Saturday, May 5, 2012

Are southerners more assimilated than northerners? And other random thoughts about civilization

A few days ago we had graduation, and afterwards I was hanging out with a colleague of mine who is also a state legislator.  I told him as a politics junkie/someone in a job that could actually maybe lead to a political career for some people (like it did for my colleague!), my secret dream is to run for some kind of local or state level office one day like 15-20 years from now after I'm done having kids and have tenure and all that good stuff.  But that I'm afraid as a jewish atheist professor from the north I could never get elected in my state.  He was like "Well you don't have to tell them you're an atheist, I just say I'm x religion, which is the religion I grew up with, but nobody knows I haven't gone to church in 30 years. So just say you're Jewish and you'll be fine!"

Which is interesting.  It's funny how I spent so many years worried about anti-semitism, but my friend says if I want to be elected I should pretend to be just jewish and not an atheist. I'm sure I don't have to go into the numerous polls that show almost half of americans would refuse to elect an atheist- even less than would elect a gay person or a muslim (In the hierarchy of prejudice).  That's probably due to something similar to what we call "homosocial reproduction" in the workplace- people promote people to positions of power who they think will make decisions similar to themselves, which they think will be people who look like them and have similar belief systems (one of the myriad explanations for why white men tend to be in positions of power is because the people who tend to have the power to promote people also tend to be white men, and they tend to think other white men will make similar decisions as them). One way this can be signaled in the political arena is via religious beliefs (or complete lack of them).

My colleague also had some interesting insights on the difference between how jews are viewed in the north vs. the south- he says in the north he thinks groups like jews/italians/etc, everyone focuses a lot on individual culture and ethnicity (ethnicity definition: A shared culture/history/language/national origin). But down here according to him (and not sure I agree) there is a more "southern culture" that just incorporates everyone pretty much vs. a focus on the culture of individual ethnic groups that you find in the northeast, and most people here (according to him) don't really understand what a jew is other then some relatively obscure group they haven't heard much about, since there aren't very many jewish people around.

Perhaps backing up my colleague's theory, this is a map that shows county by county the biggest group of people in that county by proclaimed national origin (from the 2000 census, bigger version here).  In the northeast there are clear groups or what we call "enclaves" of italians, irish, german, english, etc.  But in the south?  Every county is either African-American or just plain ole' "American."  (that's the beige color) And these are definitely not first/native American kind of Americans. 

 So the Northeast, more so than the South (and by "the south" I'm referring to the Southeast, as the Southwest is a whole other kettle of worms), seems to emulate my old soc 101 professors adage that "We are not a melting pot, we are more like a salad bowl, with each ethnic group retaining it's distinct flavor but still 'dressed' with the same American popular culture dressing"

I think if this is true it's probably because the big ethnic cultural groups we see in the northeast (jews, italians, irish, dominicans, haitians, pennsylvania dutch, puerto ricans, etc.) just don't have a critical mass of people down here- most people here are either european mutt white protestants of some kind or african american protestants of some kind (or interracial).  That is to say, most people here are not new immigrants and do not retain a specific ethnic identity related to the specific nation their ancestors came from- we do have a significant population of Latino immigrants that is growing, but other then that, most people around here probably have had families that have been in the US for hundreds of years. While the northeast, especially the NYC area where I grew up, has always been an area of recent immigrants, and many of the people in that area have been here 130 years or fewer.  

In fact we can see classic patterns of assimilation in my very family history that may explain why places like the south may have fewer ethnic enclaves and less of an emphasis on ethnic cultural practices than the northeast. My grandparents and father on my dad's side were new immigrants to this country. My dad is technically an immigrant but he moved here when he was around 3 or 4 years old so he does not necessarily have the same characteristics of someone who immigrated at an older age. So we have first generation of immigrants- and they landed in NYC.  My late paternal grandfather was a NYC cab driver and radiator repair man, and my late grandmother did piece work for a textile company and worked in a sweatshop for a while, so they were typical immigrants working low paying jobs and struggling to make ends meet.  My mom's side's history is a little less known to me, but I think either my great grandparents or maybe their parents immigrated here from Romania and I'm pretty sure my great grandparents were also low wage workers in NYC.   Then, the next generation became professionals and moved out to the suburbs of NYC- on my mom's side my grandfather used the GI Bill after serving in World War 2 to pay his way through college and law school and bought a nice house near the beach in one of the outer boroughs of NYC. My dad got a PHD and eventually moved to NJ.

