Considering an America Beyond Red and Blue
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In Washington, the political classes color America blue or red, reducing everyone and every place to their political schema. Florida and Utah, for example, are red. I cannot think of two cities more different than Salt Lake and Miami.
Despite the fact that your mall looks exactly like mine, it is astonishing how much regionalism survives in America: Barns and beans and notions of what a garden should look like. And yet, something in us resists all talk of regionalism.
We are, after all, resolutely individualistic and mobile. We work and live within a suburban architecture belonging to no region or weather. Parents raise children to leave home. Interstate freeways facilitate divorce. Despite our wandering lives, what one notices in America is not a lack of regional cultures but a compounding of them.
Consider President Bush. The president names Crawford his home. He wears a cowboy suit when he is in residence at what his staff calls “the western White House.” But Crawford is not really the West. More truly, it marks the confluence of Kennebunkport, Riyadh, Houston and Yale.
One thinks of regionalism and the region that comes inevitably to mind is the South. The South remains the most potent, the most deeply dyed region of America. I speak here not of the new South of 30 years past, symbolized by Atlanta’s skyline and its black bourgeoisie and northern transplants.
I speak of the new old South of NASCAR and Nashville lyrics of flat-out regret, and a white working class political resentment rooted in the reconstruction. The white working class in the South has never disappeared behind a smiling middle class billboard, as elsewhere. Forty years ago, blacks and other groups of Americans who had been deprived of equal opportunity were designated “minorities” by liberal Washington.
The white working class was excluded from that term. Not coincidentally, today’s white working class South is Republican, and low church southern Protestantism has become the most influential broadcaster of American Christianity both nationally and internationally. And Arkansas-born Wal-Mart, where the working class shops, has changed the buying habits of the world, even as it is devastating regional main streets.
By contrast to the American South, California has recently seen its political and cultural influence decline nationally. The president never visits except when he comes to see the troops or to raise money. It’s part of our regional tradition in California to see ourselves in contrast to the rest of the country. This state’s notoriety, after all, has been as the home for crackpots and other extreme behaviors appropriate to the end of the line.
But Californians like to imagine that living on the edge grants us an exceptionalism. The future happens here in advance of the rest of the country. Today, while Americans elsewhere argue over creationism, California’s voters have approved a multibillion-dollar measure supporting stem cell research.
Regionalism: The sense that we are shaped by a place, sky and soil, shaped in common with our neighbors. Regionalism is never static. For one thing, the faces of one’s neighbors change. Suddenly, Karl Marx’s prediction that a global culture would happen first in California is apparent on every street corner.
Waiting for the green light are descendants from all corners: Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia. Asia completes the circle, making California a globe. To live here now is to sense that the soil under our feet has changed us anew. Here, America comes to an end, yes.
But this coastline is also where Asia begins in America. Blue? Red? There are not enough colors in the politician’s box of Crayolas to paint the states of our lives. I’m Richard Rodriguez.