Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Around the fire, again

Mary and I were out to dinner a couple of years ago with some people, and a woman began holding forth on how nice it would be if we all lived in villages and grew and ate organic produce and had deep and authentic relationships with one another and so on and so forth. And I've had those reveries before, now and again, but that evening something clicked and I oh so very gently remonstrated her that, were we all to revert to these romantic communal ways, it wouldn't be all that simple.

We derive immeasurable benefits from the massive degree of specialization and division of labor in our economy, and the way technology annihilates space and offers up economies of scale. If we went back to village ways, basic stuff we take for granted like low infant mortality would quickly suffer. Just as importantly, outsiders -- homosexuals, black people, Asians, Mexicans -- could quickly be ostracized. That's how clans work.

In recent weeks, as the stark seriousness of our economic situation has become ever clearer, the neo-communal or nuclear familial idyll has reared its head in a variety of places, with commentators from Tyler Owen and Douglas Coupland on down the pike alluding to the return of simple pleasures, being with family and suffering together by the hearth. Back on Walton's Mountain. We can't let ourselves get caught up in this nonsense.

I don't want to go overboard in my negativity. I think between the PWA and the WPA and the CCC and Woody Guthrie and the rest of it left a positive trace in American culture, which we felt when Pete Seeger and Springsteen channeled Woody a couple of weeks back. I looked up the history of the Klan in the Depression, expecting it would be bad, and in fact the sheet wearing goons weren't that active in the 30s. So maybe America will come together in a positive way in the face of difficulty. But there's a real risk that we won't, that contention for scarce resources will bring out the less good, and we must guard against that by not turning in upon ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Modern living has also produced enhancement cream, one of man's greatest achievements, impossible to produce in a village setting.

Katherine said...

Actually, the United States has fairly high infant mortality. Were we to head back to the hearth, homebirth, and midwifery care we could shrink that number. Most of the countries with the lowest infant mortality follow midwifery standards of care.

Graham Hussein de las Piernas Gordas said...

I must concede that my individual datapoint was less well chosen than I might have hoped (thanks for the correction, Katherine), but I'll stand by my general point that civil society is supported by a certain level of scale, abstraction, and generalization, and we don't want to lose site of it in our localist retrenching.