Slouching Towards Lake Wobegon; Searching for Meaning in the Google Cloud

I love those dear hearts and gentle people,
Who live in my home town.
Because those dear hearts and gentle people
Will never ever let you down.

—Bob Hilliard and Sammy Fain

Like a lot of people, I don’t listen to “A Prairie Home Companion” very much any more. I don’t have to; I already know what’s going to happen—or not happen. After 35 years on the airwaves, PHC holds few surprises for anyone. Clarence and Clint Bunsen are still working out their complex sibling rivalry; Bertha’s Kitty Boutique is still meeting every cat lover’s needs; conversations in the Chatterbox Café and the Sidetrack Tap still fall into the monosyllabic Upper Midwestern mold; Pastor David Ingqvist and parishioner Val Tollefson still agree to disagree about how long a sermon needs to be. And the sometimes acerbic host who peoples this imaginary world still keeps his listeners guessing about what he really thinks of small-town America, with its risk aversion and its pinched moralism.

Gary Edward “Garrison” Keillor is no rube. He got his start writing for The New Yorker, after all, and he continues to nail the claustrophobia of Lake Wobegon and all the other flyspeck burgs from Texas on up to Maine. Keillor himself was raised in suburban Anoka, Minnesota, but he still struggled to escape his parents’ Plymouth Brethren austerity. One can imagine (and he often hints at this) what it was like for him to breathe the bracing heterodox air of the University of Minnesota when he arrived there in 1962.

I am thus interested to know why the cosmopolitan Keillor can’t quite let go of his Lutherans. No simple sentimentalist, he strikes me as a rather complex elegist. That is, he sees this solid but limited small-town world fading fast; and he sees that for all of its faults and limitations it deserves a last loving look before we all plunge into the unsettling social and psychological space that, following sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, we might call “liquid modernity.”

Liquid modernity is a post-Enlightenment space in several key respects: solid Newtonian physics has been supplanted by unknown fields of force; Kantian philosophical rigor has given way to a Babel of contending discourses; and (most significantly for Bauman) the relatively stable meanings that we used to be able to give to work, wealth, and personal identity have all been colonized by powerful economic forces that we can barely comprehend. Even our most intimate thoughts are about to be absorbed into the “cloud” that Google has prepared for us.

In Bauman’s critique of post-Berlin Wall modernity, freedom is everywhere legally victorious but is imperiled at every turn by powerful compulsions to choose a “lifestyle” of private consumption and to choose “success” by working faster and living harder in ways that keep us from seeing the spiritual death entailed in such hard living. What Bauman sees collapsing in consequence of this (literally) idiotic individualism is any deep sense of personal agency or any wondering sense of one’s own immortality. We work continuously but we form few worthy bonds or partnerships through our work, in part because work itself is no longer about producing anything. Producers in the vanishing real economy cooperate, but the virtuosos of monetized hyperspace have no real need to cooperate: they can and do often fly solo. Thus the master image for the emerging society (if it can even be called that any longer) has once again become the menacing labyrinth.

I doubt that Garrison Keillor has read much Zygmunt Bauman, but I will wager that he would instantly recognize the existential crisis that Bauman evokes so well: the weightlessness of living in a world in which we struggle heroically to stay in the race—though we’re not exactly sure why. Of living in a world in which some people grow unbelievably rich (and render others progressively more wretched) by using proprietary algorithms and by creating invisible “black pools” rather than public markets in which to trade exotic financial “instruments” that only they understand.

Frank Rich wrote recently in the Times about the mind-numbing extent to which we live in a world that Goldman Sachs owns and operates, whereas we merely rent our little enclaves within it. Rich quotes Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi memorably describing Goldman as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Rich’s point was that thanks to Goldman’s many friends inside the Obama administration, the chances are nil that our government will do anything at all to shut down the casino economy or will even bother to find out who was really to blame for the financial trauma we’ve been living through. The government will certainly not force big banks that took in all of that taxpayer money to do anything to support the real economy or the millions of jobless and downsized workers who are hurting so badly.

‘Labyrinth’ is as good a word as any for our emerging dystopia. Only the people whom Lewis Lapham calls “achievatrons” seem to be getting ahead, though one also has to wonder what they’re really getting for their efforts. That thing we should all want from society, at least from a good-enough society—namely, an easy and cooperative sociability—seems to have gone missing. Whatever social networking means, it definitely does not mean hanging out with your friends at the Chatterbox Café. And we don’t know when or if it will ever end.

For this reason smalltown values and smalltown verities can begin to look kind of sweet as we plunge farther into the great unknown. Or more precisely, sweet smalltown verities minus the racism and the homophobia: some significant markers that Keillor has so far left unexplored, to our loss and to his.

I grew up about a mile away from a real-life Lake Wobegon in rural Wisconsin. People living in our nearby hamlet were nosy and narrow and only getting more so. Even as a very young boy I knew that I needed to get out of there as soon as I possibly could. But looking back, and even despite the mostly unconscious racism, I can see that it wasn’t all bad. People did real work, and when their work was done they rested. They got to know each other. Their employers had roots in the local community and felt some degree of accountability. It was an imperfect world in many, many respects but it was at least a solid world.

The same on the religious side. It could not be clearer that there is no going back to the simple faith of another time. Even David Ingqvist understands this. Indeed, Pastor Ingqvist’s witty creator has migrated from the stringent Plymouth Brethen to the latitudinarian life of an Episcopalian. Yet his deep hunger and his need for something more solid remains. Why else would he always be inviting his live audience to join him in singing all those old-time hymns and gospel tunes?

So yes, tell me the story of Jesus—write on my heart every word! And while you are at it, tell me that I don’t have to join Facebook, that I will be able to retire in something more than a threadbare condition, and that Goldman Sachs has not totally taken over the management of the last best hope of Earth. Tell me!

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