Urban Civilization & Its Discontents
It is in the nature of democratic countries that, sooner or later, all serious controversy—whether it be political, social, or economic—will involve an appeal to the democratic principle as the supreme arbiter of the rights and the wrongs of the affair. One might begin by invoking the idea of justice, or liberty, or equity, or natural rights; but in the end what is unjust or illiberal or unnatural—or even what is simply “un-American”—will be defined in terms of what is most properly democratic. It follows, therefore, that to the extent to which our idea of democracy is vague or unrealistic or self-contradictory, we shall be less able to resolve the issues that divide us.
I do not mean, of course, that a neat and precise and generally accepted definition of democracy will in and of itself automatically pacify the body politic and avoid bitter conflicts of interests and values. There is no magic in ideas, even when we superstitiously attribute a quasi-divine authority to them. But ideas do give shape to our sentiments, our consciences, and our moral energies. And a muddled idea can, in time, give birth to some fairly grotesque political realities. One has only to recall that, for nearly a century after the formation of the American republic, it was widely accepted that our idea of democracy for all was compatible with a condition of slavery for some, to realize that this is no mere abstract possibility. And the fact that it required a bloody civil war to establish what the authentic intentions of our democracy were would indicate that—as in certain older theological controversies that disrupted the real world of Christendom—the precise meaning of the democratic dogma can have the most material bearing upon the kind of society we live in and the ways in which we live in it.
At the moment, for example, we are all of us much exercised about the quality of life in our American urban civilization. I have no intention, at this time, of analyzing the numerous problems which make up what we familiarly call the “crisis of our cities.” Instead, I should like to focus on the apparent incapacity of our democratic and urban civilization to come to grips with these problems. In other words, if it is proper to say that we experience the crisis of our cities, it is equally proper to say that we are the urban crisis. And what I want to suggest further is that one of the main reasons we are so problematic to ourselves is the fact that we are creating a democratic, urban civilization while stubbornly refusing to think clearly about the relation of urbanity to democracy.
In this respect, we are far removed indeed from the founding fathers of this republic, who thought deeply about this relationship—but in a way so uncongenial to us that we find it most difficult to take their thinking seriously. We even find it difficult to study their thinking fairly. Thus, in the many books that have appeared in recent years surveying the history of the American city and of American attitudes toward the city, we usually find a discussion of the “agrarian bias” of the founding fathers. More often than not, this is taken quite simply to mean that then-opinions were an unreflective expression of their rural condition: a provincial prejudice, familiar enough—the antagonism of country to town is no new thing—and understandable enough in human terms, but now to be regarded as rather quaint and entirely unilluminating. I think that this approach is not only an obstacle to our understanding the American past; it also represents a lost opportunity for us to take our bearings in the present.
To take such a bearing, we ought to begin with an appreciation of the fact that the ideas of the founding fathers did not, in their sum, amount to an agrarian bias so much as an anti-urban philosophy; which is to say, the founding fathers had reasons for thinking as they did and until we consider these reasons, and come to terms with them, we are more likely to be living testimony to the validity of their apprehensions than to the presumed anachronistic character of these apprehensions.
The founding fathers saw democracy in America as resting upon two major pillars. The first, whose principles and rationale are so superbly set forth in the Federalist Papers, was the “new science of government” which made popular government possible in a large and heterogeneous republic. This “new science” designed a machinery of self-government that has to be considered as one of the most remarkable political inventions of Western man. The machinery is by now familiar to us; representative and limited government, separation of powers; majority rule but refined so that it had to express the will of various majorities elected in various ways, a diffusion of political and economic power which would thwart the intentions of any singleminded faction no matter how large and influential, and so on and so forth. The basic idea behind all these arrangements was that the pursuit of self-interest was the most reliable of human motivations on which to build a political system—but this pursuit had to be, to use one of their favorite phrases, the pursuit of self-interest “rightly understood,” and such “right understanding” needed the benevolent, corrective checks and balances of the new political machinery to achieve decent self-definition, i.e., to converge at a point of common weal.
