Steve Pinker recently published this NY Times piece on the geo-ancestral cultural roots of contemporary political divisions – my advisor at BCEP was kind enough to bring it to my attention. The underlying point of Pinker’s paper is common sense: understanding our nation’s geo-ancestry can help us understand the political divides of today. We are all vestiges of cultures past. But our cultural heritage stems not just from people, but also from place or topos (hence, “geo”-ancestry). Depending on where your ancestors came from, there’s a certain likelihood that your political allegiances will take one form or another because that place so influenced your ancestral culture and way of life that its remnants have trickled through history all the way to you.
I really recommend reading this piece for yourself because the next few thoughts won’t do his reasoning or research justice (nor will it fully capture all of his ideas), but the upshot is this: Pinker contends that if your colonial ancestors were from England, they were probably farmers, and moved to the Northern/Northeastern US, which translates today into a form of left-wing progressive liberalism. On the other hand, if your ancestors were Scots-Irish, they were probably herders, and moved to the Southern colonies/states, which translates today to right-wing (religious) conservativism.
Of course, many (if not most) Americans hail historically from places other than England, Scotland, or Ireland – this, I presume, is part of why Pinker’s next generalization is useful: forget particular countries; if the place and culture shared by your distant family was herding-based, chances are your ancestors’ relationship with the state partly resembled anarchy. If your family’s heritable culture was farming-based, it’s likely that your ancestors lived somewhere that the government’s role was more prominent. The former (herding and anarchical cultural heritage) corresponds with conservative and libertarian beliefs. The latter tends to correspond to left-wing progressive liberalism. So, the relevant political question then becomes: were your distant relatives herders or farmers?
And then, post-colonialism, Pacific-bound trailblazers were re-exposed to the anarchy of Westward expansion, reinforcing conservative and libertarian views in the mountain and southwest desert states. So this adds yet another dynamic to the system.
At the root of it all, however, Pinker and political philosophers theorize, is a contest between views about human nature – that is, whether you think human nature is fixed, flawed, and must be controlled as if by a strict parent through tried-and-true cultural and religious practices, or if you think human nature is malleable through wisdom and reason, and that public institutions can guide the progress of society like a nurturing care-taker. Pinker refers to these points of view, respectively, as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision of human nature. The Tragic Vision, he suggests, grows out of the anarchical experience, whereas the Utopian Vision stems from living in closer relation to the state. Both of these, again, he says are largely determined by one’s geo-ancestry.
So this line of thought is an interesting one! But how accurate is it? How does it hold up “on the ground?” How about a case study?
In fact, I think I personally make for an odd case for Pinker’s theory — my Scottish ancestors (herders) moved to West Virginia (a northern state) in the early-to-mid 1800s. My relatives moved to Louisiana in the early 20th century, and then my grandfather moved the family to Texas in the 70s (both southern honor culture, with Texas culture being especially anarchical). So how does my geo-ancestry line up with my politics and ideals today?
I think something in between the Utopian Vision of humanity and the Tragic Vision of human nature is probably closest to the truth: human nature is malleable by reason and cultivated skill to an extent, so certain tendencies like violence, while innate and a constant struggle, are largely suppressible or ready to be channeled in constructive ways like martial arts.
I would say children are closer to being Rousseau’s noble savages than Hobbes’ nasty brutes (re: Montessori education). I believe that free markets usually make for freer people than command economies – the state is not omniscient, or really even close enough to make reliable guesses with economic policy. I believe faith has the potential to make individual people nicer and more compassionate, but I certainly don’t think religion has proven to be a work-around for shortcomings like violence and intolerance writ-large. I believe in the purity and sanctity of the body (both human and Earth), and I believe that providing care and avoiding harm are both important.
If you believe the character of the state should be parental (and I’m hesitant to admit that it should), we probably need it to fill both parental roles: one strict, the other nurturing. I think protecting the environment is among the most fundamental, non-arbitrary interests we can fulfill. I believe that a powerful military is necessary and desirable. And I believe that individual freedom in culture and sexuality is paramount for a healthy society.
So, maybe Pinker’s “herder-shepherd : right-left” analogy is more flexible than a strict dipole – beliefs from one set aren’t necessarily inconsistent or incompatible with beliefs from the other. I for one seem to fall on both sides of the distinction in terms of topos and present beliefs. In either case, it’s an interesting topological framework through which to conceptualize today’s politics – here’s to contemplating the politico-ideological impacts of geo-ancestral heritage! What story does your geo-ancestry tell?