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The Great Plains of America: 'the therapy of distance.'

DAVID Lamb, writing in A Sense of Place, says that since the 1960s 'All that Montanans had considered a curse -- fierce winter, great distance to their commercial markets, geographic isolation -- seem a blessing'. The tyranny of distance had become the therapy of distance, he says. 'What's happened is that the people of what has been described as the Empty Quarter -- a reference to Saudi Arabia's vast, near-deserted region -- have come to thank their lucky stars that their region has the protection of distance from the social convulsions of bi-coastal America, which is plagued by the rise of urban barbarism. In Mr. Lamb's view, the people of the Plains 'Worry about protecting our last great chunk of law-abiding civilization'.

The idea of safety in remoteness is unique to the major nations of the world. While regionalism is strong in Britain. Italy, Spain and other countries, it doesn't involve a fear of the urban centres of these nations. Canada, America's next-door neighbour, is a nation based on provincialism in its best sense, but there is no fear of metropolitan centres as de-civilizing centres. There isn't any Canadian equivalent of Los Angeles, which has become a synonym for America's collapsing social order, though in truth, Vancouver, in time, may come to represent an alien element in Canadian national life as it becomes a kind of trans-Pacific outpost of Hong Kong.

The current outlook of people in the Plains states represents a conscious turning away from the attitudes of earlier eras when the big cities were seen as the embodiment of cosmopolitanism, though they also always have been regarded as centres of Eastern money power which exploited the people of the Plains states. To some degree, the attitudes of the Plains people were ambivalent, as were the attitudes of Southerners, who also saw the big Eastern cities as magnets to their bright young people -- even as the Eastern money power held the Southern states in thrall. To a considerable degree, the emerging force of environmentalism has contributed to distrust of urban cosmopolitanism. The environmentalists of the Great Plains see their region as exploited by outside interests. They fear the 'rape' of the land and the dispossession of people in small towns in the path of commercial development. They are well aware of what has happened in the past, as when the Anaconda Company virtually 'owned' Montana. They surely will be just as opposed to such outside control in the bio-tech era of the 21st century as they were in the age of mineral extraction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

With a strong and growing environmental concern is likely to come a more open resistance to cosmopolitanism in its contemporary forms. Cosmopolitanism today means the imposition of outside anti-social forms of expression transmitted by the media, the New York-Los Angeles intellectual world and the entertainment world which overlaps the intellectual world. This cosmopolitanism is hostile to religion and traditional western culture and is militant in its efforts to crush the inherited culture and replace it with the new anti-culture.

This cosmopolitanism or anti-culture controls everything from video materials to college curricula and from paperbacks in convenience stores to the policies of government agencies. Cosmopolitanism, in any case, always has been a major contributing force in the breakdown of tradition-based societies. So it was in ancient Rome. Cosmopolitanism, derived from Roman exposure to the Eastern Mediterranean world, led to the erosion and eventual eclipse of old Roman values. The world of the East had never known the republicanism that was developed in Rome. Over time, the old Roman ideals and institutions were swamped by the cosmopolitanism of the East, and, as a consequence, the old Roman republic gave way to the Eastern-style principate of the Caesars. This process is at work in late 20th century America, as government intrusion takes place everywhere -- in every department of life -- and as government determines what is politically and culturally correct, with severe penalties imposed for politically or culturally incorrect expression.

The intrusive anti-culture won't triumph, however, without a fight. The tradition-oriented people of the plains states and elsewhere will -- indeed are -- creating a powerful resistance movement based on historic Christian values. This necessarily is a grassroots movement, as the resistance to the anti-culture is carried on by people who don't have access to the powerful media or the establishment educational system or government itself. Success requires individual and community vigilance against what is morally or socially hurtful. As Virginius Dabney said in another historical context, people who are defending their values 'must, above all else, be zealous to guard and preserve those qualities that, once lost, can never be recovered'.

