On Big Cities and Small Towns: Cultural Relevance and the 2016 Election

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One of my favorite relatives took to Facebook recently to post this New York Times analysis of “The Two America’s of 2016,” displaying the stark divide between big city America and small town America in their opposed political sentiments as evidenced by the voting trends in this past presidential election. In his post, he made this claim: 

What a surprise that all culturally relevant cities (where there is great economic, religious, and racial diversity) voted against Trump.”

That led me to reflect on big cities, small towns, and the history of cultural relevance…

I recall spending some time in San Francisco a couple years ago and pondering the difference between small town and big city mentality. It occurred to me that they are both alike in one crucial sense: their inhabitants have it all figured out.

They understand the world, have a pretty dogmatic opinion of how things are or should be, and there are generally no longer any open questions about reality. All wondering is gone. And whether that comes from a dogmatic conviction to the religion of one’s youth or from the dogmatic conviction that the values of The New Yorker are unassailable, both have it pretty damn well figured out. They are both insulated in a world where everyone shares their opinions and values and can’t for the life of them figure out why in the hell anyone would think any differently.

The really culturally relevant cities throughout the history of Western civilization have been those who experienced a drastic and profound collision of competing world views – Rome when confronting Christendom and its ancient past, Middle Age Europe upon the discovery and confrontation with Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Europe upon the radical threats and new ideas that early modern science brought to the late middle aged world, and on and on. It was precisely the conflict between faith and reason, religion and science, ancient and new that brought about the most productivity in the arts, literature, music, philosophy, science, inventions, new political systems, and everything we’ve come to understand as “culturally relevant.”

It’s in this space of conflict where new questions arise – all sides are challenged to awake from their dogmatism and the world suddenly becomes big once again.

The world is very small in today’s small towns, I agree. I also submit that the world is very small for most people in today’s big cities. They both have it figured out.

The cities that were split 50-50 on an election like this, where religion is as vibrant as academic thought, where the guy from the small town is forced to engage with the gal from the big city and both are made uncomfortable – those are the cities to watch. And I suggest that those will be the culturally relevant cities of the future.

Denton voted just about 50-50, by the way.

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