Before you read this essay, check out the rather arresting, if not astonishing map of the 2016 American election, on the link below. The essay was just declined for publication by a rather major Website with which you would all be familiar, on the editorial ground that to publish it at this time would be “too disruptive” for Americans to read.
So I am publishing it. Still working on it a little. But you will get the message. It is not one I have seen emphasized elsewhere, except indirectly. I think the thesis holds up, and it points to a phenomenon that is radically new with respect to the Western secularizing nations, at least.
[Map created by Magog the Ogre via Wikimedia, Nov. 29,2016]
The map is broken down by red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) counties (rather than by states), and it shows a stark rural-urban division of citizens in a pattern that has become typical of most Western democracies. Much about urbanization is explained by the attraction of better jobs, services, and the glitter of wealth. But there is another powerful, if less visible attraction. Namely, the fact that life in the Big City provides immediate access to a hedonistic privacy offering relief from the traditional moral restraints and obligations imposed by civil life in rural settings.
The rural/urban divide became especially visible in America over the previous election cycle, and an Atlantic Monthly article of 2012, “Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide is Splitting America,” remarked that “virtually every major city (100,000 plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer where people live, it’s about how people live ….”
The pattern of big cities dissolving their own moral roots is an old one, and literature is often the canary in the mine warning of dark and rapacious cities where almighty money, unbridled self-interest, and sensuality chip away at ordinary morality. Flaubert’s newly-citified Madame Bovary grinds down to suicide after losing herself in vanity and infidelity. Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit brutally exposes the cash-cruelty of American city life under its new aristocracy of money. And who could forget Hardy’s lovely, dark-tressed Tess of the D’Urbervilles milking her cows at Talbothays dairy farm, the soulless urban sprawl of Flintcomb-Ash encroaching to swallow her up?
One of the most disturbing literary characterizations of a growing modern anomie – that condition, first described minutely by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in which society ceases to provide any moral guidance for individuals – is sensed with some alarm in the first line of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Meursault opens the novel with these listless words: “Mama died today. Or, maybe yesterday; I don’t know….” He doesn’t know because the bonds are broken, and in a war-torn, morally-wracked Europe, of which he is so often taken as a symbol, so is he. The greatest painter of deracinated souls, however, was surely Dostoevsky, who first captured the irony that in the modern city, rootlessness is the most common bond, and so if it is true that God does not exist, then “everything is permitted.”
When everything is permitted, there can be no possible distinction between good and evil, and therefore no ordering principles by which a society can form a “cosmion” – a term used by some philosophers to describe a sheltering common life in which, precisely by way of such distinctions, citizens voluntarily modify their personal choices for the good of all, rather than primarily for their own good. The thought that by virtue of an enfeebling mutation of this grounding possibility the Western world may be morally imploding, all the while defending the outcome as the highest form of democratic liberty, is rather disquieting.
For just as molecules may break into atoms, and corporate bodies into mere aggregates, a democracy can fragment into a “hyperdemocracy” – a simple arithmetical compilation of sovereign individuals, each cheerfully self-alienated from any search for a common good, and therefore from each other. The result is mass anomie: an aimless collection of citizens it is assumed will determine (we cannot say “will decide”) the blind outcome of society. This is a type of political formlessness that can arise only from the privatization of liberty, and it differs sharply from the classical democratic form (under assault, but still with us as late as mid-twentieth century) which was a system striving for an ostensible common good, the underlying, if unspoken logic of which was that human acts directed exclusively toward ourselves as individuals can have no moral substance. This, they acquire only when directed towards others; which is to say, when they are self-transcendent acts bonding all citizens in a civil society through mutual obligations and duties. It goes without saying that such a society cannot be a fiction, as libertarians are prone to believe, for it has a relational moral being that is necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
However imperfectly, that was the notion that energized the ancient city, or polis, the principal aim of which was to thrive as a unified social, moral, and – if barbarians were at the gate – a military entity. But the modern democracies have turned this notion on its head by allowing a new, soft sort of urban barbarism to develop inside their own gates. For over the last century, each at its own pace, they have been mutating from polis, to anti-polis; to aggregates of sometimes millions of urbanites living side-by-side (hard to say “together”), offering an easy evasion of the moral expectations of others, and a shared, often deliberate and outspoken repudiation of any felt obligation to create such expectations forothers. So now, and uniquely so in human history, we have gigantic anti-community communities producing anti-morality moralities, so to speak. That millions of citizens wander past each other staring in voluntary isolation at their cell-phones, is just a recent high-tech manifestation of this long-developing truth for which they were already primed. And it’s not as if human communities as corporate bodies have never decayed into amoral aggregates before. Ancient Rome remains a classic case. But our modern hyperdemocratic regimes may be the first in history intentionally and defiantly to engineer this kind of moral implosion by philosophical fiat.
Why “philosophical”? Because what is so clearly demarcated on our map looks very much like a pattern formed by citizens who over a century and a half have taken sides in the long philosophical, political, and moral contest between the incompatible social philosophies of J.S. Mill, and Edmund Burke; which is to say, as the Atlantic article above, warned: over how we ought to live. However dumbed-down, Mill’s so-called “harm principle” – do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm someone else – rules the cities, while Burke’s notion of civil society as a polity voluntarily bonded by “little platoons” still rules the rural areas. I am sure he was speaking of cities when my historian colleague John Robson wrote that “the modern world seeks absolute autonomy, freedom of choice unbounded by norms. We do not wish to obey moral laws but to create them for ourselves….” It is mostly in our fashionable cities that we see this trend, while country folk, even when they use the same democratic language, still (so far) intend the basic principle of our original, if now decaying style of a polis democracy.
