The American internal diaspora

Continental migration

Mobility stirs the melting pot

The American promise has always emphasized mobility, both physical and social. We say that here in America you can get a new start if you move from the Old World to the New. Here you can move to a higher station in life on your own merits, as Horatio Alger classically portrayed in his plucky young heroes. Here you can move freely over a vast landscape, a freedom ultimately expressed in that most American custom, the road trip.

As America’s industrial prowess grew, so did its love affair with the automobile — along with virtually unlimited supplies of fuel for both — and opened up an unprecedented era of hyper-mobility. The pace accelerated even further with the advent of the airplane, to such an extent that “place” became almost incidental.  Geography was no longer an environment, but an interval, an obstacle to reduce in the process of achieving a destination. That process became increasingly quick and easy. Family reunion in New Hampshire? No problem. Sales meeting in Seattle? No problem.

The final step toward “placelessness” — and it probably is final — came with the internet and modern telecommunications. One memorable proclamation heralding the arrival of cyberspace was that “geography no longer matters.” Conveniently enough, this fed right into the emerging doctrine of globalization, the idea that every place is equivalent to every other place, and that life is now “distance-insensitive.” The promise of “being digital” meant you could be any place — and therefore, no place, it turns out.

Our wanderlust and urge for far horizons, when gratified to such an extreme, comes at a cost that, for the most part, we either find acceptable or simply ignore:  it’s that a certain rootlessness comes with this kind of mobility. Without roots, we deprive our identity of a vital component — identification with a specific place. A place with its own characteristic geology, plant life, climate, architecture, street names, styles, sounds, smells, tastes, attitudes, dialect. Traditionally, it’s the place we were born and grew up, but it works almost as well for our adopted home, given enough time there.

Certainly, there are those who are by nature footloose and nomadic, but while attachment to place might vary in importance from individual to individual, on average the attachment is likely to be a large part of group identity for those who live there — and depending on the place, it can be a very large part, as in the case of, say, Texas. The people of a place become “a people” partly because they share that place, and especially if enough of them stay there long enough.

Carole King once sang “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” As our mobility increased, we came to expect that growing up meant moving away from home — college out of state became a rite of passage, as did a year or two “on the road.” We began taking it for granted that you live wherever your job takes you. We came to assume that time off work would mean traveling somewhere. Ms. King’s wistful observation did, in effect, meet with a resounding “No” from society at large — even though fellow rocker Neil Young affirmed that he’s “gotta get away from this day-to-day running around,” because “everybody knows this is nowhere.”

This penchant for mobility may appear undirected and maybe a little frantic at the individual level, but over time, population movements have followed certain patterns. In the days of Manifest Destiny, it was to the West that young men would go, and in great numbers. Throughout the twentieth century, there was a massive migration of rural populations into the burgeoning cities of America. Later in the century, there was a major shift of northern populations into the Sunbelt, as air conditioning made the region more habitable for those expected to work productively in an office year-round.

It’s interesting to note that in other places and times throughout history, the movement and relocation of a population would often result in a diaspora, where the people who spread to other lands maintained ties with the homeland, keeping many of its customs and assuring each other that one day they might return. The classic example is the Jewish diaspora; more recently, we hear about the “overseas Chinese” or “Chinese diaspora.” We may well have the makings of one here. Or many, as the case may be.

Internal migrations on this continent might simply be expressions of a generalized sense of rootlessness, but it works unexpectedly well for a nation whose motto is e pluribus unum — out of many, one. We take a certain national pride in being a “melting pot,” bringing in all nationalities and assimilating them. The incessant moving about helps insure that not too many of those nationalities accumulate in one place, nor get overly attached to it. It appears that the melting pot must be stirred constantly.

Granted, the melting pot theory is a little tarnished compared to what it was a couple of generations ago, but it does bear a closer look, if only to get some clues as to why. The theory goes something like this: foreigners come to our shores and we expect them to shed their foreign cultural traits, replacing those traits with the American equivalents; thus our American culture becomes a democratic “averaging” of all the cultural values, beliefs, manners, practices and characteristics of the nationalities we’ve assimilated — plus some new stuff that we’ve presumably come up with while inhabiting this continent as Americans.

An obvious flaw here concerns the destruction and reconstruction of a human identity, however voluntary the case may be, and the ethical problem it poses. The rise of multiculturalism in the 1970’s, with its themes of positive national and ethnic identity, served as a healthy antidote, and among other things, probably put an end to any embarrassment at hearing a grandparent speak with something other than an American English accent.

A subtler difficulty lies in identifying the suitably “American” characteritics that are to replace the foreign ones. Setting aside the issue that there is still a lot of pressure in favor of the same old White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant package, we have to consider the extent to which cultural traits are a product of place: one culture, one place, in simplest terms. Assuming that the effect is in fact considerable, we are then obliged to wonder how in the world something the size of a whole continent could be considered a single place?

Any way you care to slice it, the continent consists of many places — each with its culture. Missing church on Sunday is taboo behavior in rural Alabama, but it’s probably the norm in Ann Arbor or Berkeley; putting mustard on your burger is pretty standard in Texas, but will draw reactions of  horror in New York City. So which of these is the correct all-American choice for our newly-assimilated foreigner?

