NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n Aesop’s Fables and Horace’s Satires a common classical allegory is variously retold about the country mouse and his sophisticated urban cousin.
The city-slicker mouse first visits his rustic cousin’s simple rural hole and is quickly bored and unimpressed by both the calm and the simple fare.
When the roles are soon reversed, the country cousin at first is delighted by big-city mouse’s sumptuous urban food scraps and the majestic halls where they may scuttle about. But as the crafty clawed house cat and sharp-toothed guard dogs threaten both, and the noise and bustle mount, the stressed-out country mouse scampers home — at last realizing that his unappreciated quiet and safe abode trump action and sophistication every time.
These Greek and Roman fables reflect the classical world’s paradox of not particularly enjoying life in the fetid, plague-ridden, and dangerous big cities of Athens, Rome, and Alexandria that nevertheless gave the world Socrates, Virgil, and magnificent libraries. As towns grew into metropolises, their sheen as heady places for art, literature, and cultural change began to fade. In response, the once commonplace farm and distant town were increasingly romanticized, especially in such genres as pastoralism and bucolic poetry. The escape to the country estate was the ideal of the Roman senator, the same way that the “ranch” sometimes becomes the getaway from the Washington swamp for American presidents.
Originally, city man was “astute” (asteios/astu: town) and country man a rustic agroikos or bumpkin (argoikos/agros: farm). But it was not such a simple dichotomy, as even today “urbane” is not always an unqualified compliment, and “rustic” is sometimes a grudging commendation of authenticity.
The urbane city dweller (urbanus/urbs) was also often portrayed in Roman comedy and satire as a naïve and full-of-himself fop. In contrast, the rustic bumpkin (rusticus/rus: countryside) might have been grubby and smelly. But he is also usually commonsensical, grounded, and skeptical.
Globalization, we thought, confirmed the superiority and desirability of the urban coastal mice. From Miami to Boston, they looked across the sea to the EU for guidance, not to Appalachia. Likewise, the strip from San Diego to Seattle was a rich window further westward to Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei, not looking backward upon stagnant Bakersfield, Provo, or Missoula. Winners lived as urban gentry; losers were the clingers and deplorables of the interior.
Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Hollywood, Facebook, Google, Amazon, CBS, NPR, PBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Wall Street are certainly not to be found in Kansas, South Dakota, or Arizona.
Things began to change a bit with the election of Donald Trump and his attack on Chinese mercantilism, the inequalities of globalization, open borders, and the deindustrialization of the American interior. Election-night Electoral College maps revealed high-density, blue corridors as bookends on a less settled but undeniably geographically vaster red interior. The interior, not the coasts, determined the Electoral College vote. Peter Strzok’s smelly Walmart deplorables and Barack Obama’s clingers for once seemed to have had the upper hand.
Then came the COVID-19 epidemic. Suddenly, green mass-transit rail, high-density, elevator-reliant town houses, and subways were petri dishes, in a way Wyoming, upstate New York, and the Sierra Nevada foothills were not. Translated, what was the upside of going to Greenwich, Conn., poetry readings of the latest hipster poet or buying the prints of the future Andy Warhol on Manhattan’s Upper West Side if you were either infected or locked in your cramped apartment dependent entirely on a host of previously taken-for-granted Others who brought you water, food, and power, and took out your garbage and sewage — or sometimes didn’t?
Michael Bloomberg’s slur of dumb farmers dropping seeds by rote into the ground to produce corn on autopilot suddenly seemed even dumber when boutique bread was not to be so easily had at the corner La Boulangerie.
The contagion and the lockdown led to economic catastrophe. If the cities might have fared better than the countryside in the abstract calculus of finance and stocks, the recession also gave us another, rawer glimpse of Armageddon to come. Urban services and necessities may break down, but at least in the countryside, the proverbial basics of existential survival — food, water, power, guns, and fuel — are not so tenuous.
In small towns, outlying suburbs, and farmhouses, you can grow food, have a well, pump out your own septic tank, take target practice at home, and have a gasoline tank or a generator in reserve. You can be worth $2 billion on the Magnificent Mile, but if your Gulfstream is locked down at the airport, your driver socially distanced at home, your elevator on the blink, and your food courier a day late, then you are poorer than a peasant in Nowhere, Okla. The poor in high-rises in Queens are far more vulnerable than those in rickety farmhouses in rural Ohio.
After the Trump election, the virus, the lockdown, and the recession, then came the looting, street violence, and arson of the protests that spiraled out of control after the initial demonstrations over the horrific death of George Floyd while in police custody. America saw that in extremis blue-city mayors and police chiefs would virtue-signal away the public’s own safety, to veneer either their own bias, fright, or impotence.
