Seeing Our (Non-Cosmopolitan) Selves


[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Some years ago, some of the folks behind F5, an alternative weekly newspaper here in Wichita, started a different (and, as it turned out, short-lived) publication, titled simply “Wichita City Paper.” As part of the PR campaign as that effort got off the ground, flyers were printed up and advertising space was purchased, including billboards around the city, all blaring one simple message: “Face it. You’re in Wichita.”

I have since learned that one simple message was supposed to be part of an ongoing media campaign, featuring the faces of local musicians, artists, etc. As it was, though, the money ran short, and we only ever saw the first, curt stage. Still, I thought that message on its own was wonderfully clever. However unintentionally, the phrasing conveyed an unstated message expertly: “you, potential reader and advertiser, can imagine living in a better, cooler place than Wichita–the sort of place where the idea of an ‘alternative weekly newspaper’ reporting on music and film and culture and the hip controversies du jour doesn’t seem at all out of place–and the fact is we, the producers of this fine publication, can imagine it too….but we don’t live in such a place, and neither do you, so you should just read us and make the best of it, don’t you think?” Maybe that’s making too much of a five-word message on a billboard, but maybe not–there’s potentially a lot of truth about how people in cities of a certain size think about cosmopolitanism backed in there.
The “Face It. You’re in Wichita” slogan came back to me as I read We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, the latest book from scholar, activist, educator, and first-rate blogger, Peter Levine. (I keep hoping to actually meet and talk with Peter at different political science conferences, but we keep missing each other, unfortunately. Someday, Peter!). The book is a somewhat wonky and very earnest take on the subject closest to Peter’s heart: figuring out how people can organize themselves democratically so as to amass the sort of necessary influence, knowledge, and commitment to be able to truly and productively govern themselves. He is a passionate believer in, but also a reflective and theoretically rigorous observer of, community organization, civic education, and public deliberation. It’s a fine book, densely addressing a great many topics in under 200 pages, and making an inspiring case for the value of an active civil society and the importance of common spaces the participatory political culture which they make possible. There are parts of his argument I would want to debate with him at greater length, but overall I really liked it and strongly recommend it. However, given my current interests, what really struck me in this book, was his discussion of “leverage,” and whether the organization of citizens in complex societies actually can make real differences in their lives.

How does that relate to the aforementioned slogan? Well, Peter makes it clear from the beginning of his book that he is convinced of the (classically republican, though he doesn’t make that connection explicitly) principle that “working together in small groups is morally important” (pg. 26)–but he also realistically notes that such a principle doesn’t itself prove the correctness of the famous quote attributed to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” If we are to correctly operationalize that exhortation, we can’t just operate on moral idealism, but rather have to ask about the conditions under which and the issues in regards to which small groups might plausibly expect their determination, organizing, and activism to actually have genuine results. Peter’s analysis of this problem leads him to posit a three-step process which begins with thinking through one’s values, then the facts at hand, and finally the strategies available, but my attention was particularly drawn to one essential variable in that process: the issue of size. He writes that “the scale of human affairs that lies between a lone individual’s decisions and entire societies seems especially important” (p. 24), but that’s a bit of a truism; in a blog post which preceded the publication of his book, he was more specific:

Human agency takes place at a moderate scale. It’s not just “micro”–a matter of individual choices such as whether to lie, or to vote, or to use birth control. It’s also not just “macro,” involving the basic structure of a whole society. We human beings cannot directly change basic structures, but we can do more than make individual choices. We can work in political groups. Somehow, political theory and philosophy ignore the moderate scale in favor of the micro and the macro.

This connects with the idea of leverage because at the micro-extreme of the scale, the ability of an individual to govern her own choices is theoretically almost total, but also almost certainly without any social impact. On the macro-end of the scale, though, the issue at hand is so large, so complicated, and so interwoven in other equally expansive issues that there is almost no way any one person, or even a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens,” could ever have a realistic chance of affecting any change in it. Thus does the scale upon which a group operates, or upon which the problem being addressed by that group is evidenced, become crucial to any thinking about active, democratic government: where and under what circumstances can citizen action have real leverage on their social environment?

Going back to the beginning: there is an element of resigned determination in “Face it. You’re in Wichita.” On its own, it made ironic use of a shoulder-shrugging reaction that Wichita residents–at least, the ones interested in a self-proclaimed “alternative” news source, whom the publishers of the newspaper in question were targeting–presumably experienced on a regular basis, or at least were familiar with. To parallel my explanation above, that reaction runs something like this: “Well, certainly I can’t expect anything hip or alternative or cosmopolitan from Wichita, because it is such a conservative and rural backwater, but neither is it likely that I can get out of Wichita any time soon or at all regularly, so I might as well find out about and support whatever alternative sources of entertainment might be found.” That attitude captures, I think, a genuine dilemma for nearly all urban areas of the size I am interested in. By and large, only cities of truly significant size generate a socially and economically self-sustaining alternative subcommunity of hip art and culture (before you mention Austin, TX, or Portland, OR, keep in mind that both those cities have metropolitan areas of over 2 million residents each). A city like Wichita, while certainly not the “rural backwater” that many residents and visitors may imagine it to be (after all, we even have our own film festival), nonetheless lacks, shall we say, a critical mass of the sort of accoutrements of cosmopolitan city life so as to make it an enduring part of the city’s character. Meaning that anyone attempting to introduce any major civic change of Wichita needs to be conceive of their work on a moderate (or as I say, “mittelpolitan“) scale.

