The Common Good
November-December 1997

The Revenge of the Local

by Danny Duncan Collum | November-December 1997

The defining cultural struggle of the early 21st century will be between the local and the global. This is already familiar ground in this column.

The defining cultural struggle of the early 21st century will be between the local and the global. This is already familiar ground in this column. In our post-Cold War, post-industrial world, a globalized electronic capitalist culture is working to impose a single worldwide market economy with a single set of marketized cultural values.

It's much more convenient for global capital (which is, of course, Northern capital) to have the same hotels and restaurants in every city, all accepting the same credit cards. In the free trade era, local products—from food grains to pop stars—are crowded out by the omnipresent, and promotionally omnipotent, culture of the Global Colossus. Around the world today, you hear the same songs and see the same cable channels. And with the global culture comes a global pay scale and global environmental standards. These, of course, are the only standards set by Third World local practices.

Complications are bound to ensue. People don't live in a global marketplace. They live in villages and neighborhoods, on particular land that has nurtured particular histories and traditions. Those local identities must, and will, be expressed, one way or another, for better or worse.

This subject is much on my mind these days because my family has taken a decisive stand for the local, with all its ambiguities. We just moved from the Babylon of the Information Age (the Washington, D.C. area) to a small town in the northeast corner of my native Mississippi. As has been widely noted, at least by Southerners, the South is a sort of quasi-colonial, semi-underdeveloped territory within the United States. It has been viewed by the rest of the country as a cesspool of ignorance, poverty, and disease; useful mostly as a source of cheap labor, raw materials, and cool music.

The distinctive elements of Southern culture are both formed by, and serve to reinforce, this stepchild status. In broad brush terms, the South has been more agrarian and more religious than the rest of the country. It has also been more openly authoritarian, violent, and superstitious. Many white Southerners did once presume to own human souls, after all. And many felt free to abuse at will the children of Africa and all those of whatever descent who questioned this state of affairs.

As a result, we Southerners have our own history of traumatic confrontations with the modern world—namely the Civil War and the civil rights movement. These were, of course, necessary and inevitable...and mostly good for us. Southern life now is much less racialized than at any time past. Public spaces are shared by blacks and whites. Politics is thoroughly biracial. Private lives are still mostly segregated. But this is not distinctively Southern.

While the South is still no utopia of interracial harmony, it is not really that much worse than the rest of America now. As a result, cultural encroachments and bureaucratic intrusions from the North no longer occupy the moral high ground. Here, as elsewhere, much of the mixing of peoples and folkways simply contributes a chuckle to the ongoing human comedy—like the shock that hit me at a local gas station when I encountered a cappucino machine inside and a loud, smelly trailerful of hogs waiting at the pumps. But sometimes the incongruities cut deeper.

As elsewhere in the world, these conflicts of the local with the global occur as business interests follow the manna of low wages. The problem is some Northern, professional-class managers have to live among the drones. There, for instance, they may find that some workers resist Sunday shifts; or that the 30-year-old Supreme Court prohibitions against prayer in the public schools are still ignored, and corporal punishment still practiced; or that, as recently happened in North Mississippi, the integrated local high school maintains a sort of binational compromise in which students elect black and white co-everything—from student body president to homecoming queen.

These are practices that fly in the face of the modern, secular, bureaucratic culture that aspires to be universal. I've got my questions about some of them, too. But they all represent a deep, non-racial cultural consensus in small, rural Southern towns.

It is not clear to me that the objections of one new arrival in the community should have the standing to overturn such a consensus. But that is exactly what happens in the value-free zone of the courts, where the voice of the community is systematically excluded.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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