Ben Sasse and Max Boot recently published books about the current division in the body politic. Sasse is a Republican senator in the wannabe Kennedy mold, tall, clean-cut, handsome, extremely literate, from a small town he idolizes and dreams about, while hunting power in the biggest of big towns, Washington, DC.
I know little about Max Boot other than his sourness about those 63 million people out there in the great beyond who voted in Trump, and not some cultivated RINO like Jeb! Max who? Well, you might ask. He advised Bush, McCain and Romney – losers in other words – and was one of the clearest voices advocating for sending the young men of the flyover states to war in Iraq. That’s Max Boot. He is mourning “our” conflicted state, by which he seems to mean that we’re all RACIST.
This duo of exiled right-wingers was joined in the New York Times last week, by Arthur Brooks head of the American Enterprise Institute, who claimed our inalterable loneliness is causing us to hate each other and we have lost community and cohesion.
The song of division and heartbreak is sung by cerebral brainiacs in every generation. Gone, they cry, gone our collegiality, gone our small town love and care for each other. Gone our religious spirit. Now, we have alienation and desperation and loneliness.
Equally, on the left, the splendid Joel Kotkin just published an essay “proving” the gig economy, upon which an increasing number of us live means desperate meaningless lives for all. Weirdly for one so independent of thought, he cannot see how fast the gig economy is growing, how tantalizing it is to be your own boss. Doom awaits us all in the future as jobs are automated, claims Kotkin.
First, though I’d like to ask any of these men and women, publisher or writer, have they ever lived in a small town, and not one they planned to escape as soon as they could grab the right scholarship. My guess is nopers, it’s all fantasy. Because small towns are famously gossipy, mean-spirited, feud-ridden and outright exclusionary. I live in one of those towns now and grew up in one even smaller.
Try the “community” of an upper-class boarding school. An elite newsmagazine. The fashion community in Paris. Soho bohemia in 1985. 19th Century Ontario. The medieval Church, the Highland clans, the revolutionary cadres of Africa. Like the dozen or so communities I have lived in since childhood all are or were riven by jealousies, competition, hysterics, anger, and backstabbing, always backstabbing.
One of the many gifts of modernism is that we no longer have to put up with the sneaking viciousness of the human in relationship. We can live anonymously, and choose with whom we associate. If people aren’t nice to us, unlike in a rooted-for-life existence, we can wave buh-bye. And the digital revolution has given us all just that.
I personally have never felt less lonely. I live on the edge of the world but am in contact with people all over the world, in places I have never been. I can disappear into the hills and forests, and the moment I get home be talking to a friend in South Africa or London or Hawaii. I can keep in contact with the people I loved from the age of six. The wealth of association given to me by the digital revolution is pretty much never-ending, the stimulation and opportunity are the same.
Right below the surface, where Sasse, Boot, and Brooks have clearly not looked, an entire new culture is forming. Every sector is revolutionizing, and connection is growing so fast you can hardly keep up. Spirituality? Booming. Food innovation? Also booming. Small town and small city restoration? Booming. Local nature conservation and restoration? Booming. Innovation in health? Booming. The gig economy? Doubling every year. Education? You can learn anything from anybody at very little cost. Housing innovation? Exploding. The arts? Ok, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to the arts, but nearly every village and town boasts a varied, rich arts community, which can only improve. The point is that none of this innovation is coming from the corporate sector, the government or the universities. It is all from unaligned individuals creating their own worlds out of the glare of Boot, Sasse, and Brooks etc.
Richard Florida’s cool mega-cities have morphed into a morass of tumult, disease, lack of unity, violence, fear, noise and unending stress. Out in the forgotten tundra, North Americans are doing what they have been doing since the founding. Creating freedom through individual innovation.
The state of our community has never been stronger.
At this time of year, I go to town hoping that the tourists have swept out in a giant wave leaving the island to me and the 10,000 others that call it home. More like 6,000 really, because a good third of the houses are second or third homes for the ever-busy rich who come each year to piggyback on our country vibe and stare into the void from their ocean-side cottages and glass and steel modernist homes.
Each year, the waning tide leaves behind a few new residents, blinking and staring with shock that they have left city life and moved to Hicksville. House prices are so high in neighboring cities now that if you bought one at the right time, you can sell it at the age of 50 and never have to work again.
I always wonder what they will find to do, these new people, especially the women with their idiosyncratic clothing, newly messy hair, their nods to Bohemia in their crafty handbags, to status with their $50,000 cars. There they are locked up in their glass, wood and stone mini-palaces, all the finishes gleaming and new, the gardens planted and irrigated with 30 years ahead of them and enough money to do anything they want.
Travel of course. At first, they travel and visit, pretty much ceaselessly. They develop a travel routine. In the winter, we go here, in the spring, here, and we never miss….etc. The eternal chatter of the upper middle class. We did this special thing. Then we did that special thing. And Tuscany offseason is so charming. Well you know, he plays golf incessantly so Palm Desert, sigh. I make do with tennis and swimming and of course, the art galleries.
My mother’s generation and her mother’s generation did some of that, but what occupied them chiefly was charity as it used to be called before it was professionalized. I think of my great-aunts, who never worked, but who never sat down either. BB, my great-aunt ran every charity reserved for women in Vancouver, one after the other after the other. She died at 86, after a meeting no doubt, six months after her husband, who also, never sat down because he too worked for others dawn to way after dusk.
They were engaged, deeply in the lives of the people they lived among. They knew every corner of their cities and towns, every struggling family, every aching need. From their organized minds flowed endless projects, community centers, fleets of cars for nurses, hospices and institutes for the deaf and the blind and so on and so forth. When they and their generational cohort died, the city became, in a few short decades, raucous and anonymous and brutal.
There is a theory out there that people are returning to the lives their grandparents lived. It even has a name, ‘The Great Return’. Joel Kotkin writes about it, as does Aaron Renn, and Wendell Cox, their work gathered on a site called New Geography. The Return is a rejection of densification in the cities, a rejection of the casual acceptance of crime, of enduring gang murders in the neighborhoods that you avoid, knifings and acid attacks on the subway, the percolation of fear just under the surface. It is a hope for sanity, intimacy, safety, home. It will never die.
So I carry a torch for these newly-freed women, excessive only in their competence. Women used to create culture in their homes and neighborhoods before they got themselves liberated to work even harder. After holding down a good job in a demanding profession and raising three kids, retiring at 55 seems bloody necessary. But then…time in all its resounding emptiness faces you. Time you must fill.
This sociological wrinkle in time might yet save us and our oh-so-ordinary-and-good middle-class culture which remains the hope of the entire world.
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