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Why Small Towns Matter

Why Small Towns Matter

How community helps America muster the manpower to defend itself.

By Jim Manzi Jim Manzi (born, 1951) is the former Chairman, President and CEO of Lotus Development Corporation and is currently a private investor in various technology start-up ventures. Early career
Manzi received his B.A.
,  August 24, 2008

I grew up in a New Jersey beach town named Spring Lake, where there are 3,475 people and no traffic lights. It’s pretty much Mayberry-by-the-Sea. I was raised there in the house that my grandfather built. Not “built” as in “hired people to build it”, but built as in got carpenter’s tools, nails and wood, and hammered it together with his own hands.

Earlier this year, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine Jon Stevens Corzine (born January 1, 1947) is the Governor of New Jersey. He was sworn into office on January 17, 2006, for a four-year term ending in 2010. He represented New Jersey in the United States Senate from 2001 until 2006, when he stepped down to take his seat as  began pressuring small towns like Spring Lake to give up their autonomy. He argued that they should subsume sub·sume  
tr.v. sub·sumed, sub·sum·ing, sub·sumes
To classify, include, or incorporate in a more comprehensive category or under a general principle:
 themselves into larger communities in order to save money on municipal services This article or section deals primarily with the United Kingdom and does not represent a worldwide view of the subject.
Please [ improve this article] or discuss the issue on the talk page.
. I may be biased, but I disagree.

It’s not just that the plan doesn’t make sense on its own terms—New Jersey’s most efficient towns are on the small side, 10,000 people or so on average. It’s that efficiency is beside the point, for we should reject the idea that a community’s worth depends on the cost of its local services.

My hometown home·town  
The town or city of one's birth, rearing, or main residence.

Noun 1. hometown - the town (or city) where you grew up or where you have your principal residence; "he never went back to his hometown again"
 helps illustrate why.

Let me try to explain something about this place by telling you about two things in it: my grandfather’s house and a recent speech.

When I was a child, a major hurricane hit the New Jersey coast. We were used to hurricanes in late summer (June, too soon; July, keep an eye; August the worst; September, remember; October, it’s over). The power would always go out, and we would ride it out together in the living room with candles and flashlights, almost like an indoor camp-out.

This storm started that way, but got much, much worse than normal. A hurricane can look kind of cartoonish on TV when you see an anchorman being blown around by the wind in its early stages, but if it’s a bad one, it can be pretty serious business near the water. This one got horrifying. Trees were uprooted by the wind. Cars flipped over. A brick wall that had stood for decades collapsed on the beachfront beach·front  
A strip of land facing or running along a beach.

Situated along or having direct access to a beach: beachfront hotels; beachfront property.

Noun 1.
. The eeriest part was when the eye of the storm passed over us, and we looked out into the bizarre moonlit moon·lit  
Lighted by moonlight.


illuminated by the moon

Adj. 1.
 stillness, knowing what was going to start again in a few minutes. I glanced up, frightened fright·en  
v. fright·ened, fright·en·ing, fright·ens
1. To fill with fear; alarm.

, at my father. He smiled and told me not to worry, that the house was built solid. Which, it turns out, it was.

This house sits on a street that changes slowly. When I would come back home as an adult, the houses around us still had the same families in them as on the day I was born. Our cousins lived directly across the street, but eventually sold their house to one of my grammar school classmates Classmates can refer to either:
  •, a social networking website.
  • Classmates (film), a 2006 Malayalam blockbuster directed by Lal Jose, starring Prithviraj, Jayasurya, Indragith, Sunil, Jagathy, Kavya Madhavan, Balachandra Menon, ...
. When I was in my thirties, we finally took up the wall-to-wall carpeting that my parents had put down because they had a houseful of kids. Underneath it, in the living room where we had ridden out that storm, was a simple, beautiful, geometrically-patterned hardwood floor.

On a particularly memorable visit home in 2002 my wife and I spent Memorial Day weekend in Spring Lake. I brought her to exactly the kind of small-town parade you might expect: volunteer fire department, Boy Scouts, Little League teams. The parade always ends at one end of the lake, and the mayor and whoever else give short speeches in front of the memorial stone that lists people from the town who have died in war. It is normally pretty far from intense, but emotions were a little raw, as this was the first Memorial Day after 9/11, and the Jersey Shore had an extremely high casualty rate in that attack.


The mayor introduced an eighty-year-old woman from the town, and she began to speak. I have never seen her speak in public before or since. She talked about living in this same town as a child. Adults were talking on cell phones, kids were running around and people were, to be honest, probably mostly thinking about lunch and getting to the beach, as the weather was perfect. She went on to describe her experiences as a nurse deployed into the European Theater of Operations The European Theater of Operations, or ETO, is the term used in the United States to refer to US operations north of Italy and the Mediterranean coast, in the European Theatre of World War II.  in World War II. She was neither jingoistic nor abstract. There are things I didn’t know about dying in a war until I learned them from her. She had crossed the North Atlantic on a wooden hospital ship more than 20 times between 1941 and 1945. People fell overboard o·ver·board  
Over or as if over the side of a boat or ship.

go overboard
To go to extremes, especially as a result of enthusiasm.
, but the ship would usually just keep going because the odds of saving them were so low, and delay would mean more deaths on the other end. They often had to put maggots on gangrenous gangrenous

pertaining to, marked by, or of the nature of gangrene.

gangrenous cellulitis
gangrenous necrosis of the skin of the thorax and thighs of chickens of 1 to 4 months of age caused by Clostridium septicum
 wounds, because they were so short of alternatives that it was the only way to clean away the dead flesh and try to save the patient’s life, sometimes successfully. The Luftwaffe purposely pur·pose·ly  
With specific purpose.


on purpose
USAGE: See at purposeful.

