The Boutiquification of the Western World
Boutiquification?, you ask. Is that even a word? Didn’t I mean beautification? Or beatification?
No, I really did mean boutiquification: the gradual conversion of our traditional “big box” nations into smaller, specialized, self-conscious, fundamentally narcissistic, boutique-like sub-states based on personal identity, shared tastes — and more often than not, a communal disdain for everyone outside the in-group. I’m surprised that the trend hasn’t been named until now, so I decided to go ahead and christen it myself.
Boutiquification can lead to a literal redefinition of boundaries, as in the case of the secessionist movements gaining traction in Europe and elsewhere. Scotland was expected to secede from the United Kingdom this past month, and only a last-minute collective case of cold feet kept the 300-year-old Union from dissolving before our eyes.
The map of Europe is littered with provinces and cubbyholes where ethnic and linguistic minorities now itch for independence: the Catalans and Basques, Flemish and Walloons, Frisians, Bretons, Welsh, Cornish, Tyrolians, Corsicans and Sardinians — not to mention the members of various Eastern European tribes who found themselves on the wrong side of the boundaries drawn by the Allied victors after the two World Wars.
Europe would do well to remember the breakup of Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. Slovenia and Macedonia went their separate ways amicably enough, but the Serbs and Croats shed copious amounts of blood over Bosnia, a perennial hot spot with no clear ethnic boundaries. Tribalism can be messy.
Surely the U.S. is immune to provincial breakaway movements… isn’t it? We all speak English, more or less… we’re players in a four-century drama dating back to Jamestown… we’ve melted into the melting pot. You know… E pluribus unum and all that.
Not so fast. A recent Reuters poll put the following question to our countrymen: “Do you support or oppose the idea of your state peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government?” Astonishingly, nearly a quarter of the respondents answered in the affirmative — even without the bandwagon effect of desertions by neighboring states. Secession fever was strongest, at 34 percent, in the southwest tier running from Texas to Arizona. (There were no separate figures for Texas, but we can only assume the worst).
Among respondents who claimed allegiance to the Tea Party, which in some respects is a political reincarnation of the old Confederacy, a whopping 53 percent salivated over the prospect of abandoning the national ship. In other words, if only Tea Partiers could vote, we’d be the Nation Formerly Known as the United States.
What goes on here? Is the United States an outmoded concept? Can’t we all just get along? If not, shouldn’t we be allowed to shack up, geographically speaking, with people who think like us, vote like us, look like us, have sex like us? Isn’t that what everyone wants?
First of all, it would be impossible to break up the Union according to political leanings. The so-called blue states encompass vast tracts of red country out there in the hinterlands surrounding the big cities. Likewise, the so-called red states — even Texas — include lonely outposts of certifiable, granola-munching, sandal-shod white liberalism, not to mention significant black and Hispanic populations that reliably lean leftward.
In other words, the U.S. is Bosnia on a gargantuan scale — a vast patchwork of conflicting backgrounds, interests and loyalties through which it would be extremely difficult to run anything as simple and consequential as a boundary. So why are the acrid fumes of secessionism bubbling from below?
Simple: American culture has been boutiquified. Most of us relate more readily to our socio-political interest group than we do to our nation.
Tea Partiers believe in Jesus and guns (no conflict there, of course) and find deep fulfillment in their shared Obama-hatred. White progressives revere their organic groceries, Jon Stewart and NPR; they sniff disdainfully at Bible-believing Christians while displaying a somewhat perplexing soft spot for Islam. African Americans now routinely give their children exotic, vaguely Africanesque names, presumably to distance themselves even further from white America. Gays, while embracing conventional bourgeois institutions like marriage, seem more and more like a nation within a nation. Recently, here in Philadelphia, I scratched my head when the Inquirer featured an article about an upcoming “gay jazz festival.” (Apparently segregation is fine when a systematically oppressed group does the segregating… I had to wonder if the Inquirer would publicize a heterosexual jazz festival.)
The Internet has made it all too easy for boutiquified minds to meet and reinforce their biases in congenial precincts. Dedicated lefties, by restricting their reading to the Daily Kos, Salon and Huffington Post, can get all the news that’s fit to confirm what they already believe — and furthermore, they can revel in the shared snarkiness of their fellow-travelers who snicker at the spelling-impaired placards wielded by anti-immigration conservatives. And conservatives, for their part, can enjoy being whipped up into a frenzy of anti-government paranoia by the half-crazed conspiracy nuts who haunt the online underworld.
So what if we splinter into our own political and cultural boutiques? Aren’t we happier among our own kind… people who think like us and share the same tastes in art, literature and pizza toppings? Well, yes — the way ants and honeybees are happy: the happiness of belonging to a homogeneous little colony with a shared vision and a singleness of purpose. But even the happiest of insects don’t create great nations.
When did we become so tribal… so intolerant of people who don’t subscribe to our own beliefs, lifestyles or taste in cheeses? When did our big-box nation splinter into self-interested, narcissistic boutiques? Do we really want a nation of sub-nations? We’re all Americans on this bus, and we’d better get used to the other passengers or we’re in for a long, uncomfortable ride.
Meanwhile, out there in the deserts of Syria and northern Iraq, a self-styled imam is building the foundation of a future empire that he hopes will stretch across the Old World and reach even to the Americas. Remember the ancient adage “Divide and conquer”? We’ve already divided ourselves, and I’m afraid the united jihadists won’t encounter much resistance from our individual boutiques when they decide to conquer us.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.