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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fry Your Own Grits, Janet!

Janet Daley's bio says that she was raised in New York, used to be a liberal, and is now conservative. She now writes for the UK Telegraph.

I think her academic roots show in this column she wrote about Obama and American insecurity. She starts by noting correctly that in his early wins he said little about race, and then moves on to note that his own origins have little to do with the history of most black Americans:
Mr Obama has accepted the mantle of black resentment: the bitterness of slavery and segregation, the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the continuing struggle for equal opportunity and achievement. They are all his now, an intrinsic part of the package in which he offers himself to the electorate, even though, ironically, they have little to do with his own life experience.
...why did he choose to cleave to a spiritual mentor whose church was dedicated to the perpetuation of black anger? Why did he identify himself, in what must have been a quite conscious act of personal reinvention, with a pastor and congregation whose collective memory was so utterly different from his own?
It was part of a phenomenon that almost no one who was not born and raised in the United States seems to grasp: the desperate need that Americans feel to be part of a shared ethnic or cultural identity that will give them a sense of rootedness and belonging in the vast, endlessly shifting flux of a country that is a nation but not a people.
Ack, pfooey. This is college professor stuff. The average American is not worrying desperately about finding an identity. The average American is not possessed by anomie, glumly brooding about his or her comparative insignificance in the "vast, endlessly shifting flux of a country". A sense of belonging comes from family, friends, often faiths, profession and the like.

The average American kind of likes the shifting flux thing. As proof of American ethnicity-deprived ennui, Daley retails her visit to Ellis Island:
...I was struck by the school parties. The children - who were almost certainly at least second- and probably third- or fourth-generation Americans - were chatting to each other about their own families' histories. They all seemed to know not only their country and region of origin, but often the name of the village from which their ancestors had come.
This would have come from school assignments most often, and it is not proof of some anguished search for roots, but rather a sharing of the common experience of being immigrants. Given the area, certainly a decent proportion of the school children were first generation. We are all Americans by choice except for blacks and some (mostly) native Americans. Of course the native Americans were immigrants too, but that was a very long while ago.

The column becomes funnier:
The British find the sentimentality of Americans toward their national roots largely absurd and occasionally sinister - like when, for example, legions of fourth-generation Irish-Americans feel morally bound to supply the IRA with money for guns.
Well, see, outside of major urban areas, Americans find the British belief that you get peace by giving up your guns extremely sinister. Frankly, if the average Brit weren't so propagandized, charitable Georgians alone would raise enough donated firearms to rearm the British yeomanry. Texas alone could rearm half of Europe without too much personal deprivation. The problem is that you probably wouldn't know how to clean them, and abuse of good weapons is a sin for which we would not want to be responsible.

Also, about that sentimentality thing - I hate to break it to you, Janet, but for many of us, the US was a haven. In my case, my mother is of mostly long-term American stock, but my father's father got out of Germany, into France, and to the US just in time for the Great Depression. That was bad, but still incredibly better than spending the same time in Europe. We do not feel sentimental about the old country. At all. Some of the people, yes. The nation, no. The Chief is a naturalized citizen. He got here in his twenties. He is profoundly grateful. The only thing he ever wanted was for the kids to be Americans, and they are. A lot of us were running from something, and most of us were running toward a hope for a better life.

However, over one-sixth of Americans are recent immigrants (immigrants or children born to immigrants), so the American story and the American constitutional system has to be told and retold and taught and retaught. A country that keeps absorbing so many new arrivals each generation has to keep explaining what it's about. It has to keep explaining to its children that being American is a choice, and that all that's needed to be American is the choice, and explain the purposes and workings of our government.. Many of us try to remember the sorrows of our pasts in order to ensure that they are not repeated in our future. For most immigrants, being American is about the right to self-definition under a government that dignifies individual lives and aspirations.

The burden of a life in a free country is more than enough to constitute a sense of shared identity. Take the current election. It is quite painful enough to have to vote for one of Ms. Fantasy Marine of Bosnia, Mr. Church of Black Jesus, or Mr. I'm A Party of ONE. It is, indeed, so painful that we have no need to seek for some sense of identity elsewhere. The shared agony of this election is seared, seared, I tell you, into our collective psyches. Our politicians are a cross we bear with no pride at all. Every American generation has to renew the battle for a good and reasonably effective government. It's a constant. There is no House of Lords or long history of tradition to ensure that we follow on the nice traditional and known path. We haven't got one. We have to figure it out ourselves each generation.

Janet closes with:
Americans suffer from the collective insecurity that arises from rootlessness and the wilful abandonment of historical continuity. That longing for roots, and the emotional security that goes with them, divides Americans as surely and inevitably as their constitutional arrangements unite them. That is the perennial contradiction at the heart of national life.