The second pillar envisaged by the founding fathers was of a spiritual order—and the fact that most of us today prefer to call it “psychological” rather than spiritual would have been taken by them as itself a clear sign of urban decadence. To designate this pillar they used such phrases as “republican morality” or “civic virtue,” but what they had constantly in mind was the willingness of the good democratic citizen, on critical occasions, to transcend the habitual pursuit of self-interest and devote himself directly and disinterestedly to the common good. In times of war, of course, “republican morality” took the form of patriotism—no one, after all, has ever been able to demonstrate that it is to a man’s self-interest to die for his country. In times of peace, “republican morality” might take the form of agreeing to hold public office; since the founding fathers assumed that the holders of such office would be men of property, to whom the pleasures of private life were readily available, and since they further thought of political ambition as a form of human distemper, they could candidly look upon public service as a burden as well as an honor. But whatever the occasion, such a capacity for disinterested action seemed to them—as even today, it still seems to some—a necessary complement to the pursuit of self-interest rightly understood.
Now, given these ideas on how popular government in America could survive and prosper, it is only natural that the founding fathers should have taken a suspicious view of big cities, and should have wondered whether, in the end, they could be compatible with a free and popular government. In this suspicion and wonder they were anything but original. The entire literature of classical political philosophy—from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero on to Montesquieu—exhibits a similar skepticism, to put it mildly, concerning the quality of life that people led in big cities, and expresses doubt whether the habits of mind generated there—what we might call the urban mentality: irreverent, speculative, pleasure-loving, self-serving, belligerent toward all conventional pieties—were compatible with republican survival. Nor, it should be observed, did the real, historical world present much reassurance, by way of contrary evidence. The big cities that the founding fathers knew or read about all displayed in luxuriant abundance the very vices they wished above all to avoid in the new nation they were constructing. From imperial Rome to imperial London and Paris, the big city was the locus of powerful, illiberal, and undemocratic government, inhabited by people who were either too wretched and depraved to be free, democratic citizens, or by ambitious, self-seeking men to whom the ideals of popular government were utterly alien and even repugnant.
That small cities could be soberly and democratically governed, the founding fathers understood well enough—Geneva and republican Rome and the towns of New England testified to that. That medium-sized cities could sustain a modified and partial form of popular government, based on a deferential citizenry and a patrician elite, they also knew—the histories of Athens and Venice were very familiar to them, and their own Boston or Philadelphia offered them living instances of this general truth. But the wisdom of the ages had reached an unequivocal conclusion, in which they concurred, about large, populous, cosmopolitan cities: the anonymous creatures massed in such a place, clawing one another in a sordid scramble for survival, advantage, or specious distinction, their frantic lives reflecting no piety toward nature, God, or the political order—such people were not of the stuff of which a free-standing, self-governing republic could be created. Or, to put this point in a more philosophical way, which would have been immediately comprehensible to our ancestors even if it sounds a little strange to us: if self-government, as an ideal to be respected, means the willingness of people to permit their baser selves to be directed by their better selves, then this precondition of self-government is least likely to be discovered among the turbulent and impassioned masses of big cities.
Today, in the second half of the 20th century, this theory of the founding fathers is being put to the test, and I do not see how anyone can be blithely sanguine about the ultimate conclusions that will be drawn. Our most obvious difficulty is that we have so many big cities and seem so persistently inept in devising a satisfactory machinery of self-government in them—swinging wildly from the corrupt rule of political machines to abortive experiments in decentralized, direct democracy, with a slovenly bureaucracy providing the barest minimum of stability in between. This is indeed a sore perplexity to us; and no clear solution seems visible even to the most thoughtful among us—witness the uncertainty among our political scientists whether our major cities should evolve into super-cities, almost little states, or whether they would be better off dissolving into mini-cities, almost small towns. Twenty years ago the first prospect seemed the more enchanting; today it is the second; tomorrow the winds of doctrine might once again suddenly reverse themselves. Our ideas about our cities are as unsettled and as uneasy as the cities themselves.
