I just ran across a line in Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples (I know, not his best, but a fun read anyway) about Boston long being America’s intellectual capital. Do we have one today? It’s not a frivolous question. Given the massive problems facing us, isn’t it important to try and figure out where the solutions may come from? I’d vote for D.C., but you have to correct for the inertial drag of non-stop politics, where ideas get expropriated at birth for policy purposes, without the time to grow and develop. New York? A decaying crust of liberal opinion facing a daunting economic future that may take the best minds out of the city. Certainly not Boston anymore, or L.A. Nor can any university lay claim to being the intellectual heart of the country.
Auslin wants to know if America has such a place, or if such a place is even necessary.
I’d say the NYC-DC-Boston axis is the intellectual capital, but that’s cheating, isn’t it? Those are three cities, and they cover a wide area. NYC is the cultural capital and the financial capital, but Washington is not only the political capital, but the place where policy ideas come from. Most countries have their capitals concentrated in one city. Not us.
The more interesting question Auslin poses is whether we need physical proximity for creative interaction. It’s a great question, actually. I sit in my house in a tiny Louisiana river town and don’t blog all that differently than I would if I still lived in Philly.
Yet when I was at Templeton and had a blog, I wrote far more often about issues related to science and religion, simply because my physical proximity to smart people who thought about these things all the time brought to my attention stories, people, and ideas that I wouldn’t have been confronted with, normally.
On the other hand, I know from my (very enjoyable) years in NYC and DC that the effect of living in a bubble can be stultifying. Most people in this country do not think and talk about the things that the ideas-generating people concentrated in places like NYC, DC, Boston, Chicago, and the Bay Area do. You might say, “Uh, yeah, that’s why they call those places ‘intellectual capitals.’” And you would be right. The point is, however, that with physical concentration of intellectually-minded people comes a certain insularity from everyday problems and everyday experiences.
When I was in my 20s and working in Washington, I would come home to visit my family in St. Francisville and be frustrated by how little interest anybody showed in the work I was doing. I was covering Capitol Hill during the Republican Revolution of 1994 and beyond. Speaker Gingrich, man! Nobody cared. Now, even today, at 45, I would say that they ought to have been paying more attention to what was happening. But I was more wrong than they were. I was caught up in the vanity of being in Washington, around all that power and celebrity, and reading everything through the lens of the politics-obsessed media (of which I was a part). It distorted my sense of what’s important.
Without question your average intellectual would be far more at home in a place like Washington, or New York, than in a small town somewhere. But the question is not whether intellectuals like to live in intellectual capitals; the question is, Does America need such places?
I would still have to say yes, if only because certain creative enterprises depend on collaboration and social engagement among creatives. But I would also say that we need them less than we think we do, and that the parochialism that is an inevitable effect of these places hurts the country more than people think. A lot goes on in America that intellectuals in the capitals can’t see, for the same reason that city dwellers don’t see all the stars in the sky until they get far out into the desert.
What do you think?