Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


The tragedy of deracination

posted by Rod Dreher

Anthropologist Wade Davis, from his excellent 2009 book “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World”:

Our way of life, inspired in so many ways, is not the paragon of humanity’s potential. Once we look through the anthropological lens and see, perhaps for the first time, that all cultures have unique attributes that reflect choices made over generations, it becomes absolutely clear that there is no universal progression in the lives and destiny of human beings. Were societies to be ranked on the basis of technological prowess, the Western scientific experiment, radiant and brilliants, would no doubt come out on top. But if the criteria of excellence shifted, for example to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, with a true reverence and appreciation for the earth, the Western paradigm would fail. If the imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longing, then our dogmatic conclusions would again be found wanting.When we project modernity, as we define it, as the inevitable destiny of all human societies, we are being disingenuous in the extreme. Indeed, the Western model of development has failed in so many places in good measure because it has been based on the false promise that people who follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity enjoyed by a handful of nations of the West. Even were this possible, it is not at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials througout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would imply so severely compromising the biosphere that the earth would be unrecognizable. Given the values that drive most decisions in the international community, this is not about to happen. In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of th world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.

Davis goes on to write about a Catholic priest he knows in Africa, who has long ministered to a tribal people, trying to get them educated, and improved. He now believes he helped bring on a tragedy:

“Schooling,” [the priest] told me, “has not changed the people for the better. This is the pain in my heart. Those educated want nothing to do with their animals. They just want to leave. Education should not be a reason to go away. It’s an obligation to come back.”

But, as Davis writes, leave they do — joining the masses of urban poor in teeming Third World cities, where there is no work for them. They are unfit for living in the old ways, having emptied their minds of traditional knowledge in exchange for “book learning” — yet there are no jobs for them in the modern world. Is there a parallel set of lessons to be learned about rural America? Davis argues in his book that globalization and modern economic practices are not impersonal forces that we cannot control, but rather expressions of a particular culture — ours. We are not fated to live by these rules — but those who don’t wish to, but who lack the power, political and otherwise, to resist, may well be. And yet, how many of us, living our middle-class lives, would endorse our children choosing to refuse success as middle-class America defines it, instead returning to the land to farm, or to engage in some other non-remunerative activity that guarantees that they’ll live on the relative margins of our society? I’d like to think that I would, because it’s more true to what I value, but I cannot say with confidence that I would. Because after all, I have not made that choice for myself. Below the jump, watch a Davis film clip about the “ancestral genius” of the Wayfinders of Polynesia. Great stuff — if you like it, you have to buy his book, which is all about this kind of thing. That is, the hidden genius of traditional peoples that we moderns overlook.



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Connie Connie in Wisconsin

posted January 29, 2010 at 1:47 pm


“Those educated want nothing to do with their animals. They just want to leave. Education should not be a reason to go away. It’s an obligation to come back.”
Yeah, the same reason the vast, vast majority of children of midwestern dairy farmers have left the farms over the last forty years, when given other opportunities. This is the thinking of castes–that you must stay in the situation into which you were born, never mind about your talents or interests.



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Turmarion

posted January 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm


Of course, as a teacher, I’d give the counterpoint that kids are pressured to view college and white-collar jobs as the only acceptable routes, regardless of whether such a route is appropriate to them. There is the ideology of “bettering” yourself and the mantra of “You can do/be anything you want if you just try/believe in yourself/want it bad enough!”
I used to work in a GED/job-training context years ago and they would encourage the higher-scoring kids to go to the local community college. Now, given that most of the kids were struggling to pass the GED, “highest scoring” is a relative term. A few of the college kids were very sharp and did well. Many, though, while bright, were not quite up to college level work. They could do very well in trades and other areas they were trained for, but college defeated them. We did try to give them some support, but not as much as they needed (budget and such), and many couldn’t make it even with the support. There were some profoundly upset and disappointed young people as a result. All because they’d been fed the unquestioned ideology that nothing counts but higher education and that any non-professional work is beneath contempt.
The conundrum is how to respect the diversity of children. How can we realize that not everybody should be living on a farm in a rural community (that is, we don’t want to tell the kid who moves to the city that he’s getting “above his raisin’”), while at the same time respecting the rural, agrarian life without casting those who choose it as “dumb rubes”?