The country’s major cities — New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Washington, Philadelphia, and others — experienced not just mass fire and theft but state-sanctioned or de facto allowances of both. Police departments either could not — or would not — stop the stealing and burning. And officers on the beat often blamed their mayors and governors, who characteristically contextualized the violence, either because they felt they could do nothing about it or they wanted to do nothing about it, or they saw that excusing it was the more persuasive political narrative, at least in the short term. A family in the country may be two hours away from the rural constable, but when armed, it has some recourse against the nocturnal intruder, in a way that someone locked down in an apartment in gun- and ammunition-controlled Queens, with a politically beleaguered police force, does not.
On the national level, blue-state congressional representatives and senators treated chaos in city streets in the same way they had earlier packaged the epidemic, lockdown, and recession: more mayhem that could be blamed on Donald Trump and that would thus accomplish in November 2020 what Robert Mueller, Ukraine, and impeachment did not. Suddenly millions without masks reminded us that shouting about endemic and systematic racism exempted one from the quarantine — though Donald Trump’s flag-waving crowds did not enjoy the same privilege. The urbane who quoted “science” chapter and verse manufactured all sorts of pseudoscientific exegeses about how storming into restaurants to shout down patrons and strolling through burning and smoke-filled Walmarts to loot for hours were permissible indoor social congregations, while going to a peaceful indoor Trump rally was Typhoid Mary recklessness.
For many liberal urban dwellers, all the violence, filth, dependency, plague, incompetence, and sermonizing were no longer worth the salaries earned from globalized high-tech and finances. Even the city’s retro, gentrified neighborhoods, its internationalism and sophistication in food, drink, and entertainment, its cultural diversity, and its easy accessibility to millions of similarly enlightened liberals with superior tastes and tolerance began to wear. When stores go up in flames, or the 58th floor comes down with the coronavirus, or Mayor de Blasio plays “Imagine” to illustrate why there are no police on the streets, then who cares about the intellectual stimulation that supposedly comes by osmosis from the nation’s tony universities anchored in cities or their nearby suburbs?
Increasingly over the past four months, millions of city folk have discovered that the police are as essential as water, food, sewage, and gasoline. Without them, life reverts not to a summer of love but more often to the Lord of the Flies and Deadwood. The urban hipster and marketing executive discovered that a spark somewhere 2,000 miles away can ignite their own neighborhood, and all the kneeling, foot-washing, and social-media virtue-signaling won’t bring safety or food.
For the boutique owner, whose store was looted, defaced, and burned, the existential crisis was not just that capital and income were lost, and a lifetime investment wiped out, after the earlier one-two-three punch of plague/quarantine/depression.
Instead, the rub was that the urban store owner and his customer grasped that all that mayhem could easily happen again and on a moment’s notice — and the ensuing losses would once again be written off as the regrettable collateral damage that is sometimes necessary to “effect social change.” When the mayor and police look the other way as the mob carries off Louis Vuitton bags, and CNN reporters assure us of peaceful protests while flames engulf our television screens, why rebuild or restore what the authorities and the influential deem expendable? Why live in Detroit in 1970 when a constant 1967 repeat was supposed to be a tolerable cost of doing business there?
A Mayor de Blasio or Durkan and a Governor Inslee or Newsom were more or less indifferent when “brick-and-mortar” livelihoods were wiped out. Observably, they expressed very little outrage. Preventing the recurrence of anarchy might alienate the looters and burners, and especially their appeasers and contextualizers.
Add it all up, and as the country mouse of old learned, the giddiness and opulence of the city are increasingly not worth the danger, noise, and mess of the city, at least after February 2020. There are simply too many claws and too many sharp teeth to justify the rich crumbs from the opulent table.
There is another force-multiplier of urban disenchantment: In the age of Zoom and Skype, the bustle of the city may not be able to be fully replicated, and the drama of the live classroom relived, but tele-business still can be conducted well enough without having to navigate around the feces of Market Street, or the looting, shouting, and burning of Seattle. If one wishes to endure watching the torching of the Oakland Mercedes-Benz dealership, one can do it on YouTube in Red Bluff without smelling the burning plastic four blocks away. And when the NFL coaches take the knee this fall during the National Anthem, it will be far more out of sight and out of mind in Hawthorne, Calif., than when living in Silicon Valley.
With downloads, social media, and instant visual communications, the sanitized version of the city can be used well enough by the county dweller. It is of course not the city, but a workable facsimile that means not flying into JFK, or navigating West Hollywood, or staying in a hotel in Chicago.
The cities are broke — a fact that will be more widely appreciated when they return to “normal.” They are no longer even marginally clean and safe, and their police nationwide will calculate that it is not worth getting killed, being fired, spat upon, or put in prison to answer a 911 call.
Our big cities are governed by a blue paradigm that fairly or not will now be increasingly synonymous with crime, debt, and high taxes that ensure bad services. Most city dwellers by needs and habit will still stay there.
But millions will increasingly seek to avoid cities and will appreciate their virtual upsides from a distance without having to endure their real downsides.
Wherever we live, in our dreams at least, we are all country mice now.