My defense of cultural federalism

America needs more cultural federalism.  

In a real way, the internet has made culture global. As long as I have wi-fi and a working device, I can concern myself with just about any part of the Earth. In addition to information, this connectivity gives me the chance to make moral judgements about far-flung events as they occur. I tend to do so. And, from what I’ve seen over the last couple years, I’m not alone. 

I used to think elevation of public interest beyond the local level was always a great thing. Up to two years ago, I’d have joined guillotine chants for the gossipy parochialism that sometimes characterizes the public sphere in my hometown.  

But that was before Middlebury, Berkeley, Damore, Charlottesville, and ... Berkeley

Rhetoric zings from coast to coast at fiber-optic speeds every time crisis or tragedy strikes. That electric explosion goes on to inflame action, which provokes more hot words. And more action. With shocking words or video from any part of the country felt everywhere instantly, no wonder it seems like the whole country hangs in the balance all the time. And with perceived stakes so high, it’s not surprising that battle lines have hardened.  

The problem is, this internet-fueled rancor bleeds into politics, stymying collective action (that kind of thing is difficult when “hell” and “across-the-aisle” are almost synonymous).

Just as bad, it corrupts social trust. Last year, for example, I wrote a column in which I dragged both feet through a pile of national interest. One woman, presumably also a Chapel Hill area resident, commented “Wow I've seen you around campus a lot but I didn't know you were such a bigot until now.” 

Words like that don’t quite sow salt into the earth of potential friendship, but they’re not exactly nitrogen.

So how do we dispel some of the discord? One way is to look local. Just as the internet brought discourse up to the national level, altered use of the internet can bring it back down (both in focus and temperature). Here are some suggestions:

Frequent the websites of your community newspaper. Truly local issues — not just local skirmishes of zealots — often defy easy ideological side-taking. Most issues do, once you get close enough to really see them. Proximity is crucial.

Mold your social media to maximize local news and connection. A friend once showed me her small town’s very active Facebook group. Most posts were just people advertising their pet portrait businesses. But when conflict did arise, the discussions amazed me with their civility. Clearly, people didn’t want to offend their neighbors online. 

Finally, don’t completely abandon the national or global cultural sphere. I think the principles behind political federalism hold true for culture. We should limit engagement from afar and for vast stakes — it can lead us to over-simplify issues and depersonalize opponents. 

Yet, we shouldn’t abandon it. One proof of its importance lies in the swathes of the nation over the last half-century that were touched by liberal views on race and sexual orientation, and persuaded toward more rational tolerance. This happened partly through political action, of course, but also stemmed from the strength of our national culture. 

Let’s take pressure off that fractured culture.

It can heal.

Thanks for reading.

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