliven Bundy, where I alluded to something critical in our national character that lies at the root of much of what has consumed this country for the last 150 years.  This is something I have been working on for the last year or so, and had threaded through a number of posts, but I wanted to put the disparate elements into one coherent piece and actually start to draw some conclusions.

Simply put, you can explain a lot of the tensions in this country down to this simple set of facts:, the South knows that it lost the Civil War, but does not want to accept that fact; and the North knows it won the war, but fears that it actually lost it; and the West just wants to run away from the war.  I have detailed some of the reasons for this in previous posts, but I will sum it up in a brief statement, "Gone with the Wind" changed a nation's attitude towards the Civil War, and completely rewrote the sentiments on that conflict.  Simply put, a single book reframed the entire discussion, and tilted the weight of sympathy towards the South, and causing the North to be viewed as the unwarranted aggressor in the conflict. 

Let me explain.  The South overtly and obviously lost the War on the Battlefield.  They were virtually obliterated militarily by the Union and for almost a decade treated as an occupied country.  There are facts that everyone knows, however, the South, on some level, still lives in a state of denial which stops them from fully processing the reality.  Similarly, the North knows that it certainly won the war, but with the collapse of Reconstruction, it fears that it didn't achieve any meaningful victory.  Compound that with the shift in national perception initiated by Margaret Mitchell's book, and you shift the history to favor the South.  Then there is the West, which was founded by people, North and South, who were fleeing the war.  Perhaps not literally, but they could no longer live with the memories that confronted them everywhere they went and in everything they did and they had find a fresh start.

Before I fully explain this, and how it impacts our national character though, I would like to talk about the experiences that I had that led me to begin to develop this hypothesis.  I understand this is anecdotal, but there is quite a bit written on this subject to back up my observations.

It began to scratch at the back of my awareness when I first moved to the South.  Before moving to Savannah, the sum total of my experiences with the South were visiting my Great Aunt in Cape Coral Florida.  (and I realize that Southern Florida is NOT culturally the South, at least it hasn't been for a long time)  Other than those trips, I had never set foot in any part of the South.

When I was moving down to that part of the country, I stopped for gas in Murfreesboro and saw a T-Shirt that said the following; "It is better to have fought and lost than to have never have fought at all - the South shall rise again."   Later, I was lost in the backwoods of Georgia and came upon a compound surrounded by Confederate flags and fronted by a sign stating "And the Children of Ham shall ever be servants of Man.  Genesis 9:25."   Asking around, I discovered things like the fact that lists are still maintained in some quarters of the South that list who belongs to who, so that someday they can "reclaim their property."  All of this fleshed out the idea of Southern denialism.  They flat out couldn't accept that they lost the war, at least not on some fundamental and vital level.    

I do want to state here though, despite my serious problems with the South and Southern Culture, it is equally wrong to paint the entire region and everyone from there as illiterate, racist redneck Bible Thumpers.  There are many Southerners who don't idealize the Confederacy and slavery, and who utterly reject those atrocities, just like there are many Northern Racists who idolize the KKK.

But that stereotype lead to my realization about the North.  This also starts with an anecdote that occurred after moving back to the North.  One of my friends, at a social gathering, went into a complete diatribe against the South and everything Southern, painting with that broad brush that I just described.  Even though this person did not have any relatives with firsthand memory of the Civil War, it was still as personal an affront to him as it was to some of the Southerners I met in Savannah.

Then I went to Boston and Providence last summer.  This was the first time I had really been  in New England.  Although I lived in New York City, that isn't the North, nor really anything related to the Civil War.  In New York there is the attitude that there are two parts of America, The City, and then the Rest.  North/South issues are irrelevant there.  (I have also been to Hartford, but that was for a job interview so there really wasn't any chance to explore, and it didn't spark any thought)

What shocked me when I went to Providence was the fact that they proudly displayed two cannons from Gettysburg.  I found this odd, given Gettysburg had nothing to do with Rhode Island, other than possibly supplying troops and such.  But, this was significant.  Gettysburg was the definitive turning point in the Civil War, the point at which Northern Victory really became inevitable.  In a sense, displaying those cannons was as clear public statement about the Union Victory as the T-Shirt showed Confederate Denial.

As I processed these revelations over the course of the summer, I really got angry, especially when at another social gathering, there were both Northerners and Southerners, and they began criticizing each other's part of the country.  I just basically wanted them to both shut up and stop wearing the War on their sleeves.  Seriously, it was a century and a half ago.  There isn't a single person alive today who even heard firsthand accounts of the war.  It is dead and buried., its over, done, finished, and it's time to move on.

That's when I realized that I, as a Westerner, am perpetuating the Western escape from the Civil War.  I, like most people in the West that I know, are sick of hearing about the war, sick of the recreations, sick of the tensions, sick of the TV shows, and just generally want everyone to shut up about it.  The war is over, we don't need to keep re-litigating it. 

But, being me, I couldn't just figure this out and move on from it, because I knew that this was a very important realization about the country, and why things are what they are, and why we are so polarized.    Before I go any further here, I want to say, the polarization of the country is no better or worse than it has been at any point for the last century and an half.  The reason we think it is worse is the result of two aligned factors. 

First, we see and hear about the tensions more now than previously.  This is partially because of the 24 hour news cycle, and partially because of the great internal migration of the last 30 years.  Before about 1970, if you were born in the North you generally stayed in the North (unless you moved to Florida, which is why Florida hasn't been "Southern" in a generation)  It was similar with the other regions of the country, except for people continuing to move West.  But, as with all of the Western migrations, North/South allegiance disintegrated at the Colorado/Kansas state line.   However, with the recent migrations across the nation, we are living in regions ideologically opposed to where we were brought up.  We don't like it one bit, when we have to live in places that give us culture shock, which is a typical ex-pat lament.  It is even worse when we are forced to think, "This is America and it's my home too, I shouldn't be feeling this way in my own country."  I know that firsthand, as it was a serious problem for me in Savannah.

