What A Town Has

The modern world loves to erase distinctions. We want access to the same burger wherever we go, to the same shopping centers, to the same gas stations. Both producers and consumers want the same TV and the same music and the same video games available in every region. A middle class black girl from the Atlanta suburbs and a first-generation Pakistani immigrant in Chicago and a white chick from rural New Hampshire should all be able to wear the same jeans.

I grew up in the same county, around the same town my entire life. It wasn’t a terribly small one, but my circles were small enough that I might as well have grown up in one of those farm towns that only has a school district because the nearest real town is too far to drive. A significant of that circle consisted of people whose families have been in the area longer than some countries have existed. The point being, I came from something of a bubble.

I stepped out of that bubble to go to college. It was strange. My town has a fairly large poor-as-dirt population, and a fairly large champagne-and-caviar population, and the middle is usually pretty fluid, and generally consists of young families. We’re also several hours from several different major cities, with ties to one being no stronger than ties to the other. We have a strong local identity, both because we’re a part of Texas that doesn’t exist in pop culture, and because we are the oldest town. That’s not to say everyone who lives here loves it, but they certainly know they live here.

In college, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that America has a large, distinct middle class, and that there really is a place called “suburbia.” Bits and pieces of TV’s portrait of that world applied to how I grew up, but I always thought the overall picture was some wildly distorted caricature that existed mostly in the heads of people from LA. Not so, apparently.

The suburban middle class grew up, more or less, in planned neighborhoods of houses that looked the same. They ate, shopped, and spent their weekends in nationwide, or at least coast-wide, chains of restaurants, shopping outlets, and movie theaters. The world where everybody, everywhere has access to the same thing was the world they grew up in.

In the midst of that world is a lot of music, a lot of literature, and not a few movies dedicated to a world they’ve never experienced. Whether that’s the rural, small town America half their grandparents or great-grandparents migrated from, or the crowded cities with immigrant neighborhoods the other half came from, it’s not something they’ve experienced. They have no connection to the old country or the old way of life. For them, that’s in the past, and all that remains is an idealized portrait of a world that no longer exists.

Part of coming to grips with the world is recognizing which of your ideals are just fantasies that will never and could never come to pass. There is true wisdom in taking the world as it actually is, and learning to live with that. For the children of the world I just described, the children of chain stores and suburban sprawl, part of growing up may be getting over the fact that they aren’t in a cozy small town or an exciting big city, and learning instead to be content with suburbia.

This is all my way of rationalizing a behavior I don’t understand, and one that fills me with deep sadness and exhaustion.

From this point of view, it’s reasonable to say that there are no longer real differences between one city and another, one town and another, or even between rural podunkville and the grand cities of the coasts. America has been homogenized. We live the same everywhere.

Part of me wants to respond to this as if it were a fight between one interpretation of the facts and another. America is only really homogenized for people of a certain class. But this isn’t really a class question. I’ve known rich and poor who love their place, and rich and poor who pay it no mind.

And that’s what it’s really about: love.

The town I attended college in is not terribly different in terms of certain raw facts than the one I grew up in. College town in a rural area, twenty to thirty thousand people. Across the county line is another town, slightly bigger, but without the claim to the same antiquity or artsiness. Nearest major cities are several hours away. Both have McDonald’s, both have Walmart, both have Redbox and Autozone.

But a town is far more than that. You can’t go to the Sterne-Hoya Soccer Complex, named after the old families that played host to Davy Crockett, and now renamed the Clint Dempsey Soccer Complex in honor of our hometown hero, just anywhere. You can’t walk the Lanana Creek Trail, past the place where Father Margil is said to have called up sacred springs to save the Caddos from a drought and keep the Mission alive a little longer. If you go to the downtown square, there’s no Old Time String Shop, and there’s no narrow, dangerous North Street heading up from there, past huge brick Baptist churches, past the library and rec center named for a leader of the black community in town. In many small towns, there is no black community.

You certainly can’t eat at Clear Springs in New York or Boston, and Mike’s BBQ doesn’t exist outside of this town. You also can’t take 225 west out of town, past the lake, and then curve around north to Henderson, passing Flower Mountain and catching the view of the hilly horizon from the road north of Cushing. You don’t get East Texas rain just anywhere, and you don’t get to see how folks around here react to a snow day. Not every place has cattle barns by the highway, or a reservoir that shares the name of a former Speaker of the House with a congressional office building in DC. He took the lectern when he left.

