You’re right, Rusty, when you speak of the multiple ironies of the appearances and disappearances of localist claims in the modern world. As I said, my problem with your localism is the Jews—by which I meant the way the Jews, perceived somehow as a threat for both their lack of group identity and their possession of group identity, have often been elected as the cause of cultural decline.

It needn’t be the Jews, of course. Nearly any group can potentially stand in for this, and sometimes it’s even true: The Europeans really did ruin the tightly knit African culture that Chinua Achebe describes in Things Fall Apart . But Achebe’s attempt to describe that culture as something over against the Europeans also wrecks the end of his novel, for it leaves him with no path except heavy-handed and angry irony, phrased in a disconcerting change of voice, with which to conclude the book. We’re hardly the first, Rusty, to note that Things Fall Apart , considered not for its political correctness but for its literary integrity, has a disaster of a conclusion, but this thinking we’ve been doing about localism may give an explanation.

Is it possible to define a localism that doesn’t set itself in that over against mode? For Catholics in the United States today, this is a serious and important question—if we’re willing to say that what we mean by localism can be a localism of being, rather than a localism of place. My first thought is that this is only an analogy rather than an identity: We are, after all, called out from the nations, and Catholics are not a local group the way, say, Southerners or Little Englanders imagine themselves a local group. Still, it’s a potentially helpful analogy, for the problems faced by Catholic culture today seem quite similar to the problems faced by encircled and embattled local cultures.

Epistemologically, since we define by genus and difference, it’s impossible to achieve a definition that doesn’t differentiate. And psychologically, we’ve seen what follows from that epistemological fact over and over again in the anger and the violence of cultures that understand themselves as threatened by the over against .

A very conservative blogger named Caleb Stegall has noted the discussion we’ve been having here, Rusty, and he points to some interesting thoughts he’s had on the topic over the years. He doesn’t seem to like me very much, but that’s okay. There are days I don’t like me very much, either, and his notion of the dangers of articulation looks helpful.

As I understand it, Stegall claims that a culture is in trouble precisely when, from outside pressure or internal dilemma, it has to start articulating—in our terms, defining by difference —exactly what it is. There’s built into this, if I have it right, a praise for unself-consciousness and unreflective devotion to the ideals that a healthy culture leaves only vaguely articulated.

The advantage to this kind of move is that it admits the violent problems of definition by difference, and it points to the moment that cultures awake to their decline and become dangerous. What it doesn’t do is give us much help in our desire to rebuild culture now, after the fact. As I keep repeating , “rebellion against rebellion doesn’t escape the problems of rebellion, and a chosen tradition is never quite the same as an inherited one.”

Of course, that’s no knock on Stegall. The problem of culture has no easy answer today. The most we may be able to do is build something sufficient that our children are able to have a culture.

Articles by Joseph Bottum


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