Practicing Place-ism

If you want to feel rooted in a restless world, stay put

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In New York a new hate crime is taking shape: “place-ism,” which will be defined in the criminal code as the belief that a particular place—neighborhood, village, city, state—is superior to any other place, and that residents of this place have a history, customs, accent, or concerns that are different from those of other places. An outbreak of virulent place-ism has greeted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s senatorial campaign, despite her assertion that “where I’m from is not as important as what I’m for.” She probably will lose, a martyr to atavistic home-philia.

The unwelcome wagon that has been rolled out for Hillary is not much more hostile than what George W. Bush met when he ran for Congress in West Texas in 1978. A Yale preppie who could not even pronounce the name of his district’s largest city, George W. said, through tears, after his defeat, that there was a word to explain why he lost: provincialism.

God save provincialism, God save place-ism, God save the village green: the love of home, of neighbors, of the eccentric and the Rotarian, the eccentric Rotarian too, because provincials are all that stand between us and the people in gray: George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, and Bill Gates.

In my own irresponsible youth, I cashed a government paycheck for a couple of years as a legislative assistant to a liberal U.S. senator before heeding the advice of Henry Thoreau: “If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, ‘But what shall I do?’ my answer is, ‘If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.’ When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.”

I once wrote a novel, Every Man a King, about a young smart aleck who works for a senator in D.C.; he sins, at least as sin is defined in the Potomac catechism, and is cast out, homeward, to live among the people he has celebrated with a mawkish insincerity seldom seen this side of the Nashville Network. Like my doughtily dysfunctional hero, I did go home, for good. And for better. Healthy, life-giving parochialism exists in even the most dispirited and quotidian places. We—or at least I—can only ever really live the familiar; rage and anger require the anchorage of love lest they become exhausting and pointless hatred.

Toiling for a maverick liberal drove me not to drink but to libertarianism, yet the force of ideology has long since faded, the more deeply embedded I become in my native place, Batavia, New York. I would rather write a booklet on Batavia’s greatest architect and excavate the life of a lady painter, my great-grandmother’s dear friend, or just drive around picking up ratty furniture for the historical society’s yard sale than rail against the state. I would rather practice anarchy based on love than preach a sterile liberty.

The disjunction between Washington conservatives and real American places is summed up in the first 15 seconds of the Rush Limbaugh show. His theme music is from the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone,” in which Chrissie Hynde describes a return to Akron, her hometown, where “all my favorite places” have been urban-renewalized into memory: “I went back to Ohio / but my city was gone / There was no train station / there was no downtown”—a bitter and sardonic observation on how the destruction of landmarks erodes a sense of place, of loyalty. But this is not something that the happy-talk right of the Fortune 500 wishes to hear.

Well, Chrissie did not move back to Ohio. She probably would not have made nearly as much money sitting around in the Firestone parking lot. She might not have been famous, and isn’t that what really counts?

It is too easy for annoying self-satisfaction to creep into the stories of those who do return home. On the other hand, we as observers are made uncomfortable by what seems a suicidal adherence to principle.

Elmer Kelton, dean of Western writers, wrote a terrific novel called The Time It Never Rained, about a West Texas rancher named Charlie Flagg who stands alone in his county in refusing government aid during a long drought. He is wiped out by his stubbornness, but he retains his soul.

Flagg’s example is a constant reproach to his neighbors, rugged individualists who have essentially turned over the management of their ranches to the federal government. So he is resented in the way that men ofttimes garrote saints. Or the way the Progress Gang would like nothing better than to see Wendell Berry chained to a BarcaLounger and force-fed microwave burritos and Starbucks coffee while he watches Adam Sandler movies and his grandkids frolic about in Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts playing Pokémon. In his integration of work, family, home, and local patriotism, Berry is the old American dream made flesh, and his example is a rebuke to every typewriter agrarian and high-rise localist. As the Jack Nicholson character says to Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider, “They’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”

In The Time It Never Rained, an exasperated Charlie Flagg explains, “I’m not sayin’ any man is wrong because he doesn’t pattern himself after me; what anybody else wants to do is his business, not mine. I just want to live by my own lights and be left the hell alone.”

If only it were possible. But Charlie Flagg is not left alone. So do we have any choice but to march on Washington, to write our Congress members, to concede that, like it or not, Washington matters? Place-ists do.

