But as I was driving around in the stunningly harsh sunlight (thanks global warming!) in my car with the broken air conditioning, windows down to let the oven like heat flow over me, I made the mistake of turning on NPR and listening to Tom Ashbrook do his best to gently deflate Rod Dreher as he pimps his book about the realness and placeness of places where White People live lives of really placey, placey realness.
For those of you who have not followed Rod Dreher as I have, at a discreet distance, Rod is the perpetually disappointed would be religious who has hopscotched from one authoritarian Christian Sect to another in search of something that would give meaning to his otherwise utterly mundane existence. This meaning, apparently, requires that he separate himself from other people and find some method to feel superior to them. Its a neat trick since, simultaneously, he is petrified of being alone or finding his validation in a strongly individualist stance. He's the epitome of the corporation man: servile and placating to any person he is directly in contact with, hostile and repressively judgemental to the masses his owners despise and wish to control.
He is the sometime marketer of the "crunch con" brand which would have enabled middle brow conservatives who don't want to be hated for their socially conservative beliefs and their wrecking crew attitudes towards politics and the world to soften their edges by ostententatiously recycling plastic and paper and eating organic. Its all a cover, as the Alicublog link makes clear, for a guy who really, really, really, hates and fears gays, non whites, non religious people, hippies, sex, tattoos and just about anything that smacks of the urban, the secular, or the modern. I find Rod fascinating because he represents something fairly common and, at the same time, quite uniquely insidious: he's a nice guy Savonarola whose weepy observations about the need for moral uplift and cultural renewal would always result, sadly, in urban people, gays, lesbians, sluts, black people, etc...etc..etc... getting it in the neck. Take his current crusade--to send people back to small town America. Apparently he doesn't know that, for example, Black people and gay people left small town America after Reconstruction and before the modern Era because one group was being forced into slavery-by-another-name and the other forced into the closet. Other people never went to small towns at all and therefore have no "good" birthplace to go back to. New Yorkers are just stuck with New York. Bostonians with Boston. Thus, apparently, they are stuck with what is, in Rod's view, a diseased and unhealthy independence, choice, power, and autonomy and (supposedly) a lonely death.
Comes now Rod to NPR, a radio show and audience he would trash in the context of his day job attacking liberals and free thinkers. Here, as usual, he is quite a bit more deferential and indirect since he is a coward and also wants to sell his book. However, he's peddling the same old same old: modern Americans are suffering from anomie and despair because they have rejected the virtues of their abandoned small town roots. I don't have a transcript handy and I quickly shut off the radio for fear of choosing death by telephone post over drowning in saccharine mixed with sanctimony but I did hear enough to get the gist. Having moved away from the stifling small Louisiana town of his birth for education and work Rod has returned, the prodigal son, after his sister died and he attended her wake and discovered that a grade school teacher who dies young is an object of intense interest and pity and attention--attention that he imagines is not offered to other young women in social service jobs in the big city. While he casually and insultingly dismisses his sister's life as nothing important he wishes, soulfully, that the rest of us would wake up and realize that all that money and power and self fulfillment "our parents" pushed on us that drove us away from our little home towns is just an illusion and that at the end of our lives we will just wish we had stayed in place and could die surrounded by friends who would attend our wakes.
Tom Ashbrook, who is the nicest person in the world, gently reminds Rod that in the book its pretty obvious that Rod's vision of the beauty and meaning of small town existence is a crock of shit--that Rod's own father, the patriarch of the imaginary Dreher family, tells Rod at a Sunday Dinner that he wishes he'd left Smallville right after getting married and never come back. His long and family filled life, as it turns out, sounds like a living hell of being worked to death by his parents and siblings with never a thank you or a kind word for a presumed 60 years. Its a reverse "Its a Wonderful Life"--the father stayed at home, gave up every chance for personal fulfillment, and got stuck in a backwater that turned itself into a Pottersville all on its own. Even now, as Rod himself admits, the father wishes he'd made a different choice. Confronted by the uncomfortable reality of this fact Rod falls back on one of the most pathetically confused explanations since his last column--whatever it was.
"Sure" he basically says to Ashbrook "and that does sound like a devastating indictment of the entire premise of my book but its OK because even though my father spends every minute of those Sunday Dinners which we now have complaining about his wasted life and the stifling experience of being held down by family every minute as the sands of time run out right up until his eventual miserable death its OK because my wife (*) told me that at least we are having the conversation since I've uprooted myself and my family to come back for these Sunday dinners. See, what you ac/dc big city folks with your touchy feely ways don't know is that this beautiful small town hick world that my father inhabits made it impossible for him to open up to me, his son, on the phone so if I hadn't moved back here our entire emotional life would have been communicated in a series of grunts and invisible hand gestures. So I think you can see that my point about the inherent goodness of small town existence is proved."
Tom Ashbrook serves Rod a few softballs: weren't your personal friends envious of your choice? Why, yes! The straw friends in his account all weep bitter tears at his leaving for LA because all their money and power and Thai restaurants mean nothing compared to Walker Percy's observation that its better to write about your neighbors and real life from the porch of your own house rather than being "drunk" in the streets of Greenwich Village where there are, apparently, neither porches nor neighbors nor, for that matter, real life. Its Vintage Rod. Even his own story, told in his own words, refutes his premise but he keeps rolling merrilly along because his ideology demands it.
* Yes, that's right. Rod's emotional equanimity is shored up by his long suffering wife wiping his tears and putting his thumb back into his mouth for him when he is standing, gaping and sobbing because his father told him honestly that small town life was not all Rod was cracking it up to be.