Going off the Grid
David Brooks has been off the grid. He’s a successful columnist, a sought-after speaker, a well-regarded analyst and thinker and opinion maker. But, if you have been reading him, especially since he has returned from sabbatical, you get the sense that he’s also a little lonely and a little at sea. It is as if he is searching for his community—he believes deeply in community—and the signs and the guideposts and even the certainties seem blurred and strangely alien.
I went off the grid in a different way last month. I took my youngest to college.
I rented a minivan for a ridiculous amount of money, stuffed it full of clothes and books and hopes, and headed to a small town in the great Midwest.
Contrary to any pre-game trepidation I might have felt on suck a trek, I found didn’t need to bring survival gear, or provisions for a month. They do, in fact, have stores in that part of the country. There is also indoor plumbing. And cellphone and email service. But outside of that, there was a lot of difference between my hyper-urbanized Manhattan and this rather vast addition that appears to the West.
It’s roughly 500 miles, about 8 plus hours as the middle-aged father drives, and they are 500 tiring miles. The New Jersey section of Route 80 gets you off on the wrong foot. There are parts that remind one to roll the windows up. The scenery is an uninspiring landscape of contradictory signs, poured concrete and exit ramps, all as if created by a gigantic machine to serve even larger machines. New Jersey’s 80 is like an urban garden turned into a parking lot.
Pennsylvania was more promising. The concrete gave way to the mountains, and you began to see a different way of life, more rural, more spread out, less industrial. You know that behind those mountains are towns and farms and even factories, but here, it’s quiet and green and the air is clear except for occasional fog. Connecting roads, when they appear, lead to north into state forests, and south through the bend in the Appalachians towards the coalmines and rough hills of West Virginia. It’s the special genius of the Pennsylvania stretch of Route 80 that the rest stops are exactly that—you can rest, eat at a few picnic tables, use the bathroom, and a few vending machines. No gas, no huge plazas, no food courts. For most of a somewhat hallucinogenic 300 miles, it’s almost as if they have deliberately cleared away all vestige of both urbanism, and the sweat and grime that supports it. I kept waiting for someone to say, “Hear those drums? We’re in Indian Country now.”
By the time I hit Ohio, both the minivan’s gas tank, and mine were running low, and the topography had changed again. It wasn’t the same kind of rural—more like longer stretches of flat, sometimes joyless roads, connecting large tracts of open land with rust-belt cities like Youngstown, Cleveland and Akron. I was wearing down, I felt the weight of my surroundings, and I started to ruminate.
Very different place I was sending my daughter to. Maybe even one that would be filled with people who “cling to their guns and religion.” Drive out on Route 80, and you can see why West Virginia would turn sharply Republican, you can see why the GOP keeps expecting Pennsylvania to go Red, and Ohio seems ripe for the plucking. Those people aren’t more conservative as an affectation—they are more conservative as a way of life. The urban democracy I know, the coastal one, places different values on things. They aren’t better or worse, but they are different. I sometimes think to be a New Yorker is to be a citizen of every place in the world, except the rest of the United States.
Of course, this is both profoundly self-absorbed, and idiotic. My daughter was not at risk for some sort of ideological indoctrination. Ohioans were uncommonly nice people. And colleges, regardless of where they are set, are cloisters of like-minded people. She would not be set adrift to wander the countryside, a stranger in a strange land. Nor were my wife and I going to be trapped in a Grant Wood reality. We flew back (the long way, through Nashville) over some of the prettiest country I’d ever seen. “Conservative” doesn’t necessarily mean “barren wasteland.” There’s obviously more to life than glass and steel.
Yet the whole experience brought Brooks’ unspoken dilemma into sharper focus. I saw a tiny, tiny piece of country, and it was very different than what I knew and even somewhat disorienting. Brooks, I’m sure, sees a fifty state map in need serious help. If you are a long-time reader of his work you know that at the very center of his conservatism is a belief in not just the (traditional) family unit but in the community itself, and the community of communities. If I can oversimplify greatly, communities govern themselves largely through upright and enlightened leadership, group effort, and the soft power of moral suasion. That concept is scalable from the smallest hamlet all the way to Washington.
So, the ideal adult citizen is self-supporting, guided by a Judeo-Christian ethic, has served his community and, when called, his country, married and with children born in wedlock, temperate in his habits, reluctant to indulge in excess, and so on. In his business dealings, he is fair, honest, and non-exploitative. He does this, ideally, because it is hard wired into him and he wants to. But he also does it because he must—because coarseness, cheating, and general immorality lead to shunning. The leaders of a community, at every level, exemplify all those qualities, and are educated, farsighted and intellectually brave as well.
The problem with Brooks’ ideal is that the elites he trusts often show themselves unworthy and base. And the personal qualities he admires are never enough for some, and too much for others. Many go by the cafeteria plan of virtues—they are adamant supporters of the ones they want other people to live by. He knows this, and in a series of Op-Ed pieces over the last several months, he explores these deficiencies and displays his alienation. He is off the grid: the language he speaks is either not heard or not heeded.
Still, it's unfair to define his thesis by its evident shortcomings, or dismiss the overall conception that community and interpersonal relationships matter. Brooks is a hopeless idealist, he relies too much on an undefined aristocracy, but he’s also largely right. In a country as huge and diverse as ours, with as many faiths and outlooks and priorities as we all have, there’s really no better alternative.
The challenges that the world offers are too great to be solved by any one person or any thousand. But they also can’t be solved by all of us retreating into the hermetic comfort of the closed mind and the closed heart. You can't go off the grid. It’s just too beautiful a country to give up on.
September 24, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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