A RECENT post on liberal education's impact on the idea of place at Front Porch Republic, a Web community that champions "localist" conservatism, prompted in me a series of thoughtful nods, gestures that matched my mind’s own comfortable agreement with much of the subtance. Gratitude, localism, liberal education, and stewardship: all are shorthand for positions on which, at least I believed, I could stand with some degree of certitude. But as I further considered the ideas championed by this handful of rooted intellectuals, I have become wary of tendencies, embodied in either their nature or their associations, toward utopianism, nationalism, and kitschiness. In fact, I would venture to say that such tendencies at their worst expression share in common with the bland inspirations of Soviet propaganda.
Localism, as opposed to the ephemerally appealing cosmopolitanism, is the lodestar of the course set by many contributors to Front Porch Republic. In brief, it is the ideology of the small town, the farm, the homestead, deliberately contrary to today’s globalist networking and its ethereal, avatar-inhabited communities. It emphasizes quality over quantity, simple pleasures over gluts of stimuli or information, the small over the bloated. As far as vocabulary goes, this does not offer much of a choice. Be a fat, overloaded, media-pummeled cell phone junkie like some horror formalized from the predictions of a book by Postman, or read a good book with family next to the fire that you started from logs that you split.
There is nothing wrong with good books, family, fire, logs, or the splitting thereof. In fact, all these things are good for people and Americans should become vastly more acquainted with them. But with the dogmatic insistence of localism over cosmopolitanism, and the more foundational insistence on “place” over “placelessness,” I believe localists leave the way open for—indeed, tilt the ground toward—an idea of ethics that is based on aesthetics instead of, as it ought to be, on choice.
"Place" refers only to where one is. Where one is placed will differ with the contortions of circumstance over time, yet one is always placed somewhere, and that somewhere always offers the opportunity to participate in the most important virtues. Whether repairing a corncrib on one’s family farm in Oklahoma or vegging in front of a rerun of Friends in a New York high-rise, one has a place. In fact, wherever one is placed, one has a subjective locality. My locality includes my apartment immediately, and indirectly my apartment complex, my “neck of the woods” of my town, and at the extreme edges of “locality,” my whole town itself. One can escape locality no more than one can escape the Big First of Kant’s categories of understanding.
Of course there are ways of interacting with one’s locality that can be more or less proper. But the proper methods of interaction should not be called “localist” any more than proper methods of approaching one’s time should be called “temporalist.” Unlike relationships with a family, which can indeed be more or less “familial,” one’s relationship to his locality can never be more or less local. Certainly, someone can choose to expend all his time and interest in a virtual community cobbled from IP addresses across the globe, but this does not make him any less local – it just makes him less of a good neighbor. Instead of insisting on a local spirit, which means only a spirit that is somewhere (like Descartes’ res cogitans) we should be insisting on those virtues that are so regardless of placement: friendliness, empathy, compassion.
Aesthetics only indicates or encourages goodness. It can never create it. A locale can be beautiful in itself, but only virtue makes beautiful a community. Localism veers too often into a utopianist understanding of good old country folk in which, by virtue of shoveling manure and squeezing their own cider, such people by default enjoy a cleaner moral atmosphere. Yet I have known people from small towns and loving churches who were cruel and rotten, and people from public schools and cookie-cutter suburbia with hearts of unbound grace. Proper aesthetics ought to be encouraged, not as a substitute for ethics, but as that forum wherein beautiful ethics is best visibly reflected. And if that points to a small town, excellent – but let no one preach that post locum ergo propter locum.
Emphases on moderation, piety, temperance, and justice never grow old. Emphases on locale, hearth, and community, however, are just that—emphases, insistences, elephantiases. Moderation can be emphasized because in itself it contains the antidote for hyperbole. But locale and community can only be emphasized to the danger of individual choice. Nationalism, after all, could grow because people valued their own racially and geographically interconnected homesteads over the common good of all men. The kitschy Victorian model of the home, a not-by-much parody of the Dickensian domestic ideal, could take hold because the appearance of local bliss was more important than the struggles of good things chosen over easy things. And the Socialist Realist vision of happy peasants returning from wheat fields in common triumph differs from certain localist fantasies only in the historical disjunction between the vision presented and the government actually offered to the former serfs.
There is a further danger in the localist movement of elevating the ideas at the expense of putting them into practice. For instance, the more I read Front Porch Republic, the more I wonder, who else reads this? Or rather, who reads this consistently enough that this can afford to be a viable medium for such topics? Is localism so operatively gimpy that it requires the cosmopolitan forum of the internet? And what does that forum do but allow its believers to pat each other on the back and communally denigrate the cell phone, the blog, and the keyboard? I say embrace your media or reject them. Those who champion localism should either provide a cogent defense of internet community or get the hell off the Web. And any defense that incorporates “but everybody else is doing it” is a poor rampart on the battlefield in which virtuous simplicity fights gluttonous comfort.
In closing, I say, God bless the internet. God bless the cell phone, the television, the instant message, the automobile, Facebook, the iPod, and free wireless in coffee shops. And God remove from among us the idiot who isn’t able to use those things with moderation and put them in their, dare I say it, proper place.
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