In a March 9, 2017 article in The New York Review of Books on iconic American journalist Joan Didion’s visits to the American Deep South, Nathaniel Rich concludes with three paragraphs that are worth quoting in full, because of their relevance to the Vegan America Project.
An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive. Nobody, certainly, in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which since Didion’s reporting has only accelerated in its embrace of an ethic in which the past is fluid, meaningless, neutered by technological advancement. In this view the past is relegated to the aesthetic realm, to what Didion describes in “California Notes” as “decorative touches”—tastefully aged cutlery and window curtains. In this view the past was safely dead and could not return to bloody the land.
Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life. They still believe in the viability of armed revolt. As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval, particularly disapproval by the northern press. They have resisted with mockery, then rage, the collapse of the old identity categories. They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration. They have resisted new technology and scientific evidence of global ecological collapse. The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.
A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the “dense obsessiveness” of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.
In my categorizing of such an observation as “conservative resistance” (the icon I have employed at the start of this blog) my aim is neither to dismiss nor to validate Rich’s reading of Didion’s work. Instead, I want to acknowledge that I, too, am from the North and as an inhabitant of New York City (a city with two international airports) I am prey to the presumptions and prejudices that a certain kind of deracinated and flattened cosmopolitanism shares about “America.” Those prejudices are not simply a city dweller’s assumption of the cultural desert that is “flyover country”; nor of the bland, barely repressed depression and hostility depicted in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic“; nor of the irruptive, religious violence of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” They are, as Rich suggests and yet shies away from, that “America” is to be found somewhere: that if you travel far enough, peel enough away of yourself, or unpack your sociopolitical baggage and settle down long enough in one place, you’ll get to the essential America.
Rich’s Didion seems to know enough about herself to recognize that you’re only ever yourself in another place. America, in that regard, is like Einstein’s space–time continuum, in which you’re always at the center of the universe and everything you see (and everything everyone else sees) is defined by their relationship to everything else. The conceit of America is that anyone anywhere can define themselves as American, while at the same time believing themselves to be more American than anyone else. You’re American because you’re a new immigrant or because you trace your ancestry back to the Mayflower and beyond. You’re American because you live in the diverse city or in the monochrome heartland, in the Unionist North or the Old South, because you believe in the Enlightenment principles of the Constitution or because you’re a product of the sacramentalized and ethnologized violence that has accompanied that project from the beginning and is written in that same Constitution. All is equally true, all is equally false; all are essential, all are contingent.
Rich’s observations make me profoundly aware of the quixotic pursuit that is the Vegan America Project. I choose that adjective advisedly—for Don Quixote’s chivalric code (outdated, naive, a projection of values onto a world that had no need of [such] values anymore) gains validity by the very tenacity with which it is held. It’s grandly absurd: its absurdity only increases its grandeur, and vice versa.
As the Vegan America Project thickens and develops, as its pieces fall into place and a strategic outline form, so also will its shadow: the feeling of a way of life being threatened; objections to the appearance of an outside telling you what to do; a resistance to the very notion of that resistance being characterized as resistance. The tendency would be either to ignore such resistance as inauthentic or simply reactionary or cling too tightly to it as the ultimate stumbling block or the kernal of the problem and solution. That only reinforces the notion of an essentialism that everyone who goes off in search of America carries with them.