Practicing Place-ism

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


| July-August 2000



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.

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Sambit Samant
4/15/2012 4:08:23 PM

Sorry, Rowan - I really think you missed the point. In my opinion Bill isn't really telling you to hang on to wherever you come from but find where you come from - be it you adopted home too - perhaps a big city. He just writes through the idea of an ancestral town because that is what worked for him. I think you maybe missed the Flagg quote from The Time It Never Rained, : “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.”


Rowan Carlsen
4/11/2012 7:03:54 PM

It's amazing how a piece that is so eloquently written can commit such a facile error in judgment. This same logic can be applied to racism, sexism, creed-ism, you name it. It's the over-valuation of some trait or characteristic that is wholly arbitrary in its origin - where you are born, who you're born to, what color you are. It's not something we ought to try to hang on to. Define yourself on your own terms, not those of your "ancestors" or neighbors, for on what grounds are you beholden to them?