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senhorbotero

posted January 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm


This is a very important post. Clearly there must be some give in our fundamental assumptions about the meeaning of life. One could see in watching the State of the Union address the other night that as much as the Dems want to paint themsleves into a different picture they actually work off the same assumptions that have gotten us into trouble in the first place. These assumptions are that the ideology of growth is sound and must remain and that it must be spread across the globe. Also there is the same sort of blind beleif that technology will save us in any event.
Somehow there seems to be a need for reconciling with things as they are or as we learned them to be and perhaps a resistance to the economic thought of the last mnany years if we are to truly solve the dilemmas we face but woe to the guy who brings up the truth. Any president that dares speak about redirecting the economy towards sustainability instead of growth would face an onslaught from the street and also from within.
This then seems now to be the provence of religion to re-evaluate its perspectives and reteach a different way that proceeds from a different understanding of Genesis then we have been using for the past 1oo’s of years.



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MC

posted January 29, 2010 at 2:57 pm


This is silly. So education of third-world people is bad, because it makes them want something other than to herd animals in the blistering sun for their entire short, brutal lives? Listen, I’m all for teaching the trades and so on, but our situation in the U.S. is waaaaay different than that of the third world. A tradesman in the U.S. who has only graduated from high school lives at a much higher level than almost anyone in the third world. For crying out loud, a Walmart greeter lives a more comfortable life. (notice I didn’t say “better”).To expect people in the third world not to obtain education nor move to cities and look for what they themselves believe is a better life is paternalism at its worst.



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Dave Chirico

posted January 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm


Great Post Rod,
I’m really enjoying the Wade Davis entries.
I think you bring up a good point regarding the parallel to rural America. There needs to be a return (for some) to a traditional way of life (and a more sustainable one). But there are questions that need to be answered too, like what was that tradition in the first place? Is it solitary homesteading a commune? a rural community? Can someone make a living doing it? Will I have help? Do I have the skills?…etc? A return over several generations will be necessary.
To Connie Connie,
Don’t you think your comparison to “caste” system is a bit extreme?
Also, its overly simplistic to say that the departure from dairy farms over the past 40 years is attributed to kids pursuing different interests.



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John E - Agn Stoic

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:22 pm


The conundrum is how to respect the diversity of children. How can we realize that not everybody should be living on a farm in a rural community (that is, we don’t want to tell the kid who moves to the city that he’s getting “above his raisin’”), while at the same time respecting the rural, agrarian life without casting those who choose it as “dumb rubes”?
Tumarion, in the five years or so since I moved from the city to a rural small town, I’ve observed that the folks who choose to stay and live the rural life don’t give a rip what city folks think about them and wouldn’t live in the city if you paid them.



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Your Name

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:38 pm


“Yeah, the same reason the vast, vast majority of children of midwestern dairy farmers have left the farms over the last forty years, when given other opportunities. This is the thinking of castes–that you must stay in the situation into which you were born, never mind about your talents or interests.”
Coincidentally, it is the thinking of people who want to eat as well.



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Your Name

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:48 pm


“To expect people in the third world not to obtain education nor move to cities and look for what they themselves believe is a better life is paternalism at its worst.”
Yeah, but its not nearly as bad as the exploitation in indoctrinating them to a specific world-view, encouraging them to pursue the near impossible knowing it will lead most of them to even worse lives than before, all so I can get my shirts for a dollar cheaper.
Not to mention your bare-naked assumption that the modern approach to knowledge is all there is to education. The average goatherding native has an expansive education at 14 that you could only dream of.
How else do you think they keep a hundred goats safe and together? Have you ever dealt with 3 goats, much less a herd?



