The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Signifiers

Based In

Matthew Schmitz

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

As we climb the staircase of a newly constructed Brooklyn apartment building, my friend explains that our hostess is a curator—or did she say choreographer? We open the door and join a crowd dressed in black and white. I push toward the bar, past men with just the right amount of scruff and women with expensive hair. This is a Bushwick party. As I reach for a Rolling Rock, one of the men extends a hand—and with it, the inevitable question: “What do you do?”

I’d rather not go into it. So I improvise.

“I’m in finance.”

“Ah. What sort?”

“I’m, uh, on the sell side.”

“Where are you based?”

When I go to parties in Brooklyn, meet people at bars in Midtown, or visit Washington, the people I meet invariably ask what I do. Their second question is always “Where are you based?” Not “Where do you live?” (too creepy, perhaps) or “Where are you from?” (what is this, the census of Tiberius?), but “Where are you based?”

It is an odd question. I am not part of a bomber squadron deployed over the Pacific or a British colonial officer mixing bitters and gin. I do not hop globes. I hardly ever leave the few blocks around my workplace and home. When I do, I meet people who politely assume that anyone they meet would disdain anything so pedestrian as having a settled home. After all, aren’t peasants the only people tied to the land?

It makes sense for people with houses on three continents to speak of being “based” somewhere. They are the people who have benefited most fabulously from globalization, and who embody its ethic. They are committed not to a place or a nation but to transnational ideals that align with their own self-interest. Like the royals of old, they may be identified with one country or another, but they are bound to each other by shared habits and manners. They mix among themselves and intermarry.

The people at this party are only notionally of that class, occupying, at best, its bottom rung. Bushwick is a hipster milieu—and while its denizens exhibit many elite affectations, they are distinct from the businessmen, upper-echelon professionals, and nonprofit heads who jet from Davos to Aspen. These young professionals affect a cosmopolitanism they do not really possess. They work in just a few fields (publishing, television, the arts) and are tied to certain cities (New York, Washington). They profess universal values of human rights and decorate their apartments in International Style knockoffs.

It is in this context—ostensibly free of the idiocies of rural life or the nation’s bloody demands—that my peers feel most at home. The Colombian writer Nicolás Gómez Dávila once wrote, “The problem of intellectual servitude, of impoverished tradition, of subaltern spirituality, of inauthentic civilization, of obligatory and shameful imitation—has been resolved for me with supreme simplicity: Catholicism is my native land.” Substitute the overlapping dictates of identity politics and high finance for those of the Catholic faith, and anyone here could say the same.

These are the members of a new courtier class. They adopt the linguistic habits of the better-off even as they curry their favor. They lack the absolute security enjoyed by the global elites—they are unable to sink money into a Mayfair home in London—but they understand that they will be rewarded for flattering the wealthy with glossy magazine profiles and for excoriating bigotry, fecundity, and other gross errors of the poor.

It is necessary to note the habits of this tribe precisely because they do not think of themselves as a tribe. Their blindness leads them into errors. They pride themselves on their anti-racism, but do not realize how they have made racism into a weapon in a class war against the poor. (Publicizing the employment information of long-haul truckers and food service workers who make stereotyped comments might not be the best way to promote racial equality.) They are proud, too, of their cosmopolitanism, and do not see how it masks their own economic and spiritual anxieties.

In the early months of 1943, Simone Weil, who was then living in England, was asked by the Free French Movement to draft a report on the spiritual regeneration of France. The document she produced would later be published as The Need for Roots, a book that diagnosed France’s ailment as one of “uprootedness,” a condition that was simultaneously spiritual and economic. People no longer had the security of guild associations, religious belonging, or communal life. They had been reduced to reliance on only two sources of solidarity: the modern nation-state and the nuclear family.

We suffer from a more intense form of the same malaise today. Creative destruction and gender fluidity are celebrated for their liberating effects. Yet they also weaken the stable social structures that humans need in order to thrive. As Weil noted, we require both hierarchy and equality, security and risk. She did not think people lacked merely a “sense” of rootedness. This would have been simply a psychological problem to be solved by therapy or chiding. Instead, she thought there were objective conditions that made it impossible for people to be firmly implanted in a political community. Some of these conditions were economic, others spiritual.

The various remedies for economic rootlessness—reducing income inequality through taxation, increasing job security through tariffs—are often controversial, but much less so than what is needed to address the spiritual anomie. That would be a radical alternative to our current globalist ethic: a cosmopolitanism that does not despise particularity, a public ethic that does not fear faith. That would be something like—perhaps very much like—the faith that is at once so universal and concrete, expansive and homelike, that Gómez Dávila could describe it as his native land. That would be a place where one might not only be based, but really and fully live.

Matthew Schmitz is a writer based in New York City.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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