Tag Archives: Modernity

Bibles, Bubbas, and Hucksters: Mike Huckabee’s “Real” America

The cover to Mike Huckabee's book. "God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy," a concise history of alliteration for rubes.

The cover to Mike Huckabee’s book. “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy,” a concise history of alliteration for rubes.

Much like the distant European Pleistocene past, when modern Homo Sapiens co-existed with their brow-ier Neanderthal cousins, there are currently two species of humans in twenty-first century America: “Real” and “Fake” Americans. While many noted anthropologists, such as Dr. Sarah Palin of the University of Boonedocksville – Alaska have devoted their studies to understanding how and why these two species of Americans exist, few scholar-scientists have understood the phenomenon of bifurcated modern American humanity better than that foremost expert on U.S. political alignment: former Arkansas governor (and last-remaining Ted Nugent fan), Professor Mike Huckabee.  Continue reading

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Charlie Hebdo and the Modern Scourge of Religious Fundamentalism

A makeshift memorial for the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists.

A makeshift memorial for the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists.

There are few things more dangerous in the modern world than pissed-off zealots drunk on the potent, backwoods hooch of religious fundamentalism. We received yet another reminder of this fact on January 7, when Muslim fanatics opened fire on the workforce of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people and injuring many more. The two main douche-canoes suspected in the Paris terror attacks were identified as Cherif Kouachi and his older brother, Said Kouachi. Their motivation appears to have been a revenge-attack in response to Charlie Hebdo’s habit of publishing uncompromisingly satirical cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed and generally mocking radical Islam in a manner that only the French could pull off. You see, visual depictions of Islam’s founder are forbidden under Muslim religious laws, so, yeah, guns; murder; terror, etc.

And, just to add some good ole’ fashioned anti-Semitism to the mix (because you can seemingly always blame the Jews for something!!!), two other suspects followed the Charlie Hebdo attacks by taking hostages in a kosher supermarket in a traditionally Jewish quarter located outside of Paris. A man named Amedy Coulibaly (a career-criminal with a bad case of Caliphate-itus) and a women named Hayat Boumedienne (Coulibaly’s former squeeze), apparently decided to bring about the second Muslim Conquest of Europe by shooting people in the frozen-foods section. Continue reading

Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the nineeenth century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

Rural nostalgia, however, is nothing new in the U.S. In fact, it goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who, of all the Founding Fathers, was surly the Founding Father-est. Jefferson’s vision of America centered on the “Agrarian Yeoman” ideal: he believed that small, independent yeomen farmers represented the highest level of American self-sufficient virtue and work ethic, and should therefore settle the vast American landscape. Jefferson considered an agrarian society to be morally superior to the cities, which he viewed as rife with unnatural economic and moral corruption in the form of financial speculation and industrial development that threatened his ideal of agrarian democracy.

Jefferson’s Agrarian ideal has never really left American popular culture, and pumpkins have helped keep it alive and kicking. Historian Cindy Ott, author of the fantastic book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, traces the pumpkin’s modern popularity back to the ninteenth century, when the Market Revolution spurred the growth of industry that drew Americans away from the countryside into the larger cities. As the growing market economy caught more and more people in its web, Americans embraced the pumpkin as a symbol of pre-modern, idealized, rustic family life. Thus, pumpkins became big, orange emblems of the agrarian ideal that Jefferson so cherished and to which Americans ascribed the simple comforts of home, family, and small town life.

So powerful a symbol was the pumpkin that even after it ceased to be a valuable commercial crop, it still connected Americans to a primitive, pastoral age untainted by the cold mechanics of the modern world. As Ott observes:

As many Americans felt they were losing connections to the natural world, an authentic way of life, and their cultural roots, the orange field pumpkin, in particular, helped them rebuild those connections…What the orange field pumpkin lost in practical usage and economic value, it gained in symbolic power. Americans gave it a vibrant life in stories and holiday rituals that helped them talk about the meaning of nature within a rapidly developing urban and industrial society.

