Joe Carter, managing editor of First Things, has been gracious enough to put up with my jokes at his boss’s expense, so forthwith, I offer the following as the more serious (but still less than serious serious) response (which Joe was hoping for) to Jody Bottum’s writing on the alleged racist tendencies of localist visions

Bottum had originally written: “My problem with … localism … is the Jews.  But, then, it’s always the Jews, isn’t it? Or the blacks, or the foreigners, or the diseased. The problem usually comes down to the Jews, though.”  I called foul, and you can read that exchange over here

As I noted in the other thread, I think Jody and Joe get the causal relationship backwards.  But that raises the interesting question of what is the cause of localist movements.  I said there that such movements arose from a desire to defend, preserve, and protect a particular, specific, rich, and most of all loved, way of living, way of being human beings in relation with other human beings.  That is true, but it is an existential rather than an analytic treatment.  

There is a problem with localism, but it is not the Jews, it is dispossession.  That is, the root cause of localist fervor of all sorts, at least in its form of political and social breakout, is the fact that people are being or have been dispossessed—the things they love have been forcefully taken from them.  This is a morally precarious place to be.  It creates all kinds of unstable and potentially derailing motivations—anger, alienation, illegitimacy of authority, desperation, nostalgia, resignation to servitude, victimization, etc.  How a particular localist movement handles the problem of dispossession will be crucial to its character and ultimate success or failure.  

For example, it is an easy, though terribly lazy and pathetic, posture to play the victim, and all too often to blame one’s dispossession on some identifiable group—the Jews, say.  And while this epiphenomenon is more morally problematic, as a matter of social analysis, it is mere window dressing and the root cause remains dispossession.  This analysis also accounts for Jody’s very accurate statement that “people seem only to praise and defend a localism when it’s already in decline.” 

I have attempted to deal with this problem of dispossession on a number of occasions.  Way back on National Review‘s original discussion of Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, I wrote

I see the authentically conservative posture of man towards reality as one of those natural things that becomes highly unnatural and potentially turned against itself when articulated.  The problem seems especially acute among traditional economic, cultural, and religious communities in a highly mobilized, mechanized, and secularized state in which they have become conscious of what they have lost or are rapidly losing. Attempts to compensate, renew, or restore—whether given a leftist or rightist spin—increase the problem of over-articulation. Everyone has a theory and everyone chases the latest theorist.  I do not have a high degree of hope for any version of movement conservatism, towards which I remain skeptical. I put much more stock in what amounts to monasticism, in the broadest sense, which includes all of the crunchy virtues Rod discusses and more, though in a very natural and inarticulate way. This would include the many lay movements in the Church, local economic coalitions, and various traditional cultures that do much more doing than speaking and theorizing. One does not need to theorize how to view and engage secular modernity if one daily concentrates on self-sacrifice, prayer, and simply doing the work of God and disciplining the body and mind to order themselves according to their place and heritage.

This problem of over-articulation is the primary danger of dispossession, and it takes many many forms.  The alleged “racism” of Jody’s posts is one such form of a particularly self-serving and twisted over-articulation.  (I will grant a partial exception to this rule for the problem of slavery in America which is and was unique in all sorts of ways.)

Elsewhere, I have described the problem of over-articulation with the metaphor of unearthing the dead—seeking to disinter a past in order to conduct a bizzare cadaver trial or a mummification for romantic viewing in our “heritage” museums: 

The human need for belonging is fundamentally outside our control; it is something achieved only in submission. The most basic lesson may be that a usable past requires a usable present. When I was young, our family frequented the cemetery in which my ancestors were buried. We picnicked there and the children played hide-and-seek among the gravestones. It is an apt and pregnant image. A living heritage picnics on the graves of its ancestors. That is no trespass, but is instead an act of loving continuity with the past. And the successful inhabitation of a place requires transmitting the intimacy of that fidelity … across generations within the ties that bind. Those ties that bind—buttressed by a mutual effort for survival under conditions of hardship and scarcity—form the only existential context within which the ghosts rest easy.

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.  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.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. A key issue seems to be the implication, contained in the general drift of both Carter’s and Bottum’s arguments, that the dispossession mentioned by Caleb is morally irreversible and philosophically undesirable as an articulation of the meaning of America (that’s probably a huge generalization, and maybe completely wrong, but oh well). Weighed in the balance, a political re-acquaintance with “Other-ness” is judged more precarious for humanity than the loss of place. The usage of “Other” typical, I think, of First Things writers is at the heart of the current style of what you are calling “over-articulation”; it is a word that seeks to lay normative claim to the often unspoken relations between peoples and culture–leaving us with the thought that the only genuinely acceptable localism would be that which motivates the “repudiation” of Ike McCaslin.

