Tuesday, January 17, 2017


As a frequent visitor to the USA I think I should offer my thoughts.

I visit the US pretty frequently. Once a year usually. Sometimes more. Garden lectures, work trips, leading garden tours etc.
I've read a lot about American history and keep up with the politics.
So, I think I'm in a good position to make some comments, particularly aimed at fellow Europeans who are aghast at the election of the man one US journalist dubbed “Donald Trumplethinskin”. In fact I think I have something of a duty to help explain, and suggest some reading matter. So here goes:

Firstly, the gardening crowd I meet are overwhelmingly well-travelled, open-minded, liberal. I have only once had socialise with someone who asked me things like - “is it true that Muslim fundamentalists are taking over Switzerland?” Yes, really. That was in North Carolina (since you ask). He listened to Fox News, which clearly has a lot to answer for, and gives you a good idea of the kind of misinformation which makes up many people's supply of news.

Oddly though, the garden groups that make invitations are overwhelmingly in the North-East (New England, New York, Pennsylvania) or the West Coast, and perhaps Chicago. I have only twice, in the course of a twenty year history of lecturing in the US, had invitations from The South (capital T, capital S). There is a deep garden culture here though. But it is not necessarily what we might expect After all, they have a magazine, called 'Garden and Gun'. Yes, really, I am not making this up. You can look at their website.

The 'gun' refers to the love of hunting (a form of nature appreciation though many might not see it like this), and linking the two together does help hint at part of the explanation of real difference we Europeans feel about the US. Its the whole thing of being a pioneer: grow your own veg, shoot your own supper, look after your own needs, don't need no government to tell me what to do. These attitudes are particularly strong in the South and parts of the west but can be found anywhere. A good guide to understanding them is the book: American Beliefs

Growing your own supper and shooting your own veg is one thing but in the crowded, interdependent modern world, the extreme individualism of the pioneer mentality militates against community and social responsibility. This atavistic pioneer mindset is what has driven The Tea Party and the hostility to national health care, which we Europeans see as one of the benchmarks of a civilised society.

The question of The South gets to a crucial point in how we outsiders understand the US, and the seeming insanity of their recent presidential election – the United States of America is anything but united, and never really has been. The post-war period did show an exceptional unity, and we can be forgiven for thinking, as we peer across the pond, that 'they' really are one people. Not any more, as the bitter divisions over Trumpthinskin are showing. These divisions reflect some very different political cultures, essentially geographically defined and dating back a long time. One of the most useful books to help you understand this is American Nations.

Which sets out to establish that there are eleven very distinct cultures across North America, whose origins, often during the first few decades of European settlement, have somehow fixed a particular mentality and culture. The author argues that this has stayed remarkably stable over time. Reading this book explains so much, and in particular should warn us away from lazy stereotyping: e.g. gun-toting maniacs? no, most of the guns are owned by people in very distinct geographical areas; a country of immigration? not really, most immigrants go to a few cities or regions. It does a lot to explain the major differences in political behaviour and almost visceral loathing between different political tendencies which we now see developing.

We all know about the Civil War of 1861 to 1865 – a bloodbath if ever there was one. That was the civil war that really took off. The War of Independence (1775–1783) was effectively a bloodbath of a civil war too (wars of independence usually are: ask an Algerian or Zimbabwean). The latter was followed by a series of armed conflicts which almost flared into civil wars. A recent and very well-reviewed book covers this period well and debunks many a myth of national unity: American Revolutions

Looking back over the course of US political history, the election of a failed businessman and game show host does not look so extraordinary. Politics has often been violent and corrupt, especially in the big cities; to take one example Chicago's Richard Daley (Mayor from 1955 to 1976) is infamous for the expression "Vote early - and often". To get an idea of the long history behind Trump look here.
 BTW, Daley's son was Mayor too, but made of better stuff - it was he who got the Lurie Garden and many good green things happening in the city.
To return to The South. Of course there are plenty of good people here, but there is undeniably a large sector of the white population who have never confronted the evil of slavery and the following century of lynching, segregation and denial of the vote as a moral outrage, and who saw the election of a black man to the White House, as something deeply and totally unacceptable. I want to say that I think it is difficult for Europeans to understand how deeply racist the white South is, but then I remember the Holocaust. But then western Europe at least has confronted its horrors, and moved forward in a way the white South has really failed do so.

