Like many a celebrity profiler, Kurtz casts the most mundane act, when undertaken by a famous person, as an almost heroic manifestation of extraordinary character. Marveling at the fact that when Russert interviewed Yogi Berra, he got the Hall of Famer’s autograph for his son and father, Kurtz writes that the event “makes clear that Tim Russert, media superstar, hasn’t forgotten where he came from.” ~Paul Waldman
The criticisms aimed at Russert are well-deserved (Michael and Ross have more), but it’s this last phrase of Kurtz’s that struck me suddenly as odd. It’s a common phrase that we all know and use, but it occurs to me that there’s no reason why it should have such a positive meaning. People who loathe their birthplace or hometown also remember where they came from, which is why they try to stay far away from that place. (In this way, where you are from makes an indelible mark on you, just as belonging to any tradition will shape who you are, even if you rebel against it.)
Naturally, the implication in the phrase is that you still feel some attachment or loyalty to the place where you grew up, that you haven’t “sold out” and forgotten your “roots.” But this entire vocabulary of selling out and the roots of the unrooted has evolved to describe people who very definitely have sold out, or bought in, traded up, or however you would like to describe it, and then moved on. You don’t need to “remember where you came from” if you actually still come from there. If your roots were in that place, you would be planted, as it were, in that piece of ground and would not be flitting around elsewhere.
Even having the memory of it says that you have separated yourself from the place and must keep it in your mind. Your life is somewhere else now. The cultivation of the memory of a lost place can often be quite moving and beautiful, and in diasporas and among emigres you can find people who have the most impressive love of their lost country, but to some degree it is always going to be an imagined place and unreal, a fiction and an ideal to which one looks for consolation in a new place. The ancients regarded exile as being not much better than death, whereas many of us seem to take a kind of perverse delight in alienation.
Take Russert as a perfect example: he may not have forgotten where he came from, but he certainly isn’t going to go back there and enjoys his life after having “escaped” from his hometown. This brings us to the nebulous idea of settled authenticity in a hyper-mobile society and the epidemic of frequent mobility and the routine abandonment of one’s hometown, particularly by professionals. Obviously, if you settle somewhere and make that place your home (which is what, failing a return to your hometown, seems the best way), that’s rather different, but to live in one place for a long period of time while maintaining that you aren’t really from there creates this strange need to find deracinated people who are good at making gestures of rootedness rather than actually being rooted somewhere. So Russert makes his gestures by mocking and harrassing politicians to show that he is still one of the humble folk. He shows that he remains tied to Buffalo not by any clear attachment to Buffalo, but rather uses his hometown as a kind of pass to distinguish himself from the urban coastal elite and politicians among whom he mingles, and also as a way of receiving a kind of condescending acclaim from these same people, much in the way members of high society have found amusement and pleasure in a member of the lower orders who strives to become one of them while still retaining some charming air of rusticity.