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‘I’m Not Tossing in the Towel Yet’

The ruins of the Roman Forum, in a print created by the Swiss Photoglob Company at the turn of the 20th century
The ruins of the Roman Forum, in a print created by the Swiss Photoglob Company at the turn of the 20th century Library of Congress

The new print issue of the magazine has a short thought-experiment article, by me, on what happened after the fall of the Roman empire. (As I point out, this concerned the Western empire only—the one based in Italy, and the one Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall. The Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, had many more centuries to run.)

In a first round of reader responses, historians and others reacted (mainly) to the article’s (intentionally overstated) headline, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” And in a second round, a veteran of governance issues named Eric Schnurer argued that a renewed focus on local-level renewal and innovation was proper, since localities were the only places where innovation had ever occurred.

Here is another round, on the point I mainly hoped the article would raise: how Americans, ever optimistic about the rebound capacity of their perpetually self-reinventing system, should think about the possibility that “it’s different this time,” and that national-level governance might finally be strained beyond its rebound abilities. Over to the readers:

1) Civil servants still want to serve. In my article I quoted Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, on the difference between national-level and local officials. At the state, local, and regional level, Zelikow said, elected and career officials have no choice but to work together and actually solve problems. Whereas at the national level, politics is more and more about culture war—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on,” as Zelikow put it.

A career official at a national-level agency replies:

In November, I will mark 32 years of federal service.

My grandparents came here with nothing. I’m an age of rising tides; my parents had the grit and good fortune to grant me and my brothers and sisters every reasonable opportunity, and then some.

That’s fundamentally why I entered public service, and that’s fundamentally why I remain in public service. I am grateful, and feel a responsibility to give back.

Your essay, comparing our federal state to Rome in its age of decline, strikes a chord, and in doing so fills me with an undeniable melancholy.

I push back against Zelikow’s “which side are you on” fatalism about national governance, even as I admit I see evidence of it all around me.

I’m not tossing in the towel yet.


A 19th-century photo of the Roman-era arena in Arles, France (Library of Congress)

2) Optimates vs. “Populares”: The battle goes on. From a history professor of my own Boomer generation:

I have been thinking about that [Roman] period quite a bit lately, as we see the collapse of societal norms and the failure of many central governments to actually govern.

I see the present as actually more in parallel to the fall of the republic in the first century B.C.E.

At that time, the empire had begun to take form, with vast amounts of wealth pouring into the center, but mainly enriching the senatorial oligarchs. The men who had fought the wars were forced off their land, which came to be farmed on vast plantations by slaves. The new global order failed the yeomen, mainly because the rich, who controlled the government, refused to relinquish any of their wealth to help the impoverished citizens.

Seems familiar.

The society broke into two warring parties: Optimates and Populares (the “Best” and the “People”). They engaged in wars with each other, mobilizing personal armies, and violence came to be used as a means of government with leaders of each side being killed by mobs, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar. The society had become so divided that in the end, the only way to govern was by autocratic rule: Augustus.

I fear that we are near that point, and that a demagogue will arise who has more shrewdness than our current demagogue-wannabe. Trump has blazed the pathway that others can well follow.

Trump’s party represents the Optimates—the wealthy—but we could just as well see a leader representing the Populares come to power. Think if Huey Long had been successful in the 1930s. Populism can cut both ways; call them national populism and social populism …

We are seeing the breakdown of liberal democracy across the world, as happened in the 1930s. It was finally restored after a decade of slaughter. It may not be restored again. At the least, something new has to take form, and that will not come from our generation.


One interesting parallel to the period that you do discuss in your piece is that the “barbarians” were not invading the empire to loot and pillage. Mainly, they wanted to share in the wealthy and stable Roman society, get a bit of land for their people, and be secure from tribes like the Huns on the other side of the border. They knew Rome very well; many of their leaders had been leaders in the Roman armies, and many were Roman citizens. The Vandals were not really that vandalous …

In the same way, people are now migrating en masse into Europe and the U.S. in pursuit of better lives, to participate in the wealthy and stable Western societies, to escape poverty and brutality.

Climate change plays a significant role in driving people out of their homelands, and that will only become worse over time. Another factor, of course, is Western as well as internecine wars (think Iraq and Syria), and Western support of brutal governments (Central America).

But the influx of a mass of outsiders into the Roman empire (especially the western part) did ultimately lead to the breakdown of the wealth and stability they had come for.

