We have it on authority: Localism not about a single place, but its poetry

Brent Matthews, left, and Tom Dugan of Carta, the city bus system, chat with WGOW talk show host Jeff Styles prior to a brief Nooganomics.com appearance on the show.

Have you wondered about feeling “loyal” to your hometown and the basis of it? You do not care greatly about its history. You are not an avid follower of the Metro page in the paper. Your connection with its varied society is spotty.

Localism is not so much the particulars of the city, but rather the simple concept of it being a city, I am coming to realize. Localism is as much about the idea of a city as an actual one. That means people can become localist wherever they live. There is no imperial localism where one “I” or a noisy “here” controls all. Localism as a concept spreads in as many ways as there are people. I can explore local economy in my hometown and call it Noogacentrism. Someone in Resaca, Ga., can translate the idea to his town and county with very little loss of meaning or interest.

Localism is an idea to be shared by everyone here whose here is here.

My globalist background a hindrance

Can the 150 foreigners made U.S. citizens in Chattanooga on Oct. 24 be localists? Or is Noogacentrism reserved to people such as Luther Massengill, the longtime radio host, or Roy Exum, the former newspaper sports editor and larger-than-life personality who writes for Chattanoogan.com? Or John Wilson, its historian publisher? Who might claim this perspective?

Meet Rudyard Kipling, the world traveler and novelist who wrote the famous Jungle Book and Just So Stories. Introducing him is G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the English humorist whose many books, including Heretics and Orthodoxy, are a treasure store for any Christian, humanist or cultivated provincialist.

As Chesterton tells it, Kipling’s fault is his internationalism, his refusal to land, his aversion to belonging to a place. His novels of India and strange lands are certainly his strength as a writer. But his great fault is his “lack of patriotism,” or that he “lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally or tragically; for all finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons.”

Kipling is a world traveler who looks at any city as a place, almost as might a philanderer look back wistfully upon the women he has possessed. Kipling may have flirted a great deal, but never committed, as it were. Kipling, in despising provincialism, asks what can anyone know of England who knows no other land? “It is a far deeper and sharper question to ask,” Chesterton replies, “‘What can they know of England who know only the world?’”

In the localist’s conception, Kipling is narrow because he knows the world. The world is a narrow place, and every place the internationalist visits is to him just a place, not the center of the universe. “He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice. He has been to England a great many times; he has stopped there for long visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it is that he thinks of England as a place. The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes.”

Peasant preferred over connoisseur

And he begins a priceless paean about the globetrotter’s world being smaller than that of the peasant. The globalist, the connoisseur of place, knows intimately the things that divide men, their language, their customs, their paints, their architecture. The commoner in the field contemplates what unites men, “hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.” The traveler is not a part of any place, whereas the peasant possesses the world through the place on which he stands.

“The truth is that exploration and enlargement make the world smaller,” Chesterton says. “The telegraph and the steamboat make the world smaller. The telescope makes the world smaller; it is only the microscope that makes it larger. Before long the world will be cloven with a war between the telescopists and the microscopists. The first study large things and live in a small world; the second study small things and live in a large world.”

Your interest in your city, then, is not gratified by the latest data-driven sociological findings of Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. We need not read workforce stats from the U.S. department of labor or soak up any the numerous histories about Chattanooga or Hamilton County. Such literary pursuits have their place. But study is no prerequisite to attaining the vision of localist.

Localism is an idea. It is a recognition of a created physical order plunging through the process of time. It contains a spirit of thankfulness, preferably directed to God. It is a way of seeing meaning in your assignment on the planet. Christianity declares that your existence is part of the will of God and that you are here for His purposes. This recognition is implicit in Chesterton’s work. By recognizing our surroundings as belonging to us, as being the center of the universe for us, we arrive at gratitude, regardless of particular circumstance.

Chesterton makes reference to China and Arabia. “To conquer these places is to lose them. The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motor-car stupidly destroys it.”


G.K. Chesterton, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small,” Heretics, in G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works, David Dooley, ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp 54-62.

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