Localism without Nostalgia


These summers were long ago, so long ago that cigarettes were given to high school students by cigarette companies as a way to get them started and hooked; so long ago nobody had televisions and there were shows on the radio to listen to in the nights, back when portable radios cost an arm and a leg and took close to four pounds of batteries just to keep the tubes going for an hour and a half; and African-American people were kept from voting in the South and other places and did not have schools they could attend except for shacks. So very long ago that a teacher could – and often did – take a hardwood cane to a wiseass student (it made welts that last a week), and there were dress codes and curfews and tent revival meetings in the middle of town, and almost no drugs except what doctors prescribed and not a glimmer of the horror of AIDS, and all the streams and lakes in the north had not been fished out by greedy people.

That’s Gary Paulson, of Hatchet fame, writing about his boyhood in northern Minnesota. Paulson was born in 1939, so the summers in question would have been in the forties and fifties. The list strikes me. First, there’s a bad thing (cigarette companies); then there’s a good thing (no TVs), an inconvenient thing (four pounds of batteries); another bad thing (segregation); some debatable things (dress codes and curfews and revival meetings); a good thing (no drugs); and another good thing (streams full of fish).

The list strikes me because it sounds like exactly the right way to think about the past. A lot of localists like thinking about the past, not least because they think the past was more local, and therefore better. Now, anybody who likes thinking about the past faces one of two temptations, and it’s obvious what they are. The first is to see the bad things but not the good things, while the second is to see the good things but not the bad things. We might say that progressives are more prone to the first, while conservatives are more prone to the second. And it seems equally obvious that the right way is instead to take the past for what it is, as a mixed bag, and to keep that list whole in our minds. Thomas Jefferson is said to have made his own Bible by cutting out all the parts he didn’t like. (That’s right: it was a Hole-y Bible.) This is exactly what we shouldn’t do with the past, which isn’t exactly holy, but does need to be kept whole.

Localists don’t have to be nostalgic conservatives, but they often are, for the simple reason mentioned above. That people in the past lived more locally seems pretty indisputable, at least as a generalization. But we ought to think in more detail about whether and in what ways those more local lives were also better lives. Wendell Berry frequently insists on “a full accounting.” Most “progress,” he points out, seems like progress only when we leave out the costs. Surely the same must be true of the past. The past will always look better than the present to a critic of progress, because the past is where the latest costs of progress haven’t yet been felt. Well, the past needs a full accounting too. Localists, who rightly look to the past because it was more local, need not and should not look past the bad parts of those more local lives in order to show that smaller is better. If we cut the past up and use the parts we keep to win arguments, we end up with arguments full of holes. We either hold the past together, or our politics falls apart.

For example, I’ve recently noticed among my more conservative students a growing impulse to redeem that first item on Paulson’s list and Make Smoking Great Again (if you will). Now, few people despise the public health Machine more than I do. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more sympathetic audience for youthful rebellions against the Nanny State, lamentations for lost arts and rituals, polemics against hygenicist perfectionism and the cult of medicalized health, and appreciations of all the ways in which smoking together helped build good relations between strangers and friends alike. I’m fully prepared to believe that “We used terrible science to justify smoking bans,” and that smoking bans had their downsides. But I’m not prepared to believe that it was therefore good for Philip Morris to hand out cigarettes to high school students. We have to be able to hold all the different true things together in our minds. Otherwise, we’ll just keep running back and forth between the CDC, which wants to protect us from Philip Morris, and Philip Morris, which wants to liberate us from the CDC. Just because the kids who had cigarettes didn’t have televisions doesn’t mean it was good that they had cigarettes.

I want a localism that sets itself squarely against nostalgia. There are all kinds of bad things in the past, even in parts of the past that often prompt localists to feel particularly nostalgic. We recently finished reading the Little House on the Prairie books to our kids. It’s just the sort of story that often resonates with localists of the FPR type, and there are obvious reasons for that. You don’t get much more local than the little house and the little town in the middle of nowhere. It’s a whole sensibility: Ma baking bread, horses pulling wagons, sunsets on the snow, Pa playing fiddle in the evenings, self-reliance and neighborliness. And we read the story to our kids because we love that sensibility and want them to catch it early. But there are also things in Little House that we wouldn’t want them to catch.

At this point a progressive would start talking about the “little house of propaganda” (nice line), and emphasize Ma’s racism. And we’re not afraid to talk to our kids about some of those things. They’re there, and there’s no good reason to downplay them. Any conservative who is thoughtful and not reactive will welcome all the facts into the conversation. After welcoming them, the conservative might then suggest that the progressive, by focusing on these facts, might be missing others. And any thoughtful progressive would welcome those facts in turn.