There were many reasons for this, including intertribal battling among the newcomers and the disappearance of the Roman legions as a controlling force, but there was a continuing social disintegration and insecurity. The stable Roman civitas crumbled, quickly in some places (Britain) and more slowly in others (Gaul). I am not bringing this up to agree with Trump’s mantra to “build the wall” (which is folly—the Romans tried in some places), but rather to stress that we must have a rational immigration policy and consensus that prevents destabilization. Mass immigration creates nationalist anger, which is fuel for nationalist demagogues.


As the Roman society disintegrated, government did become ever more localized. That worked for a while in some places (like France), but in time trade shrank, education declined, government services passed away, and instability increased.

One could imagine some parts of the U.S. doing quite well for a time without a federal government, but other parts might do very poorly. Infrastructure would fall apart, as it did in post-Roman Europe. More people would flow across unpoliced borders, adding to the disruption and to the reactions. This would not play well in a society as well armed as the U.S.

No one knew that “Rome had fallen” when Odoacer brushed aside the grandly named Romulus Augustulus in 476, only that the Germans now ruled Italy in name as they had in fact for the past decades. Even in our own long lives, can we know what history might see as having passed in our lifetimes, perhaps that we are now at the transition from the 500-year Modern Age into what-we-do-not-know (as John Lukacs has written)? Life went on, as for the frog in boiling water whom you have analyzed …

Several hundred years after the fall of Rome, new forms and new states began to take shape amid the ruins, and by the 12th century, western Europe was again thriving. But it was a long and difficult time between the fall of the empire and the rise of Europe. I would not wish that on my children and grandchildren, or on theirs.

The long-term results of the failure of governance we are living through will be regrettable, though perhaps as necessary as the Dark Ages.


3) The new corporate “nationality.” A Westerner who has lived for years in Japan writes about the local-versus-national tensions within the United States:

One idea is to reorganize the 50 states into seven regions that match the baby bells created when AT&T was broken up … The merits to such a reorganization are to unify many basic services: Do we really need 50 DMVs and 50 Medicaid programs and who knows how many other layers of bureaucracy that get repeated state by state? This could enhance basic services at the subnational level … On the other hand, it may create the equivalent of seven proconsuls competing among themselves to follow Rome’s decline into empire …

What seems more likely to me to occur over the next 50 years, and something that I oppose, is a rift, with sovereign-individual stance married to the corporatization of society …

Instead of citizenship being based on contiguous borders, our lives are bounded by what membership card(s) we carry. I can go to an Amazon condominium after buying dinner at Whole Foods paid for by my Amazon coins via my Kindle and travel in my Amazon car ad infinitum. And if I am a Sapphire member, better deals as I jump from location to location but stay in the Amazon or Apple or Goggle or Facebook or whatever bubble. When a person uses an “out of service” provider, of course rates go up, and pity the people who cannot afford/are rejected in their membership bids. Blade Runner marries Brave New World.

Finally, on the question of if this time is different compared with other times due to change! change! change! Yes and no. I believe that in past periods, starting around 1870, in these early periods, the degree of change was much greater than now. No electricity versus Wi-Fi and rechargeable batteries; no telephones/movies/radios versus watching reality TV on your cellphone, etc., etc.

But the pace of change does seem to be much faster and disconcerting for all generations. This deserves further explanation, but who has the time to read, let alone write … ?


The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome
The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome. In 2003, archaeologists discovered evidence that Emperor Caligula had turned this temple into the front porch of his residence. “Everyone knows this guy was a little crazy. But now we have proof that he was completely off his rocker, that he thought he was one of the gods,” Darius Arya, one of the directors of the excavation, said after the discovery. Tony Gentile / Reuters

What’s the point of writing a “thought experiment” article, like mine in the current issue about the bright side of the Dark Ages?

It’s to generate some thoughts! On top of the first round of responses—which were variations on “Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty dark”—here is a stand-alone. It is from my longtime friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, from the local to the global.

He writes now about the proper lessons to be drawn from comparing modern America’s prospects to those of Rome, after the fall. What follows is a long but highly condensed version of his note. I would direct your attention to the place where he ends his argument: Local innovation is important now, and always has been. The difference now is the potential and scale of global/local connections.

Over to Schnurer. I have added some subheads in bold to highlight the stages of his argument—which, again, I hope you’ll think through to the end:

I read with interest your piece on the fall of the Roman empire … in part because of the fact that you were really discussing a number of contemporary issues of obvious interest to me.

