"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Diversity, Grover’s Corners, And Sticking To Your Own Kind

A boy like that who'd kill your brother,
Forget that boy and find another,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!
A boy like that will give you sorrow,
You'll meet another boy tomorrow,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind! (West Side Story)

Herm Ludens grew up in Blanton, a modest, moderate Midwestern town of conservative values, religion, and politics.  It was all white and 100 percent old American stock. There was a smattering of Old Europe – an Italian or two, the Birnbaums whose family had run the dry goods and hardware stores for three generations, and a Polish family which had moved to Blanton because the countryside reminded them of Silesia. Other than that, Blanton was made up of German, Scots Irish, English, and Scandinavian families who had been in the Midwest longer than anyone could remember. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, long after Herm had left, Blanton was as uniformly old American as any place in the country.

The residents of Blanton were as proud of where they lived as the people of Grover’s Corners, the fictional place of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  In fact, Blanton was so like Grover’s Corners that a statue of the playwright, cast in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, was placed on the front lawn of the Blanton public library.  This passage from the opening of the play is framed and hung in the reading room.

Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street's the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there. Baptist is down in the holla' by the river. Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks. Here's the Town Hall and Post Office combined; jail's in the basement. Bryan once made a speech from these very steps here. Along here's a row of stores. Hitching posts and horse blocks in front of them. First automobile's going
to come along in about five years belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen. . . lives in the big white house up on the hill. Here's the grocery store and here's Mr. Morgan's drugstore. Most everybody in town manages to look into those two stores once a day. Public School's over yonder. High School's still farther over. Quarter of nine mornings, noontimes, and three o'clock afternoons, the hull town can hear the yelling and screaming from those schoolyards.

In demographic terms Blanton would be classified as ‘singular’ – white, Christian, Protestant, and Republican; but these rough categories are inadequate to describe its well-worn, comfortable, tightly-knit community. Churches were of the major Protestant denominations.  Blanton enjoyed an income equality that was unique for a town of its size; there was little delinquency let alone crime; and farmers and tradesmen alike shared a common respect for each other and their simple, uncomplicated life.

Blanton, however, was no Pleasantville, the Hollywood caricature of the 50s.  It had its warts and blemishes, affairs and recriminations, and crises of belief and conviction; but none of these imperfections or irregularities seemed to erode Blanton’s solid, principled core.  Thanks to its homogeneity and universal subscription to traditional moral values, disputes were settled without acrimony; and aberrations from the norm were tolerated because they never fell far from the mean.  Walking down Oak Street in early evening, a visitor would hear plenty of raised voices and slammed doors. People got drunk, disobeyed traffic laws, were impatient, at times insolent, and occasionally insulting.

Yet Blanton always repaired itself. There was something Jungian about the shared generational history of the town. Everyone carried traces of their past – a kind of unique genetic pattern influenced by a collective consciousness. If one is to believe Jung, the families in Blanton had been together for so long and shared not only common experiences but DNA memory, that the self-repairing phenomenon was not unusual at all.

The commonality of Blanton could be explained by far less mystical theories.  The town had always been prosperous because of its location on a particularly fertile patch of the prairie. Hard work, discipline, and modest ambition, legacies of Northern European Lutherans, were never questioned.  Traditional family roles were respected but not enforced.  Christian principles were taken as a matter of faith and guided every aspect of Blanton life; but Blanton had no zealots. Without Christ’s words, people would be lost; but there was no literalism in the town’s beliefs.

Blanton had never been on the way to anywhere.  The Illinois Central carrying freed slaves to Chicago passed far to the east.  The steamboat traffic plying the great rivers was far to the west. There had always been plenty of ground water for drinking and minor irrigation, but no major or even minor waterways.  The textile mills, factories, and chemical plants which needed water went to Cleveland and Gary.

The curious thing about Blanton, Herm Ludens told me, was that whenever he returned he never felt any of the restiveness and impatience that was increasingly common in America. Vershinin and Tuzenbach in Chekhov’s Three Sisters argued incessantly about time and the nature of change.  Would Russia progress to a better and more ideal world? Or would, regardless of inevitable cosmetic changes, would it be essentially the same 1000 years in the future?

The three sisters felt trapped by the weight of family history, education, and upbringing; and by the particular suffocation of a small town in the provinces. The routine, the sameness, and the incessant regularity was enervating and depressing.

