JASPER, Ala. — When my family moved to this little town when I was a kid, I thought we’d moved to the end of the world, because I’d never lived in a place this tiny. Although I came to appreciate some things about it by the time I left, I’ll always feel like a stranger in a strange land here. I’m just not a good match for the culture.
Jasper is the county seat of Walker County, about an hour northwest of Birmingham. That’s the county courthouse above, and the clock at the right is also located on the courthouse square. The city is home to roughly 15,000 people today, not much bigger than the 11,000 or so that it was when I moved here when I was 12 years old. After having spent my years before then moving around between somewhat bigger cities all over the South, it was a culture shock to me when we came to live in this place so that my father could take care of his aging parents. I stayed until I left to attend the University of Alabama and even came back to work briefly after that.
I came here today because I wanted to think about how people meld into cultures and how those cultures affect their political beliefs and actions. We like to think of ourselves as individuals — especially those of us who believe in individual freedom — but there’s something that happens to groups of people living and working and raising families together that shapes them in ways that are hard to understand.
More than we sometimes realize, much of what we are is a product of the culture in which we’re raised and in which we choose to live. This has implications for how we need to organize our societies.
I started thinking about this issue last weekend as I listened to a debate between interns from the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation about the differences between libertarians and conservatives. I was stunned at the final point of the opening remarks of the first Heritage debater representing the conservative position:
“Without a free society, you cannot have a free individual. But with an absolutely free individual, you cannot preserve a free society.”
My first emotional impulse was to call the guy an idiot for making such a bizarre and Orwellian assertion. But the more I listened to the speakers from the two sides talk as the debate went on, the more I realized that the differences between these people weren’t primarily their ideas. It was that they were part of very different cultures — and there’s no way to reconcile the two.