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On the roots of community

May 29th, 2013 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

small townRoss Douthat recently linked the rise of suicide rates in the United States with the erosion of small communities and traditional institutions. Douthat went on to cite Rod Dreher’s recent book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming as a picture of how community can instill hope and purpose in a person when they are being beaten down by one difficulty or another. In a follow-up post, Douthat honed in on one particular question, which is how fidelity to a place relates to our identity in a local community:

As a sympathetic but also sometimes skeptical observer of the “Front Porch Republic” style of conservatism, I think the distinction suggested here — between a philosophy of rootedness and a philosophy that just stresses “place” in general or idolizes the rural life in particular — is central to Porcherism’s ability to offer a realistic response to the ills of contemporary American life. A communitarianism that just suggests that everyone should find their own St. Francisville is obviously unresponsive to the reality of a post-agrarian society, but a communitarianism that just tells people to “stay put!” more generally, whether in cities or suburbs or exurbs, is likewise insufficient … because to a surprising extent, Americans are already doing just that. …

So  they/we need a story of what’s going on here. Is it that people are staying in place in an attempt to compensate for turmoil in their personal lives — divorced dads sticking near their kids, single mothers relying on grandparents for childcare — and our communities would be in even worse shape if Americans were moving around at the rate they did in 1980? Is it that strong communities ultimately depend on jobs and rising wages, and so we actually need people to move a little more in order to boost their economic prospects? (And is mass homeownership, in particular, a case where the desire for rootedness has had perverse effects, anchoring people to bad investments and creating stresses that no amount of neighborliness can solve?) Or is it that the flawed design of many of our communities — particularly the suburban and exurban sprawl that James Howard Kunstler famously dubbed the “geography of nowhere” — simply makes it impossible for people to put down real roots no matter how long they stay?

One of the difficulties with much of the rhetoric surrounding place and localism is that it assumes a certain cultural understanding of community without often explicitly addressing the point. This is the problem you run into, for instance, with people who have read nothing by Wendell Berry except his essays. If the only thing you read is The Unsettling of America Berry may well come off as an angry white environmentalist with a shocking streak of naivete. But if you read Jayber CrowA Place on Earth, or Fidelity, you begin to become acquainted with the entire world associated with the place of Port William and you begin to understand that the place is more than just a physical place, but an entire world and culture marked by certain long-held-and-now-forgotten beliefs. Because localists fail to make these cultural characteristics more explicit, they can come off as saying “If people just moved back home, everything would be better,” but that isn’t quite the claim being made. (There is a further problem here, of course, with a younger set of localists who arrive at the position for purely ecological reasons and have no actual first-hand experience with the culture of localism.)

The problem is that the social realities that have led to the erosion of community are not some sort of parasite that invades from the outside, stays separate from the host, and that can simply be removed to restore the host to normal. The social changes that have eroded community are not cosmetic. Rather, these social realities are essentially destructive in that they permanently eradicate a certain kind of community. So reinvigorating small communities in America is not so simple as removing this thing called “mobility” or “rural brain drain,” and then watching everything return to its previous equilibrium. A lack of roots creates a host of other social ills that will persist even if we attempt to reestablish roots in the future.

Walter Brueggemann said it well:

That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full or promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed…. It is now clear that a sense of place is a human hunger that urban promise has not met…. It is rootlessness and not meaninglessness that characterizes the current crisis. There are no meanings apart from roots.

That final sentence gets to the issue. Rootedness is essential for meaning, and when you strip away the roots the meaning is lost. The difficulty is that it cannot be recovered by simply moving back to the farm. Both roots and meaning have been lost and you have to recover both. There was an entire network of relationships marked by a mutual knowledge, affection, and hope that has also been lost. Consequently, attempting to restore society’s little platoons by simply moving back home or staying in one place for years and doing nothing more is rather like trying to reinvigorate the worship of the Greek gods by lighting a candle in the Parthenon. The point isn’t exclusively about the place, but the entire web of relationships and affections that existed in the place. The roots of community matter, but you need what grows from the roots too.

One way to sum up the problem is to say we need both a return to place and a return to virtue. Virtue removed from a physical place and physical community will wither away under the pressure of modernity, as Christopher Lasch demonstrated in his Haven in a Heartless World. When you grant the fact of a “heartless world” there can be no haven. But on the other hand, if we simply return to our home places but know nothing of virtue and the good life, our act may be little more than a token gesture to the land made by, more often than not, a privileged white person wracked by guilt.

photo credit: ViaMoi via photopin cc

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).