As a boy I lived at times in Hampden-Sydney, a small college town in Virginia, where my family had lived for generations. H-S was the Old South of idyllic imagination. Georgian buildings stood on rolling green lawns shaded by ancient oaks. Quiet reigned. At night stars shone and frogs creaked. In the woods nearby a stream splashed and chortled over Slippery Rock, where you could slide bare-bottomed into a moss-lined pool. My father knew Slippery Rock. So did my grandfather.
People were socially conservative, literate, friendly, living in houses they had lived in forever. Many were professors, stately men of great learning. They knew the classics and shared a respect for English. Courtesy was taken for granted, along with a pleasant formality. My grandfather, who had been dean and professor of mathematics, wore a coat and tie at meals.
Seven miles away in Farmville, the county seat, lovely old houses lined High Street, not far from the statue of the Confederate soldier. On Main Street one passed stores where people had known each other for generations. A Southern mannerliness prevailed here too. When the wind was right the rich sweet smell of tobacco came peppery from the ancient processing floors at the end of town. There was a sense of permanence, of locality. Farmville, like Hampden-Sydney, like Athens, Alabama in 1957, like New Orleans once, like so many towns, was its own place, shaped by the people who lived there. You could feel a loyalty to it. I did.
Perhaps all loyalty is essentially local. America was once a sprawling tapestry of locality. Boone, North Carolina wasn’t Barstow and Barstow wasn’t Bluefield and Bluefield wasn’t Amarillo, but they were all what they were and had their distinctiveness and dignity, their quirky idiosyncrasy.
As a young man I hitchhiked the big roads of the land, roads that were not the bland isolating limited-access interstates of today. A memorable thing it was to stand beside a highway in the sprawling western deserts with your thumb out and the big trucks blasting by with tires whining and the wind rocking you. It was a wilder America, less controlled. And my God it was worth seeing.
The mountain men of West Virginia were rougher than they are now, but they were self-reliant and hardy. Key West — hot, eerily quiet, with a ratty lived-in feel and a smell of salt water — had not become a tee-shirt outlet. On the back roads of Georgia, ramshackle country stores sold Moon Pies and pickled sausage and RC Cola. In all of them people decided locally what they wanted to be.
It didn’t last. It doesn’t last. Sooner or later, the shopping mall comes to the outskirts. With it come Gap, Penny’s, McDonald’s, Hecht’s, Wal-Mart, Sam’s, Office Depot, Staples, Wendy’s. Main Street dies because Wal-Mart is cheaper. People no longer stroll down Main saying hello to friends. They drive to the mall and park.
Ruby Tuesday arrives, mass cheer designed at corporate. Red’s Rib Pit dies. Red’s belonged where it was, with the stuffed buck’s head and the deer rifle under it on a rack made of antlers. Ruby Tuesday glittered more and had a better menu.
A man has a certain dignity when he stands in his own farm or when he owns his store and talks politics with customers. Whether he knows what he is talking about is not important. Few people do. When he becomes a salaried warehouseman for a remote office in Milwaukee, the dignity goes. He is a number, and afraid of his boss.
The localness that made towns memorable withers further under the onslaught of television. Regional accents vanish. Across the continent people gawp in electronic synchronicity at sitcoms devised in Hollywood and New York. These carefully, deliberately, gnaw away at local views of things and replace them with Appropriate Values. People no longer raise their children. The box does. Their schooling is determined by texts written far off, also designed to instill the politics of elsewhere.
Music is the soul of a locality. Zydeco is Louisiana, los mariachis are Mexico, Presley was the small-town South. New York now determines our music. Everything is decided from afar. Everything moves toward uniformity.
And towards degradation. We suffer under a plague of rappers, human cockroaches scuttling across the sores of a necrotic civilization. If people in the Bible Belt don’t want to hear muthufuckuhmuthuhfuckuh all day, don’t want their children exposed to it, why, New York says they must. The Supreme Court says they must.
How much loyalty do I owe to profits at Warner Brothers? To nine presumptuous apparitions in black robes who care nothing about me? How much fondness should I feel for a government that slowly, grindingly destroys all that made me care about America?
Washington once seemed benign. It was the capital of a magnificent country that had promulgated freedom and defeated the Nazis and was defending the world from communism. Not all of this stood up to analysis, but at least Washington wasn’t the enemy. It managed diplomacy and the military and ran the post office. Otherwise it pretty much left people alone.
Not now. People no longer live as they like, by standards and habits that seem right to them, within reasonable laws. We live as Washington tells us. The government tells us who to hire, who to sell our houses to, whether we can have the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall or a Christmas display on the town square, what names we can call each other without going to jail, whether our daughters have to tell us before having an abortion, how far off the floor toilet seats have to be in factories.
Today the government regards me if not as an enemy, then as a suspect. I begin to reciprocate. Once at airports I got a smile and a “Welcome back.” Now, going or coming, I encounter unfriendly police, semi-strip searches, and questions about things that are none of the government’s business. It is Washington’s business to determine at the border that I am a citizen, and perhaps that I am not a wanted criminal. It has no other business.
Or didn’t. Now I must be watched, and I am watched. Now the immigrations official slides my passport through a reader, and looks at a screen carefully placed so that I can’t see it. Everywhere the cameras go in, the data bases breed, and the FBI reads my email. Yes, I know they are just doing their jobs. Yes, I know it’s because of terrorism. I don’t care.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well. This is an expanded version of a column in The American Conservative.