But this obvious difficulty is only the smaller part of the challenge posed us. Though we are indeed becoming ever more “a nation of cities,” we are not—despite a contrary impression created by the news media—on our way to becoming a nation of very big cities. The proportion of our population in cities of over one million has been drifting downward for several decades now, and this proportion is, in the decades ahead, more likely to decline further than it is to increase. Many of the traditional functions of the great metropolis are being radically decentralized, both by technological and by sociological innovation. Air travel has already robbed the metropolis of its role as a transportation hub for people; air freight is gradually doing the same thing for goods. And just think of the extraordinary way in which our cultural community—our writers and artists and sculptors and musicians and dramatists—has, with recent years, been dispersed among the university campuses of the nation. A city like New York is more and more becoming a showplace for the work of creative artists, rather than a milieu in which they live. Even bohemia, that most urban of cultural phenomena, has been transplanted to and around the university campus, and if, for example, Greenwich Village is to survive as a bohemian community, it will very likely do so as a parasite upon the body of New York University.
It is conceivable, therefore, that, though our major cities keep floundering in a sea of troubles, the nation as a whole will not be profoundly affected. And what so many people now proclaim to be an imminent apocalypse may yet turn out to be not much more than—though it is also not much less than—a change of life for our older cities. Even the most critical problem which today confronts these cities—the problem of black Americans living in the squalid isolation of their ghettos—may yet reveal to posterity a very different meaning from the despairing significance we ascribe to it today. For these are the citizens who, if we are lucky, might infuse these cities with a new vigor and a new purpose. It is hard to see who else can accomplish this—it is hard even to see who else would care enough to try. As a white New Yorker, born and bred, I am bound to have confused feelings about such a course of events. But I should like to think I am a sufficiently objective student of the city not to see as a crisis what may merely be a personal problem of adaptation to historical change.
But I digress: because I am a man who has lived all his life in big, old cities, I am inevitably more keenly interested in them than, as a student of the contemporary city, I perhaps ought to be. The overwhelming majority of my fellow Americans clearly prefers to live elsewhere and this preference is by now an established feature of American life, for better or worse. If we are “a nation of cities,” we are also becoming to an ever greater degree a nation of relatively small and middle-sized cities. These are the growing centers of American life—especially if we count as “small cities,” as we should, those scattered university campuses which support populations of 30,000 or more. It is quite true that these new cities are not spread uniformly over the land but tend to cluster in what we call “metropolitan areas.” This fact has led some observers to conclude hastily that such settlements have only a transient, juridical existence—that they ought properly to be regarded as part of an incipient “megalopolis,” in the process of coalescing. This is almost surely an illusion—or, if one prefers, a nightmare. Though a great many urban sociologists and urban journalists seem to be convinced that Americans in large numbers would really prefer to live in the central city, and are being forced out of their cities by one external cause or another, the evidence is quite plainly to the contrary. People leave the big cities, or refuse to come to them, because they positively prefer the kinds of lives they can lead in smaller suburban townships or cities of modest size; and these people are not going to become citizens of any kind of “megalopolis.” Indeed, though most central cities are now aware of their ghetto populations only as a source of trouble and calamity, one can predict with considerable confidence that ten years from now these same central cities will be fighting tooth-and-nail to hold on to these populations, as they too begin to experience the attractions of urban life outside our major urban centers.
And here, I think, we have at last come to what I would consider the heart of the matter. For the overwhelming fact of American life today, whether this life be lived in a central city or a suburb or a small city—or even in those rural areas where something like a third of our population still resides—is that it is life in an urban civilization. In terms of the quality of American life, the United States is now one vast metropolis. Cities are nothing new; the problems of cities are nothing new; but an urban civilization is very new indeed, and the problems of an urban civilization are without precedent in human history.
When I say that our urban civilization is something radically new, I am obviously not unmindful of the historical fact that, in a profound sense, just about every civilization we have known has been urban in origin and character. Civilization, both the high and the low of it, is something that has always been bred in cities—which is why all romantic rebels against civilization, in the past as in our own time, so vehemently repudiate the “artificiality” and “superficiality” and “inhumanity” of city life. But the city and its civilization has always been one thing, while the rest of the nation and its way of life has been another. Between these two things there has always existed a high degree of tension—on the whole a creative tension, though it has sometimes found release in exceedingly ugly moments. Between urban life in the city and provincial life outside the city there has always been a gulf of mistrust, suspicion, and contempt. Yet it is not too far-fetched to say that each was an indispensable antibody for the other’s healthy existence. Life in the city could, for example, be careless of conventional morality, and even have an experimental attitude toward all moral rules, precisely because of the reassuring certainty that, throughout the rest of the nation, there prevailed a heavy dullness and conformity. This dullness and conformity reassured the city man, even as he mocked it, that his moral experiments were in the nature of singular explorations with no necessary collective consequences. Similarly, the sovereignty of conventional morality outside the city was sustained by reason of the fact that those who would rebel against it simply emigrated to the urban center. In addition, the rigid character of this traditional morality was made more tolerable to the provincial citizenry because of the known and inevitable fact that, in most cases, urban experiments in freedom were not equally or altogether successful for the individual who was presumptuous enough to engage in them. And when they did succeed—when they resulted in artistic creativity or political distinction—the provincial nation participated, at no cost to itself, in the glory.
