Place as Gift, Freedom


Good Lord, blogging is bad for the soul.  That is a confession, not a violation of the Third Commandment, for those of you keeping track.  What am I doing in front of this glowing square of light when there are chores to be done in the barn!?  But, in for an inch, in for a mile, and pass me the hair shirt.  What follows is a talk I gave back in 2007 as part of an ISI conference in Charlottesville, VA on place, liberty, and the alternative American tradition.  It is relevant to our current discussion:

Good morning, it’s great to be here in Jefferson’s place to kick this panel off on the subject of place, community, and liberty in America, and to have the opportunity to frame the discussion of how we got from there to here; that is, how we got from a rigorous Old World concept of place and community to a geography, to borrow James Kunstler’s phrase, of nowhere. 

In my opening remarks I would like to do three basic things very briefly which I hope will provide an appropriate backdrop and perhaps a foil for the discussion of some key turning points in this history that will follow.  First, I want to identify the mythical source behind our rootless, itinerant, geography of nowhere.  Second, I want to provide a framework for understanding how ideas about place and community relate to and ultimately control both the kind and extent of liberty we enjoy.  And lastly I want to make the argument less abstract and somewhat cautionary by describing how the social experience of community and place shapes and limits my own identity. 

In large part, the geography of nowhere was written into the American character from the beginning.  The mythical “American experience” has always existed in tension with, if not outright hostility towards, place, community, and settled ways.  By the very nature of its settlement and political birth, America was conceived as a “new world.”  A place of renewed opportunity and second chances.  Stephen Tonsor has noted that in America, “the notion of a ‘fresh start’ takes on the proportions of a national purpose.”  Michael Oakeshott famously described a certain kind of political rationalist but ended up, I think, with a description of the ideal American according to this myth:  “He strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail.” 

This mythical “American” identity became formative of our national character, giving us everything from the frontier spirit and entrepreneurial innovation to the rugged individual and rags-to-riches fairytales.  And, as we heard earlier, large scale foreign adventures such as WWII.

But there has always existed, of course, an alternative American character.  One that, rather than disdaining habits, venerates them; rather than living each day with no thought for the past it lives each day in loving continuity with and fidelity to the past.   These are the traditions you will hear a great deal more about during the rest of the day.

Wallace Stegner has called these two archetypal American personas ‘Boomers’ and ‘Stickers.’ Stegner’s student, Wendell Berry, summarized the two types like this:

Boomers pursue the failing dream of easy wealth and easy escape which drives them from one scheme to another, from one place to another, and finally to ruin. “Why remain in one dull plot of earth when Heaven was reachable, was touchable, was just over there?” asks Stegner.  One the other hand, Stickers are moved by an articulate hope, already ancient by the time of Columbus, of a settled, independent, frugal life on a small freehold.  This was the vision that we finally came to call “Jeffersonian”—a free nation of authentically and securely landed people.

But an honest assessment compels us to admit that for a variety of reasons, the Boomers have utterly routed the Stickers from the field, to this point in our history, at least.  Given this, it is not surprising that the notion of a hometown, say, as something to which any of us owe a real social obligation, strikes most people as an ancient, and even laughable, concept.

That, in a nutshell, is how we got here.

Well, and what’s the problem with that? you might say.  You can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Gay Paree.  Well, there are multiple problems, but I want to use the question to make clear the threat to authentic liberty posed by the dominant boomer American identity.  By abandoning settled life in particular places and the specific, local social identity formed by those places Americans are made less free, and thus more vulnerable to control by large, impersonal forces. 

I don’t have time to even properly summarize this argument as it has been developed by theorists such as Eric Voegelin, Robert Nisbet, and others.  It will have to suffice to quote Alexis de Tocqueville who early on observed that the flattening effect of a placeless land of nothing but fresh starts creates an “innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.”  For Tocqueville, the vacuum of social authority created by a loss of allegiance to particular places, among other things, would result in the benevolent yet total power of a centralized government wielding the progressive virtues of centralization, mobility, efficiency, equality, improvement, and individual opportunity.  This “supreme power” would “cover the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform” by which man’s will “is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided” so that “each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”  Tocqueville concludes that this kind of “soft bondage” may be “combined more easily than is commonly believed” with “outward forms of freedom.” 

I submit that we are living proof of Tocqueville’s imagined dystopia.  Without the allegiances and identity provided by a strong sense of place and community, the individual is left nominally “free” yet fully exposed to the power of the central managerial state.

