The Discipline and Illusion of Place

Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen have been lamenting rootlessness, particularly of the young and ambitious, and wondering when we began to consider it natural to abandon one’s home town at adulthood. James joins in, suggesting that going away to college is the salient cause.

James is right to some extent: the stigma we attach to those who stay at home for college is particularly American, and has spread along with the increased availability of college education. But Patrick and Rod are both too quick to wield Berry’s Razor, which declares that any undesirable social or economic phenomenon can be explained by self-indulgence. Here’s Rod:

There have always been people who couldn’t wait to get out of their hometown, for all the usual reasons. But I think the more normal thing was for people, no matter what their intelligence or career aspirations, to assume that they would settle down back home, and ply their trade there. I think the standard changed for a variety of reasons. For one thing, we got used to the idea of mobility not only as necessary to the economy, but as symbolizing American freedom. And post-1950s, we grew into a consumer society that emphasized satisfying wants, not honoring responsibilities. We developed an advertising culture that trained minds to see individual desire as self-validating, and its fulfillment as part of the natural order of things. It’s easy to see, then, how the individual begins to accept the idea that he or she has the natural right to want to leave one’s family and heritage behind to follow one’s dreams.

Mobility was part of the American experience long before marketing colonized our appetites, for many reasons that had nothing to do with dream-following. There was a time when one left one’s hometown in order to “honor responsibility:” if the farm or family business didn’t need another pair of hands, then it was up to you to find work elsewhere. Patrick, especially, should bear in mind that the high-wage manufacturing jobs he eulogizes required massive migrations of laborers from their home communities into industrial belts. We’re stuck with the fact that leaving home is, for many of us, a cultural and familial tradition.

Settling down, though, is a good thing in and of itself. Any genuine conservative should foster an ethos of rooted affinity for home, community, and other settled arrangements. The arbitrary primacy of birthplace, however, is crunchy cant, and those of us who want to see more local, voluntary efforts at creating the Good Life ought to privilege deliberate and reasoned choices of hometown over sticking with one’s childhood home.

For one thing, “roots” require soil, and some people grow up in dismal places where the problem is that too few of them leave for greener pastures. I assume that Rod doesn’t mean to be as condescending as he sounds here:

From a more critical angle, Terry Mattingly, who is an accomplished musician and lover of bluegrass, talks about the heartbreak of teaching college students in Appalachia who wanted nothing more than to get away from their provincial lives, and live out the fantasies fed to them by MTV. Terry could see the beauty and richness of their traditional folk culture, but many of the kids wanted nothing to do with it.

Appalachia is a big area, with some genuinely beautiful places and viable towns. Maybe Mattingly teaches in Asheville, North Carolina, for instance, where folk culture, flaky hippiedom, and modern commercial life maintain a lovely creative tension. But after spending eight years and raising two children in my wife’s Appalachian home town of B. (I love that trick from the Russian novels), I know that there’s more to the exodus of young people than “fantasies fed to them by MTV.”

A large swath of small-town life lacks exactly the sort of community ties that conservatives value. Rod remembers pining for a McDonalds to come to his town, but today, if you are the sort of locally-inclined young person who’d rather buy a burger from an owner you know than from a chain, you might have to move somewhere else, like to a college town. The hollowing-out of local commerce is a response to the preferences of those small-town residents who, unlike Rod, never outgrew their enthusiasm for branded, mainstream products and who, also unlike Rod, stayed put. Those of us who prefer local exchange are, by definition, going to have to live near one another to actually exercise that preference.

Setting aside the extreme case of Appalachia, what’s conservative about returning to the same suburb in which you grew up, if everything about the place is so morally desolate and atomizing? If our suburbs are the howling spiritual wilderness that the Krunchy Korps believe them to be (and I share much of their jaundiced view), why return there to raise a family? Why not choose a community of like-minded souls who, wherever they might have grown up, are committed to sharing and improving a community?

I realize that talk of choosing where to settle undermines the fundamental conservative commitment to playing one’s hand rather than perpetually chasing “commodious living.” Rod and his compatriots (with whom I have more in common than this criticism suggests) are understandably touchy about the matter of choice, since they have to constantly defend themselves against accusations that their “little platoons” are just clubs of like-minded consumers. James addresses this nicely in the end of his post as well as in a lot of his other writing, which discusses how difficult it can get, being self-conscious and tradition-minded at the same time. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Resolving the problem doesn’t require sending everyone home.