David Lamb has pointed out that the Great Plains constitute a region larger than Western Europe and that 'had the Great Plains been a nation, its gross domestic product (more than $650 billion) would rank behind only that of the United States, Japan and Germany'. A new sense of regional consciousness in the region surely must be accompanied by a new sense of cultural consciousness. This is what is happening in Europe -- Northern Italy, for example; a new sense of economic identity and power is paralleled by political, social and cultural consciousness. And this consciousness surely will serve as a barrier to the spread of the anti-culture, precisely as nationalism impedes the spread of the anti-culture from Poland to Japan.

The contemporary resistance to the urban anti-culture brings to mind earlier Midwestern stirrings of this sort. At the end of World War II, the great American artist, Grant Wood, a child of the prairie world, published an essay entitled 'The Revolt Against the City' in the anthology American Is West. In that essay, he said that his region 'has always stood as the great conservative section of the country', adding that in boom times it is ridiculed 'but under unsettled conditions it becomes a virture'. Today, America faces unsettled conditions -- a cauldron of intractable problems and alien cultures. James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere (1993), has described what he calls 'the human habitat in America', saying that it is 'nearly wrecked ... nightmarish and unmanageable ... spiritually degrading'. Groups that remain true to the enduring moral order understand this. So it is with the Jewish Orthodox group Agudath Israel whose leader Rabbi Morris Sherer condemned New York City's Metropolitan Authority for accepting advertisements that 'border on the pornographic'. He complained (July 30, 1993) saying that 'Our constituents go to great lengths to shield their children from the moral pollution that permeates so much of what passes today for culture'.

What we have in this struggle against the anti-culture, a struggle in which the healthy Plains region seems destined to play a central role, is nothing less than a war for the soul of America. James Cooper, editor of American Arts Quarterly, has said that the task is to recapture the culture, or, as Patrick Buchanan has written, to 'detoxify the culture so that Middle America can again drink freely from it, and be nurtured and enriched'.

The poisoning of the culture can be discovered in the nauseating fare offered to the public by Hollywood, which offers up a meal of unlimited violence, homosexuality, transvestism, and brutality in language and action. The poisoning also occurs on the intellectual and academic scene through the movement of deconstructionism, which strives to deconstruct -- destruct -- the literary heritage of our civilization. Multiculturalism, as the conservative scholar Dr. Russel Kirk has said, 'is animated by envy and hatred ... denying the achievements of Anglo-culture', -- indeed the achievements of all Western countries. |The Multiculturists~ propose to substitute an invented history and literature.

Real history, not myths, is what the Plains states offer to this generation of Americans. Nothing was given to the exploring and settling generations. Nothing came to them on a silver platter. Graveyards of old Plains communities tell the real story of hardship and achievement through adversity. It is said that in the time of western expansion when the Plains region was opened to settlement there was one grave after another along the banks of the Platte River. Suffering, courage, self-sacrifice, vision, patience and energy went into the opening and settlement of the Plains.

These qualities were manifested again during and after the 500-year flood which occurred in 1993 in the heartland of the country. The people of the flooded regions displayed and continue to display the strengths revealed in the lives of their forebears.

It would be the cruellest of injustices, truly unconscionable, for that history to be ignored or wiped out by ideologically driven multiculturists who want to suppress the truth of the building up of this continent. The meaning of this country is in its history. Indeed, as Egyptologist Zani Hawass has said, 'History is life'.

