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The Garden State, Global Materialism, and the Importance of Place

Image by Bruce Emmerling via Pixabay. Image by Bruce Emmerling via Pixabay.

My friend, fellow ISI Honors Fellow, and IR contributor, Matthew Murphy, wrote an article last week proposing that the South, despite its foibles, remains more resistant to the “howl of existentialism” than other parts of the country. I happen to love Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Camus, but Mr. Murphy has a point:

The religiosity of the South explains a lot of our culture. Because we generally have a higher standard than materialism by which to live, we are not as often faced with what Solzhenitsyn referred to as “the howl of existentialism.” We live our lives in a different manner, not as concerned with money or time. It’s a lesson worth noting.

In my limited experience of the South, it does seem a slower-paced place than my native New Jersey or my adopted Massachusetts. Both there and in the Midwest, I have felt people to be kinder and more hospitable. Making eye contact seems to be a cause for a “hello” in Indiana or Georgia, but certainly not in the Mid-Atlantic.

Although I find some agreement with Murphy, I think he overestimates the significance of the South as a particular bastion of hope. Each place has its local culture. In New Jersey, we eat Taylor Ham, have an abundance of 24 hour diners serving a multitude of local specialties, and speak our own unique dialect of jug-handles, kaw-fee, har-ar (horror), and draws (drawers). Our mannerisms are a bit different as well. They may not be as “hospitable,” but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own customs and modes of relating to one another. You need only experience the Italian Sunday family dinner to understand the ethnic customs that have taken root in my homeland.

In terms of religion, a sort of lapsed Catholicism is actually quite the norm. It’s not that I promote such views, but it isn’t as if most states have “none” majorities or even pluralities. New Jersey has a lovely mixture of Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and other faiths that puts us in an interesting position vis-à-vis other places. The internet proliferates with listicles about New Jersey and its greatness. In short, while I’m sure the South is a wonderful place, New Jersey pride runs deep. Locality still matters for a lot of people, even in very mundane ways (seriously, people from New Jersey tend to love New Jersey—probably because outsiders tend to hate it so much!).

We’re all experiencing the same threat. Ultimately, larger-scale business, chain restaurants, and franchises are the culprits in the homogenization of localities in America. Behind them stands a chain of supply that not only does injustice to foreign citizens but also grinds locally-owned business into dust. I’m not declaring war on Walmart, but I think we need to be honest with ourselves that it’s our increasingly global culture, capable of producing cheap, readily replaceable, and (in terms of food) tasty goods, that is most likely to cause damage to our beloved localities.

Any human being interested in the preservation of a sense of home should look upon our current global system suspiciously. There are no easy answers, but if we truly stand for community, love of neighbor, and integrity of place, we cannot be afraid to question a system simply because we are told it is “conservative.”

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