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Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas

I wasn’t aware that my life was institutionless until my friend, Jonathan, pointed it out. “I kept thinking of Yuval Levin’s important book, A Time to Build,” wrote Jonathan, who was responding to my Out of the Wild manuscript. “Yuval argues that anti-institutionalism in America, though justified as an antidote to the regimented, repressive era before the 1960s, overshot. People need institutions to define and channel them: institutions that are, as he says, formative rather than performative. As churches, employers, schools, unions, civic groups, etc. lost standing, people were on their own to define their goals and norms. The result isn’t freedom so much as anomie. “I saw a lot of this in Out of the Wild,” Jonathan continued. “Ken (the character) seems strikingly bereft of institutional attachments. He goes places, meets people, has employers, but seems to wander through them rather than connecting in a deep way.” He was right, though I haven’t always had an institutionless life. Like many Americans, I was lucky to grow up within a few strong institutions—family, school, neighborhood… But like so many young adults, my life began to “de-institutionalize” when I graduated from college. I moved away from my family home, took a series of seasonal jobs to pay off my debt, and lived in my van for a couple of years. There were institutions mixed in there: a long relationship or two, my friend’s home in North Carolina (which served as my on-and-off “home base” for years), and the odd season with the National Park Service. (I should clarify: by “institution,” I refer to any social arrangement that grounds you and gives your life structure.) These weren’t bad years. I loved being free. I didn’t crave institutions; I craved complete freedom. I wished to peel off even the weakest of social glues clinging to my skin. For these years, I got to form my character — in a one-of-a-kind way — outside of institutional influences. And from outside of institutions, I could see them clearly and criticize them without consequence. For young adults, a bit of institutionless wandering is probably a good thing. But there were plenty of moments — in between jobs or in between book projects — when my life felt empty when an institution or two might have helped it feel full. I’d say I hit peak de-institutionalization in 2017, at the age of 34, when I was completely free, but also completely adrift. I was a single bachelor without debt. I went on random and unfocused trips to Europe and Central America. My friends were scattered across the country. I had no workplace or coworkers. No religion, no true home, no sports teams, no clubs. It’s the sort of untethered freedom that our culture glorifies. But if you live with such freedom for long enough, you may come to feel lonely, disconnected, and purposeless. My journey was just an extreme version of what’s happening across America. Just as America has been de-industrializing for seventy years, it’s been de-institutionalizing for about as long. Americans don’t have a generational attachment to “place” because we’re always moving somewhere new. Our nation’s history and origin story —the Revolution, the Founding Fathers — is inconvenient, hypocritical (“all men are created equal”), and subject to scrutiny. Many of our religions are corrupt, prone to scandal, and preach mythologies that are mostly irrelevant to the dominant issues of the 21st Century. Our poorly-funded universities force you into debt and email-beg you for more as they pile the last of your loans onto your shoulders. We treat our workplaces — and they treat us — disposably: it’s mutually understood that they can replace us and we can replace them should something better come along. It’s no wonder why “trust” and social capital are at all-time lows while loneliness and deaths of despair are at all-time highs. My friend Jonathan again: “In a deinstitutionalized environment, people are unhappy but they don’t know why. They’re like people who lack key vitamins or minerals; all they know is that they don’t feel right. Whereas (switching metaphors) when institutions are functioning well, we take them for granted as part of our lives, like furniture; they structure our everyday environment and provide comforts and supports that we don’t need to think about. So the result is that if you have a generation for whom institutional life is thin, you’ll get a lot of fatigue and anxiety. Sadly, I see some of this in my friends’ kids. They’re tasked with inventing their own lives, and it’s sometimes just too much to expect.” If you want to see what a healthy institutional life looks like, read The Lord of the Rings or watch the 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust. I was moved by Daughters of the Dust because the Peazant family (who maintained their unique Afro-American culture on a Georgia island) had everything: a strong matriarch, a rich mythology, a deep attachment to their local environment, meaningful connections to ancestors… When members of the Peazant family contemplate leaving their institution-rich island for an opportunistic life on the mainland, they do so together at a big family gathering, where they celebrate local cuisine, customs, traditions, and rituals, give important speeches, and pass on “roles” from one generation to the next. It ends with emotional farewells. I had none of that when I went on a comparatively bigger journey, when I left America for a life in Britain five years ago—maybe just a goodbye hug, followed by aimless social media scrolling at the airport. It was around that time when I unconsciously decided to “re-institutionalize” my life. But re-institutionalizing one’s life is not easy, especially for someone who spent the entirety of his low-responsibility adulthood in a state of self-oriented liberty. It's not easy finally tying your free self to a hitching post, even if everything within your radius is nourishing and wonderful. In short order, I married, conceived a child, and moved into a Scottish village I’d only visited once before. We planted our hitching post in the ground. But, at the start, our radius felt tiny and the grounds, desert-like. We were lucky to land in East Linton (2,000 pop.)