Since the transition from countryside to urban centers hasn’t really stopped since the nineteenth century, Americans today are scarfing down pumpkin flavored-stuff for largely the same nostalgic reasons. By eating and drinking pumpkin flavors, Ott notes, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old-fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” The explosion in popularity of pumpkin flavored everything has left some people worrying about the rise of a “pumpkin spice empire” with possible designs for Genghis Khan-style world conquest, while others are downright angry, pleading for more rational heads to “stop the pumpkin-izing.

The growth of the “pumpkin spice empire” might lead some to conclude that the humble orange squash has been commercialized and factory-farmed to the point of it being yet another weapon in the industrialized agricultural onslaught that nearly wiped out American family farms. But never fear, for, as Ott notes, the commercialization of the pumpkin via the buying and selling of rural nostalgia has actually been a boon to small American farms. People’s idea about the pumpkin, she writes:

[H]ave revitalized the very thing it has long symbolized – the small family farm. The natural peculiarites of the crop, its meanings, and market conditions have all encouraged its production by small-scale growers for local markets at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The pumpkin’s increasing economic value arose out of the deep meanings Americans invested in it, and its increased commodification helped rejuvinate small-scale farmers and small rural towns rather than undermine them.*

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

It seems, then, that however annoying and shameless, the commercial onslaught that is pumpkin flavored-stuff will likely continue — even though most of that stuff likely contains no actual pumpkin. So far, this commodification has been beneficial to the great orange squash and the people who grow it. Moreover, by continuing to worship the pumpkin via attending the sacred church of American capitalist consumption, you are keeping the age-old Jeffersonian tradition of the Agrarian ideal alive and well. Even if you’re a suburban office dweller, by eating pumpkin flavored-stuff, you nonetheless gain a primal connection to Jefferson’s mythic, virtuous, independent yeomen — and that should make you downright sick with glorious American-ness.

So this fall, go on and enjoy your pumpkin flavored coffees, chocolates, pies, and, especially, beers. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are helping to stimulate the American economy, especially those fabled “small businesses,” via the cultural consumption of a storied American icon.

* Cindy Ott, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 7.

The Legend of Small Town U.S.A.

smal ltown usa

“Main Street” is one of those apple pie invoking, corn-cob pipe toking, patriotism stoking, nostalgia choking symbolic themes in American culture that lacks a clear definition but with which most Americans are intimately familiar. I’m not talking about the actual street called “Main” that runs through your particular town or city. Rather, I mean the idea of Main Street U.S.A., also known as Small Town U.S.A., or, in recent political terms, Real America. You know what I’m talking about: its the America defined by a lily-white demographic, at a least a partially agricultural economy, Mom and Pop stores (no Targets allowed!), old guys sitting on porches, lots of churches, and a penchant for traditional values, whatever those might be.

Certainly, such towns have existed, and continue to exist, in the U.S. These towns invoke the image of “Main Street” that has been a major part of American identity since the country’s founding. Over at the S-USIH blog, Robert Greene II has a great review of Miles Orvell’s new book, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community that charts the history of the idea of Small Town U.S.A. Greene writes that:

Orvell situates the idea of “main street” in American history, showing both how this idea has affected American society, and in turn, how American society and technology have affected ideas about main street and the “small town”.

Main Street, Greene notes via Orvell, has been waging a two-centuries long battle against modernization in its many forms.

A combination of factors, whether they be geographic, political, or economic, has caused the gradual disappearance of small towns over time. Yet, despite it being under siege from the forces of modernization, Orvell persuasively argues for the importance of the small town throughout American history. He also shows that the division between the city and the small town, seen time and again in American political discourse and most recently embodied with the red state/blue state split, has gone through intriguing incarnations. For example, his chapter on Sinclair Lewis’ book “Main Street” shows how in the 1920s the small town was seen as backwards, juxtaposed with a Bohemian big city outlook embraced by Lewis and other writers of the 1920s era. However, despite the battering the idea of the small town took from Lewis, H.L. Mencken, and others, the Great Depression would see the idea of Main Street make a comeback—one that has never really stopped.

