the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
HOMELAND: ORIGINS OF APOSTASY
Parochialism should come naturally to me. My ancestral homeland is an area no larger than Great Britain, and I lived there for twenty-seven years. My younger brother lives there still; my older brother, who left only for four years of military service, returned home, married a local girl, and joined the constabulary. My parents and grandparents have never lived elsewhere. For eight generations, my kin remained largely tied to their native region, and to each other, in the middle of a wide world. I know this; I did the research myself.
My homeland includes the greater parts of Indiana and Ohio, and the southern part of Michigan, extending in the northwest as far as Chicago and in the southeast as far as Charleston. My father was from Marion, northwest of Columbus, and my mother from Huntington, southwest of Fort Wayne. Marion and Huntington are remarkably similar towns of the mainstream, “Middle American” Midwest. Not so with my own hometown. I spent virtually all of my youth in West Lafayette. Lafayette is a small industrial city in the middle of North America’s farm belt, on the Wabash River, halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis. West Lafayette, lying across the river, is the home of Purdue University. Purdue is the west side. I essentially grew up on campus. This, I suspect, was not at all like growing up in Marion or Huntington.
Huntington’s most prominent native, Dan Quayle, was not a complete idiot, for all the jokes. He was certainly an adept politician up to a point, and a reliable voice for certain conservative viewpoints. He was especially attuned to cultural conservatism, a nostalgic variety of closed-door traditionalism that ignores realities but remains fairly common. Quayle made a notable attack on what he called ‘the cultural elite’. These were the liberal intellectuals who had distanced themselves from mainstream, supposedly-common-sense beliefs, setting up their own brand of culture: tolerant, even libertine; urban; ostentatiously sophisticated; and grossly out of touch. I did not realize it immediately, but he was talking about me. West Lafayette was a university town, and if the university itself was not particularly liberal, the community was. The education levels were naturally high. There was a definite cosmopolitan air, if anything encouraged by the more technical/professional nature of the school, which attracted students, teachers, and researchers from around the world. I went to public school with many of their children. We were middle class but decidedly highbrow. We were, in short, brahmans, and thus far-removed from Dan Quayle’s bourgeois constituency of traders and tradesmen. They were the salt of the earth; we were stardust.
Marion, perhaps not coincidentally, was the home of Warren G. Harding, another conservative newspaperman-turned-politician who became famous and eventually notorious. His memorial, on Marion’s toniest street, evokes the grand monuments of Washington, and would look fitting on the mall, but it would never of course have been built there. Washington is the second home of all presidents, and only certain presidents are honored there. Marion would have honored any president, clearly; the thought of a local boy rising to the most reverend position in the land simply overwhelmed their sense of the ridiculous. My father went to Harding High School, home of the fighting Presidents. I tease my mother’s sister about dating Dan Quayle, but she at least was a teenager. The city leaders of Marion were all adults, and they gave Warren Harding a big, sloppy kiss.
Such are the pitfalls of belief. The premise determines the conclusion. The government that survives by teaching worship of its leaders will eventually issue a postage stamp of Richard Nixon. At that point there is no salvation. And of the many belief systems handed to me as a child, my patriotism was hardly the most preposterous. In the end, I became a person without faith. How could it be otherwise? Being a skeptic, I necessarily became a cynic; doubt led to disenchantment, and when the enchantment was lost, the absurdity became apparent. And the tenets of the common faiths are incomprehensibly absurd.
The texts that follow are not intended as documents of lasting value. A long thematic discussion of my beliefs, or anyone’s, would be monotonous, both repetitious and dull. But a brief tract with timeless wording of universal ideas would serve my purpose even less, for it would be read by few and understood by fewer. The result is little more than an anthology of short essays, brief commentaries whose subjects are sometimes grand, sometimes trivial, but which serve to illustrate a set of beliefs through the reaction of one believer.
They do so, and must do so, in a particular cultural context, the context which most of my experiences have been set in: Yankeedom, at the turn of the millennium. I no longer consider myself an ‘American’, as popular usage would have it, and I do not partake in the patriotic chauvinism which would say to the rest of the world that it does not matter. To the contrary, I am a cosmopolitan, and my culture is cosmopolitan, not of the planet but the universe, and if these texts are read by any who are not themselves Yankees, I hope for forgiveness of any appearance of parochialism.
I am an equal-opportunity cynic. My apostasy applies only, of course, to those things I formerly believed, and it will certainly be noted that the folkways of my homeland, and of the larger society to which it belongs quite willingly, have earned my special disapprobation. But that is more a matter of familiarity. To suggest that only Yankee culture has flaws would be parochial in itself. And often the flaw is not as much the content of belief but the process and manner of belief. These things are remarkably consistent throughout the world, and the universe for that matter. Thus many of my complaints about my own land are merely illustrative of larger problems. And if I confined my subjects to those of global familiarity, to say nothing of global understanding, there would be very little to say.
© O.T. FORD
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