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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