Monday, September 15, 2014

Small Is Beautiful

I want to start by mentioning the Scottish vote for independence. I have no skin in this game, but please read the excellent article on this subject by George Monbiot. The vote that Scotland is facing was brought to my attention by a request by David Bowie to Scotland via the beautiful, albeit undernourished, Kate Moss saying, "Scotland, stay with us." When it comes to contemporary music, I find David Bowie to be nearly infallible, however on the matter of Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom, I think he vastly misses the mark.

Kate Moss, upon accepting an award for David Bowie, 
delivers his plea to Scotland to vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

I've always had a soft spot for small nations, perhaps most for the smallest nations of all, the city states. It is the city states of Athens, Milan, and Florence to which we owe the greatest aspects of western culture. The German Kingdom of Saxony gave us Bach, the German Duchy of Saxe- Weimar gave us Goethe. Goethe, the poet, philosopher, and scientist - the German Shakespeare and more - opposed the German unity movement, feeling that Germany was fine as a loose association of kingdoms and duchies that shared much in culture and commerce but fiercely maintained their political independence.
Detail from a portrait of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler
Below, I quote the text of a letter expressing Goethe's opinion on German National Unification.
I do not fear that Germany will not be united; … she is united, because the German Taler and Groschen have the same value throughout the entire Empire, and because my suitcase can pass through all thirty-six states without being opened. … Germany is united in the areas of weights and measures, trade and migration, and a hundred similar things … One is mistaken, however, if one thinks that Germany’s unity should be expressed in the form of one large capital city, and that this great city might benefit the masses in the same way that it might benefit the development of a few outstanding individuals. … A thoughtful Frenchman, I believe Daupin, has drawn up a map regarding the state of culture in France, indicating the higher or lower level of enlightenment of its various Departments by lighter or darker colors. There we find, especially in the southern provinces, far away from the capital, some Departments painted entirely in black, indicating a complete cultural darkness. Would this be the case if the beautiful France had tencenters, instead of just one, from which light and life emanated? — What makes Germany great is her admirable popular culture, which has penetrated all parts of the Empire evenly. And is it not the many different princely residences from whence this culture springs and which are its bearer and curators? Just assume that for centuries only the two capitals of Vienna and Berlin had existed in Germany, or even only a single one. Then, I am wondering, what would have happened to the German culture and the widespread prosperity that goes hand in hand with culture. — Germany has twenty universities strewn out across the entire Empire, more than one hundred public libraries, and a similar number of art collections and natural museums; for every prince wanted to attract such beauty and good. Gymnasia, and technical and industrial schools exist in abundance; indeed, there is hardly a German village without its own school. How is it in this regard in France! — Furthermore, look at the number of German theaters, which exceeds seventy … The appreciation of music and song and their performance is nowhere as prevalent as in Germany … Then think about cities such as Dresden, Munich, Stuttgart, Kassel, Braunschweig, Hannover, and similar ones; think about the energy that these cities represent; think about the effects they have on neighboring provinces, and ask yourself, if all of this would exist, if such cities had not been the residences of princes for a long time. — Frankfurt, Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck are large and brilliant, and their impact on the prosperity of Germany is incalcuable. Yet, would they remain what they are if they were to lose their independence and be incorporated as provincial cities into one great German Empire? I have reason to doubt this.
If only the Germans had heeded Goethe's wise counsel, how different our history would have been!

I usually deride the state's rights positions of citizens of the United States' southern regions, but perhaps they are truly on to something. The best nations in the world, from my perspective tend to be the smallest - think Switzerland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein. San Marino, or Singapore. We hear little about these countries because they are prosperous and at peace. From Texas we often hear idle threats of independence. In the past, I have mocked such utterances with a shrug of my shoulders and a "good riddance." But Texas is a large state with a great deal of human and natural resources and a cultural outlook that doesn't fit well with other parts of the nation, particularly Washington, D.C. Maybe it would be better for them to split off. It might even be better for them to break Texas down into the city states of Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Lubbock, and El Paso. The same might be said for California. The remaining states of the Union could just as well declare much greater autonomy. In fact, Goethe's Germany would be an excellent model for the United States. If our founding father's had had a larger measure of the sort of wisdom that Goethe possessed, perhaps they wouldn't have been so quick to dump the Articles of Confederation in favor of our national Constitution. I think North America would have been much better off if they had weathered the rough times that caused them to adopt a more centralized model for our government.

In summary, the most prosperous and peaceful places on Earth tend to be the smallest. The best pages in our history were written in small places: the city states of Greece and Italy, the kingdoms and duchies of old Germany, etc. Goethe saw the threat of unity on too large a scale, and history has proven him right. All peoples should follow Goethe's wise counsel, especially in this day of internet connectedness. We can achieve prosperity in small political entities. Small is beautiful!

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting observation. How you found Goethe to back you up I don't know but it makes all makes sense. A diversity of small states would also provide more opportunities for its citizens. I think Daupin's culture map suggests that. With more overall opportunities the end result could be a culture that is more egalitarian. That's always a good thing.