The Depression led to many Americans longing for a simpler time and place—somewhere that was isolated from the global economic forces causing considerable hardship for millions of Americans. Main Street became that place.

You should read Greene’s whole review and then read Orvell’s book, but one point is especially worth observing here:  the idea of Main Street, or Small Town U.S.A., has perpetually existed in a never-ending cold war against the forces of economic and cultural modernity. The Great Depression that hit in 1929 stemmed from the high-rise towers of New York City, about as far away as you could get from Small Town U.S.A., but the stock market crash hit American small towns in a very real way. So it makes sense that Depression-era Americans embraced the idea of Main Street as the very antithesis, geographically, culturally, and especially economically, of New York City, the heart of the American financial center that had failed them. This pattern still exists in 2013.

Following the great economic crash of 2008, another crash that originated in New York City, Americans have once again embraced the notion of Small Town U.S.A. as the America that matters, especially in contrast to such havens of cultural debauchery like New York. Today, Main Street has no particular, single location, but you can bet that its somewhere in “Flyover Country,” that vast, expanse of mid-western, Small Town Folkistan that, in the minds of many, exists as America’s great inoculator against the cultural diseases festering in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. Whereas Small Town U.S.A. supposedly promotes down home American values, the urban coastal enclaves allegedly thrive on a Satan’s brew of diversity, moral relativism, urbanity, and…iced lattes.

Why are such ridiculous distinctions important? Because American political parties have always co-opted the supposed moral superiority of Small Town U.S.A. to suit their own agendas, and today rural and small town political culture is mostly the property of America’s conservative Republican Party. Conservative media hucksters like Glenn Beck have made millions pimping the good ole’ fashioned Murica’-ness of small towns, but no recent political figure demonstrated this penchant better than 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, then Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin. In a now infamous 2008 speech in North Carolina, Palin labeled small town residents as the “Real America:”

“We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit and these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Palin’s words caused plenty of outrage, spurring her to issue an apology. Much of the anger over her comments stemmed from rather pointless semantic arguments over the meaning of “Real America.” Although such a term is generally meaningless and totally subjective, it speaks to the larger tradition that Orvell addresses in The Death and Life of Main Street in which Americans have historically embraced a vague ideal of Small Town U.S.A. without ever having to really define what it is. Palin’s audience knew that “Real America” meant them. They didn’t need a definition because they stood in direct contrast to the “fake America” of liberal urban centers like New York. In the context of a Republican Party rally, “Real America” meant conservative Small Town U.S.A. But this is a definition that will never be fixed. In the late 19th century, for example, Small Town U.S.A. invoked the left wing economic populism of William Jennings Bryan.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

This is why Main Street has historically been located everywhere and nowhere at once: its location is wherever Americans want it to be when they feel threatened by the dynamism and dislocation of the capitalist economy and its associated modern cultural changes. Small Town U.S.A. then, is not so much a political idea, though it’s always been used by politicians of all ideological backgrounds. No, Small Town U.S.A., or Main Street, if you prefer, is really a long-running manifestation of Americans’ complicated relationship with modernity. As the world’s pre-eminent, dynamic capitalist country, the U.S. has both embraced, and fought against, modernity by welcoming its technological and economic innovations while simultaneously fighting against the challenges it poses to long-standing cultural traditions.

None of this is to say Small Town U.S.A. is an inherently bad thing. Heck, some of the best day drives and weekend trips you’ll ever take are to the small towns of the American Midwest. But take Main Street as one aspect of America, not as its only aspect. Like the broader United States, Small Town U.S.A. harbors  its own dark secrets, and is prone to the mix of good and bad just like everywhere else. Except for Canada. That place is freakin’ perfect.