Why Regionalism?

More than most other developed states, Americans are deeply proud of their nation. In fact, polls have found that 84-91% of us are “very” or “extremely” proud to be Americans. 90% claim to “usually feel proud” when they hear the Star Spangled Banner and 74% of 2001 college graduates stated that they “would be willing to fight for my country.”¹ It is undeniable that Americans feel united and proud, especially after the attacks in NYC and Washington in 2001 and this is considered by most to be a “good thing.” However, when our communities and livelihoods are hard-pressed and we truly want to find solutions to our problems, we can sometimes find value in questioning the ideas that we previously believed to be indisputable. It is a fortunate side of living in rusting cities forgotten by the great powers that we are sometimes free to ask questions that those in more prosperous, powerful places would be afraid to; after all, the answer might challenge their comfort, their prosperity.

It was not always this way. When the War of Independence was won, the victorious Patriots viewed themselves primarily as the residents of their state. When asked where they came from, the would answer “Connecticut” or “Virginia” long before “America.” In fact, there were minor wars fought between the states over territory and westerward expansion where armies from New York and New Hampshire fought over Vermont or Pennsylvania and Connecticut fought over the Wyoming Valley (the Pennamite Wars). Even George Washington probably thought of himself as a Virginian. Today, this state identity only survives in strength in places like Texas and Alaska.

The shared “American” identity is sometimes a strange thing. For a moment, let us imagine three hypothetical Americans: the first is a 17-year-old white boy from an old family in Maine who just got his first job in a lobster packing plant and is worried about graduation, prom and the future; the second is a 48-year-old Indian immigrant man who moved to the United States and began a successful software company, he has retired early and built himself a home in Key West where he lives year round; the third is a 35-year-old Navajo woman who lives with her husband and three children on the reservation, raises livestock and does traditional weaving that she sells to tourists. What do these three people have in common? They are Americans is the typical answer, but in reality, while there are similarities they are often outweighed by differences in geography, profession, wealth, ethnicity/race, gender and age. There is no doubt at all that the problems facing each of their communities will be wildly different and may even place them at odds with each other. What would help the young factory worker’s home town might cause devastation if it were implemented in the Navajo community and vice versa.

While difference is inevitable, and beneficial to a community, there comes a point when the variation itself becomes a hindrance. How can a central government in Washington make decisions that effectively answer the problems of irrigation farmers in Idaho, the unemployed in Buffalo and gas station attendants in the Deep South? Inevitably, with so many problems and so many voices, some people get heard more than others and some people are forgotten.

Let me give an example of the inefficiency and clumsiness inherent in over-centralization. I work for Sears department stores in the shoe department. With Christmas and winter upon us, we have gotten many new shipments of shoes and boots for the customers. These shoes, designed in New York City, Chicago (where Sears is headquartered) and other metropolitan centers are often absurd for practical York Staters. We have received shipments of sandals and watershoes (perhaps useful if we were in south Texas) and lily white boots (not the best in a world of salt and snow). The women’s boots of this year almost universally possess preposterously high and narrow heels and lack insulation; often time the soles are completely smooth. When we opened the box of good insulated boots, only 10 pairs were found. “Have these designers ever seen ice?” I have been asked facetiously and my answer is always, with complete honesty, “probably not.” This problem is compounded by the fact that we cannot order boots ourselves or request for certain types, we simply open the shipment every Tuesday and Thursday and see what they’ve brought us.²

Focusing our attentions and identity towards an amorphous centralized Federal government is like relying upon Sears and Roebuck Inc to send the proper shoes for Johnson City. The Federal government, the big corporations and all massive centralized bureaucracies inevitably approach all problems, whether they be nails or broken crystal vases, with the same big hammer. Look at the effects of NAFTA and corporate America upon our cities and towns. How many Upstate cities have been sold out by the very corporations and governments that they had put our trust, money and labor into?

