FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Monday, September 24, 2018

How to get along with other Americans

 Sam Smith
From The Great American Political Repair Manual
1997

The most important fact about race

It doesn’t really exist. At least not the way many Americans think it does. There is simply no undisputed scientific definition of race. What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1785, a German philosopher noted that “complexions run into each other.” Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that “it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term ‘race’ from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase ‘ethnic group.’ That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand.” Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our “most dangerous myth.”

Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views. Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power.

DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that’s not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written:
The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two ‘races’ have the same skin color. ~ There is no clearly distinguishable ‘white race.’ What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight.
Well, it sure looks like race
Regardless of what science says, however, myth can kill and cause pain just as easily as scientific truth. And regardless of what science says, there are no Japanese players in the NBA or, as anthropologist Alice Brues told Newsweek, “If I parachute into Nairobi, I know I’m not in Oslo.”

In fact, give or take a few thousand years, it’s unlikely that those of a Nordic skin complexion would stay that way living under the African sun. Similarly, the effects of a US diet are strong enough that the first generations of both European and Asian Americans have found themselves looking up at their grandchildren.

In such ways adaptation mimics what many think of as race. But who needs science when we have our own eyes? If it looks like race, that’s good enough for us.

Further, we are obsessed with the subject even as we say we wish to ignore it. A few years back, a study of urban elections coverage found five times as many stories about race as about taxes.

We can’t even agree on what race is. In the 1990 census, Americans said they belonged to some 300 different races or ethnic groups. American Indians divided themselves into 600 tribes and Latinos into 70 categories.

The real reason race is important to us
Even as we talk endlessly of race and ethnicity, we simultaneously go to great lengths to prove that we are all the same. Why this contradiction? The answer can be partly found in the tacit assumption of many that human equity must be based primarily on competitive equality. Listen to talk about race (or sex) and notice how often the talk is also about competition. The cultural differences (real or presumed) that really disturb us are ones of competitive significance: thigh circumference, height, math ability and so forth. We accept more easily other differences — varieties of hair, degree of subcutaneous fat, prevalence of sickle cell anemia — because they don’t affect (or affect far less) who gets to the top.

Once having decided which traits are important, we assign causes to them on the basis of convenience rather than fact. Our inability to sort out the relative genetic, cultural, and environmental provenance of our differences doesn’t impede our judgment at all. It is enough that a difference is observed. Thus we tend to deal neither with understanding what the facts about our differences and similarities really mean — or, more importantly, with their ultimate irrelevance to developing a world where we can live harmoniously and happily with each other. We don’t spend the effort to separate facts from fiction because both cut too close to our inability to appreciate and celebrate our human differences. It is far easier to pretend either that these differences are immutable or that they don’t exist at all.

The Catch-22 of ethnicity

And so we come to the Catch-22 of ethnicity. It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.

For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes — “you wouldn’t understand, it’s a black thing” — as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious distinctions while at the same time — often with fundamentalist or regulatory fervor — accentuating those distinctions.

In the process we reduce our ethnic problems to a matter of regulation and power, and reduce our ambitions to the achievement of a tolerable stalemate rather than the creation of a truly better society. The positive aspects of diversity remain largely ignored and non-discrimination becomes merely another symbol of virtuous citizenship — like not double-parking or paying your taxes.

Martin Luther King said once:
Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.
Sorry, Martin. Our approach to prejudice and discrimination is not unlike our approach to drugs: We plan to simply rule them out of existence. In so doing, we have implicitly defined the limits of virtue as merely the absence of malice.

The most important fact about prejudice
It’s normal. That isn’t to say that it’s nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that “all primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders, those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code which holds within the limits of one’s own people, but who are summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great number of the tribal names in common use, Zuñi, Déné, Kiowa . . . are only their native terms for ‘the human beings,’ that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no human beings.”

Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite notion — that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these “deviants” only in terms of their overt antipathies — they are “anti-Semitic” or guilty of “hate.” In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate in genocide can do so with such calm — they have defined their targets as outside of humanity.

What if, instead, we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of “no fault justice.” We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.

Telling stories
If we are to rid our minds of stereotypes, something needs to fill the empty space. Nothing works better than the real stories of real people drawn from the anecdotal warehouses that supply many of our deepest values, feelings and philosophy.

If you find your classroom, organization or workplace bogged down in cultural tension and abstract confrontation — or perhaps feeling the silence that comes from being near one another and not knowing what to say — why not take a break and let people tell their own stories?

In writing this book, I sat down with a number of people who had crossed the barricades of culture to some good end. I wanted their wisdom but I also wanted their stories, for wisdom seldom comes without a tale.

