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Sectionalism is derived from what I term the “Dark Matter” of American history. These are deep social-cultural norms and values which predate the American Founding, and differentiate disparate regions of our nation. In fact, some of the norms likely predate the discovery of the Americas, and are rooted in ways of life which differentiated British regions by the late medieval period (e.g., independent agro-pastoralists vs. serfs). The books Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America, are good primers on the deep structure in an American context of what I’m referring to. I hadn’t totally realized how important these folkways were in determining one’s world view until I’d read Dianne Purkiss’ The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain, as I had a very difficult time not seeing the Puritans in this long forgotten (in the United States) conflict as the “good” side. Why? I had to admit it had a lot to do with the fact that I was American, and in particular, grew up in my formative years in a part of America which was in the shadow of the Puritan legacy. Similarly, when we learned about the Civil War there was no doubt which side was the good side, not just because that’s what seems on the “right side of history” today, but because so many young men left the local area to fight battles far away from their family
But what about after the Founding? Two books which are really influential in my thinking about the antebellum republic are The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. These works take slightly different perspectives. The author of the first, Sean Wilentz, seems to be broadly sympathetic to the transformation of the American republic, whose democratic pretensions were far more understated and disputed in 1800, to a full fledged democratic republic under Andrew Jackson (The Rise of American Democracy can be thought of as an homage to earlier The Age of Jackson). Daniel Walker Howe’s What God Hath Wrought is a more equivocal work, insofar as it seems to tell more the story of the era’s political losers and underdogs, the Whigs and the Northeast. The irony here is that ultimately the Whig views on American political economy arguably won after the Civil War, or were at least dominant. And culturally the industrious and technological society of the North, with roots in Greater New England, but eventually to wash over the Mid-Atlantic, emerged victorious by the end of the 19th century (the failure of the Populists confirms this).
It goes without saying that the Civil War was the great watershed of American history. After this event the idea of the United States as a singular and unitary nation, despite its federal structure, was ascendant. The older model of the United States as a loose federation of states, went into decline (I have heard it stated that the Civil War marked the period when the United States superseded the phrase these United States). To a great extent the arc of history before the Civil War is surprising and alien to moderns. Many college educated Americans are aware of the nadir of American race relations in the late 19th century. But despite the importance of Dred Scott, they are less cognizant of the fact that the 1850s was arguably the first nadir of race relations. Over at Scholars Gate there is a post, There Is No “Right Side” of History that highlights the fact that it was between the Founding and the Civil War that the “Slave Power,” and a fully elaborated formal system of white racial supremacy, emerged in these United States. It was not there at the Founding, though it was already present in chrysalis in many regions of the South with black demographic majorities.
Most educated Americans are aware that there was a hardening of attitudes toward racial slavery in the American South across this period. In the earlier decades the fact of white supremacy was clear and understood, but its implementation was rather fluid. In the 1830s Richard Mentor Johnson was the Vice President of the more avowedly white supremacist party of the time, the Democrats. He also happened to be a man who was well known to have had a common-law marriage with a mixed-race slave, whose daughters he acknowledged as his own. The point in illustrating this anecdote is that it seems likely a man with his biography could not get nominated for high office in the 1930s, but could in the 1830s! Second, along with the rise of white supremacism in the South, the rise of Democratic party populism across much of the North, especially outside Greater New England, produced the concurrent phenomena of dropping of property qualifications from white men along with the abolition or curtailment of voting rights from blacks who had earlier had suffrage (and in some cases women as well!).
This is all relevant because it is rather common today to assert that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A cursory examination of American history tells us that this is often not true on the 100 year scale. I would agree with the broader thesis outlined by Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, that non-zero sum interactions result in increased human flourishing over the long term. But, that is on the scale of 1,000 years, not 100 years. You can ask the Romans of St. Augustine’s day, or those who watched Argentina’s decline in prosperity across the 20th century. A little history would help, because it keeps our “theory” in check. Unfortunately our social and political elites are history-poor, let alone the average person on the street.
Second, I have a piece in USA Today: Dolezal’s delusion, with Alex Berezow. It’s short & sweet, and I doubt regular readers will be illuminated by novel insights. Our basic contention is that race is both biological and social, and you can’t reduce it to either. This strikes me as common sense, but it does have to be restated in our day and age. Despite the fact that we are a young and relatively homogeneous species, genetic variation apportioned by geography and shaped by history is real, important, and non-arbitrary.
People keep asking me if there is an update to History and Geography of Human Genes. I keep saying wait until next year, because there’s a prominent geneticist working on such a book. But, the “problem” is that there are so many results right now that it might be more advised to simply wait five years or so until the rate of change has leveled off.
Also, re: gay marriage. At the secular humanism conference a few years ago I made the case that rather than focus on gay marriage as a route purely to individual happiness and autonomy, it was important to focus on the issue of what we want a flourishing society to be. That is, evaluate utility as more than the sum of its parts. With less than ten percent of the population being gay, and legal monogamy being the aim, unlike many social conservatives I don’t see this as the End Times for Western civilization. Contra Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, I also think Christians will quickly make peace with gay marriage.
Something which has cropped up on Facebook among some of my more culturally radical friends is the idea that the problem with gay marriage is that it is a victory for a particular vision of straight monogamous fidelity and the nuclear family. Anyone who is familiar with the most radical currents of sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s knows where this is coming from. Freddie deBoer elaborates a more straightforward liberal individualist argument in favor of polygamy, which is actually a traditional form of marriage in much of the world. The key point to emphasize is that love doesn’t, and shouldn’t, win always. To give a currently non-controversial example, sexual relations between people with differing levels of powers, or radically different ages, was more acceptable among cultural liberals than gay sex in the 1970s. Today gay sex between adults is not that controversial, but sex between minors and adults is even more controversial. Similarly, despite more toleration of premarital sex among younger generations, they have fewer partners than in the past. I suspect social conservatives are going to be happily disappointed with how little impact on cultural mores the legalization of gay marriage is going to have, while sexual radicals will also observe that the co-option of “queer culture” will proceed rapidly over the next generation.
Sorry I haven’t been very engaged in comments recently. I was traveling up the California coast, and was monitoring comments mostly through my phone. I haven’t been able to even fully digest some of the comments, so that’s why I haven’t responded.