I think of these being less the local aspect, and more the large-scale global future …

It’s not the fall of the Roman empire we should worry about. It’s the fall of the Roman republic. One could argue that the fall of Rome wasn’t so “awful” [JF note: This is Edward Gibbons’s term], because, by that time, Rome was pretty “awful” itself. The empire’s peak— particularly the heights of both power and intellectual advance of the Five Good Emperors—was long behind it.

However much as I may like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (and I always found it interesting that Gladiator set its story in this period, and has Russell Crowe restore democracy at the end, as if to fantasize how great Rome would be if the history we know had simply ended after Trajan and we then got to go back to the republic … ), Rome’s true greatness begins and ends for me (and I suspect for you and most of your readers) with the Roman republic. In fact, I don’t think the problem with the U.S. today is that it resembles Rome at the end of the empire, but rather that it resembles Rome at the end of the republic.

Or, rather, not long before, with the rise of the Gracchi—the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of “the greater good” by what we’d call “special interests,” the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me …


The real question: Where is America headed? Sure, you can talk about the growth of monasteries and universities in the Dark Ages as a wonderful thing, but (a) what we really mean by that is how wonderful it is that there were islands of light in what was otherwise a sea of darkness, (b) that darkness went on a long time, (c) what came out of it, which you/we now celebrate as the result, was essentially:

  • the rediscovery of the lost knowledge of Greece and Rome (not to mention the Islamic world) that kindled the Renaissance and Enlightenment;
  • the reemergence of something resembling “globalization”; and
  • the end of the horrific destructiveness of the Middle Ages—due largely to the institution of local fiefdoms that your piece celebrates as a sort of Brandeisian laboratory—thanks to their replacement by the modern nation-state and the European state system, which represented a recentralization of authority and stability, not a devolution.

What I actually find more interesting is what your piece says about where we’re headed, which is what I’ve been focusing on, lo! these many years.


Seeing the world through a distorted 20th-century lens. I think there’s a tendency—especially among people of your/my generation [JF note: For me, the dreaded Baby Boomers]—to see major change and progress coming in large-scale, centralized, and particularly federal efforts.

This is a warping effect that the civil-rights and Vietnam eras, with a dose of coming-right-after-the-FDR-era, has had on our understanding of U.S. history.

I’ve seen it in myself and like-minded peers who went into law to change the world and discovered, by the time we got out of law school, that the court system is reactionary and basically always has been that way, except for about six years; the idea that the Supreme Court is the great instrument for social advance that gets us around the parochial-ness of our politics has it exactly backwards.

This is symptomatic of a larger misperception: Yes, great changes come suddenly and on a grand scale—but to say that that’s “the change” is to misunderstand the chaotic nature of all systems.

Sand piles collapse all at once, scientific revolutions occur due to sudden “paradigm shifts,” civil-rights and Reagan revolutions and the rise of Trump/Brexitism burst on the scene—but these are long-term dynamics that may have large-scale effects but play out on the level of individual grains of sand.

There’s a great George Bernard Shaw line about the moment of success occurring long before the moment that it is apparent to the crowd; this is true of just about everything. Brown v. Board took 40 years of small litigation steps—not to mention dramatic changes throughout society, including the integration of the armed forces during and after WWII, just as the massive mobilizations of the peasantry in the Napoleonic Wars led eventually to the democratization of Europe. The big events are the capstones—they are always driven and made possible by small-scale, localized innovations that eventually flow together into what is by then an inevitable deluge.

Brown’s and Scheidel’s celebration of the breakup of the empire as allowing local innovations strikes me as wrong in the same sort of way: These local innovations are always occurring, because that’s where innovation occurs.

This is like the discussion I’m having these days with my 26-year-old niece, who wants to go overturn the entire capitalist and food-production systems to bring about the millennium; having once been 26, I get it, but I have to keep telling her that, with rare exceptions like the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Taiping Kingdom, etc., you rarely get to upheave the entire system all at once—and when you do, it usually doesn’t turn out too well … In any event, my argument would really be that all of those were not sudden upheavals, any more than Trump’s election was; they were simply culminations of longer trends that started from smaller scale “innovations.”


