- - Sunday, January 4, 2015


Since becoming a nation on July 4, 1776, the United States has evolved into one of the world’s great democracies. A wide mix of urban and rural communities exists across this land. People of different races, religions and backgrounds populate the cities, towns and villages. It’s a fast-paced society that has witnessed, and continues to witness, seismic change and progress on political, economic and social levels.

Yet there’s a lingering question that bears asking: Do most Americans truly appreciate what they have? Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.

There’s an old saying, written by Associated Press Washington bureau chief Byron Price in 1932 and popularized by former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local.” (The same thing used to be said, generally, about life.) With the passage of time and the gradual decline of traditional views and values in U.S. communities, globalist principles often supersede many local concerns.

Two academics, Wilfred M. McClay (University of Oklahoma) and Ted V. McAllister (Pepperdine University), are concerned about this growing trend. “To say that ‘place’ matters,” they write, “is, to some extent, to swim against the principal currents of our times.” Yet they firmly believe “place does still matter” and, “[w]hether we like it or not, we are corporeal beings, grounded in the particular, in the finite conditions of our embodiment, our creatureliness.”

In their new book, “Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America,” the two editors explore a line of intellectual discourse that has gone astray in recent times. The book is published through New Atlantis Books, an imprint of Encounter Books. The contributions “have in common a view that the recovery of ‘place’ in our personal and public lives is a matter of central importance.” To their credit, Mr. McClay and Mr. McAllister “have not otherwise sought to impose a party line. Indeed, we have sought to encourage debate rather than skirt it; hence the range of views represented is wide, often suggesting dramatically different paths forward.”

Each intriguing essay covers a unique component or theory in American society. In some cases, the topics deal with people, places and things that we simply take for granted in our modern world.

For instance, Ari N. Schulman examines the Global Positioning System, which has “seemed to come upon us almost as a matter of course.” At the same time, it “has in a blink ushered in the greatest revolution in navigation since the map and compass.” Gary Toth analyzes the transportation industry, which has “mobilized in an unprecedented way to deliver a mandate for a new generation of highways.” Yet he worries “the transportation planners and the nation at large ignored mounting evidence of the unintended consequences of this huge road-building campaign.”

Philip Bess poses a unique hypothesis “that modern human beings need a renewed culture of building, a communal enterprise that includes architects, skilled artisans, patrons, founders, developers, and financiers.” This could potentially lead to “walkable mixed-use settlements of streets and squares and foreground buildings and background buildings,” among other things. Critics would argue “contemporary culture of building” denies this possibility “[w]hen the way we live so often emphasizes motion rather than calm, mobility rather than place, the disposable over the durable, the temporal over the eternal, novelty or beauty.” Mr. Bess disagrees, saying “perhaps we lack a shared and reasonable understanding of architecture and building because we lack a shared and reasonable understanding of the nature of reality.”

In my view, British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton wrote the most thought-provoking essay, “A Plea for Beauty: A Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” He correctly points out that “conservatives tend to favor market solutions” and the “American conservatives’ first response is to look to the free actions of individuals rather than to the state for a solution.” Yet, he believes, “neither market solutions nor bureaucratic controls have worked in a way that the ordinary citizen would wish: city planning and the built environment.” This is why “cities are in decline, becoming places where people will work or conduct business, but not live or play.”

Mr. McClay and Mr. McAllister’s book contains fascinating and controversial passages that will intrigue some readers and likely frustrate others. At the same time, these essays consistently challenge conventional thinking on the modern concept of “place.” That’s a good thing, and anything that makes you think does matter.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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