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Weekend reads: On the road (to somewhere)
On social and economic liberalism, localism and Louisiana
To live in the era of globalization is to live with the persistent feeling that you could be anywhere — that while your feet may be planted in a Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur, you could just as easily be standing in a Starbucks in Toronto. You’re ordering the same drink, surrounded by the same bland art, listening to the same inoffensive pop. Everything is flattened into sameness.
New Orleans is one of the rare places that still feels wholly itself. New Orleans is not perfect, by any means — but it still feels like somewhere.
To wander its streets during Mardi Gras is to enter a universe unto itself, with its own elaborate customs, food, and dress. You cannot stand on a Big Easy street corner, watching float riders throw beads to the crowd, many of whom are decked out in green, yellow and purple sequinned tops, wigs, and fleur-de-lis earrings — and mistake yourself for being anywhere else in the world.
New Orleans is defiantly, stubbornly local. It is the triumph of the somewheres over the anywheres.
My own hometown Vancouver, meanwhile, is the opposite. I don’t know anyone who would wear Vancouver earrings — I don’t know a single soul who would even contemplate doing such a thing. Does Vancouver even have a civic flower? Nobody knows, and nobody cares. Vancouver has long ago been surrendered to an insane real estate market and lean job prospects, driving out all but the most fortunate, scattering its young to the wind. As writer Michael Kluckner puts it in the book Vancouver Vanishes, the city has the economy of Honolulu, the wages of Halifax and the cost of living of San Francisco.
It’s been years since the Vancouver breakup letters started hitting the Internet.
I was among those who left, and I am mostly reconciled to the fact that I cannot live in the city I was raised in. I mostly accept that I am a tree with roots that’ve been yanked out of the ground. That I am a ship with no anchor.
But I’ll never forget the way the air smelled at home in the fall, as the rains arrived. Or what it felt like to sink your toes into the sand at Jericho Beach in late August, gazing at the weeping willows swaying in the breeze. Or to perch on the seawall at Stanley Park on a clear spring day, watching tankers round the corner, against a backdrop of open sky and looming mountains.
I found myself thinking about all of this on the plane home from Louisiana, diving into the latest issue of Harper’s magazine, which includes an enlightening roundtable discussion between Patrick J. Deneen, Francis Fukuyama, Cornel West, and Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, “Is Liberalism Worth Saving?”
Liberalism, as discussed here, refers both to its economic manifestation — unconstrained markets, as favoured by the right — and its social manifestation, the liberation of the individual, as favoured by the left.
The story of our time, Deneen contends, is the story of both these forces — or “double liberalism,” as David Goodhart puts it in his book The Road to Somewhere — unspooling simultaneously. With blind spots on both sides:
… the right, to be a bit reductive, is nostalgic for a kind of, let’s say, Fifties or Eighties vision of a fairly wide-open capitalist market in which you have strong, traditional, communal, familial, and religious structures. Well, there’s a problem we’ve seen unfolding, which is that a dynamic, open, transformative economic system tends to undermine the very institutions that this right-liberal order relies on.
The left has a similar blind spot. In response to the ravages on economic individualism, it calls for forms of solidarity, and it looks, for example, to the trade unions or to somewhere like Sweden as an exemplar of the kind of social solidarity that’s necessary to restrain the utilitarian tendencies of markets.
But the social libertarianism of the progressive left undermines the very basis for this kind of solidarity. The effort to liberate yourself from family, from religion, from community, to make yourself into a free actor in the social realm, actually hollows out the kinds of spaces that develop a strong sense of solidarity.
One such solidarity-forger is place. Staying put. Allowing the rich tapestry of social connections to remain woven together, and its bonds to strengthen over time.
But both social and economic liberalism prize mobility, and hold little regard for place. It is not uncommon to hear people from either camp urging us to abandon locales that are no longer thriving, and even suggesting that any attachments to them are outdated and parochial.
In the Harper’s roundtable, Deneen draws attention to such derision for “the ordinary people who didn’t get out of these backward, broken-down nowhere places.” People who are condemned “because they didn’t have the gumption to get up and rent a U-Haul” — despite the fact that “we’re talking about people whose families may have lived there for generations.”