The citizens of Grover’s Corners led happy, uncomplicated lives very much like those in Blanton; and only after they died and looked down at their town from heaven, did they realize how much they had missed.  The departed saw that the living took too much for granted, assumed too easily that an uncomplicated life equaled a happy one, and would only have an eternity of regrets.

Herm had never returned to Blanton after graduating from college, and had chosen to live in Boston and later New York.  Initially he thrived on the ethnic diversity, the confrontational energy,  the creativity and innovation, and the streets.  Later, he began to take all this for granted as his attention turned to wife, family, and career.  He composed sections of technical reports in his head on his long walk from 114th Street to 96th Street and never saw the street vendors, booksellers, and panhandlers. He struggled with his wife’s increasingly unpredictable moods and his eldest son’s precariously low grades.

Not only did the diversity of urban life become much less of an inspiration, it became a bother; and when I saw him in Washington, it had become intolerable. He felt hectored, hammered, and insulted. The more diverse the city became, the more hostile individual groups grew.  Racial integration, economic parity, and religious ecumenism were pipe dreams of the 60s. The city’s diversity had not coalesced into hoped for harmony. The more diversity was ‘celebrated’, the less integrated and the more separatist the city became. “It’s like bloody Lebanon”, he said. “Shiite, Sunni, Druze, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Maronites all fighting over the same bone.”

Herm had come full circle.  When he arrived in the city as a young man in his twenties, he couldn’t get enough street life.  He reveled in Times Square, Fifth Avenue, the Orthodox Jews of the Lower East Side,  taxi drivers, hustlers,and the A Train to Harlem.

Now he felt abraded by diversity.  Although New York had certainly become an ostensibly less hostile place to live – he remembered the spit, crime, graffiti, and rawness of the 70s – it felt even more aggressive  to Herm. Racial harmony was unusual, unique and temporary – black and white Wall Street bankers and Madison Avenue lawyers at some hipster bar in Brooklyn. Most blacks coming into Manhattan from from Canarsie or the South Bronx had no foie gras and pinot gris with white colleagues on their mind.  The Chinese kept to themselves.  So did the Dominicans. Newly arrived Russian Jews rarely left Brighton and Coney Island; and the children of oligarchs stayed uptown at East Side tea rooms and boutiques.

When races did mix – arbitrarily and rarely – it wasn’t really mixing, but abrasion and quick-stepping, eyes down and tails still.  Women screamed against rape.  Labor unions fought the city, blacks protested against injustice and police brutality. No one was happy.  There was no such thing as a lot in life, only potential and mobility.  Life in the city had become a screeching, horrible, incessant assault.  He had to return to Blanton.

Surprisingly, he was not the only one.  Since most people had left Blanton because they wanted to see the world, not that they were unhappy with life in their hometown, returning was easy.  Comforting in fact, for the town had not changed.  Despite the inevitable exodus of young people, enough returned in their productive years to keep the town alive and viable.

He was happy that he saw only people who looked like him, worshipped at the same church, shared the same political and social philosophy, and attended the same community theatre.

In addition to the passage from Our Town hung in the Blanton Public Library were the distichs of Cato the Elder and Quintilian’s Principles of a Roman Education, both of which emphasized honesty, courage, honor, compassion, respect, discipline, and hard work.  Both philosophers were taught in high school. “Remember Mrs. Pierce?”, Herm asked me. “’‘Every successful civilization in history has adhered to these principles.  It is no different today’”.

Somehow Blanton inherited the right Jungian genes and people adhered to Biblical injunction, incorporated Cato’s moral principles and The Ten Commandments into their lives, and believed in the rationality of the Enlightenment and the Constitution and Bill of Rights which were derived from it.

“We’re as fucked up as anybody”, Herm said. “But we think alike. Like Cato and Quintilian.”

Blanton was in the news a while ago.  A journalist from Providence ‘discovered’ the town and went on to pillory it in a series of articles in MoveOn.  ‘The place that time forgot…White supremacy par excellence….Homophobia and LGBT bias…Religious fundamentalism trumps logic, Ferguson??’.

Typical of Blanton, the residents knew that the kerfuffle would die down, and that the town would soon be rid of The Daily Kos, Eschaton, and Mother Jones. It was, and according to Herm Ludens, still is ‘the best place in America’. I am getting ready to leave Washington and join him there.

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