This is not naïve praise of Nacogdoches. Every town has things like this. Every place has things that make it unique. And these roads, trails, buildings, parks, lakes–all of that didn’t just pop up one day. It was people that built it, and people make a place what it is. This town is full of people, of families, that left their mark on it, and more are doing the same every day. There are unique things about this town because there are people here, and people make memories.

My problem with “all America is the same” isn’t that it points out some uncomfortable but true facts about how we live in the 21st century in a high-tech, highly mobile, capitalist society. It’s that it turns a blind eye to the beauty that exists in the world, to the agency people still have, to the world they make around themselves. It looks at the beautiful things all over America and shrugs.

I’m not trying to preserve an ideal of rural, small-town America here, either. New York is nothing like Boston is nothing like Chicago is nothing like LA is nothing like Portland is nothing like Houston is nothing like San Francisco. For that matter, some parts of New York are pretty different from other parts of New York. I also know that, whatever they have in common, suburban Atlanta and suburban Dallas and suburban Seattle can all produce some very different kinds of people.

We all tend to paper over our own era with imaginary worlds from some departed golden age, and criticize our times in light of that. The solution, though, is not to replace that image with one of a vast and endless wasteland of identical places. Every place is unique. That’s how the universe is wired. Neither capitalism nor technological progress are strong enough to overcome that. Our homes still have character, if you are willing to love them, willing to look, and willing to keep and to tend what you find.

Advertisements

The Southern Dilemma, Part One

This is the first in a number of posts on Southern identity. The following exploration of the issue was inspired by a series of three linked articles whose content will largely structure the upcoming posts. They can be found here, here, and here.

Recently Dr. Peter Leithart posted a quote on his blog over at First Things. The originator of the quote compares Ireland’s relationship to England as a literary center with that of the South’s relationship to the remainder of the United States. He offers an interesting explanation for our significant literary output, grounding greater creativity in the experience of defeat.

“The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not.”

This is an interesting point, and strikes me as true. There is depth to having known defeat, a certain humility when confronted with life that I believe allows a deeper and more poignant experience of the world. But there are greater consequences to such an experience than increased creative potential.

The problem with American history is that it is very short. It has been said that a very old man today could have, as a child, sat in the lap of another old man who in turn had known people alive at the time of the War for Independence. Much has happened in the past two hundred and fifty years, but we are still very much settling into our place in history. We have not been conquered and re-conquered, we have not experienced centuries of changing regimes and lifestyles. The first war the whole United States really lost was Vietnam.

So when the South includes in its narrative a story of defeat, that means a great deal. We are still Americans, with a strong desire for progress and optimism. We cannot fathom the concept of a narrative with rises and falls, defeats and victories, different struggles in different contexts. Change is foreign. Our narrative has only gone so far, and our imagination cannot go much farther.

That defeat, then, defines us. It has the cold air of finality about it, and that terrifies the Southern psyche. No man can maintain a narrative of final defeat. If his worldview has no room for victory or potential happiness, then either he will die or he will find a new worldview.

In the South, that is largely what has happened. In our short-sightedness we think Appomattox meant not just the end of Confederate efforts in the Civil War, but the end of the South as a culture. This drives some to seek out a new culture, whether a Yankeefied liberalism or some broader form of Americanism. Others do not want to abandon their culture so quickly, and instead attempt to change the narrative. The South must rise again, or at the very least be vindicated and accepted in the larger American context. In some sense, our defeat must be undone.

This dilemma largely defines the South as it is now, and if not addressed, will lead to our death as a culture. And it is a problem not for those who are willing to forget the South, but for those who love it and want to see it prosper. We are the ones who have stop living in the past, and address our culture as it stands now. We have to adapt to a new context and become forward-thinking while still affirming our own heritage and way of life.

I do believe that the South has done this on occasion, but almost by accident. We are constantly going back to that same war, rehashing the same old issues, and clinging to that bitter defeat. If we are to maintain an upbeat and forward-thinking culture, we cannot continue to do that. We must deliberately and firmly make a lasting change to our understanding of our own narrative. But that is a topic for a later post.

