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The revival of localism

Young conservatives reject lure of Washington, D.C., in favor of a more powerful place-home

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Newspaper editor Gene Roberts once noted, "Many important stories don't break. They seep, trickle and ooze. Let's be sure we are covering the ooze."

Here's some ooze: Local idiosyncrasy is in, uniformity is out. Locavores emphasize foods grown nearby. Microbreweries create locally crafted drinks. In politics, voters strike back against one-size-fits-all Obamacare. In skyscrapers and ballparks, postmodernist structures with nooks and crannies have replaced boxy buildings and cookie-cutter stadiums.

Breaking stories are easy to cover because they are action-oriented events at specific times and places. Ooze is harder because it requires juxtaposing changes that initially may not seem related. Here are seven:

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• The baby boom generation (people born between 1946 and 1964) pioneered divorce rates and two-career couples. Many among the baby bust crowd (born in the late 1960s and 1970s and redubbed Generation X after Douglas Coupland in 1991 published a novel with that title) rebel against that.

• Many commercials seem less focused on achieving prominence in the world and more on the satisfactions of family and community. The popular Volkswagen ad premiered during the Super Bowl shows a mom giving her son a sandwich and the dad coming home from work. Gen X blogger Penelope Trunk sees in such commercials "Gen X values front and center. . . . We like being home to make our kids peanut butter and jelly. You could not sell Baby Boomers with this. They think it's lame to sit in a kitchen waiting for your kid to be hungry. We like having a male breadwinner and we're not afraid to say it."

• The media movement two decades ago was toward more centralization, with USA Today and networks riding high. Now the hot area of interest is localism and hyper-localism, with new journalistic websites aimed at small geographic areas popping up and national media like AOL, CNN, and MSNBC seeding neighborhood publications.

• The average American drove less in 2010 than in 2000. The number of commercial flights now is the same as on Sept. 10, 2001, even though America has more people. Mobility declined throughout the past decade, with not even one out of 10 American households changing addresses in 2010. Yes, higher gasoline prices have curtailed some driving, security procedures have curtailed some flying, and declining property values have crushed many hopes of upward mobility-but the reasons for change seem more than material.

• An American's 19th-century question upon first meeting another often was "Who are your people?" The 20th-century question was "What do you do?" The question in the 21st century is "Where do you live?" Many people put roots above shoots, choosing to live in a place rather than moving to advance a career.

• An emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture is popular among young Christians. Their favorite author is often a pre-baby-boom author and Kentucky farmer, 76-year-old Wendell Berry. Berry praises reverence for God and life, the pleasures of good work, good food, and frugality. He says those joys are more likely to be found in healthy rural communities that value small farms and don't overdose on technology.

• Many Christians used to coalesce politically through national organizations like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family, but some of them went out of business or lost steam. The big political story of 2010 was the growth of the decentralized Tea Party movement.

These oozes may coalesce in the growth of localism, but I'm not the best analyst of that, for localism is foreign to my experience. On occasional sleepless nights I now recite to myself the 23rd Psalm, and it almost always works. In past years, since counting sheep didn't work, I counted places lived in (43 different houses or apartments for at least a month, in 14 states) or slept in: close to 700. This homework made me realize that, like many baby boomers, I have no real home.

So I interviewed some from Generation X who have a home. Working off reader nominations of thoughtful and passionate Christians under 40 (see WORLD, July 3, 2010), I've found young men and women who understand that they are Christian pilgrims in this world-but they expect to stay in one place, making friends and being of service, unless and until God moves them on.

Caleb Stegall is 39 and has spent about 90 percent of his life within 20 miles of the place in northeastern Kansas where he was born, a radius that includes the state capital and a state university. He's been Jefferson County's district attorney; earlier, he created and edited an Internet journal, The New Pantagruel, that received national attention as a traditionalist voice.


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