Conservatives have developed a tendency to deify the rural, as Matt K. Lewis noted in a Thursday story at The Week. This idolization probably stems from a variety of influences—Lewis mentions “the influence of religion (think the Garden of Eden versus the Tower of Babel), philosophy (Rousseau’s notion about noble savages), and various ideas during the time of America’s founding (Thomas Jefferson’s agrarianism, for example).”
But what of the city? Isn’t the city one of the classical bastions of culture? Indeed it is. And Lewis argues that rural-worship is not, in fact, true to the roots of classical conservatism’s past:
Much of conservatism — free markets, for instance — is premised on the notion that more people equals more ideas. (This, of course, is inconsistent with a more traditional, populist strain of conservatism.)
This more optimistic brand of conservatism gained a foothold when economists like Julian Simon and Ester Boserup took on the Malthusian catastrophe argument (which erroneously predicted that global overpopulation would lead to mass starvation), and instead argued that more people equals more ideas, innovation, and yes, prosperity.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Rural societies tend to work on subsistence (you eat what you grow), but cities lead to things like cooperation, specialization, and trade. These things make us rich. Cities are the areas where these things are magnified. More people — constantly bumping into each other — leads to all sorts of inventions and human flourishing.
He adds a bit later,
Perhaps the most ironic thing about other conservatives adopting an anti-city worldview is that it is partly based on a pernicious lie advanced by the high priest of romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau essentially invented his own creation myth out of whole cloth. It differed greatly with the Christian understanding of creation, inasmuch as instead of viewing man as a fallen creature (due to original sin), Rousseau envisioned early man as a sort of noble savage. It wasn’t until man recognized the concept of property and ownership, Rousseau argued, that he became greedy and corrupted. In that view, a simple life is good and pure. A modern urban life is dirty and wrong.
… As a boy growing up in rural western Maryland (seriously, this was physically and stylistically closer to West Virginia than Baltimore), it was instilled in me that country folks were God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth types and that big city folks weren’t. The sense wasn’t just that cities were different, but that they were somehow morally inferior.
Lewis’s post struck many chords for me. As a “crunchy con“-leaning girl with strong ties to farmland and agrarian culture, I love to champion a Wendell Berry-esque conservatism that savors the beauty of fields, farmland, and small-town community. Indeed, Wendell Berry’s writings—though excellent and full of good thoughts—do have this tendency to reverence the rural and unfairly criticize the cosmopolitan. Sadly, many conservatives (myself included) confuse this love of the “pastoral” with a proper love of “place.” We think that, in order to be “rooted” to a specific plot of land, we must be rooted in a country haven.
However, when one really considers the urban nature of America, it makes no sense—and indeed, it would be detrimental—for all of America’s conservatives to abandon urban areas and cosmopolitan centers for a secluded country lifestyle. We may need our countryside Benedictine havens—but we might also need a few similar havens within the city itself.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in New York City, has some excellent thoughts on Christian life in the city, as Lewis points out, and I agree that much of his message is translatable to the conservative experience, apart from any spiritual connotations. Lewis refers to Keller’s teaching on Jeremiah 29 (specifically verses 4 through 7, which end, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”) Keller says that God does not let the people of Israel become “exclusively agrarian.” Rather, “When God has the world in the condition he wants it in, when he finally has the world exactly the way he wants it, it looks a lot like New York, without the graffiti and a few other things. It’s a city!”
Lewis and Keller are right. If we truly want to seek the good of this country, we must not abandon the city or shun it. Rather, some of us must find our place and rootedness in the city, and we must seek its good, as well. This may require a different sort of work, social community, and generosity than our country counterparts. But it is equally important for the purposes of culture-crafting and community-building. As conservatives, it’s important that we not appeal to some romantic rural idyll to the detriment of the place we’re in.
The point of rootedness in place is not to be rooted in the place you might like or prefer—rather, it means that “wherever you are,” you ought to “be all there.” Even if that means living in the city.