Two Sundays ago I was talking to a good friend while we grazed on chimichangas at my favorite Mexican restaurant. Even though we were late, somehow we walked right in. It’s hard to beat the Baptists unless it’s the fifth Sunday! Anyway, my friend’s always game for political discussion and one of his Superman suits has to do with the local economy. It’s only natural for us to beat our dead horses during a meal. This time though, we beat around our local economy, specifically its sterility and its local abstraction from tradition.
For years our economy has suffered the cuts of a thousand failures. Once a thriving economy of hardworking coal miners, laborers, and farmers, our culture celebrated its cash crop tobacco with festivals each fall. Tobacco and coal injected life into our rural, Southern economy. They supported towns and communities along with their schools, infrastructure, churches, and governments. But, since science became the new religion and tobacco became the ultimate sin and coal was eradicated by Obama’s magisterium the EPA, my community hasn’t been able keep industry or land the big one like Chattanooga or Spartanburg.
Who do we want to become?
Bye and bye, our gracious city planners and developers have attempted to reinvent us to be like every other town that sits on the interstate with their outdoor shopping malls and cookie cutter eateries that resemble exactly what exists 100 miles down the road. Why? Because that’s success, isn’t it? Even though they can’t think hard enough to figure out how to replace this milk toast economy, they can at least make it look like they did. They tried industry. Industry wouldn’t come and those that did wouldn’t stay. Then they tried tourism. Tourism is seasonal so that doesn’t work. Oh! I know! Let’s try shopping. In fact, we’ll do shopping so big that it becomes its own tourist attraction! Yeah! That’s the ticket!
Now one local city is going bankrupt due to its decision to be the developer and the anchor of their biggest development, Cabela’s, may be pulling out. Once a family owned business and the “World’s Foremost Outfitter”, Cabela’s sold out to the failing, corporate ran, Bass Pro Shops. Two neighboring cities had landed one each. Soon, one is going to be looking for a replacement. So far their imaginative minds have come up with a cannabis factory and a casino. Good luck.
Distraction or debauchery?
Yet shopping is at its pinnacle. There is nothing one can’t buy in my little town. “If we don’t have it, we can get it next day”, the saying goes. Will that satisfy our innate desires? How sad it is to me to see an old farmer wearing his stained overalls be shocked by the prices at the latest, greatest, restaurants. It’s then that I realize we have lost our moorings. Our roots are covered with mulch that suspiciously resembles manure.
It’s the way for many Southern or rural cultures.
Seneca of Rome
Part of my Latin assignment this week was to comment on an excerpt from Seneca the Younger’s writings. As I read Seneca the Younger, I am amazed at how easily it is each week to draw correlations between Rome and the United States. It’s as if there has been a cultural reincarnation.
Nonetheless, Rome had evidently drowned herself in the profligacies of Empire. It’s citizens knew no limit to the indulgence of their desires. Seneca the Younger wrote of the decadences of Rome regarding food, but all manner of overindulgence could certainly be applied. Not only were there no limits to their desirous appetites for what was new or exotic, there were no reigns to hold them from raping the cultures they had conquered to satisfy them. They had abstracted both the local and the foreign.
Seneca of Bristol
Our society has a lot to learn from Rome. The similarities are uncanny, two empires whose citizens feel empowered to exploit the world. The U.S. does its exploiting militarily, economically, culturally, and ever so digitally. We own most of the worlds wealth. Our military is far and above the most dangerous. We dominate the world technologically. Per capita, poverty doesn’t exist compared to Europe, much less third world nations. Our desire for existential fulfillment will never be met. Our voracious appetites for global egalitarian self-actualization is insatiable. The U.S. must make her “city on a hill” and all cultures must amalgamate into it, including the region where I live.
Small, Southern communities are slowly being poured into the great melting pot…I mean abstraction machine. Whoops! Did I say that?
Rome fell victim to abstraction. It became an idea rather than a place. Could this be our future? Are we a mere shadow of Rome? or the town 100 miles away?
Getting to the root of culture.
Whatever is true about the correlations between us, most of us have forgotten, neglected, or intentionally dis-unify our culture from its roots which are embedded in the dirt under our feet. Remember that, especially as the symbols of it are destroyed or taken. The disfranchisement, abstraction, or idealizing of ‘America’ can be avoided by refocusing on local. In fact, isn’t that what culture is? The Concise Oxford English Dictionary gives us this etymological description of the word culture–origin 17th century (denoting a cultivated piece of land): the noun from French culture or directly from Latin cultura ‘growing, cultivation’; the verb from obsolete French culturer or medieval Latin culturare, both based on Latin colere (see cultivate). (Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds., 2004)
“This is culture in the profoundest sense, neither “folklore” nor the urban romanticizing of rural life, but rather the complex knowledge and artistry of local adaptation.”-Wendell Berry (Berry, 2017)
As our traditional communities stand on the brink of the future, we must ask ourselves three questions. Who are we? Who do we want to become? And, are these the same question?
Berry, W. (2017). Forward. In W. a. Summer, Taking Root: The Nature Writing of William and Adam Summer. Columbia, SC, USA: University of South Carolina Press.
Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. (2004). Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.