Thursday, August 02, 2007

A New Idea on an Old Theme

"Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?" -- R. W. Emerson

Actually, Ralph, yeah it is bad to be misunderstood, but I like the quotation anyway -- good slogan for a blogger.

So at the risk of being accused of changing the direction of the discussion, I want to follow an exchange on Issac's blog that has led to a lightbulb for me. The idea is too young for me to determine its viability or usefulness, but I hope some of you can help me with it.

I tend to me what I think of as a "mashup thinker" -- I like to put together things that don't usually go together and see what happens. So I need to quote the comments to display the elements.

Here is the series of comments:

Isaac wrote:

The first thing that bugs me is that I'm not exactly sure what we're talking about. I've read the posts and (most of) the comments, and I still don't quite know. Are we talking about urban areas vs. non-urban areas? Not exactly. I'm sure Scott would agree that citizens of Atlanta fall prey to the "dominant culture" too. Are we talking North and South? Not exactly, as most of Maine probably bears more similarities to North Carolina than it does New York City. We seem to be talking about some subset of Northeastern Liberal Elites, you know the kind of guys who are portrayed in the Itchy and Scratchty an dPoochie epsiode of The Simpsons. But since this group is hard to define, a whole bunch of stereotypes have entered the conversation. And since the terms of what's being discussed are vague, the anxiety level gets ramped up quickly, which in turn boosts the hostility level up which in turn makes sure that nothing being said will be listened to or built off of. For the purposes of this conversation, I'm going to be referring to the two groups Scott is talking about as The City and The Country. This is vague, I know, but I just need to find something.

I responded:

Hey, Isaac. The City / Country dichotomy is good. I'd also say there is a North / South as well, one that is perhaps stronger.

Tony wrote:

Scott: I think the city/country dichotomy Issac proposes works much better than a North/South one. This is in part due to the sheer number of people who moved up north in the first half of the last century looking for factory work, which changed the cultural landscape immensely.

To which I responded:

Tony -- I see the point you are making about the Great Migration during the early part of the 20th century. I don't want to quibble, but the same pattern has occurred with the City / Country, with the migration of rural residents to the city. Then, just to make it even more unclear, we have the migration that started in the 1980s from the north to the south, as cities like Atlanta and Charlotte grew rapidly as did the rest of the sunbelt. So here's my question: given all this intermixing, shouldn't all these stereotypes have disappeared long ago? And if they haven't (and I don't think we can say they have), why haven't they?

This led me to a comment on Travis Bedard's "Midnight Honesty at Noon," where, after making a list of his own biases, he writes:

This of course will feel different than, say, being biased against the Country (to borrow Isaac's construct), but they are just as destructive to the work, and towards building community (which I take as part of my responsibility as an artist). Besides I'm not sure where I fall on the City/Country scale with my 24 years in New Hampshire, 5 in San Francisco, and 3 in Austin. I have more raw years in New Hampshire, but the large percentage of my adult life in urban and semi-urban environs.

And suddenly I remembered other bloggers: Mac is from North Carolina; Joshua is from Iowa; Matt is from Pennsylvania; James Comtois says " I'm from New Hampshire. I live in New York;" I'm from Wisconsin now living in North Carolina after having lived in Minnesota, Illinois, and NYC. Like most of the US population, we are all constantly on the move. And my mind snapped back to my question: "given all this intermixing, shouldn't all these stereotypes have disappeared long ago? And if they haven't (and I don't think we can say they have), why haven't they?"

And an unexpected answer popped up: perhaps the issue isn't North vs South, or City vs Country. Perhaps the issue is native vs non-native. Here in Asheville, for instance, we have been experiencing a population explosion comprised mostly of northern retirees. They arrive with, of course, their northern way of interacting that is different than the southern way -- nothing awful, just a different way of doing. But then they make a Big Mistake: they start trying to tell the natives how things OUGHT to be done. And this causes conflict. To the point where I have seen bumper stickers around town that say, "We don't CARE how you did it up north." The northerners who have moved here don't identify themselves as southerners now that they are here -- they remain, in their heart of hearts, northerners and probably always will. For instance, it took me several years to finally switch my football allegiance from the Minnesota Vikings to the Carolina Panthers -- a step that required that I admit to myself that, in fact, I LIVE in North Carolina. (This step was made easier by the total fucked up mess that the Vikings went through around that time.)

Anyway, all these people mix together, and they adopt little pieces of their new land. Perhaps Matt moves to NYC and starts talking or walking a little faster, and my Wisconsin/North Chicago accent starts to take on a bit more of the elisions of Southern speech. But the natives stay the same.

And it occurs to me that THEY are the ones the stereotypes are about. That there is a sense of scorn for people who stay in one place their entire lives, and on the other side a sense of distrust of those who come bopping in from somewhere else and try to change the way things have always been done.

And those involved in the arts, and involved in television and movies, are much more likely to be migrants, not natives. And their simultaneous bafflement and attraction to the idea of being in one place, of having a intergenerational home, leads to comic stereotypes on the one hand, and romantic idealizations on the other. The stereotypes still exist because we can't quite come to terms with people who haven't melted in the melting pot. It's the same thing we see when people are angry with immigrants for holding on to the traditions of their former culture -- "Melt, dammit!" we insist.

And there are parts of the country that we assume are filled with more natives. Iowa, for instance, because some people can't imagine why you would live there if you weren't from there; small towns, because we tend to think bigger is better; and so on.

We write what we know, and what we know is migration and adaptation. So it is hard to write about what it might feel like to live the same place that your father and grandfather lived, because most of us haven't been where we are long enough to put down more than the most superficial roots.

New York is the ultimate migrant town, filled with people from the 50 states and most of the countries of the world. What could it possibly mean to have lived all your life in a single place? How could that possibly be interesting?

Those are the new thoughts.

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