  2. Nice piece and much insight on both sides of the argument.

    I was raised amongst a clan (don’t worry, not the Klan) in a small Minnesota burg and now live in a major metropolitan area about 50 miles from said burg (which is now what one would call exurban), so the localism angle resonates with my experience. Much has been lost as an agricultural economy that supported a number of small, independent operators has largely vanished in favor of corporate (or at least large-scale) farming. What was once a community of working farms is now simply a low-density bedroom community.

    Where there once was localism, there is now something entirely different fueled largely by an external vision as opposed to something more organic produced from within the community. Were the shared values forcibly removed or simply rendered incongruous by rapidly-changing economic realities? Trying to answer that question has been the struggle of my life as I attempt to determine whether that is necessarily a good or bad thing.

    Going any further with this would simply amount to a set of banal understatements on my part.

    One cannot dance lightly with the term “Jews,” even if used metaphorically and is effectively illustrative, but it is used well here.

    I happened upon FPR through my reading and I’m glad I did. I view myself as left-of-center on most big-picture issues, but realize that the “big picture” is composed of countless “little pictures” and that I realize the basis of many of my little-picture beliefs are informed by aspects of the discussions being held on this site.

  3. Caleb, like nearly everything you write, this piece such lyrically and honestly upon crucial matters of the heart…and yet, as I read through it, I feared that I was going to have to disagree with you, or at least take issue with part of your overall claim. When you asserted that the central reason why localism appears at times to pose a threat to others–to foreigners, blacks, immigrants, Jews, gays, evangelicals; the list is potentially endless–is “the fact that people are being or have been dispossessed–the things they love have been forcefully taken from them,” I couldn’t help but wonder if you weren’t trapping yourself (and, perhaps, other FPRers) into a weird state-of-nature argument, one which assumed that “originally” every people possessed some land or sovereignty or way of life, and then had it ripped away from them. This is an unsupportable argument, of course, because no people was ever truly “original” to a place or way of life, but rather had only negoitated their situation in their places through time and conflict and growth (and, yes, change, both demographic and cultural). I feared that we were going to have to start throwing arguments about the origin of nationalities and peoples at each other, and I’m not in the mood for such an argument today.

    Fortunately, however, you then showed me that you are, of course, smarter than that: you underscore the creative adjusting and appropriating that makes up andy “original” situating of a people by emphasizing, with a beautiful example, the power of “slow, small, repeated, daily acts of repossession.” That is what we are constantly invited to do, as we live our lives and raise our families: actively and patiently reposesses that which is already–but never entirely or solely–our own. I love in particular your close admonition that we seek above all to engage in loving reposesssion “across the divide as localist reactions to dispossession break out into political and social movements.” Wise words to us all. If the protracted debate with the First Things/Pomocon folks has head positive results, your post here exemplifies it.

  4. yeah! FPR now has meat on the bones we can chew on.
    expressions like “over-articulation” and “dispossession” serve, like the coordinates in those GPS navigation systems, to assist us in honing in on the coordinates of certain features of our political landscape that citizens share, yet apprehend differently. Caleb’s third-dimension “love” nails it: contentions arise when we “drive by wire” ritualistically mapping our sense data (perceptions of skin color, ethnic heritage, or any number of favored categories of social intercourse, e.g. religious, atheist, labor, capital) into a ‘locomotive’ intellect (pre-occupied and prejudiced by learned norms) and the train-wreck is inevitable when pursuing “my norm” conflicts with pursuing “my norm.”

    How arbitrate the norms, then, to settled upon a minimum syllabus of errors handed down from one generation of train-wreck prone to the next? Here’s what’s interesting, the human person has a built-in faculty to arbitrate(*), its called free will, we judge and choose to act as our mind’s eye perceived fits best the “breadth πλάτος (platos), length μῆκος (mēkos), depth βάθος (bathos), and height ὕψος (hypsos)” of the circumstances we find ourselves living through. Why would St Paul, a technical man, a merchant of tents, use four terms to define a three-dimensional world? Isn’t height redundant? It’s simply a spatial opposite to the term used to measure the extent of the sea beneath the boat? Well no, I would contend that height can be understood better as “rank” an exalted place of relationship. And here’s the key: unless we concede that rank is what separates us from the animals, we’ll behave as animals. We chose to exalt another as our life partner and raise (note the vertical connotation) a family together. Our sense of self-dignity is enhanced (note the vertical connotation) by elevating (note the vertical connotation) our latent talents as artisans of excellence or assuming higher levels of responsibility within voluntary assocation, be it remunerated or not.