One way of looking at the last few decades of US politics is to see the poisonous politics of the white South seeping beyond its old boundaries – the spread of Southern-style Christian Conservatism (80% voted for Trump the sexual predator), the continued killings of young black men by the police, the refusal to accept Obama as a legitimate (i.e. American-born) president. For the next few years it is the race factor that really worries me – things could get very nasty indeed. Black Americans' lives have not gotten one iota better under Obama. Remember the Black Panthers? The KKK? With Trump in control, they could both enjoy a revival.

I have mentioned the deepening of already deep divisions. This is one thing which is very frightening about the US right now, two nations who listen to different news outlets, live in different neighbourhoods, keep different friends, and I am not just talking about Black and White, but about Democrat and Republican voting blocks. No-one seems to listen to each other any more. There is a silo-thinking of which liberals are also guilty of; express an opinion which is divergent to the liberal canon and you can get some odd looks – I shall never forget stating how I thought GM crops were a good thing and hearing a dinner table fall silent. At its worst we see this in the universities and the stifling intolerance of political correctness which is increasingly making a mockery of freedom of speech. There are a lot of liberals who need to get out more and listen more.

Finally, don't give up on our friends and colleagues over the pond. There is always a latent anti-americanism in Europe just below the surface, which Trumplethinskin's antics will do much to increase. Visit, keep in touch and show solidarity!


Benjamin Vogt said...

While race issues are critical, that's part of a deeper issue -- social and financial inequality. And this reality isn't just American, it's global. I think what we might really be seeing is frustration with a global economy that's also based on technology, so old ways of earning a living are vanishing without replacement jobs coming in (even as those jobs exist). We need social programs on a grand scale that retrain blue collar workers, preferably as they fix our crumbling highways and energy grid and as we switch to renewable energy. We also can't have 8 men having the wealth of half the global population. I think, too, we're looking at rural vs. urban -- the urbanites are liberal, the rural are conservative (in general). The rural way, the yeoman farmer myth, is a thing of the past but we still hold on to it as a cultural identity... even in the urban world. Yes, we are too individualistic, but we are also too divorced from our land base. I touch on some of these issues tangentially in my forthcoming book on garden design as a form of social activism for all species. Thank you for your thoughts from across the pond!

nicolien said...

Since 1982 I have lived in the USA and traveled around quite a bit. Your assessment is quite correct and it is hard to measure the depth of racial hate since everywhere there are liberals in between. A friend of mine , also Dutch by birth and open-minded, lived in Montana where she attended a neighborhood get-together. The woman next to her asked: do you also shoot to kill? No, my friend replied, I do not even have a gun.
The lady replied: Well, I shoot to kill! My friend asked what would happen to her if she had a flat tire and would knock at her door for help? The lady grinned and said: you would be dead before you reached my door! She meant it ! Was she threatened daily? No, my friend with no gun loved the area but that Wild West mentality with a readiness to kill never seemed to have changed since the beginning when Europeans too the lands of the native tribes.
The other side of the coin: I took a good friend of my son to a play of "Ida B." at the Arena theater in DC. It was a play of a feisty black woman in 1900 in Chicago who ran a printing company. She telling the story about lynchings and how the white society dealt with that: schools were closed so everyone, kids included, could watch, new clothes were bought and people dressed like they went to church..... train and bus tickets were half price for all whites, the only ones getting exited by this horrible event. I am a white Dutch woman, a garden designer, and my guest was a black friend of my son. At the theatre I was almost the only white woman in the crowd surrounded by a total black audience.....to be honest I was not even that aware of that fact until we got up after the first half of the lay during the intermission. I felt such a deep shame, the Dutch had 8% of the slave trade compared to 46% English and 45% Spanish . I told my young friend, whom I treated to this play due to his graduation of high school , how shocked and shamed I felt hearing all this...... He looked at me, gave me his bright smile and said: no, this is so long ago....look how far we have come! You, a white woman, take me to a play, a white woman takes me to a black play, is that not amazing! I talked about slavery, my cuntries involvement and maybe I would have been one 0f the spectators? He felt times had changed, he was optimistic and said that slavery as such was gone! I was great full he showed me how he viewed the world, what a wonderful soul I thought. Two days later I took my son with another black friend to see it again, it was such a powerful play......

