CHICAGO, ILLINOIS.

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 abhor 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 Eunomia

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 12, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Daniel, you and Patrick both often speak in strawmanese. As if cosmopolite and localist were specific categories of human being, like detergent and soap are specific categories of cleaning agent, and not specific points (however ill defined) on some scale of human preference.

Is it not true that cosmopolites also have a community? Is it not true that localists exist in a much larger spectrum of communities?

Most people want roots of some kind. They simply prefer to have some say in what goes into those roots. And when other people’s roots are too exclusionary, or too restrictive, why, exiting happens. It’s a vote with one’s feet.

So tell me how a self described localist intends to create a community that won’t alienate significant portions of the potential population? Is there sufficient room in your vision for dissent to occur?

Jake

avatar George May 12, 2009 at 12:20 pm

I’m with Jake. Like many people, I am both “cosmopolite” and local: I’m a lawyer who works in a major city and reads the work of erudite people like Larison and Deneen online, but I also commute from/to a little New England town with a white church on the common, and where I serve on a local board and patronize my local farm. Which am I?

Could it be that periods of mobility and transplantation are necessary to the health and value of local communities in the long run? In the absence of these periods of mobility, aren’t local communities at risk of succumbing to the negative aspects of locality (fear of outsiders, fear of even those changes necessary to adapt to different economic realities, etc.)? Tradition is an important thing, but new generations sometimes lose touch with the values their traditions were established to nurture.

Anyway, there are cosmopolites and locals who are thoughtful about such things; you give them too little credit.

avatar Katherine Dalton May 13, 2009 at 10:59 am

Daniel I think you are right in this. It’s a form of greediness, really, and impatience.

I do believe travel and moving can be broadening, but seldom in the sense that it helps us understand other places. It takes work, reading and learning a new language truly to understand another place. But travel sure will teach you what you left behind, and sometimes even what you are.

Can one live in two places? I think so, but it’s harder, isn’t it? keeping up with friends and volunteer work and other connections when you are sometimes forty or eighty or a hundred miles away, whatever it is. Can one root in a city? Yes, but your circle will be no larger than a small town’s, if we’re talking about the number of people you truly know, and may be more narrow in type of people, and it is much, much, easier to disconnect. Sometimes that disconnection is a social relief, but it is also emotionally, morally, civicly, etc. a danger, or at least a diminishment.

Hence all our arguments for the other side.

avatar JD Salyer May 13, 2009 at 11:33 am

The objections to Dr. Larison’s observations elude me. Personally I’ve encountered a whole lot more bo-bos with “Buy Local!” bumper-stickers — yet who regard actual small-town American tradition and culture with disinterest, if not outright contempt — than I have folks of George’s ethos.

The bo-bo ethos is merely consumerism ramped up to the next existential level.

I’ve also encountered a lot of small-town types who’ve gone on to achieve big-time “success”, the “American Dream”, yet who then are bewildered when their connection to the old-home-place withers away and their kids grow up to be rootless po-mo heathens.

The point — from where I sit — is not to deny that there are locals and cosmopolites out there who are “thoughtful about such things”, but that such commendable people are, at the moment at least, in such a minority as to be practically negligible.

I’m not sure, but I think this assertion: “Most people want roots of some kind. They simply prefer to have some say in what goes into those roots,”

is deeply problematic.

It seems to hint at the notion that one can shop for roots.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 13, 2009 at 12:18 pm

As to categories…i am put in mind of the always cheering “Devils Dictionary” by the ur-curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce. He has no definition for “Cosmopolitan” but he does have one for:

“Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

As well as the following three:

“Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility”

“Debauchee, n. One who has so earnestly pursued pleasure that he has had the misfortune to overtake it”

“Non-combatant, n. A dead Quaker”

avatar Sean S. May 13, 2009 at 2:15 pm

“Yes, but your circle will be no larger than a small town’s, if we’re talking about the number of people you truly know, and may be more narrow in type of people, and it is much, much, easier to disconnect. Sometimes that disconnection is a social relief, but it is also emotionally, morally, civicly, etc. a danger, or at least a diminishment.”