We Are America

Right now I am working through Stephen Fry in America, a fascinating survey of this wonderful civilization we have cobbled together over here in the New World. One thing Mr. Fry is constantly noting is the great diversity throughout the states. There is no denying, we are a strangle quilt of disparate peoples.

In a college that serves people from all over, discussions of differences and similarities between various American locales is bound to come up. It is interesting to me how people define not just their own local cultures, but the culture of America as a whole. For example, several of my Midwestern friends consider their region to be the generic “America.” After all, isn’t that where the movie makers like to portray such universal(ish) figures as Clark Kent and James T. Kirk?

On the other hand, I grew up around the fringes of the southern great plains, a place the natives like to call “America’s Heartland.” Then there is a local pastor who insists that all of America has been infused with New England Puritan DNA. A lot of good Southerners, especially from the Old South, will tell you that we have best preserved the American political heritage. Over in the New South, I am more likely to point to our rich musical heritage, a force which spilled out of the Appalachians and Mississippi Delta to define American culture through rock, country, blues, and every variant thereof. And many Left Coast folks are quick to tell me that Seattle has defined the last fifty years of American history, or that LA and Hollywood have been the America that the world has come to know. But what about our capital, DC? Or New York, the quintessential American city and landing place of immigrants?

Just take a look at that. People define America by religion, politics, music, movies, small towns, and big cities. Is the Deep South the most American because it is so very unique, or is the Midwest more American because it is more generic? Or take the classic question, East Coast or West? There is not really one right answer. Each of us defines America based on our own little slice of the American experience. And  most of us can make quite a good case for the importance of our region and its contribution to our overall ethos. Honestly, I don’t think any of us is altogether wrong.

The fact is, America is not one thing. From the very beginning we have been big and diverse. A Bostonian at the beginning of the War for Independence was probably at least as different from a Scots-Irish backwoodsman on the Georgia frontier as he was from the redcoats they both fought. And since then, the differences have only grown greater. We are not monolithic, and that is not a bad thing. We are as diverse as the Mediterranean when Rome was through with it, and have gained as much from our commerce and justice system as they ever did.

So what is America? America is what it has always claimed to be: a union of states. America is a community of cultures under one roof, a big feast with a hundred dishes brought to the table. America is not one secret ingredient, or a formula that we can find by whittling away all the regional quirks. It is those regional quirks that make America. It is not found in one location or one group of people. Quite simply, we are all America. And that, to me, makes the whole thing more interesting.

Responsibility and Gun Rights

I have quite a lot to say on the topic of gun rights, because there is quite a lot to be said. I may end up saying a great deal about it on here over the next little bit. But for now, I have one point to drill home.

When people talk about rights, it is often in the form of “I get to do this” or “You can’t make me do that.” That is not a bad way to talk about it, necessarily, but there is, perhaps a better way. The way I view it, men have rights because they have responsibilities. We are called to do certain things, and because we have those duties we are given the authority over things pertaining to those duties.

This is not a hard concept to grasp when it comes to government. Our governors are meant to punish the wicked with the power of the sword and to reward the righteous with praise. As a result, they are given the right to determine the finer points of what constitutes wickedness in the society they govern, and how the wicked are to be punished. The “necessary and proper” clause exists because we know the government must have certain powers in order to perform its functions.

But governors (federal, state, or local) are not the only people with duties to perform. The church government has duties, schools have duties, businesses have duties. As a result, elders have a certain amount of authority, as do teachers, principles, employers, and managers. Again, I think we all understand this.

But before all that, God made a man and a woman, and he bid them be fruitful and multiply. The family unit is natural to man, perhaps more natural than any other social unit. And (questions of gender roles aside) the head of a family has some very basic duties–to provide for and protect his family. If he must provide for his family, we must concede that he has the authority, and therefore the right, to do so. Furthermore, if he must protect his family, he has the right to do so.

The next step is not exactly a leap of logic, though I perhaps take it farther than some are willing to. A man must protect his family, including from other men. In defense of his family, a man must sometimes use lethal force. From the beginning, this has been true. If you read the Bible, and don’t skim, it’s obvious that God is far less squeamish about people using lethal force than we are.

