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. 

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