My dad has a book put out by the Gold Star Mothers of Genesee County containing pictures and brief biographies of Genesee boys who died in World War II. I look at their faces and wonder about the lives they would have lived had the American side of the great debate of 1940-41 prevailed. Nunzio working at Doehler-Jarvis, Judd taking his father’s place at the bar. Would we have been spared the bad habits and destructive patterns of behavior picked up in our subsequent years of empire? In my hometown, the greatest generation—the one we had, not the one we might have had—came home and in 1946 knocked down all the trees to widen Main Street, then knocked down Main Street itself because “experts” with college degrees told them to, then they sent their children out to earn those same degrees, whereupon they took jobs so far away that, in millions of sad cases, grandparents had been stripped of any function beyond shipping videogames to the little brats come Christmas. (Or winter holidays, should I say?) But at least the grandkids attend good schools with lots of computers and high average SATs.

This whole notion of moving somewhere to take a job is one of the sharpest and cleanest of class dividers. Virtually everyone who lives and works in Washington or on Wall Street has migrated for money or power. It is almost beyond their ken why someone would not move when “opportunity” rears its meretricious head.

Consider October Sky, a poignant, funny story of a Coalwood, West Virginia, boy whose dream is to leave this “bunch of hillbillies” and become a federal employee. Truculent old daddy, hacking away with the coal cough, says, “Boy, you’d better take an interest in your own damn town” instead of Werner von Braun, but in the end cranky dad loves his son Homer—an inappropriate name—and is duly proud when the boy rides his rockets out of Coalwood and to a career with NASA.

This is a sweet movie with a poisonous core. I can imagine George W. Bush and Steven Spielberg blinking back tears as they watch it, because the men who run our major institutions—the government, the Fortune 500, Hollywood—have, almost to a man, abandoned their childhood Coalwoods to float their lives away among a placeless elite, purged of such debilitatingly provincial biases as place-ism.

They are welcome to their world. But they will not let the rest of us be. For almost 60 years, the placeless have waged war on the rooted, stealing their children, devastating their neighborhoods, wiping out local peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. The onslaught has included busing, consolidation of schools, the interstate highway system, subsidizing of colleges and universities, public housing construction that displaces the urban poor and shatters working-class neighborhoods . . . in other words, 60 years of vital center domestic and foreign policy.

What we have is class war—though this war has never been acknowledged because the casualties are places and attachments and sentiments; nothings, really; everythings, in fact—waged by the mobile against the immobile, by the cosmopolitan against the rooted, and the winners are the professionals, people so depraved that they would actually move to a different place for mere money. How bizarre.

“Locality gives art,” said Robert Frost, and any step we take to bring back locality, to resuscitate the parochial, is an act of hope and love and beauty. Thomas Craven wrote in the 1930s that “the only outlet, the sole means of escape, for the American painter, lies in the discovery of the local essence,” by which he did not mean a PBS hootenanny but anything from Grant Wood to Zora Neale Hurston to the Coen brothers’ Fargo, one of the only movies I have ever seen that admits, even celebrates, the fact that people who live outside television anchor sets often speak in peculiar dialects.

“America, turn in and find yourself,” urged Iowa poet Paul Engle in those midcentury years when Iowa existed not for its own sake but as a colony that would send corn and boys to the empire. And if one of those boys had the pluck to ask why, he was anathematized by the same pallid creatures—liberal and conservative—who made fun of George McGovern’s beautiful campaign slogan, “Come home, America.” But then, whatever homes they once had had long since been abandoned.

It is not that Washington and New York City and Hollywood are out of touch or unresponsive—rather, they are our enemies. Resistance is futile, or so they would have us believe. And besides, you have a choice: Coke or Pepsi. Bush or Gore. Disney or Dreamworks. Wal-Mart or Kmart. CBS or CNN. C’mon, stop complaining. Get a life.

When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. Buy from your neighbor. Grow your own. Turn off the TV. Vote for Pat—or Harry or Joe or the Greens or the lady next door. Read your ancestors. Put flowers by their graves. Paint your block. Avenge what is lost. Laugh.

Commit place-ism. With joy and impunity.

Bill Kauffman is at work on a new novel in Batavia, New York. From Chronicles (March 2000). Subscriptions: $39/yr. (12 issues) from Box 800, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.