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The Culture of the Plains States
by Anthony Harrigan
Many contemporary travelers in the heartland region have noted the quality of life in the Plains states, a quality of life that is markedly superior to the metropolitan centers on the coastal rim. A reporter for The Economist called attention to this in an unsigned article published on Sept. 5, 1992. His route took him from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Rapid City, South Dakota. Writing from Victoria, Kansas, he said that “Victoria is the ideal place to consider the small town values that politicians now talk so much of.” To some extent, he said,
the politicians are onto something. That coarsening of American culture that is so evident in the cities is less obvious in the small towns. Between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Rapid City, South Dakota, The Economist’s correspondent was unable to find a copy of Playboy openly displayed for sale.
The heritage of Christian culture is still at work in this small high plains town. As The Economist reporter recounted,
The town was settled by Volga Germans. Devoutly Catholic, they built a church, and then another one, and then, when they had outgrown that, yet another one. In 1908, when no more than a couple of thousand people lived there, they started work on the magnificent Romanesque church of St. Fidelis, whose twin towers soon stood 141 feet tall. Glass was brought from Germany; marble from Italy. Each family was allotted a set amount of stone to cut, by hand, from local quarries. When St. Fidelis was completed, Bryan called it “the cathedral of the plains,” and with reason.
This history is part of the culture of the Plains states. Culture in the Plains states, in the sense employed here, isn’t a matter of artistic amenities—art galleries, symphony orchestras and theatre companies—but the organic character of a people’s life. It is this kind of culture that is threatened in the United States in an era that makes a fetish of multi-culturalism and that introduces artificial political and psychological components—thought control—into communities of all sizes (most of it through the medium of the mind-regulating mechanism of television).
A few years ago, for instance, public officials in Dubuque, Iowa, decided, without any public demand, that the citizens were suffering from diversity deprivation. A plan was put forward to import a certain number of minority families into the city each year. Lorrin A. Anderson, an Iowan writing in National Review, Feb. 17, 1992, said that “the citizens of Dubuque were not feeling any severe pain from their underprivileged condition” and opposed the attempted forced transformation of their community and its values.
But the process of thought control and culture bending goes on in many parts of the American heartland, as elsewhere in the nation. At the university in Iowa City, Mr. Anderson reported, students are required to have eight units of “multi-cultural studies” in order to graduate—an example of thought control in higher education. Mr. Anderson explained how the mind-bending process is accelerated in the state by the fashionably liberal-left Des Moines Register, owned by the Gannett chain “with its wide-ranging espousal of all the current orthodoxies: doctrinaire feminism, affirmative action, multi-culturalism—pretty much the whole bag.”
This is the nature of the assault on the culture of the Plains states, which has been traditional, Eurocentric, respectful of heritage, and firmly grounded in its Christian belief. This assault amounts to what Bruce Fein, writing in The Washington Times, Sept. 8, 1992, called “ascriptive balkanization”—balkanization of the traditional American culture as evidenced most strongly by the current drive for multi-culturalism, particularly the introduction of values contradictory to the American heritage. Mr. Fein said that such balkanization “engenders consequences that resemble those of endogamy, a degeneration of vitality and acuity. . . .”
Happily, one finds in the Plains states a decent respect for the values of traditional American life. Dr. John Howard, former president of Rockford College in Illinois, cited these values in an address at St. Paul, Minn., Oct. 24, 1992. Among them, he said, are modesty, decency, probity, rectitude, honor, politeness, virtue, magnanimity, chastity, piety, righteousness, propriety.
He went on to say, however, that, unfortunately, “these and many other terms of approved behavior have been consigned to limbo. They don’t even enter into the calculus of public discussion and decision-making. Naturally, their opposites have suffered the same fate—terms such as vile, licentious, malign, dissolute, roué, shame, disgrace, evil, sin, stigma, ostracize, iniquity, and so on. Those designations and the concepts they represent have also been canceled.”