But even these “good” parts, the ones to which the conservative is more sensitive, can contain bad parts that the conservative who’s hampered by nostalgia might overlook. A localist often looks back fondly to the one-room schoolhouse, for example. I feel the pull of that sentiment. But I have to admit that the schoolhouse scenes in Little House show me a form of education that is subject to many of the same criticisms I make of conventional schooling today. On the one hand, what those “primitive” pioneer children were expected to know would put most of my undergraduate students to shame. That’s something good that I can see right away. On the other hand, they were expected to learn by sitting at a desk all day—which is about as industrial as it gets. When I step out from the haze of nostalgia and ask myself substantive rather than strategic questions, I can see that some aspects of the old one-room schoolhouse ought to offend my “unschooling” sensibilities (which are very “modern”—maybe even “progressive”!), even if other aspects make it less offensive than the public schools we have now. If I simply wanted to advance a prepackaged “conservative” agenda and criticize public schools, I’d focus on how a middle schooler with no calculator could do long division in her head, while today our college students are still struggling with basic math. But if I wanted to get past that agenda and get down to the root of things, I’d do the full accounting.

Of course, there would then be lots of disagreement about what’s really good and really bad. Getting past political agendas doesn’t mean getting past disputes and finding the apolitical utopia where everybody gets along. It just means getting past vacuous sloganeering and into the moral nitty-gritty. It means digging into the debates that are actually worth having. Maybe smoking is good. But if it’s good, it’s good on its own merits, not good because people smoked more in the old days.

I think nostalgia is a kind of optimism about the past, and optimism is cheap. We ought instead to approach the past with hope, which is a very different attitude. As Lasch puts it, optimism is “a kind of cheerful fatalism, which assumes that we are carried along on an irresistible flood of innovation. It finds its clearest expression in those conventional images of the future disseminated by the advertising industry, in which everyone owns a private airplane and machines do all the work.” Lasch is talking about optimism as “the state of mind encouraged by a belief in progress,” but aren’t conservatives lured into taking the same attitude by the assumption that things were better before progress came along to ruin it? It’s not that some or even most things weren’t better in the past. The mistake is simply to assume they were without doing due diligence, without doing the full accounting. It’s intellectual laziness in both cases. There’s advertising for conservatives, too. Have you ever been to a Cracker Barrel?

Hope, by contrast, “does not demand a belief in progress.” Instead, “hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it.” And here Lasch says something crucial. He says that hope “rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories—no doubt distorted, overlaid with later memories, and thus not wholly reliable as a guide to any factual reconstruction of past events—in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionment cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakeable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced . . . .”

Paulson’s long-ago summers weren’t necessarily better than summers today. Yet for precisely the reason Lasch lays out, those summers were good. But now I’m going to start using the word “good” in a more capacious sense than the one I’ve given it so far. This larger idea of “Good”—I’ll capitalize it to make it distinct—is different from the idea of “better.” “Better” is an accounting concept. Something is better if it comes out ahead when the full accounting is done (and I hope it’s clear this is not a quantitative accounting). “Better” takes into account the discrete goods and bads, and distinguishes them clearly. The problem with nostalgia is simply that it assumes the past was better in this accountant’s sense, when the ledger might show otherwise. Nostalgia is an accounting trick. It’s a way to come out ahead by hiding the liabilities.

Of course “better” is still a useful idea. Accurate accounting is important. It’s primarily important when we’re in practical mode, when we’re asking “what should we do?” and “how should we do it?” But the larger idea of “Good” is also useful. The idea of “Good” is important when we are asking not so much “what should we do now?” but “in what spirit should we do it?” and “what should we expect from what we can do?” The real conservative thinks the past is Good as a whole, not because it was wholly good. The real conservative can affirm the Goodness of the long-ago summer without pretending it was also better. And the flipside is also true; a real progressive can look forward to and work for a future that is better—maybe one with no TVs, and also no cigarettes—without pretending that this better future would be “more Good” than the past.

Good in this larger sense is not an accounting idea. It doesn’t allow for straightforward comparisons. Odd as it may seem, “Good” is somehow exactly the right name for something that includes both good and bad (“all things work together for good . . .”). The Good is found somewhere in the ordering of the goods and bads. It’s the mixed bag. It’s the complete list.

I suppose the question now is, What does localism have to do with all this? Well, I think it’s that this “whole” Good, the Good that includes all the individual goods and bads and can be affirmed as a whole, not as the favorable outcome of a cost-benefit analysis—this “whole” Good has to be local. The long-ago summer is always a local summer, isn’t it? At a certain scale—and we can argue about what the limit is—we can no longer grasp the whole thing as Good, precisely because we can’t grasp it as a whole. (This doesn’t mean that it’s not a whole, or that as a whole it’s not Good.) It turns into a bunch of items on a list. We can’t have a real memory of it, and it’s hard for us to take from it that “experience of order and contentment,” the experience that leaves in its wake that “unshakeable conviction.”