What kind of country will exist if we permit a constant reshuffling of the image of America, if we allow Orwellian reconstitution of reality in order to fit a politically correct and decreed pattern? Only a shallow video world, in which images are manipulated in order to manipulate minds. American history is an enduring reality with a permanent meaning for the generations -- all generations of Americans. Historical reality links the dead, the living and the unborn in an on-going compact. The history and life of the Plains states is important -- very much so at this time -- because in it continuity of understanding and purpose is very strong. The people haven't been culturally pressured into accepting the notion that they are guilty of outrages or that their ancestors were oppressors. While Plains people may not be philosophers, it is evident that there is much understanding of what a British divine, the late Dean W. R. Inge, said when he declared, 'Our ultimate aim is to live in the knowledge of and enjoyment of the absolute values, truth, goodness, and beauty', this understanding develops more naturally in an environment of quiet and natural beauty where people aren't crowded or pressured into an artificial conformity. Whenever people are troubled, they seek quiet and solitude. That's a near-universal desire and reaction. And entire societies -- at least modern urban societies -- have a special need of it. This is particularly true in the United States where, today, great concentrations of population have become war zones; where, in the words of George Will, savagery 'is engulfing a wide swath'. In these historical circumstances, the Plains states are a tremendous resource in terms of quiet and solitude. David Duncan in his book Out West notes, in this regard, that the northwestern quarter of South Dakota -- an area larger than New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts combined -- has only four towns of more than one thousand people -- a virtual deserted island within the nation as a whole. Mr. Duncan, speaking of the entire Plains region, also points out that 'in terms of infant mortality, teenage births and deaths, it is healthier than the rest of America'. It is a wonder, then, that Americans don't pour out of the troubled cities and seek refuge on the Plains. At a time when parts of America are as dangerous as Somalia, the bizarre pattern of settlement and occupation is all the more apparent. One wonders: is it a kind of herd instinct that causes people to remain in over-populated areas where the conditions of life are difficult and dangerous? Is there a kind of fear of open spaces? Is this caused by the constant media harping on the alleged opportunities of urban life, opportunities which are rapidly diminishing, if they existed at all in this century? Even in the much less violent and disturbed early decades of the 20th century, life in the major metropolitan centres of the Northeast wasn't a bed of roses. Human societies, it seems, become fixated on certain notions and patterns of existence. People race toward social and cultural cliffs like lemmings, the Arctic rodents that crowd into the sea to destruction.

Ironically, the settlement of the American continent began -- and long continued -- with an impulse to escape the crowded conditions of the Old World, whether the poverty-stricken countryside of Ireland or Sicily or the ghettoes of Russia and Poland. Indeed for many generations of immigrants, there was truly a therapy of distance -- from poverty, conscription, and religious persecution. The Russo-Germans who settled in North Dakota in the late 19th century truly fit the description of those who seek therapy in great distances. In this connection, I am reminded of the statement by John G. Ackerman in the New York Times Book Review that there is a 'dialectic of possibility in his history which is potentially liberating'. Thus, in time, urban Americans may turn against the horrors of American urban life and decide to participate in an internal migration -- a new movement West. The concept of this dialectic is that an idea or event generates its opposite. In the sweep of history, one finds unexpected, periodic population movements -- the sudden decision of peoples to uproot themselves from their accustomed settings and descend upon faraway territories. It was these kinds of unexpected movements in Central Asia that brought invaders into the Western Roman Empire, albeit with destructive results. Another such movement was that of the Celts out of the region of present-day Switzerland and Austria to the British Isles. This is the kind of thing we tend to forget in our concentration on modern events and a narrow spectrum of possibilities.

What is needed today is a new sense of excitement about the possibilities of the American interior. Wallace Stegner, the novelist of the West, wrote in American Heritage in August 1975, that the old frontiers of westward expansion were 'stimulating, enlarging, full of excitement and wonder, and the life of the senses, swimming with human types and charged with dynamism'. Indeed Bruce Catton, a popular historian of the American Civil War, once expounded on this historical reality, saying that 'Deeply embedded in the history of America is a strange quality of expectancy ... We are permanently oriented in the direction of the improbable ...'. Today, we need reminders of that heritage. The Plains states demonstrated the courage involved in a great venture. One of the things that revealed this quality was the habitation of the Cornhusker pioneers -- the sod house that was created out of the only material available -- the good earth. The homespun quality of the 'soddy' indicated that new capacities were developed out of necessity.

