Becoming Magnetic

Rod Dreher, with the excuse of a David Brooks column to frame the question, returns to one of his perennial Front Porchy type themes: the importance of place. I didn’t read it initially, probably because of the uninspired title: The Geographical Aristocracy Of Meritocracy.

The basic question is “why do young people flee their hometowns, and why do the educated elite among them congregate in a just a few magnet places?” If you immediately answer “Well, duh! Their hometowns are boring while San Francisco is exciting,” then you’re part of (what I think is) a problem. Why should people want excitement above anything else?

Richard Florida has made a career of valorizing of this phenomenon, and telling places in flyover country how they, too, can become magnetic. I’ve always taken him with a grain of salt, not because I doubt that certain creative things may multiply exponentially when a bunch of highly-educated and energetic people cluster in a place, but because

  • I’m cursed with an awareness that exponentially multiplying certain creative things may not be the only thing, or even in the top ten most important things, we should want to do.
  • It has the whiff of opportunism about it: find some troubling thing that’s happening and the people who profit from it may be willing to pay big bucks for you to explain why it’s really wonderful and only a fuddy-duddy could disagree.

Dreher offers an alternate good, that of roots, fully aware of the complications of realizing it in many cases. 

In ages past, the smart kid from a small town may have returned to his hometown and opened a business, or a law or medical practice, and so on. He would have put his talents to use building up his community, not as an act of charity, but because it wouldn’t have occurred to him to do anything but that — or if it had, there were powerful cultural forces pushing against it …

The point here, though, is that nobody these days feels an obligation to anything larger than their own ambition and desire — and that has real-world consequences for places you can find on the map. We are all implicated in this. If you are living in one of these towns, and you are raising your kids with the expectation that they will leave, and should want to leave for the sake of their career, you’re implicated in it too.

On a personal note, I don’t know if I’d have ended up back in my hometown had I not become concerned about whether greening america in the mountains of Arizona was a good long-term plan for a man who wanted a family, and thus decided to return to school to become an attorney, at which profession I’d shown some aptitude and knew reasonably well from having grown up in an attorney’s home. Having done that, and joined my father’s law firm, I’ve probably made significantly more money as an attorney because my hometown’s economic devolopment mucky-mucks have paid guys like Richard Florida, including the guru himself, to come give us some larnin’ on how to be more magnetic.

As a consequence (or maybe just coincidentally, driven by a the presence of a prominent Big Ten-or-however-many-it’s-up-to-now University) we have a downtown that’s relatively teeming with college-age and young adults, a lively arts scene for a city our size, and other features that make it a pretty exciting and remunerative place to live. A single cineplex where a drive-in theater used to be has more movie screens than all surrounding counties combined.  Our Big-Box Stores have replaced all the boring little mom-and-pop shops for those hick counties, too. Our legislators work together effectively across party lines in the state capital. And we’re the envy, along with Bloomington and Indianapolis, of the rest of the state, which I’m told calls us “the Golden Triangle.”

In other words, we’ve won the meritocratic geographic lottery and become aristocratic. Ain’t life great?! C’mon up and over, Indiana. To hell with your boring little hometowns!

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.