The Magazine

Where Was I?

The loss of distinction in the end of community

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

An abiding concern and another foe of civic integrity is rootlessness, so often the consequence of displacement. Simone Weil identified it years ago: “The French mystic,” wrote Russell Jacoby, “devoted a book to the subject, The Need for Roots (1949). She saw the ‘disease of uprootedness’ as an ailment of the modern age.” Whether it is nostalgia for homely landmarks or a state of spirit once known as accidie, “uprootedness” is a price that America pays for the social dynamism we cherish—the dynamism that Frederick Jackson Turner celebrated in extolling the frontier as the defining engine of American peculiarity. 

But it is a running theme of these essays that we pay a price for the latest mechanism with the care and feeding of automobiles. At a certain tipping point, traffic overwhelms highway expansion, requiring ever more frantic efforts to keep up, exemplified by episodes of road rage on the choked commuter routes that are estimated to cost drivers a week’s worth of time every year. Drive south from Washington in the early morning on Interstate 95—surely among the most hated interstates of all—and witness a congestion stretching halfway to Fredericksburg, 40 miles away. It is merely one of many.

The sum and substance of Why Place Matters is the idea that, while Jane Jacobs and other prophets of the perils of displacement have taught us to be wary of facile nostrums, there are always complications. They are the domestic counterparts of foreign venturers, high-minded and eager but sometimes oblivious to the difficulties that exist where strange customs and unfamiliar histories lurk. We are perennially surprised to find ourselves bereft of community spirit, “bowling alone,” with old ties to “little platoons” frayed. Like a patient in the doctor’s office, we can readily identify the complaints, the aches and pains of a dynamic age. The diagnosis is often obvious. But the prognosis and cure need work, and lots of it.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.