Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Maryland, My Maryland

Finally, I think I feel OK about being a Marylander! Though I still wouldn't object if an opportunity came along to move back to NY, as the prospect of staying here grows, I'm finding ways to come to terms with it. I don't think I've mentioned here except in passing that we're buying a townhouse in Elkridge--not too far east of here, but significantly closer to Holy Cross. (At the same time, with faster routes involved, it shouldn't affect significantly the time it takes to get to Bethany or where I work.) We're buying through a county program for poor folk--developers get a break on the density rules, and in exchange they make available a certain number of units for sale at lower prices through a lottery. In a way, I kind of like the randomness--it's less burden on us to pick something ideal. On the other hand, what we're getting has significant drawbacks. It will be harder to get to work by public transit, the distribution of space in the house is a bit odd, and there's no yard to speak of (without the benefits of living in a truly urban setting either). Still, I hope to do some gardening where I can, and it looks like there's a farmer's market on the corner. The library is closer than what we have now, and they're supposed to be putting in a path to walk directly from our development over to the elementary and middle schools. It should be tolerable.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. The point is, it looks like we're probably here for the long haul. So it's time to put down some roots and make this place my own. That's a difficult thing to do in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. With so much government and military, and ever-expanding suburbs and exurbs, it's like your typical cosmopolitan city, only with even less local character. What's a localist like me to do?

Well, for starters, learn something about where I am. Here's one cool thing: Maryland cuts across four geographical regions--the Appalachian Mountains in the west, the Piedmont (foothills) in the middle, and the Atlantic coastal plain in the east. Which will we be in? None of the above. Elkridge happens to sit right on the Fall Line--the boundary between the Piedmont and the coastal plain. In a fairly narrow span, the elevation drops significantly, identifiable in particular by waterfalls where rivers cross it. We'll be right on the edge, neither here nor there.

Speaking of boundaries and neither here nor there, where is Maryland? The North or the South? (No copping out and calling it Mid-Atlantic, either.) It gets fairly cold in the winter, with some snow, which might suggest the North. On the other hand, they have no clue what to do with snow here, and sometimes it seems like spring and fall last only a week or two, which is more like the South. Its northern border is the Mason-Dixon Line, which would make it South, just barely. But it stayed in the Union during the Civil War, which would make it the North. Keep in mind, though, that it stayed at gunpoint. Lincoln didn't want Washington surrounded by Confederate states, so he sent troops to arrest and imprison Maryland's elected leaders--anyone who might cause trouble--and shut them up in Ft. McHenry. Maryland was cautious about secession anyway, because they knew it would be on the border and play host to major battles. So who knows what would have happened if left to their own devices?

These days, with most of its population concentrated in this suburban nowhere, Maryland tends to align politically with the North. What surprised me, though, was an aberrant vestige from the Maryland of the Civil War era--the official state song, "Maryland, My Maryland." I was Googling Maryland and "the South," when I came across it for the first time. The song was written after a deadly altercation in which Union soldiers passing through Baltimore were attacked by a secessionist mob. The songwriter, James Ryder Randall, a native of Maryland, was living in Louisiana at the time. When he heard about the bloodshed, he wrote this nine-stanza poem, which was quickly set to music and became a popular anthem throughout the South. Almost 80 years later, it was selected as the state song of Maryland and has been ever since. You can see the full lyrics at either of the links above--definitely worth it--but here are a few choice excerpts (keeping in mind who the enemy is in context):
The despot's heel is on thy shore . . .
His torch is at thy temple door . . .
Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain . . .
Virginia should not call in vain . . .
"Sic semper!" 'tis the proud refrain . . .
Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll . . .
Thou wilt not crook to his control . . .
Better the fire upon thee roll,
Better the blade, the shot, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the soul . . .
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
Yes, he just called Lincoln "despot . . . tyrant . . . Vandal"; yes, he spoke the same Latin as John Wilkes Booth; and yes, Maryland schoolchildren (though perhaps not so much in recent years?) learned to sing about "Northern scum." Say what you want about the Maryland of today, but a state that could inspire this song has got to have something going for it.

Now, let me clarify a bit. I'm no proponent of American slavery, and I don't think that everything about the South--then or now--was right. So why am I, born and raised (mostly) in the North, so excited about this song? I'm sure at least some of it is the sheer surprise at finding such a state song, especially in such a state. But more than that, I do in fact sympathize with the Southern cause in the Civil War (War between the States, War of Northern Aggression, etc.). As a localist, I prefer my government decentralized, to the greatest extent practical. When the U. S. Constitution was written, there was a much clearer balancing of state and federal powers than what we've had for more than a century now. As I see it, that balance was upset decisively on the battlefields of this region where I now live.

I reject the notion that slavery was the fundamental issue of the War. Lincoln himself said that preserving the Union was a higher priority. The differences between the industrial North and the agrarian South had come to a head, and in the tradition of the American Revolution, it was time for the two sections to go their separate ways. Defending the Union was a convenient way to legitimize the Northern interests as higher and better; focusing on slavery was a convenient way to demonize the economy of the South. The Northern victory secured for industry a dominant role in American life, to the point that even what now passes for agriculture works more like a factory than anything remotely organic. The Federal government has become increasingly invasive in our lives, with fewer and fewer resources under the control of local communities. (Does anyone even remember what the word "federal" means?) Old structures and traditions have been sacrificed on the altar of Progress. Local cultures are deteriorating, only to be replaced by the global anti-culture of the corporate media.

To the extent that the agrarian South stood against these trends, to the extent that Northern victory served to diminish the cultural diversity and balance of these United States--yes, I lament that victory. I lament the bloodshed. I lament the nation that was lost. This is not to say that no good came as well. The end of slavery was an end to be desired (though, we have to ask some serious questions about how effective that end was); was civil war the only or right way to make it happen? Perhaps the North is a better place for still having some influence from the South, though it's hard for me to believe that the benefits there outweigh the negative effects on South or the nation as a whole.

The outcome is what it is, and we'd best get on with life. But there is still a need for people to stand against tyranny. There is still a daily choice to be made between the ideals of the Revolution and the expedience of overcentralization. There is still opportunity to support local institutions and culture. As long as we have these things, we need songs like this. I'm proud to live in a state that still sings it, however faintly.

3 comments:

River Cocytus said...

Well, I think it was less the War Between the States specifically and more reconstruction followed by the New Deal that really rung the death knell for real local culture and community. The 'Great Society' program closed the coffin.

What passes for local culture often has the feel of a museum: things we talk about and watch that nobody but preservationists do. Which is also partly a misunderstanding about 'culture' (which perhaps Anthropology inadvertently created) - that it is some kind of static, unalterable life that people 'used' to live or live in other places.

Plus, a bit of material promise - parks, public services, retirements, vacations, security, healthcare...

Probably, not one of those things is enough to do local culture in, but add them all together..

River Cocytus said...

Ps - This is Garth.

Trevor said...

Certainly, there was plenty more to come, but I still think the decisive turning point was the War. It tipped the scales in favor of centralized power and the rest, as they say, is history. Was there still a chance to salvage a more decentralized, localized culture? Perhaps. But I don't think we've ever since been in a better position than we were then to see the states assert their independent will.

Note, BTW, that I would not argue 50 strong states (or a confederacy of some section) are qualitatively better than a strong federal government. They can become just as abusive in their own right. The key is balance. Real power in the states can help to offset the power of the central government. We could have seen just as many (though perhaps different) negative consequences at the local level if states' power had triumphed as decisively over federal.