January 10, 2005

American roots

I've been reading a fascinating book recently, called Fire and Ice, by Michael Adams; it was a Christmas present from my brother. It's a national bestseller in Canada, and I can understand why. The author is a pollster; he uses extensive polls taken in the US and Canada over a period of eight years to paint a picture of the social values of citizens of each country. Here's a good distillation of the book's central thesis. There's this myth that Canada is America Lite, America on ice. It's not. If it were, we wouldn't be looking to move there.

But what fascinates me is something Adams says toward the beginning, that

Ron Inglehart's World Values Survey Team… concluded that societies generally exhibit similar kinds of socio-cultural change as they proceed along the path of industrialization and post-industrialization. People in pre-industrial societies hold traditional values, which include extreme deference to authority, especially religious authority, and a general wariness of change, including an aversion to social mobility. Industrial societies manifest more modern values, replacing deference to religious authority with adherence to rational-legal authority and demonstrating increased achievement motivation and a strong commitment to economic growth. Modernity values money and all the things (material status symbols) that money can buy. Post-industrial societies exhibit postmodern values, which implies that people in them are more autonomous and less deferential to all kinds of authority and that their commitment to rapid economic growth… is supplanted by subjective human concerns relating to quality of life. Postmodern values also include flexibility and an increasing tolerance for diversity of all kinds.

Canadians, along with Western Europeans, fit the profile, holding post-modern values. During the years of the study, Canadians have moved further along the trajectory toward what he calls the Idealism and Autonomy quadrant of social belief systems. Americans? Not so much. They're (we're?) moving toward the Exclusion and Intensity quadrant. This quadrant includes hedonistic, pleasure-and thrill seeking values, a tremendous materialism, but also nihilism, acceptance of violence and anomie.

Scary, huh? It makes sense to me, it fits what I see. Americans are probably the most materialistic nation on earth. Conspicuous consumption, living on credit, working too many hours and thereby destroying your quality of life and connection to community so you can get ahead, be the best, follow the American Dream, so you can buy what your neighbors have, everything bigger and better (SUVs, big screen TVs, McMansions) but also the flip side – everything costs more, the poor have less of a safety net, and with no way out of the hole, they feel an impotent rage. Violence, anomie, yes. And then the backlash, the religiosity which tries to force one group's moral values on everyone else in a vain attempt to make things look okay, seem contained, because it's getting ugly out there.

It all makes sense. But I find myself wondering, how did this happen? Why is America so different from the rest of the post-industrial so-called First World? I have a sense of what Adams thinks from that article I linked to up top (and will discover more as I read on in the book, I'm sure). He makes some excellent points, but I have my own theory.

Most nations didn't so much start as evolve. Italy was a group of city-states during the Renaissance, one fought another and gobbled it up, they merged and split and merged again. Same with most of Europe, more or less. Boundaries were fluid, national identities are still sometimes bitterly questioned, but people have been living there for hundreds of years and in a sense belong to the land. Canada is different, a nation like the US made up of immigrants, but to my knowledge nobody came over and said "We Shall Make a Country Here For Ourselves," it was much more organic and evolutionary a process. Fur traders, settlers, cities, oh hi Queen Elizabeth, nice of you to stop by. (And yes, I plan to delve into Canadian history soon to rectify the huge holes in my knowledge.)

But America was formed by two distinct groups. In New England, of course, we had the Puritans. They fled religious persecution, but were they therefore open to others' religious beliefs? Not to my knowledge. They were a prissy bunch. Much like, dare I say? Modern fundamentalist Christians. Only difference is that they meant it. The current crop of Evangelical leaders? Mmm, not so much. They're in it for the money and power, far as I can see.

Which leads right into the other group that founded our (cough) great nation. Spreading out from Virginia, the tobacco farmers. Slave owners, of course, also masters of countless indentured servants from England. They were very much in it for the money. A greedy bunch, from what I remember of my college history classes. Not exactly ethical, not exactly tolerant, not exactly egalitarian. Far from it, they were practically feudal.

The foundations of America: prudish religiosity and crass, often brutal materialism. You might say their legacy lives on.

