“If a country is governed wisely,
it’s people will be content.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
And even though the next country so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
One of the many ways we are all trying to get back to “normal” as the pandemic recedes is the resumption of travel. After a year in lockdown, many of us find ourselves disagreeing with Dorothy’s mantra in the Wizard of Oz that “there’s no place like home.” Our is the opposite: “there’s no place like anywhere else.” Home doesn’t quite feel like home if we can’t leave it.
Though regular travel, or at least an annual summer vacation, is normal for most Americans and baked into our experience of home, it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Before the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the 19th century, most people rarely traveled, and in the Middle Ages, apart from pilgrimage, travel was difficult, dangerous and rare. Beyond travel, the special restlessness of the American soul, an echo of manifest destiny and the fascination with the frontier, shows up in our increasing mobility.
The sociologist Dalton Conley cuts Americans into “Somewheres” and “Nowheres,” a distinction I distill into “people in place” and “people in space.”
Somewheres are people who live in rural and exurban areas, the people who don’t–and whose children don’t–leave for college and the big city, who are neither outwardly nor upwardly mobile, who invest in and grow the local stock of social capital and thicken the social fabric of a place. Somewheres live closer to the ground, led by the weight of necessity.
Nowheres are people who, before they could walk, were being trained to be “shot into space”: like a quantum particle, they exist in a cloud of possibilities, riding the wave function toward the spaces of the best grades, the most elite colleges, the most prestigious internships, the most lucrative and sought after jobs, the Professional Managerial Class, and perhaps the gated community and country club. Nowheres take it for granted that they and their peers will leave their home towns, and that their teens, 20s, and perhaps their 30s are means toward these nebulous ends. Jeff Bezos, whose company is everywhere and nowhere, who fancies himself a real-life Captain Picard shepherding us toward a planetary, space-faring civilization, and who has made it known that he “wants people in space,” is the epitome of the ideal. Nowheres live closer to the Cloud, afloat on the promise of possibilities.
One way of understanding the Trump era–in which the pandemic is both climax and denouement–is the recognition that this division in American life is neither psychologically desirable nor economically sustainable. You don’t have to want the Benedict Option to recognize that there is something wanting, hollow, and unsatisfying about this way of thinking about community life. Ironically, it is on their tour through the universities that students will learn what evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology now tell us: that we are deeply social creatures who evolved to survive and thrive in small groups of extended kin over a relatively limited range of territory; that the view of human nature as a sovereign individual embedded in classical liberalism, the operating system of modernity, is a useful fiction. Of course common sense would tell you the same, but common sense becomes less common when society is programed for destination Nowhere. People raised in such a culture aren’t like to get the memo, and will come to see family, community, and a commitment to the local as a stepping stone, at best, and a hindrance to their self-actualization, at worst. Space beckons.
But in reality, space doesn’t exist. There are only places. We have engineered the social topography of our society in such a way that only a small number of places are regarded as culturally and economically desirable to live, and relegated the rest to “fly over country.” The information economy depends on the cloud, the cloud depends on servers, servers depend on electricity, and electricity, for now at least, depends on oil and gas and infrastructure. Space is not the absence of places, but made possible by places. The primal scream of Trumpism is the return of the repressed of place erupting into space.
The best views from space, ironically, were of the Earth. Whether it was Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” or the “blue marble” photo, our early space travels revealed to us how beautiful and precious our terrestrial home really is. As a friend of mine once said, the purpose of vacation is to help you realize how good you have it. Lao-tzu isn’t so much telling you not to travel as encouraging you to be content with where you are; and realize that you travel every time you leave your front door.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”