There is no Real America
Well, now they have a suspect in custody for the attempted Times Square bombing. As he’s a naturalized citizen from Pakistan, we can expect right wing bloggers to ratchet up the nonsense. Roy Edroso detailed what is perhaps the itchiest annoying trope—the pseudo-love of New York City that’s pouring from people who otherwise use the city as an example of a cesspool of liberalism.
But the worst part, for any of us have claimed the proud title of Citizen of New York, was the clammy hand of rightbloggers clamping on the shoulders of New Yorkers, simultaneously pretending to offer solace for the non-explosion and demanding political favors.
The whole thing does reveal a comical bit of cognitive dissonance for movement conservatives, one they don’t have to deal with except when something like this attempted car bombing happens. Wingnuts think of themselves as the True Patriots, the keepers of the flame of Americana, the people who really cherish this country sea to shining sea. But they don’t particularly like the urban areas. This presents a problem, since most nations are defined through their cities, and ours is no exception. I’m sure wingnuts would like to think that we’re exempt from the fact that people think “Paris” when they think of France or “Tokyo” when they think of Japan or “Moscow” when they think of Russia. But even if you can tune out what foreigners think, you’re still faced with the fact that the cultural centers that create most of what we think of as American culture are our big cities. Even the idealized images of small town America that entrance the wingnutteria were often invented and promulgated by creative types that live in the hated urban hellholes. Wingnuts rail against New York City and Los Angeles and San Francisco because they don’t want to admit that these places are where our culture comes from, and that their idea of Real America as being whitebred suburban America is only part of the story.
Nothing new there, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this clash between the Real America ideal being touted by the conservative movement, and, you know, real America. The one happening right in front of our eyes. This whole Arizona thing has really drudged up a lot of memories of living in the Southwest as a kid.* And having thought about it, and how conservative white people act in the Southwest, I finally settled on a way to describe it. Basically, a lot of white people in the Southwest buy into the image of small town Midwestern or even Southern America. They dream of white picket fences, casserole dishes, going fishing on the weekends, fill in your cultural stereotype. But the Southwest doesn’t look or feel quite like that image. It’s fewer white picket fences and more cactus gardens. It’s less green bean casserole and more enchiladas. The Christmas traditions were less sleigh rides and more luminarios. It’s less cities named Indianapolis and Cleveland and more named El Paso and Santa Fe. The oldest historical landmarks aren’t revolutionary war memorials or the homes of prestigious Victorians, but Spanish missions and Native American ruins. It’s less tree-lined streets that give comfort and closeness, and more broad desert vistas that make you feel a little small while the world looks big and old.
The reaction to this cultural difference is a mixed one for a lot of conservative white people. On one hand, they try to contain it through the cute. They get their houses decorated with touches of Southwestern decor, and entertain guests from back East by treating these differences like an inconsequential tourist attraction, and basically try to control and minimize. They mispronounce the Spanish names of everything around them. They treat cooking Tex-Mex like it’s an occasional novelty instead of just how you eat. But the fact that no, we really are different gets to them, and they battle this lurking suspicion that they really can’t completely own the Southwest, no matter how many Applebee’s you plant there. And they take their rage out on their Mexican-American neighbors, who are the most visible example of how the Southwest is different, and they can’t control that difference. They use “illegal immigration” as a cover, but it’s basically an all-out culture war on a culture that stubbornly insists on being itself, a blend between the U.S. and Mexican cultures and uniquely its own.
Of course, this is mainly a transplant issue. White people brought up from babyhood in the Southwest are far more likely to regard what’s “different” about it as normal, and far less likely, in my experience, to exhibit hostility towards Hispanic people. (Though there’s still a lot of racism there.) For me, the parts of the country that are considered more of an iconic America were the strange places. The white picket fence and tree-lined streets was what looked weird to me. And now that I’m living in New York, I really begin to see how much the Southwest is ignored as a legitimate part of the United States, and its culture is treated as alien, and its political landscape is sorely misunderstood.
*Texas is a weird state, in that the state is so big and so centrally located that it doesn’t fit into any one region of the country. West Texas is very much in the Southwest. The Panhandle and the Dallas area fit more into the Midwest culture. East Texas is more like the South. And Central Texas is a true hodge podge, which is why I like it.