I recently got back from a vacation in New York and Toronto, the US and Canada’s largest cities respectively. So, unsurprisingly, I have been thinking a lot lately about cities. What makes cities tick? What makes them work? What makes them great? Why do they tend to differ politically from surrounding rural areas? I couldn’t help but think of this last question in relation to an incident during the US Republican primary campaign in which one of the candidates baited a rural audience by attacking cities as a kind of icon of all that is wrong in American society: city folk don’t share rural values; city folk aren’t real Americans.
I think both the inherent promise and difficulty of urban society is the idea of difference. In a large North American city you are confronted by all sorts of people, people who differ in income, background, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, and so forth. It is practically unavoidable, and it means that if you are going to have any sense of community in or ownership of your city, it will be of a more abstract and loose kind than in a more rural environment with greater uniformity of culture.
The flip side of this is the rural promise, which is also its inherent difficulty. Rural communities are good at building tight bonds and this is a great promise indeed, but crucially, this tightness is reliant on shared beliefs, values, backgrounds, etc. If one doesn’t ‘fit’ into the community and its values — whether by choice or not — these communities tend not to be as friendly and warm as they are made out to be.
I bring all this up not just because I find myself on the ‘outside’ of traditional values (despite being very traditional in many respects), though this is certainly relevant to me, but because in a modern Western democratic society, our federal politics and national identities need to be increasingly of the ‘urban’ sense of community. We have never been monolithic societies, but the nature of the diversity within our borders has changed and expanded over the decades. If our societies are going to survive we need to build community, but by definition it will have to be a broad community, with the underlying sense that we need to make our society work for all of its citizens, not just those who are like us in one way or another.
Does this mean there will be loss? Yes. But, there is such richness to be gained too. And freedom. And this is a good thing.