Adv. 1.
 dive-bombed a marked hospital ship in the middle of Naples harbor, because they could.

Everyone listened closely by the time she matter-of-factly described what it is like to stand over a severely wounded 19-year-old, trying to save him, but knowing that he is dying – knowing that you will watch him die in front of you with his blood up to your elbows. What, she asked, leads someone to make such a sacrifice?

Rather than answer abstractly, she turned to the marker stone and began to talk about specific people named on it. She knew them, and knew their families. She talked about what they were like as individuals. About what she believed motivated them, based on what they had said and how they had lived since childhood. About how little each of them wanted to die so far from home at 19, 22, 25.

Her conclusion with respect to these men was simple: they wanted to protect a way of life. This specific way of life, the one we lived here. These streets we can see with our own eyes, the salt we can taste in the air, these people standing around us right now, whom we have known our whole lives.

The speaker, my mother, is no fool about how these motivations can be manipulated to serve the imperial dreams of a ruling class, about how wealth and privilege operate—in short, about who decides and who dies. But to say that this motivation can be abused is not to say that it is unimportant to an individual or to a nation.

It’s easy to argue that Governor Corzine isn’t proposing to outlaw these rustic traditions, and that all of these pretty stories could be told about people who lived in this same 1.7 square miles A square mil is a unit of area, equal to the area of a square with sides of length one mil. A mil is one thousandth of an international inch. This unit of area is usually used in specifying the area of the cross section of a wire or cable.  even if they shared a police force and garbage trucks with some other people as part of a much larger town.

But I’m not so sure about that.

The police chief was our next-door neighbor. More than once, he was able to take me aside and prevent me from proceeding into even worse trouble that I was already getting into. Would he have been able and willing to do that if he were part of a larger, more bureaucratic bu·reau·crat  
1. An official of a bureaucracy.

2. An official who is rigidly devoted to the details of administrative procedure.

 police force, and had not known me since I rode my Big Wheel on his driveway? It’s hard to get either too cynical or too hopeful about government when your first memory of one of the members of the town council involves figuring out what time it is when the big hand is on the 12, and the little hand is on the 2. Would the festivals, parades and monuments that are specific to this little town be maintained if it were amalgamated a·mal·ga·mate  
v. a·mal·ga·mat·ed, a·mal·ga·mat·ing, a·mal·ga·mates
1. To combine into a unified or integrated whole; unite. See Synonyms at mix.

? Would the people who were standing in that crowd on Memorial Day really have known the people that my mother described? Towns are not just service providers, they are one of the ways we come together to govern ourselves.

Better writers than I have made the point that it is foolish to idealize i·de·al·ize  
v. i·de·al·ized, i·de·al·iz·ing, i·de·al·iz·es
1. To regard as ideal.

2. To make or envision as ideal.

 small town life. Spring Lake is ethnically homogeneous to a degree that’s almost comical com·i·cal  
1. Provoking mirth or amusement; funny.

2. Of or relating to comedy.

 – by some measures, it is literally the most Irish town in America. Only it’s probably not so comical if you’re the one who feels excluded. I bet it was no fun growing up gay there. I quit high school at 16 and went off to college because I wanted to prove myself in a wider world. Most of my childhood friends have also left town, and each had his or her own reasons. Different kinds of people flourish in different kinds of communities at different times of life, and in the world as it is now, we all need to find our home.

Of course, we remain Americans, tied to a common culture that’s distinct from what people in other countries experience. My worry is that national culture doesn’t inspire the kind of loyalty that motivates regular people to defend our way of life. The kind of loyalty I’m talking about is inspired by deep community: people who live together share experiences, obligations and risks in the most concrete ways. Citizens of an extended republic like the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area.  are called to see that the national government protects against external threats, allowing these different communities to prosper despite have differing mores. We share a common political project with people who live in ways of which we do not approve.

Americans must have a healthy kind of dual loyalty: to our individual communities and to the nation that enables them to exist. The alternative of trying to force national uniformity would lead to tyranny, failure or both. Madison and Hamilton made this argument far better than I have when writing about an emerging nation with a population that was less than that of New Jersey today. Governor Corzine ought to go read them again before he decides to destroy local autonomy and traditions in pursuit of administrative uniformity.

Silly as it sounds, we have to defend our society. And if there’s one thing that living on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean Atlantic Ocean [Lat.,=of Atlas], second largest ocean (c.31,800,000 sq mi/82,362,000 sq km; c.36,000,000 sq mi/93,240,000 sq km with marginal seas). Physical Geography
Extent and Seas
 teaches you, it’s that you should enjoy beautiful days, but remember that storms always come, so you better have someplace some·place  
adv. & n.
Somewhere: "I didn't care where I was from so long as it was someplace else" Garrison Keillor. See Usage Note at everyplace.
 built solid. Jim Manzi is the CEO (1) (Chief Executive Officer) The highest individual in command of an organization. Typically the president of the company, the CEO reports to the Chairman of the Board.  of an applied artificial intelligence software company.
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Author:Jim Manzi
Date:Aug 24, 2008
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