Going local is the sort of Millennial mantra that gets play on both sides of the partisan playground. For conservatives, going local is about devolution, federalism, small government, and individual responsibility. For the left, going local is a political act of opposition to faceless corporations and bureaucracies, a cultivation of authenticity and rootedness in a society of simulacra and simulation.
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously insisted that all politics, to be true politics, must be local. Her nostalgia for the Greek city polis ran deep, almost as deep as her suspicion of modernity, rooted in a narrow escape from the Nazi regime, and its mass systematization of structural evil. Politics, for Arendt and her disciples, cannot be federalized without losing its ethical and moral centre. Faceless legislating, faceless consuming, is no politics and no economy at all. It leads to monstrosity.
In God Is (Doubleday, 2009) David Adams Richards calls it "the mob." For Richards, modernity might grow the scale but it doesn't change the sin. It's still the same basic scapegoating. Recalling his own memory of September 11, 2011, he writes:
I met a bicycle messenger the day after 9/11. He seemed delighted at what had happened. I do not need to agree with American foreign policy to be disheartened by his reaction. His glee toward this catastrophic event, which he felt to be justifiable, has bothered me ever since.
"Yes, it is terrible," he said. "But this is the result of terrible U.S. foreign policy." Then he added, "But no one in Canada will say so, because we are far too conservative and conditioned."
But I knew this was not true at all. Many people in Canada couldn't wait to say this, and he was saying what many people his age were . . . From all parts of Canada, and on many university campuses, some were saying this very thing" (God Is, 83-84).
Call it thoughtlessness, call it faddish progressivism: the bigger the group, the bigger the group think—the easier it becomes to settle into a comfortable, anonymous routine that neglects where products come from or how and who might be effected by a chain of events we can only vaguely imagine. Every sin, Stephen Crane writes, is the result of collaboration. And so the local becomes a moral imperative, molding itself into a soteriological salve to heal us from the anonymous machinery of modern life.
Which is only a half-truth. If all sin is a result of collaboration, than all virtue is too. The scale of modern life has served not merely to obscure the sources and outcomes of our actions, it has also built the platform for compelling public goods. Communities, particularly communities of scale, make possible modern agriculture, transportation, education, health care, innovation, and more. In short, civilization. Exclusive localism, as nostalgically authentic as it may seem, can be a recipe for unhealthy ghettoization and downright unneighbourliness. Even monastic communities, long the iconic inspiration for romantic localists, have rules of life which put them at the service of the wider society. It was, in fact, those same monks who—in the famous chronicle of Thomas Cahill—saved Western civilization from its own violent fragmentation.
Integration cannot be solved by disintegration, but it can be done better or worse, in ways that produce justice and fairness, rather than monopolistic excess or abusive anonymity. Canada's challenge, and this issue of Cardus Policy in Public, is about exploring an embedded localism tethered to a robust federalism, with a good Samaritan kind of global neighbourliness. It means an unapologetic embrace of the goods of modern life, its rights and efficiencies, with a cautious eye to the train of human communities that weather its effects unevenly. And, every now and then, it may mean halting the machinery of modernity to preserve the human. Go local young man, certainly. But don't naïvely forget the world. It won't forget you.
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