Saturday, March 2, 2013

Political Geography in America: Part One

Political Geography in America:  Part One

If you don’t live in the US of A, and maybe if you do, the notion of American political geography is pretty opaque.  Hell, they haven’t even taught it as a separate university discipline since Mark Twain wrote a devastatingly witty satire on its vaporous imprecision.  No, actually, Twain’s satire concerned political economy and, when it was published in 1870, it was widely viewed as a send-up of celebrated authors writing without knowledge or even a trace of shame about whatever a paying editor might imagine would draw a readership.

Which is not to say that political geography hasn’t always been essential to understanding America.  But the best writers on the subject never mentioned the discipline.  They wrote fiction:  William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty on the South; William Steinbeck and Wallace Stegner on California; Ken Kesey on the Northwest states. Elmore Leonard has recently brought the strip-mining areas of Kentucky, western Virginia and West Virginia proper into stark relief. 

There is a demandingly difficult academic journal devoted to the subject.  Political Geography recently ran a scholarly article about “enclaves of abandonment,” places that were “resolved” by a political process that made life within them impossible.  One Indian spent his entire life in such an enclave, ceded to Bangladesh but far from its borders, leaving him an illegal immigrant to India whenever he needed shoes or fertilizer, never able to enter his legal state because his enclave was surrounded by Indian territory.  This is the subject of political geography—the ways landscapes and spaces lie at odds with, or bring into being, political institutions and systems.
   But most of the public writing on America’s political geography has always been, at best, shallow and simplistic.  In the later 19th century, and then again in the 1960s, the recurrent distinction was between The South and The North. Having spent a good deal of the 1960s in West Virginia, which after all became a separate state by seceding from Confederate Virginia over the issue of slaveholding, I had no illusions that it held greater kinship with, say, Connecticut or even Ohio than Kentucky and Mississippi—except insofar as Mississippi had a far greater, if largely silent, black population.  In the ‘70s, I played guitar and pedal steel in Austin, Texas, while getting a Ph.D. in American Studies, and there the political geography was so fine in distinction that not just different bars on the same street, but different tables at the same bar, conformed to radically different political geographies. At Threadgill’s on a Saturday night there were two-steppers who’d voted the Communist party in 1936 and Houston corporate lawyers with manufactured tans and endangered-species cowboy boots moving side by side with Kinky Friedman, the Texas Jew-Boy. In one band, I was the only non-Chicano;  when we opened for Saul and Rueben’s uncle’s conjunto orchestra, there were long comedic passages concerning my dress, my hair, and my gringo-stupid inability to speak either Castilian or streetwise Spanish, none of which I could understand, as I spoke no Spanish.  In an earlier, ill-fated attempt to monetize my musicianship I played pedal steel in a C&W band so Christian that the other members couldn’t play past midnight Saturday, minimizing the bar-take, and refused to break down, move, load or unload the equipment on the grounds it was work on the Sabbath. Leaving me to do all the work but not receiving any recompense.  I first met Saul and Rueben coming home discouraged after one of those gigs, and followed some spectacular guitar playing into a shitkicker fratboy birthday party.  I wheeled in the Twin Reverb, took the axe out of the box, and became the band’s first and only White Boy. I grieve that band daily.

People said Texas was different, and Austin was different than Texas, but I knew better.  Driving down the first time, in a wornout VW squareback with the Twin and the pedal steel and about six guitars and a box of books filling the back, I had to stop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA for the night when a big piece of steel belt emerged from the side of the radial tire, causing everything to shake madly at anything over 45 mph. I had never been south of the Mason-Dixon line.  The only thing I knew about the South in the counterculture years I had learned from watching Easy Rider in a theatre in Paris in 1970, but it was dubbed into French, in a sort of muffled way and I could not follow the language. The South was where pickup trucks pulled alongside you and blew you away with a shotgun. Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA was a Merle Haggard song and I’d played it enough times to know the lyrics:

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take no trips on LSD
We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all

We don't make a party out of lovin';
We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo;
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.