This may seem like a rather banal observation–be realistic in one’s hopes!–but it cuts deep into how we think about self-government, especially in a mass democratic society. Getting sufficient leverage–meaning, by Peter’s analysis, harnessing together sufficient agreement on values, sufficient enabling facts, and sufficient available strategies so as to be able to make real civic action genuinely effectual–on a problem of too large a scale is, as he wrote elsewhere (in specific reference to campaign finance reform, but his insights apply broadly), “a problem of organization and structure that I do not think we have cracked.” So often it seems to me, especially as I’ve been involved in various public-interest campaigns over the years, that the residents of Wichita and other urban areas like it become intimidated by and resigned to the supposed implications of bigness: cosmopolitanism and economic development and all the benefits of real sustainability hangs out there, in the minds of many a city leader with an inferiority complex, inaccessible to those of us living somewhere besides the huge progressive conurbations of America. Given that over 70% of Americans now live in metropolitan areas of one size or another, that perception–and confusion–over scale and the available leverage is a serious democratic problem: it suggest that an ever-increasingly majority of us are living in places which condition us to be unwilling to engage in civil society, to content ourselves with (usually shrinking!) privatized satisfactions, and to give up on the moral satisfactions of civic engagement, because we just don’t know how, or when, to scale up or down our cultural or political aspirations to the appropriate “leveragable” point.

The reasons for this inability of most of us to properly grasp ourselves has many causes: the rootlessness of our late capitalism economy, which interferes with the development of real local knowledge; an addiction to media networks which makes us think all political and cultural action begins and ends with our own individuality; the professionalization of interest-group and big-money dominated politics which prevents the overwhelming majority from getting much practice in governement and compromise; and much more. Certainly, much contemporary scholarship doesn’t help. Benjamin Barber’s latest book, If Mayors Ruled the World, is an interesting read, and filled with genuinely interesting ideas, but he is convinced that, between technological empowerment, economic globalization, and environmental breakdown, the scale of action long associated with the Westphalian state is simply over with (something which Peter, given his past qualified defense of organizing our senses of affectivity along national lines, would presumably disagree), and that the future of actually effectual democratic government lies with cities. And yet, not all cities. Barber clearly, simply by choices of examples, seems the future of the world almost entirely in the hands of massive megacities, the engines of global trade and contemporary ubran culture. (And more specifically, in the hands of the pragmatic, not ideological, and unfailingly cosmopolitan mayors who dominant these cities.) The idea that mittelpolitan city governments, much less the concerted actions of citizens–whether through their marketplaces or in their neighborhoods or out upon their streets–operating on a moderate scale are relevant to the future seems, on this reading of global trends, pretty naive.

I want to push back against this accusation of naivete, if only to be able to articular a theoretical space for thinking about democratic action and sustainable government for those many tens of millions of Americans who live urban (and sometimes even distinctly “cosmopolitan”) lives in cities in roughly the 100K to 500K range. No, it would be impossible to imagine a city the size of Wichita characterized by robust republican civic action of the sort which Peter holds out as one important ideal; we can’t really have local citizen democracy on our scale. But neither is it impossible to consider the kind of mass leverage which is possible on a middling, a moderate, urban level, distinct from the kind of (often dictatorially administered, top-heavy) consciously cosmopolitanism which presents (and perhaps, due to the pressures of growth and scale, cannot possibly do otherwise than see) our globalized world as the correct model for local governance. The mid-sized city has a distinct way of seeing itself, if it can develop the right lens to look through. Peter’s fine book, I think, is helpful in our attempts to build it.


  1. Many, many years back, I saw a show on TV wherein a newbie Christian had joined a group which was determined to do some good in the world. Given a choice between rescuing one drunk from skid row or working for world peace, the latter option was chosen, as being easier.

    Saving the world is a piece of cake. Fixing our neighborhoods is harder, helping our family and friends is harder still, and reforming our Self is hardest of all.

    Big problem arises with the contention that everyone “should” participate in local or national government, in the community, for “betterment”, etc. Many people (I would not say most), simply cannot be bothered, for reasons which range from hedonism, through curmudgeonry, through being focused on work or other “more important” concerns. Some just want to mind their own business, and not worry about the (oft) insoluble problems of mankind.

    Participatory democracy and communitarian feelings are laudable, until one has to experience them.

  2. Mr. Naas, your post struck a cord with me. I believe more and more that most Americans – and particularly most Christians – need to stay at home!

    Of course in order to stay at home, one probably should have some inkling of what a home is, well beyond the execrable concept of urban and sub-urban sprawl and the “bedroom communities” this inspires. Filling houses, church buildings, shopping centers, etc. with empty, de-racinated people doesn’t make for much of a community! Indeed, it is much easier to “save the world” than to deal with and love my own awkward family and neighbors here in what passes for my community!

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