As we attempt to solve Upstate New York’s problems, as long as we think of ourselves and our problems as primarily “American” we will be bound to a tiny number of options promoted by our centralized authorities. However, when we begin to free ourselves from what is an appropriate answer for America and identify ourselves with Upstate New York then we can begin to find new, uniquely Upstate answers.

In addition to an increased ability to flexibly respond to local problems, a regional identity would help to heal many of the psychic wounds that we possess in modern America. We are a rootless people, rarely possessing a sense of “place;” many of us even lack a spot that we can call “home.” How many of our people have no sense of where they are and who they are? How many just want to get away, but are never sure where they want to get to? While a strong regional identity would not solve all of our problems in and of itself, it would provide a solid foundation for communities to grow. As much as it is a physical place, a community is also a state of mind, a shared mental orientation. Look at the vitality of New Orleans, a place with a strong sense of self, in its desire to rebuild and maintain its traditions.

There is some of this in our Upstate cities and places. Buffalo especially is famous for its stalwart pride, forged perhaps by the grind of snow, factory closings and the shared heartbreak of the Bills performance at the Superbowls. Natalie, a Syracuse native, has told me of terrible snowstorms where Syracusians took shelter in their emblematic Carrier Dome to watch Orange play out of town on big screens. How many Rochesterians take a sort of sick pride in the Garbage Plate, Syracusians in Dinosaur Barbeque, Binghamtonians in the Spiedie or Buffalonians in the myriad of local Buffalo food choices?

The possession of a regional identity does not preclude other identities, including an “American” one. For example, when I was living in Spain, I found that the people there had a cascading number of political identities, each important in different spheres and each interlocked like wooden Russian dolls. Their strongest identity was to their extended family, which they protected and promoted ferociously. Spain is a land of infamous nepotism, but unlike America, there it was seen as inevitable and largely benign. The next loyalty was to one’s pueblo, the ancestral village of your family. Even families who now live primarily in the cities still travel home on weekends, vacations, holidays and during important local fiestas. They consider themselves to be of that pueblo, they still often intermarry within those communities and retain those strong local bonds and traditions. The next level is the Patria Chica, the “little fatherland,” which is perhaps the most important political level. This is the region in which one lives, which often has its own language, and is a source of strong identity and is analogous politically to a State in the USA. It is here that the people focus their social, economic and political lives. Above the Patria Chica is the nation-state (Spain), which many people only have a token allegiance to; Spain, they believe is a federation of peoples and is a thing of political convenience.³ Finally, above Spain is the EU and then the UN, both of which are considered to be important parts of their identity. Above many business, the flags of the local city, the Autonomous Community (Patria Chica), the nation of Spain and the European Union flew side by side as equals.

I feel that there is some hope for regional identities in this age of growing centralization. The last time I drove into Vermont, flying on the first house I passed over the border was the flag of the Green Mountain Boys and the symbol of the rapidly growing Vermont Independence Movement. When I drive through Johnson City, I occasionally spot a JC Wildcat flag. Perhaps someday, here in Upstate New York, locals we see no problem in flying the flags of their town, state and nation as equals in their hearts and minds.4

1) These polls are, in order that they are quoted: Anonymous, “National Pride Varies Greatly Across Europe: And its much lower than in the United States, according to New Five-Country Survey;” June 24th, the PRNewswire; “Harris Poll #27: Pride in America, June 12, 2002,” Accessed online at http://www.harrisinteractive.com on 10-3-04; Anonymous; “Proud and Patriotic,” in the Washington Times, July 8, 2004; “Harris Poll #27: Pride in America, June 12, 2002,” Accessed online at http://www.harrisinteractive.com on 10-3-04; Anonymous; “Harris Poll #12: Generation 2001: A survey of the First College Graduating Class of the New Millennium, February 26th, 1998,” Accessed online at http://www.harrisinteractive.com on 10-3-04
2) By the way, if anyone is looking for new boots, we’re located in the Oakdale Mall in Johnson City, and I get a 3-4% commission, so stop by and we’ll find you something you’ll just love.
3) To be fair, I should note that there are some Spaniards, the intellectual descendents of the Fascists, who still see the centralized State as a holy and divinely ordained fact. I, however, rarely saw this side of Spain as I did not live in a pro-Castillian part of the country, but instead in one of the ethnic areas: Catalan-speaking Valencia.
4) I do think that we need to get a cooler state flag though, let’s admit it, the boat on the river with the ladies around it is nice as a seal but it’s really not a good flag, but I think that’s a topic for a later discussion.


baloghblog said...

your blog ate my comment. I'll post on my blog, and copy it over.

baloghblog said...