The enlightening place to look is always local. If you want to know where the world is headed, you need to find the unknown lunatics toiling away in a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or a patent office in Basel, or a garage in Menlo Park, California, or the mayor’s office in South Bend—not what the world leaders and experts are saying … I don’t know if finding what people are up to should be encouraging of optimism—I mean, some local innovation includes some bizarre people meeting in Munich beer halls who a decade later launch WWII—but it’s instructive

Local is where most people always choose to get involved: It’s not just the current dysfunctionality that channels most people into school-board meetings instead of seeking to draft new national legislation. Some small number of crazy people like you and me are drawn to the latter, but that’s a distinct minority, always has been, and always will be.

My work has brought me into contact with people all around the country who were thinking about productive little ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods, their kid’s school, their small business and how it affected their workers, etc. … My contribution has been largely in recognizing them and thinking, Hey, that would make a great basis for a “program” that my candidate could propose, scale up, and fund as governor!

I eventually concluded—as has anyone I know who has thought about government systems from the standpoint of achieving results instead of promoting one’s career—that what state and (ESPECIALLY) national governments do is simply to fund to-scale solutions someone else has discovered, tested, and proved at an “atomic” level …

The way to make a contribution is to go start a school that works, or a neighborhood organization that solves a problem …


Coming to a “point of rupture,” which sounds bad, but … And that takes us to where we’re actually headed as a result. You quote Morley Winograd talking about “networked localities” taking control of global policy. I think that’s sorta correct: In the Aztec language, there’s a phenomenon of two words being placed together to mean something both synergistic and different from the words separately; e.g., “the flower the song” meant “poetry,” and “the water the fire” meant “conquest” or “destruction.”

I think you need to look at your/Winograd’s phrase networked localities in the same way: It’s not just, or even, about the devolution to localities—the “networked” part is essential, and changes the meaning.

Your own work focuses very much on local action and innovation; I’ve been arguing that the virtual world fundamentally changes all of this: It undermines territorial structures like nation-states and the new world order—in that way, Brexit, Scottish devolution, California and even cities going their own way on the Paris accords, cities globally becoming the players rather than nation-states, etc., are all foreseeable developments …

I think we will start developing worldwide “communities” that are not physically connected, but rather are “localized” in the sense of being nodes of innovation or communication or consumption or whatever in a non-physically-contiguous/nonphysical network …

And that’s ultimately what the post-empire question is about. The entire system of civilization as we know it—not simply “the American empire”—is coming to a point of rupture. There may very well be a largely recognizable U.S. at the end of it (although I doubt it), but that will be irrelevant, because the world in which that U.S. is embedded—its political structures, its economic structures, its entire intellectual framework, and its physical manifestations—will all have changed as radically as the 13th century is from today.

And all that massive change will happen massively more quickly than in the 13th century … I write and talk about stuff like this, and people think it sounds “awful” and scary. Where I perhaps share a bit of your optimism is that I don’t.

Sure, the entire world as we know it being wiped away sounds scary, but it’s not necessarily “awful.” If you told people in the 13th century about the world today—family, church, village, political overlord, entire basis of the economy, entire intellectual framework (“Evolution?” “Relativity?” “Quantum mechanics?”), all as you knew them completely gone—they’d think that 100 percent awful. But do you know a single person who would rather be living in the 13th century than today?

More from this series

A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington
A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington Library of Congress

The new issue of the print magazine contains a story by me called “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.”

The title (which, like most titles, I didn’t write) represented (like many titles) intentional overstatement-for-effect. But the point of the piece was to suggest that maybe Americans should shift the way they talked and thought about the Roman Empire as a metaphor for this country.

For as long as there has been an American republic, some Americans have worried about its impending Roman-style decline and fall. I said: What about the time after Rome fell? What could we learn by imagining ourselves in our version of the Dark Ages—with a failed system of central governance, and life going on at the duchy-by-duchy, monastery-by-monastery level, which for us would mean cities, states, and regions?

You can read the whole thing yourself—and it isn’t even very long.

Readers have weighed in with a range of views.

In this first roundup, I’ll highlight only critical ones. You’ll see some common themes here, expressed with clarity and erudition that make it a privilege to reach this kind of readership—even when, as now, they’re giving me a hard time writing in to disagree. I’ll have a brief response at the end.

Let’s begin:

  1. Not “transition” but “collapse.” From a reader in an academic post:

Oh my, you dove into a nasty controversy here. While scholars like Peter Brown and Walter Goffart make an  interesting case about “transition,” people like Bryan Ward-Perkins have made what I think is a more compelling case about “collapse of civilization.”

A few things to keep in mind—and on these no one debates:

  • Population fell. That is a vaguely neutral sounding term, but that is shorthand for murder, rape, starvation, and disease.
  • Literacy diminished dramatically or was largely lost.
  • Material possessions diminished in quality and quantity. People were poorer.