—an institutionally thriving town that’s well-connected, socially and infrastructurally. (Clubs and pubs.) Trails and sidewalks connect the town and the surrounding countryside. When I walk my daughter to nursery, it’s as if I nod hello to half the town. There is an inexpensive tool library, a monthly repair cafe, vegetable show competitions, and twenty or so clubs, all filled by community-minded people. This civic infrastructure has helped us exchange sand for soil. It's helped us extend our radius. Life has gone from being bearable to better. Maybe one day it will be wonderful. I am not the only one with an unarticulated hunger for institutions. It’s probably partly responsible for the rise of a lot of right-wing political groups whose members wish for a greater sense of rootedness, a greater understanding of their “role,” and a permission to feel pride for their culture and place. (In their ideologies, there’s lots of nastiness I’m leaving out, but, for the sake of brevity, permit me this charitable synthesis.) It’s no wonder to me that the ruling party of the Italian government — which has fascist origins — has adopted Lord of the Rings as their Bible.* I just finished reading Lord of the Rings and I think I see the conservative allure: the peoples of Middle Earth are proud of their family names, they celebrate their unique cultures, and songs and stories link them back to ancient histories. Without being able to articulate it, I think we, as Jonathan implied, experience something like institutional malnutrition if we don’t have a sense of place, a feeling of rootedness, a love of one's local nature, a cohesive family (by blood or kinship selection), a life of purpose, and a useful mythological cosmology. Rather than focusing on culture war nonsense, and the excesses of the outermost reaches of the left, American conservatives — if they’re looking for a worthwhile movement — should consider focusing on the re-institutionalization of American life. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be just a conservative movement and one doesn’t need to join Germany’s AfD, Italy’s Brothers of Italy, or Poland’s Law and Justice party to reclaim institutions. I managed to re-institutionalize my life in a progressive town in liberal Scotland, where I’m now a dad, a husband, a neighbor, and the captain of two recreational sports teams. But it doesn’t quite feel like I’ve reached the end of my institutional journey. I have no workplace, no church, and I only know ten percent of my townspeople by name. My most important friendships still exist over email. I’m still not connected enough, or invested in something bigger than myself and my family. Someone has tried to recruit me as a volunteer firefighter. Maybe that’s a good step? Or maybe it would be nice to join one of those secular churches (that never seem to last)? Maybe I need to enroll in a graduate program in Edinburgh? I am temperamentally an introvert and loner, so I will never be institutionalized the way my 84-year-old neighbor, Barry, is, who volunteers on a bunch of town committees and fixes everyone’s picnic table. I’ll always have fantasies of hiding in the woods at the end of a gravel road. But I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I need something more than peace, solitude, and freedom to make life feel full. After more than half a century of institutional disintegration, re-institutionalizing one’s life is not an easy task, and it’s impossible to do it on your own. Picking the right culture and finding the right community helps. Utopian solutions - Let’s put an end to the atomized suburban house by reclaiming the Haudenosaunee Longhouse, in which large extended family can dwell (and babysit my daughter). If that’s too weird, then how about this: all new housing developments should be required to create a rich social environment by making at least 50 percent of all development space communal (in the form of woods, parks, and sporting fields). Here are a few fine urban and suburban examples from a British developer. - Along these lines, we need more pro-social living arrangements. This conversation between Ezra Klein and Kristen Ghodsee is full of ideas, including mommunes (single moms living together and sharing responsibilities), platonic parenting, eco villages, intentional communities, modern Kibbutz’s, and shared apartments for adults that mimic the highly social dorm life of college. - More barn dances and ceilidhs, less clubbing and dating apps. - Speaking of anarchical dating apps (which are exciting but sickening), I’m wondering if we can keep the best of and get rid of the worst of the age-old “arranged marriage.” In our automated future, there ought to be jobs for people to be professional matchmakers, who you pay to give couples a “match of the month.” - I love the story of the Founding Fathers (it’s what I studied in college), but even I (who’s hardly “woke”) recognize that it’s hardly an inclusive national mythology. Something positive must surface (Lincoln + Tubman + Crazy Horse?) after all the scrutinizing. - Stop trying to replace religious churches with irreligious churches. (Well, maybe keep trying, but they never seem to work…) Instead (or in addition to), what if there were more “local universities” that could focus on continued adult education, promote enlightenment values, and provide some social glue? (While giving the glut of aimless PhDs a place to work…) The social glue is probably not as sticky as the dogma-heavy and purpose-driven glue of a church, but any glue is good glue. (Except terrorist cells and sex cults.) This Ross Douthat essay provides some good background on the “church for the nones.” - There is still some lingering stigma about living in or near your childhood home. What if that stigma was reversed, and “moving away” became the new stigma? The goal, here, would be to create a generations-long attachment to place (the way the Hobbits knew the Shire’s every creek, rock, and blade of grass). *I am not going to sit on my hands while conservatives claim Tolkien for themselves. There’s also plenty that's progressive in LotR: multicultural unity and integration; respect for all creatures sentient or not; hatred for those who harm the environment; and Sauron is the great imperial (and fascist) threat who must be defeated.

