"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Sovereign State Of Mind

South Carolina has more trailers than any other state in the Union, nearly 20 percent of all housing units.  That means that there are trailers everywhere.  I used to think that a trailer was one thing – a narrow pre-fab house that you bought, hauled, set down, hooked up, and lived in.  Two months in South Carolina have disabused me of that uninformed, naïve notion.  Only some are traditional banged up, off-kilter trailers with brown mold streaks running down the sides, makeshift two-by-four, rotten wood front steps, tractor parts, trash cans, rakes, and half-Chevys in the yard, plastic windows, broken air-conditioners, and screen doors falling off their hinges.

Many others are spiffy, painted bright yellow and red, with geraniums on the windowsill, plastic flowers on the lawn, and signs saying ‘The Johnsons’ out front.  There are double-wides and triple-wides, trailers with additions, porches, and cupolas.  There are trailers with cornices, decorative deer, and Christmas lighting.  In short, there are more trailer types in South Carolina than one could ever imagine.  With nearly one-in-five homes a trailer, this is not surprising.

Miss South Carolina, Brooke Mosteller, as part of her routine at the Miss America Pageant, said, "I'm from the state where 20% of our homes are mobile because that's how we roll”. She took a lot of shit for that comment.  Of all the things she could have said about her state – beautiful beaches, golf courses, retirement communities, and family living, she chose to pick the symbol of poverty and marginalized living.

Poverty doesn’t completely answer the question of South Carolina trailers.  There are states in the top ten trailer states which are not in the bottom ten in terms of income; and there are states in the bottom income tier which are not big trailer states.  Also, because some relatively expensive double-wides are also nestled under the live oaks as well, other factors may be at work.  In fact, Miss South Carolina, despite her subsequent demurral, may have been on to something.  South Carolinians actually may like living in trailers.

Once Northern prejudice about trailer trash is put aside, trailer life makes a lot of sense.  They are cheap, and if you locate them on inexpensive land in a poor state with a warm climate, you can live on very little.  In the Low Country where there is water everywhere, you can even pick up a nice parcel on a creek or marsh for peanuts.  Judging by the new SUVs and satellite dishes outside even the most ramshackle trailers, the residents inside could easily afford better housing, but prefer to spend their money in other ways.

So, what does it mean to be from South Carolina, other than to live in a trailer? Are South Carolinians proud of their heritage?  They did fight the British in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.  They started the Civil War at Fort Sumter and did not roll over despite Sherman’s brutal and uncompromising march through the state.

Does a South Carolina identity come from being Southern, and allied with Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and other Confederate States which have not yet entirely given up their regional identity?  Does it have something to do with traditional values? “Our tea is sweet, our words are long.  Days are warm, and our faith is strong” is a sign posted all over the South.  However, the traditions of the Old South are more tenuous in South Carolina than elsewhere.  Beaufort has some fine old antebellum homes, but does not celebrate and honor its plantation history with Spring Pilgrimages and tributes like many towns in Mississippi.  The Low Country is as influenced by water as much as southern Louisiana, but life on the bayous has little in common with Port Royal Sound or Broad River.

The same could be said of any state in the Union.  I grew up in Connecticut and although I know how it differs from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York which border it, I have never felt that it had a distinct identity.  It has quaint village greens, white steepled churches, old New England WASP families, country clubs, and a certain cultural conservatism; but it is also a rustbelt state.  Waterbury, Bridgeport, Meriden, and New Britain are unattractive factory towns with decaying urban centers.  Fairfield County is a very wealthy bedroom community of New York City and has nothing at all to do with either the tool-and-die factors of Plainville, the Berkshires, or the poor rural communities to the east.

Perhaps identify is formed more closely with one’s town or city; but as the US population becomes more mobile, there is less cohesion and sense of place.  Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners exists only in our imagination and historical memory.  Everyone who could has left London, Ohio or Bristol, Connecticut for better weather and more opportunity.

Ironically Beaufort, South Carolina, a town rich in colonial, Civil War, and African American history has become a refuge for Northern snowbirds and retirees.  It is rare to hear a Southern accent or to talk crops with anyone.  None of the new arrivals talk winsomely about Detroit, Gary, or Hartford.  They are quite happy to leave urban blight, nasty winters, and tedious jobs in the distant past.

What about being an American?  That still has to count for something.  Everyone is proud of their own country, regardless of its history.  Yet, America is all about process and becoming.  Our history matters far less than our future as a world leader in technology, trade, and ideas.  We cannot boast, as do the French, about being the elder sister of the Catholic Church for holding off the Muslim hordes at the pass at Roncesvalles thereby preserving a Christian Europe.  Nor can we crow about leading the world in art, culture, music, cuisine, fashion, and ideas. 

We never had empire like Italy or Britain, nor the opulent cities of Alexandria or Persepolis. An Iranian or an Egyptian has a blood line, however tenuous, to the Shahs and the Pharaohs.  Indians can trace their cultural lineage to pre-history and pray to gods enshrined in legend and myth nearly 4000 years ago. To be Hindu is to worship as ancient ancestors did.  To speak Hindi is to speak a modern variation of Sanskrit.  Aryan and Dravidian blood still flows.

