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Love & Localism

Regarding the recent discussion Russell Arben Fox launched by calling for a more ideologically articulated vision of localism [1] — this, as distinct from the pure storytelling in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming [2] — consider Caleb Stegall’s 2009 post about the danger of overarticulating localism in theory. [3] He writes of the ordinary joy of having a family picnic in a cemetery. Excerpt:

This picnicing on the graves is my manner of describing an under-articulated localism that seeks to remedy dispossession by the slow, small, repeated, daily acts of repossession.  Bill Kauffman gave us an excellent example of this with the speech delivered by Ron Maxwell [4].  Maxwell’s speech was a happy picnic on a confederate grave marker.  Above all, it forgives—which is to say, it loves (love keeps no record of wrongs).

Repossession requires love above all—I have said this before—and no amount of anger or stumbling about trying to recover a lost identity will forge a lasting “localism” if it has not love.  At best, such efforts will lead to a “lifestyle” choice that capitulates to the same forces of consumption which lead to dispossession (the danger of “crunchy cons”) and at worst they will lead to bitter, diseased ghettos of pathetic victims with delusions of vengeance.  But many many localist movements, most I would venture, love.  Love is their existential engine, after all.  Most difficult is the preservation of this love across the divide as localist reactions to dispossession break out into political and social movements.  This is, in my view, the most important work of the Front Porch Republic.

This brings to mind Jeremy Beer’s TAC essay from years ago — I couldn’t find it online — about how true conservatives ought to engage themselves in these acts of localist affection and repossession — acts from which ideological engagement can distract us:

The conservers, preservers, savers, and protectors—conservatism once stood for such folks, and such folks were at one time conservatives. But they make bad apparatchiks. They aren’t ideologically motivated and aren’t “thinking big.” They are simply concerned, if often locally prominent, citizens. They may also be sentimental saps, but that’s understandable. As normally functioning human beings, they have formed dear attachments to their social and physical worlds. They like their communities, want to see them thrive and prosper, want to see them made or kept beautiful, want to preserve (or reinvigorate) their sense of their places as unique, and prefer to interact daily with people they know and love—or even hate.

Here is where Russell Kirk was truly exemplary. He ought to be

Piety Hill, Kirk's home [5]

Piety Hill, Kirk’s home

remembered not as “the principal architect of the postwar conservative movement,” as the quasi-official adulation has it, but because he went home. There he restored an old house, planted trees, and became a justice of the peace; took a wife (and kept her) and had four children; wrote ghost stories about census-takers and other bureaucrats getting it in the neck; took in boatpeople and bums; and denounced every war in which the U.S. became involved—especially the first Gulf War, which he detested. And he also denounced abstractions because he knew they were drugs deployed to distract us from the infinitely more important work of the Brandywine Conservancies of the world.

I found myself the other day looking online at a photo of Kirk outside his house in Mecosta — a house I’ve been blessed to have spent an evening in, as the guest of Annette Kirk — and thinking, that’s who I want to be in St. Francisville. Yeah, I have a theory. But mostly, I have love. I love the little country mission church we’ve helped to found, and I love these gentle hills, and I love the fact that my family has been here for five generations, at least. My sister Ruthie hated theory, and her hatred of theory led her in some ways to embrace ways of thinking and habits that undermined the localist goods that she loved. But what she lacked in (useful) theory, she more than made up in love for this place and its people. I am learning from her example. Go therefore, ye fellow conservatives, if ye can, and do the same.

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6 Comments To "Love & Localism"

#1 Comment By Jon S. On May 1, 2013 @ 11:36 am

I will keep trying to get you to read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Relevant passage:

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the Georgics where tomorrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. “Optima dies…prima fugit.” I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. “Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas”; “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” Cleric had explained to us that “patria” here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country”; to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”

#2 Comment By Charles Cosimano On May 1, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

Rod, if you got the love, what the hell do you need the theory for?

