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In Defense of Localism

February 28th, 2019 | 9 min read

By Guest Writer

By Sean O’Hare

In a recent piece for Arc Digital, Nicholas Grossman examined the viability of an alliance between left-wing identity politics and right-wing localism. Grossman ultimately concludes that common ground between localism and left-wing identity politics is an impossibility because localism is itself a form of identity politics; therefore, the respective left and right wing systems resort to vying for incongruous political goals.

A Larger Picture

In his effort to compare and contrast these two phenomena, Grossman reduces the essence of local life to a fundamentally political undertaking. In his own words: “Localism, at least as it’s practiced in the United States, is, to a significant extent, identity politics.” This “white, Christian identity politics—on behalf of the majority” is what apparently renders it incompatible with its left-wing counterpart.

While certainly true in a partial sense, this framing leaves much to be desired. It completely overlooks the myriad philosophical, artistic, literary, religious, cultural, economic, historical, and environmental dimensions—to name just a few of the more prominent ones—that imbue localism with such vibrant life, and which lend it a robust structural solidity. Most of its serious proponents are not primarily concerned with politics, but with instead offering a rich historical account of the places to which they belong, and a humane vision of how to preserve those beautiful places—including the people and culture they contain—forward into the future.

It is precisely this genuine commitment to local places that enables the many pursuits taken up on its behalf. Without this grounded vision of the contexts we inhabit, our religious, scientific, intellectual, and cultural projects too often become hollowed out, mobilized instead to serve some abstracted idea of “discovery” or “progress.” Only as we return closer and closer to home can they bear the weight which they were designed to carry. Not surprisingly, the account of localism Grossman has offered us does not acknowledge its power on this front. Worse still, absent this connection to the particularities of flesh and blood and place, we are left with an alternatively rootless intellectual framework, producing efforts which are, at best, void of the meaning they might contain and, at worst, counterproductive to their purported aims.

In his essay Satan Was the First Philanthropist, Jeremy Beer articulates this truth in compelling fashion. He traces the emergence and philosophical underpinnings of what he refers to as “Big Philanthropy,” contrasting it with the “accountability and human relationships” bound up in the simple charity of “philanthrolocalism.” According to Beer, Big Philanthropy gravitates toward grandiose and utopian visions of change, and ironically, in doing so becomes increasingly blind to the “deceptively complex and inescapably personal demands of charity and justice.”

Alternatively, there are many who recognize that “every one of us owes, in part, our achievements, successes, prosperity, and even our very being to others.” Because of the humility this engenders, a philanthrolocalist “seeks to deploy resources to promote human flourishing and civic life in their own local communities.” The results of these disparate conceptions are striking. Beer provides examples of Big Philanthropy in action, striving to address problems so large and abstracted that it often neglects the care of those already within its reach. Alternatively, he offers convincing cases of locally driven philanthropy already effecting properly attuned aid in specific places, and even includes suggestions for charitable philanthropic efforts that may yet be undertaken.

Beer’s essay is only one among many in an impressively broad collection entitled Localism in the Mass Age, published earlier last year. Each one addresses a unique facet of localism, displaying the expansive breadth of resources it can bring to a whole host of issues. In Reimagining the University with Wendell Berry, Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro chart a similar course as Beer, reflecting on the academic institutions which thrive on large scale visions and “specialized training.” As they show, the sad irony which ensues is the production of countless students that are indeed highly trained, but nonetheless lack the “rooted imaginations” necessary to employ these skills towards the health of their local places. They call for universities to adopt a philosophy of education that imparts not merely knowledge or skills, but most importantly a love for and understanding of the places where they might apply such resources to their full effect.

Many similar examples abound. James Matthew Wilson writes beautifully in Art, Beauty, and Communal Life on the vital role that locally produced and admired art plays in knitting us ever closer, reminding us that “only a society that finds its fulfillment gathered into communities of delight over something properly delightful can be a happy one.” Pete Peterson’s Do-It-Ourselves Citizenship details the rising trends of civic engagement and local governance that increasingly enlists the feedback and aid of its constituents. It is brimming with examples of citizens highly invested in the betterment of their communities and the natural resources entrusted to them. One of the more unique contributions is Philip Bess’s Chicago 2109: The Metropolitan Region as Agrarian-Urban Unit, a creative and meticulous reimagining of Chicago as a future city capable of synthesizing the best elements of both urbanism and agrarianism.

All this considered, it is plain to see the insufficiency of Grossman’s position. Throughout the piece, he tosses in a few qualifiers as exceptions to this localism-is-politics construction, but clearly those are, according to him, exactly that—exceptions to the rule. Granted, each one of the aspects discussed above are certainly tied in some sense to political realities and constraints, but to claim that the underpinning structure consists mostly of “white, Christian identity politics” is to miss the mark almost entirely.

For now though we must grant him this point in order to field the remainder of his argument. Moving into this conception of localism as a predominantly political reality, it becomes necessary to examine whether or not he portrays it fairly in this arena. Here is where I acknowledge the merit of much of his criticism, but also take the most issue with the scope of his diagnosis.

The Legacy of Local Places

In Grossman’s interrogation of both camps, he seems to have applied an uneven method between the two. While critical of the left-wing identitarian program in some sense, he is also more than willing to acknowledge the merit of many of their ideas and actions, as he should be. Yet when he turns to examine localism, this nuanced approach seemingly evaporates, and we are left with a picture that is painted almost entirely in ugly colors. He cites the local forces that festered with and fought for slavery, “coddled the KKK,” “virulently opposed the Civil Rights Act,” and which are even now seized with xenophobia and preoccupied with the suppression of those within the LGBT community.

