Sunday, 14 September 2014

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

book coverAmerican Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
Colin Woodard
Viking Penguin, 2011, 322 pp plus backmatter

In 1991 Joel Garreau, then national news editor for the Washington Post, wrote The Nine Nations of North America. He was attempting to create a system that would help organize the efforts of his reporters when he realized that the news could not be organized geographically along state lines. Instead he defined areas of common social values and trends, only one of which (Quebec) actually followed political boundaries. Colin Woodard saw the organization of North America through a very similar lens, but did not want to create only a snapshot of the current social reality as Garreau had done. Woodard describes the beginnings of each of his eleven “nations”, the personalities and politics that controlled their early days, and the migrations from each.

Woodard’s map has some surprises, he calls New England “Yankeedom” and shows it covering not only the states we normally describe with that term, but also Canada’s Maritime provinces as well as much of Minnesota, all of Wisconsin and Michigan, not to mention Chicago. The Hispanic-influenced region he calls “El Norte” includes Southern California and large parts of Texas but also all or most of several states in northern Mexico which he suggests would be eager to leave Mexico to join an independent nation based on his lines on the map. Like Garreau, Woodard considers Miami to be the capital of a nation that includes all of the Caribbean islands along with most of Central America and the northern coast of South America. Sadly, because this nation is mostly outside of the US he identifies it and then chooses not to cover it.

“Tidewater” is his name for coastal Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, the original home of a number of America’s leading thinkers in the early days. In contrast to that, he asserts that those who formed the basis of the “Deep South” came not from Europe like the other settlers but from the plantations of the Caribbean, and that the social structure, most particularly relating to slavery, was entirely different from that of Tidewater. “Greater Appalachia” was formed later in the western parts of Tidewater states, largely by those who had come “from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain” who sparsely settled an inland area with fiercely-loyal clans and no government.

Woodard speaks with great admiration for what he calls “New Netherlands”, the smallest of his defined areas comprising metropolitan New York City. He discusses the anti-feudal politics of the Netherlands that he says grew out of the reality of individual land owners recovering land from the sea, and that a small polity like the Netherlands had become an aggressive international trade center and the needs of serving an international market had cured it of all the religious and nationalist biases that were so strong in every other area he discusses. Last week we celebrated the 350th anniversary of New York City, starting with the point at which the British Navy occupied New Amsterdam. Rather than attempt a military resistance, the Dutch burghers quickly sought a peaceable surrender. The British recognized the economic value of the community and though they insisted on naming it after the Duke of York they allowed the unique freedoms of the city to be maintained. New York City clearly maintains much of this character to this day, despite the fact that descendents of those burghers no longer represent a significant part of the populace.

By contrast, the nation he calls “Yankeedom” was not oriented towards freedom of the individual, but was committed to communities of like-minded, and like-worshiping, persons. Woodard shows that much of this character is preserved in communities as far west as North Dakota, although the Western areas populated by Yankee migration do seem to have lost all of early Boston’s religious intolerance.

By a delightful fluke it happened that I was reading American Nations at the same time I read James MacGregor Burns’ Fire and Light, a history of the Enlightenment. As much of the political and social development of the original colonies was a reflection of intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, some of the parallels enlightened me more than perhaps reading either alone would have. I’ll cover that title in a few days.

I greatly enjoyed reading The Nine Nations several years ago and was delighted to see the same concept developed further by Woodard. Although the boundaries defined in the two books are different in detail, that largely reflects the time frames dealt with. Garreau was focused on newsworthy activities during the ’80s and ’90s rather than the origins of regional differences, Woodard’s historical approach naturally led him to focus on the original areas of influence. I don’t think you need to have read The Nine Nations to appreciate the eleven nations, although I certainly commend both titles.

