Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What Is to be Done?

...is the title of a piece I've posted today at Front Porch Republic. Here's a snippet:

For some [to the problem of how to live a more deeply rooted life amid our rootless culture], the answer is simple: live the life you are propounding here. Wendell Berry is the touchstone of this site, not only because he has long and best articulated an alternative vision to the dominant cultural, political and economic presuppositions of this nation of “boomers,” but because he has walked the walk, leaving a promising academic career in New York City to take up a life of greater “complexity” on the farm in Henry County, Kentucky. To greater or lesser extent, this is the example also on display here not only in the words, but in the deeds of Caleb Stegall, Bill Kauffman, and Kate Dalton. In living lives of deep commitment to places that are at once home and outside the cosmopolis - even, in Caleb and Kate’s cases, tending to the land in those places - they are living demonstrations of their words. Both Caleb and Bill have, more than once, expressed misgivings about writing here, because to do so withdraws them from the very actions of which we all write about here. There is something inauthentic about propounding a life of localism and community on the internet, though they propound it magnificently and persuasively nonetheless.

For most of the rest of us, we live deeply enmeshed in the world shaped by an itinerant economy and rootless journeymen. Particularly the academics among us have emerged from a system that is designed to foster the very opposite of the ethic that is being articulated and defended at FPR. It has been noted on more than one occasion that most of the rest of us writing here lack the authenticity of the likes of Berry. Because of this, we can be dismissed all the more easily as, at best, intellectual romantics of a Rousseauvian mien, and at worst, as hypocrites who would call on others to live a life that none of us have ever shown any real capacity to live.

My own response, however, takes several parts. First, those among us who have been emerged from the experience of graduate education designed, above all, to create deracinated and rootless intellectuals who theoretically could work anywhere but who generally crave to live and teach in one of a half-dozen cosmopolite cities in the world, have come to understand with crystal-clarity the deepest presuppositions of the liberal ethic. While we doubtless expose ourselves to the easy charges of hypocrisy, for many of us I suspect - and certainly, speaking personally - our opposition to the dominant ethos comes largely as a result of this particular education, and the contradictions and ultimately distortions that it forced most of us here (I presume) to confront.

Those of us in this “itinerant” category are, in some ways, well-positioned to speak to so many of our fellow countrymen who find themselves in a similar pass. Many of us - whether because of circumstance, such as our professions, or background, such as an upbringing in the suburbs - cannot easily make choices that would demonstrate our full commitment to a more rooted life in a small town or even our home town. For many, there is no “going home again” because many of us come from places that cannot properly be called home. And, for many others of us, it is perhaps the ultimate irony that a society so deeply defined by choice and mobility makes the choice for rootedness difficult. Whereas the default was once to become a country doctor or town lawyer or one-team baseball player, now the defaults are set in an opposite mode.

I’ll give one personal example of this. Shortly after I finished my Ph.D., I received an invitation to interview at a college that was quite close to where I had grown up. I was inordinately excited at this possibility, thinking that it might work out that my wife and I and newborn son might be able to settle close to family and childhood friends. When asked about accommodations, I proudly informed the college that I would be staying in my bedroom that night - my childhood bedroom, that is. During the two day interview I related in every conversation that I was native to the area and had a longstanding relationship to the campus, having attended its plays, movies, and used its library for many years. I believed my local connection would make me an especially attractive candidate, sure in the knowledge that a school would be attracted to someone who already had deep roots in the community and was likely to build a long life and career in that place.

Yes, I was incredibly na├»ve. I learned later that this proud display of my nativeness went over badly - it was discerned as a compromise of what should have been my true and only motivation for seeking employment at that institution, which was its objective and universal academic excellence. And, more generally, it is now almost universally the case that institutions will not hire faculty who have been trained at the same institution, or even an institution in the same state. Any such hiring would be suspected of nepotism - or worse, “in-breeding” - as if there are not positive features of such connections having to do with particular institutional identity and loyalty and memory. However, no less than the international and global economy, academia is now an international “marketplace” as well, and we only become valuable when we enter the stream of international intellectual commerce that is at once nowhere and everywhere.

Most of us, then, live in “the real world” as it is, and as it will persist to be for a foreseeable future. Yet, I think all of us genuinely struggle with second-bests - how to put down roots where one is; how to introduce a different ethic into a profession and way of life now defined by the dominant liberal ethic; how to raise good families amid the wreckage of this culture; how to live in ways larger and, more often, smaller, that reflect a resistance to the dominant culture, to support the sustenance or renewal or even creation of communities.


The rest is here.

1 comment:

Black Sea said...

Some entirely unoriginal thoughts:

1. If you can, raise a garden. You'll eat better, because you'll eat what you grow, and nobody can grow ice cream, potato chips, or Snickers Bars in a garden. Whatever food you don't eat, you can give to firends, which leads to the next point.

2. Have some friends. Real friends, not people you happen to work with, or people you feel that you need to impress. People who know you, and become or remain your friends, already like you well enough, and thus, you can relax and be a little honest with them, and with yourself. Particularly with old friends, there's no point in trying to impress them anyway, because they already know you for who you really are, which leads to the next point.

3. If you don't have a home to go back to, make one for yourself and your kids. Don't get so caught up in bemoaning the current condition of our culture that you succumb to adolescent despair. Faulkner said something along the lines of, there are good people in every place, in every time. If you are open to knowing such people, they will help you create a place for yourself worth living in.

4. Avoid locating yourself in places that cost a fortune, or where people seem to think it costs a fortune, to raise kids. In such places, your kids will eventually figure out that they factor in your life primarily as an expense, and will start to behave as such. Places that are exorbitantly expensive for raising kids may not be particularly healthy. For anybody, particularly people with money.

5. Don't, under any circumstances, take the bait. You either know what this means, or you don't.