January 21, 2011

The persistence and corrosion of the frontier spirit of togetherness

Peter Turchin has synthesized Ibn Khaldun's idea of asabiya, or group cohesiveness, that waxes and wanes, with the Russian ethnologists' ideas about meta-ethnic frontiers, where two people who are so radically different are right up against each other. For example, they may speak different languages (even from different families), follow different religions, make a living in different ways (like farming vs. herding), and so on. A classic example is the Mongol-Chinese frontier.

When one side is the underdog facing a powerful Other, they slowly begin to band together in order to take on the other side. After this purpose is served, they slowly start to lose that sense of solidarity because the necessity of survival has been taken care of. They start to become decadent and prone to in-fighting, which sets them up to be taken over by the next group of underdogs who must join up to take over the existing elite.

After spending most of Christmas break back in Maryland, I couldn't have been happier to return to the Mountain Time Zone. When you haven't lived anywhere else, you only slightly notice how atomized, trivial, and petty-status-contest-oriented life is on much of the East Coast (and the West Coast too, from what I experienced visiting my brother when he lived in Los Angeles). It's not a fly-over state vs. bi-coastal state difference, since from what I've heard about my family in Ohio, it's not one big block party. The South (i.e., the southeast) is no better.

The farther east you go, the more the Us vs. Them attitude declines, given how long ago any of those areas was pitted against a powerful Other, namely Indian tribes. There was plenty of that in New England in the late 1600s, but by now the whole Bos-Wash corridor has been insulated from a powerful external threat that would make them feel like they're in a cosmic battle for survival. The West Coast might have been different at one point, but it's now occupied by people from various decadent, in-fighting cultures back east.

Obviously people living in the Plains through the Intermontane West are no longer threatened by nomadic Indian raiders, but it's only been like that for a far shorter time than elsewhere in the country. And sure, there are pockets of the Stuff White People Like crowd. Yet overall it's the only part of the country that feels like it's hanging together. Especially when it comes to white culture, which they're not so ashamed of, and in particular the uplifting rather than the sneering parts of white culture.

To quantify this, I'd come up with a list of things that would qualify as "uplifting white culture," and look at what states or cities show up on a Google Trends search for each of the items. But I've done that a lot just messing around, and impressionistically the Plains-Intermontane West area shows up more than any other region, although Tennessee usually does well too. Just off the top of my head, though, do a Google Trends search (US only) for "Back to the Future," "INXS," and "Dr. Seuss," and see for yourself. It has nothing to do with the central part of the country being mostly white, since so is New England, and they're goners.

In the past couple weeks, the mainstream media has been charging full steam ahead in demonizing Arizonans for this or that fault of theirs that must have led to the Tucson shooting, rather than admit the obvious fact that it was just some nut. That hatred of Arizonans extends even further back to when they tried to scrub their public schools of hate-on-whitey ethnic studies programs, when they passed tougher legislation to keep out so many Mexican immigrants, etc. It's no accident that all of this standing-up-for-yourself took place in a part of the country where the Us vs. Them frontier lasted a lot longer.

I mean, look at how no one is willing to do anything about the Mexican immigration problem in southern California. A good deal of people living there are just deluded or blind, but even those who do notice the problem and complain about it to their friends -- even liberals -- haven't organized anything real. At best they're just getting the fuck out of there -- jumping ship and letting it go under. (Now where is that online tool that lets you see net out-migration and in-migration across the Census districts? At any rate, more people are living southern California for the Intermontane West than vice versa.) That's what happens when most of the people living on the West Coast come from apathetic, bickering parts of the country.

Hell, if I were a native Arizonan, I'd be slow to admit in even an American citizen from a solidarity-deprived part of the country. A small percentage of Arizonans being such transplants -- OK. But too many and it becomes California, impotent to hold itself together. I do occasionally get glares from people who can just tell I'm from back East -- I might as well have green skin -- and are hoping I'm not the straw that will break the camel's back.

They are right to be overly cautious, since the damage caused to their culture is an exponential function of the concentration of transplants from in-fighting parts of the country. (An exponential function rises faster and faster, not like a straight line or one that quickly plateaus.) Each transplant either could or could not bring that mentality along with them, much like an infectious disease. Also like an infectious disease, they will impact several others, not just one -- either by transmitting the smug, cynical, in-fighting mindset, or just rubbing them the wrong way and eroding their level of trust. And once each of those people interact with other natives, they could transmit the mindset or communicate their falling level of trust, which the others might take seriously and lower their own trust levels in turn ("hey, if what they say is true, we better not be so trusting").

Unlike the Stuff White People Like practice of trying to locate a cool neighborhood and live there before it becomes popular, and thus no longer cool, I'm not worried that I'll attract a lot of other people where I came from. Just about all of them, having grown up and lived there, have been more or less swallowed by The Nothing, and so don't care if there's a stretch of the country where people can relate to each other in a more real, less fake way. And even if they did care, their willingness to try bold new things -- other than whatever the new ethnic cuisine du jour may be -- has been eroded by living in such an atomized culture, where they lack the strong social support that any pioneer needs just in case things don't go so well at first.

I do worry somewhat about Californians coming here, though, as there's a lot more of that than transplants from the eastern half of the US. First the refugees began fleeing northward, still along the West Coast, lest they lose their ever important hip cred. Then they fanned out toward Las Vegas, with predictable consequences. It would seem that this migration into the center of the country won't stop anytime soon, as long as the pressure remains in California -- and especially if that pressure to leave increases.

Perhaps some of the Minutemen or just a rowdy bunch of Rocky Mountain boys will go down there and choke off the border, if Californians aren't going to do it. That would still leave the problem of everyone who is already in, though. In general I don't like putting the federal government in charge of solving a problem since they're so far removed, but the states in the Plains-Intermontane West are pretty powerless to slow or end the flow of SWPLs into their land. At least at the federal level, the affected states themselves and anyone they could get sympathy from could get something done to keep the decadent in-fighters in their own part of the country.

Since the main reason people from SoCal want to leave is due to the flood of Mexicans down there, rather than the appeal of getting to talk about heavy metal or country music with their new neighbors, that national solution would only have to stem the tide of immigration, not enact the more Draconian measure of preventing Californians from moving to other states.

It's completely unclear what the net result of all these forces will be. The future will not be boring, that's for sure.


  1. " look at how no one is willing to do anything about the Mexican immigration problem in southern California."

    Please, please understand...it's alllllll over California, allll over, everywhere, omnipresent. Only the very well off can escape the feeling they are being squeezed in every possible way.

  2. The cultural denigration is the main reason my family moved from Denver in 2003 to the Boise area. Now it's starting to happen here too. It's pretty sad.


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