Even though cities are getting steadily bigger, they are also becoming more chaotic, untrusting and ungovernable. Formation of the stabilizing cultural values upon which societies depend has been passed by default to the smaller centres and rural areas. No longer are these dismissed as backward, ignorant and uncouth. Small communities have become our last line of defence against cultural collapse.
To which all us country-dwellers can only say Amen. We have been aware of Mr. Spengler’s insight for a long time. If urbanites are becoming aware of it too, that’s a step forward.
The most striking thing about city life to us hicks is how anonymous it is. You can live your whole life without anyone knowing or caring who you are or what you do. Friendships are selective and dispersed. Typically, you know little or nothing about the people next door, except their most annoying characteristics. You share almost nothing with them except a wall or fence.
Some will say I am overstating the anonymity factor, others won’t; but what nobody can deny is that this has been the general direction of our cities all through the 20th century. Gone are the days I remember when mobs of very young kids roamed freely, safely and fairly harmlessly all through suburbia. Gone are my grandfather’s childhood days in pre-Great War, pre-television, pre-radio Toronto, when nobody locked a door and when the principal evening entertainment was to stroll along the street and chat with neighbours on their verandas.
Today, of course, we have garages facing the street, not verandas, and we don’t stroll. The more energetic jog; solitary women are advised to bring along a large dog. The rest stay home, cocooned in call-screened, 200-channel, Internetted solipsism, or drive somewhere else for partying or professional entertainment.
Now I’m sure people can think of a dozen good things about our highly self-selected modern personal privacy, but against them all I can offer one compellingly important moral disadvantage: personal irresponsibility. It’s a fact of human nature that when we are in the public eye, when we are known or knowable to the people around us, we behave better than when we are not. And while nobody would want a city such as communism invariably creates, in which the state has everybody snooping and reporting on everyone else, it is just as true that too little attention among neighbours can produce the opposite problem: a city in which people tolerate everything and care about nothing except themselves.
It need not be so. Imagine, for example, a city in which criminal records, for everything from drunk driving to child molesting and murder, even among the young, are an open book–anyone who’s interested can find what crimes you may have committed. Imagine a city in which there is a published list of anyone taking public assistance. Imagine a city in which the residents could assign a portion of their property tax, if they chose, to the local community league or any other neighbourhood project. Imagine a city in which residents can vote to expel any neighbourhood commerce they consider sexually corrosive. Imagine a city in which parents have decisive democratic control over the individual school their child attends; in which teens require signed parental permission to be abroad in late evening; in which divorce is legally difficult; in which the state may not take children away from their parents without the signed consent of three neighbours.
All of these ideas offend our historically new radical liberal instinct which angrily asserts “Nobody tells me how to live my life.” However, it is precisely this spreading sense of careless permissivism which destroys the common trust and earned respect between neighbours and between parents and children upon which any community worth the name is built. For between the individual and the state stands the most fundamental social unit of all, the family. Unless its responsibilities, rights, priorities and authority are nurtured and conserved, no larger social organization can possibly succeed. Without strong, responsible families there can be no such thing as ordered liberty. Societies destroy themselves when they forget this.