I just ran across a line in Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples (I know, not his best, but a fun read anyway) about Boston long being America’s intellectual capital. Do we have one today? It’s not a frivolous question. Given the massive problems facing us, isn’t it important to try and figure out where the solutions may come from? I’d vote for D.C., but you have to correct for the inertial drag of non-stop politics, where ideas get expropriated at birth for policy purposes, without the time to grow and develop. New York? A decaying crust of liberal opinion facing a daunting economic future that may take the best minds out of the city. Certainly not Boston anymore, or L.A. Nor can any university lay claim to being the intellectual heart of the country.
Maybe 21st-century, Twittered and hyperlinked America doesn’t need a physical gathering spot of intellectuals. After all, I blog from D.C., while Rich runs the ship in N.Y. Our intellectual universe is like the original DARPAnet — dispersed, not centrally controlled, able to survive the collapse of any one part of its ecosystem.
But perhaps being so dispersed isn’t the same as the coffee-house fervor or the intellectual melting pot of 19th-century Boston, since our interactions remain purely phantasmic. Maybe there’s something important about being physically connected, even for (especially for) intellectual activity. The sparks that fly only from face-to-face encounters, the sense of passion and emotion that spreads like a virus from those spending time together. The way NR was in its early days of cramped offices. Some celebrate the rise of telecommuting; but the advantages of its comfort may be offset by the eremitic existence of the mind it to which it leads. Looked at another way, Marx started off alone in the British Library, but the Founders were stuffed together in close quarters in Philadelphia. That’s too small a data set to make any generalizations, but we know which one turned out better for mankind.
So, do we still need an intellectual capital? If so, where is it — or where ought it to be?