Stadtluft macht frei: town air freed. It was the phrase used by historians of the European Middle Ages to describe the movement of serfs from rural bondage to newer, more fulfilling lives in the growing urban areas of that continent.
But it expresses a universal truth. The tension between rural communities and urban ones is universal to all places and cultures, and is essentially one of values. Townies allege that they are the places that nurture new identities and new ways of thinking and learning. In the Ancient world, they point to the achievements of Athens and Alexandria. In the early Middle Ages, feudal and rural Europe was backward when compared to the great scientific and cultural advances of the city based Islamic Empires. The return of urbanisation to Europe produced the Renaissance and Enlightenment. So the story goes.
Yet country dwellers claim virtues too; stability, continuity, above all identity, which admit it or not , we all crave. And so the tension plays out today. In England the essential split on the Brexit vote was large cities versus rural and small town areas. In the USA , Trump and the Republicans largely gather support from rural areas, while the big cities break for the Democrats more often than not. Your homework, gentle readers, will be to find more examples of this chasm, so old that neither Aristotle nor Cicero would be surprised to learn of it if we brought them back to life.
Nowhere is this conflict more clearly played out than in Afghanistan where the Taleban largely draws its support from those living in the countryside, while the Government supporters are the younger, more educated sections of the urban population. No real progress will be achieved until we ask “why are the Taleban so popular among certain groups?” They must be offering something, or people would not support them.
One thing is certain. The deep cultural and intellectual divide between town and country must somehow be bridged if we are to survive and progress. Could a joint response to our various existential crises (one of which is climate change) be the answer?
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