When Obama came into office we all were so exited but when O'Connell and Tea Party friends vowed publicly to block Obama's proposals to make him fail I felt we landed back in 1900 where Ida B. would have told me that my not much had changed, it was now just beneath the surface but still boiling and alive. The US is indeed a country full of contradictions, factions, ignorance and full of ' tribal thinking' not willing to come together but luckily forced by people like MLK to rethink their positions.
Since Obama many many black doctors, scientists, lawyers, journalists have been on TV and are there to stay, something not possible in the 80-90 ties . Just a few observations triggered by your analysis . America and Democracy is still seen as an experiment and the set back with Trump is a strong reaction to Obama's rulings, it is a cry steeped in racial hate. Old president Carter said it after the Tea Party moved in the Congress and he was vilified for it, but he was and is so right!
Nicolien in DC

Saurs said...

As demonstrated by my compatriot, the language of social justice has been co-opted in the US by well-meaning, comfortable white people (the milquetoasts MLK identifies as roadblocks to liberation because they find the work oppressive and the incomplete civil rights of their fellow Americans not particularly compelling enough to warrant direct action), and grifters like Trump are the recipients of their apathy, their discomfort with righteous anger and frustration, their unwillingness to name racism and misogyny. Their environmentalism only extends to animals and grocery stores; Flint doesn't bother them, and they continue to pretend that white supremacy plays no large part in the reactionary violence of the past year. As for country/city mouse tropes, we now know definitively what many of us already suspected: Trump voters are well-off suburbanites, euphemistic "small business owners," barely touched by recession and enormously better off for Obama's economic mandates and tax cits, whose fervor for "anti-globalization" is tissue-thin, xenophobic, and (to put it mildly) selective applied. The US government is at present being stocked full of neoliberals who want to privatize infrastructure, technocrats who want to "modernize" education by stripping it of standards and medicine by removing its regulations, and nationalists of the white-cloaked sort. But, yes, let's talk about homesteading and a "cultural identity" that speaks to only a handful of people in a multicultural society.

If we're looking for solidarity, we'll find it in North Dakota, Ferguson, and in a few days' time, Washington D.C. Plenty of blue collar folk, but of the wrong color of skin, apparently.

Unknown said...

I'd rather hear about sustainable gardening or domething that's your expertise. I'm one of those that voted for Trump from The South be careful not to offend your readers

Howard said...

I don't disagree with your assessment, but I wonder if the problem is a little more widespread than you suggest. Remember that the Italians repeatedly elected Silvio Berlusconi, a man who was every bit Trump's equal in vulgarity and venality, while the immortal line "the smirking fascist in the corner is hoisting his pint glass and humming Tomorrow Belongs to Me" had a well-known English advocate of Brexit as its target - and no prize for guessing which one. Even in liberal, peaceful Canada, our largest city re-elected Rob Ford as mayor and would have re-elected him again had he not become fatally ill. So, while the US is undoubtedly "exceptional," it isn't necessarily unique.

Solidago said...

A lot of us over here--at least 51%--are aghast too. Sadly, eventually everyone will be aghast when it's clear that Trump isn't going to bring the New Jerusalem to the parts of the nation that voted for him, that he's making foreign policy to benefit his businesses, that he has wrecked 50 years of international treaties including NATO--when he tries to use the power of his office to suppress dissent, wrecks the dollar, and the nation's emergency rooms are full of people who were tossed out along with Obamacare. Gardeners of America, raise your trowels in protest!

Nic said...