The second reason that we think polarization is worse is because of the proliferation of news; in our media saturated environment we hear more and we know more, and most of it upsets us severely.  This works two ways.  First we hear a lot of voices condemning the other side for their essential evil and sharing all of the immoral, unnatural or even evil things that our opponents are doing.  Second, we hear what our government is doing, specifically, we hear when they are treating with the enemy.  And because we hear so many outrageous things that the enemy is doing, we hold our politicians feet to the fire in such a way that they cannot broker the kinds of deals that pasted the country together and created the illusion of a "United" States of America.

Now for my point after this lengthy exposition.  Much in this country can be explained through this filter:  the South rejects any political ideology espoused by the North, the North rejects any cultural ideology tied to the South and the West just wants to be left alone.

First, to look at the South, and their part in the play.  The South rejects Northern political solutions.  This stems from the Carpetbaggers and the Reconstruction, where Northerners tried to turn the South into their own little marionette, where they pulled the strings and made the puppet dance.  This may sound like I sympathize with the South, and perhaps I do a bit.  We made the same mistakes after World War I in Europe, which directly led to Fascism and Nazism, and ultimately to World War II.  Had we not punished the South, and instead embarked on an American version of the Marshall Plan, American might be a much different and more unified place.

By humiliating the South, the Union guaranteed inter-generational hate of the North, and anything that came from there.  Progressivism, Unions,  Equal Rights, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, all of these things were Northern political solutions, pushed through by the Federal Government, and more of less imposed on the South.  Further, other than some brief anomalies, Northern politics and policies, regardless of party, have dominated in the Federal Government.  It is no surprise that the South is rabidly anti-government, and that disdain is the core of the Tea Party Ideology.  To the South, the Federal Government has become the symbol of Northern Aggression, and anything it does is therefore wrong.

But then, there is the Northern rejection of Southern Culture, that engenders equal derision and even hate in the Union States.  Southern Culture, specifically, their innate cultural conservatism and resistance to change, is what spurred the Civil War.  Rather than accept that slavery was rapidly becoming immoral, not just in the United States, but across the globe, the South stubbornly clung to the institution, to the point of tearing the country apart to try to preserve it. 

But this isn't the only cultural touchstone that the South has imposed on the North.  Religiously based discrimination, Segregation, Creationism, distrust of Science, conservative religious morals, and all that follows from Confederate Culture has equally been imposed on the North.  This has been through both churches and through control of things like the Texas Board of Education which heavily influences textbook content for the entire country.  And just like most of the country's political solutions has been Northern Impositions, most of the nation's cultural development has been restrained and molded by Southern Culture.  Just like in the end, we have fairly strong Northern Federal Government model, most of our morality is Southern Christian.

And this creates a situation where the South hates all political solutions to problems, regardless of where that solution originates, and the North hates all Southern cultural impositions, again regardless of what type it is.  The Southerners still paint all politicians with the Carpetbagger brush, believing them to be fundamentally corrupt creatures, and the Northerners stereotype all Southerners with the Slaveholder image, considering them to be backward, ignorant racists.

And then there is the West, which really hates both sides of this fight and just wants to be left alone.  Many in the media conflate Western Libertarianism with Southern Tea Partyism, but they are actually quite different, although sometimes their goals align.  But sometimes the Western though aligns with the Northern Ferderalism as well. 

The Southern Tea Party wants to get government out of people's lives, so that religion can take over the guidance of the country.  It isn't anti-authoritarian, it is anti-government.  On the other hand, Western Libertarianism just wants to be basically anarchic to a greater or lesser extent.  They are not really pro-government, but they also aren't particularly sold on religious authority, or any sort of over-arching system of control.

Remember, the West was born out of escaping the conflict that tore the East apart.  It was also founded in a strong individualism because there wasn't much out here to rely on until recently.  In point of fact, even when I was a child, you pretty much kept six months of food, a good supply of water, and candles handy, because, in an emergency, you needed to be able to take care of yourself and family.  This has led to a kind of survivalist mentality among Westerners. 

But in even in that independence, there is something important wrapped up in it.  Even though you needed to take care of yourself, you still helped the community.  In the West, the community, whatever that might be, is far more important than it is back East.  Back East, you help the people you know, in the West, you help the people around you, even if you don't know them that well.

The other aspect of the independence of the Western mindset is basically, if I'm not hurting anyone, leave me the Hell alone.  Legalization of Pot, prostitution, gambling, isolationism, gun rights and anti-regulation are part and parcel of this worldview.  We have no problem with being left to our own resources, but we really don't like being told what to do, even if it is in our best interests. 

This leads to the West being relatively volatile in terms of national politics.  Our allegiances shift with the winds, sometimes we side with the Northern Politics, sometimes with the Southern Culture, but no one seems to realize out East that these are temporary alliances, because this group or that group just happens to be going in the direction we want to go.  We have no sense of commitment to either side.  Right now, because the politics of the North seem to be more about freedom, i.e. legalization, gay rights, etc, we tend to vote in that direction, sometimes.  But if Southern Culture seems to give more freedom, i.e. gun rights or reduced regulation, we will go that direction, sometimes.  And in the end we will go for whatever freedoms we want more at that moment.  We are a very fickle date, which neither party seems to recognize.

But in the end, I think this really frames what is going on in this country.  Northern Political Solutions vs. Southern Cultural Solutions vs. Western leave me alone solutions.  It will be interesting to see over the next decade if we can solve this, and overcome the bitter legacy of a War that honestly has been over for a century and a half.  Of course, that is just the Westerner in me talking.

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