Of course, it doesn't have to be ethnicity any more. You can find your communal identity through gender, or sexual orientation: you just have to be able to plant your feet on solid ground somewhere and find people to holds hands with, so as not to be swept away in the endless, terrifyingly anonymous void.
Sorry, no. Not even close. This, I believe, is a projection of her own fears across the Atlantic. Americans do tend to look admiringly at other cultures, but that is a trait of security rather than insecurity.

We don't need the ethnic roots, loyalties and passions. They haven't led to much that's good overseas. Americans actually really like reinventing themselves every generation. We keep what we like of the old and slap on a new coat of cultural paint, just the way we paint our houses. An American can be proud of being Korean, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Confederate or whatever without having to suffer through the actual condition of being one. Sure, it's a cheap thrill, but we like our thrills cheap and our drinks ice cold. Is there something wrong with that? Baby, we are the Land of Fast Cars, Wine Coolers and Very Cold Beer!

It's not Americans that are insecure over ethnic identities. It's Europeans and Brits in the new Europe, with its open borders and fast-moving immigration, who are insecure over these things. We do have the Constitution, our flag, and our principles. Also our guns. And our churches. We are used to this way of life and like it. It works for the most recent arrivals just as well as for those of a few centuries ago. The Chief buys many books about US history and political history. He studies this country to find out why it works so well. He knows very well that we are not natively better people. It is the system under which we live that has enabled us to get a better and more rational result.

It's you of Europe who are so traumatized by the loss of ethnic national identities that you are passing all these laws about not insulting religions, etc. We insult each other all day long and don't riot over it. And what's with the anti-Semitism? If that's not an example of insecurity, I don't know what would be.

Now, for black Americans, the case can be different. Not, in my experience, for most blacks in the south. The discrimination is too real and recent for them to need to seek some artificial roots in it. Those of my generation and the next are generally very diligently seeking to live out the victory of MLK's dream.

But for a black in the urban north who is successful I suppose there can be a feeling of separation. The great drama of the civil rights movement is an American demarcation point. If you are a black American born too late to participate, and born to a fortunate life, you probably will feel some guilt for the plight of blacks in inner-city poverty. You'll want somehow to pass the baton. There is nothing wrong with that - it is, in some fashion, exactly the same thing as joining the Peace Corp or the Marshall plan was in a previous generation. It's a search for a way to help other people get what you've got.

The American search for a better life has always been to some degree rooted in the realization that it is impossible to secure that better life alone. Many of us came here to escape harrowing circumstances in our countries of origin, and the memories are still real. We still seek justice for all.

Compared to most European countries, American politics are far more populistic. Post WWII Europeans of the upper class often seem to be afraid of their lower classes, whereas in the US, the politicians who capture the national imagination - the Jacksons, Kennedys, and Reagans - look at politics as being about ensuring that everyone has opportunity. We do not like classes, and American life is so fluid that in fact first-generation American immigrants often achieve great success, and if they don't, their children usually move into the middle to upper middle class.

At its best, Obama's embrace of Wright and his church had to have been an expression of solidarity with all the black Americans who didn't have what he had. Obama was attractive to those white voters precisely because in some way he seemed to be the more populistic of the leading candidates. If his campaign really is about hope for a better life and an active pursuit of ways to open the doors for more Americans, he's captured the American imagination. If it's about black anger, it fizzles. I don't think Obama is all about black anger. He is probably somewhat confused about the whole thing, but he doesn't seem to have a defeatist bone in his body. He's very American in his super-successful black yuppie way. And if his true bent is to seek justice and opportunity for everyone, he's very American in that as well.

However the other dominant trait in American cultural life is pragmatism. In some areas, over 30% of the residents and over 50% of the schoolchildren are immigrants or born to immigrants. We cannot afford to spend too much time angsting around and navel-gazing. We can't afford to set up a welfare system like that of some European countries because of our huge immigrant population. It takes a lot of hard work to integrate yourself economically and educationally into the culture, and it won't happen if you have three generations supported by welfare. Our remaining ghettos are way less a product of discrimination than the product of some very bad choices in public housing and social programs. Guess what? Your economic ghettos are the product of generations of welfare as well, and all too often, it is immigrants who are on the welfare. It's breeding the same crime and culture of anger that it bred here. Do the same thing, get the same result.

Lisbon does mean changes for the EU countries, and one of those will be the abandonment of the ethnic state given the economic provisons of the union. You'll find out on your own that it is far easier to teach loyalty to principles (which are abstract and universal) than to inculcate a reverence for the House of Lords, or swear fealty to some unachievable idea of multicultural economic equality. Cultures determine a great deal about economic achievement. The best a host country can do is provide opportunity and let everyone seek their own goals.

Ethnicity, like skin color, height, eye color and such traits, is nothing but an accident of birth. The aspirations and the goals by which a man or woman lives his or her life are the chosen things which create the bones around which the soul and spirit of a human being are formed. It is ultimately demeaning and irrational to categorize people by their births rather than their lives, and the security of Americans is rooted in the cultural precept that we must choose our own lives and will be responsible for the result.

