I’ve joked with my wife that maybe the best way to convince my talented liberal arts friends to stay put is by playing up the hipster pretension angle by telling them that there’s nothing more cliche than being a liberal arts person from the midwest who went on to move to Chicago, DC, New York, Boston, or San Francisco. Maybe I could even throw in a condescending Wonka meme like this:
The reality, of course, is more complex. There are economic factors that explain why almost every friend I had at the university newspaper and in the English department are now in DC, Boston, Chicago, California, Austin, or New York. There simply aren’t many jobs for us anywhere else. I moved up to St. Paul for a year, found nothing, came back to Lincoln, and then spent 18 months working comprehensively miserable full-time jobs just to get by month-to-month and make sure we had insurance. It was miserable. And after I lost an editing job in November, I was applying to jobs all over the country. Now 30 months out of college and 18 months back in Lincoln, I finally have a sustainable job–a job that pays enough for us to live and that won’t have me contemplating the virtues of stabbing my eyes out with a screwdriver when I get home at night. But I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been hard.
And that points to the chief difficulty for small towns, I think: For liberal arts graduates looking for sustainable work (meaning pays enough and no imagined screwdriver-in-eye scenario), there simply isn’t much for us here. And so you either have to love the place enough to pay what will probably be a high price emotionally and financially in order to stay or you opt out and pursue your vocational calling in another place somewhere else. And no amount of legislation can solve this problem because you can’t legislate for affection. When you add on the small town family dysfunction that often drives so many people to leave, then it becomes even more impossible for government action to solve this problem, because you can’t legislate for affection and you definitely can’t legislate your way around a dysfunctional family.
This brings us back, as well, to the common (and, in my view, tiresome) critique of FPR and TAC conservatives described in Dreher’s post: We aren’t practical enough. We offer good critiques, but no solutions. The issue with that criticism is that it’s more a commentary on the extremely myopic way we view social change these days than anything like a trenchant critique of localism.
On an immediate level, what is needed is a significant number of midwestern university grads with plenty of talent and a deep-seated affection for their homes that motivates them to pay the high emotional and financial cost of living in their hometown. And you also need homes that, for all their faults, offer enough personal and emotional resources to make it possible for them to return. I’m very, very blessed to be from a family and a place that taught me the former and gave me the latter. But most of us don’t have both those factors–we either have families so dysfunctional that the very thought of moving back home arouses nothing but twitching and nervous laughter or we come from a place so poor and so abandoned that even if we want to return and our family would receive us happily, we simply can’t make it work financially.
Compounding the problem is the fact that nothing in our mass culture encourages us to develop affections and loyalties that bound and limit our professional ambitions. As Dreher and Brooks both note, we’re actually taught to reject those sorts of limits in favor of professional success and “self-actualization.”
So where does that leave us? I don’t know. As Eve Tushnet wisely wrote a few months back, you can’t “solve” someone’s heart. All I feel confident saying is that the small group of us who can return home should strongly consider it. And if we do return, we should work in our home places to make it possible for others to return as well. The work that involves will be comprehensive place-making, it cannot be reduced to purely legislative acts or giving away enough free counseling sessions or offering enough economic incentives. It will involve all of those things equally or it will fail.