The Book Club

Deep Roots and Intolerance

Here’s something that happened to me a couple of weeks ago in a small town in Kentucky, where I was working on a story:

I spent a very interesting hour talking to one of the town’s most respected citizens, a longtime local judge who had eventually made it to the state Supreme Court. He was retired from the high court now, and back living in town. We talked all about local history.

The next morning I saw him again at the county courthouse. On the wall of the upstairs courtroom was a huge portrait of the man, facing the bench where he had presided for nearly 20 years, and underneath was a chronology of his many achievements. But he was there as a working lawyer, representing a client in a criminal case.

How would you like to be the current judge in a situation like that, trying to conduct a fair trial in a courtroom that’s practically a shrine to one of the competing attorneys? Worse, how would you like to be the prosecutor on the other side? Only in a small town could such a thing happen.

Moreover, it points to the double-edged quality of small-town life. On the one hand, what could be better than to live out your twilight years as a universally admired figure in the place where you grew up, practicing a little law and greeting friends on the streets you roamed as a kid? On the other hand, what sort of legal system can you have when every proceeding is burdened with so much personal history and relationship? If it’s plain old justice you want, you’d do better in a sterile big-city court where most of the people barely know each other.

Are we better off because of the decline of old-fashioned small-town and neighborhood community? I think there’s a simple answer to that question. Yes and no.

There’s no question, for example, that the most intense forms of community fellowship and boosterism involve a certain amount of us-vs.-them narrow-mindedness. A few years ago I was in Siena, Italy, around the time of the Palio, the annual summer horserace in which the city’s neighborhoods compete with each other in a frenzied competition that usually lands a couple of the jockeys in the hospital. The neighborhoods in Siena really hate each other. They practically live to embarrass each other in the big race. It’s mean-spirited. But it sure is spirited. As an engine of community pride, it’s terrific. Some scholars even attribute Siena’s historically low crime rate to the fact that the residents put so much effort into neighborhood hatred that they don’t have enough energy left for individual misconduct.

When you break up the Old Neighborhood and people bounce around the country in search of opportunity, you do lose something important. That’s undeniable. But it’s also undeniable that people are more tolerant of others in a transient setting than in a deeply rooted place where families occupy the same houses generation after generation. Ray Suarez’s Bensonhurst, for all its homey appeal, is less likely to accept a stranger than an Atlanta suburb where being a stranger is more or less the norm.

In other words, there are trade-offs. That’s not exactly headline news, but it’s useful to keep in mind as a corrective to the notion that virtue lies entirely within the city, or the small town, or any particular place.

I’ve enjoyed this a lot. Thanks.