The Weird Trope of the Bucolic Paradise

Blame the Pre-Raphaelites for extolling a countryside
they knew was rapidly changing.
The weird trope of the bucolic paradise is that country living is more wholesome (moral) than city living.

It's weird because it is so utterly false.

Bucolic, insular, non-cosmopolitan milieus are far more likely to produce and indulge in grudge-bearing behavior than cosmopolitan, mobile milieus.

Salem Village is an excellent example of this. Salem Town was located on the water; it was trade-oriented and full of movement as well as the up and coming nouveau riche. Salem Village was agricultural, limited in space and filled to the brim with angry people, furious over various family spats and slights (mostly to do with money). Salem Village's fury turned into the Salem Witch Trials.

Likewise, in Medieval Europe, accusations of witchcraft--which happened far less than the lore of medievalism might lead one to believe--happened in batches. Such accusations almost always occurred in locations with locked-in, ongoing arguments and grudges.

Bourgeois business owners in high-trafficked areas don't have time to accuse their neighbors of being witches. Or the invested interest.

Sci-fi is more willing to admit the flaws in unified societies:
in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Disease", the
generational ship inevitably disbands.
The trope that country life is more wholesome (no one suggests that Heidi move to New York City) is a bizarre misreading of human nature. Shyamalan's The Village--though beautifully filmed--utterly fails to grasp this. Truth: that village would disband or self-implode within a generation, if not sooner. (The utopia Fruitlands with Alcott et al. lasted fewer months than the gestation of a human baby.)

Why such a gross misreading of basic human nature? The Industrial Revolution happened in part because people were sick to death of having to milk cows and count chickens. And yet many readings of history insist that people were somehow "forced" into the factories and/or urban environments (see Pre-Raphaelites). Sometimes, even the people themselves insisted on this.

Is it so difficult to admit, "Boy, I hate fresh air. I love nature . . . from the window of my car. I don't care where the beef comes from--so long as it shows up in the stores"?

When will humans embrace their urban-ity?

4 comments:

FreeLiveFree said...

There are feuds in cities. Haven't you heard of the Crips and the Bloods? Jack Kirby (the comic artist) mentions chasing kids from the wrong NY neighborhood throwing rocks and garbage at them.

Mind you, I'm pretty sure that just means that human nature doesn't change radically because of environment.

Katherine Woodbury said...

It's all about the percentage of people who get embroiled in a single feud or are even affected by it. In 2015, NYC had an average crime index rating of 229 (the National Average is 247/100,000 people) with a violent crime rate of 312 (National Average is 207). The same year, the violent crime rate for Gloversville in upstate NY was 350 while Schenectady--where I grew up and where citizens would warn each other not to go to NYC for fear of being mugged--had a whopping violent crime rate of 491.

Maine follows the same pattern. The largest city, Portland, had a 2015 violent crime rate of 190 while Augusta, Maine, which is still fairly rural despite being the state’s capital, had a violent crime rate of 261. And Mexico, Maine, which is way up past Auburn in the hinterlands of the Vacation State, had a violent crime rate of 443 (City Data).

To put this another way, more actual violent crimes may take place in cities, but the chance of being a victim can be as high and often higher outside of big cities. And the moral tone or effect of a country assault or homicide is more far-reaching. As Harari points out in Sapiens, hunters and gatherers killed fewer people than modern wars do, but they killed a far greater proportion of their population. A hunter/gatherer skirmish could wipe out an entire clan. Primitive peoples lived in more dangerous times than modern people--despite all that nature.

A modern comparison is the West Nickels shootings in 2006, which was committed by a member of the larger community and which resulted in a violent crime rate of 7% for the Amish community specifically--and a rate of 3% death from violent crime, which was only slightly lower that the homicide rate for the United States in 2006: 5% (FBI). In fact, the entire Bart Township, English and Amish, experienced the same deaths out of 3,000 that Albany, New York did in the same time period out of 100,000.

The point is not that assaults and deaths in the urban environment aren't problematic and tragic (or that numbers stay the same from year to year)--but that they don't have the same impact on the populace. Not only are proportionally more people directly affected by a country violent crime (assault, murder, rape, arson) but more people notice and discuss it, leading to more internal unease and strife. When I moved to Portland--a comparatively smaller city at 67,000 people than any city in New York State--a young man had just killed a group of men that he got into a fight with at a bar. That summer, everyone I met knew someone connected to one of the victims or to the perpetrator. Community knowledge is the same reason vampires should never move to the country--unless, of course, they want to be lynched.

Looks like St. Mary Mead and Cabot Cove are accurate representations of mayhem and murder after all . . .

Eugene said...

From The De-Moralization of Society by Gertrude Himmelfarb:

Industrialism and urbanism--"modernism," as it is now known--so far from contributing to the de-moralization of the poor, seems to have had the opposite effect. At the end of the nineteenth century, England was a more civil, more pacific, more humane society than it had been in the beginning. "Middle-class" manners and morals had penetrated into large sections of the working classes. The traditional family was as firmly established as ever, even as feminist movements proliferated and women began to be liberated from their "separate spheres."

Noted and quoted on the Cafe Hayek website.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Himmelfarb’s book is an interesting defense of the Victorians. Some of her comments address how doomsdaying increases even as a society is improving: “It is ironic that at the turn of the century, when, by all measures, the economic and moral conditions of the working classes had greatly improved, there should have arisen a new cause of alarm: the ‘degeneration of the race.’ The idea was seized upon by the growing eugenics movement, which thought it necessary to control and improve the biological nature of human beings . . . For various reasons, including the usual sensationalist journalism, the problem was much exaggerated. It could not be demonstrated that the physical condition of ‘the race’ had deteriorated; all that could be proved was that it was less than satisfactory in the present. Nor was there any evidence of moral deterioration—of increased crime, violence, drunkenness, or illegitimacy; on the contrary, these statistics showed a dramatic improvement.”

Amazing how the rhetoric of "things are getting so much worse" never changes!