Magazine article The American Conservative

Front Porch Revolution: Wendell Berry's Cure for Partisanship

Magazine article The American Conservative

Front Porch Revolution: Wendell Berry's Cure for Partisanship

Article excerpt

What is "localism"? It's a vision of civic involvement and community that, at root, is summed up in one phrase: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." As Katherine Dalton, a senior editor for the Front Porch Republic (FPR), puts it: "Our love of country is a very little, very local thing. You can't love something or someone without knowing it well."

FPR, an online journal that advocates localism and traditional conservatism, holds an annual conference with a handful of localism-minded speakers. This year's gathering took place in Louisville, Kentucky, in September, with 150 people in attendance: a diverse mix of undergraduate and graduate students, scholars and professors, young married couples and local Kentuckians.

One elderly gentleman sat with his wife near the back of the auditorium, wearing glasses and a tweed blazer. It was only after the speakers began that I saw him there, his notebook and pen at the ready. It was Wendell Berry, the conference's keynote speaker. I've not seen many keynoters show up early for conferences--and I've never seen one sit through the several hours of lectures before and after his speech. Yet there Berry sat: the award-winning author, poet, environmentalist, farmer, and critic, listening to speakers talk about the importance of tending to place and building community. Throughout the day testimony to Berry's work was significant--several speakers referenced his poems and his novels Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow. When his time came to speak, Berry told us, "I keep living to see things I've never expected to see. This is very moving for me." Mark Mitchell, another of FPR's senior editors, believes the localist movement has reached "a certain point of credibility" through the influence of figures like Berry. Yet people's knowledge of the movement is still somewhat limited--they identify it with buying goods from farmer's markets or local coffee roasters. Thus, the theme of this year's conference: "Localism Beyond Food." Civic involvement is integral to localism, Mitchell says. This means getting to know one's neighbors, even attending town hall meetings or getting involved in a local philanthropic organization. It's about conserving neighborhoods--be they urban or rural--so that their heritage, traditions, and communities are not lost.

"Knowledge of a place is multigenerational, passed down through families and communities," says Jeff Polet, editor-in-chief of FPR and a professor at Hope College in Michigan. "In destroying regional community, we are asked to love a body"--that is, a country--"that has grown cold." Simple things like cultivating relationships with local businesses are important politically, Mitchell says: good politics grow out of "civic friendships," common affections that supersede rancorous partisanship. …

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