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Localism And Cosmopolites

Remarking on Jeremy Beer’s article on meritocracy, Patrick Deneen concludes with this grim, but correct, observation:

This, in a microcosm, is a central paradox of our political system: our cosmopolite meritocrats theoretically admire localism but abhore [sic] the idea of living within the confines that such life would entail; our Red-State locals tend to despise cosmopolites, but support (and vote for) an economic system that encourages borderlessness, placelessness, and a profoundly abstract economy that has the effect of eviscerating those very localities. This arrangement is one of the central features undermining the localist cause today, and it’s difficult to see how it will be reversed.

Could it be that this paradox is unavoidable? Is the paradox the product of human craving and the inevitable disappointment and dissatisfaction that follow from desire? If so, the answer could lie in the self-denial of humbling oneself exceedingly in imitation of the Lord’s kenosis, which would entail forsaking status and honor to take, as it were, the form of a slave. That probably sounds bizarre, but it points to what Caleb Stegall has been saying about the centrality of love in all of this and, I might add, the right ordering of loves, which would tell us not to seek greener pastures but rather cultivate the ground where we are. A culture in which kenosis, self-emptying, was the highest ideal rather than self-fulfillment would be one in which mobility and flight might be possible but would very rarely be considered desirable.

The paradox Prof. Deneen describes is the result of wanting to have things both ways, to enjoy only the benefits and experience no losses, but as the paradox makes clear neither the “locals” nor the “cosmopolites” can sustain the fiction that they can have it all. At some point, the local indulgence in the benefits of globalization destroys their local way of life and replaces it with the homogenized mass culture in which they have been increasingly participating for years and decades but which they somehow thought might be kept in check. At the same time, the cosmopolites sense the long-term unsustainability of their way of life, and so have become obsessed with biodiversity, ecological balance and conservation to address the material costs without significantly addressing the moral, cultural and human costs that are also imposed.

The cosmopolites, as Prof. Deneen calls them, see many of the advantages of localism but want none of the obligations. They are starved for what it provides, and so wish to escape the confines of their way of life, but they are unwilling to enter into the confines of the local, perhaps because they prefer status rather than happiness or perhaps because they have become so accustomed to the life of the displaced tourist that they cannot imagine being still for any prolonged period of time. The locavore and organic food habits that serve as proof that their way of life is in important ways unsatisfying are themselves a temporary remedy that serves to fill in the gaps and mask the costs of their way of life. The locals, meanwhile, want the products that the world of the cosmopolites can provide, and, as Jeremy argued, many of them want to enter into that world, never fully understanding that their homes will change dramatically and often for the worse as a result of their departure.

Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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