Localists, I think, are people who cherish that unshakable conviction, that hopeful confidence in reality. But when we are driven by nostalgia, localists trade hope for optimism, and we confuse the confidence of someone who feels at home in the world with the certainty of an accountant who knows the home’s value. Then we compound our mistake by failing to even do the math, which leaves us fairly exposed to the mockery of anyone who can see that the house isn’t worth nearly as much as we say it is.

Let’s have a localism without nostalgia, a practical but also a faithful localism. As localists let’s be committed to an accurate accounting of the checkered past that grounds our hope. As localists let’s also be keen to build a better future in the places where we find ourselves—and free of the need to stake our confidence in the results.


  1. To the extent that there is a “nostalgia” for cigarettes that isn’t just ironic, my guess is it probably has to do with the fact that for most kids their primary exposure to cigarette smoking is old movies where the people doing it are undeniably cool, and the comparison to today’s world where their peers are smoking pot, with government approval/encouragement, while being worthless lazy slobs.

    And re: Little House, I’m the biggest Laura Ingalls Wilder stan there is, and she’s definitely nostalgic, but absolutely not in a delusional or Pollyanna-ish way. It is always clear that they were desperately poor, even for the time. One whole book is about how they nearly froze and starved to death one winter. How about the scene where she’s staying with another family and the wife is so overwhelmed by the miserable frontier life that she confronts her husband with a knife in the middle of the night demanding that they go back east?

  2. That scene with the wife and the knife is amazing. I don’t think Little House is itself nostalgic; I think people read it nostalgically, without noticing the kinds of things you’re talking about. And that’s just an example of the general point.

  3. Also, I should clarify that I’m using the word “nostalgia” to name something wholly negative, but it’s perfectly fine to use it to name something that can be good, or good & bad together.s (As in, “Wilder is nostalgic, but not in a delusional sense” – in this essay, I’m using “nostalgia” strictly in that “delusional sense.” But it’s ok if people want to use the word in a more complex way. Just semantics).

    • Glad you made this distinction, although I think that in our day the word has fallen upon hard times and what it connotes is seen most often as a hindrance to “Progress” by liberals both left and right. In my view the term should be rehabilitated by localists and used correctly, in its original meaning of something like “homesickness.” By piling on with the negative connotations we help serve the purposes of those who despise the past and are therefore anti-tradition and anti-piety (in Richard Weaver’s sense of that word) — and thus anti-localist.

      Tony Esolen has written a very good book on this subject, by the way: Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World.

  4. Adam:

    You said: “Now, anybody who likes thinking about the past faces one of two temptations, and it’s obvious what they are. The first is to see the bad things but not the good things, while the second is to see the good things but not the bad things. We might say that progressives are more prone to the first, while conservatives are more prone to the second.”

    I’d add the following, coming at this from a philosophy-of-history point of view: Every era has its particular mode of Whiggishness (in Herbert Butterfield’s sense), but ours is possibly the most teleologically triumphalist era in history–though perhaps Ming-era Chinese emperors might give us a run for our money. Therefore, most of us, of whatever political/cultural persuasion, have a great deal of difficulty taking the next step: to lay the terms in which we have seen Bad and Good over time, next to each other and compare the two.

    A localist perspective is valuable here, as well, since it tends to make us focus on real people who often consider abstract ideas about such things, as opposed to discussing abstract ideas and then inventing the “real people” who must have had them. And those real people, it turns out, might have had a better concept of the Good, than idea, or I should at least allow for that possibility.

    Great article,


    • Reminds me of something C.S. Lewis said, about how every age has its virtue that it thinks is most lacking in it, but which is often the virtue that is most common, and how this is a way to ignore what they really need, which is usually an opposite virtue. E.g., a violent age talks about how there’s “too much empathy, people need courage,” when actually there’s too much “courage,” and people need empathy. And our age would be the reverse. (The original is much clearer than my paraphrase!).

  5. I really enjoyed this discussion, including your sources. There is another division in localism that Wendell labels “nativism,” which he observes can be exploited by locals and transplants alike. But I felt a bit left out of this contemplation. My family are deeply rooted in a long-term agricultural poverty that was more like subsistence farming after the dairy industry collapsed in Vermont. My view of the local past is one of arduous work, frugality, humility, and gratitude. However, I view that subsistence lifestyle of the past as a much more desirable option than the suburban dystopia visible before us. Wendell decried the loss of culture and economic liberty with the loss of farming. Americans do not return without great cost to the Garden they have abandoned: we are an agrarian diaspora at sea in techno-dependency. My family’s impoverished, toothless, bare-footed past is not something we are nostalgic over, but give this planet about five or ten more years, and we all will be.

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