Now that the elections are over, I guess it’s safe to write about this without sounding like a political partisan. It’s something I was thinking about before the campaigns heated up, and I mean thinking about from the point of view of life on the plains, which is what I deal with here.
Civility seems to be a concern among commentators of the talking-head variety. They’re all nattering about it, often using it to beat one another up intemperately, making angry accusations about who is civil and who is not, oblivious to the irony of it all.
This gets us nowhere. The problem is not one of tone, but of structure—which gets me back to the region, as I’ll explain. And especially to the ideas of a philosopher named Josiah Royce, a boy from Grass Valley, California, who became a Harvard professor, and early in the twentieth century wrote about the need for a healthy provincialism in America. A province, says Royce, is “any one part of a national domain” that has “a true consciousness of its own ideals and customs” and possesses “a sense of distinction from other parts of the country.” A place like, for instance, North Dakota, or the Great Plains.
Provincial identities and values are threatened, though, by centralized institutions and communications. “We tend all over the nation to read the same daily news,” says Royce, “to share the same general ideas, to submit to the same overmastering social forces, to live in the same external fashions, to discourage individuality, and to approach a dead level of harassed mediocrity.” I wonder how, a century ago, Royce was able to describe so well the current state of cable news? And what a perfect phrase to describe it—the “dead level of harassed mediocrity.”
As an antidote, Royce calls for “the vigorous development of a highly organized provincial life,” what he called a “wholesome provincialism,” as a “saving power.” Royce says, unplug from trendy fashions and fevered reportage, dig into your own community, and be who you are.
In the spirit of Josiah Royce, then, and in the cause of a healthy provincialism on the Great Plains of North America, I here offer four New Year’s resolutions for plains folk.
1. Cut the cable. Just say no to cable news. The problem is not just partisanship or bias, which is always evident, but rather that they all talk about the same things. They drive us down to that dead level of harassed mediocrity. (Personally, I would say take your TV out and use it as a target for sighting in your deer rifle, but I doubt many are willing to go that far.)
2. Drop the dittos. Stop repeating, forwarding, or sharing all the silliness sent out by self-appointed saviors and spokespersons. Say something of your own, about where you are, or else just be quiet and dig in your garden.
3. Get out of your echo chamber. Social media, in particular, are designed to wrap us up in little chambers where we all think alike. What goes for Facebook also goes for your coffee klatch. Start talking, if necessary about the weather, with people you don’t necessarily agree with.
4. Engage! Many of you in small towns, I know, already are over-engaged, and are just waiting for the team sports to be over so you don’t have to run the concession stand twice a week. Many others, however, are lacking in the day-to-day interaction and collaboration that builds social capital. You may know some such person. You might have to make the first move to hook him back into the community.
You know, I feel more provincial, and more whole, already!