American politics is currently facing significant demographic changes, as old white people like me are dying off, the young continue to insist on thinking differently than their parents and grandparents, and immigrants from Asia and Latin America continue to bring different values along with their exciting culinary contributions. The immediate changes we are facing on this front, potentially delayed one or more presidential election cycles due to low participation on the part of some of the most rapidly growing cohorts, is largely unrelated to the sectional histories Woodard provides, but the processes of change that he limns here provide valuable background to anyone trying to make sense of America’s direction at the start of the third millennium.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Should we bomb Syria?

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Baffled for a bit by Hobby Lobby

I’m sorry, but I just can’t pop out a response to the ruling in Burwell vs Hobby Lobby just yet. I have read a fair amount of the coverage, along with most of the decision, and I’ve started to organize some comments on various aspects of it. But the part that nobody else seems to be talking about is the nature of freedom and, more specifically, the nature of religious freedom. If they aren’t perverting the concept, they certainly are inverting it. I do know this much, If I Were King the concept of freedom would be focused on the individual and his spirituality, on his ability to express his spirituality and to live based on what he learned from it. It would have absolutely nothing to do with businesses, corporations, or families of billionaires who think religious freedom means enforcing their narrow-minded concepts of spirituality on tens of thousands of employees, never mind extending those concepts through the legal system to apply to tens of millions of other citizens. Those supporters of Hobby Lobby who are crowing about this ruling as a victory for religious freedom have the spirituality of Simon Legree and the intelligence of platyhelminthes.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The God Argument

The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism
A. C. Grayling
Bloomsbury USA, 2013, 258 pp plus backmatter

god-argument-graylingThe God Argument, as the subtitle suggests, has two parts. The first delineates most of the religious arguments in favor of religion, and refutes each in its turn. The second lays out the case for humanism, establishing it as a rational basis for moral and ethical behavior, expanding on an earlier argument that a peaceful and productive community is not based on, and does not require, a set of rules laid down by a religion, or the presence and action of a higher being. Despite a careful academic approach to these points, Grayling’s text is reasonably easy to follow.

As I find myself drifting from a traditional Western Catholic view of creation and life, toward perhaps my own modified deism, and at times finding myself all the way in the atheist camp, I found The God Argument to be reassuring. As Grayling points out, one of the essential elements of most religions is that the doctrine is presented to children by those who have a natural authority and credibility. The survival of the species does, after all, depend on children learning certain facts about the world and their place therein, our genes give children a bias towards accepting instruction from their parents and other trusted members of the community. This point by Grayling was not really a surprise to me, nor were the others. But as a “public intellectual” and prolific writer he has spent significant organized time addressing each of the arguments. It turns out to be a significant comfort, for one abandoning such long held beliefs, to see the logical work of refutation presented with very little effort on my part.

If your faith, regardless of the religion, is strong and you are comfortable in this position, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Grayling approaches each of the various arguments very calmly, with little or no rancor towards any of them, but perhaps not with the strength and energy required to convert a devout follower to become a humanist. Even if I thought this book could bring about conversion in the devout, I really don’t find that an appealing or pressing need. If your faith suits you, and brings you comfort and moral clarity without demanding the privilege of judging the lives and actions of those around you, I’m completely happy for you to keep it. On the other hand, if you are among the baby boomers who, on the downhill side of life, finds the faith you formed early in life no longer as rewarding, no longer a source of certainty, then Grayling’s calm presentation is very likely to help you get the rest of the way out of the superstitions you grew up with and make you more comfortable with the decision that you have already been coming to.

The chapter “A Humanist on Love, Sex and Drugs” could well stand alone as a guide to how we address those issues, possibly as individuals and certainly as matters of law. I found this quote to be particularly apt, “Nature has made sex pleasurable not just to ensure reproduction but, in some of the higher mammals at least, to create bonds. The narrow views of the ancient Jews and the modern Catholics, that sex must always have pregnancy as a possible outcome, miss a very important point here.”.

