Place as Gift, Freedom

by Caleb Stegall on June 27, 2009 · 10 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin July 3, 2009 at 11:38 am

So now the Postcentric First Thingers claim a Denizen of the Front Porch Republic is a hypocritical Stoic.
Perhaps they might like to interrupt their various categorizing and Salutes to Kafka and wander over here so we can stoically put an epicurean thump on them with a rack of post-gnawed hog ribs. Thence we might boarhawg them and the deconstructed conceit they came in with back whence they came.

But, I mean this, of course, collegially.

“Stoic”…..yadda yadda yadda. I’ll remember this one as I smoke my next Nat Sherman on the back porch …in the rain.

Stegner, friend of Bennie DeVoto , inspiration to Abbey, man of the land…..and hardly a stoic.

avatar Josh July 3, 2009 at 8:30 pm

How anyone could believe that Jayhawk-ness derives from God’s Grace is beyone me. Living in western Missouri, we know that Jayhawks (both real Jayhawks and the current basketball team) are just one more pest plaguing those of us in God’s country.

avatar Jason July 4, 2009 at 9:59 am

Reading the posts between POMO Cons and Front Porchers has reminded me of Dinesh D’Souza’s views on the debate over pre-modern v. modern ways of life; however when he usually discusses pre-modern views, he is looking at Eastern (Middle East and India) and not Western practices.

Having grown up in India, D’Souza is well acquainted with Front Porch values like localism and tradition. But he is not sanguine about it:

“If I had remained in India, I would probably have lived my entire existence within a one-mile radius of where I was born. I would undoubtedly have married a woman of my identical religious, socioeconomic, and cultural background. I would almost certainly have become a medical doctor, an engineer, or software programmer….I would have a whole set of opinions that could be predicted in advance; indeed, they would not be very different from what my father believed, or his father before him. In sum, my destiny would to a large degree have been given to me.”
-What’s So Great About America p. 80

It was only in Modern America that D’Souza could have discovered his interest in ideas. And even if Front Porchers disagree with his ideas, surely they can agree the world is a better off with D’Souza as a pundit rather than a programmer.

The downside about all pre-modern living, Eastern or Western, is how stifling they all are. Porches have their place, but they can become prisons.

avatar James Matthew Wilson July 4, 2009 at 11:17 am

Jason said: “surely they can agree the world is a better off with D’Souza as a pundit rather than a programmer.

The downside about all pre-modern living, Eastern or Western, is how stifling they all are. Porches have their place, but they can become prisons.”

But I’m not sure that we all would agree with any of this; I presume none of us would agree with it. Because communities can be good and bad, better or worse, there is any number of limitations a given community might impose. But my argument would not be that every community makes everyone in it happy; rather, the cohesiveness, form, and vocabulary of tradition that life in a particular community bestows is in itself a good thing, a necessary good in itself without which human beings lose a significant degree of their humanity (as political animals). “Liberation” from the “prison” of community isn’t the one aspect of modernity to which we might give reluctant assent; the language of such a claim expresses the deep errancy and unintelligibility of modern ways of living and thinking that we are committed to reversing. What is really being described is the dissolution of the conditions necessary for a human being to fulfill his telos.

Rather than leaving India to escape the “awful fate” of the professions, D’Souza would have been better served either to submit to that discipline or to remaining in his native community to cultivate it so that it too might find a place for the intellectual, contemplative, life. A hard fate, but a human one.

I quite understand that Jason may just be discovering FPR, and so, precisely for that reason, I would venture it is worth stating quite baldly that it is just that twisted anthropology on which D’Souza’s narrative is premised that I –at least– would want to oppose most vehemently.

This recipe for “liberation” is akin to the move from a place to placelessness; from a limited existence that is limited because it has a purpose, a particular rendevous with the Good, to a mode of life that is “unlimited” because it serves an attenuated, perhaps even an evicerated, end; from an acknowledgement that the human intellect, for all its abstractive power, subsists in the particular and the concrete, to a claim for a life modeled on the limitlessness of pure abstraction.

