Sunday, April 10, 2011

Imperial Cities

I'm coming more and more to the conclusion that Washington DC is an Imperial City.

I not making the argument here that the US is an empire (although the argument can certainly be made). I'm talking about what it means to HAVE an Imperial City.

I would suggest the following as archetypal Imperial Cities: Versailles, Beijing, and Edo (now Tokyo). (Given China's long history, Beijing is merely the most recent of its Imperial Cities.) I would contrast them with other Imperial Capitals like London and Rome. (Interestingly, Delhi/New Delhi forms an instructive hybrid.)

Imperial Cities are those that were built from the ground up to be capitals; they aren't centers of commerce or art or scholarship, except secondarily. They were often built to avoid commerce and art and scholarship, in fact. Usually they were explicitly created by a strong central ruler (Chinese Emperors, Louis XIV of France, the Tokugawa Shoguns) as a place to hold hostages — nobles would be required to send some members of their families to be in residence at all times in the Imperial City, or be themselves in residence.

Another major feature of these Imperial Cities is that the Court became its own society to the exclusion of almost everything else. Court Society dictated what people did, what they wore, who was in, who was out, usually in obsessive detail. This was directly or indirectly to the benefit of the central ruler, as anything that distracted the courtiers kept them from doing anything to take away from the center of power.

This is not to say that Court life in London, or its equivalent in Rome or other large capitals was not intellectually inbred or navel-gazing. But as an instructive contrast, if you were a courtier in the British government in the 17th century, you could physically leave the court and be watching a play, or in a coffee house discussing the events of the day with Samuel Pepys, or dining with the founders of modern science at the Royal Society, within a matter of minutes. There was nothing comparable at Versailles.

Washington DC was built from the ground up to be the capital city of the United States. There was little or nothing there before the current city was laid out. Whatever art and commerce that is there is a follow-on to the government.

If the capital of the United States had stayed in New York, or Philadelphia, instead of moving to a constructed city that had no other existence before the government arrived, what might have happened? Would various government functionaries feel closer to the people whose lives they affect, closer to some of the modes of life that exist outside of government?

Most importantly, would the press be so much like Versailles courtiers, dependent for their existence on the people they are, in theory, supposed to be challenging and whose statements they are supposed to be verifying instead of merely repeating?

Cynically, I wonder if having our capital in our primary commercial city would actually make that much of a difference. The New York Times certainly has failed in its duty often enough (they pursued the Whitewater "scandal" long after it was clear that there was nothing to find; they were slack-jawed credulous in the runup to the Iraq War, and so on, and they certainly participate in Broderism at a high level, although not quite at the pitch of the Washington Post). But I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't be worse than what we've got now.

I think the biggest sign that we have an Imperial City on our hands is the signal failure of the press "corps" to actually look at the substance of policy proposals, and their propensity to go with the conventional wisdom (especially when it is dependent purely on superficialities), and to go with horse-race or Inside Baseball-type coverage. ("Democrats say Earth is round; Republicans disagree.") And it's quite sad that this hasn't changed much, or has possibly gotten worse, in the five years since Stephen Colbert nailed them at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner.


Kevin said...

I offer the term the villagers:

rantingnerd said...

Yes, that's a good one too, but "Imperial Village" kind of undercuts my point. :-)

rantingnerd said...

And of course, there's the inimitable Digby: