Saturday, August 16, 2008


Steve Benen was scratching his head yesterday trying to figure out what Peggy Noonan was getting at in her latest column. I'm going to venture a guess.

Noonan wrote:

The end of placeness is one of the features of the campaign. I do not like it.

... quick, close your eyes. Where is Barack Obama from?

He's from Young. He's from the town of Smooth in the state of Well Educated. He's from TV.

John McCain? He's from Military. He's from Vietnam Township in the Sunbelt state.

...Neither man has or gives a strong sense of place in the sense that American politicians almost always have, since Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, and Abe Lincoln of Illinois, and FDR of New York, and JFK of Massachusetts. Even Bill Clinton was from a town called Hope, in Arkansas, even if Hope was really Hot Springs. And in spite of his New England pedigree, George W. Bush was a Texan, as was, vividly, LBJ....

First of all, as Steve pointed out yesterday (and as I pointed out a while back when David Brooks was writing in a similar vein), a lot of pols -- most notably the New England-born Bushes -- aren't really rooted in the places they want you to see as their homes.

But what is it about "placeness" that Noonan likes so much? Steve is baffled, but I'm going to throw out one theory.

Near the end of her column, Noonan told us this:

I was at a gathering a few weeks ago for an aged Southern sage, a politico with an accent so thick you have to lean close and concentrate to understand every word, so thick, as they used to say, you could pour it on pancakes. Most of the people there were from the South, different ages and generations but Southerners -- the men grounded and courteous in a certain way, the women sleeveless and sexy in a certain way. There was a lot of singing and toasting and drinking, and this was the thing: Even as an outsider, you knew them. They were Mississippi Delta people -- Mizz-izz-DEHLT people -- and the sense of placeness they brought into the room with them was sweet to me. It allowed you to know them, in the same way that at a gathering of, say, Irish Catholics from the suburbs of Boston, you would be able to know them, pick up who they are, with your American antennae. You grow up, move on, and bring the Delta with you, but as each generation passes, the Delta disappears, as in time the ward and the parish disappear.

Odd -- odd that Noonan's two examples of the glories of "placeness" would be two groups historically identified with ethnic atomization and, at times, racist violence. Yeah, I know Noonan carefully wrote "Irish Catholics from the suburbs of Boston," but I'm certain her first thought was just to write "Boston," or "South Boston," but she knew she had to avoid the implications of that.

Having grown up in Boston, I can tell you that ethnic groups knew their place, even before busing -- first (in my parents' day) ethnic enclave versus ethnic enclave, and eventually white versus black.

My sense, going back there now, is that it's not like that anymore -- Massachusetts does, after all, have the only elected black governor in the country. The tribalism seems much reduced. There've been changes in the white South, too.

But I'm not sure Peggy thinks those changes are all to the good. She misses the old days, and clings to signs that the old ways endure.

I'm also struck by this in Noonan's column:

I miss the old geographical vividness. But we are national now, and in a world so global that at the Olympics, when someone wins, wherever he is from, whatever nation or culture, he makes the same movements with his arms and face to mark his victory. South Korea's Park Tae-hwan moves just like Michael Phelps, with the "Yes!" and the arms shooting upward and the fists. This must be good. Why does it feel like a leveling? Like a squashing and squeezing down of the particular, local and authentic.

What exactly does she miss? I'd like to give her credit -- I'd like to believe that she's not nostalgic for an old image of Asians as buck-toothed chinky Chinamen out of mid-century American ethnic humor, or hoping to see a lack of overt emotion she can regard as Asian and "exotic." But I'm just not sure.


Maybe I'm being too harsh. But at the very least, what Noonan seems to want is for all of us to be "hyphenated Americans." I don't get it -- I thought conservatives hated that kind of thinking. Or is it bad only if you're an American of, say, African or Mexican descent, but perfectly fine if you're Irish?

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