Sliced, Diced, Polarized

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 17, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- One of the side effects of the primary season is that for a few precious weeks every four years, the United States is divided into its 50 parts. We experience a resurgence of states' rights -- the rights of states to be themselves and different from each other.

The South rises again. The Rust Belt re-emerges. Texans in ten-gallon hats tell the teevee folk just how big they think. And candidates talk of home turf and neutral ground.

In just this past week, an Illinois party chair told a reporter, ''This isn't Colorado where people are looking at mountains and streams every day.'' A Florida campaign manager explained that outsiders don't ''understand'' her state. And assorted people were quoted describing their states as ''unique,'' ''different'' and ''special.''

This attack of states-ism or regionalism will eventually subside. But not before it raises all sorts of flags. Is geography destiny? Does where we live still determine how we live and even think? Or is it only the local color of our national and personal identities?

As a native New Englander, I like a certain accent in my life. While I don't pahk my cah in Hahvahd yahd -- towing fees in Cambridge are astronomical -- the everyday concerns of how I dress (warmly) and where I spend my days (indoors) are affected my location on the national weather chart. My attitude may be equally affected by the economic map: gloomy.

But increasingly, regional identity is like regional cooking. It exists but it's harder to find. It's less likely to be cooked as daily fare for the natives than as special treats for the tourists. They serve grits in the South and coffee before dinner in the Midwest, but today it's easier to get a McNugget in Boston than a pot of baked beans.

In the last 50 years, America has become both homogenized and subdivided. Walk into any mall and you see the same brand names. Where there's a Gap, there's a uniform America. We have become a mass market, an 800 number, a network television show.

In a crisis, we get the same news at the same time from the same network anchors. We are expected to respond to the same anthems, star-spangled banners and yellow ribbons.

But we are increasingly stratified and clustered in small ''communities'' that have no geographic roots at all. The medical ''community'' has no borders, nor does the arts ''community'' nor the educational ''community.''

Americans, who move 12 times in an average life, may identify more with their professional peers than their next-door neighbors. Those who catch a computer virus may have more in common than people who catch the flu from each other.

At the other end of the spectrum, America has become a loose collection of individuals. The media not only broadcasts, it also narrowcasts to us. The national audience these days is divided into 100 different cable channels according to a hundred different special interests from opera to animals.

Advertisers talk more about markets than about cities with names. They pick and choose the right zip codes from coast to coast to create a consumer neighborhood out of strangers.

This restructuring of America from 50 states to hundreds of markets and more ''communities of choice'' is a by-product of the data collectors. On polls and in graphs we are increasingly divided by race, gender, ethnicity, education, income, religion. A fourth-generation American may carry more hyphens in his name than his immigrant ancestor.

This polarizing process creates a generic American at one end and millions of individuals at the other. But in this shifting terrain the states and the regions have lost much of their meaning in our lives. Our sense of place has no place to go.

So for a few more weeks, we'll be hearing the politics of state and the primacy of region. But there is less here than meets the map.

Today, politics are no more or less rooted than George Bush's hometown. The down-home flavor of a presidential election in the 1990s is about as real as Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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