I don’t know what “world” we’d be talking about if we said “the world is better off with D’Souza as a pundit.” Based merely upon this quoted paragraph, I am doubtful either D’Souza or the communities to which he owes his allegiance are better off, though the former may have more freedom to consume what he likes the latter may be quieter and more peaceful.

If this is what is so great about America, then America must be an empty shell, a vacuous space, whose purpose is merely to make possible the emptying out of persons: liberating them of their natures, to make possible an unbearably light and vertiginously extended self-fashioning. To love such a thing is a kind of concupiscence, rather than a love that leads to an encounter with the true, the good, and the beautiful.

It thus is a love that presumes an angelistic freedom is superior to the self-government of a well lived human life. Such a radical individualism may allow one to live as one likes, but, at the same time, it eliminates the very purpose of living. D’Souza here describes not the freeing of human nature from unnatural obstacles in order to pursue its end, but the ignoring of human nature so that it can float through empty joys toward a banal, infinitely regressing, horizon.

avatar D.W. Sabin July 4, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Jason,
Why is it that those who like to hoist the petard of the localist always seem to take it as a matter of faith that the localist is hellbent on abandoning everything about the so called modern world in a spelunkers urge to paint the outlines of their hands on smoky cave ceilings?

This is a specious and altogether insufficient argument that plays right into the hands of those who think the traditionalist a romantic old poof. The hip pragmatists assert that we old poofs should get right with the great moloch efficiency and be “pragmatic” and work with “what we have” in order to “get things done”.
We could sum this advice up with its equivalent. Let us now make up a great 4th of July pot roast out of dog shit because we have no beef on hand. Dig in pilgrims, isn’t it good…a little more ketchup there fella?

The human mind is capable of reason and structuring scaled solutions , properly fit to the circumstances at hand. History is an important tool here because history is memory and without memory, there is no reason, thus tending to result in mistakes being built on mistakes. The project of Modernism would have never gotten as far as it has without the formidable power of human reason but the irony of it is that after so much success, the boosters of the Modern Project seem to want to abandon all reason and surrender to dogma that would be comic if not so ultimately lethal.

avatar Bob Cheeks July 4, 2009 at 12:18 pm

On the subject of boomers and stickers, Bill Faulkner had a comment in his novel, As I Lay Dying:

A-laying there, right up to my door, where every bad luck that comes and goes is bound to find it. I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, “Get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. And so He never aimed for folks to live on a road, because which gets there first, I says, the road or a house? Did you ever know Him to set a road down by a house? i says. No you never, I says, because it’s always men cant rest till they gets the house set where everybody that passses in a wagon can spit in the doorway, keeping the folks restless and wanting to get up and go somewheres else when He aimed for them to stay put like a tree or a stand of corn. Becasue if He’d a aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewheres else, wouldn’t He a put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason He would.”

avatar Jason July 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm

James,

Very helpful comments.

I want to look at more closely at your reply to my question whether D’Souza was better off leaving his traditional, localized community:

Rather than leaving India to escape the “awful fate” of the professions, D’Souza
would have been better served either to submit to that discipline or to
remaining in his native community to cultivate it so that it too might find a
place for the intellectual, contemplative, life. A hard fate, but a human one.

After reading your comment, I recalled an essay by Patrick Deneen titled “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange.” In that essay, Deneen looks at ancient city-states, which were rooted in memory and place, and how they functioned. It turns out they had an official office for the ‘Theorist’. Deneen writes:

“[they]were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to “see” special
events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to
their home city where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To
“theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the “other”
in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare and then in
idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to fellow citizens. This
encounter would inevitably raise questions about customs or practices of the
theorist’s own city – why do we do things this way? Might there be a better way
of organizing the regime? Might there be a best way of life?”