    Beware the wayfarer who would derail you by claiming to outrank you by feat of intellect or physical faculties, fasces is as fasces does… arbitrary rule, aka iconoclasm of the spirit, “the rule of the herd”. Our point of departure must be grounded in the absolute truth, that which you nor I can be dispossessed of.
    * meaning of semitic root /-r-b/
    To enter, stand surety or bail for, guarantee. 1. arbiter, from Latin arbiter, judge, from Phoenician (Punic) *carb, surety, guarantee. 2. earnest2, from Greek arrabn, from Canaanite *cirrabn, pledge, surety, akin to Hebrew crbôn, from *caraba, to enter, stand surety for. 3. Arabic root form rb, to depart. Maghreb, Morocco, from Arabic marib, place where the sun sets, west, from araba, to depart, set (of the sun).

  5. ….”a usable past requires a usable present”….”dispossession”……”over-articulation”….”repossession” and “love”.

    A fine post Caleb, particularly for an over-articulated “very conservative blogger”.

    My disposition has much to do with your “dispossession” and your flinty mirror has worked a little magic here.

  6. When considering the problems of localism, one can look to Madison’s critique of the “small republic” in Federalist #10. One problem of the small republic, Madison points out, is that minorities of any type are distinct and obvious. The very thing that gives strength to localism, namely a homogeneity of life and experience, makes anyone outside that life and experience very noticeable. Experience shows that discrimination against that minority is not uncommon (this might be part of Mr. Bottum’s point regarding the Jews). The problem of the small republic, Madison argues, is majority tyranny.

    I was recently speaking to a friend of mine whose daughter lives in a small midwestern town after going to college in a major city. She is shocked, apparently, by the crudeness and racism in this small town. Now, my friend and I happen to live in a separate small Midwestern prairie town where racism is a relatively small problem (although it exists, of course). So small towns with a strong local identity don’t necessarily have to become provincial and bigoted, but it a tendency to be guarded against. FPR’s have to deal with the reality that a large part of defining an “us” means defining a “them” and bigotry may be the result.

  7. As one sympathetic to localism but somewhat rootless nonetheless (from Illinois, living in northern VA), I must credit Bottom’s point more than you. When I worked as a waiter for a summer in the town in rural Wisconsin where by grandparents live, and where generations of my family lived before them, I felt a palpable distrust from some of my coworkers as an outsider. I think that experience is somewhat typical for outsiders in communities with strong local connections.

    I’ve long felt that J.R.R. Tolkien’s portrayal of hobbits (and particularly Samwise Gamgee) illustrate the tensions within a locally-oriented outlook. Samwise is loyal, has common sense, is not tempted by grand pursuit of ower, but his distrust of outsiders also blinds him to the potential for good in others and ends up leading him to forestall the possible redemption of Smeagol.

  8. Caleb: I think this is your best post yet. Well done.

    Jon S. makes a good point, but I haven’t observed that racism is absent in Chicago or Philadelphia (nor confined to the majority), though it may be easier to escape its more direct expressions. I don’t know whether the proportions of tolerant and intolerant are necessarily different in towns and cities, but the tolerant may be numerically few enough in a small community plagued with racism to feel little incentive to show it. In a larger population they’ll be sufficiently numerous to form social pockets.

  9. You can’t have community without ostracism. There must be a fence, a division between insiders and outsiders.

    But there’s a definite difference between Eastern and Western localism, E and W tolerance. In the East, your family ties matter more than anything else. If you look or act like a stranger, you’re going to be ostracized. In the West, your utility matters most. As long as you’re constructive, you’re OK.

    I’m thinking of Enid, which would seem to be a classic redneck town, where Baptists are in and everyone else is out. Not at all. When I lived there in the ’70s, Enid had a large and flamboyant gay community, who were definitely “inside the pale” because they ran successful businesses and kept the flame of culture and architecture burning. There was also a small but obvious Jewish community, valued for its ethics and public service. So who were the ostracized outsiders? Yankees, who came in every few years to rake off some oil money but never added anything to the community.

    Would a similar city in Pennsylvania draw the same lines? I doubt it.

  10. Mark,

    You point is precisely the right one, if perhaps not applied perfectly (I used to live in Chicago and racial politics are still sadly important in that town). The point of Madison’s “extended republic” is that the tyrannous majorities will be unable, for various reasons, to bring their schemes of oppression into reality. In the extended republic there is tremendous diversity (Madison mostly means economic diversity, not the hippy-dippy-hug-a-bunny diversity of our time), which means there is no majority (at least not a discrete and permananet one) to oppress a minority.