I know you are on a pitch about the renewal of our country at the local level. I think that is wishful thinking, but whatever. But the Roman example is a doleful one. Yes, some institutions thrived, but people didn’t. They became poorer, less secure, and less literate.

Seeing the Fall/Transition of the Roman empire as anything other than a human catastrophe is an interesting academic exercise, but let’s keep it at that.


  1. “The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.”  From another reader, who in his day job is a successful software designer. (This is Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate, designer of the program Tinderbox and long-ago guest blogger on this site, when “guest blogging” was a thing.)

The indispensable book on the end of Rome in the West is Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall Of Rome and the End of Civilization.  It’s a very short book, it’s important, and it’s fun to read.

One key observation: in the 4th century, an impoverished Italian shepherd ate his dinner on imported tableware, drank imported wine and seasoned his salad with imported oil. He covered his roof (and maybe his manger’s roof as well) in mass-produced roof tiles. In the 6th century, the proudest possessions of kings were fancy safety pins, and their palaces were wooden halls with thatched roofs. In the years of the Empire, Rome imported so much olive oil that the 53 million decommissioned amphorae now form the hill of Monte Testaccio. In the eighth, kings made do with whatever the local brewers could manage, and poured for their guests from decorated beakers made next door.

In the fourth century, Romans built the Old St. Peters and repurposed the Lateran; it’s been through lots of rebuilding but the Roman building was about the modern size.  It’s big. In the sixth century, they built Santa Maria In Aracoeli—a small building, constructed on some of Rome’s prime real estate out of mismatched scraps and bits of junk. The junk was nicer than anything money could buy.  And they built S. Agnese fuori-le-mura, which is the size of a nice house.

A Pompeiian perfume-seller left us long brothel graffiti as a tribute to a lovely evening. Lots of poor people left us graffiti. Charlemagne never quite managed to learn to write.

To the best of my knowledge, we know too little about what happened to North Africa in this era. It wasn’t pretty. In the second century, North Africa was a real economic powerhouse and a huge food exporter. The irrigation system was wrecked in battles over tax cuts for wealthy estate-owners, and that was that. It was an ecological disaster that made the Western Empire unsupportable.


I’m not sure that the delocalization of governance in the West is an encouraging lesson, either. Yes, there were bright spots—Lindesfarne, Kells, Aachen, Kyev—but they were bright in contrast to the prevailing misery. Look at the opening of The Ruin (trans. Aaron Hostetter https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/):

These wall-stones are wondrous—

calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants corrupted.

The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

Whoever wrote this knew more than we about what living in the 8th century was like, and he seems pretty certain that things had once been better than they were.


Exterior of the Mississippi state capitol at dawn in Jackson, Mississippi
The Mississippi state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, where Larrison Campbell grew up—and where she returned. Nagel Photography via Shutterstock

This dispatch is in the form of a newsletter update, on reactions from readers and significant developments around the country on the local-renewal fronts. It follows this Fourth of July post, about Eric Liu’s argument for a revival of “civic religion,” and this post by Deb Fallows, on our increasing effort to connect, compare, combine, and in other ways “biggify” the multiple, dispersed examples of local renewal around the country.

Four entries in that direction:

1) “Does America need a ‘civic religion’?”: Eric Liu has long argued yes. Mike Lofgren, a longtime veteran of congressional operations, writes in to say that he begs to differ:

Does America need a civic religion?

No.

This subject, like the thesis that “Democrats need to talk about their faith” (I thought the Constitution banned religious tests for office), is a favorite chew-toy of centrist and left-of-center public intellectuals who fear the Republicans have stolen their clothes with all the flag-worship and similar ritualized razzmatazz. Apart from the tactical issue that the subject plays on the Right’s turf, there are fundamental objections.

Religion and modern democratic civil government do vastly different things. It is true that governing entities arose amid all manner of ritual, but they were hierarchical, and religion and state were the same thing.

Enforced ritual is essential to maintaining monarchies, class-based societies, and militaries. The Founders tried to dispense with a lot of the typical ritual of European monarchies for the new republic, such as addressing the president as Your Excellency; and Washington conspicuously wore no medals on his uniform coat.

There are more reasons, but I wanted to keep this brief.

We’ll have more on this theme.