If I Were King there would be no state church, nor any state objections to the churches supported by my subjects. Religion often offers benefits to the believer which I would certainly not wish to deprive anyone of. Many churches, despite being based on revealed wisdom and superstition, are positive influences in our communities, although certainly not a net benefit when balanced against the great evils that have been committed in the name of one deity or another at various times. But it’s up to each person, and if you are in a transition in this regard, this book will be a helpful read.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Communications needed in the Levant

A few days ago I opened up a nasty can of worms by suggesting that one of the reasons the US should keep the Warthogs on the job was the vicious fighting in places like Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine. I hope that it doesn’t actually come to that. In fact, if there is to be a deployment of US air power in that part of the world I think the best plan would be to establish 24/7 drone coverage of the Ukraine-Russia border so the world knows exactly what levels of troops and materiel transfers are going on there.

But before any decisions are made on that possibility I think there’s another program that would serve the interests of the US and quite a few others. My thought is that whether on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq or inside the various dictatorial states that aren’t actively at war, one of the crucial needs is communication between individuals and from the area to the outside world.

Google has tested a balloon-based internet system in New Zealand. Several players have talked about other possibilities, such as a lightweight solar-powered aircraft that would carry the wireless equipment for networking on the ground below, loitering for months at a time. If the Sunni population under ISIS control had a way to get videos of atrocities out to YouTube it wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be a good thing. If an Iranian Snowden or Manning could upload nuclear plans to Wikileaks it could dramatically help efforts to come to a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran. (It would royally piss off the mullahs that rule there, please don’t think this would upset me even slightly!)

Last year I suggested we should be developing a reasonable anti-aircraft weapon that included user identification and target verification to eliminate any possibility of the weapons being used by jihadis against us. I’m not aware of any development of such weapons, but if someone did read that post and wants to make them real, they’ll need a reliable network to make them work.

If you’ve been reading my posts here for a while, you know for certain that If I Were King I would support open communications within my realm. I’d also be willing to temporarily extend such a boon in other areas where poverty, military action, or small-minded governments prevent their people from enjoying what should be available to every sentient being.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty:
Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About
Dave Barry
Putnam Adult, 2014, 224 pp (no backmatter)

YOU_CAN_DATE_jacket_imageWhen the Empress Larkin and I are both home at the end of the evening, I join her in the bedroom and we share a few light moments. Specifically, she reads for ten or fifteen minutes, normally something light from Erma Bombeck, Tom Bodett, Pat McManus, or with the most titles on our shelves, Dave Barry. This isn’t any intellectual exercise, it’s just fun – it gives us a few minutes afterward to connect at the end of the day.

Here’s the heart of my review: If you like Dave Barry, you’ll enjoy this book. If you don’t, it’s hard to predict.

FACT: If you see a paragraph in this book that starts like this one, you can depend on only one thing: not much of it is true. On the other hand, anything followed by “I am not making this up” is probably verifiably true, although there is a good chance he’s moved it way out of context for humorous effect.

For example, “How to Become a Professional Author” is riddled with paragraphs like these:

FACT: The Hunger Games, as originally conceived by the author, was supposed to be a three-book series on the historical impact of salad dressing.”

FACT: The average children’s book author works two hour per year.”

Somehow, you always come away from a Dave Barry essay with something worth keeping in mind. In this volume, “Seeking Wifi in the Holy Land” relates an eleven-day tour of Israel. Barry is not a believer but his wife, Miami Herald sports writer Michelle Kaufman, is a member of Temple Judea of Coral Gables which is a reformed congregation so open-minded they don’t mind taking the occasional atheist into their bosom. The result is both occasionally hilarious (a visit to the Dead Sea – “my butt still stings”) and touching (after an evening in the home of a local couple, the husband says of his wife who has been holding court while he served endless food, “I do not agree with her. <pause> About anything.”).

It’s unlikely that Sophie is dungeoned up to the extent the book’s title suggests, although Barry’s comments on the subject will resonate with any man who ever raised a daughter. But he’s braver than I am: He actually took his daughter Sophie, as in bought tickets and went inside with her and one of her girlfriends, to a Justin Bieber concert. That may not be the equivalent of raising the flag at Iwo Jima, but I’m impressed.

