No man is an island. How come communities are?

by Yule Heibel on November 15, 2012

I don’t like every article published by City Journal – too often, I can imagine conservative think tank folk nodding their heads while reading its jeremiads about popular culture and decline, particularly as the articles describe how that decline is hastened (so they would argue) by “liberalism.” In other words, it’s often just a tad too ideological.

But I really liked Michael Anton’s piece, Tom Wolfe’s California. Anton points out that Wolfe, who’s seen as quintessentially belonging to New York City, spent a lot of time in California – seminal time, in fact.

In City Journal‘s grand tradition of California-bashing (the magazine does like to mention frequently that the state is a basket case, although I have no idea what they would like California to become… Florida?), we learn that in the 1960s Wolfe recognized in California’s incipient “statuspheres” (those subcultures fixated on surfing or pimping out and drag racing cars, etc.) the trends (downward, of course, this being City Journal) that would soon be embraced by the whole (declining) USA. (It just makes you wanna shout “yee-haw!” and go rustle up some cattle, drill for oil, and ride a horse into a healthy Texas sunset, don’t it…? /snark)

But seriously. Anton’s article is a great read – and it makes this reader want to get her hands on Wolfe’s books, to re-read some as well as read others for the first time, in either case with Anton’s insights into Wolfe front and center. Given our current passage through an economic age of sharp divisions (fabulously gilded on the one teeny-weeny tiny hand, soiled and dragged through the gutter on the rather over-large other), Anton’s analysis of what Wolfe wrote about money is especially interesting.

The economic boom after World War II resulted in a middle class that was rich, which in turn had a profound effect on how culture shaped up in California. As Anton notes, “But the thing about California’s middle class, especially at the time Wolfe began his investigations, is that it’s weird.” And a little further down: “All that money, freedom, and sense of limitless possibility have the same effect on California writ large as they do on people who rocket overnight from steelworker’s son to superstar. Out pours everyone’s inner weird.”

Between these two observations, there’s the following – and this is what really grabbed me, because after ten years of living on an actual island (one that was quite weird, too) I’m very interested in the phenomenon of “islanding” generally:

There is, in California, an inherent strangeness that has always attracted loners, dreamers, and outliers. Hemmed in on all sides by mountains, forests, deserts, and the sea, California is an island in every sense but the literal, with its own distinct climate, air, soil, flora, and fauna. Geographically and culturally, California is a world unto itself. [emphasis added]

“…an island in every sense but the literal”: there’s the key thing, for me. How does it happen, this “islanding”? What makes communities self-referential and relatively immune to outsiders? Not too long ago I heard the term “island” applied to a neighboring Boston North Shore municipality. The town in question is definitely not an actual island. The unflattering implication, however, was that people who come from or move to this place are (or become) islanders, and that their world-view changes.

Does it mean that islanders (real or figurative) become too convinced of their own importance, uniqueness, singularity? Do they care less about those not “on the island”?

What’s the balance between tradition and innovation on an island? How does change happen? Is “balance” between these two possible or desirable in the first place? What do communities (municipalities, cities) need to do to avoid islanding? My first thought here is allow more immigration and increase density, get people to rub up against one another. But my “real island” experience also taught me that once the island mindset is in a place’s DNA, it infects newcomers, too. If you live on an island – real or figurative – you will go native, believe me.

And what about modern versions of islanding, as described in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort? Is this just an instinct we have, one which we repeat whenever we clump together? Probably. Then how do we make sure it doesn’t i-s-o-l-a-t-e us? Can you isolate (hah, there’s that word again) the island DNA and inoculate against it?

Seems like an important thing, ’cause if it goes too far, you end up in a bubble, unable to perceive beyond the limits (and illusions) you’ve constructed. Even Republican ideologues ought now to understand that danger.

My Victoria friend Jarren Butterworth contemplating “Too many islands,”
photo ©Lena Vorontsova
(used with permission)

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