2) Going home, to Jackson. A reporter for Mississippi Today named Larrison Campbell has been in the national news this week. She has been covering a gubernatorial candidate named Robert Foster, who has now refused to let her ride with him (unaccompanied) on a campaign swing, “out of precaution.” Precaution against—oh, it’s not worth even dignifying the claim by spelling it out.

Although this has nothing to do with the central merits of Foster’s stance, it is worth mentioning that Campbell is openly gay and is married to a woman named Courtenay. Together they are raising two young children in Jackson.

Their home in Jackson is the reason I mention this development. Last year, for Architectural Digest, Larrison Campbell wrote a very nice essay on her decision to move from Los Angeles, where she had spent nearly two decades developing a successful media career, to Mississippi, where she grew up.

Her story is, of course, unique in its particulars, but familiar in its general themes to what Deb and I have heard in many places. Campbell’s whole article is here. Some samples:

Sometimes you can be blinded by love or infatuation; friends probably thought we were [to go back to Mississippi]. But in L.A., no one’s direct enough to tell you you’re acting like a fool. Instead, half a dozen friends showed up at our going-away party with large bottles of vodka and bourbon “to help with the move.” Subtext: Adventures aren’t often easy …

An Oscar Mayer hot dog float, from the traditional Palisades neighborhood Fourth of July parade along MacArthur Boulevard in Washington D.C., in 2017. This is America.
From the traditional Palisades neighborhood Fourth of July parade along MacArthur Boulevard in Washington D.C., in 2017. This is America. James Fallows / The Atlantic

Our two great American holidays are, of course, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

They’re particularly American: Independence Day, for obvious reasons. Thanksgiving, because no one else observes it (other than Canadians, who have their own version on their own timetable), or can keep track of when it is. For Americans overseas it’s a particularly wonderful gathering day, on what the Brits or Koreans or French people around you assume is just another Thursday.

They have their rituals: In November, when it’s cold, we have the family gatherings, the pie and turkey, the stuporous sessions watching football or parades on TV. In July, when it’s hot, we have the picnics, the parades, the hot dogs, and the fireworks.

On this date 11 years ago, which was Father’s Day in 2008, I posted a tribute to my own father, who was then in the final months of his extraordinary life.

I’m mentioning it again this weekend, after Deb’s and my own sons have shown themselves to be wonderful fathers, both as a holiday-themed observance and because a document I linked to in the original post has vanished from its online home.

My father, James A. Fallows, in his teens, on the Ursinus College football team.

That document was a brief commencement speech I gave in 2008 at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Ursinus is the small private college my dad had attended briefly during World War II, before heading off to medical school and service as a Navy doctor. With the passing years, the  link I posted from the Ursinus site has gone the way of a great many links and become a 404.

I recently found a copy of the speech, and for cloud-archive purposes I post it again here. I still believe what I said those many years ago.

Happy upcoming Father’s Day to our two sons and to all other relevant honorees!

The main street in downtown Columbus, Mississippi
Jim and Deb took this picture during their most recent visit to Columbus, Mississippi. James Fallows / The Atlantic

Yesterday, Deb Fallows and I sent an email to various loyal readers of The Atlantic. You can see what was in that message in the “Continue Reading” section of this post.

In response, I got this message, from a longtime reader in Oregon:

I would like to see someone “package” or “productize,” both recipes for solutions, and recipes for non-solutions, which you and Deborah Fallows uncover. I would like to see actionable social entrepreneurship kits and trainings made available.

Reporting is necessary, but not sufficient. Not in our present circumstances.

I don’t expect you and Ms. Fallows have the personal capacity to add such an initiative to your own plans and activities. But I suspect there are people and organizations that can do so. I would like to see you task one or more people to identify, contact and encourage such people and organizations to “package” or “productize” such social entrepreneurship solutions.

If what works cannot be reproduced, then reporting is reduced to the wistful.

Personally, I don’t have the stomach to read, listen to, or watch “what might have been,” or what can or even is happening, but only under optimum conditions. We are not living in a time of optimum conditions. We cannot simply plant and grow in any type of soil. The soil must support what we hope to harvest.

I seek no response here. Your work over the next year or two will be your response.

This is a fair, and important, observation. And it is in line with our intentions, and the themes we intend to explore.

Deb and I realize that we don’t personally have the background, capacity, or skill to be the “productizers” ourselves. But one of our ambitions is to connect people who do have those abilities.

Please stay tuned, follow along, and send us your suggestions and ideas to ourtowns@theatlantic.com.