If I were just to tell you that each had experienced “institutional racism” or had suffered from some sort of “cultural stereotype” you’d probably forget about it before the end of this chapter. Here instead are a few of their stories:

Kyung Kyu Lim is employed by an association of state transportation officials in Washington, DC. He is active with Young Koreans United and has worked in multi-cultural coalitions. He believes that “part of getting Korean-American identity is learning commonalities with other groups.” In the early seventies, Kyung Kyu moved from Korea to an African-American community in LA. In high school, through a program ironically called A Better Chance, he ended up with a white host family in suburban Minneapolis where the overwhelmingly white student body made him feel “wretched,” with its clannishness, nice cars, and derogatory comments about “boat people.”

“I felt myself shrinking,” Kyung Kyu recalls.

Things got no better at McCalester College. The prejudice he found there made him feel “smaller and smaller.” He tried running away by dropping out and moving to Alaska. That didn’t work. Nor did changing schools to University of Connecticut — not long after he arrived, members of the football team spat upon some Asian students.

Rudy Arredondo handles civil rights problems for the Department of Agriculture and has worked with Cesar Chavez and for a city health department. He came to Texas from Mexico when he was three. By five he was working in the fields. At six, his mother put him on a bus to go to kindergarten for the first time. As he sat down, the Anglo passengers started screaming at him. He knew no English so he did not realize that the bus was segregated and that he was in the white section. He knew only that strange people were screaming at him in a foreign tongue and he was very scared. At twelve Rudy tried to buy a movie ticket in Lubbock. The clerk pointed to a sign that read, No Niggers, Dogs or Mexicans allowed.

John Callahan is editing the unpublished works of Ralph Ellison. He grew up in the New Haven. At the age of eight — and a small eight — he was sent to a parochial school in the formerly Irish turned Italian neighborhood of Fairhaven. There he was greeted by some seemingly friendly (and much bigger) Italian kids who asked him, “Do you know what an Irishman is?” John said he didn’t and one of the kids said, “A nigger turned inside out.” They pummeled him and one grabbed his Yankees baseball hat, saying of the team’s star, ‘DiMag belongs to us.'”

Later, when he was 16 and working as a mail clerk for a bank, he overheard a bank officer on the phone. The bank officer was looking out the window, his long legs stretched over a corner of his desk. He was saying, “If the funny little mick doesn’t work out, we can always bring in a nigger.”

But Kyung Kyu, Rudy and John also told me a different type of story.

For example, Kyung Kyu remembered that at his elementary school, it was black teachers who helped him through the wrenching experience of being a young stranger in a new land. They also taught him how to handle the kids who taunted him for his poor English — by saying he was Korean and proud of it.

Kyung Kyu became a community organizer and eventually found his way east and to a MIT program for organizers run by Mel King — a longtime African-American activist and one-time candidate for mayor of Boston. King became his teacher and guide.

When I talked with Rudy, our conversation turned to Sammie Abbott, an Arab-American and local activist who had led the local anti-freeway crusade in the 60s and who eventually became mayor of Takoma Park, MD. Along the way he taught a Latino organizer and an Anglo-Irish journalist a lot about politics and life. At his memorial service I had said that for Sammie, “a cause was not a career move, not an option purchased on a political future, nor a flirtation of conscience. It was simply the just life’s work of a just human.” Rudy recalled that “Sam Abbott had preconceived notions about everything. We would have strong arguments.” Yet when Sam became mayor, the town meetings would often run late, because he “never used a gavel to shut anyone up.”

Someone also crossed the barriers to help John Callahan. Going through — and dropping out of — college, John worked for two African-Americans who “taught me a great deal about the hard work of becoming a man.” Later still, when John Callahan had become a man and an academic, he wrote an essay about a black novelist. He sent a copy to the writer who responded with a long letter and an offer that they get together if John ever came to New York..

That’s how, just before four p.m. one afternoon in 1978, John Callahan found himself ringing the doorbell of Ralph Ellison. “We talked like we were in a Henry James novel,” says Callahan. Ellison called him Mr. Callahan and Callahan called him Mr. Ellison. Then, at precisely five minutes of five, Ellison leaned towards Callahan and asked, “John, would you like a drink?”

“Why yes, Mr. Elli — ah Ralph — I would.” Ellison excused himself and returned with two bottles of whiskey, one bourbon and one Irish. They began to talk again, but no longer as in a Henry James novel and only for the first of many times.

Much later, Ralph Ellison told John’s mother that if he and his wife had had a son, they would have liked him to have been like John. Today John Callahan is editing the unfinished works of a black author who found something of himself in an Irish kid from New Haven.