Most of us are accustomed to America.  We are used to informality, bluntness, individualism, and a kind of raw freedom to do fuck-all without social opprobrium. We are not cossetted like the Europeans, impoverished like the Africans, caste- and tradition-bound like the Indians.  We like our stores and restaurants to be open all the time.  We love to shop, show off our wealth, and flex our economic muscles.  We would feel out of place, dépaysé in London, Zurich, or Bombay. We could get used to the different dress, habits, and peculiar behavior of these cities, but we would miss the familiar rhythms of America.

I remember after a particularly long trip to Europe, I made my way down the exit ramp at Dulles airport and was shouted at by a big cop.  “Move over.  Let ‘em through”, he barked as an impatient Customs official made his way towards Immigration. I was back.  The fat, abusive cop was not exactly the best face of America to put forward, but he sure was its most authentic.

I once asked a Quebecoise friend of mine why she was so threatened by English. It was not as though Quebec had over 1000 years of history like the French.  She was descended from voyageurs and fur trappers, and a walk down St. Laurent Street was less French than Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  What was the big deal?  She, like most French Canadians, hemmed and hawed, and talked about tradition and culture; but was there more value in living in a sketchy past of snowshoes and pelts when English was the way to the world?  Dumb question, of course.  Although she couldn’t articulate why it was so important to retain French Canadian identity, she had a visceral attachment to the place. When she heard the nasal, punctuated, 17th century, indecipherable joual of Quebec, she knew she was home.

Europeans cattily laugh at Americans’ patriotism.  “What is there to be patriotic about?”, they sniff, except Hollywood trash, hot dogs, and Cadillacs; but they are right in one sense.  We don’t go back very far at all.

A close French friend of mine died recently, and the Paris obituary said that he was the 15th Duke of ______ and went on to list the ancestral members of the family who had ruled France, contributed to its arts and letters, represented it abroad, or had simply been manorial lords preserving the country’s heritage.

Another friend was very proud of his own long French lineage, and proudly showed his signet ring of the Third Crusade. He was a staunch defender of the aristocracy, for, he said, it was the guardian and custodian of the greatness that was France.  There was no question that he was French, that his blood was French, and that he was as patriotic as they come.

Americans can be pretty sniffy too, laughing at Serbians who raised the banner of some obscure battle in Kosovo to justify their recent, murderous wars; or Vladimir Putin referring to the ancient Russian roots in Ukraine and the Crimea.  Mother Russia is not at all like the United States, and our historically naïve and dismissive leaders can never understand that there is indeed a Russian soul – a patriotic, Orthodox, belief in the country’s greatness that goes back to Rurik in 862.  The Tsars may have been despotic at times, but they are also remembered as emperors and queens who ruled a dominant Russia.  If Putin is autocratic and laments the breakup of the Soviet Union, he is simply echoing the feelings of most Russians who have been humiliated by the defeat and dismantling of the USSR – not so much because they loved Communism, but because Russia became insignificant.

The Birth of Russia – Your Tongue Will Take You To Kiev

As much as the tony old guard in the 7th arrondissement of Paris does not like to admit it, their city is changing.  It is becoming as multi-ethnic and multi-racial as America, if not more so.  Muslim minorities are far less likely to become assimilated and willingly accept a Christian, European lifestyle than Guatemalans or Mexicans in the United States.  Their allegiances, even though they may be French citizens, are not to France but to Islam – a country of the mind, spirit, and soul, far more universal and meaningful than any land between borders.  The idea of a Muslim caliphate is not so far-fetched as may seem, for radical Islamists dismiss secular sovereignty – the idea of nations – and see instead a unified state of spiritual commitment. 

It is easy to see why the concept of a ‘sovereign state’, a recent Western invention, has little resonance for Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians these days.  Ukraine is a new country which never was unified by culture, language, or tradition.  It has always been divided along East-West lines, and its history has more to do with European and Russian empires than it does with modern political sovereignty.  Who says that Ukraine is a country?  Americans and the EU – both of whom have economic and geopolitical interests in that uniformity.

Does it surprise anyone that separatist movements abound today? Why should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom, when many if not most of its people feel the cultural and historical prerogative to separate from it?  Tito kept regional and ethnic differences stifled until the fall of Yugoslavia, and each ethnic and religious enclave fought old wars to assert their historical primacy and legitimacy.

It is hard only for Americans to dismiss cultural and historical differences.  We are process-oriented, always on the move ahead, and do quite well applying our assimilative, democratic model.  We could care less whether we are from South Carolina, Connecticut, or Mississippi.  We have a loose, ‘irrational’ patriotism based on comfort and security rather than any passionate attachments; and many of us, strange as it may seem, believe in American exceptionalism for which no foreign adventure is too risky.

America is behind the international eight-ball because of our historical myopia, but more so because of our inability to understand the concept of attachment, belonging, and place. Our leaders in the White House Situation Room, in Langley, or at the War College scratch their heads and wonder, “Now why would Putin do something so stupid?”. Not stupid at all, mes amis. Not stupid at all.

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