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Turmarion

posted January 29, 2010 at 4:24 pm


John E.: I’ve observed that the folks who choose to stay and live the rural life don’t give a rip what city folks think about them and wouldn’t live in the city if you paid them.
Very true. The problem is whether some of those who are leaving should stay; whether there is a “brain drain” from rural areas. I’m not saying that only the dumber ones stay, by any means. I live in a rural area myself and there are people around as intelligent as in any city. The point is that you have to have a certain base number of people in a community necessary to make it stable and sustainable (consider the “ghost towns” in the Great Plains states resulting from nearly the whole population having moved out). Also, the many rural areas have trouble attracting enough professionals in vital areas (medicine, engineering, law, etc.). Thus, how do you convince a newly minted doctor or engineer to stay home rather than running off to the big city?



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MC

posted January 29, 2010 at 4:47 pm


“Not to mention your bare-naked assumption that the modern approach to knowledge is all there is to education.”
When did I say that? I even said, “I’m all for teaching the trades”, which clearly is not the “modern approach to education.
“The average goatherding native has an expansive education at 14 that you could only dream of.”
Ah yes, I dream of herding goats.
“How else do you think they keep a hundred goats safe and together? Have you ever dealt with 3 goats, much less a herd?”
No, and I don’t have to and don’t want to. But here’s the really relevant part: the goat herder often doesn’t want to either! Don’t you think he would trade places with me in a second? I mean, what he does is impressive, but it’s patronizing as hell to tell these people, “Oh, no, don’t take part in this modern economy. You’re much better off herding goats. You don’t want your kids to work in an icky office and have indoor plumbing. It’s better for you out in the bush.”



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Your Name

posted January 29, 2010 at 4:56 pm


No, MC, it isn’t patronising at all.
Its certainly not as patronising as your repeated assumption, contrary your denials, that Modern Western Standards of Living are superior and preferable. You can deny having said it, and honestly too, but you’ve demonstrated it repeatedly.
I suspect what you really dont like is that someone, somewhere, is suggesting that your entire civilization is a bankrupt thing not fit for human beings living out their humanity.



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Lindsey Abelard

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:02 pm


Yes, we in the West and East Asia could work to deny education and economic opportunity for those in the rest of the world. We can keep then in their traditional farm villages and what not so that they make a picturesque cultural experience for the rich Western and East Asian tourists who come to check them out. We can keep the technology and modern life styles that we enjoy limited to the East Asian and Western countries. Of course, I expect the author of the original article not to have any problem with and to agree to this attitude.



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MC

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:19 pm


“Its certainly not as patronising as your repeated assumption, contrary your denials, that Modern Western Standards of Living are superior and preferable. You can deny having said it, and honestly too, but you’ve demonstrated it repeatedly.”
But you see, I never said that my standard of living is preferable. What I’m saying is that I prefer it, as does evidently nearly everyone else. Saying that it’s bad to educate the teeming masses because they will then act against their own interest is paternalism, plain and simple.
“I suspect what you really dont like is that someone, somewhere, is suggesting that your entire civilization is a bankrupt thing not fit for human beings living out their humanity.”
Oh, please. Yes, I’m so scared of anonymous internet people criticizing my way of life. Listen, I won’t defend all of modern civilization. There are certainly parts of it that are “bankrupt”. But if you’re so fed up with the modern world, then why don’t you put down your computer and move to Cameroon? After all, I hear it’s just so awesome and crunchy.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:19 pm


Tumarion: Thus, how do you convince a newly minted doctor or engineer to stay home rather than running off to the big city?
I wonder if that is the most desirable pattern. There is something to be said for the experience a professional gains by working in an urban environment.
I’ve seen several examples where a doctor or lawyer who was born in this area had gone off to work in the city for fifteen or twenty years and then came back to this area to establish a practice.
Seems like this benefits the community because the professional has had more experience and also brings his ‘city made’ money back with him. The professional benefits from a less hectic practice and a lower cost of living.
Another thing I expect to see – and this has been brought up by others in related threads – is the internet making it possible for more professionals to live in rural areas and still have access to a large client base.



