Last spring, South Carolina’s Kathleen Parker made good when she received the Pulitzer Prize for newspaper commentary. Not long after, CNN offered her a talking-head job, paired with disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Accepting the job meant this long-time resident of Camden, S.C., (pop. 7,000) would be going to that Gomorrah on the Hudson, New York City.
Parker recently wrote a column, syndicated in The Post and Courier and hundreds of papers, explaining how this sweet Southern lady, this cultural and political conservative, was adjusting to life in the Big Apple.
“If you live in a large urban area, chances are you are accustomed to lots of rules and regs,” she wrote. “But to the newcomer, fresh from living largely independently by her own wits, the oppression of bureaucratic order is a fresh hell.”
She bemoaned the rules for potted plants on her apartment terrace and the building ban on lighting birthday candles. “Now I know what it’s like to live in communist China,” she wrote.
I have a strange sort of identification with Parker. I spent most of my childhood in an even smaller town than hers, barely 20 miles from her beloved Camden. And I can tell you that small-town life did have its own advantages. There a man could beat his wife and kids, dump motor oil in the creek behind his house, raise pit bulls in his backyard, discharge firearms in his front yard, and never have to worry about nosy bureaucrats knocking on his door. Yes, small-town life is the life of individualism and personal freedom.
My small-town experience was quite different from Parker’s. The only freedom I found in my town was the freedom to be like everyone else. While it may not have as many regulations as the city, the small town can be brutally repressive. Intellectuals, artists, freethinkers, homosexuals, political and religious dissidents, and ethnic minorities often find it impossible to live in Mayberry. They flee to the city as soon as they are able.
As an affluent, white, conservative Christian, Parker probably never encountered such small-town ugliness in Camden. Now that she is in New York and not allowed to light the candle on her birthday cake, perhaps she has some empathy for those of us who happily traded our birthday candles for the right to think and speak and live freely.
Parker’s definition of freedom sounds a lot like that “Jim DeMint freedom” we’ve been hearing so much about lately: the freedom to be rich and white.
The thing I found most grating about Parker’s column was that, after complaining about the dreadful regulations of big-city life, she ultimately accepted them, along with the benefits of living in New York. Like millions of people from the dawn of history, she chose to leave the farm and the small town to seek the opportunities of the city. And I suppose that most of them — to a greater or lesser degree — looked back wistfully to simpler times and places.
But this has not changed the great dynamic of human history: the migration of people from rural areas to urban centers. And wherever people have gathered to live in great numbers, they have changed their lives and have found new ways of cooperating and accommodating. Parker pays lip service to this reality, but the thrust of her argument is that New York’s urban culture is an infringement on her personal freedom.
This is what I would expect from a conservative columnist, especially in this time of rising libertarianism, as GOPers and teabaggers decry all government and all regulation. In this insane environment, the slope of logic is very slippery indeed. If you allow that it might be a silly imposition on Parker’s personal freedom to ban her lighting a candle on her birthday cake, then it logically follows that it must be an imposition on other personal freedoms to cap greenhouse gas emissions and stop Wall Street from making predatory loans and selling toxic investment packages.
America is becoming more interconnected, and Americans are becoming more interdependent. You may live in Camden or Mayberry, but you are connected by commerce and electrons to thousands of people every day, people you will never meet, people you have no personal influence with. Can you trust them to deliver safe and reliable goods and services? Do you know what they are putting into your water and your air? Do you think they give a damn about your health and well-being?
An individual has no chance in this jungle without rules and regulations any more than New York City could function without traffic lights. To say otherwise is delusional or disingenuous.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.