In the first part of this essay we took a brief look at the roots of this myth and its power, in this area in particular. It's time to give some consideration to the ills this myth is working in Utah.
The pioneers who settled in this area were driven by a myth of making the desert blossom. Though not without its own ecological costs, this myth was convivial. It led to the establishment of peaceful and charming towns and neighborhoods. Utah, especially the Wasatch Front, has been promoted as a desirable place to establish businesses because of the beauty of the natural scenery, as well as the work ethic and neighborliness of the locals. The same place is promoted as a clean and safe place to raise families, the kind of place where you can move into a neighborhood of friendly people who live wholesome lives, whose children will be good influences on yours, and who will fund and staff good schools.
The strain of any rush of hopeful beneficiaries to a place that isn't too crowded (yet) is plain to see from a wide perspective. But when a whole culture is on fire with visions of progress, competition, individual protection and haste, there is little to no incentive to widen perspectives. Worse, the myth of the home as fortress against an increasingly wicked world is easily manipulated by the most cynical pursuit of immediate profit, and works to destroy the very quality of life that has made Utah so desirable. It's easy to argue that development is inevitable with the growing population and the resulting needs for housing, but the way all the people are housed is not inevitable; it is shaped by designs more spiritual than natural.
Over the past few years as I watched an area of vacant fields and peach orchards in one of my favorite parts of Provo disappear to huge luxury houses and drab apartment buildings, I saw an elegant illustration of Veblen's thesis: on the more desirable ground arose the spacious houses to stand as witnesses to the kind of luxury that the righteous may achieve. Their proximity to the packed gray apartments surrounded by parking lots and sparse, dull yards forms a cylinder of the engine of invidious comparison. This engine encourages apartment dwellers to yearn for an escape from their current dependence, lacking privacy and dignity; to the autonomy, respectability and privacy of a “home,” as houses have been so successfully re-branded. In this way, no matter how much pretty or even peaceful land of plants, birds and bees is sacrificed to concrete, asphalt, particle board and shingles, it will never be enough as long as apartment living is felt to be – and designed to be – inferior to living in a real “home.”
And here is where the myth of home as fortress amplifies the damage. Consider the bungalow houses built in the booms of the early 20th century, where people raised families as large as, if not larger than the typical Wasatch Front demographics of today. The charm and elegance of those old houses may draw appreciative gazes, but the exercise of virtue required to fit a large or even medium-sized family in such a modest home is not promoted with any consistency, indeed hardly mentioned, by those who promote the myth of home as fortress. If a man feels it is his duty to provide his family with a home that is a fortress against the ever-growing evils of the world, roaring through the land like a hurricane, he has every incentive to seek to make such a house as large as he can to allow for the comfort of those protected within. And since the myth is taught and interpreted at the nuclear level (not “every man for himself" but “every family for itself”), incentives and imperatives gain strength to parcel out land for ever more and ever larger houses: atomic units of consumption . . .
And suspicion. Here is the second bad effect of this myth. It instructs and encourages homeowners to see the outside world as a threat: danger everywhere. Therefore even the pretended camaraderie of a cozy suburban neighborhood is founded on a wariness and a warrant to watch for any transgression that would render a neighbor unworthy. Lip service to the importance of being a tolerant neighbor has a very limited efficacy in the face of the story of the watchful man vigilantly defending his fortress against dangers that wait at his very gates.
And so, instead of being a way to promote a peaceful stable society, the myth of home as fortress promotes a shrinking away from civic virtue and a callous disregard for the land and the plants and animals we share it with. It encourages selfishness and excuses greed. It corrodes the sympathy and alliances between neighbors that are essential to building strong and healthy communities. Without those, a fragmented mass of self-centered nuclear families in their beleaguered fortresses can't form a foundation for a society worth living in.
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