Loathing suburbia: the theory

Today was a balmy January day in Northern Virginia.  The wind stopped rattling my house, the sun broke through the clouds, and the temperatures hit 60.  If this is global warming, bring it on.

My wife and I took a morning walk around the neighborhood — the mother of all suburbias, which given the fine weather was cluttered with those particular suburbanites I call “my neighbors,” launched on their outdoor pursuits.  Many were small kids pedaling bicycles and tricycles.

I look on my neighborhood, I confess, with great fondness.  The problem of the artists and intelletuals returned to me as we walked, and I posed it to my wife.  Why do these creative types loathe suburbia so deeply?  What about this restful, well-ordered neighborhood could stimulate such rage?

My wife, as always, had the answer.  Or at least, a persuasive theory.

Suburbia, she said, is a place to raise children.  Everything is designed for parents bringing up their kids:  there’s room for families to grow, personal safety, peace of mind.  Most of the ceaseless activity I observe in my neighborhood centers around children:  their sporting events, their birthdays, their play dates.  The rest has to do with simple maintenance:  one has to work for money because children have a habit of eating regularly, and one has to tend to one’s garden or it goes to weed.

Suburbia is about parents and children.  Now, this is the most important human enterprise in every community; the transmission of values depends on it.  But as Paul Johnson has written, traditional values and their transmission are of no interest to intellectuals, who believe they can “diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects.”

Intellectuals, and the artists who ape them, dwell in a world of abstract questions and criticisms.  These seem large enough — what is the meaning of life?  how is justice to be achieved?  who profits from the abuses of society? — but they are unmoored from the life and soul and memory of the community.  They are unreal.

When intellectuals look on suburbia, they find a lack of interest in abstract questions of justice or meaning.  Parents are too damned busy for abstractions — I’ll attest to that.  Justice, as a living ideal, must be taught to one’s children.  That is the reality behind the phrase, “transmission of values.”  Meaning comes from success in the enterprise.

To this enterprise, intellectuals are as blind men.  Rousseau, whom Johnson describes as the prototype of the intellectual, gave his children away to an orphanage.  No doubt, he needed peace of mind to ponder the social contract and the general will.  Today, in the suburbs, intellectuals see people working hard to support their families — crass materialism, they conclude.  They see sturdy, well-ordered lives, and assume these must be loveless and inauthentic.  They see families, and project on them abstractions about patriarchies or Oedipus or class warfare.

My wife’s theory, which I hereby endorse, is that intellectuals are romantics in love with words and thoughts and criticism, while the suburbs are the hard reality of human nature:  mothers and fathers who love their children, and wish to do right by them.  A conflict is inevitable.  The winning side is foreordained.


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