In the Plains states, as in other lightly populated parts of the United States, a major problem is how to keep the local and regional culture alive when it is under ongoing bombardment from hostile forces in the national environment. The task is one of maintaining an organic society in the midst of a national anti-culture that is profoundly antagonistic to the idea of an organic society, that constantly seeks newness and social experimentation.
The aim of the organic society is the preservation of continuity in human behavior and belief. The importance of continuity has been asserted in communities on every possible occasion. Bruce Catton, the historian of the Civil War, said in American Heritage, that “the great American story is above all other things a continued story. It did not start with us and will not end with us. . . .” Continuity will not just happen in the kind of fragmented, nervous national society that we have today. It has to be repeatedly stressed and reinforced as a fundamental value. And, thus, in a sense, in our communities, we have to build redoubts of belief and moral conviction—redoubts in and against a hostile world.
To keep their cultural moorings, the people in the Plains states and other traditional areas have to comprehend the falsity of the concepts behind the anti-traditional assault. The Dubuque, Iowa, experiment in artificially imposed diversity is an example of what can happen anywhere that the leadership of a community loses its cultural moorings. If one examines history, one finds that the idea of diversity as the perfect social order is not a concept that was favored by the great achievers in history. In some cases, it may be a positive human value, but not in all cases, not by any means. The Greeks didn’t want diversity and multi-cultural relations with the Persians nor did the Hebrews desire such a mixing of and blending with the Babylonians. Indeed, excessive diversity and multi-cultural acceptance undoubtedly contributed to the collapse of the Roman order, the loss of the old Roman republican values and habits.
The idea of a knowing community, especially a knowing community that is a small town or small city in a lightly populated region, is a strange and unacceptable notion to those who are in the business of influencing and reshaping the social values of society. They think only of self-conscious social and intellectual elites at major universities and in large urban centers. Yet a knowing community that also is a small community is a perfectly reasonable concept and possible social reality.
As a community or a region knows itself, its mind, its purposes and character, it safeguards the identity of its inhabitants. If one looks at the Soviet systems, one can see a totalitarian, ideological regime that sought to downplay regional identity, which, in the post-Soviet phase, has been revived and strengthened. Many Americans fail to understand how the suppression of regional identity works in the United States, but the fact is that suppression is taking place. The great analyst of urban life, Lewis Mumford, writing in “The Culture of Cities” (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1938), explored the process in detail—long before the age of the electronic media arrived to make possible a far more efficient and ruthless suppression. He wrote that “unity by suppression is achieved by de-building organic relations. . . .” Attempting to dismiss the moral and social outlook of a region is an example of the de-building cited by Mumford. The public official who urges the distribution of condoms to school children, in violation of the moral convictions of their parents, is engaged in de-building—deconstructionist behavior.
Mumford made this point: “De-building, in order to widen the scheme of life invoked by the metropolis and the governing state, ends in impoverishment.” He believed that “geographic differences are primordial,” and that social differentiations are “derived from urban associations.” In such comments, he dealt with attempts to suppress disjunctive regional entities and impose on them a totally different cultural outlook—what Richard Critchfield has called the “anonymous, unstable, highly differentiated culture of urban America.”
This urban culture is reflected in literature produced in this cultural context. This anti-value literature has become the substance of establishment artistic expression in the United States and is promoted in every region of the country, despite its heavy content of anti-traditional values. Luann Landon, a Tennessee poet and short story writer, has pointed out how these productions violate traditional standards first enunciated in Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle insisted, she says:
[C]haracters in drama be true to life yet capable of inspiring ideals of nobility in the audience—it seems that contemporary art is an unsystematic destruction of this theory. Art created within the Aristotelian aesthetic, even when the subject is tragic or terrible, gives the spectator energy and initiative to go on with life—its formal beauty is invigorating and its foundation in order is reassuring. But contemporary artists portray (often brilliantly and truthfully) anarchic violence or pointlessness, redundancy and meanness. Confronting their work, instead of being refreshed and impelled back into life, instead of believing, briefly but bracingly, that we are courageous and coherent, we know that we are homicidal and suicidal, trivial and muddled, that we must abandon all hope, that aggression is the only release on a treadmill to oblivion.
