Cities on a Hill
by Frances Fitzgerald

Near the end of Cities on a Hill, her historically weighted report on four “visionary” communities in 1980s American (The Castro in San Francisco, Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia, Sun City Center in Florida, and Rajneeshpuram, Oregon), Frances Fitzgerald writes,

Sydney Mead, the great authority on the American Protestant tradition, wrote in The Lively Experiment that evangelical protestant ism was characterized by an emphasis on direct experience rather than by knowledge of doctrine or ritual practice, and, as a consequence, by anti-intellectualism, ahistoricism, and a pragmatic experimentalism.… Membership in all four groups [the Castro et al] was at least theoretically membership in wholly egalitarian society – a brother- and sisterhood or a society of children who had no past, but only a present and a future. (398)
It is often observed that American’s have no use for history. That’s quite true, so long as it’s understood that “history” is not the same thing as “the past.” History is a method of accounting for the past, and, indeed, Americans have no use for it. The American, — and, I believe, the inevitably democratic — way of dealing with the past is to draw a veil over the general unpleasantnesses and to mythologize the heroes. Two crude and no longer respectable instances are the story that the young George Washington cut down a cherry tree and ‘fessed up to it and the idea that the North fought the Civil War in order to free the slaves. A current and more pernicious example is the proposition that America won the Cold War. From a genuinely historical perspective, these notions are unsustainable. But for most Americans they seem to be indispensable just-so stories.

Temperamentally devoted to the theory and practice of history, or at any rate to using history — historically sustainable ideas — to help me to make sense of the world around me, I have always found my countrymen’s distaste for it alienating. Clearly, I am the alien, the one who doesn’t belong here, the one who ought to remain in the great liminal antechamber called Manhattan. To me, the present and the future are mirages to the extent that they are not built of the touchable bricks of the past. I have, in short, no patience with visionaries. So persuasively engaging, however, is Fitzgerald’s writing, here as in her other books, that I have very much enjoyed re-reading her roundup of borderline crackpots.

What’s crackpot about visionaries of the sort studied by Fitzgerald is the fantasy that you can turn your back on social reality and by sheer force of will (greatly assisted by oblivion) set out to prioritize one ideal characteristic and pretend that contrary characteristics no longer exist, are no longer properly human. To fashion a pseudo-present in which the only experience to be had is the kind of experience that you want to have. The great size and baggy tolerance of America at large help, too, by nipping in the bud almost every idea of bringing the whole country into line — the nationwide prohibition of alcoholic beverages a century ago was a very regrettable exception.

I often wondered what, if anything, an update of Fitzgerald’s 1986 book would tell us. Rajneeshpuram, very simply, is extinct; its failure was clear before the book was printed. Otherwise, the visions have stabilized. Sun City Center, I see, has grown from 8500 inhabitants to 30,000; I expect that golf is still the big draw. From its Website, I gather that Thomas Road is still as much an American Church as a Christian one. The Castro seems to be an LGBTQ neighborhood rather than an exclusively male homosexual enclave. The visionary quality has given way to an elective ghettoism — something that marked the Castro and Sun City from the start. In short, Cities on a Hill is not significantly dated. Under the appearance of similarity, though, one wonders if Americans at large are still the same. I suspect that it would take a writer of Fitzgerald’s perspicacity to ferret out the answer.