#3 Comment By Sam M On May 1, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

I side with the stories.

As for the love, that’s where it gets tough. What’s a localist do about, say, hydrofracking? Potential environmental harm? Yup. Big incomes that will permit people to stay near home and suport large, single-earner families? Yup.

Lots of issues are like this.

Some localists view the conservation groups as the epitome of outsider influence.

#4 Comment By MMH On May 1, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

The question is asked, “Rod, if you got the love, what the hell do you need the theory for?” You don’t. As Augustine says, “Love God and do what you will.” The problem is that we don’t always love. What do we do then? This is where theory or principle comes in. There have been many situations in my life which I haven’t loved person X, or haven’t loved that person enough. It was principle that told me I should love, and it was holding to the principle that made me force myself to act as if I loved. If I’d not been convinced by the principle, the theory, I’d have had no reason to act lovingly.

#5 Comment By John Médaille On May 1, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

In my humble opinion, the localist movement has been under-theorized all-along, which has resulted in it being colonized by Austrians and other neo-liberals. As such, it remains incoherent; a “conservative” sentiment backed by (paleo) liberal practice. This is unfortunate because we have, on purely technical grounds a superior economic theory, and one that is amply supported by actual practice. Unless we are willing to do the hard work of political economy, our opponents are justified in passing us off as mere romantics to be admired for our ideals and ignored in any actual practice.

#6 Comment By Sean Scallon On May 2, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

Austin Bramwell had something to say about localism when he wrote his essay “Good-Bye to all That”:

Still others eulogize local attachments and ancestral loyalties. They invoke a litany of examples: family, church, kin, community, school, the “little platoons” in which Burke found the basis of political association. Celebrating such “infra-political” institutions may well have made sense in the 1950s, the high tide of American nationalism and federal government prestige. At most other times, however, ancestral attachments are dangerously subversive. The U.S. could not have survived had it not ruthlessly extirpated the ancestral loyalties of both natives and newcomers; Great Britain suffered endless civil wars before the great constitutional oak that Burke praised took root; the West itself succeeded precisely because it cut short the reach of the extended family or clan. Ancestral loyalties are the curse of uncivilized peoples, most especially in the hypermnesiac Middle East. Most ominously, praise of local attachments now comes in the guise of multiculturalism, perhaps the most insidious threat to a just order today. Not for no did communitarianism become a left-wing vogue.

I write this not to discourage those “Front Porchers” and localists because ultimately agree with them on the baseline. I wish what they’re up against how dangerous their hopes and dreams are for many people. There is a powerful sentiment, in fact a bias if you want to call it that towards “bigness” in this country, including those who wis to see a Big America straddling the long like a Colosseus in Rhodes harbor. To call for a love of the local strikes them as nothing more than a nostalgic provinvicialism at best and worst a call for “isolationism” or a shying away from America’s “exceptionalism” or historic destiny. This a powerful current in the U.S. cultural and political thinking, always has been.

To make such localism strong would require the weakening of such “bigness” to a certain degree. Well, anyone trying this on policy level has been destroyed politically. The four political figures who I feel best repesented this line of thinking and ethos were Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Ron Paul. They had their successes but ultimately they could never reach points were their success transformed the country away from big to small. No politician wants to campaign on a platform which says “Striving to make America No. 2″and that’s exactly what has to happen in order for the localist dream to become a reality. If you want to make Americans love where they live more important to them than killing terrorists in Pakistan, then a cultural change has to take place frst. McGovern said “Come Home America: and was clobbered. You have to change the defintion of what patriotism and duty to country really means. If not then it won’t be just the nationalist Right who beats you but the nationalist Left represented by the Obama/Clinton crowds. The localist left of the McCarthy/McGovern/Carter variety is all but dead now and I don’t believe Rand Paul either trusts or believes in or simply won’t articulate the arguments his father made for being politically unsellable. Well, the only way you make them sellable is changing the culture of the debate. It hasn’t happened yet.