If I reflect on my nearer extended family one curious aspect is that we seem to have a habit of moving a fair amount. My immediately family immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. But we’ve relocated a few times since we moved to this country, going from one coast to another. But this pattern is older and deeper. My maternal grandfather was a physician who moved rather frequently during my mother’s youth, while both my parents settled in Dhaka, the capital, though they were from the region to the south and east of that city. I have relatives in England, while a second cousin married and had a family in Venezuela, before eventually settling down in Sweden. Other relatives near and more distant have had sojourns in the Middle East, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Australia.
Of course, this isn’t entirely surprising, as around ~4 percent of the population of Bangladesh lives abroad. But even in this country, we keep moving. My mother laments sometimes that her children seem to settle in distant parts of the country from her, but she has to remind herself that she was across several oceans when her parents died.
So I take great anthropological interest in articles such as this in The New Yorker, Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On. In the piece, the author sketches out the peculiarities of a small town in western Iowa, Orange City, where people live around those whom they grew up with. Almost as if they develop the intimacies we associate with hunter-gatherer life.
Settled by Dutch immigrants more than 100 years ago, Orange City, Iowa, retains its peculiar ethnic character to this day. It is overwhelmingly white and dominated by Reformed Protestantism. But this isn’t the story of just one town. This piece is really outlining a microcosm of the sort of thing that happens on a larger scale in southwest Michigan, in towns like Holland. This area is also Dutch American in character, and somehow manages to retain economic vitality in an American landscape defined by the dynamism of a few large metropolitan conglomerations.
If you read Peter Turchin’s work you will note that what Dutch America has is asabiyyah. Social solidarity.
Part of this is likely the broad homogeneity of these regions. The sort of social capital eroded by the forces of diversity that Robert Putnam observed in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But that can’t be the only part of the story. Much of Appalachia exhibits the same ethno-racial homogeneity of Dutch America, but it’s social statistics are not nearly as positive.
To understand what’s going on one needs to read books such as Albion’s Seed, American Nations or The Cousins’ Wars. These works outline that there are deep and lasting cultural differences among groups of white American Protestants who do not seem “ethnic” in any way moderns understand it. After the Civil War and up to the 1950s white Americans cultivated an ideology of cohesion which smoothed over differences which led to the fractures that broke out in the decades which culminated in the Age of Sectionalism. Central to this self-conception was the normative identity of white Protestants, whom both Jews and Catholics emulated explicitly and implicitly, respectively.
And yet differences persisted underneath the surface. From the piece:
The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted to leave—they were pushed.
In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places….
The ACS reports that the largest ancestry components among Iowans were German (35.9%), Irish (13.7%), English (8.5%), American (6.2%), and Norwegian (5.2%). Genetically there is almost no difference between these Northern European groups (they all diverged over the last 4,500 years). But culturally there are differences. “American,” and to a lesser extent Irish and English, ancestry may correlate with migration from the South and the Border States. In contrast, English ancestry was at least in part derived from Yankee settlers from New England. These were very different cultures. Europeans from Scandinavia and Germany tended to align culturally more with the Yankees (with the major exception of alcohol, which set apart the newcomers from the old stock, who had an ambivalent relationship with drink).
In Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution the authors report that in Illinois farmers of British descent behaved differently than those of German descent even after 150 years. Germans tended to pass farms down through the family, forgoing profits in cases where they could sell. In contrast farming families of British ancestry tended to behave more like the rational actors predicted by the theory of the firm. They did not make as many sacrifices to keep farms in the family.
These differences among white Protestants are still clear in the General Social Survey. Limiting to self-identified white non-Hispanic Protestants surveyed after the year 2000, below you can see the highest degree attainments by ethnic identification:
|Highest degree attainment of white Protestant Americans, year 2000 and after
||Less than HS
The white Protestants who identify as “American” tend to be concentrated in the border states and in the South. They are not as educated as other white Americans. They are a plural majority in much of Appalachia and are also likely dominant among white populations in areas of the South where the black proportion is higher. These “Americans” are of broadly British and Irish origin, but their residence in this country has been long enough that they no longer identify with Europe in any way.
If you read some history or plumb the depths of social science the uniqueness of Orange City, Iowa, is entirely unsurprising. The “secret” of Orange City is the same secret that the German towns of Wisconsin and the Dutch towns of southwest Michigan exhibit, and that is a cultural folkway passed down through the generations which allows for cohesion and collective action in a world of increasing anomie. The culture of the back-country white settlers in Appalachia, in contrast, was defined from its inception by a certain form of libertarian anomie.
Curiously The New Yorker piece highlights a similarity in social structure between Appalachia and modern urban life: “In Philadelphia, she’d had her close friends, and everyone else was more or less a stranger; in Orange City, there was a large middle category as well. ” Though I am not denigrating communal collective action in Appalachia, it is also true that that region has been characterized by a form of familialism. Though Appalachian whites were enthusiastic Christians, their religion was often individualistic. Their elites hewed to an ordered Presbyterianism, but the masses were pietistic Methodists or Baptists. It was an atomized society.
Modern cosmopolitan urban life is also characterized by the chasm between the stranger and the close friend or kin. To make life tolerable one must rely on the impartiality and efficiency of institutions, which can reduce the transaction costs between strangers, and force trust externally.
What will happen if and when institutions collapse? I do not believe much of America has the social capital of Orange City, Iowa. We have become rational actors, utility optimizers. To some extent, bureaucratic corporate life demands us to behave in this manner. Individual attainment and achievement are lionized, while sacrifice in the public good is the lot of the exceptional saint.
But we will have to rediscover trust in something beyond the bureaucracy and the family, or the swell of barbarism will probably consume us.