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:
• 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.
After graduating from law school Stegall had job offers from all over the country. He and his wife "thought really long and hard about going and there was a lot of attractiveness, not the least of which was the starting salary, but in the end we decided to stay or stay committed to our place. I took a job in Topeka."
Why? They had two sons at that time (three more now) and wanted a good place to raise kids, but also a good place to raise themselves: Stegall says, "We lose and leave behind a lot when we conceive of society as this great ladder to climb. Our eyes are always on the next rung up, and what is left behind never gets a backward glance. This has led to a tremendous amount of dispossession and displacement: spiritual angst, and also real-world destruction and exploitation of different places and people. I didn't want to have any part of that, so we made the decision to stay."
Stegall has seen dislocation and disruption in the lives of kids he grew up with who headed to the bright lights: Most "have been very dissatisfied." Stegall himself became dissatisfied with his work in commercial litigation at a Topeka law firm, where he represented "large corporations suing each other most of the time." He didn't want to be "just a cog in this economic machine," so after a few years he returned to his rural county, hung out a shingle, and practiced law in a town of 900 people, "using my tools to fix problems. That's gratifying, and that's what it means to be part of the community."
Stegall recently did take a job a few miles down the road as chief counsel to new Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who himself was coming home after 14 years as a U.S. senator. Stegall has no Washington plans, though: "The powers of a centralized economy and state are so great that your chances of effecting change are much greater in a place where you actually wield some influence, as opposed to just being a small, small piece in the big machine."
Victoria Cobb, 32, offers a similar comparison of Washington versus state capitals. As a college student in Richmond, the losing capital in the Civil War, she was excited about an internship in the winning capital where power now resided: "It's a glitzy thing: You think, 'Wow, everything happens in D.C.'" But in the last semester of her senior year she worked for the Family Foundation of Virginia, a state level affiliate of Focus on the Family, and "saw the tremendous difference between what happens in Washington, D.C., and in Richmond."
Cobb is now president of the Family Foundation but still recalls that difference: "In Washington you trail a lobbyist to wait, to wait, to wait, to get to an aide of an aide of an aide of a congressman. As an intern in Richmond I'm walking in a state senator's office and we're talking about substantive issues. I learned that if you're a person who really wants to make substantive change, you ought to start at the state and local level. There may be more that you can accomplish there."
Ned Ryun, 38, is another young leader with Washington experience who does not approve of conservative groups' "thinking they have to go to D.C. to beat D.C. Many become very bureaucratic, very much like what they came to change. I don't believe the answers to our problems are in D.C." The son of former world record runner (and congressman) Jim Ryun, he views his calling as a long-distance run: Ten years ago he was answering correspondence in the Bush White House, but now he heads American Majority, which encourages people to run for school boards, county commissions, and so forth with the goal of "creating a groundswell from the bottom up."
Christian and conservative women are well-positioned to be part of that groundswell. Liberals have an advantage among single, full-time-professional young women in cities like Washington and New York, but conservatives do better with married women with children in most of the country. They should be dominating school boards and other part-time positions that do not cut into family time. Ryun's American Majority also trains older people, including retirees, and there again conservatives have an advantage.
A fourth Christian I interviewed, Ryan Messmore, 36, has moved around a bit-but he grew up at first in Tennessee and still remembers his sense of displacement when his dad moved the family to New Jersey: "We went to the train station to pick up my dad. We stood at the bottom of the stairs as the commuters were coming down. We were making eye contact and saying hello and offering Southern hospitality and, whoosh, they went speeding by."
One word younger Christians use frequently is "community." They read reports of selfish individuals flinging around their wealth thoughtlessly while many among the poor live in straitened circumstances. They don't have much faith in government, but if the choice in an election seems to be between greed and government, some still hope that government action will help to bring about community. They need to see what churches and other institutions of civil society can do.
James Lankford for 13 years was director of youth programming at Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center in Oklahoma, which describes itself as the largest youth encampment in the United States. For two months he has been a member of Congress, but he hasn't forgotten where he came from-although he is loath to mention part of his past.
The part he rarely mentions is his degree in education from the University of Texas at Austin, a biographical detail that wouldn't win him plaudits from Oklahoma fans, at least during the football season. The part he speaks about is his commitment to "civil society," the generally local institutions that encourage Americans to work together in problem-solving without relying on government.
Congress these days generally does its business from Monday evening through Thursday, which allows Lankford to spend half his time in Oklahoma even when the House is in session. He's not betting on a rise in D.C. real estate values: He sleeps in his office, in part to rebuild savings reduced during the year after he left his camp job to concentrate on campaigning. He's committed to "making government smaller, more local," and criticizes "national standards" in education and other spheres-"making every state the same, every city the same."
Lankford told me he's reluctant to criticize former President George W. Bush, but thinks "it was a terrible idea" to do No Child Left Behind as a national education program. Although his camping background makes inevitable the comparisons to movie character Jefferson Smith-one blog called him a "reincarnation of Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-he has far more policy sophistication. For example, he understands that major deficit reductions require changes in Medicare and other sacred entitlements, and jokes about those who say, "If you just cut off the UN, we'd do fine."
He remains a member of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, is exploring several congressional Bible studies, and readily makes references both to biblical passages-Proverbs 8 and 31 came up in our conversation-and Oklahoma poverty-fighting ministries like the City Rescue Mission.
Other newcomers to Congress also sound traditional GOP decentralist themes. Some do it with defiance: South Dakota's Kristi Noem, 38, told a crowd last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, "We don't have knowledge about the way Washington operates-and frankly, we don't really care." Some do it with determination. Raul Labrador, born to a single mom in Puerto Rico and now a member of Congress from Idaho, spoke of his opposition to "personal responsibility stripped away and replaced with government control."
Labrador said his views are "not mere talking points for me, but part of a mission statement that I have lived." That's the crucial question regarding a revival of localism: Talking points or mission statement?