So fry your own grits, Janet. Work out your own feelings over loss of ethnic nationalism. The only truly American advice I have for you is that worrying about the other guy's sins never fixes your own. As for Obama, he is in control of his own destiny, and that's a good thing.

PS: Have an ice cold beer on me.

Great post Mama. You said a lot here. Thank you also for linking to my site. I was invited by Houston Public Radio in January to read this essay on the air. I updated my site, if any readers would like to listen to it. Thank you very much!

can u comment on Karl Denningers take on Durable Goods orders please? i'm trying to reconcile your more positive sentiments on manufacturing compared to others.

He's more typical. Most people look at orders. I look at shipments/inventory ratios.

The difference is that I am a cynic. Loads of orders that never get shipped are not orders in my book. I have experience to back my beliefs.

The major impact on mfrg now is pricing, except for the depressed segments. I believe we are seeing a mark-to-market in mfrg.

Some industries are shaking out, and some are building up in a classic recessionary pattern. Commodities and all associated are on an upswing save for those most related to building/vehicles. There appears to be a very substantial buy-in from outside the country on some of this stuff.

If you are a European mfr, you have a big incentive to contract for parts, etc, within the US. Same for several other countries.

There is very strong evidence for the thesis that mfrg is seeing a build-up in some segments. See the Construction value report. YoY mfrg saw a 30% increase, power saw a 33% increase, and communication saw a 25% increase.
Excellent post and I want to try to absorb it all and think through it. I especially like your monikers for the candidates. With immigrants in my family (immediate and extended), the assimilation you discuss really strikes a chord we me as the required transmitter of American traditional values through the generations (past and to come).

But I gotta say, it is hard concentrating on the substance here when my mouth and brain keep coming back to: mmmmm... grits....
The column becomes funnier:

The British find the sentimentality of Americans toward their national roots largely absurd and occasionally sinister

I will take the American "sentimentality over roots" over the more European expereinces of Muslim separatism within non-Muslim countries, anyday.

We hear reports over here of swaths of European cities where the native populace, including the police, are ousiders.

Londonistan, anybody?

M_O_M, I like your stand on the 2nd Amendment and gun ownership. Gun control means hitting your target.

Re: the election: I no longer have any idea who I will vote for. The more I listen, the more I hate them all, though I do believe I hate Hillary more.
Hillary's economic proposals seem the most bizarre. Also, I keep getting the giggles when I hear her name. I never should have watched the YouTube of her "running under fire" Bosnia comments, or read the excerpts of her claim that whenever the firefights broke out, the US would send the Hillary/Chelsea squad out. It reminds me too much of the mall ninja stuff for me to keep control of myself.

It is hard to vote for someone when you start laughing every time you hear the name.

You had me rolling all the way through this post. Too dang funny! Oh yes, I will be holding my nose this next election day and I sure as shit won't find my identity through any of the would-be Presidents.
Honestly, Dr M, have you EVER met an American angsting over a lack of an ethnic identity?

It's quite foreign to native-born Americans to identify ethnicity with nationality. A lot of people have identities related to their state, but angsting around in a pained search for ethnic identity? It's not gonna happen. We aren't even good at angst. You could lock all of us in closets for two years and make us read Sylvia Plath to earn food and bathroom breaks, and we still wouldn't angst.
Thank you Mom,I am sure you realize this piece by Dailey was more about making sure she would be invited to the "Right" parties than anything else.As far as our Candidates,Mccain's insistence that Al-Qaaeda is being trained in Iraq (Is GW sharing his drugs with John?) is frightening,this is supposed to be his area of expertise.As for Hillary,she finally said something really funny,accidentally.And Obama,well he is a traditional American candidate with the smelly Real Estate Deals to prove it.And probably the best bet despite his views on the Second Amendment.Out here n California,The "dems" hate all of the constitution,And the Republicans only like the Second Amendment judging by the Actions of our political "Leaders".....We do have some really pathetic Purple people in Cali,I knew one Gal who changed her name to "Chakra Windsong"...She Married a Dentist.
Yes, Hillary did accidentally say something funny. Quite funny.

I don't know about Iraq and Al-Qaeda, but this summer I listened to NPR go on and on about it. It's not just GW.

We'll survive this election, but the aftermath isn't going to be pretty.

What in the heck ever happened to the old constitutional liberals? The problem is a lot of people who call themselves "liberal" nowdays hate the darned constitution. They seem to think that fascism is progressive.

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND how people can think this way.

None of the top three have a workable economic program. Hillary's is probably the least workable, but some of Obama's proposals are really out there. I don't think McCain actually has one. He told a reporter recently that the proposal to deal with SS/Medicare on his website wasn't his real plan. Is it senility or is it a complete failure to take the whole thing seriously?

I may just write in someone. I am extremely troubled by the tendency of the leadership of both parties toward more and more government control. Isn't it hugely ironic that we cut regulation of banks while we strengthened the control of government over the daily lives of individuals? Shouldn't it be the other way around?
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