Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 October 2008

Immigrants, Alpha Males, and America’s Three Cultures

Among the occupational hazards of academics and bloggers are cloistering and solipsism. It’s good to get out once in a while. I did so about six weeks ago and came face to face with America’s future.

My wife and I are in our sixties. We’ve become friends with a much younger couple, who have an adorable four-year-old daughter. The father is an American minority, the mother an immigrant of Indian descent. They’re more sociable than we, and they invite us to many parties, often centered on milestones in their daughter’s life.

The latest party—a birthday—was large enough to require a rented room. The company looked like a miniature United Nations. The adults came from India, China, Korea, and Malaysia, among other places. In a crowd of some 100 people, I was one of a handful of native-born white males. It struck me how well the gathering foretold America’s future, and how far it diverged from the lily-white Republican convention only recently concluded.

The adults’ common connection was the children and their Montessori school, which the parents hope will give their kids a boost in global competition. The parents were mostly professionals: doctors, lawyers, teachers, and accountants. They included the school’s headmistress, a striking Indian woman dressed in a sari.

Two parents stood out as alpha males. They weren’t noticeably taller or stronger than the others. But they bore themselves and spoke with an easy confidence that betrayed success and affluence. One, with whom I had spoken before, is an Indian immigrant who runs an engineering design business. I’ll call him Al. The other, whom I met that night, is an Mideastern immigrant who runs several businesses, including health-care supply and real estate. I’ll call him Bob.

Although in entirely different lines of business, Al and Bob treated each other as friends and comrades. You could almost see the class distinction that separated them from the rest of us. Prior knowledge and hints in their conversation led me to guess that each earns between several hundred thousand and a million dollars a year.

When talked with them, I was careful to avoid politics. But before long they brought it up themselves, asking me whom I support. When I expressed enthusiasm for Obama, they chuckled and glanced at each other knowingly. When I asked whom they support, they said McCain. Almost simultaneously, each gave the same reason: McCain would lower their taxes while Obama would raise them.

Without using a word of Rebublican jargon or cant, both Al and Bob accepted Republican orthodoxy. They did so not as a matter of abstract theory. They claimed to live it.

Al explained how lower taxes help him expand his business. With earnest sincerity, he insisted the extra money would go into his business, not his pocket.

I believed him. After years of business success, he is just now building a new home in the better part of town. The building is going very slowly and is obviously not his first priority. As our conversation progressed, I discovered how ignorant he is about restaurants and other attractions in our common locale. He knew little even about restaurants near his office. For him, nothing exists but work and family. I had no doubt that his own business would be his first investment priority.

Bob revealed less about himself personally, and I had not known him beforehand. But he, too, had come upon Republican orthodoxy in his own way. He explained how he had offered his employees health insurance and health-saving accounts, but they had turned both down for higher wages. He jokingly reported how all his employees support Obama. He also told how he had warned them that, if Obama enacts health-care legislation that costs his businesses money, their raises might disappear.

Our conversation ranged widely. Both Al and Bob were smart, thinking men, well-informed about business and the economy, less so about politics. When I asked them whether they were satisfied with our national economy, infrastructure, energy policy, security, and so forth, both were genuinely troubled. Both were appalled by Dubya’s incompetence, but both hoped and expected that McCain would be better. Both praised Sarah Palin’s “leadership” without being able to articulate why.

Yet these “national” issues for them were bare abstractions, troubles in a world remote and viewed through a glass darkly. What was clear to them—and what mattered most—was the small worlds they had built with their own hands: their businesses. Taxes were first, foremost and always in their minds. Although neither used the term, both were utterly convinced of the correctness of “trickle down” economics and proud of their personal roles as instruments in it.

Despite Al’s dark skin and Bob’s Mideastern accent, I could easily imagine them rolling covered wagons across the prairie. I could see them fighting the natives, digging mines, building farms, and organizing neighbors to fence off rangeland to grow food for settlers and cattle. These are tough, smart, hard-working, self-reliant men. In any age, their like has been America’s backbone.

Though born in far corners of the globe, Al and Bob belong to one of America’s three distinct cultures. I call it the “Western” culture because our prairie migrations and the old Wild West best exemplify it. It is a culture of success and prosperity built on hard work and personal sacrifice, and most of all self-reliance, with little thought for one’s neighbors. The West grew such a culture because it was big and empty. Neighbors were often too far away or too occupied with their own troubles to help. It was and is a culture of sink or swim.

Today this “Western” culture is hardly confined to the West. It exists in myth and practice in every part of our land, even in our largest cities. Its rise is largely responsible for the Republican party’s political predominance over the last forty years.

Our second culture is our “Southern” culture. Unlike the rest of the nation, the South still has strong remnants of Europe, with all its social stasis and fatalism. Its best and most laconic description is Cole Porter’s immortal words: “Them that has, gets.”

Of course not all the South is this way. In-migration and demographic change have brought booming Atlanta, sophisticated Research Triangle Park, and Texas’ Silicon Gulch roaring into the twenty-first century. But outside these enclaves, in the backwoods and the small towns, the spirit of the Old South remains. It even remains in some big cities. It is no accident that our nation’s most fatalistic and tragic response to natural disaster occurred in New Orleans. Dubya’s ineptness was not the only cause.

It is also no accident that the South is by far the most religious part of our country and the primary source of the fundamentalist surge that has spread nationwide. For generations, both slave and master were trapped in a horrible social system from which there seemed to be no escape but God.

