On Not Losing Sight of The Other Place: A Remedial Geography

Shared memories of place and time are among the great shapers of any culture. While some of these are wedded by spatio-temporal events of such enormity that popular metonomy is assured–Pearl Harbor never really existed other than on a particular day of infamy, did it?–many others–as the Rockies and the Sixties–can mentally exist almost entirely in a single frame of reference: the former simultaneously enfolding Sacajawea and Bridger and Muir and Adams in its vast reaches; the latter fixing California and the New York island and Dallas and Selma and Saigon and Memphis and Chicago and Tranquillity Base on a grainy screen between the slowly aging faces of Chet and David.

Presidential candidates produce their own sets of references as well, crafting mental atlases and timelines in which prospective voters may locate them. While the histories ultimately turn on a comparison of the passing and coming four years, the geographies define five distinct regions: in the candidate’s voice these are My Place, Your Place, Our Place, Their Place, and The Other Place. The first four are now the obligatory scrim for every epiphany. My Place is the locus of his hard-won victories; Your Place, of his hearers’ deepest concerns as they sit around kitchen table–or drum circle; Our Place is the brighter future to which he alone is anointed to lead; and Their Place–whether Beltway or Bible Belt, the hatchery of wretched spawn–looms over all: “Down in the great state of My Place I … and you all want the same for Your Place … and together we’ll restore this great land of Our Place … after I chase all the varmints out of Their Place … “.

The Other Place, however, is now off the map of most Conservative candidates; its disappearance signals a collective weakness which cries out for restoration of both character and expression.

Before being torn from the discursive atlas, The Other Place was ideally those parts of Our Place not already assigned to the remaining Places. Of course the ideal was never fully realized, but no matter: even those who never visited had at least heard of someone who did. For it was the home of the Neighbor who was neither covenantally bonded to us nor demonically opposed; and even if the latter, by virtue of residual imago Dei and Dominical commands, deserving of full dignity, and capable, against all hope, of eventual persuasion. For intrepid Hobbits, it encompassed most of the wide lands between the Shire and Mordor, and while it could never really be home, the certainty of its belonging to Our Place was enough to merit some regard of kinship for its denizens; the lesson came less quickly to the lesser-travelled Eomer of Rohan:

“It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live … How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”

“As he ever has judged,” said Aragorn. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

If it has never been a place of comfort, neither could it be a place for the man of discernment to comfortably avoid. For all the flaws of the main shapers of our national identity, at their best moments they trod into The Other Place, perhaps offending friend more than foe, but certain that they could not stay back and be counted true men:

“[I]t is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion, that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”

George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Martin Luther King, Lincoln Memorial Address, 1963

The Other Place has not vanished merely due to the cowardice of complacence, however; it shrinks at the same rate that Their Place is allowed to grow. Much of the Conservative movement, as if determined to replay the tragedy of ten doubting spies, has been grotesquely and unnecessarily consumed by its magnification of the opposition, finding it more profitable, apparently, to create an audience of Ditto-birds than a generation to whom the word “intellectual” would be counted a high vocation and “elite” a mark of honor rather than contempt. But those who see Their Place encroaching on the entire map can hardly expect to be surprised if The Other Place–for it does re-appear, as Brigadoon out of the mists, for a single day every four years–pays them no heed at all.

The character necessary to rediscover and fearlessly tread the paths of The Other Place is not to be attained by reading a website, even one as well-intentioned and -moderated as RedState. But I submit that a discussion of its expression in the discourse of our candidates could be profitable. For starters, I propose that the objection “but it won’t create votes where needed” misses the huge fact that the country is more inter-connected than ever before, and the focus-grouper/spot-producers condescendingly ignore at their candidate’s peril that the long-term unemployed in Madison or Blandinsville might very well be quite capable of simultaneously thinking beyond themselves of the well-being of a daughter in New York or the friend of a church member with illegal parents in Texas, and that the candidate’s avoidance of reference to The Other Place–even when doing so could be to his own hurt–displays more of mere political savvy and less of wise leadership.

Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;–was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?
Ah, is this Picketts Division?–this little group left of those who on the lurid last day of Gettysburg breasted level cross-fire and thunderbolts of storm, to be strewn back drifting wrecks, where after that awful, futile, pitiful charge we buried them in graves a furlong wide, with names unknown!

Met again in the terrible cyclone-sweep over the breast-works at Five Forks; met now, so thin, so pale, purged of the mortal,–as if knowing pain or joy no more. How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!

Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies, (recalling 1865)