Reviewed by Pat Wehner
Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999, pp. 23-24
William Leach, Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life, New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
In recent months, the phrase “common ground” has assumed an unusually concrete meaning for the political strategists and presidential hopefuls rehearsing their rhetoric for the 2000 elections. Launching his campaign around a “livability agenda” of car pools and emissions controls, Vice President Al Gore seems convinced the surest way of reaching the White House is by way of a pleasant suburban commute. Across the aisle, the chair of the House Republican re-election committee has reached a similiar conclusion after witnessing the emergence of a new political constituency, the celebrated “soccer moms of the 1996 and 1998 elections. Advising his fellow conservatives to concentrate less on gridlocked politics and more on the politics of gridlock, Representative Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia suggests the suburbs are “where the rubber is hitting the road today. ”
As the speeches, editorials, and blue-ribbon panels devoted to suburban “quality of life” issues continue to multiply, the publication of Country of Exiles has made William Leach appear a historian equally skilled at anticipating the future. But sometimes a book is more successful as a blueprint of what people are feeling at a given moment than as an explanation of what those feelings mean. This, unfortunately, is the case with Leach’s impassioned warning about our eroding sense of place in the late twentieth century. It is a curious and sometimes unsettling book, not only because of what it describes, but also because of how much it leaves unsaid. Like the new suburban politics, Country of Exiles slips too easily from real landscapes to rhetoric, glossing over, in the process, some rather troubling omissions.
People who have lived or studied the history of the South are well aware that writers have been alternately cheering and lamenting the destruction of a distinctive “regional identity” for more than a century. A cautious historian, Leach acknowledges the conflicting forces in our society that have made people more mindful of local roots in some periods, more inclined to restless motion in others. He suggests some measure of balance has been the typical state of affairs, but compares the 1980s and 1990s to the decades before World War I, the last period in which so few controls were placed on the movement of money, goods, and populations. As the century draws to a close, the emergence of a global market and the values espoused by its international corps of speculators, high-tech drifters, and free-market intellectuals has radically tipped the scales, resulting in a diminished appreciation for place as a “centering presence” in our lives.
Country of Exiles is most compelling when Leach is elaborating on this claim. His first chapter introduces some unlikely revolutionaries in the form of Southern trucking magnates Malcolm McLean and J.B. Hunt, whose experiments with shipping containers during the 1980s provided the basis for an increasingly seamless network of distibution. No longer confined to the traditional transportation hubs, manufacturers began to consider the cost advantages of locating their plants in places like Spring Hill, Tennessee and Lincoln, Alabama. More pointedly, Leach’s second chapter explores the perspective of the business elite whose “flexible” management strategies have taken full advantage of these innovations. Unhindered by distance and sharing few loyalties to place, corporate executives have learned to use mobility as a weapon, relocating and outsourcing production to hold down wages and keep labor unions at bay. Leach includes some outrageous examples of the vocabulary that justifies these policies, such as Harvard Business
School theorist Rosabeth Kanter’s division of the world into the market-savvy “cosmopolitans” and the backward masses of “locals,” “stay-put workers,” and “isolates” who must learn deference to those holding more frequent-flyer miles. Labels such as these confirm what a political strategist recently told The New York Times: “It’s hard to separate class from geography.”
These discoveries, as well as a depressing assessment of how the administrations at research universities have adopted a corporate attitude in their pursuit of “world-class excellence,” underline the absolute indifference many powerful insititutions of the day exhibit towards their immediate surroundings. But in focusing so intently on those forces that have a hand in “destroying” place, Leach offers little more than an abstract illustration of what an attachment to “somewhere” can provide. It is frustrating how readily he departs from any specific, recognizable location -be it neighborhood, town, or region-where he might discover the voices of people who resist the marginalization of their homes and histories. In this respect, his chapter on the tourist industry, in which he attempts to unravel the tangled politics of casino gambling on American Indian reservations, is both the most successful and the most unsatisfying. While Leach quotes tribal leaders on both sides of the debate, he draws his evidence selectively from every corner of the country, resulting in too few details about the process by which individual tribes decided whether or not to support casino construction. Likewise, though he sympathizes with non-Indians who live near reservation lands and have found their lives disrupted by the influx of tourists, he gives no hints about how to reconcile the “fragile vestiges of a tradition of place” with tribal rights to self-determination.
Above all, Leach is concerned with a loyalty to place as the basis for shared values and community connections. But without some standard of justice, there is little to decide whether a definition of community will be inclusive or be defined by an understanding that certain people don’t belong. Of course, to hear them speak, homeowners’ associations that draw up restrictive covenants act in the best interests of “the community.” Moreover, in criticizing multicultural perspectives as fashionable opinions complicit with the global designs of business, Leach mistakes the multiculturalism of the marketplace-in which all people have an equal right to a sales pitch- with a multicultural politics that acknowledges the existence of important differences-especially in relationships to power.
Most stunning of all, Leach roundly asserts that race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity “bear little relation to real places,” a position that can only be maintained by ignoring environmental racism, gendered divisions of the workplace, anti-gay “lifestyle” ordinances, immigration laws, and numerous other examples. Indeed, it is through such place-specific struggles that many oppressed people have arrived at a clearer sense of their own personal and group identity.
With so many familiar landmarks disappearing beneath the manicured lawns of office parks and subdivisions, it’s easy to appreciate Leach’s prefatory note that he wrote Country of Exiles out of “a need that could not be suppressed.” But the finished product is better regarded as an impressionist’s landscape than a set of directions to follow towards a better future. In the end, Leach might be well advised to consider whether, as has been suggested by the geographer David Harvey, place is not so much being destroyed as the differences between places are becoming that much more important. Still, with so many politicians, pollsters, and media professionals sharing this great awakening to the significance of place in our lives, we should all be prepared for an election season where riding tractors are considered the definition of a grassroots issue.
Pat Wehner is a doctoral candidate in American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University in Atlanta.He is currently working on a dissertation that explores changing notions of social class among media and marketing executives.