So poor and in NYC, professional class and in the suburbs, and now is my generation- where we are moving further away. I moved down south.

Classic pattern- people arrive on the coasts in major urban centers, the next generation moves to the suburbs, and then after that people start moving inland, to the in between places.  Why? Well one major reason is they are cheaper, and later generations do not feel the need to gather in immigrant enclaves the way earlier generations (and sometimes their children) do, because they are more adept at assimilating into mainstream US culture. Another classic reason is flight from immigrants- when even newer immigrants come in, the old immigrants feel threatened by the new group of immigrants who are seen as different from them.

Even our language patterns follow the classic immigrant pattern.  My paternal grandparent's first language was yiddish and they also spoke polish, german, hebrew, and english. My dad understood yiddish but can't speak it fluently (his parents spoke polish in front of him when they wanted to keep a secret and yiddish to my dad when they wanted to keep a secret from us kids).  Me? I know a lot of yiddish words, and can understand the random phrase here or there, but definitely can't understand what's going on when people talk yiddish around me.

Anyway one thing I think we as the United States does better than other countries, which makes me super proud to be an American, is the diversity. America truly is a nation of immigrants at this point, and unlike those silly European countries where they get all threatened over new immigrants because THEIR ancestors have been on that land for 2000 years or something, we are the place where everyone comes to all mix together. In a way that can be a detriment- I think part of the reason it seems nearly every highly developed country has socialized medicine except the United States is that in those European countries (which make up the bulk of the most highly developed countries), everyone feels like they are related to each other kinda, the way all jews say hi to other jews because you feel like going back 1000 years you probably have a grandparent in common or something. That gives you a sense of social obligation to each other and to your community that perhaps we don't have enough of in this country.

But at the same time, the reason I think we are known as a country of innovators is because of the strength of our diversity- we have all sorts of different ideas from all sorts of different cultures meeting up in one place, and when you have that many different types of perspectives, it leads to innovative ways of seeing things vs. when you have one group that all come from the same perspectives.   The trick is to be able to harness the power of that diversity while also being able to foster a sense that we are all in this together, which is essential to a civilization.

In that second respect I think we are not doing a good enough job right now.   I keep hearing people sayings things like "why should I have to pay taxes to educate your kid, if you decided to have a kid then you can pay for them!" "Why should my taxes pay for people to go to college for free or pay off student loans, I had to pay for my school and I worked my way through it myself!" (Usually the people saying this went to a public state university that was heavily subsidized by taxpayers and which therefore cost a lot less than public universities do today, due to a systematic disinvestment in public universities by state governments over the past several decades).

It is essential to have mass education, to teach everyone the basis of certain skills, in order to have more great people. In Detroit, before the whole city went to hell, they used to be known for all the musicians coming out of that city. Why? It wasn't because of the water or something. It was because they had an exceptionally strong music program in their public schools, in which every child was taught to play an instrument. If you teach everyone to play an instrument, you will have more great musicians emerge. If you teach everyone math and engineering, you will have more great engineers and number crunchers and mathematicians emerge.  If everyone plays sports as kids, you will have more great athletes.  If everyone is taught to paint in school, more great artists will emerge. If Picasso had never picked up a paintbrush, we wouldn't have his art.  If I had never taken a sociology class, who knows what I would be doing right now.

