"Country of Exiles"

In a nation stripped of allegiance to place, everybody knows this is nowhere.

Published April 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Americans have always been pointedly vague about their roots. Owning up to the limits and fixity of our surroundings strikes us as a rather defeatist, Old World proposition -- a perverse betrayal of the great myth of the frontier and an affront to the American civic religion of self-reinvention. From Huck and Jim's raft in the wilderness to Bruce Springsteen's fabled hands-strapped engines, the promise of open spaces has been all but identical with the promise of American life.

Yet as historian William Leach demonstrates in "Country of Exiles," his forcefully argued, gracefully written requiem for our country's vanishing attachment to specific places, the national unease with place has turned more virulent. The past 30 years, Leach argues, have seen a greatly accelerated consolidation of consumer culture and the unparalleled triumph of the market over all the bonds of tradition, landscape and memory.

It's the sort of critique that in the hands of more wistful, communitarian souls turns promptly into nostalgic boomer mush. But Leach wisely refrains from delivering a loving inventory of all the sepia-toned accessories of the World We Have Lost. Instead, he tours the contemporary landscapes that have been downgraded into everyspaces dedicated to the transport of an ever greater volume of goods and services, footloose capital and homeless executives, brain workers and tourists. Leach conducts his readers through three brave new portals of placelessness: the sprawling highways and port authorities springing up in places like Long Beach, Calif., and the Newark/Elizabeth hub in New Jersey; the multibillion-dollar casino empire cynically loosed upon the hastily ginned-up tribal "nations" on Indian reservations; and the gruesomely corporatized American university.

Leach regards the movement of people across national borders as a key factor in further attenuating the sense of place, and that position won't endear him to liberals, who might otherwise find his arguments sympathetic. He does grant that immigration since the 1970s has introduced a great deal of cultural and economic revitalization, particularly in declining urban centers. But it's hard not to pick up an unsavory whiff of Buchananism in his complaint that the latest wave of immigrants has "helped disrupt shared cultural memory, undermining community unity and adding to the pressures that have induced millions of Americans, white and black, to leave the cities for the suburbs and small towns."

He backs away from the intolerance that attaches itself to such formulations, hastening to add that the root causes of the malaise of placelessness reside in such impersonal trends as "the return of the global economy ... the spread of a landscape of the temporary ... and the expansion of a service economy (above all of tourism and gambling) that has replaced manufacturing as the primary employer of unskilled workers." Yet this is too feeble a caveat. The obvious rejoinder is: 'Twas ever thus. Unskilled labor markets have always served as magnets for immigration; bosses, ward heelers and contractors have always sought to destabilize working conditions and create "industrial reserve armies" to serve at their pleasure.

The stubborn paradox of this country remains that a coherent sense of American identity has formed in spite of our extreme mobility, weak local loyalties and shifting ethnic self-identification. The still greater paradox of today's undeniably more unsettled America is that the rampaging triumph of consumer capitalism has produced a bland and uncritical celebration of "difference" and "diversity" purely as categories of niche marketing. The new social compact in today's market-driven America promises citizens exoticized genealogies in exchange for the uncontested right to despoil their surroundings.

Leach apprehends this mordant irony in his discussion of the campus romance with multiculturalism, but I wish he had applied it more broadly. Doing so would have spared this often brilliant study his confused (though always carefully qualified) efforts to pinpoint recent immigrants as part of the scourge of placelessness -- for these immigrants, too, are victims of placelessness, to the extent that the lords of the market are content to deny them the benefits and demands of citizenship and exile them to the edges of the American experience. In the new casino economy, we are all being inexorably banished to the reservation, which regularly dispenses new daydreams about our individual sovereignty while forbidding us ever to challenge the house rules.

By Chris Lehmann

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