If I Were King, those who bring this kind of positive energy to the kingdom would be knighted, mostly because the honoree would be required to spend a little time with the monarch, and I wouldn’t want to miss that chance.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Chritianity in the White House

During the last two presidential elections one key element, sometimes blatant but frequently unstated, was whether the candidates were Christians. By my thinking, Mitt Romney isn’t a Christian based on my understanding of Mormon theology related to the Trinity while there is no doubt that Barack Obama is. But is it important to have a Christian president? As the importance of organized religion of all flavors continues to decline, I surmise that fewer Americans would consider this a priority. Those that are most likely to consider it important tend to rely on a myth, that the Republic was formed by Christians with an expectation that the population would also consist of Christians.

While I’m a great believer in myth and the cultural importance of wide acquaintance with the tales of Homer, the creation accounts in Genesis, and the wild carryings-on at Valhalla, it’s frustrating when errors of detail in any myth are elevated to significance. Witness the witless appropriation of the metaphorical six days of creation into a denial of evolution, never mind the idea that the current range of plants and animals on earth could be the result of Noah’s keeping them all alive in the ark! So let’s look at the truth behind the myth of America as a Christian nation.

Of the first ten presidents, only three were clearly Christians: Andrew Jackson (Presbyterian), Martin Van Buren (Dutch Reformed), and William Henry Harrison (Episcopalian). Three more can be identified as both Episcopalian and Deist in various proportions, generally moving to Deism over time: George Washington, James Monroe, and John Tyler. Washington was born into the Church of England, becoming an Episcopalian with the revolution, but seldom attended church as an adult and left before the Eucharist.

Two were flatly Deists: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Two more were Unitarians: John Adams (originally a Congregationalist) and his son, John Quincy Adams. Christians are, by creed, trinitarians, a concept rejected by all the small-U unitarians, which means Unitarians, Jews, Moslems, and probably Mormons. To varying degrees these faiths recognize Jesus as a historical figure of merit, possibly a prophet, but deny his deity.

Among the other Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was definitely a Deist, Thomas Paine seemed to move between atheism and Deism, and Alexander Hamilton strayed toward theism (Deists who allow the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs) by the revolutionary period.

There were Christians among the Founding Fathers, probably most of them. But among the most prominent were quite a few who chose reason over revelation. If I Were King, my religion wouldn’t be a factor in any election, but I would admit that I was raised a Lutheran, joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) for some years, returned to the Lutheran Church, and gradually have become much closer to a Deist with near-infinite tolerance of other faiths. But I would not be tolerant of the idea that my realm was Christian. A realm is political, not religious, even if it depends on behavior norms that stem in part from myths heard in a million Sunday Schools.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The nature of human rights

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144. Some of what I’ve read is reasonably hopeful, starting with the interest on the court in declining to rule at all, which restores the right to marry to all couples in California, based on the ruling of the federal district court and the federal ninth circuit appeals court. I’ve read that many fear that a ruling that all Americans have this right would set up too much conflict in our more backward states, as many claim Roe v. Wade did, and if such a path scares SCOTUS, I can live with that. (It does concern me that we are headed toward a division in this country between states where people think rationally and states where Republicans constantly restating utter nonsense win public office, but that’s for another day.)

I was glad to hear several justices challenging the procreative argument, that the purpose of marriage is to shelter and nurture wholesome procreation by the marital partners. This is obviously rubbish, given that women with hysterectomies, not to mention a wide range of other medical issues, would then need to be barred from marriage. If such a procedure or diagnosis weren’t to become grounds for annulment, it certainly should be grounds to disallow any new marriages. That argument may fly with the Tea Party loyalists outside the court but it isn’t going anywhere as a matter of law.

