Hometowns and ghost towns

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Most modern societies have a romance of the hometown: a place that ‘one is from,’ and that serves as an anchor of reference and identity when one is adrift, happily or unhappily. It – or rather, the idea of it – provides continuity when the spaces and compartments we inhabit collapse or converge. In much of the world, the hometown is detached from everyday life. It is a place that one has left behind, and that functions as an identifier even when a permanent return is unlikely. In the refugee and migrant worlds of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, hometowns have been not only the places left behind as people moved in search of education, work, safety and nationalities, but also the unseen places that parents and grandparents had once known. Such hometowns – Pabna, Lucknow, Lahore – are constituted by the thinnest of nostalgia. A cousin of mine recently crossed the India-Bangladesh border to see the ancestral family home in Dhaka (‘lost’ since 1947), could not find the building, went back disappointed, and only later realized that he had gone to the wrong address.

The American hometown is less ethereal. It is a place that one has never left. Its heart is the local high school, with its football rituals that one continues to attend as an adult, and mascots that one continues to revere. Those who actually play football or basketball expect to be recognized and flattered at the local hardware store or diner, or to run the store itself someday. Students graduate from these schools – which their parents also attended –  with the expectation that they will never leave town. Their circle of acquaintances will not expand much further beyond those who are already their friends and enemies. They will, they hope, find jobs or take over family businesses that allow them to marry and have kids, to divorce and pay child support, to buy a home and a couple of cars, to retire, sicken and die with dignity.

That hometown is easy to find but hard to hold on to. It is, one might say, a mythology of community and reassurance in a vast, thinly populated land, where pioneers could go only so far before needing to stop. The place where you stopped became home: homestead, little house on the prairie, island in the wilderness, Mayberry, surrounded by the combination of emptiness and savagery that gives shape and meaning to the settler colony. Unarguably, only a part of America has actually lived even a portion of this dream, and today the hometown is more beleaguered than ever. The savages have multiplied faster than the homesteaders, and the economy has moved to the wilderness of university towns, coastal cities and foreign parts, demanding that people follow. The wilderness is also America, a competing myth with its own power and cruelties, but without that paranoid insularity.

The American hometown is a historical phenomenon. It is a product of datable, identifiable and intersecting episodes in the recent past: industrial employment, unionized wages, job security, home ownership and welfare assurance, brought together by the New Deal, the Second World War, the unchallenged manufacturing hegemony of the 1950s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. These brave new hometowns fattened on the mythical homesteads; the self-righteous and existentially imperiled innocence of William Jennings Bryan became the images and soundtracks of the multi-layered ‘security’ that was a central part of American ‘greatness’ at a particular moment in time, which was the Cold War.

When the Cold War economy unraveled, hometowns became unsustainable. High school degrees became inadequate for securing jobs, and the self-inflicted injuries of the Reagan era not only weakened the unions that had allowed white workers to live middle class lives, but also began to gut the concept and institutions of social security. It became necessary to contemplate Tom Joad all over again, and this could only be a stepping down from greatness. People who should have left found themselves unable to contemplate actually leaving, because they imagined they would be leaving themselves behind, and because they were afraid of where they might have had to go. Not surprisingly, it was in this period – the 1980s – that the hometown was reified as a melancholy myth of an endangered American identity: the subject matter of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, charged with betrayal. Because that betrayed place had been more real between the 1940s and the 1970s than, say, in Bryan’s time, it was now that much more frightening to see it turning into yet another American mythology of place: the ghost town, in which you were the ghost.

In the last election, the ghosts turned out in force to vote for Donald Trump. In the process, they aggravated the injury that their Reagan-loving parents had inflicted. They did so for reasons that have to do with the nature of the hometown itself: the security and superiority conveyed by the conviction of roots in the soil and separateness from the rootless, and, of course, fear of being uprooted. They did not just vote for a fascist leadership that is contemptuous of every liberal safeguard within democracy; they revealed the Volkisch underpinnings and fascist possibilities of an existentially insecure Homeland made up of hometowns, in which folksiness is an established political idiom, indulged without reflection by liberals and conservatives alike.