This decline of freedom and loss of identity is most often experienced by the typical American as a growing sense of both powerlessness over his own life and loss of any socially authoritative touchstone against which he might measure life choices.  Progress and liberation begin to feel more like spiritual rot, decadence, and even bondage, as Tocqueville foresaw.  With the increasing exhaustion of Progress as an ideal, I think we are seeing a renewed interest in the Stickers; in living within the limits that place and community provide in order to achieve a functional identity and a stable foothold in the world, and that may be why some of you are here at this conference.

But, a word of caution: this renewed interest in the Stickers means that we are now confronted with a variety of heritage recovery projects designed to discover a usable past from which, to paraphrase Eliot, fragments might be shored against our ruin.  And, as you will hear, there are many robust alternative traditions of place in our history to draw from: the Anti-Federalists of Jefferson’s country, the agrarians of the South, the populist sod-busters of the prairie, various religious sects, and of course the few particular patriots of every hill, wood, and meadow that still exist across this land. 

It is exciting to be at a conference like this, and it is exciting to feel on the cusp of a renewed interest in America’s alternative tradition.  I would simply remind us of what M.E. Bradford said about liberty—that it is most perfect when least remarked.  So too with notions of place and community.  Consider, for example, what is going on in many cities and even entire countries that are looking for ways to revitalize their traditional identity by turning their cultural history into a kind of theme park ride for lifestyle tourists.  Beer halls and sauerbraten in Milwaukee, rolling emerald hills in Ireland, and old fashioned lechery and mayhem in Vegas.  Urban planners and advertisers call this process “place branding.”

I don’t think this kind of crass economic stageplay is anything more than an admission that the real thing is long dead and buried.  The boomer ethos is deeply ingrained and we are all too ready to settle for being voyeurs to a past we neither understand nor wish to actually claim.   

The most basic lesson is, I think, that a usable past requires a usable present.  Here is what Wallace Stegner wrote: “A place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it—have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation.”

If you do not see yourself and where you live in that description, it is not a place, not your place anyway—it might suffer the indignity of not being a place at all.  And if where you live is not your place, the hard truth is that no matter how many ISI conferences you attend—as good as they are!—there is no recoverable past available to you.  Your task, then, is to give one to your children.

By way of illustration, let me conclude by briefly describing my own personal geography: 

I am a Kansan.  My memories are of rolling prairie, buffalo, and bald eagle sightings; wheat stalks and corn rows—stern Presbyterians and dirt farmers, both with righteously obsessive liberationist streaks.  My family is a Kansas family, going back to some of the earliest settlements in that place.  My fathers were either farmers, sons of the soil, or preachers, sons of the fiery and often bloody word, and sometimes they were both.  They were cut from the same mold that gave Kansas the half-crazy vigilante-prophet John Brown, moving west to the Kansas territories to fight for abolition in the pre-Civil War skirmish known as “Bleeding Kansas.”  The community of my fathers busted sod, hid slaves, and killed slave-power loyalists from Missouri.  I imagine they were adequately described by Clint Eastwood’s character in The Outlaw Josie Wales when he said that only three things come from Kansas: “Sunshine, sunflowers, and sons-of-bitches.”  A hard life in a hard place.  Before Kansas my fathers came to this country as refugees from the religious wars of England.  They fought for American independence just as their fathers had fought for Scottish independence before them.  And all the way back at the ancestral headwaters, my family originated in the Nordic tribes that settled the Orkney Islands at the northernmost tip of Scotland.  Another hard life in another hard, windswept place. 

These are the symbols of my conscious formation: soil, plow, prairie, sod hut, wind, Word, blood, “northernness.”  This heritage was mythologized in my family and its extended religious setting as a narrative of “adherence” to familial and ecclesial notions of being the “People of God,” and this identity is inseparable from notions, however vague, of occupying a particular place.  The chosen people are never without a promised land. 

This is my usable past—for good and ill—and it is available to me and my sons after me so long as we stick at least until the next forced migration or exile.

There is a saying around my parts: “Kansan by birth, Jayhawk by the grace of God.”  It is perhaps a measure of how far we have come that this piece of folk wisdom is almost exclusively appropriated these days by fans of a certain college basketball team.  And you can cheer for your team from anywhere in the world, right?  I proved that last night in my hotel room.  But the aphorism gets at a much deeper truth: becoming native to a place is a gift of grace.  Wendell Berry says that everything about a place that is different from its price is a gift.  I believe that to be true.  I have experienced its truth.  And now you will hear of many others who have experienced that truth in the hopes that you might get a taste of it too.

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