The one element that truly rocked me was Justice Antonin Scalia asking, “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?” He then proposed a couple of dates. Theodore B. Olson responded with a pair of rhetorical questions, “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools.” I think Scalia’s question suggests he doesn’t understand the nature of rights. Rights do not have effective dates, at most there are dates when rights are recognized. If we have a right to enter into a marriage, that right existed at the time of the Big Bang. It didn’t depend on our constitution, our founding documents made it clear that rights issue from the Creator and are shared by all humans. Our laws recognize some rights, ignore others, and limit quite a few. Each nation has a different interpretation of what those human rights are, and over time the situation tends to improve. But the rights themselves are eternal, existing from the beginning of time.

To Justice Alito I need to add that same-sex marriage is not “newer than cell phones or the internet”, it was common millennia past. What is new is the concept that marriage is limited to exactly two persons, and that they must be of opposite sexes. But if you go back in history you’ll find countless cases in which there were wives into the hundreds and concubines too. Don’t try to tell me that such an array of women, dependent on one man for sexual gratification, did not enter into both casual and long-lasting same-sex relationships.

If I Were King, I would respect the legal process, although I probably would make clear that Hollingsworth et al did not have standing to represent my government. Besides, I like to think that those who were unable to comprehend that these rights ought to be recognized would have already decided to “self deport” to a state more inclined with their bigotry.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Evolution and homosexuality in America

Almost to his own surprise, Barack Obama last year came out in favor of same-sex marriage, saying that his thinking on the subject had been evolving. Detractors sneered, but I knew exactly what he meant.

I recently attended a funeral for a young lady, the preacher was a woman I’d known in our youth who happens to be the highest-ranking ecclesiastical personage I know at all well. (I hitched a ride with Greg Rickel, bishop of the Diocese of Olympia, after Bill Burnett’s funeral but I can’t say I know him well.) At the time, changes were being made in the Lutheran church’s treatment of homosexuals in ministry and I asked about how that affected her diocese. She indicated that there really hadn’t been any problems. Parishes were moving forward cautiously and without any great trauma.

I told her that I liked a slogan I’d heard, “God created homosexuality to spare the most-creative members of the community from the burden of child rearing”. By the time half of that was out of my mouth I was sure I’d gone too far. There are times when something comes to mind that I like the sound of and find I’ve said it before even beginning to ask whether or not anyone else might appreciate the sound of it. I wanted to disappear into the carpet.

She immediately said, “Actually, we find that the most creative students in seminary are gay”.

Okay, it made me feel better. Not knowing exactly how evolved her community is on this point I’ve decided not to name her. Opinions are changing rapidly, but not yet universally. Bigots are tenaciously committed to their fears.

Obama’s evolution on the subject is continuing. He’s eliminated the absurd Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military, his administration refuses to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and there is movement to recognize long-term same-sex relationships (not necessarily marriages) for the purpose of admitting immigrants who are closely-related to citizens. According to Adam Liptak in The New York Times this evolution forces the Justice Department to determine how to be involved in two Supreme Court cases this year, one in which the administration position might be to support the idea that this is a question for the states (the DoMA case), the other (California Referendum 8) in which the compelling argument is that states lack the authority to eliminate the rights of gays on this point.

This is a question on which I didn’t have any evolving to do at all. Most of the battles have been fought at the state level, marriage is mostly regulated by the states after all, but while there are many arguments for marrying gay couples that wish to be yoked in this way, the crux of the matter is that this is a civil right, and civil rights aren’t state issues. Rumor has it that the Boy Scouts of America, institutional troglodytes of the first water, will this week declare that individual troops will be allowed to decide whether or not gays can be members after a century of prohibition.

At some point in our evolution we have to get to the point of saying that it is the right of every American to be open and forthright about their sexual orientation and to maintain all of the rights and responsibilities of Americans. Gays aren’t perverted, they are created, just like us straights. As Americans, they have rights. And we cannot continue to grant the privilege of discriminating against them to anyone. Not to the military, not to the Boy Scouts, and not to the states. If I Were King, laws that allowed discrimination would be ripped forcefully from the books, Obama has to actually change them in a painfully-slow political process. But he has to do it, just as surely as we have to say that a restaurant has to seat blacks or a business has to provide access to disabled employees.