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It would be a lot to ask people to calmly ride out one or two of these revolutions without getting anxious; we are facing four at once, and so maybe it's a natural reflex to change the locks or build a fence, to sort through values and valuables for the ones most worth hanging on to. The evidence suggests that all this change is making Americans more conservative, not so much politically as psychically, sending them back to church or into bookstores looking for volumes about how to live an authentic life--making them garden and recycle and learn yoga and search for steadiness and security and a little peace.
And yet somehow that instinct to crouch down in the face of change runs right into the urge to sit up straight and ride it out. The inverse of the maxim that hard times pull communities together is that good times let people stray, start their own business, move to a new town not because their job requires it but for a better life, a better school, a better view of the mountains. Our shared national luxury is elbow room, the blessing of wealth and space that allows congregations to split off and build huge, sprawling new churches along the highway, unaffiliated with any denomination, equipped like a high school, catering to a niche in the soul. It accounts for the blinding growth of exurban enclaves, filled with people fleeing not just the big cities but also the small ones--setting off from Dayton, Ohio, to settle in Hillsboro, even if it means an hour's drive to work.
While change makes people uneasy, prosperity makes them adventurous. Highway 50's towns are settled and unsettled by the heirs of the Forty-Niners, the newly liberated telecommuters and mutual-fund-toting retirees and boat people homesteading in Garden City, Kans., writing a Vietnamese-language instruction manual for Windows 95 and declaring with a smile, "We are searching for freedom"--delighted by both the cliche and the profound truth behind it.
Sometimes it takes only a few people with the right sense of timing to revive a dying town. But prosperity doesn't make every choice easy: there are still arguments all along the road. Particularly in towns that began to totter after losing a factory or military base, you can hear the debate over the price worth paying for survival: What kind of industry, what kind of zoning, how many prisons? In Rising Sun, Ind., they ask if it is worth inviting in the riverboat casino, with all the cars and all-night grocery stores and Gamblers Anonymous meetings that come with it, if that means people will no longer have to drive two towns over to see a dentist. In Hutchinson, Kans., they wonder whether the job security that comes with two new prisons is worth it when the relocated relatives of inmates are wearing gang colors to school.