HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 19, 2007
From the Editor

John Turner


Driving up I-75 from Florida to Atlanta yesterday, a dismal mood came over me as I passed shopping center after shopping center, each virtually identical to the last. I don't want to get into the insoluble problem of whether current conditions are better or worse than the past, but I do think the sameness of American commercial culture represents a loss compared to the variety of a half-century ago. I suppose one might argue that we now have a more unified and integrated culture than we once did, and that it reduces the sectional nastiness that used to be a prominent feature of American society. It's point worth considering.  But, still, we have to admit that the blank sameness we now encounter wherever we go to purchase something in America has diminished our charm.

I may be peculiar in this respect, but whenever I've been in a place where I've established a pattern, I feel a pang of regret when I have to go away from it. I experienced one yesterday, driving out of Bowling Green. I suppose most of you, if you could ever see Bowling Green, would ask, in surprise, why would anyone ever be sad to leave it? But it's true that if you get underneath the surface of a place and work out a way to live there you find pleasures you hadn't expected. There's a solace in that for me. It means that wherever life might cast you up, if you're a bit inventive, you can probably find a way to make do.

Moving around among several regions always rouses in me a curiosity about how place affects mind. Could I -- would I -- think the same way I do now if I had spent most of my life in Bowling Green? Would I still find the way people there are terrified by the slightest hint of chilly weather as ridiculous as I do now? Or would I share the fear? Presumably, I could read the same books in Bowling Green that I read in Montpelier, scan the same newspapers, subscribe to the same magazines, and watch the same TV shows. Even so, I suspect there are differences that would work on my thinking in ways I wouldn't consciously recognize. Tomorrow, I'll be off to Chicago, to spend ten days or so. I'll have to start watching to see what my Chicago mind might become.

One thing's for sure, I eat differently depending on where I am. And if you are what you eat, then place is transformative. There's considerable nasty prejudice in central Florida against the immigration of people from Mexico. But one thing the newcomers contribute is a series of small vegetable markets which offer greater variety at lower prices than used to be available in that area. When I'm there, I eat mostly out of those markets. And you know what? I feel better than when I eat exclusively out of big grocery stores. I haven't noticed that truth entering into the national immigration debate.

On the national front, I notice that Paul Krugman continues to hammer away in the recent debate over whether Ronald Reagan played on racial prejudice to win victories for the Republican Party. I'm glad he does. A healthy nation has to come to grips with its own past. And there may be no historical truth more important for us to recognize right now than that the rise of the current Republican Party was buoyed by a sea of racism. You may be disgusted by that, or you may think it's okay, but in either case, you need to recognize its truth.

As I mentioned, next week I'll be in Chicago, so I'll try to give you a Chicago perspective on things. In the meantime, look around where you are and send us your observations on this wonderfully complex country we find ourselves in -- or on the whole world if you're minded to. We'll be interested.


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