Now, this provincial nation has been liquidated. To anyone like myself who watches old movies on television—and by old movies I mean no more than fifteen or twenty years old—the most striking impression is of a world that belongs to another era. These movies have farmers’ daughters—honest-to-goodness farmers’ daughters, with all that this implies for the sophisticated urban imagination; they have happy, neighborly suburban families who smugly and snugly pass the evening watching themselves on television; they have prim schoolmarms and prissy schoolmistresses; they have absent-minded professors who don’t know the difference between a foundation garment and a foundation grant; they have hicks who run gas stations and cops who drop in for apple pie; they have children who address their fathers as “sir”; they have virginal college maidens and hardly any graduate students at all; they have wildly efficient and fanatically loyal secretaries—in short, they have a race of people who only yesterday were the average and the typical, and who have so suddenly become, in their laughable unreality, a species of “camp.”
What has happened, clearly, is that provincial America—that America which at least paid lip service to, if it did not live by, the traditional republican morality—that America which, whether on the farm or in suburb or small town, thought it important to preserve the appearance of a life lived according to the prescriptions of an older agrarian virtue and piety—that America which was calmly philistine and so very, very solid in its certainties—that America is now part and parcel of urban civilization. The causes of this transformation are so obvious as to need no elaboration; one can simply refer in passing to the advent of the mass media and of mass higher education, and there isn’t much more that needs to be said. The ultimate consequences of this transformation, however, are anything but obvious. We know what happens—both for good and bad; and it is ineluctably for both good and bad—when an urban center liberates the energies—both for creation and destruction; and it is ineluctably for both—of provincial emigrés; what happens constitutes the history of urban civilization. But we do not know what happens, for the sufficient reason that it has never happened before, when an urban civilization becomes a mass phenomenon, when the culture of the city becomes everyman’s culture, and when urban habits of mind and modes of living become the common mentality and way of life for everyone.
If the founding fathers were worried about the effects of a few large cities upon the American capacity for self-government, what—one wonders—would they make of our new condition? One is reasonably certain they would regard it as an utterly impossible state of affairs. And whether they would be correct in this regard is something that it will be up to us to determine. Certainly the history of American cities, during this past century and a half, does not permit us to dismiss their fears as either irrational or anachronistic. Though these cities have made America great, and though a city like New York can be said—especially in these last years, when it has become a world cultural capital—to have made America glorious, it does not follow, as we so naturally might think, that they have strengthened the fundaments of American democracy. Greatness and glory are things the human race has always prized highly, but we ought not to forget that the political philosophers of democracy have always looked upon them with distrust, as virtues appropriate to empires rather than to self-governing republics, and have emphasized moral earnestness and intellectual sobriety as elements that are most wanted in a democracy.
We can, perhaps, have a better appreciation of the problem we have created for ourselves if we start from the proposition—which sounds like a tautology but has far-reaching implications—that in a democracy the people are the ruling class. This does not mean, of course, that the people as a whole run the affairs of state or that the people’s will finds prompt expression in the decisions of government. Even in a society which is officially an aristocracy, the ruling class never has that kind of instant power and instant authority. Indeed, one suspects that a government which was so responsive would barely have the capacity to govern at all—and one knows for certain that, were such a government to exist, it could be manned only by servile mediocrities who set no value upon their own opinions or judgment. No, when one says that in a democracy the people are the ruling class, one means that the character of the government and the destiny of the nation are in the longer run determined by the character of the people rather than of any particular class of people.