The world of the 'soddy' isn't as far away as one may imagine. As late as 1970, between 150 and 200 sod houses stood in Broken Bow in Custer County, Nebraska, the most recent having been built in 1940. These houses were a demonstration of the true grit, the ingenuity and determination, of Americans in an earlier age. Here and there a sod house still stands. One is on the main street of the tiny town of Anselmo west of Broken Bow, Nebraska, though the house isn't occupied. Others must exist elsewhere in the region.

The homesteader mentality lived on into the mid-20th century. Then, disturbing developments took place elsewhere in the nation. New and hurtful forces were set loose in what had been a remarkably happy land, a young republic that had been largely immune to the moral corruption that characterized countries in other times.

The paths taken by human societies are a mystery. No one can be sure why a society goes in one direction and ignores another, why it abandons the sound and the sane and moves in the direction of the ugly and the irrational. Who at the turn of the century would have imagined that Germany would embrace the bloodthirsty fanaticism and cruelty of Nazism?

We have some distinctive late 20th century phenomena that may account for the curious direction taken by American society -- the rise of the radical counter-culture that has been at work in the last thirty years, substituting paganism for traditional religion. The emergence of a highly centralized media, operating as a thought control apparatus, is something new. And the passion for unending analysis, selective analysis in the media and the arts organizations and agencies, is new -- a socially destabilizing and fragmenting force. In one generation, an array of social-ideological imperatives and taboos has come into existence, creating an anti-culture conformity that is near-totalitarian in character. They have had a terrible impact on millions of Americans who are unable to enjoy the therapy of distance. Thus we have a national society, apart from various pockets of resistance, that is, in the recent words of chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valis, 'irresponsibly permissive, hyper-inflated with sexuality and capable of creating circumstances that induce even people who have received a solid moral foundation to commit grave immoral acts'. This means that American society increasingly finds itself in a kind of intellectual and moral straitjacket. One of the biases of this new order is prejudice against the rural or agrarian world. Only urban life conducted on current terms is deemed progressive. Connected to this bias is the notion of the moral rightness of what the early nineteenth century Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, termed 'King numbers'. It's significant that hostility towards rural life also was characteristic of the Soviet order, which sought, as American neo-pagans do, to achieve a complete transvaluation of traditional values. Such are the prejudices of modern life. And they are deep-seated, arising from the basic ideological currents of the 20th century. How to overcome them is hard to say with precision, but the effort must be made. Alternative modes of thought and models of human life in this country must be developed and implemented. To achieve this goal means combatting the giant media, ideology, entertainment complex, with its myriad electronic outlets, publications, institutes, cultural organs, tax-exempt foundations, and pseudo-church bodies -- all aiming to be the real government and moral governor of the people. Happily, the writ of this complex doesn't run as far or as effectively in the Plains states as in other regions. People in this region still don't derive their values and life view from the likes of sex videos, Hollywood, Psychology Today, or television chat shows. The therapy of distance is at work. Hence the central moral importance of the Plains states.

To be sure, many questions remain unanswered regarding the relationship of the Plains states to the troubled regions and the troubled state of American society. Dr. Stephen Bertman has raised several of them when he asked: 'How transferrable are "Plains values"? Are they delimited by geography? Can those who hunger for the restoration of American values only find them by migration and settlement in those places where such values still flourish, or can the values be replanted on coastal soil?'

It's true that the values, to a considerable degree, came West with the settlers. They originated in England and in Colonial America and in the traditions of later immigrants from Europe. These values headed West in the covered wagons, along with the people. I fear that the original values of the East have eroded there beyond repair, though I may be wrong -- though I hope I am wrong. Today, I am persuaded that there is the most intimate and necessary connection between the physical geography of the country and its spiritual geography.

Anthony Harrigan is an American writer living in Washington.
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Author:Harrigan, Anthony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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