Actually it’ll be far smaller than any small town, unless people are living in towns that have, at best, a 100 or so people. And frankly theres not many of those; everyone and their grandma talks about being from a “small town” but thats a statistical impossibility. Most people I imagine are from moderately sized towns, or Levitt-town suburbs they imagine are small towns.

avatar Sean S. May 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Personally I’ve encountered a whole lot more bo-bos with “Buy Local!” bumper-stickers — yet who regard actual small-town American tradition and culture with disinterest, if not outright contempt — than I have folks of George’s ethos.

This may be true, but its also irrelevant. Cultural solidarity means jack nothing when the people claim to share your values shop at Wal-Mart. There is something wonderful about going to the local farmers market by the University of South Carolina, and watching as farmers sell their products to pointy headed academics. I’m sure they’re on opposite ends of the polling booth, but money is what pays the mortgage bills. The fact that they might not understand, hell, might loathe each other doesn’t mean anything.

And thats why all the philosophizing doesn’t really matter; whatever it is that individual writers on here treasure about their hometown, or where they live now, or whatever feature of tradition they praise, none of it existed without effort and money poured in by a group of people with shared interests. The form that takes for people here, be it through local church or civic organizations, or whatever it is.

People should be writing about their successes (or failures) of trying to organize projects in their community, and what others can learn and apply to their own areas to break outside the boxes that society has put themselves in. Acknowledging that electoral politics is a terrible vehicle in which to engage in this sort of cultural reform is of course something we can all agree on, but what then?

avatar kurt9 May 13, 2009 at 3:33 pm

I lived as an expat for 10 years in Japan, Taiwan, and Malaysia. I have also lived in various places in the Pacific Northwest and the sunbelt (SoCal, Phoenix). I can definitely tell you that these experiences have helped me to create a self-identity that is not dependent upon any one location, culture, particular group of people. In this, living as an expat for 10 years has made me far more a transhumanist than I was when I was in the milieu* in late 80′s SoCal before I moved to Japan.

It is certainly true that we are social animals and that most people do seek a sense of “rootedness”, which is to be expected based on our socio-biology. However, I must confess that I am not one of these people. For whatever reason (I think its genetic), I feel no desire for rootedness. Quite the contrary, I always seek openness and new experiences. This seems to be my nature.

I think that there is a certain percentage (maybe 5% or so) of people in any given population that are like me. People who are content to live the perpetual “expat” life-style through out life. I was just as happy living in Kaoshioung, Taiwan as I am now in Portland, Oregon. In Kaoshoung, we went to the beach and the mountains and we had a good life.

To be honest, My personal nature and experiences are so different from everyone else that I do not consider any of these ideologies and labels (conservatism, liberalism, localism, cosmopolitanism) to have any relevancy to me.

avatar Mark Moore May 13, 2009 at 8:06 pm

George Bailey’s wonderful life surely isn’t the only option. Anyone who has walked under the words “arbeit macht frei” is a bit suspicious of people extolling the virtue of not making an exodus. On the other hand, localism may be our survival mechanism for dealing with collapse. With the net work and education may decentralize to the extent that smaller communities can thrive.

Here in the Cleveland, Ohio area they are wrestling with merging urban and suburban government on a county/regional level. Cleveland has smaller planning units called neighborhoods. It seems to me that the whole region would be better off if it were decentralized on the basis of ecological/commercial neighborhood units with their own justice, education, etc. systems. Devolve all the services in a redundant manner to get it down to the level where people could participate meaningfully in their civitas.

avatar Bill Butler May 13, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Having lived in both small towns and big cities, I concur wholeheartedly with Katherine that small towns are — paradoxically — more and not less cosmopolitan than big cities are. One gets to know as many people in a small town as one gets to know in a big city, but one gets to know a wider range of people — especially in terms of social class. I grew up in a small town in the Deep South where half the people were black and half were white, half were Republicans and half were Democrats, some were rich, some were poor, some were in between, most were Protestant, a few were Catholic, and a few were Jews. Now I teach in an urban Northeastern university where (almost) everyone is white, no one is a Republican and (almost) everyone is a Democrat, (almost) everyone at least grew up comparatively rich, and if there are any active Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, they have — like me — the good sense to keep their mouths shut about the fact while they’re at work. A less diverse or cosmopolitan bunch it would be hard to find.