The fetish of roots and the folk’s fear of the unrooted is, of course, a common aspect of fascism. It brings together entitlement and anxiety, typically expressed as racism, because race is among other things a perceived relationship to place. Those who are out of place, without a place, or indifferent to place are not only races apart, but also racial enemies and enemies of race itself. Like any matter out of place, they constitute dirt: the dirty Jew in Germany, the dirty Arab in Israel, the dirty Mexican in the American southwest, refugees in upstate New York, immigrants everywhere. And as dirt in the age of sanitation, they are invitations to cleansing and other forms of intervention. As animals that have wandered in from the wilderness, they threaten the hometown resident with the prospect of invasion, or of having to enter the wilderness himself. It generates music like “Welcome to the Jungle,” the Indiana redneck’s response to Los Angeles.

Along with the fear of savages and animals, the prospect of being exiled to the jungle brings the fear of emasculation. The narrative of the American hometown is a richly gendered text, consisting not only of the culture of team sports, guns, pick-up trucks (or muscle cars) and the predictable comfort of marrying your ‘high school sweetheart,’ but also the ritualized expectation that you will, upon graduation, become a newly-carded member of the same labor union to which your father belongs. When these expectations and rituals become threadbare even as mythology, the crisis of manhood takes the form of racist, homophobic and misogynistic violence, and overrides rational calculations of economic and political self-interest, not to mention ethical considerations and the niceties of liberal democracy, which can only appear effeminate. It produces the compulsive bullying and the stormtrooper phenomena that Arthur Rosenberg identified, in 1934, as the essential ingredient of full-blown fascism.

The citizen in that mode of reaction functions as a modern peasant, hostile to science, even more hostile to the arts, resentful of educated outsiders and of education itself. (The American high school is primarily a location of socialization, and only secondarily of learning.) The modern peasant is, in one sense, a contradiction in terms, but is actually a common creature. He or she retains the provinciality of the peasant and the fetish of the soil, but it is now national soil, and suspicious outsiders are national enemies. The forms of hate remain familiar and assimilate the old, but the content is substantially new. Hannah Arendt once remarked of European anti-Semitism that it was ‘not about the Jews,’ indicating a difference between the ‘classical’ pogroms of rural bigots and the nineteenth-century urban Gentile’s dislike of the emancipated Jew. The new hate, she suggested, was more about the nationalizing citizen’s resentful relationship with the liberal state and its allies. The particular target was incidental. In present-day America, it would be inaccurate to say that the racism, anti-intellectualism and gender norms of the hometown are merely byproducts of a government policy or even a cluster of policies such as neoliberal capitalism; they are imbedded in much deeper histories of the settlement of the continent. But they are nevertheless intertwined with global economic currents that have made the American hometown obsolete, and made it necessary for the peasants to do what other peasants have typically done, which is to embrace the city. The obsolescence of the hometown is inseparable from the reluctance of its denizens to do move to where the colleges are, where the jobs are, where the strangers and savages are.

The American hometown – which is not just a place, but an idea in which Trump and Springsteen are both complicit – is not a benign sentimentality. It is a nostalgia of arrested development, intertwined with white privilege, violent masculinity, and the fundamentally unreasonable and unhealthy refusal to grow up and leave home. There is something pathological about a political reality in which adults who cling to their high school selves vote for a man who consistently behaves like a spoiled child. It is, after all, not rational to confuse cities and the wilderness, or to expect that manufacturing jobs that have disappeared due to automation will return if foreign-made products are hit with tariffs, or to act as if the mass deportation of undocumented aliens will help unemployed Americans who do not want to pick oranges or drive cabs. It is irrational to be terrified of Muslims when the overwhelming share of the killing in this country is done by Christians, and by the police. Rationality in political decision-making may be unfashionable and ‘elitist’ (on this point, there is a perverse agreement between the far right and the post-modern left), but if we are going to have a modern state, then the primacy of verifiable information over ‘feelings’ in governance is an essential hedge against fascism. 

February 9, 2017