I am afraid you are rather feeding into the all-to-common"alt-right" - that is, fake news-peddling white-supremacist, misogynist, and homophobic - propaganda about freedom of speech regarding your comments about universities. As both an academic in training and a German-American gay man, I have to point out that putting limits on what is plainly hate speech - on claiming that homosexuality is morally wrong and can and should be cured, or that Muslims are a threat to civilization, or that Hinduism is the only legitimate religion for an Indian person - in the class room or in university-sponsored public events or lectures is not a general suppression of free speech or "political correctness" gone berserk. It is merely an effort to create a safe learning and working environment. I am not sure you quite understand the psychological toll that the vicious hatred spewed by many quarters of American society when it comes to race - The South, as you rightly point out, and most of the Midwest is not much better, though unfortunately no part of the country is entirely devoid of it - but also religion, gender, sexuality, and many another identity markers can have on the psyche of members of those minorities. There has to be a balance between "absolute" freedom of expression and protecting students - and to some degree researchers and faculty - from real harm. And yes, that means that old white straight men can no longer say and do all the things they used to say and do with impunity. They may vote for authoritarian populists - or Brexit - in protest, but our reaction to that can hardly be to give in to them and their ludicrous sense of "oppression" and let them continue to victimize groups - women, people of color, LGBT people - that are already disadvantaged compared to them. At the end of the day, I do not believe that I should have to stand for someone proclaiming in my place of work that my love for my husband is wrong and should be condemned and somehow "cured", or a person of color that they are inferior, or a Muslim that they have no right to be in America (or Germany, or the UK).

My apologies for the rant - I actually agree with much of your post, and I applaud you for daring to wade into this territory, because for the most part I have been to nauseated to do anything of the sorts - but this is obviously an issue - and, in my opinion, a great misperception - that touches me both professionally and personally.

Panayoti Kelaidis said...

Sad indeed that our political B.S. should seep into your blog. Bottom line: America's 2% amount to nearly seven MILLION MULTI-MULTI-millionaires whose wealth dwarfs the rest of the increasingly poor middle and rapidly swelling classes. If you drove through their gated estates and mega-mansion ghettos last October you would have often found masses of Trump signs. They have more than enough ready cash to pour ENORMOUS sums into the Republican party coffers (after they pay for their second and third homes, as well as their yachts and myriad toys). The Kochs alone put in BILLIONS to support the various cretinous Congressmen. Quite simply put, they outspent, outmaneuvered and just plain beat the pants off the Progressives. And are likely to do so forevermore, barring some miracle. Or a Roosvelt: only the Roosvelts were able to shake down the rich in our history of the last century or so--because they WERE rich (only they had both a conscience and fabulous political skills). I actually know a Roosvelt: a nephew of Franklin's--we're sort of friends. He paints lovely oils and is very well heeled (family money, oil and gas company): once when I said I was grateful for our friendship not only because I loved him and his wife as people--but because I admired his uncles he responded curtly "We never talk about those BASTARDS"....that says it all. It's about greed and power and that's all.

Akyra said...

I too am sad (irritated) that our politics has spread into a garden blog- but it seems that the first worlds are all in an upheaval over the building contrasts in political standings.

I am from the South (not the deep south, but part of the South still). Virginia as a whole voted for the democratic party in this election, but the vote was decided by those in NOVA which is mostly comprised of the "city slickers" who commute to D.C. for work. In the vast majority of VA, there is a LOT of frustration with liberal mindset and higher taxes on small business that always come with the democratic party. My family's business has seen the increase in taxes first hand and we have craved a movement back to the republican side if only for the ease in tax burden (which corresponds to an increase in price to our clients- as any economist understands).

Mr. Trump's personality is abhorrent, of that there is no doubt. However, the political pendulum is ready for a swing in the republican side. There is always a swing back and forth in American politics. From where I am at, I see one side is highly focused on social aspects and globalization, the other more on small businesses growth and an inward view. The older generations NEED the swing back in order to feel their voice is heard and for change to slowly seep into the culture.

There has been a HUGE change in American society in the last four years - not the mention the last eight years. Those who fear that society will drop back into the black ages will find that a pause and slowing of the enormous change isn't a traumatic experience. It takes time for change to occur. I would argue that some of the longest lasting change takes time.