Slavery is now gone, but reliance on God remains. It survives in African-Americans, a legacy of their centuries-long struggle for freedom that is still not entirely theirs. It survives in many white Southerners, especially the poor, whose forebears had no recourse but God from the fetters of hereditary landed aristocracy, or from the destruction wreaked and dominance achieved by a more populous and more technologically savvy North with a better social system, which many Southerners still do not fully understand.

Our third culture—what I call the “New England” culture—is less well known and sometimes forgotten. David McCullough reminded us of it in his brilliant biography of John Adams and his wife Abigail, who personified it. Like Western culture, it a culture of Protestant hard work and self-reliance. But it is tempered by modesty, frugality, humility and assiduous caring for one’s neighbors.

McCullough has done us an enormous service by depicting this admirable culture in personal terms. John and Abigail Adams were first and foremost self-made people. Both were successful farmers who worked the land with their own hands. John became a successful lawyer on his own merit, working as an apprentice to learn his trade. Abigail worked and managed the family farms over many years while John was away. Until late in life, she churned her own butter, spun her own cloth, and made her own clothes.

Both she and John hewed to frugality and shunned ostentation. While serving as envoys in Europe, they were constantly chided and even ridiculed for living below their station, in smaller and less grand accommodations than their European counterparts. To avoid any pretense, John had Abigail paint over the family crest on their simple two-horse carriage, which they used for John’s inauguration as president.

But the story that stays in my mind is that of John before he became our second president. He had been a member of Congress, an ambassador to England, France and Holland, and a progenitor of many ideas underlying our government, including checks and balances. He was one of our most distinguished, accomplished and revered leaders. Yet when fire struck the home and business of a virulent political enemy, there he was in the fire brigade, fighting the flames with his own hands. Although a portly man of about sixty, made fun of for his girth, he kept himself fit by walking miles a day. No doubt that habit helped make him useful in the fire brigade.

The contrast with Thomas Jefferson could not be more striking. John and Abigail had hired help, but they never owned slaves, and they bought and freed several. They led frugal lives of cautious moderation. When they died, they left a large family well provided with huge holdings of land—far more than they had inherited—and a son who later became president.

In contrast, Jefferson, despite his facility with words and science, was an enormously self-indulgent man. He was born rich and consistently lived far beyond his means. Despite the ringing words of equality in his Declaration of Independence, he kept slaves all his life. He freed Sally Hemmings’ children, who many believe were also his own. But he freed no others. He built a huge estate that he could not afford and stocked it with opulent foreign purchases that he could not afford. When he died, he left enormous debts that much of his estate—and his slaves—had to be sold to pay off.

While living like an American aristocrat, Jefferson paradoxically supported the French Revolution, which cut off so many aristocratic heads. Adams was far more prudent and prescient. He accurately predicted, and bitterly lamented, the excesses and failings of the French revolutionaries. This difference of opinions, strongly held on both sides, was responsible for Adams’ and Jefferson’s estrangement of many years, despite a strong earlier friendship crucial to our nation’s founding. More than any other Founder, Jefferson personified the majesty, grandeur, absence of perspective and introspection, and social contradictions of our Southern Culture.

As successful foreigners like Al and Bob immigrate, settle down and grow roots here, what will they become? They are strong, capable alpha males. Doubtless they would succeed in any society. But they have better opportunity here, and they know it. Which of our three cultures will they and their children adopt?

Will they become Westerners, conquering new frontiers and building new industry with their skill and hard work, but heedless of the big picture and of those less fortunate? Will they become part of a new Southern aristocracy, proud of the fortunes they have built, jealous of their hard-won privilege, and fatalistic about their success and others’ hardship? Or will they follow John Adams’ New England lead, husband their wealth, suppress their pride and ostentation, help their neighbors, and build communities and a nation for the ages?

Those are the social questions before us in this election. Although not born into it, John McCain has wholeheartedly adopted our Western Culture. He now personifies it. So does Sarah Palin. Both rely heavily on the overlap between Western and Southern Culture—self-reliance, militarism, religion, and a bit of fatalism—and the Southern support that comes with the overlap.

In contrast, Barack Obama is heir to John and Abigail Adams and the New Englanders. His race is merely an interesting distraction.

To be sure, Obama attracts many voters who represent the African side of Southern Culture. But his own upbringing and family culture are pure New England. Hard work, modesty, humility, community and helping others are his values. He received them from a Midwestern mother and grandparents. He and his family transplanted them from Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia and now Chicago.

The route was long, but the end is the same. Like Adams, Obama is a self made man in the law and politics. Like Adams’, Obama’s modest but sustaining personal wealth, achieved through royalties on his books, has little import in his personal universe. Like Adams, he is reserved, circumspect, prudent, humble, and outward-looking. Like Adams, he is acutely conscious of the dangers of arrogance, pride, self-interest and human fallibility and corruptibility. Like Adams, he sees our nation as a complex social mechanism, with lots of moving parts, which can be improved, with good will, through intelligent but gradual redesign. The community and how it works are his obsessions. The only significant difference in culture and upbringing between the Obamas and the Adamses is that neither Obama was ever a farmer.

So our choice is fourfold. It’s a choice between young and old. It’s a choice between change in and continuity of policy. It’s a choice between government by ideology and breaking down ideology to restore pragmatism. But most of all, it’s a choice between two of the historic strains of our American culture, with the third playing a subordinate but possibly decisive role.


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