An empty road in Utah
Bob Strong / Reuters

Here are a few stories I found intriguing from the past week’s newspapers, on the unfolding complexities of the much-discussed “rural-urban divide.”

1) The first is by Andrew Van Dam, in The Washington Post, on the fundamental reasons for rural decline. Here’s the way his story was presented in the print version of the Post, in the Sunday business section:

The article in the Sunday business section with the title "The real reason rural America is doomed to decline."
Print headline in The Washington Post business section on May 26, 2019 (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Just about every discussion of the political, economic, opportunity, and other gaps between rural and urban America starts from the premise that life outside the big cities really is doomed. On the basis of the headline, this story would seem to be offering yet more reasons rural prospects are so dark.

But if you read the story, you’re in for a surprise. A “spoiler alert” clue about the contents is suggested by the headline on the same story online. This headline contains two additional words, in parentheses. Here is the twist those words add:

The online headline reads "The real (surprisingly comforting) reason rural America is doomed to decline.”

(To be 100 percent clear, I’m using the contrast in headlines to underscore the complexities in the piece, not to give the Post grief of any sort.)

As Van Dam clearly lays out in the story, among the many burdens on rural America is a bureaucratic and definitional one. To oversimplify: Whenever a non–major-metro area starts developing or prospering, for that very reason it stops being classified as rural.

That is: On top of the many real challenges rural communities face, their situation looks even bleaker than it is, because of the steady reclassification of successful smaller towns and rural areas as being no longer rural.

Here is Van Dam’s explanation:

The contest between rural and urban America is rigged. Official definitions are regularly updated in such a way that rural counties are continually losing their most successful places to urbanization [as officially classified]. When a rural county grows, it transmutes into an urban one …

Imagine how unfair a sport would seem if one team automatically drafted the other’s best players the moment they showed any promise. That’s essentially what happens when we measure rural areas as whatever’s left over after anywhere that hits a certain population level is considered metropolitan. It distorts how we see rural America. It skews our view of everything from presidential politics to suicide to deaths caused by alcohol …

It makes rural areas look poorer, whiter, older and more prone to alcohol-related death or suicide than under broader definitions. Statistics such as these affect everything from Medicare reimbursement to the larger perception that the nation’s breadbasket is also a basket case.

The Columbus Metropolitan Library
Above the doorway of the Columbus Metropolitan Library are the words Open to All. Deborah Fallows

Everyone knows about first responders. I’ve come to think of libraries as playing a crucial role as “second responders.”

In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers. After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge. And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours “to give them a sense of normalcy,” says Christian Zabriskie, who was a Queens librarian then. “Story time at the end of the world” he called it. In Orlando, after the nightclub shootings, the library hosted an art gallery for those who made art as a way to express and share their reactions. After the Thomas Fire, the Santa Barbara Public Library invited the public to share their stories and lessons, to help heal and prepare for the future.

Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible. Pima County, Arizona, pays for a team of nurses to come to the library to help with medical questions for those who can’t or won’t go to a hospital, clinic, or doctor. In Charleston, West Virginia, librarians told me that they have launched searches for people to research health issues or concerns. In some libraries, librarians have Narcan training. In Bend, Oregon, a social worker has helped prepare the librarians to work with people who came in with sensitive, personal questions, such as how to meet their rent and mortgage payments.

Others report that they have helped people figure out how to have a dignified funeral when they have no money for one. In Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, among the hardest-hit areas of the entire country during the 2008–2009 financial collapse, the leaders of the public-library system found ways to stretch and reprogram their budget to ensure that their system would stay open seven days a week during the crisis, because they knew their citizens would need its resources to cope with job loss, house foreclosures, and more.

Carved in the granite above the doorway of the imposing flagship Carnegie Library in Columbus, Ohio, are the words Open to All.  I have seen homeless people line up waiting for the doors to open so they can spend the day inside comfortably and safely.

In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I trudged to our local library during an extreme cold-weather episode a year or two ago and read a handwritten sign saying that the library was closed because of the cold, and pointing to the emergency shelters that were open instead. Librarians have told me that they’ve heard from homeless people about one of the important reasons they go to libraries: These are the only places where they are treated with respect. Librarians also told me about the various rules and regulations they impose about noise, sleeping, eating, “bathing” in restrooms, disruptive behavior, and storage of belongings. They say that occasionally people are placed on “sabbatical” from the libraries for infringements and are sometimes referred to public places where they can take showers. None have reported serious incidents to me, which suggests that respect is mutual.

