The city-state is the seedbed of civilization, but the concept seems alien to the American tradition. Nonetheless, our cities did once possess, at least before the Revolution, many of the same rights enjoyed by English and European burgs. In the Anglo-American world, the liberties of cities were defined by the charters they received either from the crown itself or from the royal governor and legislature. Many of the older cities and towns of the eastern seaboard had been chartered municipal corporations, though, in the decades following the Revolution, the states began to revoke the prerevolutionary charters and to recharter municipalities as creatures of the states.
It is the sense of local patriotism, reinforced by chartered liberties, that defines the city-state, and not sovereign independence. In fact city-states have often been autonomous units within a broader confederation, as were the free German and Italian cities within the German Empire.
Citizens are fiercely proud of their city, and authentic citizens do not quickly accept outsiders, much less criticism from them. Siena imposed a death sentence on any stranger who spoke ill of the city, and Saint Catherine had to console an offender who had been condemned for speaking ill of the city whose almost insane pride is repeatedly mocked by Dante. But then, Dante was a Florentine. Citizens jealously guard the privileges of citizenship. Periclean Athens restricted citizenship to offspring of two citizen parents, and Aristotle observes that it is the mark of a tyranny to grant civil privileges to noncitizens. Our government has improved upon ancient tyranny in giving aliens—including illegals—rights not enjoyed by native citizens.
Dante never forgave the Florentines for exiling him, and in his Commedia he wistfully recalls the bells of the baptistery of San Giovanni that meant even more to Florence than the bells of St. Michael’s mean to Charleston. St. Michael’s bells, which had been stolen (and later returned) by the British in the Revolutionary War, were evacuated during the Civil War and sent to Columbia, but when war criminals deliberately burned Columbia, the bells were so damaged they had to be sent back to England to be recast.
Citizens have a competitive chip on the shoulder about rival cities. Tiny Siena dared to challenge Florence on every front. Despite the obvious lack of the necessary water supply, she tried to create an extensive wool industry. Even today, some Sienese claim to wake up at night hearing the rush of the Diana, the fabulous underground river that would have made them rich 800 years ago. Undaunted by the lack of a usable harbor or a navigable river, the Sienese tried to build a port facility, which only further strained their inadequate resources. Hearing of the magnificent cathedral being built in Florence, they laid out a gigantic construction that they could never complete. The Florentines called them crazy, but they were magnificently crazy.
Florence ultimately conquered Siena and her other great rival, Pisa. Many of Pisa’s finest men left the city in silence, never to return. The ancient Phocaeans, faced with a quite moderate Persian demand for a token submission, took to the sea and lived as pirates before some of them went to their daughter city, Marseilles, and others went to Italy and founded Elea, a city that gave birth to Parmenides, the founder of systematic philosophy.
The love of liberty and fractious tendencies do not stop at city walls; many of them divided into highly competitive neighborhoods that managed their own affairs: roads, water supply, walls, fire. Italian cities were divided into parishes or quarters based on gates of the city. Each section had its own banners and crest, its own traditions. Sometimes neighborhood rivalries became violent, as in Siena, where they used to play a competitive ball game that resulted in broken heads and even a few deaths. Siena’s neighborhood patriotism persists today in the Palio delle Contrade, a horse race run around the spacious central piazza known as the Campo. The jockeys today are Sardinian, but the rivalry of the contrade (neighborhoods) is still so intense that it can cause dinner-table arguments in families where there are mixed marriages. In most parts of Europe and America, however, all this intense local patriotism is derided by right-thinking people as mere campanilismo—the affection a normal person feels for the bell tower of his neighborhood.
The only unity that is common in today’s cities is found among fans of sports teams, on which it is rare to find any hometown boy. If we wanted to revive the spirit of the polis, we might begin with sports. Residency requirements for players might make it harder for rich teams to buy their way to greatness, as the Yankees have always done, or for owners and players to make fools of the fans who support them. LeBron James is the model sports hero for America: stupid, rude, boastful, disloyal, and ultimately a loser.
