While I might fantasize about prospecting for rare earth minerals in Africa with an AK-47 slung over my shoulder in the blazing Saharan heat or some other extreme adventure, I also have come to the realization that such a fantasy doesn’t suit me or mesh with the world I inhabit. In prior ages, there might’ve been wars worth fighting, land to conquer, untrammeled wilderness to civilize, or distant colonies to oversee. Today, not so much.
But as the borders of the American empire expand, with no sign of abating anytime soon, it’s in the neglected interior of the country where the real adventure may soon arise.
In something of a predictive compromise based on this intuition, I’ve looked more locally for exotic, daring experiences. That rare venture that might sit right under my nose and get overlooked by others like myself who feel the call of the wild, but who never ever look down. It may sound like I’m ginning myself and my present adventure up (I am, to be clear, why else would I waste my time writing about it?), but there is a sliver of truth to the “exotic” and “promising” element of spending one’s time tracking and burrowing into what Stanley Kubrick famously called the most boring enterprise on the planet: local news and politics.
Back in the Fall of 2021, I started The Pamphleteer in Nashville: my reinvention of the alt-weekly model in a digital, newsletter format. We focus exclusively on local news, politics, and culture. I am now the most boring man at the dinner party.
I don’t have a genetic predisposition for this work. My father developed real estate and my mother was what we now call a “homemaker”. I caught the bug when I lived in Palo Alto, California shortly after college, where I was writing software for a startup. I didn’t know anyone when I first got there, and so had enough time to indulge my obsession with the history of the area being, at that time, an idolater of Steve Jobs. I got an apartment that happened to be on the same street as Jobs’ house (he was dead by then) and just around the corner from the HP garage. I lived in the ruins of the old Silicon Valley characterized not by social media, but by epoch-defining tools and machines.
In an attempt to commune with whatever sacred energy hid in the hills and contributed to the explosion of creativity there, I started reading the local paper, in addition to books and other materials on the area’s history.
Every morning, I’d pick up the Daily Post, Palo Alto’s superbly average local news rag, and flip through it. I learned about the political dynamics of the city council, debates over the notoriously restrictive zoning laws, and occasionally about whatever crime poured over the bridge from East Palo Alto—among the deadliest zip codes in the country.
For all that reading and monitoring, I only remember one story today with real clarity. It was about a car being stolen, nondescript except I happened to know the guy who stole the car. That’s a story for another time, but suffice it to say that through my boredom, I had also stumbled into managing a local Muay Thai fighter, which exposed me to a whole cast of characters. The managing part mostly involved me bullying him about his diet, but I was glad to don the label “martial arts manager” and tell other people about it. It had a certain swagger to it. Especially among software folks, who have a hard time looking you in the eye.
Anyway, reading the local news in Palo Alto felt, well, exotic. It seemed to me, at the ripe age of twenty-two, that I was probably the only fresh out of college guy in the valley, working in technology, managing an MMA fighter, and also tracking local politics. I didn’t necessarily take pride in this fact, but it did occur to me.
Something about that realization, the shock I had when I learned that the car I had read about was stolen by someone I knew, and the papered-over history of what was once a weird and wonderful cultural capital of the United States, infected me with the desire to channel my energies more locally, specifically through local media. It seemed to me like a space where one could bring out the contours of an area and give it the character you thought it deserved.
I knew from growing up in Nashville that so much local media expressed a vision of the city that I simply did not experience. I suspected that was probably also the case for many other people in cities across the country. As much as we might like to malign The Media, it exists. And try as you might to get out from under its sway, it will always infect you in some way. Whether it’s the cover photo on the watered-down publications stacked in coffee shop newspaper racks or that rare, weird local story that emerges out of the ether and catches everyone’s attention for a brief moment, these publications and organizations help to steer and define the character of a city. They focus its attention, give it a narrative, and supply its people with a vision of the polis.
When I was at the National Conservatism Conference in 2022, I heard a lot about how “localism” was a plank of the conservative platform. On NatCon’s website, they state their mission as fighting against a “homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium” bent on global domination. That struck me as odd because, as far as I knew, I was the only one at the conference who worked actively on the ground level to put up a bulwark against such forces. That might sound self-aggrandizing, but I don’t think it too much of an exaggeration to say that most of the attendees were concerned with larger issues—national and international issues, maybe even philosophical issues. The pettiness of particular local concerns probably bored them.
Most talk of localism at the conference centered on family values and that sort of thing (which I totally get). That said, one cannot hope to combat the “homogenizing, locality-destroying” impulses of the “imperium” without also having some ammunition and influence to wield against it in the locality that’s being homogenized and destroyed by said imperium. Your family and friends are not enough to combat this force unless you’re comfortable moving out of various localities as they are slowly homogenized and destroyed by the same imperium that came to destroy the last place.
Where we live, work, eat, and sleep is a product of the people that choose to live there. And within that group of people, there is a smaller subset who bend the area to their will. I’ve never been what one would call an “ambitious” guy in the traditional sense—and I don’t think what I’m advocating here should be taken that way—but standing in the arena, as the overwrought expression goes, is the only way to play.
Moments have occurred and will continue to occur in which infrastructure and people are needed to seize opportunities. Napoleon’s rise to power, which appeared so effortless as to seem preordained, would never have happened had Napoleon not positioned himself close to the opportunity for leading the French army—a combination of skill, personal politicking, and divine luck.
I don’t think a Napoleon is going to rise at the local school board meeting or from the pages of a local political rag, but I do think that moments repeatedly happen in which those positioned just so can act in ways that preserve and amend the encroaching forces of homogenization and destruction that threaten our cities and towns.
The Pamphleteer is my small expression of this impulse: to actively engage in the life of the city and assert a vision of it against what I see as homogenizing and destructive forces. It’s not even my vision of the city. I share it with many others, potentially even you.
Whatever the case, when I think of localism, I think of the old school American ethic of immersing yourself in the history and the politics of your area. Tocqueville—and what would an assertion of America be without a quote from a Frenchman—commented during his famous tour of the country, “The mass of people who understand public affairs, who are acquainted with laws and precedents, who have a sense of the interests, well understood, of the nation, and the faculty to understand them, is greater here than any other place in the world.”
I’d go so far as to say that tracking national news too closely is rotting your brain. It may be flashy and stimulating, but it’s so far from you that it pacifies your natural and latent political impulse that, before the dawn of the 24/7 newscycle, likely came out more easily through engagement in local problems. It’s porn for politics. I’d ban it if I were the czar.
Consider that the high seas might not lie in the Washington Post’s headlines, but instead, in the abandoned interiors and sclerotic city halls of your area. Look there. You never know what you’ll find behind a dusty door.
Davis Hunt is founder and editor of The Pamphleteer, Nashville.