31 August 2017

Redneck and Yankee

Has the United States ever really had one culture? From the beginning, the white population saw itself split at least in two along lines that matched culture with geography. Ever since, cultural polarization has persisted even as the poles themselves have shifted. The one constant has been the figure alternately known as the "Yankee" or the "Puritan." Identified originally with the northeastern part of the country, he can now be found all over the country, as can his current antagonist, the "Redneck." The Redneck himself is something different from the Yankee's old antagonist, whom we can call the Slave-Driver. There is an obvious difference in class between this older figure and the Redneck, even though both are identified with the old south and a contemptuous attitude toward black people. The Slave-Driver was defined more by his presumed aristocratic contempt toward any social inferior than by hatred toward any group. In antebellum days, to accuse Slave-Drivers of hating blacks would have been a pointless redundancy. The Slave-Driver's vices were those of a decadent aristocracy, as the Yankee often emphasized. In the 21st century, of course, our modern Yankees have purged the word "decadent" from their polemical vocabulary. It may be hard to see the Yankee, much less the Puritan, in his most vocal descendants, since they now endorse behaviors that would have horrified the scolds of 19th century New England. It's still possible, however, to see the ancient and the modern as the same type, in the way they treat their personal preferences as moral imperatives.

To his antagonists across history, the Yankee has always been judgmental first and foremost -- hence the "Puritan" label. His impulse to judge involved him in things thought none of his business, from how a master dealt with his slaves to how people passed the time in a tavern. You might think his true descendants are the "moral majority" types of today, but you're more likely to find them on the opposite side of most debates -- including debates over college speech-codes where 21st century Yankees take a more obviously puritanical position against "hate speech" and other "triggers." In an apparent paradox of history, much of "Puritan" culture in the U.S. embraced the values of hedonism in our age of prosperity, though that might not be so paradoxical if you perceive narcissism as a fundamental feature of the Puritan/Yankee mindset. The focus of that narcissism is the question, "Am I a good person?" In the old days that was answered with reference to Scripture. Now the question seems to depend on whether not only you but others are happy. It might be rephrased: "Are people free to enjoy life by their own lights and be themselves without interference or the pressure of inferred judgments?" From that perspective, the bad people are those seemingly determined to keep others from being happy.

On the other side, for all that they love their simple or simplistic pleasures, rednecks arguably haven't succumbed to hedonistic values in the same way, if only because they've never been able to convince themselves that the world owes them a living. They in turn may go too far in refusing to demand more of society or its rulers, but that's a topic for another time. It suffices for now that their refusal, for religious or other reasons,  to acquiesce unconditionally to the imperatives of hedonism inevitably strikes their antagonists as contemptuous -- or simply hateful -- and that only makes them more contemptible in the eyes of the prevailing media. For some observers, these differences may not rise to the level of a cultural divide, but that doesn't seem to be how either side sees things. Culture wars in America may be fought more intensely between whites than they are between whites and any other group, and neither side seems willing to let elections settle their fundamental differences. These divisions, or similar divisions, have always been with us, but that doesn't mean we should take their indefinite sustainability for granted.

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