When I was a teenager I yearned to leave my small Midwestern town. The place was just too small; there seemed to be nowhere to go and nothing to do. Classes at school were mainly dull, and not belonging to the small set of “popular” kids I saw little prospect of finding a nice girlfriend. Despite this, the adults in our town constantly proclaimed its all-around superiority and progressiveness. When it came time to leave, with no hesitation I chose a college in a city on the East Coast, where I was finally able to enjoy a satisfactory social and intellectual life. I was bitter enough about my high school life that when the editor of our local newspaper asked me to write a piece on how my town had influenced my college and later experiences, I told him I didn’t have anything to say. So whatever sentimentality I have about my hometown developed much later. (I now blame my own bad attitude for some of my youthful discontent, but that is another subject!)
What I did not realize was that wanting to leave my town was not merely the personal response of myself and a few friends to local conditions, but a generalized cultural phenomenon. People have been wanting to leave their small towns for much of the 20th century, but especially in the post-World War II era. Richard Davies describes the situation thus:
A destructive cycle…took hold. Camden provided a secure haven in which young people were reared and educated, but on reaching adulthood they left for greater opportunities than those available in their hometown. (p. 139)
I now appreciate the privilege of growing up in a “secure haven” much more than I did at the time. Then, I couldn’t leave fast enough.
It is, of course inevitable in a modern society that its talented members should tend to migrate to urban areas. Even regional cities suffer from this loss – the Beatles left Liverpool for London, never to return. But the loss we have experienced is much deeper than that – not, unfortunately, the mere urbanization of our society, but a widespread disintegration. What Davies describes as happening in small towns happened at every level of society:
What went unrecognized at the time [the early 1950s] was that the social fabric, which had long provided a sense of community responsibility and unity, had begun to unravel…. Television tended to isolate families inside their homes during evening hours, reducing the amount of visiting between neighbors…. Over time, neighbors became more distant; newcomers sometimes remained strangers. Attendance at the three traditional churches became a subject of concern…. Store owners also knew that when farmers and townsfolk went shopping now, especially for major purchases, they got into their automobiles and headed out of town. (p. 155)
Reports of increased crime also began to filter onto the pages of the local newspaper. A series of break-ins of businesses and residences stunned local citizens, who began to lock their doors even during daytime hours. Few residents considered the relationship of juvenile behavior and rising crime rates to national trends because they naturally tended to view life from the perspective of their daily lives and their local community. Also, they tended to know their neighbors less, thus increasing the level of suspicion and lowering their sense of security. (p. 157)
No one could argue that the loss of community in America’s towns was compensated for by equivalent cultural gains in the cities. The suburbs people flocked to had even less community and character than the small towns. The cities kept their status as cultural centers, but have of course been devastated by crime and economic decay. Even culturally they are far from what they used to be, with symphonies and newspapers closing down constantly, and hope for good city schools expressed as a matter of form only. Urban crime, of course, has been inseparable from black, Hispanic, and other ethnic migration to the cities, a topic I won’t expand on here, but the decline of industry has been the result of economic dislocation analogous to those suffered by the small towns. As the national expansion of markets eroded the small town, the globalization of industry eroded the city, and indeed the nation itself. Or so it seems to me.
One thing is for sure: we are left a society yearning for the community and the moral order that once characterized our small towns, but at present without material or economic incentive to go back to living in such communities – if there even were a plausible way for large numbers of people to do so. Still less clear is how we could return to the social and sexual mores of a half-century ago. Can a people collectively and voluntarily give up social freedoms for the greater good? I have no idea how this can happen, though it will have to happen if our civilization is to survive.
A couple of years ago I learned of the song “Roots,” from the Show of Hands album Witness, on the Oz Conservative blog. The title track of that album is another one that can be well appreciated by traditionalists and conservatives. It describes a small village of people who have left the modern world to live in the countryside, farming and living a life of prayer looking forward to the coming Messiah. The song was apparently inspired by the artists’ visit to a religious commune.
We’ve got land, we grow food
We bake bread, and fell wood
Spring lambs in the fields
Sweet water in our hills
And at sunrise each day
We connect, we pray
We’ve got faith to spare
We bond, we share
So, sit down, stop running
He’s near, he’s coming….
The song is a fantasy, of course – I might even call it a liberal fantasy, for a life of subsistence farming is a life of hard toil, and the community desired could only be achieved by giving up much personal freedom and choice and mobility. As for the faith – can it be regained in any way other than hardship and suffering? Yet I admit it is also my fantasy, or dream, not so much to live in the countryside but to live in a true Western civilization and in a nation where my family and I are part of a greater whole.
It is becoming increasingly evident, in any case, that apart from a few areas like medicine, technical progress and improved communication and information technology are no longer improving our quality of life. Getting back to my hometown: in the 1950s one had to drive about an hour to shop in the nearest city; when I was growing up there was a mall a half-hour away. Now there is one of those ubiquitous strip malls with all the shopping one could ever hope for (I’m partial to the Barnes and Noble), about 20 minutes away. Ugly as sin, but unquestionably convenient. Yet…I recently learned another such mall is going up in the same region. We don’t need it! For those already there it only means more crowding, less green. It is obviously for the anticipated growing population, fueled by mass immigration, that the managing class of this country has signed on to. The sprawl closes in – and there are signs that urban crime is reaching the area too.
Is there a silver lining to all this loss? I believe that there is, but it is found in the bittersweet truth that only great loss will teach us the true value of our civilization, so we can begin fighting for our families, our towns, our nations again. I pray that the realization comes sooner rather than later, with as little loss as possible.
Richard Davies, Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998.