This bit from Damon Linker’s review of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming really hit home for me:
If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you’re one of the tens of millions of people who can’t stay in or go home to the heartland because your home — your roots — are in the BosWash corridor of the Northeast or the urbanized areas of the West Coast? I ask because I’m one of them.
Rod responds here with his thoughts.
I’m also one of those people. I was born at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Puget Sound to a pair of officers and moved around a lot as a child, spending five years in Japan before my parents settled in Arlington, across the river from the seat of American power. I haven’t seen my place of birth in more than 20 years and have no attachment to it. Now a twenty-something working in online media after going to a good college, I am one of those placeless cosmopolitan elites.
Growing up in the upper middle class of Washington’s suburbs is different from doing so anywhere else. In, say, Cincinnati, or even New York, the parents of schoolchildren have normal careers as businesspeople or lawyers or doctors. With only a handful of exceptions all my friends’ parents were civil servants. That’s not to say, necessarily, that they were boring bureaucrats—some worked for the IRS or the EPA, but one was also a curator at the Freer. As close as I feel to these people, and as real as the community was, it is inevitably tied up in the goings-on of the federal government, and rests on essentially fraudulent prosperity, right down to the value of everyone’s houses. I have no doubt that schoolchildren in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland know exactly what the word “sequestration” means, and that it was, if not still is, a topic of conversation on school buses.
Bill Kauffman is another conservative writer who’s “gone home,“ so to speak, though to upstate New York instead of Louisiana. He writes about military brats in his book Ain’t My America. I’d just completed it before Rod’s book came out. In it he quotes a 1991 study by Mary Edwards Wertsch, then comments:
There are two questions one can pose that reveal rootlessness as instantly as a litmust test. The first is Where are you from? Military brats do not relish the “where from?” question and go through life vainly trying to parry it. Some answer “Nowhere,” others, “Everywhere” … The second litmus test is a question rarely posed in social situations, but one I posed to every interviewee: Where do you want to be buried? A person with roots always knows the answer … the response of a person without roots is quite different. “Wherever I am when I finish up,” said one military brat. “I have no firm attachment to any geographic location.” Another answered, “Buried? Never. I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered. I don’t care where.”
These are profoundly depressing answers, but they drive home for us the emptiness of life as a servant of the empire. Conservatives—believers in what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things”—used to understand the need for roots … In Philosophy in a New Key (1942), Susanne K. Langer writes “Most people have no home that is a symbol of their childhood, not even a definite memory of one place to serve that purpose.”
This is true in spades of the military brat. Let’s help the homeless: close the military bases and let these kids have a place worth calling home.
Kauffman writes perceptively about the isolation and social dislocation of military families, though my own family can testify to the fact that lifelong connections and service in the armed forces are not mutually exclusive. In Whidbey my mother delivered my longest friend, and his mother delivered me. Our fathers served in the same squadron, our mothers were both naval nurses. He’s now working his way through the process to become a naval aviator himself.
Nonetheless, Kauffman-esque thoughts were on my mind when I rode with my mother out to Tysons Corner to see Rod talk about his new book. I often wondered if these thoughts even occurred to her, having grown up in a nomadic Air Force family herself. I felt like I had to broach the subject, if for no other reason than to clear the air, because the worst thing would be to blame them for a vague impression that I’d missed out on something. And I truly don’t. She’s retiring from the Navy in June at the rank of Captain after a lifetime of service, and whatever my views on our overcommitted military are, I couldn’t be prouder of her.
I told her that I had come to believe, to paraphrase Elton John, that as with Mars, DC ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. I’m a long way from having children of my own, I told her, but I want them to grow up loving where they’re from, in the deep way that Rod expresses so well in Little Way. I don’t think that’s possible here, and more than that, I think it’s perverse to be at peace in a city whose primary business is making sure nowhere else in this country is.
I told her it bothered me that I have no hometown.
“What about Arlington?” she replied, where the family had lived for more than fifteen years since moving back from Japan.
As attached as I felt to the place and its people, I said, I could never think of it that way.
It’s a common cliche that mothers know their children better than they know themselves, but she proved it true once again. She told me a story she’d often told at family dinners before, of how when I was a child living briefly in Ithaca, New York while my parents were in graduate school, I’d sit in a bay window weekday mornings and wave at my grandfather as he walked to the Cornell campus to teach geology. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived where I’ve experienced the sort of front-porch familiarity the defenders of small town living find so priceless. We didn’t live there long, but it was enough.
Ithaca. Ithaca! What a town! What a name! American seat of the Dalai Lama, resting place of Carl Sagan (my grandfather actually guest-taught a lesson of his class based on “Cosmos”), and city of gorges and endless bumper stickers advertising them. I’ll take it.
As Linker points out in his review, it’s the idea of returning home that separates the Drehers and Kauffmans from simply advocating ruralism. He writes, “If you live in a coastal city or suburb, the supremely unconservative message appears to be: Pull up your shallow roots and relocate to a region of the country where you can start over with a simpler, more humane, and happier life.”
But for a child of the empire, who loves many of its servants but worries that the survival of Ithaca depends upon the destruction of Troy (metaphorically speaking, of course), there isn’t really any other choice.