I know that we are today unaccustomed to thinking in terms such as these, and that the very phrase, “the character of the people,” has an odd ring to it. In part, this is because American political theory, as it has evolved into American political science, has tended to conceive of democracy exclusively in terms of procedural and mechanical arrangements—in terms of self-interested individuals who rightly understand that it is to their own interest to follow the “rules of the game.” This idea goes back to the founding fathers, as has been said—but taken by itself, and divorced from the idea of republican morality, it leads to a self-destructive paradox, as some political scientists have recently come to realize. For when everyone follows the rules of the game, it can then be demonstrated—with all the rigor of a mathematical theorem—that it is to the self-interest of individuals or of organized factions not to follow the rules of the game, but simply to take advantage of the fact that the others do. That there are such individuals and factions, only too willing to draw this logical inference, and to act upon it, current American events vividly remind us. And political science, being “value-free,” as they say, cannot come up with any persuasive arguments as to why they shouldn’t act this way.
Another reason why we cannot seriously contemplate this question of “the character of the people” is that, in the generations which succeeded that of the founding fathers, it came to be believed that this character was not something formed by individual efforts at moral self-definition, but rather that the popular character was inherently good enough—not perfect perhaps, but good enough—so as not to require self-scrutiny. What we may call the transcendental-populist religion of democracy superseded an original political philosophy of democracy. This religion has now so strong a hold that mention of the very idea of a “corrupt people,” a common idea in classical political philosophy, is taken as evidence of a nasty anti-democratic bias upon the part of the thinker who would dare entertain it. If things go wrong in our democracy, the persons we are least likely to blame are ourselves. Instead, we seek out the influence of wicked “vested interests,” malign “outside agitators,” or arrogant “Establishments.”
I am not asserting that the American people, in this year 1970, are a corrupt people—though it worries me that they are so blandly free from self-doubt about this possibility. What I am saying is that they are more and more behaving in a way that would have alarmed the founding fathers even as it would have astonished them. To put it bluntly, they are more and more behaving like a collection of mobs.
The term “mob,” entered the language in the latter part of the 18th century, and was used to describe the new populations of the new industrial cities that were then emerging. This population was not only a population uprooted from its villages; it was also déraciné with regard to traditional pieties, whether religious, moral, or political. It was a population which felt itself—as in truth it largely was—the victim of external forces, in no way responsible for its own fate, and therefore indifferent to its own character. It was a population which, in its physical dependency, could be exploited by unscrupulous profiteers; it was a population which, in its political isolation, could be exploited by zealous demagogues; it was a population which, in its moral bewilderment, could be exploited by wild mystagogues; it was a population whose potential did not go much beyond riotous destructiveness.
It was because the founding fathers did not see how such a population could be capable of self-government that they took so dim a view of large cities. The “mob,” as it was then to be seen in London and Paris, and even incipiently in New York or Boston, seemed to them the very antithesis of a democratic citizenry: a citizenry self-reliant, self-determining, and at least firmly touched by, if not thoroughly infused with, republican morality. It takes a transcendental-populist faith of truly enormous dimensions to find in this attitude a mere “agrarian bias.” The founding fathers were philosophic men, of no such populist faith, and they had no qualms about insisting that popular government was sustained by “a people” as distinct from a mob.
The history of all modern industrial societies is the story of the gradual transformation of original urban mobs into a people, even as their numbers increased many fold. The secret behind this transformation was not faith but economics—and especially the economics of technological innovation. If it did not occur to the founding fathers that such a transformation was likely or even possible, this was because they could have no intimation of the fantastic economic growth that the coming century and a half would experience. It was not, indeed, until the turn of this century that thinking men began to be shaken loose from their Malthusian spectacles and to be able to see things as they really were. Even so intelligent and liberal a thinker as E. L. Godkin, in several decades of writing for the Nation, could not disabuse himself of the notion that the lower urban classes were doomed to exist as something like a permanent mob by the iron laws of Malthusian doctrine. The politics of such a mob, obviously, could only be the politics of expropriation as against the bourgeois politics of participation.
