It is Memorial Day on the High Plains. The small, well tended town cemetery is full of flowers. People mill among the headstones. I often walk by this cemetery while I am on call and this is the first time I have seen anyone else.
On the other side of town, the town pool is being prepared for summer and children play baseball in the town park. American flags line main street. It looks like Normal Rockwell threw up all over this little town.
These are all small little rituals that maintain an identity of Americanness for people in small towns across America. There is no Walmart parking lot to negotiate, no traffic to fight. Simply the rituals family, country, and community. It is seductive, in a way.
Twentieth century White America needed all these rituals to form a cohesive identity. Many of the adults were children of European immigrants. On the High Plains alone Irish, German, Germans from Russia, Czech, Polish, Italian, Scandinavian, and Latino immigrants mixed in communities.
So, people got together in these rituals of Americanness in public. Even if in their own homes they cooked their old foods, read their old prayers, and told their own stories.
But, in public, it was all about being American. It was a communal effort to support the idea of being one people, bound together by location and a national ideology. Even if they did not share a historical culture, language, religion, or history, they could share a hot dog, a beer, and a baseball diamond.
America is a Fragile Idea
People tripped over themselves trying to be publicly American. Assimilation was all the rage. My father’s mother spoke German. After WW1 and WW2, his father discouraged her from teaching the children any German because of anti-German sentiment.
In the Southern High Plains, school teachers and classmates mocked and punished Latino children for speaking Spanish. I won’t even delve into the brutality and cultural genocide of the Indian Boarding Schools.
People paid the price of this cultural loss to assimilate and be “American.” Only the oldest resident’s of the High Plains have memories of their European immigrant ancestors speaking the Old Language and practicing their Old Ways.
The modern generations only know that their parents and grandparents did assimilate. They don’t realize it took decades or 1 or 2 generations for their ancestors to assimilate into “Americanness.” Nor, do they acknowledge the change their assimilation brought to American culture as a whole.
Immigration did not bypass Fly-Over County, then or now. The first Arab-American Senator in this country was Lebanese Maronite Christian from a small farm southern South Dakota – James Abourezk.
Fort Morgan, Colorado made news a few years ago. Somali immigrants working in industrial agriculture sued under religious freedom grounds for breaks at work to pray the requisite number of times per day.
What I hear and see when people on the High Plains talk about new immigrants is a feeling that the rules have changed. Their ancestors bartered one culture for another. Now, in the Cities and even in their own communities, they feel new immigrants are not forced to make those same concessions. I don’t know if this is true, but it is what they feel.
I doubt any of this is conscious. Much of it comes out as simple nativist, scapegoating for the pain of being in a world that is changing rapidly and leaving them behind. Nonetheless, I wonder if deep down, there is a jealousy. A sense of “Why did my parents and grandparents have to forget their culture and these new people don’t?”
Rituals of Americanness
Of course, new immigrants are assimilating, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Whereas their presence can change the fabric of a community or neighborhood in what feels like overnight. And, as they assimilate, they change the fabric of America.
Americanness is an identity based around ideas. These ideas have ebbed and flowed over time. Their relative significance has changed as well. Periods of time when these ideas were under debate have always been the times of great discord in American society.
The 1910s and 1920s saw race riots and a swell in anti-immigrant fervor. The debate over slavery that lead to the Civil War was a time of arguing over what it means to be American and who got to participate in the idea of America.
When your national identity is based on ideas, it is so very fragile. You cannot rely on history immemorial to bind you together. Every 3-4 generations we as a country must decide that we still want to be a nation together.
Group rituals are what bind a people together. In many cultures, the communities commitment to a given ritual is necessary to keep the world moving. The planting and harvest rituals are essential to the world continuing to function as it should.
Similarly, in a Russian Orthodox Easter service, Christ ritually dies and is resurrected every year. The community re-enacts it, together, to bind them in a sense of history, purpose, and collective emotion.
The Rituals of Rural White America: the baseball games, the laying of flowers on headstones on Memorial Day, the fireworks and backyard barbecues of the Fourth of July – they are held dear because in their completion, the idea of a certain kind of America is reborn, reformed, and confirmed.
The fragile existence of an American identity is solidified, if only for another year. When White Rural America perceives the mockery and dismissal of these traditions, they feel their identity, their nation is literally under attack. Because, at least ritually, it is.
Stories are what bind us together. From the vantage point of Rural America, the polyglot, postmodernist, multicultural milieu of Urban America is not a force of creative disruption. It is simply disruptive, even destructive.
I live in the City, and even there, I don’t hear anyone offering a new American story, I only hear them railing against the old story. Which is understandable, the old story was exclusionary.
Many in Urban America cannot see themselves in the old story. White, male, Christian Americans jealously guarded membership in the old story and its benefits.
You cannot simply be against something, you must be for something as well. If a large portion of the country, especially one with significant electoral power, cannot see themselves in that story, they will fight it with all their might.
I like the idea of a big, messy, diverse country striving together to make itself and the world better, safer, healthier. So, I am asking Urban America to remember to offer a New Story in return for subsuming the Old Story.
Rural America has its faults, but it is still part of the multiculturalism of this country that you purport to love and admire. So, tell them a story that includes them, don’t just shit on their story.