Reckoning with such an indictment requires a willingness to consider these issues extensively and with a deep sobriety. It also brings into sharper focus the vital question here: whether or not localism can thrive free from the entanglements of white supremacy and discrimination, or if they are all necessarily bound up together. Seeing as Grossman is indeed convinced there exists “an exclusionary element to localism” from which it cannot escape, this warrants a response on a few points.

First, as left leaning critics themselves are prone to point out, the dichotomous roles which he envisions for local and federal governance don’t square very well with the historical reality. In his telling, the federal authorities seem to be the lone restraints on the prejudices of local culture.

Yet there are many examples where this is precisely the opposite. The infamous Dred Scott decision, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the slave trade that persisted within our nation’s capital all demonstrate the imposition of white supremacist doctrines or policies at the federal level. Indeed, they were each controversial in their own way, and many communities wanted nothing to do with them, resenting the compulsion to engage in or countenance these immoral actions.

Similar discriminatory policies also manifested themselves in the internment of Japanese Americans and mistreatment of Native American tribes. Naturally, none of these observations are intended to dismiss the sins of localists or vilify their federal counterparts, but rather to dispel the notion that such politics arise only from isolated contexts. White supremacy and discrimination are human problems, the reach of which extends far beyond small towns and state capitals.

Second, while Grossman does allow for some variation here, his argument vastly underplays the significant diversity inherent in localism. Each particular locality is as uniquely composed as the distinct regions where they are nested. Differing economic classes, distinctive geography, access to natural resources, demographic makeup, historical legacy and local institutions—all these produce communities susceptible to stumbling in their own peculiar ways.

According to him, this is exactly what contributes to the cementing of local injustices; yet it could just as easily generate ethical frameworks especially equipped to resist them. The notion that, as a general rule, white supremacy and discrimination map onto most of these places with anything resembling regularity is far from obvious. As I see it then, he fails to satisfactorily defend the claim that localism—by virtue of its ideological constitution—inevitably moves toward these political tendencies.

With this in mind, we are forced to confront a more complex reality. Localism, because of its constant and close proximity to the extremes of human nature, has been the vehicle for some of our nation’s worst offenses, as well as its most potent graces. This is a tough pill to swallow for both adherents and critics alike. Perhaps though, abiding in the local places where these wrongs have been perpetrated is the required response in many cases. Doing so may be the very thing which enables us to become acquainted with the conditions that produced them, and teaches us the wisdom necessary for ensuring they are never repeated.

Deep Roots and Enduring Communities

The final point of contention with Grossman’s argument I wish to address here lies with his solution. In his attempt to reconcile the localist impulse with the identitarian one, he claims that the community able to incorporate the best elements of both can be found within cities. Having recently moved closer to the downtown area of my own city, this question of whether or not the urban context is capable of generating organic communal ties has been a prominent one in my own reflections.

Admittedly, I have operated with a certain level of cognitive dissonance on this point. I find myself immensely appreciative of the cultural enrichment which city life has afforded; yet, I also am increasingly skeptical that it contains within itself the ability to foster deep communal roots.

Within Grossman’s conception of community—New York City supplying the shining exemplar—I sense an allegiance to the type of hyper-selectability that defines our modern imagination. His own description of the New York flavor of community is telling: “No matter who you are, you can find community—and not just one, but many communities, fitting the many parts of your identity, intertwined with block, neighborhood, and borough, all adding up to the city itself.”

Replace the urban words like “block” or “borough” in his above description with digital jargon, and you have instead a pitch for a new dating site or social media platform. This is because the logic is fundamentally identical. The underlying presumption is that our experience of the world can be curated to whatever degree we please, rather than the admission that true community abides the presence of those within our human sphere—a presence both extreme in its excesses and mundane in its repetitions. Responding to this modern illusion of the curated life, G. K. Chesterton incisively phrased it this way: “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor.”

In all fairness, this selective impulse arises from an adaptive necessity, not from some monstrous revulsion to our companions on the sidewalk. The sheer scale of a city hurls endless waves of people, experiences, sights and sounds at its inhabitants, rendering the processing of even a small slice of this data nearly impossible. E.B. White’s masterful essay Here is New York speaks of how the iconic city “succeeds in insulating the individual . . . against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.” At a personal level, White identifies the “eighteen inches” which shields each resident from their fellow city dweller. The essay reads like a love letter, but one can still feel the loneliness that the city engenders haunting its every word.

In my estimation, these are hardly the type of conditions from which robust community can organically spring. Instead, a sad reality often ensues. After we learn the art of walking past humanity, with all its poetry and brilliance, what we let through our guard is usually that which reflects our own preferences. Or, as Grossman put it, we must go out in search of multiple communities that will resonate with the variegated pieces of our identity. In many ways then, our experience of community is shaped strongly either by what we already love well enough to allow in, or hate strong enough to keep out.

All this is of course not to claim that cities are irredeemably rotten or corrupted places. In addition to their already acknowledged cultural value, I concur with Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of cities as “vast intellectual centers concentrating all the rays of thought in one bright glow.” I remain deeply skeptical though regarding their ability to foster robust community through their own internal sources. The sustaining logic of cities seems better at producing not only occupants who would leave it in an instant, but also countless isolated streams of experience—each one separated by that chasm of “eighteen inches.” One has more neighbors than they know what to do with, yet few whose names they even recall.

Perhaps then there is much that cities could learn from their smaller counterparts after all. To shape their communal habits around that which is given, not that which may be selected. To think of time in centuries—both past and future—not in decades or years. To recognize that only life lived at a human scale can truly form our imaginations and loves toward their proper aim. And finally, to acknowledge that when one steps into these limitations, they are entering a much larger human experience.

Sean O’Hare is a native of Rochester, New York. He is a research technician at the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics and a member of Forefront Festival, a local group of Christians in the arts. He writes over at his blog Further Up Further In.