    It should go without saying that Madison’s extended commercial republic has its own problems.

  11. We should ask here, what are the social virtues of localism? And it seems to me that it is trust, shared experience, shared effort, civic participation–those things that go under the heading “social capital.” So we need to understand Harvard researcher Robert Putnam’s findings that diversity undermines social capital. Why is this? Are diversity and social capital incompatible? Putnam himself gave no explanation for his findings. Is it just prejudice as the left holds, or is multiculturalism destructive to community as the right holds? I don’t think we can make any headway on this topic until we look into this question. (My take on this question is here: )

  12. My questions, as is typical in such discussions, is: “What about Pittsburgh?”

    You know Pittsburgh. It was mentioned time and again in “I’ll Take My Stand” as a wretched force of dehumanization. People leaving their farms for mines and mills! What of the barn dance and the cow milking?! Obviously, Pittsburgh was the home of the poor, pathetic victims of industrialization. In other words, it was the home of the dispossesed. It was,in fact, the poster community for such lamentable souls.

    Of course, we are all now nostalgic for that same Pittsburgh. The place where guys could graduate from high school and make $28 an hour in the mills and support a family of nine on a high school education. The home (famous or infamous) of the 13-week vacation.

    Relatedly, I propose reading Tom Wolfe’s astounding 1965 Esquire article, “Junior Johnson is the Last American Hero.” It details how NASCAR was SIMULTANEOUSLY an amberfication of Southern Culture and a SMASHING of same.

    That is, this whole dispossesion thing seems useful but deeply flawed in the context of real world examples. Look at Steeler Nation, in which scads of non-union, non-blue-collar people masquerade as steel workers. A city of professors and doctors that masquerades as factory workers every Sunday. These are people who have BECOME their dispossesion.

    So does that suck? Or should residents of Pittsburgh be nostalgic for “their” history as Seneca Indians instead? Or their history as miners? Glass workers?

  13. and i forgot to say i agree with sam m on Pittsburgh and NASCAR and I’LL TAKE MY STAND and Tom Wolfe.

  14. Ressentiment has a National Sport and it is NASCAR. It was football for a while but race cars are louder and the pileups more picturesque.

  15. Thanks for the interesting forum and thread, everyone. I would like to add some things if I may.

    “Racism” is largely nothing but the Christian charge of “heretic” in modern drag, as “multiculturalism” is nothing but the Christian ideal of being a “brother’s keeper” in the same drag. So-called “multiculturalism” as well as other forms of State sanctioned monist quests, are simply the logical conclusion of incoherent, and often contradictory, Christian appeals to transcendent universalism.

    I’m certain I will catch flak for my view, but, I can’t but disagree with many on this forum that Christianity has much to offer various localisms, given its universalist, monist, transcendent agenda combined with its missionary practices. In my opinion, it has ultimately done more to slay differences and cultures than any other ideal, whether in its actual form as one of the true denominations, or in its thinly disguised appearance as “(Post)Modernism.” This brings me to some problems I have with Mr. Stegall’s post.

    Stegall writes: “There is a problem with localism, but it is not the Jews, it is dispossession. That is, the root cause of localist fervor of all sorts, at least in its form of political and social breakout, is the fact that people are being or have been dispossessed—the things they love have been forcefully taken from them. This is a morally precarious place to be.It creates all kinds of unstable and potentially derailing motivations—anger, alienation, illegitimacy of authority, desperation, nostalgia, resignation to servitude, victimization, etc. How a particular localist movement handles the problem of dispossession will be crucial to its character and ultimate success or failure. ”

    Herein lies the assumption that we can transcend our embodied, and em-placed, circumstances. “Dispossession” is taken to be an ideal, a principle, a “first cause” of what Stegall links to what he sees as unsavory motivations. What is forgotten here, it seems, is that we do not transcend our embodiment and such dispossession is never simply a principle but an action meted out by one group of men to another. In other words, actual dispossession is not an abstraction or a principle, but has the face of “them-who-did-this-to-us.” Anger, alienation, etc., may be “lazy and pathetic” only if artificially severed from the “love” Stegall himself eulogizes. This severance, however, is not how we tend to experience, and express, our embodied lives as there are others who act. We are always a mixture, an interweaving, of a multitude of things, including motivations, that simply cannot be taken in isolation. “Love” is often times interwoven with the very same “motivations” Stegall denigrates. For example, one can hate the rapist and/or murderer of the child we love so dearly. People most often express such an interweaving of motivations.