Minor-league baseball, beer-league softball, and high-school football teams still encourage a spirit of campanilismo. The same argument can be made for local orchestras, museums, and drama companies. Cleveland—the Mistake on the Lake, as it is known in the more gracious Cincinnati—has a first-rate orchestra, a fine art museum, several important theaters, and the Ohio Light Opera Company, which is probably the best American ensemble doing Gilbert and Sullivan. Cleveland is even home to several major literary figures: Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and—this is America—the creators of Superman. Although the city has been in serious economic decline for decades, some Clevelanders love their city enough to join enlightened mayors in redeveloping downtown neighborhoods.
If Cleveland can survive a corrupt and crooked mayor like Carl Stokes or crazies like Ralph Perk (who set his own hair on fire with a blowtorch) and Dennis Kucinich (who ought to have torched off his rug), there is hope for Nashville, Pittsburgh, and even Rockford. Although there is little point in expecting any leadership from politicians, there are practical political steps that one can take to liberate cities from the domination of the state and federal governments. Over half the states have fairly robust home-rule provisions by which cities can take back some control over their destinies; many others, like Illinois, have more limited home-rule statutes.
Here in Rockford, the Republicans adamantly opposed home rule on the grounds that evil local Democrats would use it to raise taxes. In other words, it is better to trust Springfield, under the control of known crooks like George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, than to try to make any case here at home with the potential crooks who are our neighbors. But if Springfield is more trustworthy than Rockford, why not trust the national government in Washington?
If we can suspend our pessimism, we might begin to support policies that make our cities more independent of state and federal governments and, within the cities, to support every possible move to decentralize power by establishing something like neighborhood governments with power over zoning restrictions and dispute resolutions. The vast bureaucracy of government schooling could be decentralized to the point that every distinctive neighborhood or community would have its own high school.
The century-old argument in favor of school consolidation has proved entirely bankrupt. The more we consolidate education, the worse the schools become. The question is almost identical with that of home rule: If we cannot trust parents to care about their own children, why should we trust the parents of other people’s children—teachers, principals, superintendents, social workers, and politicians?
For cities to flourish again, their citizens—to be distinguished from criminals and welfare addicts—do not actually have to crawl out of the mire of mass culture and go to art museums. If they want the kind of junk culture that is manufactured in Los Angeles and New York, they can make their own sitcoms and support their own pop-music bands. Nothing is more boring and derivative than American national culture, and if citizens would pay more attention to local columnists, comics, and country musicians, they might begin to live where they actually are instead of in the Sadean fantasy-land constructed by the Spielbergs and Zuckerbergs. If you want a picture of the America they have created, check out Anthony Weiner on Twitter.
These measures fall short of the kind of restoration that will make the American urban desert bloom with new Sienas and Pisas, but they are steps in the right direction that do not all depend on which criminal we put in the White House or the state house. For too long conservatives have allowed themselves to be distracted by cynical projects of the GOP, whether Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America or whatever promises are being made by presidential candidates. From the spoiled children who waste our money in Washington, the best we can hope for is that they might do less, rather than more, harm, but even that is probably too much to expect from the current crop of politicos, few of whom can make a speech, attend a dinner, or marry a woman without violating all the norms of decency. If one can judge their character from their manners, the ruling class of this country are a set of Vandals—not the vigorous barbarians who sacked Rome but their degenerate grandchildren sunk into vicious stupidity.
Burke’s observation on love of country is frequently quoted (and misquoted): “To make men love their country, their country ought to be lovable.” What is forgotten is the context: the grisly progress of the French Revolution, in the course of which all sense of honor and decency was destroyed, leaving only the raw reality of tyranny to fill the void left by fealty to ancient institutions. A world that depended on “the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion” could never be rebuilt by a Corsican general, no matter what army he leads or victories he achieves, and good and great things built by Americans in their cities and towns will never be rebuilt by vandals—either those who prowl the streets of Detroit or those who rule in Washington.
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