The more I travel and experience this “global” western empire culture, the more I realize that the problems we are experiencing in the world and in our lives today emerge from the fact that more and more of us are living as “cityfolk”.
Why is living that way a problem? It comes down to the effect that growing up in crowded conditions has on us.
Since the Sumerians, the first urban empire-builders, we’ve heard about adolescent males wreaking havoc on the people around them in the urban environment. Gangs are as old as cities. Mob violence—an extension of the gang mentality—erupts on a regular basis throughout history, usually about every 35 years, in urban settings. Passive aggressive behaviors and thievery become the norm in an environment where it’s possible to slip into anonymity simply by not going to the same places you have before. Likewise, promises are meaningless.
Disease spreads quickly in urban settings, regardless of the care taken to minimize the spread of “germs.” In large part this is due to the fact that a city dweller is always prepared to be attacked, or at least to have one’s privacy invaded—the stress level is high and takes a toll on the immune system. And, because there’s always a low level of adrenaline pumping, numbing the senses, there’s a need for greater and greater intensity of experience: louder, more intense music, more powerful stimuli—including drugs, images, colors, sound, and interactions. The result is that “cityfolk” move more quickly from one thing to the next, not fully taking in anything because they’re always seeking more.
The strange thing about the past 50 years is that all this has moved out of the cities, through the suburbs, and into the rural parts of Europe and the US—and perhaps other places as well. It started with the music: rock’n’roll became “hiphop” and “rap” and young people everywhere accepted the urban message as if it were their own. News media, with their focus on the cities in which they’re produced, contributed as well. Video and television programming did what drama has always done—focused on what’s exciting, building to an ever-more-intense crisis, then easing back just a little to keep the audience ready for more.
Now we have people operating, regardless of the actual situation they live in, as if they were “cityfolk”—fearful of everyone around, trying to control their environment to maintain their privacy and safety, free to break commitments and agreements because relationships are never permanent, seeking ever-more intense stimulation, and totally oblivious to the range of resources available to them as they maintain their own limited set of choices in the face of overwhelming abundance.
And we have gangs and drugs and an assumption of violence in rural schools, every bit as ugly as the 1950s film “Blackboard Jungle” with Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier.
I’m saying all this as someone who attended grade school in the inner city of Chicago (think “Save the Last Dance”) and high school in the suburbs of San Francisco, spending my summers on a farm, then was trained as a “culture watcher” (anthropologist), and raised my kids in inner city Portland, suburban Palo Alto, and a small, rural town in Oregon. I’ve seen the progression. I’ve felt its effects, and I’ve come to believe that it is the foundation of all the social, political, and environmental issues we face in the world today.