Friday, May 24, 2013

A Minor Musing On Place And Displacement

I'm politically displaced by choice as much as by circumstance, a little too liberal to be conservative and a little too conservative to be liberal. Perhaps, I'm liberal or conservative on all the wrong issues. In some ways, I'm like Kafka's Hunger Artist. (The story is well worth reading.) He starved himself because he never found a food he liked; geographically, I'm not sure I've lived in a place I've liked.

I suppose it is somewhat ironic that I have been following with great interest Cory's posts about place prompted by this David Newquist post. Coincidentally, I came upon this Ross Douthat post "When Place Is Not Enough"; Douthat makes two key points that I find pertinent.

First, Douthat writes, "[R]eal happiness depends, for many if not most people, on a connection between family, community, and place. But on the evidence of the recent American experience, place alone is not enough."

Second, he makes a key distinction: "I think the distinction . . .  — between a philosophy of rootedness and a philosophy that just stresses 'place' in general or idolizes the rural life in particular — is central to . . . [the] ability to offer a realistic response to the ills of contemporary American life." I'm a bit cynical,  so the idea that there's "a realistic response to the ills of contemporary American life" is a bit hyperbolic, but "rootedness" does seem more important than "place."

Applying Douthat's points to South Dakota prompts a few observations. First, South Dakota is not a monolithic "place"; the Bison-Lemmon metroplex differs significantly from the I-29 corridor region from Sioux Falls to Watertown.

In addition, Douthat points to a "connection between family, community, and place" as being central ingredients to "roots." I'm not sure that's enough; the practical concerns about paying to replace the family car's transmission or saving for retirement are things not solved by "family, community, and place."

Further, humans are not plants. The roots metaphor implied in "rootedness" ignores the desire for autonomy. Satisfactorily setting down roots demands that one be able to choose to remain. A person who lives in Illinois, New York, California, or Texas and quits a successful job and sells a comfortable house can move to South Dakota, buy a similar house and have money left over. The converse is not true. Although, one may still have "choices," those choices are rather like the ones Odysseus faced on his voyage home: sail close to the six-headed monster Scylla and lose crewmen or sail close to the whirlpool Charybdis and lose the whole ship.

Finally, to apply the roots metaphor, roots need good soil and cultivation to softened the ground. Politically and culturally, South Dakota seems to desire stability more than cultivation. Deserts are stable too, but little grows there.

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