    As to charges of “racism,” we often forget that this term is largely based in a similar type of subjective, self-serving, hermeneutic that justified Christian accusations of “heresy” in days of yore. These accusations were nearly always motivated by such “unsavory” urges as the ones already mentioned, as well as greed, power-lust, and the urge to dispossess others of their wealth and land. Charges of “racism” today are largely undefined, based in incoherent, and often times contradictory, ideological emotionalism which seeks to eradicate any other perspective. As such, it is based in the urges to dispossess and victimize those who dissent or diverge in the slightest. Given that we are embodied, and em-placed beings, we will always hold differing perspectives, and there will always exist divergence and dissent. The will to eradicate is inherently self-destructive.

    The charge of “racism” seems most often shouted by those who hold the “derailing motivations” themselves (i.e. so-called “minorities”) or those wealthy enough who could afford a State-sanctioned “education,” (those inspired by neo-Christian ideals of “collective guilt”), who seem most often live in neighborhoods segregated by class, rather than strictly along ethnic lines, and will be only slightly effected if at all by the changes they seek to impose on those less fortunate. Us working class folk are left to compete for the morsels from the latter’s table, while they dictate to us how the game will be played through rules such as “affirmative action” by which we are to flagellate ourselves with guilt for either being “privileged” or “ignorant/uneducated.” Which is it?

    Simply because I don’t wholly embrace others, it doesn’t follow that I hate them, or wish to eradicate them. Far from it. They help in defining what and who I am. Rather, I think those who hold to monist theories and theologies have proven themselves far more incapable of accepting different ways of life than myself and, unfortunately, they tend to be the types with enough free time to theorize and powerful enough to impose their theories, through conversion and coercion, upon those eking out the small parameters of their “place,” “limits,” and “liberty(?).”

  16. I agree that anger may properly flow out of love. I am thinking of WJB’s clarion call:

    “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked … We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!”

    What I actually said was that dispossession puts one in a morally precarious position wherein one becomes vulnerable to potentially derailing motives. This does not forestall the possibility of righteous anger, it just suggests caution, careful assessment, and proper grounding.

  17. Thank you for your response.

    What exactly is meant by “righteous anger?” People usually seem just plain angry when they are dispossessed and their ways of life radically disrupted and/or destroyed. Whether or not it is “righteous” seems of secondary importance, if important at all to them and is, at best, a matter of contemplation either from outside the event of dispossession or subsequent to it. Even then, contemplation is rarely, if ever, removed from the event.

    Localist movements, at this place and time in the US, have somewhat more free time to assess whether or not their brands of localism are “righteous” and “morally just.” However, I have no reason to believe our circumstances, and hence, our perspectives, are universally shared or applicable. I don’t see dispossession as ultimately being a matter of contemplating abstractions, such as the intricacies of morality, but consist of the consequences of force and violence perpetrated by one or more parties onto another.

    If we have time to contemplate “dispossession,” are we really dispossessed? In other words, what are the parameters of dispossession? Again, I think many of the world’s angry victims of dispossession would make a good case that we are not dispossessed if we have time for such contemplation. I’m not saying they are necessarily correct, only that the parameters of dispossession are ambiguous.

  18. Contemplation does not require a trip to the mountain top. I simply mean that one must make certain that his anger is justly and correctly directed (which will include strenuous self-diagnosis as well) as opposed to latching onto the most convenient or nearest scapegoat.

  19. “I simply mean that one must make certain that his anger is justly and correctly directed (which will include strenuous self-diagnosis as well) as opposed to latching onto the most convenient or nearest scapegoat.”

    I guess where I’m coming from is that this very sentiment is a product of having the place and time to favor of such contemplation. For many peoples, particularly in smaller communities outside the auspices of the Mega-State, one sees and interacts directly with the enemy, such as what seems to be taking place in Sudan and Palestine presently. It is not simply a matter of scapegoating, but of a real, identifiable enemy. It has to do with direct unmitigated dispossession through violence. Again, we have to clarify to some extent what we mean by ‘dispossession.’ I also tend to think that latching onto “the nearest and most convenient” scapegoats is far easier within the Mega-State, where men dissolve into “humanity” than in smaller communities where men are forced by necessity to interact with one another, though I say this fully aware the tendency to scapegoat will never disappear from the interactions between men.

    I am curious as to what standards we are to use in becoming “certain that [our] anger is justly and correctly directed.” As far as I can tell there are a multitude of values presently alive in our world. How are we to be “certain?” What constitutes just and “correctly directed” anger?

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