An ironic result of the conflation of a corporate civil body and a mere aggregate of individuals is that the word – indeed, the very concept of – “democracy” has bifurcated, and is now something akin to a whore word that will do whatever is asked of it, such that it is not uncommon to hear two people in the same room cite democracy to defend plainly incompatible moral and philosophical positions as if merely to utter the word with sufficient solemnity is to rescue a bad argument. This has utterly stranded any underlying notion of “the people”. They have become like a pack of dogs which, though each is still tethered to the carriage of public life by virtue of the right to vote, otherwise have no traces to join them to each other, and so they run at will in all directions with no common destination. Where the carriage will end up is anybody’s guess, and the sobering possibility looms that no one cares. The hyperdemocratic ship must have no chart, no captain, no pilot – just equally-liberated passengers. Liberated from each other, that is, each citizen increasingly his or her own private morals-inventing machine. Census analysts in many parts of the West continue to warn of the high and climbing percentages of urban residents – ranging from 50% to 75% in some cities – who now live alone.
Accordingly, the modern anti-polis is increasingly a place where acts traditionally considered wrong, or “bad for society” – which is to say, bad for the good of the polis – such as divorce, abortion, single-parenting, homosexuality, drug-use, and saturation pornography, increase in variety and number and are normalized by language-inversion, then defended vigorously against “judgmental” attacks – on what? Not on these behaviours themselves, or on any harm to society as a whole these acts may cause now, or in future, but on the sanctity of the individual right to choose them. For what could possibly shame a polity with vanishingly few shared convictions? Not much. As a result, the anti-polis has become the locus of a cultural-moral relativism easily identifiable in such angry prohibitions as: “Don’t you dare judge me!” The red hinterland, meanwhile, remains rooted, however tenuously, in our original and natural biological model for a human community, and continues to rail privately, if not freely (except in the ballot box) against these and many other once publicly-recognized wrongs.
The evidence for what looks very much like social and moral self-debilitation is for now mostly visible in cities, where increasingly we find the most extreme statistics on every imaginable human predilection, perversity, and indulgence, and a dire breakdown of the natural family (best defined as “a married mother and father living together with their dependent children”) unequalled since the last stages of Roman decadence, paralleled by a growing dependency of broken families on government. Is it not shocking to realize that even the combined disaster of two exhausting and bloody World Wars book-ending a devastating international depression could not produce the depths of social, family, and moral breakdown now observable in the crime, health, and welfare statistics of most big cities? It is hard to resist the old quip that these may be the only entities in history to have passed from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization.
I don’t want to exaggerate. The modern city is a living paradox. Wonderful art collections are on display in architecturally impressive buildings, on the steps of which bums may be seen sleeping off their drug of choice or begging. Urban advance and decline may grow together, even feed off each other in reaction, the former masking the latter. Great museums, orchestras, and art shows glow like ever more carefully-applied make-up on the worried visage of the anti-polis, which still harbours many small tightly-bonded communities: households, churches, charities, and institutions clinging, beleaguered, to their private vision of a shared common good. Many of these are immigrant or remnant communities clustering against what they see as an obvious decline of the surrounding society, bombarded daily by newly-legitimized (if not approved) behaviours that in the very recent past (in a now-defunct phrase) would have “shamed us all.”
Finally, our modern anti-polis entities have become repositories for most of the rich as well as most of the poor of democratic nations, the preponderance of benefits going in one direction, the harms in another, with those in the middle gradually driven out by higher prices, by a simple evaporation of their former standard of living, or by self-relocation to cheaper suburbs as a service class. Hence the split-personality of the anti-polis. The well-off frequent theatre and symphony subsidized by governments and corporations, travel abroad, hire the best lawyers, eat in very nice restaurants, and drive their kids, or have Filipina nannies walk them, to the best schools; while those at the other extreme cannot escape bad, even dangerous schools, have latch-key kids, the greatest share of fatherless children and abortions, get arrested for most of the alcohol, drug use, and domestic violence – and are generally struggling in the underbelly of the anti-polis. During the long decline of Rome, if they escaped assassination, wealthy citizens by-passed a similar reality (while sampling similar amusements) by retreating to their country villas, just as wealthy moderns retreat by clustering in pricey neighborhoods or gated suburban communities, riding it all down in style.
Skeptical citizens in the countryside, meanwhile, continue to resist what looks to them “like an alien invasion” of the nation by city-dwellers, as Walter Lippmann put it back in 1927 – the first year America had more urban than rural citizens. The aliens sniff that citizens in the red counties are “living in the nineteenth century,” while the latter are convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that those in the blue counties inhabit a weird, and possibly sick world celebrating the hegemony of individual will over all other moral claims, even over the primacy of human nature, the latest weirdness on public display being the right of individuals to repudiate their own natural biology by re-imagining themselves as any gender, or combination of genders they wish, and hence of men to enter women’s washrooms at will, and vice versa. Aliens, indeed!
Red counties vote against blue because for now, at least, the anti-polis is offensive to everything they have ever believed.