A Sense of Place in the Modern World

23 Oct

So many trends in this day in age cut against loyalty to a place. Being committed to one spot on the map seems to be either a luxury or a harsh necessity.

Just think about it. Finding a well-paying job (or simply a job) often requires travel and frequent movement as one climbs the ladder in search of the best opportunity. Well-educated people often uproot themselves and cluster together in a handful of economic centers that have a lot of interesting high culture. People who come from less-than-ideal backgrounds can escape them, and for many, that is no small victory. Economists speak glowingly about “creative destruction”—that is, the need to tear down old stuff and replace it with new stuff to keep the engines of economic growth firing at full steam. The two political parties’ platforms only rarely give nods to local interests; Democrats emphasize universal rights above local loyalties and often use a distant federal government as their instrument of choice to promote it, while Republicans tend to venerate the frictionless free market above all else. Throw in the technological advances of the past few decades, and people have never been so free to move about without setting down deep roots where they are.

The march of modernity is all bad for a sense of place. Mobility has actually declined somewhat in recent years, though I’d guess that has more to do with economic forces than some newfound commitment to certain locations. The internet makes it easier to connect to interesting people without ever leaving places that might otherwise not be the most stimulating places. It is also becoming increasingly easier to do some jobs from home, and some communities that are just flat-out nice places to live will prove resilient because of that. The mayor of my hometown of Duluth, Don Ness, made that argument in this recent Atlantic piece—he’s admitted that he is the anonymous mayor there. It’s a sensible point, but while this is nice for a city like Duluth, it’s not of much use to many other places. Building communities and growing cultures takes time and commitment, and it’s hard to find the people and capital to build them.

All of this movement is often viewed as a positive thing (the American Way, even), and as the media and other big institutions that drive culture tend to be full of people who have made plenty of career leaps, voices that question it don’t get much coverage. When they do, it’s often negative—and not always without reason, as the excesses and eccentricities of opposition groups merit a fair amount of the mockery they incur. This isn’t to say that all the national media hates or ignores small towns or Middle America—they continue to be a fantastic source for stories of virtue and laments for middle-class Paradise Lost—but most of them seem to view it as a different land to be mused about from afar, its decay inevitable. The people who really argue for something different are on the margins: environmentalists and lefty localists, certain conservatives who are actually interested in conserving things (usually communities, churches, and stable social orders), and a handful of literary figures who transcend those categories, like Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry.

People from very diverse backgrounds agree with bits of their argument, even if they might not ever cohere into a political movement. These people generally respect things like political rights and an open economy, but they don’t think that loyalty to such ideals should come at the expense of personal ties. They are skeptical of abstraction and a life consumed by endless thinking. Instead, they focus on the relationships with people immediately around them, and because interpersonal relationships are at the center of everything, constant movement doesn’t much appeal to them. Family and friends are important, so they keep everyone close and recognize their debts to both their ancestors and their children. As a result, they’re comparatively thrifty and careful about their economic choices. They aren’t necessarily Luddites, but technology isn’t their favorite thing on earth, and if possible, they’d often rather repair things with their own hands than haul in an expensive expert to do the work. A number ground their localism in shopping locally and caring for their neighborhoods, and a number rely on houses of worship to provide community. There’s nothing glorious about this way of life, but it is one of steadiness and deep contentment, and it provides the strongest cushions possible when tragedy strikes.

Of course, it can all go wrong, as it has many times over the years. The most egregious examples are racial, religious, or other such barriers imposed by small communities with strong tribal instincts. Communities can be stultifying, or just stale. It is very difficult for one individual to stand up to an entire community, and when everyone knows one another, grudges can be even more toxic than when the enemy is a bit more abstract. These troubles can always be overcome, but they also require careful attention, and mean people have to think beyond the most convenient aspects of community as well.

A more benign trend among localists is a tendency to tip toward escapism. This is what religious conservatives will call the “Benedict Option,” though it’s not hard to find secular or left-leaning equivalents: people with a shared sense of morality retreating into their communities to hide from or wait out the collapse of the fallen modern world around them. If you want to be one of those people, be my guest; as long as you’re not shooting at those who don’t join you, you have that freedom, and the global economy isn’t going to take a hit because fifty people retreat into a self-sustaining commune or a homeschooling cooperative. I respect that, and I think the rest of society stands to learn from methods used in alternative schools or from Zapatista “good government” practices or the Amish freedom from being eternally plugged in.

I’m just not going to join them.

Why not? With a few obvious exceptions, those idealized communities never really last; the best we can do is pick and choose a few things from them that are worth adopting. Humans will always dream, and unless one has been within the culture for generations, people will grow restless and head out to explore the world on their own terms. It’s no secret that I’m a loyalist to community, but I didn’t come to appreciate that without spending an awful lot of my childhood dreaming about being somewhere else. I still do. I still love to travel, and I keep up with international news and pop culture and major sports. That makes it an awful lot easier to find common ground with people who aren’t from one’s little tribe, and so long as one has faith in one’s lifestyle, it isn’t going to corrupt anyone in some terrible way. I have less fear of moral decay than many religious conservatives, or even a healthy number of bourgeois liberals; somehow, it seems like you can always find people saying we’re all going to hell, and yet somehow, human nature seems to survive intact. The cloisters are a lovely place for a weekend of reflection, but there’s a bit too much Athens in my Jerusalem for me to stay there, and the same is probably true for most people out there. I can’t run away from the world. Yes, there’s an awful lot wrong with it, but it’s the only one I have.

Staying in touch with the world beyond my little fishbowl also keeps me from falling too far into blind obsession. I’ve shared some very pointed words about school board levies and local politicians on this blog, and I’m glad I have; Duluth is small enough that I’ve actually been able to dialogue with some people about these things and now have a modest readership. I’m proud of that, and I want to keep building on it. But I also don’t want to sit here preaching to a choir that nods and smiles, and I need constant reminders that there are other things out there that make all of this seem trivial. This blog’s wanderings into hockey or Greek philosophy or global affairs may seem like random whims, but there’s a design here: I’m trying to keep myself from ever being too caught up in these delightfully petty political circles I’m floating around in. And if need be, if Duluth doesn’t work out in the long run, I’m ready to pull up and move somewhere else. Roots aren’t easy to grow, but as long as the soil is halfway decent, they have a chance in most places.

There is wisdom in seeing life as an ongoing pilgrimage or journey from one place to the next, but too often that strikes me as a defense mechanism; a regrettably necessary means of making peace with roots that have rotted away. Sure, there are some people who just have a lot of wanderlust, or their own roots are among perpetual wanderers. Like the old line says, not all who wander are lost. But plenty of them are, or may be fully aware that their wanderings stem from old burdens or an inability to properly go home. The Jews did an admirable job of surviving, even thriving, when they were wandering the desert or scattered across Europe, but they always yearned for Israel. And while that home may seem a fleeting one when held up against the sweep of history, for our equally fleeting time on earth, it can make all the difference in the world. If life is a journey, it’s a much happier one when we have a warm bed to come home to at the end of the day’s adventures.

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One Response to “A Sense of Place in the Modern World”

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  1. Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything | A Patient Cycle - July 27, 2014

    […] presumptions about their nature from there, we need to understand each other socially. You can find a lot of spilled pixels on that topic elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t belabor it here, but in the […]

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