The Tyranny of the City
Conor has grappled with the implications of New York’s cultural dominance and with the socio-political constraints of Washington, D.C. I think on both counts he misses his mark. I won’t delve too much into the details of either post. Suffice to say, there is nothing at all wrong with having a cultural center in a city like New York City, nor is there anything particular tyrannical about having a capital city which is also, unsurprisingly, the seat of power and thus the center of the nation’s various ideological movements.
I have some sympathy with Conor’s arguments, but am left largely unconvinced. Regarding culture, I’d simply say that it’s important for culture to be fostered and to grow outside of NYC and LA. I say this because my own home town is actually quite culturally vibrant. We have a good number of artists, musicians, actors, writers, and so forth, and an economy built around local businesses and the local bohemian capitalists who add flavor to that economy. This is important. It makes the town a great deal more interesting than many of the cookie-cutter places I’ve been to. More like this, I say. All our bright minds and creative talents should not feel the need to go to the big cities to make their fortune. They should not be constrained from doing so, but they should also be able to find unique pockets of culture all across America. In that sense, our cultural centers should empower the rest of the country. I think they can, and I think this is good. We should encourage this. It’s one thing to have a cultural center (or centers) and another to have a country wholly dependent on those places for all its art and entertainment consumption. Radical changes in things like music distribution make these centers less powerful than before, and on the whole I think this is a positive development. But we’re still fortunate to have places like New York City, and ‘tyranny’ is hardly the word I’d use when referencing the Big Apple.
Tyranny makes a bit more sense when you talk about D.C. The problems with D.C. are hardly social – or at least, those are rather petty issues all told. Group think in politics is inevitable. I’m also a little baffled by Conor’s case against movements headquartering in D.C. It makes much more sense for these groups to locate in or near D.C. for any number of reasons, just as it makes sense for young wonks and pundits and political scientists to flock there.
On the one hand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. However, I would suggest that this is symptomatic of a far too centralized system of governance. Always the nation’s capital will be its center and its most robust political environment. But there is nothing at all wrong in conceptualizing a more decentralized system, wherein power is better dispersed across the country. I’ve written out my case for more competitive federalism, with more of the taxing and spending decisions taking place at the state level, etc. Less political influence in the capital would lead more of our best and brightest to distribute themselves to the various state capitals and so forth. Whether this would be good or bad is harder to say. All the problems Conor describes that occur in D.C. would occur across the country still. The cities would still be the centers of political and economic and cultural power, and so it has always been and always will be.
The question to me is not whether centers of power or culture or economy are good or bad, but whether there are appropriate checks and balances on their influence, and whether that influence then results in (cultural/political/economic) growth across the country or whether it simply saps the rest of the country of its resources. Is New York robbing the rest of the country of its art and culture? Probably not. Likely quite the contrary occurs. Wall Street, on the other hand, is a lot more culpable when it comes to our financial situation and the drain bad finance has placed on people on Main Street as it were – and there is certainly a problem with letting one industry, largely centered in one city, become so dominant. And in that regard, DC is also culpable. The two cities are partners in that crime, and they really have become tyrants in a way, or at the very least the relationship between the two – between our financial sector and our political elite on both left and right – has become incestuous and unsustainable.