  • Ken Ilgunas

These photos were taken in August 2023, on the islands of South Uist, Eriskay, and Barra.

Movies The Return (2003), Leviathan (2014), and Loveless (2017) These are all Russian movies by director Andrey Zvyagintsev. These films are bleak, but it’s hard to take your eyes off of them, both for their stark beauty and their nightmarish fairy-tale feel. One theme tying all these films together is the “rot” at the core of the Russian family: submissive and materialistic mothers; negligent and violent fathers; a crazy grandma... The kids are the only pure ones. Russia’s youth (if they only got to healthfully pass into adulthood) would be Russia’s salvation. But the kids will inevitably be swept into the vortex of generational dysfunction. One of these movies ends with a scene of a mother, wearing an Olympic "Russia" shirt, walking on a treadmill. It’s as if Zvyagintsev is saying the country is going nowhere. A- How to Blow up a Pipeline (2022) I was impressed with how unequivocal the film was. The script doesn’t condescend to its environmentalists or their high-minded ambitions. It’s a movie about an act of violence that doesn’t apologize for the violence. You could say it's almost endorsing the violence. I'm not saying I'm endorsing it (here I go equivocating), but I respect their choice to say, "the hell with it, let's say something bold." B+ Limbo (2020) I watched this film, along with the 1949 film, Whisky Galore!, in cultural preparation for my late-summer trip to the Outer Hebrides, where these films were filmed. This one is about a group of refugees who wait in a state of limbo — on a bleak and windy Scottish island — while their refugee status is determined. It’s a nice mixture of comedy and somber drama. B Night of the Hunter (1955) This movie ultimately feels dated and does not stand the test of time, which may be the case with all movies before 1970. Halfway through, I could no longer suspend disbelief and my emotions left the room. But a dated film can still be a worthwhile watch if watched analytically: perhaps to get a glimpse of a bygone culture, to see how types of people were depicted, or to take note of, what must have been, cinematic breakthroughs. In this one, I noted how the cinematography was inspired, whimsical, magical. (See the haunting image at the top of this newsletter.) And the story of a religious nutter with a repressed sexuality, who wishes to delude the simpleminded and make their lives equally miserable, retains its relevance. C Disappointments: I had high hopes for the 2022 indie sci-fi Lola (about a machine that helps the British see into the future during WWII). Great idea, but it ultimately felt artificial and frivolous. I was equally disappointed with David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, which had the potential to say profound things about our changing bodies, environmental defects, and transhumanism, but the parts that may have been worthwhile were lost in silly scenes of people poking themselves with knives and having sex with wounds, all wrapped in a convoluted and dissatisfying noir plot. Like Wes Anderson, I fear Cronenberg cares more for exercising his style than telling a worthwhile story. TV The Bear (Season 2) - Enough praise has been showered on "The Bear," but I wish to add my own. I thought it was superb, with brilliant editing and a soundtrack worth re-streaming. I was half-disappointed with the decision to cast well-known actors for episode six, “Fishes,” but I thought every celebrity actor hit it out of the park and I consider the episode to be one of the most mesmerizing hours of television I’ve ever watched. Poldark (1975) - I adore Winston Graham's Poldark book series, as well as this 1970’s BBC adaptation. There’s no one in literature, who I (aspiringly) identify with more than Ross Poldark. I’m nowhere near as bold, but I am equally irritable and I have the same “I don’t need to smile for you” disagreeability. Plus, those first few Poldark books — when Ross’s life implodes due to a failing mine, impending bankruptcy, family betrayal, medical mishaps — somehow capture the difficulties of mid-adulthood, when you’re suddenly loaded with responsibilities and don’t have all the answers. Anywho, the actor, Robin Ellis, who plays Ross, and Angharad Rees, who plays Demelza, are outstanding and perfectly cast.

Podcasts “What can a man do?” on The Unspeakable Podcast - Meghan Daum and writer Christine Embe talk about the “crisis of masculinity.” WTF with Marc Maron - Maron has had on some spectacular guests recently:

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