The USA – A Patchwork Nation
In his election night speech a few years ago, Barack Obama hinted at the divisive social and political climate in the USA: “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. Each of us has our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs.”
Most of us here in Norway will whole-heartedly agree that the “noisy and messy” part of America can be ubiquitous. Every day, young people access and share this part of American culture served up in one form or another on their internet devices. What the Americans value and believe in, and their attitudes and behavior towards each other (and those beyond their borders) generate oodles of information, opinion and forms of expression (both serious and not so serious) which in turn echo and re-echo through the media in words, music and images. For VG1 students, being able to meaningfully discuss and elaborate on cultural and social conditions, such as the deep divisions present in today’s America, can be a rather intimidating task.
Diversity and complexity
A discussion of America’s diversity and complexity requires some degree of historical context. In this edition of Targets we have decided to revisit the notion of the USA as “a nation of nations.” Some knowledge of immigration history is a vital point of reference in order to foster a better understanding of the American experience, past and present. Immigrants the world over have contributed to what is today’s USA. However, it is perhaps the values of the earliest immigrants – those who arrived on the Atlantic Coast and in the Southwest – who have had the most impact on the cultural regions that are in place today.
Re-focus on regional America
Sociologists, journalists and others, including historian Colin Woodard (whose regional map Targets has selected for use in this revision) have since the 1970s and 80s argued for a need to re-focus on regional America. The settlement patterns of the original immigrants have, over time, given these cultural regions some interesting characteristics and shaped some surprising geographical formations. As you will see, the regions mapped here do not respect state lines. Jill Burcum, a journalist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune gives a short description of a few of the regions.
Yankeedom stretches from the northeast to the Great Lakes states and is rooted in the utopian communities founded by Puritans. Its defining characteristics include a respect for intellectual achievement and a deep faith in public institutions’ ability to perfect society, which is why other nations view it as a busybody that likes to mind other peoples’ business. In Yankeedom, individuals are expected to sacrifice for the common good, which meant one of early settlers’ first priorities was to tax themselves to build schools and local government.
Often dubbed the “Heartland,” it includes most of Iowa, much of Nebraska and Missouri, as well big chunks of Pennsylvania., Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. The Midlands culture is rooted in Quaker communities founded by those who fled Old World tyranny and came to live their lives in peace. Moderation, pluralism and pragmatism are the Midlands’ defining characteristics, along with a definite pacifist streak. A live-and-let-live philosophy creates skepticism about both big government and big business. Like Yankees (but without their scolding tone), Midlanders believe society should be organized to address common needs.
The Deep South
Stretching across the southeast United States from east Texas to southern North Carolina, the Deep South is a “stratified, oligarchal society founded by English slaveholders from Barbados,” Woodard writes, and the “polar opposite” of Yankeedom. A society engineered at its founding to serve the wealthy few has preserved an acceptance of inequality as the natural course of human society and a skepticism about the notion of common good. One modern-day expression: a hostility to environmental regulation. Long-held notions of honor also lead to a readiness to resort to force to settle disputes.
A mostly poor but proud backwoods Southern culture, the Borderlands stretch from western Virginia to central Texas. Settlers shaping this culture came from Britain’s rebellious northern border areas and Ireland. Defining characteristics include a warrior ethic, a suspicion of authority, and a gut-level resentment of any limitations on individual liberty. Religion here also emphasizes fervent individual faith, elevating personal salvation over good works — a spiritual focus shared with the Deep South.
(Jill Burcum, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 9 February, 2013)
This is the oldest of the cultural regions discussed in Targets. As Woodard’ writes, “El Norte consists of the borderlands of the Spanish American empire, which were so far from the seats of power in Mexico City and Madrid that they evolved their own characteristics. Most Americans are aware of El Norte as a place apart, where Hispanic language, culture, and societal norms dominate. But few realize that among Mexicans, norteños have a reputation for being exceptionally independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work.”
A Patchwork Nation
In addition to a new map, we are using a newer metaphor for the country: the USA as a “patchwork nation.” To explore this metaphor, The American Communities Project is a useful interactive tool for teachers and students alike, as it draws on a variety of current data, such as ethnicity, income, education, religious affiliation, voting records and consumer behavior. Looking into the diverse types of communities that form America’s regions sheds light on where Americans are grouped and how they are experiencing life in their respective localities. Students should be encouraged to “go local” and explore the various community types which have been named, for example, “urban suburbs,” “college towns,” Native American Lands,” “African American South,” “working class country” and “military posts,” to list a few.
It is our hope that through the use of new tools such as these, our students will make the attempt to look past the state lines and physical geography of standard maps and be curious to dig a little deeper into regional America and its communities. That is the Great American Road Trip.
JAMES STEPHEN HENRY er født sørøst i USA og kom til Norge i 1992. Han har undervist i engelsk siden 2002 og jobber som engelsklærer på Nydalen videregående skole. Han har tidligere undervist i engelsk på Universitet i Oslo og The University of Bethlehem på Vestbredden samt holdt kurs ved Høyskolen i Oslo og Akershus. Stephen Henry har lang erfaring som konsulent innen dokumentarfilm og musikk og har særlig vært opptatt av kulturhistorie, populærkultur og film.