As a relatively new parent, I’ve been reflecting on rootedness—and not just in the sense that I’m often rooted to the nursery. It’s almost trivially true to observe that children benefit from stability and a sense of belonging. But it turns out that children need these things in order to be bold and inquisitive in the world. For this reason, Goethe memorably advised parents to give children roots and wings. After all, without roots—or tradition or context—we’ll struggle to flourish because we won’t truly know where we’re from, who we are, or what we might be.
In our atomized technological age, we’ve fallen away from this view of roots and wings. In fact, recent polling suggests that more and more Americans have fallen away from religion, community involvement, the desire to have children, and the nation itself—in other words, from the institutions and associations that we’ve traditionally seen as rooting us in meaning and value. Just as children with little sense of security will find it difficult to explore and to be adventurous, a deracinated society will fail to form the next generation in virtue, courage, and purpose.
Rootlessness also intensifies the problem of polarization. If we lack the roots and relationships that we need to thrive, we won’t be equipped to engage in civil, constructive dialogue across ideological difference. Dislocated from historical or cultural awareness and disembodied in our online echo chambers, we can be tempted to see our interlocuters as alien combatants. Many powerful voices promise that “freedom” from family and community will result in freedom of thought and argument, but the evidence increasingly points in a different direction.
Despite these dispiriting trends, Public Discourse continues to believe that a free and flourishing society is possible. But it depends on the hard work of strengthening our roots—marriage, families, communities, and institutions. We do this work not because we want things to be fixed in place, but because without healthy roots we’ll be thwarted in the task of lifting our sights to the true and the good.
In April, we hosted a number of essays on the importance of rootedness in a culture that all too often celebrates expressive individualism. Frank DeVito argued that, if local communities are to thrive, we should encourage young people to make life and career decisions that will keep them rooted in their hometowns. Mary Frances Myler suggested that colleges and universities should remind students that their family obligations will ultimately outweigh their career aspirations. Nathaniel Blake called for parents—both mothers and fathers—to be respected as caregivers in the home. In our Long Read, Cole S. Aronson’s critical assessment of “gender-affirming” surgeries insisted that freedom is only a blessing if it is rooted in a true vision of flourishing.
We also considered stability and security within the context of marriage and the family. Katy Faust advocated for children to be put at the center of family policy, while Scott Yenor criticized rising support for polygamy and polyamory on the basis that they prioritize adult self-expression at the expense of children’s rights. In addition, Public Discourse Contributing Editor Micah Watson interviewed our Founding Editor Ryan Anderson, who related his own experiences of marriage and family to broader political and cultural debates.
As ever, we presented lively discussions of literature and literary culture. In his column, “The Bookshelf,” Matthew J. Franck proposed that influential though deeply misguided books should be approached with critically receptive minds. Casey Chalk offered Ernst Jünger’s 1957 novel The Glass Bees as a guide to navigating ethical questions about modern technology. Meanwhile, Paul Kruse reviewed Fred Kaplan’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson, Kirstin Carlson reviewed Farr Curlin and Christopher Tollefsen’s The Way of Medicine, and Brad Vermurlen reviewed Stephen Bullivant’s study of “nonverts”—those who fall away from religious belief.
Other highlights this month included:
- Public Discourse Editor-in-Chief R.J. Snell on forming a form a new, intelligent, and responsible conservatism in a time of revolution.
- Public Discourse Contributing Editor Mark Regnerus on appealing to claims of stigma to motivate social change.
- Jakub Grygiel on whether we have an obligation to address injustices abroad.
From Our Archives
Since I’ve been thinking about rootedness, I re-read Luma Simms’s 2019 essay, “Immigration and a Desire for Rootedness.” As an immigrant to the United States myself, I’m struck by the extent to which the immigration debate generally reduces humans to economic units, without regard for the desire for rootedness and community. This means that how we think about immigration cannot just be a matter of law or policy; it also requires serious philosophical reflection on what it means to be human. Simms highlights this dimension of the debate with sensitivity and rigor—two qualities that are sadly absent from so many other treatments of this difficult issue.
What We’re Reading around the Web
- Micah Watson, “S. Lewis on the Specter of Totalitarianism,” Acton Institute
- Gary Saul Morson, “Do Russians Worship War?” Commentary
- Nathan Pinkoski, “Spiritual Death of the West,” First Things
- Jon Haidt, “Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest,” The Free Press
- Suzy Weiss, “Motherloading: Inside the Surrogacy Boom,” The Free Press
Last Monday we hosted a panel with the Catholic Information Center, featuring Mary Harrington on her new book, Feminism Against Progress. Alexandra DeSanctis, Christine Emba, and Leah Libresco Sargeant were the respondents. Their remarks will be published as essays this upcoming week.