What Is to be Done?


On Amtrak Regional Train 130 Daniel Larison has written a number of related postings here (and here) and elsewhere that have insistently raised and sought to answer the question: what is to be done? For those who are attracted to the basic gist of the arguments being presented here on FPR – “Limits. Place. Liberty.” – there is the vexing question whether these arguments are not simply so much nostalgic longing for a bygone era (or, alternatively, fantasy for an era that never existed), and, while charming and interesting and even at times exciting in its counter-cultural resistance, nevertheless is finally irrelevant to the main debates that lie at the heart of the real world of a globalizing, free-market liberal system that is here to stay.

For some, the answer is simple: live the life you are propounding here. Wendell Berry is the touchstone of this site, not only because he has long and best articulated an alternative vision to the dominant cultural, political and economic presuppositions of this nation of “boomers,” but because he has walked the walk, leaving a promising academic career in New York City to take up a life of greater “complexity” on the farm in Henry County, Kentucky. To greater or lesser extent, this is the example also on display here not only in the words, but in the deeds of Caleb Stegall, Bill Kauffman, and Kate Dalton. In living lives of deep commitment to places that are at once home and outside the cosmopolis – even, in Caleb and Kate’s cases, tending to the land in those places – they are living demonstrations of their words. Both Caleb and Bill have, more than once, expressed misgivings about writing here, because to do so withdraws them from the very actions of which we all write about here. There is something inauthentic about propounding a life of localism and community on the internet, though they propound it magnificently and persuasively nonetheless.

For most of the rest of us, we live deeply enmeshed in the world shaped by an itinerant economy and rootless journeymen. Particularly the academics among us have emerged from a system that is designed to foster the very opposite of the ethic that is being articulated and defended at FPR. It has been noted on more than one occasion that most of the rest of us writing here lack the authenticity of the likes of Berry. Because of this, we can be dismissed all the more easily as, at best, intellectual romantics of a Rousseauvian mien, and at worst, as hypocrites who would call on others to live a life that none of us have ever shown any real capacity to live.

My own response, however, takes several parts. First, those among us who have been emerged from the experience of graduate education designed, above all, to create deracinated and rootless intellectuals who theoretically could work anywhere but who generally crave to live and teach in one of a half-dozen cosmopolite cities in the world, have come to understand with crystal-clarity the deepest presuppositions of the liberal ethic. While we doubtless expose ourselves to the easy charges of hypocrisy, for many of us I suspect – and certainly, speaking personally – our opposition to the dominant ethos comes largely as a result of this particular education, and the contradictions and ultimately distortions that it forced most of us here (I presume) to confront.

Those of us in this “itinerant” category are, in some ways, well-positioned to speak to so many of our fellow countrymen who find themselves in a similar pass. Many of us – whether because of circumstance, such as our professions, or background, such as an upbringing in the suburbs – cannot easily make choices that would demonstrate our full commitment to a more rooted life in a small town or even our home town. For many, there is no “going home again” because many of us come from places that cannot properly be called home. And, for many others of us, it is perhaps the ultimate irony that a society so deeply defined by choice and mobility makes the choice for rootedness difficult. Whereas the default was once to become a country doctor or town lawyer or one-team baseball player, now the defaults are set in an opposite mode.

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