Jordan Ballor makes an interesting point about the interdependence of local economies on global systems by using Your Working Boy’s problems with Internet service as an example. Excerpt:
Indeed, it was not very long into Dreher’s sojourn into small-town America that the limitations of the small, local, old, and particular became painfully obvious. As if on cue, less than a month into his new community, Dreher complained of the “frustratingly slow” Internet access in his house. You can perhaps imagine the gravity of the situation: “We had to cancel Netflix, because we can’t stream. My iPad apps can’t update, and have been permanently hung up for weeks (I’ve rebooted the iPad several times, to no avail). Skyping is very spotty. You can’t watch any online video, even YouTube, without transmission being interrupted.” Dreher is savvy enough to realize how these complaints sound, and defends himself on the grounds that “given the line of work I’m in—media—I have to have reliable broadband access to do my job efficiently.” It seems when it comes to our professions, sometimes efficiency does trump simplicity after all. So much for Slow Journalism.
Dreher’s frustration in this situation illustrates in microcosm how deeply the contemporary communitarian conservative impulse relies on the technological innovations made possible by global trade. Perhaps it’s just the vestiges of Dreher’s cosmopolitan acculturation, but we can hardly imagine him being satisfied professionally and vocationally if his potential readership were restricted to readers of the local paper. As it stands, the development of and dissemination of access to the Internet have broadened rather than constricted the freedom of people like Dreher to live where they choose, in large cities, suburbs, or small towns. At a website like the American Conservative, where Dreher’s writings now find a home, his readership is potentially global. Smaller is better, except when it comes to audience.
Several things. First, yes, I would give up iPad, Netflix, Skype, YouTube, and all that in exchange for living here. None of that stuff is essential to me. I was just trying to indicate how dependent on Internet access I (and we all) have become, and how disrupting the lack of it is to the routines of daily life. The most important thing — indeed, for our purposes, the only important thing — is that without reliable high-speed Internet access, I cannot do my job. If I cannot do my job, I cannot afford to live here. The only way I can work and live in this small town is to do so online. I have never understood this complaint from critics of crunchy conservatism — this idea that if, say, you drive a car instead of biking or walking, you must at some level be a hypocrite.
I don’t have a copy of “Crunchy Cons” near to hand, and I haven’t read it since I wrote it seven years ago, but I do seem to recall laughing at myself, in the narrative, for the irony of pounding out a philippic against modernity on a laptop. Outside of an Amish village, there is no such thing as purity on the question of localism, and I have never advocated for any sort of purity test. It is a false choice to say we must either be Amish or Globalists. There is a vast middle ground. I favor doing the best one can to re-localize life by patronizing local businesses, living in a localist manner, and so forth. That will necessarily look different for different people, depending on their circumstances. I think it’s a good thing that extending broadband to rural areas will make it possible for a number of folks to move (or move back!) to those areas, or to never have to leave in the first place. Where I live, West Feliciana Parish, there aren’t now enough jobs to enable everyone’s children to stay here if they wanted to. Broadband access, and the move towards working at home, has the potential to expand the economy here. The place still needs a more diverse economy, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
All of which is to say that I generally agree with Ballor that given the world that we actually live in, the localism and the kind of conservatism I favor will in many cases only be feasible through the Internet. When I was growing up, one reason people moved from small towns to the big cities was the lack of something to do. The lack of movies and bookstores were a big deal to me as a kid. We still don’t have theaters or bookstores in St. Francisville, but Netflix and Amazon.com mean that sort of thing need not be an impediment to choosing small-town life over city life. Now, if you never leave your house, and instead just sit inside watching TV and not getting to know your neighbors or your town, you haven’t really accomplished much. Still, it’s good that books and movies are easily available electronically. And of course I am grateful that the Internet makes it possible for me to sell my product to a wide audience. But if the day comes when I cannot do that, I’m either going to have to find another line of work, or move to where the job is, whether I want to or not. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you are dependent on economic forces no locality can control.
This morning I toured a beautiful old building in my neighborhood that was once the town’s high school. It was built by a wealthy Jewish philanthropist in 1905. He used to be a merchant here. This town had a sizeable Jewish merchant class. Then came the boll weevil, the 1927 flood, and the Great Depression. Almost all of the Jews moved away. What choice did they have? They were economically ruined, and had to go somewhere else to start over. Perhaps some, even all, of them would have preferred to have stayed here. But they couldn’t, given the economic realities of the time.
The main thrust of “Crunchy Cons” was by no means that we ought to all turn into Luddites, but only that as conservatives, we ought to be a lot more thoughtful about how the things we take as absolute goods — especially the free market — are in fact things we ought to be more critical of, because in some cases they undermine the values we profess. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to any of these problems. But they are problems, or, if you prefer, challenges. And making the perfect the enemy of the good doesn’t really help us deal with this stuff effectively. If Ballor is saying that neotraditionalist conservatives like me depend on the market more than we like to think, then I would say he makes a good point, one that I ought to consider more frequently. Maybe I just wince because I got so tired of the “A-ha! You work on a computer instead of writing your stuff out longhand like Wendell Berry does! Poseur! I don’t have to take anything you say seriously” business that I’m a little defensive about this stuff.