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Liam

posted January 29, 2010 at 6:12 pm


Davis risks condescension masquerading as wisdom.
I think of my grandmother who came here from County Leitrim over 100 years ago. I’ve see where she was born and raised, a windswept place that had nothing for a bright girl like her except to be married off to an older man so they could care for her parents; ditto her sister 13 years younger. They both left before accepting that fate, and shed not a tear or sentimental swell over the Old Sod. When they came here, they wanted to put that all behind them.
My grandmother’s husband left a place in Russian-occupied Poland (near the Prussian border) that changed hands about 2 dozen times in under centuries, with armies marching through (Napoleon retreated through there) massacres and pogroms and overcrowding when the tsars forced Jews from Russia to move to Poland in the 1890s. He so did not want to remember the old country that he changed his name and swore some relatives to secrecy so that it took over 100 years to find out what happened.
Their stories are true for many – I imagine many Haitians would feel the same coming to the US today.



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senhorbotero

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:29 am


One must approach this subject with balance. Clearly there is much about modernity that has been granted to us. Yet there is also much that has been set aside simply because of it traditional connotations. Traditional knowledge is not trivial. It is often the representation of years and years of trial and error. It also tend to derive from a perhaps deeper understanding of life. It this tends to have a braking action on excesses of behavior. This is one of the downsides of modernity that it has assumed a certain arrogance of invincibilty. We now consider that all things are possible to us. A traditional minded person would temper this assumption with a better comprehension of his own limitatins.
The acquistion of knowledge stems from the same greedy impulses that drive us to accumulate anything. It is not alway a good thing. I would venture to say that the excess of specialized knowledge and the constant quest for more in the modern world is one of the underlying causes of our un happinss despite our wealth and technological diversion.



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sigaliris

posted January 30, 2010 at 4:52 pm


Well, I guess I’d better put Mr. Sig into his lederhosen and send him out for beer and herring. It’s too late for me–I’m such a mixture of British Isles and Germany that I’d never be able to figure out where to revert to with my spade and potatoes. Not that any of them would want me back.
These topics always make me think of “Stripes.”
Cut it out! Cut it out! Cut it out! The hell’s the matter with you? Stupid! We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts!



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Irenaeus

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:52 pm


“a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.”
Right or wrong, that’s powerful writing.



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Jon

posted January 31, 2010 at 2:58 pm


Given the realities of human civilization how does natural selection select for intelligence? Economic success doesn’t work: it doesn’t correlate with greater reproductive potential, in fact there’s a good reason to think that those who are economically successful may have fewer not more children. Moreover the reality for most of history is that the major cause of reproductive failure in humans was premature mortality: about half our of forebearers perished in childhood before they could have children themselves. It’s hard to see how intelligence could mitigate that. People lived closely crowded together, with common food and water sources, exposed to the same parasites, breathing the same smoke-filled air indoors. Even the rich suffered large-scale losses among their children, as a quick review of the history of royal families will show.
Just about the only trait that this envirionemnt really could select for over the long haul was a strong imnmune system.
As for sexual selectiion, in a polygamous world, that would work to select for socially desirable traits like intelligence: the intelligent would have more opportunity to mate. But given basic monogamy, what we find instead is that almost everyone who desires a mate will find one and very few people are unable to produce offspring.



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Marian

posted February 1, 2010 at 4:13 pm


Those who are economically successful will have more children in systems where that contributes to economic success (like agrarian societies) and fewer where it doesn’t (like urban societies.) They will have, in short, pretty much the number of children they want. And, BTW, they will be able to keep them all alive long enough to produce grandchildren. So yes, over multiple generations, intelligence favors genetic survival.



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