I picked up Steven B. Smith’s Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes because I’ve always been aware of the potential dark side of my work at Department of Here. We launched it thinking that cities were an integral tool to helping stitch the American social fabric back together. The idea was that cities offer that sweet spot of rootedness. They are larger and more diverse than your social circle, but not so large as to be incomprehensible, like the big and unruly America. Further, because they are small enough to get one’s head around, we more readily incorporate cities into our identities, and having an anchoring identity that you share with your neighbors is especially important in the current cultural moment when traditional identifiers are scrambled.
My thinking was, if we could get cities to more effectively define their personality and tell that story in a compelling way to their residents, we’d see a surge in civic pride. And we could harness that civic pride to create economic benefits: entrepreneurs would keep their companies local, quality of life would improve, and talented workers would choose to move in, seeking to join the party.
I don’t imagine this is such a hard lift; the ground for civic pride is fertile. People already readily jump on the city pride bandwagon when sports teams go on successful runs. We wondered, why should we leave civic pride to the vagaries of sports? Why not help cities own their brand and use the tools at their disposal to better humanize themselves and foster community?
But the whole time, I was aware that getting people to rally around their city had a possible dark side. It smelled vaguely like nationalism, albeit on behalf of cities that lack standing armies. Still, every in-group has to have an out-group.
That’s why I read Smith’s book. A political science and philosophy professor at Yale, Smith makes a strong case for patriotism, explaining it as the happy middle ground between nationalism (which is overly defensive and insecure, and perennially leads to battles of insider vs outsider) and cosmopolitanism (which in its desire to create a global culture is untethered from humanity’s need to feel rooted and safe in a place). Smith describes patriotism as love of home, not in a love-it-or-leave-it kind of way, but “a statement of who we are...[and] an aspiration to what we might become.” That felt right to me, especially at a moment when we are actively considering how our cities can be changed to be more equitable and safe.
At one point, discussing cosmopolitanism, Smith digresses into an explanation of the origins of the word “cool,” which originally meant an ironic detachment, a “studied carelessness and nonchalance.” Cool was the ultimate cosmopolitanism, an affect that signaled that you were above and beyond the small-mindedness of those who cared deeply about their community.
The definition of coolness has been watered down over the years, though. It now refers to anything bourgeois and coveted and has, predictably, become commodified. And here is where something clicked for me. The endless hunt for supposedly authentic consumable experiences—retail, travel, artistic—are all an attempt to sell an (oxymoronic) detached patriotism, a connection to an unfamiliar place. It is a failed mashup of cosmopolitanism and patriotism, and it produces an empty vessel.
The examples of commodified, detached patriotism are endless. From social media’s popularity as a platform for glomming onto others’ experiences to cheeky pop up experiences like the Museum of Ice Cream in New York City to authentic tourism engagements like those offered by the Faroe Islands (where you can apply to be one of the lucky few who comes when the nation is “closed” to visitors to repair the islands’ trails), the world is suddenly awash with businesses that take advantage of our desire to belong to something.
It makes sense that we want this. In a culture that has gone weak on identity and on pride of place, demand spikes for experiences that make us feel rooted. But ironically, by commodifying these moments of purported authenticity, the economy sells experiences that are derived from someone else’s particularity. Which is to say, they offer a meaningfulness with no shelf life, a momentary vacation from your own existence. It offers a high of meaningfulness that fades as soon as you move on. It never becomes folded into your identity. It never scratches the fundamental itch to belong to a place and community at a specific time.
This is why the work of Department of Here feels so important to me. We want to help communities identify and express their latent city-based identities so they stop being perpetually thirsty for those ersatz experiences. We strive to create a civic patriotism that is an analog of the national patriotism that Smith seeks to reclaim from nationalists: a local community-focused patriotism founded on empathy for, that constantly seeks to improve our cities, and welcomes outsiders to the ongoing project.
These are the cities we need to build for generations to come.