The Theorist’s role places him in tension with his city. Deneen continues:

“By this estimation, a theorist is in some respects defined by a kind of
“outsideness,” an alienation originally induced by the experience of physically
moving from one place to another in order to assess the virtues and vices of
one’s own particular cultural practices.”

In light of Deneen’s essay, the cave cannot be closed because the images on the wall are not all there is. The very existence of the Theorist’s office reveals to the citizens that they should not hold on to the traditions of their place too strongly. But if they do that, then how is the FP vision going to come about? You argue the citizen must “submit to the discipline” of tradition and place. Is provisional submission sufficient? Or should the citizen be permanently loyal to traditions which are mutable?

One way out of this dilemma could be to remove the Theorist’s office. I have not read anything on the Front Porch which suggests the philosopher has to have a role in their city (Tolkien, who I think would have been a Front Porcher, had no philosophers in Middle Earth either). My only concern is whether D’Souza could “cultivate it [his native community] so that it too might find a place for the intellectual, contemplative, life.” My hunch is he couldn’t because questions like “What is the best regime?” and “Why do we do things this way?” come about through an encounter with foreign practices and customs.

None of this proves the POMO Con contention that we should affirm large chunks of the modern project; however, I am suggesting that values like memory and place should not be given top billing.

avatar James Matthew Wilson July 6, 2009 at 9:07 am

Dear Jason,

That’s a very fine essay to which to draw our attention and goes a long way in suggesting that a profound commitment to place may be the most effective means of getting at the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. After all, only under conditions in which one can recognize one’s own thought as part of a tradition and can apply one’s reason to see how things from outside that tradition might threaten, compete with, or benefit it — again, only under those conditions will a specific place and a specific tradition be able to flourish in the long term.

But your quotation of the essay seems to imply two things that I don’t think you have explicitly shown. a) have you been arguing that D’Souza is such a theorist? Or is he a rootless cosmopolitan who has escaped the provinces with their inconvenient bonds for a permanent freedom? I would say the latter, which is a role at variance with that of the theorist. b) You further suggest that there is a necessary choice between cosmopolitanism per se and localism. Some comments at FPR may sometimes suggest that this is a fair dualism, but I don’t think they generally suggest as much. You might look at a fine symposium printed in Modern Age magazine last summer on conservative cosmopolitanism. While all the contributors were interesting, our own Mark Shiffman’s essay made the most comprehensive and lasting observations. There, he rightly contended that a localist is not against cosmopolitanism as if the particular were exclusive of and superior to the universal. Rather, the localist appreciates that we can only know what is universal through the particular and that to attempt (as I think I said above) to make place itself abstract is not simply to lose one’s local traditions for another, possibly better, place; it is to lose the conditions, the particular economy, that makes a fully human life possible. PoMoCons, as they sometimes appear, and modern “rootless cosmopolitans” do not live in a bigger world than does the localist; rather they have lost the world itself for space and time. Like the ancient Stoic, they are citizens of the universe. And, as T.S. Eliot so aptly put it, no one would be a citizen of the universe if there were anything else at all of which he could be a citizen.

This has gone on too long, but let me close with one suggestion. D’Souza offers us a false image of the modern globalizing, globe-trotting, and rootless cosmopolitanism that increasingly seems to be the fate of all modern persons. He couches in terms of individual initiative and intellectual and political freedom what, for most persons, has been a process of dispossession, displacement, and disruption of property, place, and culture. He is the compensatory narrative, the rationalization, ready to be carted out whenever anyone calls into question how much has been lost in the modern age.

If that is his role, then my earlier refusal of your question grows in intensity: the world, whatever that is, really would be better off without D’Souza the pundit. For, as he narrates himself in the passage you provide, he’s an apparent token triumph in a world laid waste.

avatar Jason July 6, 2009 at 9:35 pm

James,

Thanks for the comments. Glad to hear I’m mistaken about the apparent dualism at FPR. I’ll check out the Modern Age.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: