I’ve been thinking about Rod Dreher’s self-lacerating commenter, who blames himself for America’s decline because:
I moved away from a beautiful town in the middle country for the temptations of the big city and a dream of bigger and better things. . . .
Now I live in the big, romantic city. My food comes from thousands of miles away. God knows where my meat comes from. People drive into my city from surrounding burbs, spending two hours each way. Next year we will start a billion dollar highway improvement system that will save commuters six minutes on average.
I don’t know my neighbors.
I can’t go back to my old town.
I am a reason for America’s decline.
Dreher hears echoes of Chesterton and Berry, and I hear that. In response, I’ll speak in the voice of Ibn Khaldun, the great medieval Islamic historian. Khaldun developed a theory of the rise and fall of empires based on a dichotomy between sedentary, civilized peoples and nomadic barbarians. The civilized peoples, simply because of the nature of city life, lose the social cohesion necessary for organized violence. As a consequence, they are eventually conquered by barbarian nomads with a higher degree of social cohesion. These barbarian conquerors infuse the city with new vigor, and restore it to glory, but over time these barbarians become civilized themselves, and the cycle continues with another decline in social cohesion, another conquest by a new batch of barbarians.
From time immemorial, because of the much higher load of disease in pre-modern times, and because of the higher cost of living (and hence of raising children) down to the present, cities have failed to replace their populations. They require periodic infusion from the more fertile countryside to survive. In a sense, then, civilization has always benefitted from a steady infusion of barbarians. The Anglo-Saxon family model, whereby the eldest son inherits the land and the other sons need to figure out some other way of making a living, facilitates the diffusion of people that reinvigorates the city (and founds new cities, even new countries).
I strongly question the identification of the city with rootlessness. I’m a city person – a New Yorker – and as a consequence, I’m extremely provincial. I’ve lived nearly my entire life within the New York metropolitan area. By the same token, I’m very rooted. I know my neighbors (some of them), and my local neighborhood merchants, but I also know the larger canvas of my city, its rhythms, its moods, something of its history. I am part of its life. If rootedness is what staves off decline, I am not the problem. And I am not exceptional. The problem of the city – following Ibn Khaldun – is not its rootlessness, but its complexity, and the effect of this complexity on social cohesion.
Nonetheless, I think there is a relationship between rootlessness and what Dreher and his commenter are worried about. First, the city is much bigger, relative to the countryside, than it has ever been. The developed world has never been so predominantly urban. Unless we import them from abroad, we may be running out of barbarians. And second is the phenomenon of the rootless provincial. The person who lives in a place that is no place, neither a city, with a history, nor a small town, with a way of life. When Dreher’s commenter talks about the decay of his small town, he blames himself for leaving for the city, but for a huge number of American towns, the larger blame lies not with the people leaving for the city but the city sprawling out to meet the people.
If our subsidization of industrial agriculture and suburban sprawl were ended, life as it is lived in the city would change very little. But life as it is lived outside the city might change significantly. There are places that would die, but other places that would thrive, and the likelihood that the places that survived would be places, not just locations, would, I suspect, increase substantially.
That might not stave off the inevitable decline that Ibn Khaldun’s theories predict. But we might hope, at least, for a higher caliber of barbarian.