Well, it worked out differently and better. As productivity increased, the urban mob became an urban citizenry—and, more recently, a suburban citizenry, mimicking in an urban context various aspects of that agrarian life style which was once thought to be of such political significance. The “bourgeois-ification” of society was the great event of modern history. Where once we had the bourgeois confronting the masses, we now have bourgeois masses—a fact which has been a source of concern to revolutionary romantics and romantic revolutionaries, both of whom have expectations for the masses which far outrun the bourgeois condition. Even many cautious liberals have been taken aback at the ease with which this society was breeding bourgeois men and women, and a small library of literature was published between 1945 and 1965 that complained of the “homogenization” of American society, of its passionless and conformist quality, of the oppressive weight of consensus, and of the disinclination to conflict and dissent.
That library is now gathering dust, along with the voluminous literature on the iron law of wages. For something very odd and unexpected has, in the past decade, been happening to the bourgeois masses who inhabit our new urban civilization. Though bourgeois in condition and lifestyle, they have become less bourgeois in ethos, and strikingly more mob-like in action. Perhaps this has something to do with a change in the economic character of our bourgeois civilization. Many critics have noted the shift from a producer’s ethic (the so-called Protestant ethic) to a consumer’s ethic, and go on to affirm that a bourgeois society of widespread affluence is in its essence radically different from a bourgeois society where scarcity automatically imposes a rigorous discipline of its own. This explanation is all the more plausible in that it echoes, in an academic way, the wisdom of the ages as to the corrupting effects of material prosperity upon the social order. Plato, it will be recalled, imagined the possibility of what, by his standards, constituted an affluent, acquisitive society that had no nobler purpose than the satisfaction of material needs and animal appetites. He called this, in the Republic, the “city of swine,” and did not linger over the matter. Our own actuality is different, in all sorts of interesting and important ways, from Plato’s crude model. He could not have imagined our condition—but, being a wise man, he could imagine the general consequences of our condition. The fact that these consequences come as so great a surprise to us—that, having created the kind of affluent society we deliberately aimed at, and having constructed the kind of “progressive” urban civilization we always wanted—that, having done all this, we have also created an unanticipated problem for ourselves, this fact is but a sign of our impoverished political imagination.
The ways in which various strata of our citizenry—from the relatively poor to the relatively affluent—are beginning to behave like a bourgeois urban mob are familiar to anyone who reads his newspaper, and I do not propose to elaborate upon them. The interesting consideration is the extent to which a mob is not simply a physical presence but also, and above everything else, a state of mind. It is, to be precise, that state of mind which lacks all of those qualities that, in the opinion of the founding fathers, added up to republican morality: steadiness of character, deliberativeness of mind, and a mild predisposition to subordinate one’s own special interests to the public interest. Since the founding fathers could not envisage a nation of bourgeois—a nation of urbanized, prosperous, and strongly acquisitive citizens—they located republican morality in the agrarian sector of American life. We, in this century, have relocated it in the suburban and small-city sector of American life—our contemporary version of America’s “grass roots.” And it now appears that our anticipations may be treated as roughly by history as were those of the founding fathers.
The causes for this dismaying reversal of expectations are only now being explored by our social critics. Lionel Trilling, especially, has pointed out how the avant-garde, anti-bourgeois, elite culture—what he calls “the adversary culture”—of our bourgeois society has been gradually incorporated into our conventional school curriculum and, with the spread of mass higher education, has begun to shape the popular culture of our urbanized masses. This is an ambiguous process toward which one can only have ambiguous feelings. No one, after all, can sincerely mourn the passing of the Saturday Evening Post and of that superficial, provincial, and, above all, philistine popular culture it so smugly affirmed. This culture may have contributed to political stability—but it also represented a spiritual torpor that, in the end, could only be self-defeating because it was so thin in its sense of humanity. On the other hand, there is something positively absurd in the spectacle of prosperous suburban fathers flocking to see—and evidently enjoying—The Graduate, or of prosperous, chic, suburban mothers unconcernedly humming “Mrs. Robinson” to themselves as they cheerfully drive off to do their duties as den mothers. This peculiar schizophrenia, suffusing itself through the bourgeois masses of our urban society, may be fun while it lasts; but one may reasonably suppose that, sooner or later, people will decide they would rather not die laughing at themselves, and that some violent convulsions will ensue.