My post: http://baloghblog.blogspot.com/2005/12/regionalism-renewal.html

There has been a lack of "regional pride" in the upstate region, as the sons and daughters of those stranded in the "rust belt" with lost manufacturing jobs, and an increasing tax burden as revenues from industry declined. This generation saw parents laid off, a lack of opportunity to follow in their parents footsteps, and difficulty finding work outside of the service industry. Regionalism died. Dispondence and apathy prevailed. There are still a whole group of people that live outside the Syracuse area, that take the time to post negative comments on the region and our local government on the Syracuse.com forums. Think about it, hating upstate so much that they take precious time out of their day, just to make snide remarks and discourage people from living in upstate. In a way, I don't blame them. There has been a severe lack of leadership from local politicians over the past 25 years. There was no foresight as the factories began to close, little investment in boosting technology company development that would help keep higher paying jobs in the area. Local government leadership continues to be questionable, and development while progressing, could be better.

Why do I see a renewal of "regionalism" then? Why am I living with more hope and optimism for upstate NY?

The generation that I grew up in was born into a Syracuse that had already undergone most of the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. I can only barely remember a downtown shopping district with Sibley's and Chappell's. I still had wanderlust in my blood and spent three wonderful years in New York City working and exposing myself to the world outside of upstate NY. I am among a growing group of professionals that have returned to the area, yes, under our own volition. I am also reaching an age where I am beginning to realize the potential as adult citizens, to shape the world around us. Less in the way of complaining, more in the way of discussion that will lead to action - I seem to be finding a growing niche of people that feel the same way, who are proud to live in upstate, who want to be here and make life better for ourselves and our communities.

Now all we need is NYCO to photoshop up a flag for us "regionalists".

joe said...

johnson city is better than binghamton and the town of maine. the new york state flag aint that bad.

joe said...

p.s. I aint buying your sears slave-made sweat-shop shoes.

Prefontaine said...

Your shoe example is one having to do with decreased practicality in America, not necessarily regionalism. They have ice in Chicago too, but the women who wear those boots don't care about that. They care about fashion. It's not that needs aren't being met, it's that no one even cares to meet those needs, no matter what region you're in. People suck.

This cheery message brought to you by a young man working in the service industry.

Al said...

One of the main differences between the US and the rest of the world is the concept of "E Pluribus unum" (Out of many, one). I don't see any problem with feeling pride in which State, or section of a State, anyone comes from as long as they hold the feeling of being an American higher.

We've seen the results of keeping regional passions too high throughout history. Today the Balkans should provide a stark reminder of what happens when regional, ethnic or religious differences take control of societies and they feed on each other, rather than deal with the problems they face together. The Balkans are not the only example in today's world of regionalism gone wrong, when taken to excess.

Much like a family, we all complain about circumstances within our immediate circle, sometimes very harshly. That doesn't mean we appreciate anyone outside that circle sharing in, or brininging their own, criticisms.

Regionalism can provide significant benefits, and like garlic can improve flavor when applied in the right amount. Just like garlic, if applied too much, the concept of regionalism can be disasterous and spoil the whole meal. We are a largely immigrant population with all but a very few able to trace roots to this nation beyond 300 years. Generations of immigrants brought to this nation varied and multiple cultures that have both been absorbed, and allowed to stay apart, in a seconday role. We've long been a nation of neighborhoods focusing and supporting people of similar ethnic, religious and racial characteristics, but we all understand that we are American, which has an overarching inclusion.

