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The New Localists

February 2, 2010

Forget about the pseudo-radicals in literary studies: these days, the most ardent localists are conservatives. Here’s Douthat following up on his latest column:

The data on [sex ed] are necessarily deeply particular, and partisans on both sides will probably always be able to find studies that “prove” the superiority of their preferred approach . . . Which suggests, to my mind, the virtues of both widespread experimentation and local control, rather than an inevitably polarizing quest for a one-size-fits-all solution.

See also Patrick J. Deneen on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to let corporations fund political campaigns directly (Deenan goes on to express agreement with Douthat):

. . . more often than not, our principled arguments actually shroud particular and partisan interests. The language of rights, and the judicialization of politics, totalize our partial claims. It’s a most pernicious of outcomes, and one we live with daily (does anyone really think that “conservatives” are happy with the Court’s corporate finance decision on First Amendment grounds? Might it not have something to do with the assumption that such funding stands to more greatly benefit candidates in the corporation-friendly Republican party?).

The resemblence between Douthat, Deenan, and postmodernist critical theory is striking. (As is the similarity between the title of Deenan’s post, “The Problem with Principled Argument,” and the title of one of Stanley Fish’s books, “The Trouble with Principle.”) Oddly, the localist argument that truth is necessarily partisan, culturally constructed, and fleeting is itself accessible to all — regardless of ideology. Thus, while Foucault and his disciple Stephen Greenblatt used it to undercut traditional morality, Douthat uses it to clear the way for abstinence-only sex education.

I’m tempted to think that localism has some merit, given that it is generally invoked by partisans for partisan purposes (which is what the theory would predict). On the other hand, its usefulness to such divergent political aims suggests a certain universality.

For further discussion of the ground shared between critical theory and the Douthat-Deenan strand of conservatism, see my review of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe.

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