Saturday, November 06, 2010

Localist Questions Unexpectedly Addressed

In an interview regarding Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove's book The Wisdom of Stability, I was worried that Ken Myers was going to limit himself to harmless softballs, thereby summoning my nagging series of localist questions that need be sharply posed. 
Such questions, naturally, can only be addressed locally, which takes us to Jersey.  What does it mean to be a localist in the troubled (but beautiful) Garden State, where property taxes annihilate hometowns (as they did mine) because parents move out when their kids graduate?  In light of pressing taxation issues, is supporting the local artisan ice cream shop enough, even if it flaunts New Jersey terroir and serves fresh-cut basil sorbet?  I'm a long time supporter of my farm co-op, but where should such food preferences be on a serious list of Jersey localist priorities? To frame this concern more cryptically, Is it against the principles of localism to apply Wendell Berry's Kentucky theory to New Jersey problems?

Furthermore, should a localist sometimes support Starbucks?   I enjoyed carrying a bag-full of said coffee through Princeton's downtown farmers' market this year, to the dismay of the principled farmanistas. But as far as I can see it, my particular town's monopoly is not Starbucks, but the "local" alternative, Small World Coffee. They drove the smaller  coffeeshop I once worked at out of business, and they've just about taken over the University, in turn making Starbucks (which also employs real people) the little guy, locally speaking.  Likewise, that downtown farmers' market, having branded localism, is frequently a rip-off.  After doing some research, I learned that the major supermarket chain on the highway strip sells a high percentage local farm produce at a far better price. Which is to say, Does consistent localism require reading the effects of large corporations on a strictly regional basis?

I too am sometimes tempted to wax eloquent with a foodpost, relating in scrumptious detail how the smell of braised beets roasting can fill up our tiny apartment, or how the hailstorm did a number on the lettuce this week, requiring extra tenderness when lifting them to the sink for a caressing washdown.  But I hesitate because my life is one of compromise.  I drove to pick up those vegetables, and I frankly don't have the time to walk the fields to get the extra pickings my allotment permits.  To selectively highlight the foodie moments of my life would (in my case) border on dishonesty.  Which makes me wonder, Is artful compromise the essence of what it means to be a localist in early 21st century America?   

What's more, should an excess of independent wealth be lacking, Is it possible to be a pre-tenure academic and a localist?  Wendell Berry resigned from his post at the University of Kentucky.  Must the true localist do the same?  We won't all get the deal secured by John Witherspoon, who demanded enough money to buy a massive farm as part of his presidential package for the College of New Jersey.  Academia today is a necessarily peripatetic profession.  Should one choose unemployment over betrayal of place?  Conversely, might the extended American-style Behemoth University Ph.D. program, enabling graduates to live in one place for nearly a decade, be a localist ally?  In other words, Is lifelong localism really only an option for the rich?

While we're at it, Can there be genuinely local websites, smalltown forums where the traffic is reasonable and the commenters, most of whom one knows, might as well hear "Norm!" when they leave a contribution? Or should consistent localists just get it over with?  I know there's a good answer, I just want to hear it.  What is the internet equivalent of localism?

On the theological side:  Yes, the Benedictine vow of stability works within properly monastic contours, but maybe there's a reason you have to be a monk to make it. What about Abraham leaving Ur, what about "We have here no continuing city," what about pilgrimage? How does localism engage these seemingly disparate religious concerns?   And perhaps most importantly, seeing that the unrepentant LeBron James could have done for Cleveland what Jordan did for Chicago, but left, Is it possible for a localist to root for the Miami Heat? 

But - and I'm quite serious here - all this is to jump the gun.  Just before the Ken Myers interview buzzer, Hartgrove said something that genuinely addressed a good many of the concerns mentioned above.  Hartgrove concedes the Scriptural counter-currents to localism, and is not suggesting we never move - only that we change our American mobility default mode.  Now that's a localism I can live with, betraying enough flexibility to avoid certain critiques.  I welcome anyone to have a crack at the questions outlined above.  But in the meantime, I'm both impressed as to how several of them were oddly satisfied by Hartgrove's closing formulation, and puzzled if you don't yet subscribe to Mars Hill audio.