George Pyle: Maybe you can go home again

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emma Ramirez announces that it is Rainbow Day, during a Rainbow Day gathering on the BYU Campus, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

Fuzzy-headed old liberals like myself try not to judge people of other cultures.

We don’t expect everyone to want what we want, do what we do, eat what we eat.

(Though one of the great joys of life is to learn about, and sometimes copy, what other folks do and, especially, eat. Cultural appropriation? Yes, please.)

But there has always been one aspect of my Anglo-Germanic-Scottish-American heritage that I’ve always expected other people to emulate and have been puzzled, even condescending, when they don’t.

When things get bad, or just dull, we leave.

We, in the words of Huckleberry Finn, “light out for the territory ahead of the rest.” We are coming up on 600 years of European-American culture that is not only based on, but makes legendary, the practice of upping our stakes and heading, mostly, west.

From Christopher Columbus to the Pilgrims to Brigham Young to “Call of the Wild,” our national myth is that, whether it is to build a better place to raise a family or find somewhere to hide from the law, we worship the pioneer spirit and consider those who embody it our heroes.

I am hardly a hero. I am a little bit unusual in that I have had, in 63 years, 21 mailing addresses in five states. (Not counting college dorms.) The medieval term “journeyman” is still well suited to us journalists. The number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight figure that the average American moves a fraction more than 11 times in a lifetime.

I also have siblings living on two continents and a cousin on a third. Depending on the outcome of the next election, my post-career plans may include relocation to a First World country.

So I read about the deplorable conditions facing, say, members of the Navajo Nation in and around Utah’s San Juan County, and I wonder why more of them don’t move.

Or I hear from vilified and demeaned LGBT people who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and/or students at that church’s Brigham Young University, and I can’t figure out why they stay.

Or I see that the Wasatch Front communities can’t figure out where to put all the people who live here, a great many of them not newcomers to the valley but people who were born here and apparently feel a lot of family pressure to stay nearby to raise the next generation.

I don’t get the deeply felt longing in many people to stay tied to what they know. I think, “Why? There are other places, other religious traditions, other universities. We have highways, airlines, buses. Migration, improving our lot in life by getting ourselves a change of scenery, is baked into the American ethos. Go. Shoo. Git.”

Not all of that freedom of movement worked out for the best for everyone, of course. In current issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks has a very interesting piece titled, bluntly, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.”

The last 200 years of human history, especially in Western Europe and America, has been driven by a search for autonomy and privacy. Extended families that provided food, shelter and all kinds of material and emotional support started being seen, with reason, as oppressive, limiting and, most of all, sexist.

So we passed through an era that idealized the so-called nuclear family — dad and mom and 2.7 children — which was, in retrospect, particularly well-named because, like certain kinds of atomic isotopes, it was inherently unstable, lonely, unfulfilling and, most of all, sexist.

Now we’ve hit a rut where pockets of poverty — white, black, Native — just dig themselves in and get deeper. And areas of prosperity — San Francisco, Seattle, Lehi — just get more congested.

As Brooks explains, residents of the latter can at least afford to buy family-substitute support systems — good schools, day care, health care, sports, music lessons, college prep — that totally evade those who live in the former.

But there are signs of progress.

In San Juan County, political power has finally shifted to the Native majority. There is a plan to help a Navajo neighborhood near Blanding finally get running water and electricity and a deal to maintain some roads on the reservation.

At BYU, a strategic omission from the latest edition of the school’s rules has freed LGBT students from the need to hide themselves away from the disapproving eyes of the Honor Code.

In Salt Lake County, there are pushes to build multi-purpose communities where people live, work and play in somewhat less sprawling areas with more things held in common, particularly open space and public transit.

The idea of freedom will always include the ability to pick up and move. But there do seem to be examples of when freedom means standing your ground and making things better.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has now lived at his current address for longer than any other in his life. He must like it. Or he’s just gotten lazy.


Twitter, @debatestate