Why the very best art of bourgeois society—the work of our most gifted poets, painters, novelists, and dramatists—should have, and should have had from the very first days of the romantic movement, such an animus against its own bourgeois world, is a question one can only speculate on. Presumably it has something to do with the diminished role that disinterested social values, or transcendent religious values, play in a society governed by the principle of self-interest, even perhaps self-interest “rightly understood,” but most especially self-interest that makes no effort at self-understanding or self-discipline. But if one can only speculate about the deeper causes of our present disorders, no subtle speculation is needed to see that a democratic-urban civilization which is empty of democratic-urban values is almost surely a civilization in trouble. The symptoms of this trouble plague us every day and in just about every way. If I dwell upon one such symptom, it is only because this one in particular strikes me as so perfectly signifying our inability—it may even be our unwillingness—to comprehend the role of “republican morality” in a democratic-urban civilization. I refer to the problems of drugs.
Now, I have no interest in venturing into the swamp of controversy that surrounds this topic in the conventional terms in which it is publicly discussed. I do not think it so important to ascertain which drugs are medically bad for you, or just how bad each one is. I think the problem of drugs would be just as serious even if it were determined that marijuana, or amphetamines, or LSD were medically harmless; or if some biochemist were to come up with a way to make these drugs—or even a drug like heroin—medically harmless. What makes a drug a truly serious problem is less its medical aspect than its social purpose. Cigarettes are bad for you, but cigarette-smoking poses no kind of threat to our society or to our civilization. Alcohol is likely to cause more harm than good to the average person, but the cocktail party is no threat to our society or our civilization. On the other hand, it is well to recollect that a century ago all social critics agreed that alcohol was such a threat, because it was being consumed by the new urban working class in such a way—not only to such a degree, but in such a way—as to demoralize this class and prevent its assimilation into bourgeois, democratic society.
And here we have arrived at the nub of the question as I see it. What counts is why drugs or intoxicants are taken, not whether they are. What counts is the meaning and moral status of the action, not its physiological dimensions. Alcohol ceased to be a public issue in this country when social drinking, for purposes of conviviality, succeeded gin-swilling whose aim was to get out of this world as rapidly as possible. With drugs, the reverse process has taken place. Drug addiction is not itself a new thing; the doctor who would take an occasional shot of morphine so as to be able to keep functioning, the elderly lady who relied upon an opium-laced patent medicine to keep her on her rounds of civic and familial activities—these are familiar enough figures in our past. But today drug-taking has become a mass habit—among our young masses especially—whose purpose is to secede from our society and our civilization; and such a declaration requires a moral answer, not a medical one.
Though the prohibition movement is now very censoriously treated by our American historians, one thing must be said for it: it not only knew the gin mills were medically bad—anyone could see that—it also knew why it was bad for a citizen to destroy himself in this way. It had reasons to offer, reasons that had to do with the importance of republican morality for those citizens of a self-governing nation—which is to say: the movement for prohibition had a good conscience, both social and moral. Today, in dismal contrast, even those, and they are certainly an overwhelming majority, who believe that the drug habit is bad, seem incapable of giving the reasons why. I mean the real reasons why—which have to do with the reasons why it is desirable to function as an autonomous and self-reliant citizen in our urban, democratic society, rather than to drift through life in a pleasant but enervating haze. The moral codes for all civilizations must, at one time or another, be prepared to face the ultimate subversive question: “Why not?” Our civilization is now facing that very question in the form of the drug problem—and, apparently, it can only respond with tedious, and in the end ineffectual, medical reports.
It is this startling absence of values that represents the authentic “urban crisis” of our democratic, urban nation. The fact that the word “urbanity” applies both to a condition of urban things and a state of urban mind may be an accident of philology—but if so it is a happy accident, for it reminds us of the interdependence of mind and thing. That same interdependence is to be found in the word, “democracy,” referring as it does simultaneously to a political system and to the spirit—the idea—that animates this system. The challenge to our urban democracy is to evolve a set of values and a conception of democracy that can function as the equivalent of the “republican morality” of yesteryear. This is our fundamental urban problem. Or, in the immortal words of Pogo: “I have seen the enemy and they is us.”