The most serious of these examples are testament to the trust that citizens place in their libraries and librarians. The Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of people say libraries help them to find information they can trust. Librarians are nothing if not discreet. I have asked librarians about their users looking at pornography on the public computers. They demur, kind of, and say that they don’t look at what people are doing on the computers, and others say that they only step in when someone complains.

Zabriskie, who now works in Yonkers, points to the complexity of being a librarian these days. “Amidst glory days of librarianship,” he says, “there can be trauma. If every day’s work were just reading to toddlers, great. But sometimes those kids are homeless.”

“Sometimes librarians are Batman,” Zabriskie says. “Sometimes they are ghosts in the machine. We have to resist hardening the space.”

From left: Brandon Dennison, Stacey Epperson, Regi Haslett-Marroquín, and Denisa Livingston, all rural innovators who discussed their programs on Monday
From left: Brandon Dennison, Stacey Epperson, Regi Haslett-Marroquín, and Denisa Livingston, all rural innovators who discussed their programs on Monday Courtesy of Ashoka

This was a fascinating session—I say, as the person who got to ask the questions, rather than having to give the answers. The hour-long YouTube video is here.

The topic was “Small Towns, Big Ideas: Innovations From Rural America.” It was a discussion in Washington, D.C., on the evening of May 13, sponsored by the renowned social-entrepreneur organization Ashoka, with four of its Ashoka fellows working in rural or small-town locations. They were:

Brandon Dennison, of Coalfield Development in West Virginia; Stacey Epperson, of Next Step in Kentucky; Regi Haslett-Marroquín, of the Main Street regenerative agriculture project in Minnesota; and Denisa Livingston, of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance of the Navajo Nation.

  • Brandon Dennison has a program to bring economic diversity to coalfield areas, which have historically been boom-and-bust economic monocultures.
  • Stacey Epperson has a program to make high-quality, affordable manufactured homes a step toward homeownership, for people who have not owned homes.
  • Regi Haslett-Marroquín has a chicken-based program to make agriculture globally sustainable.
  • Denisa Livingston has a program to combat obesity and diabetes among her people, with the country’s most aggressive anti-junk-food efforts.

I promise that if you listen to this session, you’ll learn about innovations you hadn’t been aware of before.

It may also give you a sense of the breadth of the renewal efforts under way in American settlements large and small. There’s also an extended discussion of why, exactly, the majority of Americans who live in bigger cities should care about rural folk—and about the difference between saying that many rural areas have problems, versus saying that rural America is a problem.

Congratulations to Ashoka and its four rural innovators for putting this session together, and for the ambitious projects they discuss.

More from this series

The authors, on a sub-freezing January 2017 morning at the Montgomery County Airpark, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about to fly toward the west on the final leg of their previous trip. A new journey begins soon. (The yellow cord is to heat the engine sufficiently so it will start.) Around them is all the luggage their Cirrus SR22 would carry, for the next few months on the road.
The authors, on a sub-freezing January 2017 morning at the Montgomery County Airpark, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about to fly toward the west on the final leg of their previous trip. A new journey begins soon. (The yellow cord is to heat the engine sufficiently so it will start.) Around them is all the luggage their Cirrus SR22 would carry, for the next few months on the road. Courtesy of James Fallows

In the summer of 2013, nearly six years ago, my wife—Deb Fallows—and I announced in this space the beginning of a project to visit smaller towns around the country. These were places that usually show up in the news only as backdrops for national-politics coverage, or when some human or natural disaster has struck. Our goal was to report on how schools, businesses, families, and civic life were faring “out there.”

Our means of travel, from one small airport to the next, would be our little four-seat, single-engine, Cirrus SR22 propeller airplane—a model that has become the best-selling small plane of its type around the world, because of its built-in parachute for the entire plane.

Our Towns (Penguin Random House)

Early in 2017, after spending most of four years on the road, Deb and I announced in this space that this first stage of the journey was over. We would be flying from our home in Washington, D.C.; down along the Atlantic coast to Georgia; and then across the south and west of the country to my original home in inland California, the small city of Redlands, to write a book about what we had seen. We did so; that book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, was published in 2018. It drew on what we had found, learned, and described in hundreds of web posts and several articles for The Atlantic through the preceding years.

Now we’re beginning the next stage of the journey. In this space over the coming months, we’ll be posting a new set of reports, from an additional set of towns, about a new set of developments and a new range of possibilities for locally based renewal efforts around the country.