avatar John Willson May 14, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Jake: One does not “create” a community, one lives in a community. George: No, sorry, you’re not both, you’re a hit man from the city who serves on local boards but doesn’t have to face your clients across the table when you argue a point that may affect their living and their kids’ future. Community is knowing your smelly neighbors, as Aesop’s country mouse found out. This is not a moral judgment, just a fact. Place is not something you go back and forth from; it’s your “stump,” as Mr. Andrew Lytle used to say. One great problem with most contemporary localists and agrarians is that they have never set foot on a working farm or had to make a living in a real local community. Again, not judgment, just fact. Farming is hard, and few people want to do it. Living with real neighbors is hard, and few young people want to do it. Crops and cows don’t take vacations, or go to malls very often. Real life neighbors tend to have habits that annoy you. Their dogs like your yard best. On the other hand, some people like being within a couple of miles of their grandchildren.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 14, 2009 at 8:03 pm

John Willson,
I reside in a precious little burg filled with the weekenders you seem to assert do not really merit the status of “neighbor”. Like with anything, there are nitwits and good folk and sometimes, I think the nitwits may be winning but in my Town’s case, some of these same itinerates who came to roost have made a profoundly positive impact on many levels. From serving on town boards to the volunteer fire department and involving themselves to the hilt in the life of the town. Sometimes the locals are nitwits too. One who wasn’t just passed away last year altogether too young and I used to enjoy when he’d come to the local town Meetings in his orange hat and vest and deliver some of the most cogent, contrary and important homilies ever delivered. He had fans on all sides. He also made people uncomfortable sometimes. I hope he thought of me as a neighbor.

avatar John Willson May 14, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Oh, goodness, that’s what I was afraid of in trying to put Dr. Larison’s comments into a practical idiom. I’m sorry, I really did not mean to disparage anyone’s neighborly affections. I really didn’t, and I respect your sometime neighbor. But here, again, is reality: One cannot zoom in and out of one’s smelly neighborhood, bringing the best of the financial centers to the little folks and then taking the endearing neighborliness of the little folks back to the financial centers. That both can be “nitwits” is not at issue. Anyone with an understanding of human nature knows that we are all “nitwits.” And the parable of the Good Samaritan applies to all of us in whatever gaps between neighborhoods we may live. Let us just not confuse real communities, which are not always very pretty, with segmented, or “choice” communities, where the choices may well avoid the hardships of putting up with guys who don’t deliver important homilies. Have you seen the Paul Newman movie, “Nobody’s Fool?”

avatar JD Salyer May 15, 2009 at 10:52 am

I think the more accurate term is synthesis, rather than creation — in this case, the significance of the distinction between terms is obvious, unless one is a nitwit who believes it prudent for people to try “inventing” themselves and their communities in an act of creation ex nihilio.

Anybody design their own language lately?

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 15, 2009 at 10:56 am

I accept synthesis. A perfectly good word. Thanks, JD.

Jake

avatar John Willson May 15, 2009 at 4:49 pm

As Pogo’s friend Churchy La Femme used to say, “Friday the 13th came on Wednesday this month,” just in time to get semantic. Lest we lose the thread altogether, let’s go back to the paradox that Dr. Larison brought up–wanting to have it both ways. I say you can’t. You can be ambivalent, and you don’t have to apologize for that, but you can’t be both city mouse and country mouse. Communities are not created, they are not syntheses (Hegelian or otherwise), they are organic. You can sometimes be sure of where the compost got started (a whole Sicilian village moves to one tenement in Chicago, for example; or ten covenanting New England families move to Hudson, Ohio) but you can’t control the results of the tilling and feeding and nurturing of the mixture that the compost produces. If you could, it would be called “the New Deal,” or “change we can believe in,” or utopia. Instead, we try to be neighborly, which means there is something to be neighborly about, or a moral source of neighborliness.

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