Several nations, divided




We are not just one nation. We are eleven, according to Colin Woodard in a recent Tufts magazine article. He focuses on violence in our culture and its varied roots. Looking at the run of horrific shooting events such as Sandy Hook, Trayvon Martin and the Washington Naval Yard, he notes:

“Such episodes remind Americans that our country as a whole is marked by staggering levels of deadly violence. Our death rate from assault is many times higher than that of highly urbanized countries like the Netherlands or Germany, sparsely populated nations with plenty of forests and game hunters like Canada, Sweden, Finland, or New Zealand, and large, populous ones like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan… Our violent streak has become almost a part of our national identity.”

Woodard breaks down that “national identity” and looks at the U.S. not by states or traditional regions but by the historical origins of cultural values.

“…the incidence of violence, like so many salient issues in American life, varies by region. Beyond a vague awareness that supporters of violent retaliation and easy access to guns are concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy and, to a lesser extent, the western interior, most people cannot tell you much about regional differences on such matters. Our conventional way of defining regions—dividing the country along state boundaries into a Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest—masks the cultural lines along which attitudes toward violence fall. These lines don’t respect state boundaries. To understand violence or practically any other divisive issue, you need to understand historical settlement patterns and the lasting cultural fissures they established.”

The map he draws helps explain the mosaic of ideas and values that make this such a complex society. That complexity often stands in the way of easy compromise and solutions to problems such as violence. By Woodard’s estimation, “There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas—each a distinct nation … Each looks at violence, as well as everything else, in its own way.”

The “nations?” Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, Deep South, El Norte, The Left Coast, The Far West, New France and First Nation. Each has historic and cultural roots that drive today’s attitudes about guns, violence and so much more. His descriptions warrant exploration. (Read the full article here.)

 “For now, the country will remain split on how best to make its citizens safer, with Deep South and its allies bent on deterrence through armament and the threat of capital punishment, and Yankeedom and its allies determined to bring peace through constraints such as gun control. The deadlock will persist until one of these camps modifies its message and policy platform to draw in the swing nations. … Until then, expect continuing frustration and division.”

The hope for consensus will remain elusive, but understanding the forces that drive our identity as Americans is an important first step.