In a previous post, I was trying to plumb the depths of the relationship between geography and our political divide. The purpose of that post was simply to explore how population density can affect how we desire to regulate the actions of those around us. And how population density therefore correlates with political affiliation. The lower the population the density, the less people feel the need to monitor their neighbor’s every move. But as you move closer to the heart of cities and towns with higher population density, the desires of the collective become paramount, and the rights of the individual diminish.
While I think this plays a big role and is certainly discounted in much of our political discourse, I would never say that this accounts for the entirety of the differences in how urban and rural populations vote. In fact, I think there’s another similarly overlooked factor, that may be even more worthwhile to explore.
a step back in time to the first urban civilizations
Recently I read a book titled Babylon: The Birth of Ancient Civilizations by Paul Kriwaczek, which gives an overview of the rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamian cultures and how they gave us many of the building blocks that serve as the foundation for our current nations and cities. It was an absolutely fascinating read for a multitude of reasons, but I was surprised how this man’s interpretations of the rise and fall of these ancient cultures could speak so much to the current paradigm. I’ll share just a couple quotes to set the table.
“Those societies in which seriousness, tradition, conformity and adherence to long-established – often god-prescribed – ways of doing things are the strictly enforced rule, have always been the majority across time and throughout the world. Such people are not known for their sense of humor and lightness of touch; they rarely break a smile. To them, change is always suspect and usually damnable, and they hardly ever contribute to human development. By contrast, social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people’s understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.”
“If cities and civilizations are like machines, then it is tempting to see the Akkadian imperium like one of those fighter aircraft of mid-twentieth-century warfare, the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt 109, which owed their success and their dominance of the skies to the fact that they were designed to fly on the very borderlines of stability. When all was going well they were magnificent. When damaged in a vulnerable part, they would spin and crash to the ground. Other, more conservatively fashioned – and duller – planes could limp home even with wings and tail assemblies shot full of flak holes.”
This may just be one writer’s interpretation, but I really think he’s mapped out in just a few sentences some key insights regarding the left-right, progressive-conservative, and what is essentially at the core, an urban and rural divide.
the worldview differences in urban and rural life
For urban societies, “progress” is often the chief aim. As the author notes of these old Mesopotamian civilizations in other parts of the books, much of the city would be razed and rebuilt on average every 90 years. Iconoclasm was routine and the erection of something new (new technologies, new architecture, new gods, and systems of hierarchy) the norm. Opportunity was sought in the unknown and pursued at great cost.
As for rural communities, the desire to “conserve” the past is an instinct to do what has always been done. This is often the approach less prone to dramatic collapse. It’s known territory. Predictable. Safer. The ideals that undergird this philosophy have been tested by time and through a variety of seasons have proven to be durable. Why reinvent the wheel? Why fix what isn’t broken?
If we understand cities as a form of technology, we start to see some of the benefits and consequences to the societies, which they serve. Cities, which initially formed as a prerequisite to the collaboration required for agrarian life, serve as the basis for the division of labor, increase in the efficiency of production, and provide the setting for a melting pot of ideas and cultures that have often been the locale of our greatest innovations. However, as the author notes, like most technologies that are continuously refined for efficiency, urban societies can forget that for every successful innovation, there are magnitudes more that failed. Like throwing paint at a wall to see what sticks, there’s a good chance many of the ideas fail to accomplish their aims and leave the society susceptible to destruction. Like the fighter planes he referenced, they are designed to fly magnificently under perfect flying conditions, but a single bullet hole might be enough for everything to unravel. And yet, as the author also notes, it would be wrong to ignore the incredible benefits to humanity that have resulted from some of these innovations.
The rural communities often fail to recognize how in debt their current lifestyle is to the innovations from past urban civilizations. Modern agriculture, sanitation practices, language, mathematics, writing, engineering, architecture, metallurgy, wayfaring, medicine, the domestication of animals, organized religion, arts, theater, and athletics all find their origins in the urban cultures of history. Yet today they have all been adopted by these conservative communities and are simply assumed. Conservatives aren’t harkening back to the “golden days” of nomadic life. What they essentially are desiring to be conserved today were the successful innovations of yesterday.
And urban communities often fail to recognize how often they tend to go awry in their pursuit of progress. Nature has its limits. Like Icharus, it is possible to fly too close to the sun in pursuit of the next advancement. And there might be more conservatively minded people with the correct intuition that this striving towards a utopian vision might be towards a dead end with catastrophic consequences.
The left and the right. The progressives and conservatives. The urban and the rural. They have always been in tension and for good reason. We need an appropriate application of the two and that might not necessarily look like a 50/50 split at all times.
the symbolism of a new jerusalem
I think the imagery presented at the end of Revelation might depict it best. The city of the New Jerusalem with the Tree of Life at its center. Cities in and of themselves are not bad. Nor are rural communities. It’s a question of what’s at the center. Progress alone isn’t enough. Nor is conservation. I don’t think economic growth, diversity, inclusion, tolerance, or national pride are sufficient in and of themselves to fill that void either.
So what is the ideal, or “Tree of Life” so to speak, that societies should be centered around to be successful? What defines “success” for a society? And what could possibly unite the rural and urban parts of the population? I think those questions are really worth pondering and could possibly help us get a glimpse into the stark differences in worldview that inform the way we see one another. And possibly even help us bridge the gap and find a more unified way forward.
Although if history serves as the model, I think more likely than not, we will continue to see this division along rural and urban worldviews continue to present itself. It may be a pessimistic outlook, but it doesn’t mean these efforts to understand the other side have to be for naught.