On the Road to Nowhere?

In a world of nomads, is community even possible?

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As truly nomadic peoples like the Maasai in Kenya and the Gypsies in Europe are being targeted as threats to order and democracy across the world, the question being asked in the United States is, can a nation that is fueled by the nomadic yearnings for the frontier also develop and sustain meaningful communities?

According to David Watson, writing in a superb issue of The New Internationalist (April 1995) devoted to the topic, the answer is a defiant no. 'The European invasion of America essentially financed the emergence of capitalism,' he writes. 'In the process, old cultures were entirely uprooted, indigenous peoples slaughtered and displaced and whole regions pillaged.' Watson goes on to say that this bulldozer mentality has created a society where 'today's post-modern nomad channel-surfs or wanders in cyberspace, no longer worrying about the world outside or even believing it exists.' In Watson's view, the crucial community-building question of 'Who are we?' remains unanswered because we are all too busy moving on.

But what are the trade offs of staying put? In a provocative essay about the study of history in The New Republic (Feb. 1, 1993) author Joseph Brodsky argues that adapting the circular, wandering patterns of the nomadic tradition to our learning styles would rid us of the tyranny of linear, rationalistic thinking that in his mind has dulled us into becoming passive dupes of the state. 'The best reason for being a nomad,' he writes, 'is not the fresh air, but the escape from the rationalist theory of society that is a blithely idealistic flight from human intuition.'

Original to Utne Reader Online