So far, many conservatives are willing to go. Sure, they say, let’s allow men to have shotguns or rifles or pistols for home defense. If someone breaks into your home, you need to defend your family. That’s your duty, regardless of how you feel about it. And amen. But that’s not where it stops.

Not every enemy is just a burglar. Sometimes the enemy is as well-armed as you are, and better. Sometimes he has professional thugs and the power to attack you in broad daylight. Understand that America is pretty special, that we live in a land of peace in a time of peace, and that is unusual. Governments, local, national, and imperial, go bad. And your duty to protect your family does not stop because the threat is bigger. Neglecting your duty when the going gets tough is not reasonable, it’s cowardice. And mincing words about it is further cowardice.

I understand that saying this will earn me the “nutter” badge. Do I really think one lone guy can oppose a vast corrupt government? Maybe not, but I’m not talking about some lone guy gunning down corrupt officials. This isn’t Shooter, and it’s not the wild west. But I am talking about citizens resisting their government. That can work, that has worked. Even an army like America’s, the best funded in the world, can be resisted. You don’t think so? Look at what Afghans are doing with ancient weapons and no real artillery. Nobody is invincible.

It’s funny that we tell each other all these stories about the War for Independence and how brave those men were, but when it comes down to it, we freely call what they did “stupid.” If you really think a bunch of backwoodsmen opposing the greatest military of the day is ridiculous, either stop calling what your ancestors did honorable, or else admit that sometimes our duty is to do the improbable.

So do I think we have a right to own assault weapons? Yes. I believe we have the right to own them, because I believe we have the duty to own them. Not because the government is out to get us (it’s not) or because we’re under threat of invasion (we’re not). I believe we have that duty because those things are real possibilities, possibilities which prudence and responsibility dictate we be prepared for. We ought to be as well armed as is necessary to confront the greatest potential threat to our families and our neighbors. We are men with responsibilities, and we ought to fulfill them. Even if the government does not like it.

Random Sketches on a Sunday Afternoon

This morning, walking back from church, I stopped briefly on a hill to watch birds on the wind. The hills were stretching away, folding and unfolding until they disappeared over the horizon. They are something like golden this time of year, and the sky was a pale blue. In between the gilded land and powdered sky were hawks floating in the breeze. I’ve seen wind toss trees to the ground, send cars across multiple lanes, and topple steeples. These hawks were not disturbed in the least by the moving air. It was strong where they were. They rose up and dove down, drifting about on thermals and cross-breezes, not going anywhere in particular. They were just riding the wind, enjoying the view.

*          *          *

The Palouse hills, though they rise and fall, keep a steady height. It’s like the rumpled sheets on a bed, always curling up only to fall down to the mattress and no further. They’re bounded at the top, too, so you can stand on the top of one and watch the rest ripple off into the distance. But in one place, that is not true.

Wawawai is a sudden downward slope, a passage deep into a valley. The hills surge above, like giants looming. The sun sits above them, gleaming down until the fire touches the river, and the little lake that squats beside it. The water’s surface shines like shook foil, as Hopkins once said. It’s like a second sun, trapping you within a cage of golden beams and walls of grass and earth. It’s a pleasant captivity.

*         *         *

Everyone should sing. It’s a fact. Not all of us have great voices, and not all of us have voices that can sing everything. But all of us should find something to sing, and sing it passably well. Singing is part of being in a community: sharing joy and words of wisdom or worship in a glorious medium.

*         *         *

Every American child should familiarize himself with the history and culture of the British Isles. There is nothing so exciting and so commonplace, so tightly knit and so separate and diverse as that community of nations. An understanding of those islands and the nations that call them home fills with the world with a richness and wonder that stretches back for millenia, providing a hint of the wisdom our American youthfulness has not achieved. And, as one who loves Scottish freedom, it makes a man twice the nationalist and the twice the skeptic than if he had been raised on our history alone.

*         *         *

The sun is falling low now, a jewel set in sapphire and gold, a seal on the passing day. It’s been glorious. Friends and new freshmen, long car rides, shy dogs, and watermelon, all of them interwoven with music to our Lord and for him. As the day winds down and the next week rises up like a battlefield to be traversed, the Sabbath is bidding a fond farewell. It will come again, and we will sing again, and it will go again, and we will fight again, and at the end of weeks, the end of days, there will be another Sabbath. And that one will last forever.