The folks in my town and community are much less racist than the Deep South. There are some white supremacists here, and there are some black supremacists (except that's not a "thing" but is definitely present) - mainly in the gangs. They aren't all over the place. But to say that Trump was put into the presidency because of his personality and hatred is just plain wrong. It may have swayed some people, but most of the people I've talked to believe it was all for showmanship- they are focused on the fact he's conservative. We need the swing back - both socially for generations to "catch up" and economically for small business.

Akyra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan in the Pink Hat said...

While the racist and populist undertones are the most shocking thing to emerge from this election cycle, I see the Trump presidency as the ultimate victory of consumerism and commodification. Even now, Trump's incoherent policy salvos through Twitter appeal to the current and contradictory desires of his base. He is promising everything and anything to a disenchanted white middle class that has grown accustomed to a an economy that caters to their desires, but that world is now threatened by economic realities beyond any single country's control.

Trump's pie-in-the-sky promise-everything approach will fall spectacularly short, and quickly. He will blame Congress and the Democrats for his failure to deliver and a new generation of politicians will go forward armed with the new precedent that they can outright lie about anything and appeal to the basest and most ugly aspects of human prejudice to get into office and maintain power.

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

While the racist and populist undertones are the most shocking thing to emerge from this election cycle, I see the Trump presidency as the ultimate victory of consumerism and commodification. Even now, Trump's incoherent policy salvos through Twitter appeal to the current and contradictory desires of his base. He is promising everything and anything to a disenchanted white middle class that has grown accustomed to a an economy that caters to their desires, but that world is now threatened by economic realities beyond any single country's control.

Trump's pie-in-the-sky promise-everything approach will fall spectacularly short, and quickly. He will blame Congress and the Democrats for his failure to deliver and a new generation of politicians will go forward armed with the new precedent that they can outright lie about anything and appeal to the basest and most ugly aspects of human prejudice to get into office and maintain power.

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

While the racist and populist undertones are the most shocking thing to emerge from this election cycle, I see the Trump presidency as the ultimate victory of consumerism and commodification. Even now, Trump's incoherent policy salvos through Twitter appeal to the current and contradictory desires of his base. He is promising everything and anything to a disenchanted white middle class that has grown accustomed to a an economy that caters to their desires, but that world is now threatened by economic realities beyond any single country's control.

Trump's pie-in-the-sky promise-everything approach will fall spectacularly short, and quickly. He will blame Congress and the Democrats for his failure to deliver and a new generation of politicians will go forward armed with the new precedent that they can outright lie about anything and appeal to the basest and most ugly aspects of human prejudice to get into office and maintain power.

Saurs said...

Trump is no conservative and the mainstream GOP abandoned conservativism a little less than two decades ago. Separating out his abhorrent lies -- ACA to be replaced by something that supposedly functions like ACA, but "cheaper!", draining swamps filled with competent people by dumping greedy dunderheads in their place -- all he advocates for is racial resentment, a selective economic protectionism to line his and his buddies' pockets that will cripple the country and the world, a lack of workplace and environmental regulations because they effect multimillionaire's bottom lines, and disastrous foreign policy that is not so much isolationism as it is a step towards kissing another foreign power's ring. Remove the cheap gold-plating and the bluster, and he is merely echoing Putin's talking points when he is not trying to ape the Democrat's more popular policies (much to the chagrin of his party, who are Confederate statists through and through). I hold no truck with conservativism, but it is an insult to conservatives to pretend that Trump's being a useful idiot and a mouthpiece for small-minded, hateful cretins has anything to do with them. The fault lies with his party, but there aren't any conservatives there anymore.

stoic066 said...

Hmm. It is interesting to hear very authoritative comments of somebody who lives in UK and comments on our political and social issues having no idea what life in America really is.
Saying that South is racist is like saying that England is enslaving Scotts, Irish and Welsh.

Brexit is an English version of electing Trump. Simply large portion of the society is tired of being enslaved by political correctness and handcuffed by regulations. Nothing more nothing less.

I agree that Mr Kingsbury should stick to what he really knows the best which is plants.

ProfessorRoush said...

I'm over on the West side of the Pond, have a gardening blog, and have no intention of taking it overtly political although I have strong political views. Please, let's keep Trump Derangement Syndrome out of the gardening world. Some are positive, some are negative, but I'm pretty sure whatever he does, that Trump is not the Anti-Christ, come to begin Armageddon.