Posted by Tamar at January 10, 2005 11:57 PM | TrackBack

Beautiful. And all too true. (You did make me think, irreverently, of the comedian Greg Proops, who did a riff on the Puritan half of your equation:

"The people in England got a little tired of these dour, right-wing, conservative, psycho-Christians wearing all black, bumming people out, *confusing* everyone by wearing buckles on their heads .... Finally, someone went, "Hey, I've got a crazy idea. Why don't you freaky little weirdoes get in a rickety, leaky, dinky little boat and get the *fuck* off the island? (makes kicking motion) Sail around 'til you hit the new world. When you get there, commit genocide on the indigenous people, all right? Have a groovy time. Have a witch trial. Let us know how that works out for you. We'll be back in England having the Renaissance in case anyone needs us." Thanks to the fangirl with the transcriptions ).

It's remarkable that those two groups let a bunch of deists with big ideas - Adams, Franklin, Jefferson -- write the founding documents (which feel more radical every day). Oh right, Jefferson was a tobacco farmer too.

Posted by: Chris at January 11, 2005 05:21 AM

Your New England colonial history is a bit simplistic. May I share the history of my home state, Rhode Island?

"Rhode Island's first permanent settlement was established at Providence in 1636 by English clergyman Roger Williams and a small band of followers who had left the repressive atmosphere of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to seek freedom of worship. Canenicus and Miantonomi granted Williams a sizable tract of land for his new village. Other nonconformists followed Williams to the bay region, including Anne and William Hutchinson and William Coddington, all of whom founded Portsmouth in 1638 as a haven for Antinomians, a religious sect whose beliefs ressembled those of Quakerism. A short-lived dispute sent Coddington to the southern tip of Aquidneck Island (also purchased from the Narragansetts), where he established Newport in 1639. The fourth original town, Warwick, was settled in 1642 by Samuel Gorton, another dissident from Portsmouth. During this initial decade two other outposts were established: Wickford (1637). by Richard Smith, and Pawtuxet (1638), by William Harris and the Arnold family.

Because titles to these lands rested only on Indian deeds, neighboring colonies began to covet them. To meet this threat, Roger Williams journeyed to England and secured a parliamentary patent in March 1643-44 uniting the four towns into a single colony and confirming his fellow settlers' land claims. This legislative document served adequately as the basic law until the Stuart Restoration of 1660 made it wise to seek a royal charter.

Dr. John Clarke was commissioned to secure a document from the new king, Charles II, that would both be consistent with the religious principles upon which the tiny colony was founded and also safeguard Rhode Island lands from encroachment by speculators and greedy neighbors. He succeeded admirably. The royal charter of 1663 guaranteed complete religious liberty, established a self-governing colony with local autonomy, and strengthened Rhode Island's territorial claims. It was the most liberal charter to be issued by the mother country during the entire colonial era, a fact that enabled it to serve as Rhode Island's basic law until May 1843.

The religious freedom which prevailed in early Rhode Island made it a refuge for several persecuted sects. America's first Baptist church was formed in Providence in 1639; Quakers, who arrived in Aquidneck in 1657 and soon became a powerful force in the colony's political and economic life; a Jewish congregation came to Newport in 1658; and French Huguenots (Calvinists) settled in East Greenwich in 1686"

Posted by: Allison at January 12, 2005 12:58 AM

I'd love to hear his & your take on where Australia fits in with this - founded by convicts, to a large extent (although not as exclusively as you might think), and somewhere between Canada and the US now. Although travelling more and more in the same direction as the US I am sorry to say. We've thought fuzzily about a move to New Zealand.

Posted by: Kay at January 12, 2005 03:04 AM

That's fascinating, Allison. And you're right, my New England description is too glibly reductive. And after all, New England stands as the most liberal part of this country, with a curmudgeonly rep for not going along with groupthink. So maybe the Puritan angle isn't quite that. After all, Thoreau and Emerson also came from New England stock... And the Adams book really talks about materialism, which is more the purview of the old South. And westward expansion.

I'll give it more thought.

Kay, if Adams discusses Australia, I'll let you know. I have no ideas myself, I know relatively little of the Aussie character (though I've liked most of the folk I've met from there, that's hardly enough data).

Posted by: Tamar at January 12, 2005 10:34 AM
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