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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Friday, July 14, 2006

Caleb Stegall wrote this a few days ago for the Dallas News. He dislikes the national and the worldwide, and much prefers the local or particular. He calls for a third party, a "vibrant regionalism" that seeks

to permit regional cultural and religious particularities to emerge from the fog of federalized regulation and be made manifest in our schools, courthouses, businesses and civic organizations. And it would provide incentives to keep cultural capital local. It would encourage people to work, study and raise families close to where they grew up. It would seek ways to promote local culture and would cultivate loyalty to our neighbors and a fierce love for our own places.

Am I the only one who reads "cultural and religious particularities" and immediately thinks of Jim Crow laws and polygamous Mormons? The reasons for those hated federal intrusions was because those local "particularities" inflicted rather intense pain on one or another disinfranchised local group, usually women or an unpopular racial group. I can't see how we can protect unpopular groups from bad "particularities" while permitting too many good ones. In fact, I find it rather easy to imagine a vibrant Jihadist madrassa growing up under Mr. Stegall's regime. Certainly the federal government is a very blunt instrument, but quite often such bluntness is necessary. I can't imagine Mr. Stegall federalizing the Alabama National Guard to enforce integration.

But perhaps more troubling is this paragraph:

There's an irony inherent in a system like our own that identifies the individual as the fundamental unit of political, social and economic order. Because it shears the individual of the republican virtues cultivated within communities of tradition in the name of empowering him, it actually makes the individual subject to tyranny. Limitless emancipation in the name of progress is, it turns out, the final and most binding mechanism of control.

If the individual isn't the "fundamental unit of political, social, and economic order" who is? How do you have elections if voting isn't done by individuals? Just what does get rights and privileges? Mr. Stegall mentions "communities of tradition," which supposedly cultivate virtues. Do the communties get to vote? If rights and privileges don't stay at the individual level, they must migrate up to those communities he likes so much. Communities are groups, and groups have hierarchies. So, by locating social power in "communities of tradition," Mr. Stegall effectively empowers the leaders of those hierarchies -- the heads of the communties -- with the ability to veto the decisions of everyone below him. (The head will always be a "him," too.) How is this NOT tyranny? Is it any less tyrannical to have the tyrant nearby?

Mr. Stegall has an admirable distrust of utopianism, at least as practiced by progressives. When the oldest sources of order – which are at root religious – are abandoned along with their traditions and taboos, the resulting void of meaning is by necessity filled with some ideology promising one form or another of perfect happiness in the here and now. And these systems of self-salvation creep not toward liberation, but toward total control. This would be more persuasive if he himself were not such a utopian. He offers vague plans for devolving authority down from the feds and up from the individual, all the time assuming that the people who finally get to run things will be never, ever misuse their authority. This, even though those people have no checks or balances. Just because the geographical limits of their absolute power are narrow is no reason to presume that it's not absolute or absolutely corrupting.

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