Unknown said...

I must take exception to your comments Noel. As horrified I am by the results of the election and the new president, I find your ideas disturbing. You cannot know a country from reading books about it. As reported by NPR and other reputable news sources, there are political parties and factions throughout Europe with platforms very close to those of Trump and his supporters. The vocalization of what America should be from the senators grilling the cabinet nominees and the organizing on the local level against changes to school funding, reproductive rights and health care access indicate that the 60 percent or more of Amercans who disapprove of the new president and will use the democratic process to thwart him and his now shameful party. In my mind, both parties failed their members. As for racism, we do not need to be told that it is still here.

David McMullin said...

And I am a reader from the south that is deeply horrified that we've elected such an incompetent and divisive narcissist. I appreciate the words and the sentiment and I don't think gardening exists outside of politics.

Unknown said...

'Trump is not the Anti-Christ, come to begin Armageddon.' Check the situation with China you might be wrong...
But going back to the topic... Just in the comments alone you can feel that Trumpeters do not want to listen to other opinions, for them the racist homophobic rant is like the easy toss that liberals always say, I won't go there then, I'll just hit their 'dream' instead that that 'america first' cap they saw had a 'made in china' tag... that Trump is not going to help the middle class or low class of interior america... he is going only to benefit himself and 'friends', let's speack a bit frankly here about the so called 'social and financial inequality' the very true here is that interior rural america by the book the stats say that it is not doing as bad as some urban areas, so it's perceived poverty and not real poverty of this communities and the lack of represented hegemonics... truth be told more simply america wanted a change... they picked one, but a very complex bad one, which will only lead to further lack of hegemonics on the global scale.
Same thing is happening in some parts of europe, the populist speech and the national fascist tone appeal is a very very well discussed and documented social issue, we need time to adjust to a new market model not so open and not so protective a happy medium basicly... the fact america seams to have an issue with socialist ideas already speacks all.

Nell said...

Even the shortest, most potted history of this country needs to use the word 'slavery' ; its omission makes the rest mystifying (say, what *was* that civil war about?).

Pcapps said...

I think the silo thing has merits, but really is too easy an answer. I have a foot in both worlds -- having lived equal halves of my life in the deep south and in NYC and still deeply rooted in both. What I have seen over the last twenty years or so is a growing resistance to facts and a hatred of government, and a spitefulness toward others, that has pushed many of my family and friends from home OUT OF INTEREST GROUPS that were once full of all types of people. Interest groups in this sense range from garden clubs to watching public television (like Sesame Street) to liking the Beatles to joining the Chamber of Commerce to reading the New York Times. In nearly all of these once common civic and cultural activities, only so-called liberals are left while the majority of conservatives now are in thrall to their pastors and Fox News. I listen, and I try to talk, but I get nowhere. You cannot talk to someone who says that Hillary Clinton has murdered at least 47 people, as one of my Dad's friends told him right before the election. I do think there are some language changes that can be made to enable some persuasion to take place, but going back to silos -- it's too easy an answer. In academia, it used to be called the ivory tower, so it's not new, but that's an old silo.

Anyway, being told that liberals are in their own silos now (despite not having moved into one) reminds me of the old joke about the couple who used to sit close together in the front seat of the car when they were young and dating. The old lady asks her old husband, who is driving, why they don't do that anymore. He says, "I don't know -- I didn't move!"

Noel, I will be seeing you in the Berkshires in a couple of weeks. I'm looking forward to the day at the Berkshire Botanic Gardens.

Anonymous said...

My daughter and I love heirloom bulbs and thought that we had found the perfect blog. But no. This is just the same, tired liberal vs conservative sewage that I can find all day. There is nothing refreshing about this blog.
Jennifer, resident of The Deep South

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Funny how you bloviate about how well-traveled, educated and cultured you are and throw around the term racist but have no shame in verbalizing your disgust for people from The South (capital T, capital S). What would that be called? Comment moderation has been enabled because you know how ridiculous you are. Folicking in The Berkshires (capital T, capital B) while shaming poor, rural America.