Today we face increasing reliance on establishing communities that are less inclusive and more and more restrictive as to limited ethnic background, language, religion and even race. As we do this, we lose more of what makes us unique. You can find restricted communities, and excluded minorities anywhere in the world, but the concept of a "melting pot" is unique to the US of A. We may yet be far from perfect, but that is not a sufficient reason for abandoning the effort.

Regionalism can be good in many ways, as long as it doesn't reach the point of exclusion or take us in the opposite direction from the path we've followed for 230 years.

Jesse said...

This is an excellent comment by Al, who brings up a good point. Regionalism, ethnic conflict and separatism have all caused numerous conflicts throughout the history of the Twentieth century. To bring up a few examples: Yugoslavia, the Spanish Civil War (though one could just as easily blame the war on the forces of centralism as on separatism, certainly it was the centralists that set up the concentration camps), Northern Ireland, the Eritrean separatists in Ethiopia, the great colonial wars (for example Algeria, French Indo-China), the Chechen Conflict, the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lanka, Basque ETA in Spain and Islamic separatism in India.

At first glance, one might perhaps proclaim that regionalism should be abandoned without hesitation. How much death and suffering could have been avoided if these groups, and others I have not mentioned, did not raise up the standard of independence. In this light, regionalism should be completely abandoned and we should instead turn to integration and centralization.

However, we forget that these conflicts did not appear out of knowhere, peoples rarely join empires of their own free will. There would have been no colonial wars if the European nations did not conquer, brutually in most cases, other peoples with the aim of exploitation. Stalin's centralization of power and crass manipulation of ethnic conflict laid the seeds of much of Russia's modern strife. Likewise, it was the ferocity of oppression suffered in Spain that gave rise to ETA and the corruption and tyranny of Ethiopia that inspired the Eritrean rebels. I do not need to repeat here the long sufferings and indignations of the Irish people.

While the ethnic conflicts of the last century were horrible stains on humanity, we must not forget that the greatest tyrants of the Twentieth Century: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Ayatollah Khomeini and Pol Pot were not separatists, but instead centralists. It was the desire to bring power into a single individual, party or ideology, instead of within the people, the true sovereigns, that has lead to the greatest bloodshed.

And yet, to focus on bloodshed is to ignore the majority of regionalist movements, which have been incredibly peaceful. I will assert primarily European examples here, as they are those that I, and most of my readers are most familiar with. We look north to Quebec, for example, and see a flourishing regional society that has peacefully brought a revival of its own identity. In Spain, the strength of regional identity is palpable, and despite the violence associated with ETA, most regionalists are peaceful people. It is a nation with six regional languages and strong local identity, but it has not dissolved into violence. In the UK, the Welsh, Scots and Cornish have been reasserting their identity. In Belgium, the Walloons and Flemish have emerged again, in Italy the Veneto and in France the Basques and Bretons. Czechoslovakia divided peacefully into two nations and the USSR into 15 new states. India, with its millions of citizens seceeded from the British Empire with little struggle. In fact, most of the British Empire left her rule without violence.

I think what we must remember when we discuss regionalism, is that it does not equal separatism and that separatism does not equal violence. It is easy for us in an increasingly centralized state to forget that regionalism and federalism have respected histories and should be considered as part of our "toolbox" for social problems. A nation-state, a US state and even a regional identity are all constructed things by human beings for the benefit of human beings. I say that we should not dismiss regionalism out of hand simply because it has lead to violence, I would argue that the 20th century points instead to the other direction: the centralization, imperialism and homogenization are almost inevitably the harbingers of tyranny and oppression.

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Jairo Skinner said...

London-born rapper Sway is to be honoured at the BET Hip-Hop awards in the US...

Luis Carney said...

The Rolling Stones postpone a show in the US to allow singer Sir Mick Jagger time to rest his voice...

Jesse said...

Due to an overwhelming amount of spam on this thread (which can be seen in the last three that managed to slip through), the comment feature will be turned off on this post. If you desire to make a comment, please email us at york.staters@gmail.com and we will post it, provided you're a real person, not a robot. Sorry for the inconvenience.