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Sunday, October 07, 2012

Southern Mind, Better Keep Your Head

Historians can be cruising along nicely, doing a great job of explaining what actually happened in the past, when they are suddenly struck by Diamond syndrome: they grow fearful that they have gone on doing history too long without giving some master explanation at a higher level than individual action. Consider the following:

"Once again it is the southern mind, its long-prevailing sense of opportunity, competition, and risk, that explains all governing motives in the Gulf are drama of 1810-1811." -- Burstein and Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, p. 492, emphasis mine

Burstein and Isenberg are explaining the actions of four main figures: Jefferson, Madison, George Matthews, and Fulwar Skipwith. The thing is, each of them acted somewhat differently in regard to Spanish possession on the Gulf of Mexico. And yet somehow all of those different approaches have one explanation: the southern mind.

Certainly there would be commonalities in the way most southerners saw things, and that can certainly be a part of an historical explanation. But a "long-prevailing sense of opportunity, competition, and risk"? Are there people somewhere on the earth who aren't concerned with "opportunity, competition, and risk"? And isn't it somewhat demeaning to individuals to take all agency away from them and attribute it only to their culture instead? What if I claimed "The above passage can be entirely explained by the authors' Jewish-American minds?"* Wouldn't they be a little offended, and rightly so?

* -- Yes, I am just assuming from the last names that the authors are Jewish. It hardly matters to my point: if they aren't, just make up a similar claim about "academic minds" or something of the sort.

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