Contemporary literature—and I use that word in the most general and loose way, meaning the productions of the mass media as well as books that are described as artistic creations––is used as a tool to shape the new culture spawned by the urban world of late twentieth-century America. It is part of the manipulative apparatus that exists in contemporary America, the instruments of ideological and social manipulation. It is deliberately disorienting, deconstructing traditional values and beliefs. The new journalism, along with films and television, is designed to undo the social compact that exists in traditional communities, such as the Plains states. Prof. Jean Bethke Elshtain, writing in Chronicles (March 1989), said that “the notion of a social compact is of a community whose members share purposes and values that are enforced by moral suasion, not by coercion nor manipulation.”
The reality of this social compact is easily discerned when one visits communities in the Plains states. One summer afternoon I visited Vermillion, South Dakota, when members of a number of different denominations in the city—from Missouri Synod Lutherans to Roman Catholics—gathered in the city park in a wholly unselfconscious way to sing hymns. This afternoon gathering in Vermillion was evidence of what Professor Elshtain referred to as a truly intimate culture—an organic community “composed of face-to-face relations, both tight and restrictive, solid and nurturing.”
The future is unwritten. And one can’t know whether Americans will continue to be hypnotized by the urban model, whether obsessive media instruction in political, ideological, and social correctness will triumph. The emergence of knowing communities in lightly populated regions undoubtedly will involve a heightened awareness of the absence of elementary social discipline in giant metropolitan areas of the East and West and revulsion against the disorders and perils that result from the political empowerment of the urban underclass. No matter how much the national media endeavor to make the worse the better cause, to employ the Socratic phrase, people in the American interior will understand almost certainly that the giant centers in the words of Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., are “sinkholes” of culture—and that they will appreciate their own wholesome lifestyle more.
F. W. Robertson, a British divine writing in the nineteenth century, made a telling case against the diversity and multi-cultural notions that are fashionable in the United States today, though he didn’t know the terms. He emphasized the demoralization that occurs when traditional values are undermined. “When peoples mix,” he said, “and men see the sanctities of their childhood dispensed with and other sanctities, which they despise, substituted; when they see the principles of their own country ignored, and all they have held venerable made profane and common, the natural consequence is that they begin to look upon the manners, religion, and sanctities of their own birthplace as prejudices. . . . They lose their own holy ties and sanctions, and they obtain nothing in their place.” And this is precisely what is happening in the United States under the pressure of the counterculture.
Up to this point, the Plains states have done better than perhaps any other region of the country to preserve their culture, their organic communities and the value derived from their pioneer past. Will they be able to continue to preserve their culture and avoid being zapped by the self-proclaimed intellectual elites who want to impose a regimented national counterculture?
The post-cold war world outside the United States provides examples of regions that manage to preserve their identity. Even under the severe cultural leveling policies of the Soviet era, the Ukrainians managed to safeguard their culture. In Canada, the people of Quebec chose to accentuate their distinctive culture. In Italy today, the northern part of the country, through the agency of the Lombard League, is returning to a regional consciousness.
Doubters may say that such international developments have no relevance to the American scene and to American regionalism. But there is abundant social evidence that in the United States today there are strong, growing forces that are determined to return the nation to its moral roots and overcome the counterculture that has, in large degree, become the establishment culture. Regionalism is alive and well in more than one way. Regional consciousness of heritage offers a strong and effective base to combat the anti-values movement that threatens to destroy the historic character of American civilization.
Given will and understanding, the culture of the Plains states should survive and flourish in the decades ahead.
Anthony Harrigan is a Research Fellow for the National Humanities Institute and has written for Modern Age and Chronicles.