Yes there are always exceptions to this rule, but in general, if someone can't communicate effectively, they can have the most amazing idea in the world and we will never hear about it. The more people we bring up to the novice level in a variety of different areas, the more people can rise above it.And not just the "STEM" (science/technology/engineering/math) fields either which are all the rage in the government's talk of education right now- yes it's important that we are brought up to have a basic competency in those areas that surpasses today's level, for exactly the reasons I just talked about- the more people who rise to that basic level, the more great innovations we will have in that area. But the problem comes when educators focus ONLY on that area to the detriment of others, when we have more and more standardized tests testing memorized knowledge and fewer and fewer art and music programs, which I see as an increasing trend- civilization is not made by mindless number crunchers who can memorize information and spit it back to you, we also need thinkers and politicians and artists and musicians and yes, even athletes.  These are where great ideas emerge and are presented in a way that can bring about change. We also need to learn history and political science and yes, even sociology, psychology, and philosophy/logic so that we have a nation of educated adults, because without an educated public that can recognize the difference between evidence and opinion, between logic and shenanigans, and between the truth and what people wish was the truth, a representative democracy is a sham that's run by whichever huckster that can pull the wool over the most people's eyes.

I once read something about how you can track the rise and decline of great civilizations by the quality of their art. When the art is great, that's when the civilization is great- and you can see in places like ancient Rome/Greece, there is a "peak point" to their art, and after that things get tacky looking and repetitive and it seems unoriginal and like progress stops being made. I think that's because the quality of education causes the quality of a civilization- when education is great, everything is great, and civilization peaks. When education begins to decline, civilization begins to decline with it. That's why things like the the slaughter of the public school system in Philadelphia, along with widespread rising class sizes, the hugely increasing price of a college degree, and the increasing emphasis on memorization of material and formulas for standardized tests vs. emphasis on critical thinking make me worry for the future.   In fact the other day when they were retiring space shuttles all over the place, that made me think- is this an augor? Are we on a down swing? Has our civilization peaked and one day we'll be talking about how back in the good days we could send people to outer space (and when I tell my kids that, will they say "no way! really?")? Or can we turn things around for the better? And how?


  1. You also have to keep in mind that people define themselves not just in relation to their own culture, but in reaction to the surrounding cultures.

    In the South, whites were simply white....because they were defining themselves in opposition to blacks. Those two categories were so overwhelming that details such as place of origin in Europe became eclipsed.

    Elsewhere, you didn't always have a blanket racial category of "white". Years ago, I had a job that required me to deal with unclaimed estates, and go through old birth certificates in the process of verifying family trees. I noticed that where American birth certificates would say "white" under "race", Canadian birth certificates would say "French" or "English".

    The urban Canadian immigrant experience is even more extreme than that of the American northeast - to the point that the majority here are first generation.

    If you want to have some fun, google the demographics of Montreal and its Jewish community. Considering that it's a major city, not an Orthodox enclave like Lakewood, the stats are startling - 66% of the kids go to Jewish day schools, and intermarriage is in the single digits. Jews in Montreal were a double minority - they weren't French Canadian, and they were a minority within the Anglo population - and there was absolutely no "melting pot" concept.

    Meanwhile, in Toronto, we are seeing a move away from the spreading out of the past. Previous generations moved into the hinterland, often running the local stores. Their children, though, are often leaving the smaller communities - they'll go to university in Toronto or Montreal, and never return. I had family members in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario, and have friends here who were originally from Calgary, Hamilton, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Nova Scotia, etc.

    In an increasingly global economy and world, immigration is essential. I see local businesses here that are able to tap into the economic growth of China and India, because we've got huge numbers of Chinese and Indian immigrants. It's even valuable to have locals who are pulled into events abroad. I remember that my husband in 2009 was able to tell me that major things were about to happen in Iran with the election, long before CNN was covering it. How? Because he was working in an area with a huge Persian population, and all his patients were asking for refills of their prescriptions early, so that they could fly to Iran and vote.

  2. Atheist communicates a rejection of theism. Most people are weak theists, they nominally acknowledge a divine presence, but don't really think about it much. Rejecting that makes them uncomfortable, being of a different persuasion doesn't bother people much. Americans don't care which church a man attends on Sunday, they don't even care if he attends on Saturday instead, they don't even care if he doesn't attend much, they kind of care if he rejects the concept, because that seems to be a rejection of the cultural that affects their family life.

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