This very sentiment is, in fact, expressed explicitly during the roundtable by Deirdre McCloskey, who argues that citizens should be helped to move out of the areas that are economically unprofitable and even offering to pay higher taxes to fund it.
But if everybody in New Orleans had taken this route, the population would have fled after Katrina, leaving behind a ghost town of memories. Nobody would have built it back up. We would have lost a vibrant city, and years of rich tradition. There would be no parades, no floats, no costumes, no dance lines, no marching bands. No King Cakes and po’ boys. No annual gathering together of families, neighbourhoods, communities. No hand-sewing of beadwork on costumes for many months in advance of Fat Tuesday. (It’s telling that this New Yorker documentary about Demond, one of the Mardi Gras Indians, includes moving quotes on the role of this tradition in forging belonging. “It saved my life,” he stressed.)
We should consider: What would happen if this edict to evacuate, advanced by both social and economic liberalism, was widely embraced, scaling up across whole nations? What would happen if no one was attached to anywhere? What would happen if no one felt the pull of home? If entire kin networks were torn apart? If people no longer felt any sense of rootedness?
The answer is precisely what we’re seeing now — widespread loneliness, a mental health crisis, an overdose epidemic, rising violence. Our young people in distress, our old isolated and alone.
If any of us can live anywhere, we belong nowhere. To no one.
All of this is why I celebrate localism wherever I find it, whether that’s hip-hop culture or farmer’s markets. Why I sink my roots into that fertile earth. And why I send thanks, today, to New Orleanians for their fierce civic pride. For their commitment to the city, despite its many challenges. For standing in place. For holding on to somewhere.
An excerpt from my book, Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life.
In those early months back in Vancouver, I thought a lot about home, and what it meant. What it felt like, after a decade in a big, anonymous city, to run into a friend’s mother, whom I’d known for thirty years, on the street. Or to take a yoga class from someone I’d gone to high school with. Or have a coffee with the friend I’d backpacked Thailand with. What this complex web of connections was worth. What happened in its absence. What remained.
I thought, too, about how I’d longed for mountains and ocean and forests when I was away. How I’d pined for the sound of the rain hitting the leaves on the maple trees on West Side boulevards. And the dampness when autumn arrived and darkness fell early and the air smelled of earth.
How hearing U2 or Naughty by Nature instantly transported me back to the intoxication of high school dances, the sweetness of midnight kisses outside the planetarium at Vanier Park, the heady abandon of sprinting down a West Side soccer field, chasing the ball, a summer sun slipping behind the trees.
Or August afternoons, walking through Dunbar, listening to the chorus of wind chimes, all the front doors thrown open to the breeze. Sitting on the deck of a BC Ferry in early July, surrounded by aging boomers with their flowing tunics and New Yorker canvas tote bags. Catching snippets of conversations in 4th Avenue cafés, the characteristically slow drawl of West Side residents espousing the city’s weird philosophy — a bizarre brew of self-help books, ancient yoga practices and Silicon Valley exceptionalism.
I thought about all of this as I worked in the Vancouver newsroom, forever on the phone, probing residents to tell me their stories, to share their perspectives, to try and articulate what it was that we were all living through. As I did so, the despair of the city seeped in through my pores, rearranging the molecules in my body and plunging me into darkness.
In Toronto, covering a story about health and income inequality, I had once interviewed a doctor who served the homeless population. He pointed to a research study that had demonstrated that in societies with a massive gap between the rich and the poor, everyone’s physical health suffers, even that of the rich. I wanted to know why. It was obvious why poverty made people unwell, but what was making everyone else sick?
Nobody knew for sure, he told me, but it was believed to come down to stress. Likely caused by a lack of social cohesion. A result of severed connections.
In his essay collection The Horrors, Vancouver writer Charles Demers writes about our need for narrative arcs, for imposing narrative structure on our lives, and quotes Douglas Coupland, that as the twenty-first-century unspools, “it will become harder to view your life as ‘a story.’”
We can no longer kid ourselves that we are living out our own narrative, I thought, reading that. Now there is really only the narrative of our time.
I saw, then, that I was indeed not living out my own story. I was not even really living out the story of Vancouver or Toronto. I was living the story of the modern city. And it left no room for the stories of individual people to unfold.
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