For all its flaws, the melting pot theory lies at the heart of the American Experiment: we come here as many different peoples, and aspire to be one people; from many nationalities, we seek to create one nationality. Like any good experiment, this one tests a hypothesis; namely, that it is possible to create a nationality by simply declaring it. The founders seemed to think so, and must have been encouraged by their success at declaring political independence from Britain.

However, creating a nation-state is not the same thing as creating a nation. A nation, in its fundamental historical sense, is a nationality, a people, a culture that has a life quite apart from any governing apparatus it might be subject to. From this perspective, it seems obvious that a population cannot become a people simply because its political leaders wish it so.

The reality is that culture is evolutionary and emergent. It takes time for a population to become a people, and the process is by and large beyond the reach of individual intentions. A culture takes shape according to its own rules and the particular influences within it and around it — including, of course, its geographic setting, its place. As a corollary, we can expect that if a place is identifiably different, then the culture will be, too. Often, significantly different.

Several “post-melting-pot” authors have taken up this theme for study. Perhaps the earliest is Joel Garreau, whose 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America identifies a number of distinct geographic regions on our continent that are nations in every respect but formal sovereignty. He maps regional/cultural boundaries that ignore official state lines and gives the areas descriptive names: Dixie, New England, Mexamerica, The Breadbasket, and so on. He shows that these are all distinct cultural and geographic entities with distinct, often conflicting values and interests, all vying for favorable policies from one central government.

More recently, Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America continues along the lines that Garreau started, in somewhat more detail, identifying eleven such distinct regions. In the intervening time, distinctiveness among the regions seems to have sharpened, which would certainly be consistent with demographic studies by the Federal Reserve and others looking at patterns of  internal migration over time. Since 1980, according to these findings, the overall rate of internal migration has fallen steadily and significantly — by about fifty percent. Overall, the melting pot is getting stirred much more slowly than it was even a generation ago.

We can expect that when people stay put longer, the tendency is toward a tighter group. As the Federal Reserve study observes: “…high levels of migration may reduce commitment to the provision of local public goods or corrode social ties in other ways, in which case lower mobility might raise aggregate well-being.” Of course, social cohesion and group identity are a matter of degree, and on this continent, where most people still don’t even know their neighbors, the internal migration rates are still a good deal higher than in Europe and other parts of the industrialized world.

Over the span of the industrial era, Americans — a displaced population to begin with — further displaced themselves into the open lands of the West, then continued to displace themselves around the filled-up continent like marbles in a pinball game, at greater and greater fossil-fueled speeds, and created a diaspora of virtual ex-pats who didn’t have a homeland to long for, let alone return to, because they never stayed anywhere long enough to make one.

Left in the wake of this century-long homogenization is a landscape of American “generica” — a uniform distribution of strip malls, chain stores and cookie-cutter homes that make it a challenge to distinguish one town from the next without a map. Cue Getrude Stein’s quip about archetypally-generic Oakland: “There’s no there there.”

All of the frantic, culture-killing mobility appears to be on the decline, though, and enough people did in fact stay behind to get a good start on cultivating the nine or eleven or however many homelands that the rest could return to. Probably just in time, since the fuel for all of that mobility will be scarce enough soon enough that “hitting the road” will mean hitting it on foot or some equally sweaty alternative, so there’s a good chance this particular American adventure will lose much of the allure it once had.

There’s concern in some quarters that such settling down represents the coalescing of overly like-minded enclaves, aggravating the red-state/blue-state electoral divide that has gotten so pronounced in recent years. Less seriously, there’s the “let ’em secede” contingent who like to point out that red states take more than their share of the tax money, and indeed, that the red-state-of-mind influence would be blessedly absent from US politics if the former Confederacy itself were somehow absent.

This builds on the more serious argument that the Republican Conservative world view and value system is basically the culture of the Old South. If we assume so, it follows that in good American melting-pot fashion, Southern culture and values inevitably spread to places in newer states during the hectic migrational years, and those new enclaves became a diaspora whose “old country” is Dixie. Politics aside, there’s nothing particularly unusual about the phenomenon: on a smaller scale, we have New Yorker enclaves in Florida and LA; Texan diasporas in the Bay Area and Alberta; the whole list would probably make for a decent sociology master’s thesis.

However, the formation of like-minded enclaves, in and of itself, simply means geo-cultural distinctiveness — it does not automatically imply divisiveness or conflict. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that American towns and regions may actually mature fully into socially-cohesive communities — places that do in fact have some “there” there, places where people know their neighbors, talk to them on the street, and, yes, see eye-to-eye with each other on most of the things that matter to them. On the other hand, the potential for conflict does increase when one community wants some matter of theirs to be the law of the land, even though other communities in the same land may have some very different values on the matter.

The current impasse lies in the fact that competition for favor from the central government is taking place between two nations — Red nation and Blue nation — so evenly matched in power and influence that governing the Federal Union has pretty much ground to a halt. It’s anybody’s guess what will resolve the gridlock, but it probably won’t be earnest appeals from the podium for less pluribus and more unum. The melting pot has already run out of appeal, and soon enough it will lack for the fuel to keep it stirred.

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