            At the time, I had hair about to my waist, and while I was wearing cowboy boots, they were the wrong sort (leather Fryes, well-worn) and my jeans had a zipper and a slight bell-bottom “flare” to them.  I was pretty sure I’d be sleeping in my car in the tire shop.  Instead, I met a very nice motel keeper and his wife, and had my first chicken-fried steak at the urging of everyone around me at the diner, who were thrilled to see a Yankee eat his first bite of what is still one of my favorite foods in the world.  After dinner, I walked out to the small park, redolent of newmown hay and irrigated alfalfa.  The next morning, I was introduced to biscuits and gravy, and also grits.  The tire shop gave me the new tire just over wholesale because I was a musician.

   Today the pundits still speak of Red and Blue States, which is something like hitting a soufflé with a hammer until the pyrex breaks and then declaring the concoction and the glass to be of the same family, since you could have called both of them dishes—before you went at ‘em. American political geography isn’t defined by state boundaries.  State boundaries are arbitrary and dangerous in much the same way the postcolonial African states were rendered arbitrary and dangerous—no attention paid to belief, to loyalties, to kinship patterns, to climate and crop and foodways.

If there’s a difference, between us and postcolonial Africa, it’s been in the ways that the democratic political system has, until very recently, forced not just compromise, but something more important—mutual learning among unlikely and unsympathetic groups.  In Evanston Illinois in the 1980s, the school board decided to move white children by bus to a predominantly black elementary school.  Until this time there had been, in the US, virtually no successful busing of white kids out of their neighborhoods, and this experiment had its typical sad future ahead of it—the wealthier whites would send their children to private school, the empowered white would whine and finagle their political representatives until quiet exceptions were made and their children were grandfathered back into the old school.  By some very happy coincidence, I went over to the school in question and met the principal who at the time was dressed in a light-up Christmas Tree of a dress, to which no fewer than six small children had managed to attach themselves.  She seemed utterly unfazed by this style of meeting a representative of the apartheid-loving white side of the town.  Then and there, I fell in love.  I grieve Clara Pate daily.

But I digress.  When I started going to meetings of the mostly-black PTA of the new school, I was treated with the suspicion, even contempt, I deserved.  These parents didn’t want privileged white parents barging into their lives, with their self-righteousness and their sense of entitlement and their ten-dollar words. 

I learned this the hard way, when the School Board announced that they were not going to increase the number of teachers or staff to accommodate the 100 or so new students due to arrive.  This was, of course, outrageous:  I had no idea that the Board members knew that when those two buses drove through the white neighborhood to pick up those 100 students, only three would get on:  Caroline Winter-Rosenberg, Rocco deFilippis, and my son.  At the time, I thought most of the kids would be on the bus, and by my lights, this was an invitation to overcrowding and cheapening of resources. I got up to speak about this, in an impassioned way, hardly noticing that all the black parents were looking at me as if I were perhaps the most naïve rube to have arrived in the Midwest since the Civil War. When I railed against the Board’s niggardly treatment, though, I heard an audible gasp and a rising torrent of response.  I was too het-up to hear what was being said until one parent got up and dressed me down for speaking of the nigger-treatment. It took me a good fifteen minutes to understand what had happened.  It took me six months before any of those parents would speak to me, and it was Clara Pate who took them aside and told them to get over it:  I was a professor and I used ten-dollar words when I should have used regular ones because I was an ignorant naïve rube, but I was good of heart.  I hope she was right;  certainly I have spent the rest of my life trying to live down my flaws and live up to her kind assessment of me.

That, my friends, is political geography in America. Boundaries matter;  when they are well-drawn, they confirm and amplify the strengths and weaknesses of the citizenry.  When they are badly drawn, perhaps something new will emerge:  something better.  Or something worse.

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