Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Place, politics and well-being

I don't read Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times on a regular basis, but this recent one caught my eye because of its use of the word "density":  "On Suicide, Does Density Disprove Durkheim?"  You see, as a ruralist, I think a lot about population density and its consequences, and Douthat, in an exchange with Nate Cohn of the New Republic, is discussing the possible impact of population density on rates of suicide.  Cohn argues that population density is the "only definite driver" of suicide rates.  Douthat had suggested in an earlier column a correlation between a state's suicide rate and the rates of marriage, religious practice, and single occupancy homes.  Cohn responds:
If anything correlates with suicide rates, it’s a states’ population density: In populous areas, suicide rates are low; in the sparsely populated hinterlands, suicide rates are high. Perhaps depression and loneliness is particularly harsh in desolate areas, and maybe it’s easier to cope in a major city like D.C. or New York. A more intriguing possibility is gun ownership, which, like suicide rates, is highest in the West and lowest in the Northeast … Then again, the South has high levels of gun ownership and higher levels of depression than the inland West, but suicide is rarer in Alabama than Montana.
Cohn also observes that some states that are struggling economically, e.g., Michigan and Indiana, have suicide rates near the national average, while some states with booming economies, e.g., North Dakota, have high suicide rates.  He also observes the lack of correlation between the high rates of depression in the Deep South and Appalachia and the incidence of suicide there.  Rates of suicide are apparently higher in the inland West.

Douthat, asserting that Cohn overstates his point, writes:
A strong link between population density and suicide hardly demonstrates that social belonging doesn’t play a role in suicide rates: It just suggests that the literal physical component in loneliness can matter as much or more than emotional and institutional ties.
* * *   
The contemporary evidence for the Emile Durkheim thesis on suicide and social connection — the studies linking higher suicide rates (especially for men) to joblessness, to divorce, and to weak religious attachment, and linking lower suicide rates with reversals in some of those trends — can certainly be questioned in various ways. (There’s vigorous debate over whether unemployment leads to mental distress or whether mental illness causes unemployment, for instance, and the same correlation-causation issue obtains with the other social factors.) But the mere existence of a big density-driven divide does not justify setting this evidence aside, or suffice to make the anti-Durkheim case.
This whole debate started when Cohn responded to Douthat's prior post, "When Place is Not Enough."  That post commented on the recent book by Rod Dreher about his sister, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.  The book, which is about the sister's death from cancer at the age of 42, has gotten a lot of attention--including on NPR here.  I first wrote about the underlying story of Ms. Leming's death here.

Douthat had invoked the book in his column the prior Sunday, "All the Lonely People," in which he ruminated on forms of community.  He suggested that the strongest forms--which may help people from feeling lonely--are still the traditional ones:  "shared genes, shared memory, shared geography." Douthat held out Dreher's book as illustrating this point:
A journalist and author, Dreher had left their small Louisiana hometown behind decades before and never imagined coming back. But watching how the rural community rallied around his sister in her crisis, and how being rooted in a specific place carried her family through its drawn-out agony, inspired him to reconsider, and return. 
What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.
In "When Place Is Not Enough," Douthat praises Damon Linker's commentary on "Little Way," which is titled "The new anti-urban ideology of ruralism."  That commentary links the book to the so-called Porcher movement, derived from the conservative camp who gather at Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative.  Douthat quotes form Linker's column on what Douthat labels a "broader intellectual tendency on the post-Bush, post-Great Recession right."
Influenced by an eclectic range of thinkers, including sociologists Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams, Catholic philosopher David Schindler, and poet and essayist Wendell Berry, the Porchers see conservatism as a disposition or way of living locally, within moral, religious, economic, and environmental limits, in tightly knit, sustainable community with neighbors and the natural world. If they have a rallying cry, it’s “Stay Put!” Or, in Dreher’s case, “Go Home!”
Linker labels this an "ideology of ruralism,'" but Dreher insists it's "an ideology of rootedness, as applicable in the suburbs and the city (or some suburbs and some cities, at least) as it is in Saint Francisville, Louisiana," the place to which Dreher returned and where his sister Ruthie had lived.

Douthat concludes:
I think the distinction suggested here — between a philosophy of rootedness and a philosophy that just stresses “place” in general or idolizes the rural life in particular — is central to Porcherism’s ability to offer a realistic response to the ills of contemporary American life. A communitarianism that just suggests that everyone should find their own St. Francisville is obviously unresponsive to the reality of a post-agrarian society, but a communitarianism that just tells people to “stay put!” more generally, whether in cities or suburbs or exurbs, is likewise insufficient … because to a surprising extent, Americans are already doing just that.
In Douthat's view, then, place is not enough--even when the place is rural.  Connection with family and community, he asserts, are also necessary.

A cynic might call these the three legs of nostalgia:  place, community and family.

As for me, maybe I'm nostalgic enough to think Douthat is actually onto something here--that place, community and family attachments are conducive TO well-being.  It's not terribly original, but it might be right.

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