2016-06-30
In an era of unparalleled American prosperity, when many Americans are richer than they ever imagined they could be, many of us find ourselves strangely haunted by the American dream. That dream can appear, unbidden, in the workplace, in commuter traffic, or in the absence of yet another sit-down family dinner. We see ourselves living a simpler life. It's a Wednesday evening, and we're not rushing home, bone-weary, from an endless workday to a fleeting encounter with family. Or it's Saturday, and instead of racing to pay bills and do laundry, we're taking a bike ride, or whistling, like Andy and Opie Taylor, on their timeless way to the fishing hole.

Madison Avenue, of course, knows every shadowy corner of our dream life. That is why, from polling data and focus groups, Honda tells us to "simplify your life," why Alltell trumpets its "power to simplify," why half the companies in the known world promise to deliver a simpler life if only we'll purchase their goods and services.

Book publishers belatedly caught the spirit of simplicity. Only a decade ago, the publishing world deemed the notion of simple living unmarketable. Now, armed with sales figures of books by simplicity gurus who crisscross the country on jets promoting their influence and their books, it appears that publishers will publish virtually anything on the topic.

Thus appears "A Plain Life," a jeremiad by Scott Savage, a former salesman, public-service bureaucrat, and now editor of Plain magazine. Like most published from New York these days, "A Plain Life" has a clever media hook: Savage's weeklong walk to Columbus, Ohio to voluntarily relinquish his driver's license. Savage calls this walk and its climatic gesture--the driver's license was due to expire the day he turned it in--a "leading," a Quaker term for a directive from God. He is at pains to note that he courted no media attention. And very likely, as well, he was oblivious during his walk to the market potential of this tale of a man in plain Quaker garb treading Ohio highways, carless in paradise.

Scott Savage, in short, has seen the light. That light is a humorless, black-and-white version of what Quakers have long called "the inner light," a description of the divine within each of us, of the mystical Christian encounter with Jesus. Ah, the zeal of the convert! In the past few years Savage, not originally Quaker, has embraced a strand of Quakerism named for John Wilber, a 19th-century Quaker who insisted on returning to the "plainness" of the founding Quakers in England.

For Savage the convert, the majority of contemporary Quakers were not plain enough, perhaps not even real Quakers. They'd shed the founding principles, the plain clothing, speech, material and spiritual simplicty. So he became a Wilberite.

"A Plain Life" exploits the long walk's daily structure and pedestrian encounters to fly Savage's doctrines like black-and-white pennants. We learn all we need to know: horses are good; cars are bad; the Amish--with whom Savage, his wife, and their ever-expanding flock of children come into contact en route to Wilberite Quakerism--are marvelous and wise. Technology in virtually any form is hellbent on destroying us. ("Cyberspace isn't necessarily freeing you from the constraints of real life," he writes. "It's actually molding you within its own terms. You have a new ruler, and it's a machine.") We will all live "a more authentic life" and know God's will by renouncing television, home-schooling our children, and living morally in the equivalent of the 17th century.

Reading Savage's renunciation of the automobile, one can't help wondering if he eschewed the car while promoting his book. (He tells us he actually took the train, and offers to send his rail pass.) This kind of thought arises repeatedly as Savage touts his simpler-than-thou philosophy. If only those living less simply would also renounce the internal combustion engine! And if they won't? Well, then, the moral high ground belongs exclusively to Savage.

I'd be content to let Savage's conversion from salesman and bureaucrat to plain-liver steer him to Jesus in his own absolutist fashion. But he is a guru. And if we must have gurus, Lord, give us gurus who can laugh at themselves and see the complexity, the paradoxes, the boisterous achievements of American life. We need those who seek common ground as they make their case.

For Savage, unfortunately, God is on one side, Mammon on the other. Yet it is Mammon that publishes and promotes his books. Savage remains--and likely will remain--a salesman in the American marketplace, logging in to modern technology and Big Media to expand his influence. Despite himself, Savage's wagon is firmly hitched -- and not just to horses.



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