How Mr. Platt did it
In the middle of the stolid, segregated, monolithic 1950s, Howard Platt taught one of two anthropology courses available in an American high school. I was lucky enough to be among his students. Mr. Platt showed us a new way to look at the world.

And what a wonderful world it was. Not the stultifying world of our parents, not the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, not the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of fantastic options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt’s subliminal message of cultural relativism was simultaneously a subliminal message of freedom. You were not a prisoner of your culture; you could always go live with the Eskimos, the Indians or the Arabs. By the time the bell sounded I was often ready to go.

Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of diversity, or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He didn’t need to. He taught something far more important, something so often missing from our discussions on race, something frequently absent from college curricula. Mr. Platt opened a world of variety, not for us to fear but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not an obstacle, but a gift.

Finding the right words

Linguists say that when something matters greatly in a culture there are many words for it. Here in America, we have no single word for a four-wheeled vehicle. Yet when dealing with issues of race and sex, we have comfortably settled on racism and sexism, two overburdened words called to fulfill an astounding collection of functions. The net effect is to dissipate the power of the most violent acts and to exaggerate minor transgressions. Linguistically, we have put genocide and the failure of a professor to assign any reading by a black author on the same level.

If we were really going to do something about our problems we would have more words for them. We would discriminate, linguistically, tactically and philosophically, between a black saying, “Nigger,” a white freshman using the epithet and a white politician saying the same thing. We would be able to describe the difference between the prejudice that comes from being taught that another ethnic group is responsible for your economic problems and that which comes from believing another ethnic group is trying to take your power. We would distinguish among the misguided, the uninformed, the victim of warped acculturation, the viscerally hating, the cynically manipulating, the indifferent, the culturally jingoistic and the paranoid.

We seldom make these distinctions and as a result, tend to favor one recipe for all. It turns out to be no recipe, however, only words as lazy as our actions. As things stand now, America’s cultures are standing on their separate turfs hurling symbols at each other. And some have divined in this the message that it is all right to hurl other things as well.

Working our way out of this jam will take a willingness to come together, to think of the future more than of the past, to learn how to enjoy our differences, and to speak honestly, without violence, of our fears and, yes, even of our prejudices. It will mean finding ways of revealing the individual under the mask of culture. It will above all take a revival of the often forgotten faith that there is a powerful advantage in doing these things. For without that, everything else we do will be a lie no matter how politely we treat each other.

Changing by being together

Janet Hampton, a George Washington University professor whose research specialty is Afro-Hispanic studies, grew up black in Kansas. She exudes a cheerful calm suggestive of having lived around a lot of love, so you might not suspect that she has taught ethnic relations to cops at the local police academy as well as having been on the faculty at both mostly white and mostly black universities. Here’s how she handles the first day of class: “I ask the students to tell a little about themselves. If some one is from a cultural enclave, I tell them about other students from their school or place who have really done well.” She pays particular attention to those who come from “pariah nations” like Iraq. She told a student from Eritrea that he could be very helpful when the class discussed the American Civil War.

I asked her about ethnic slurs. Let’s say, Jan said, that a black student uses the word wetback. “I would make him apologize but I would also say that we don’t want to lose his point.” Corrected but still valued.

Janet informs her students that “As long as you are never disrespectful, you can say anything you want. ~ We will change by just being together.”

Some things that help

Be friendly and respectful: In a culturally varied society, it is easy to transmit signals that are misunderstood but, fortunately, kindness, friendliness and respect come across clearly. Make good use of them.

Learn about other cultures: We typically try to resolve inter-cultural tensions without giving people a solid reason for liking one another. Mutual enjoyment and admiration provide the shortest route between two ethnicities. Education is one thing that we know reduces prejudice. Yet for all our talk about diversity, this isn’t so easy to come by. For example, after three decades of the modern civil rights movement, the University of Wisconsin is the only place you can get a degree in African languages and literature. We could well spend less time on abstractions of racism and more on the assets of each other’s traditions.

We could be teaching, in high school anthropology classes and college seminars, the variety of the world as something to explore and enjoy, not just as a problem or an issue. You don’t have to teach diversity. Diversity is. You don’t have to defend it in lofty liberal rhetoric. Studying humanity’s medley is not a moral act; it is simply intelligent. Limiting one’s understanding to the “western intellectual canon,” makes as much sense as teaching leeching to medical students or limiting one’s knowledge of the universe to that data available to Copernicus. It’s not that it’s evil; it’s just not very smart

And you don’t have to learn it all in school. France became a haven for black exiles earlier this century in no small part because of French enthusiasm for jazz and African art. Similarly, jazz clubs and concerts were among the few places in segregated America that apartheid was regularly ignored.

Today we are sometimes more hospitable to foreigners than we are to strangers in our own land. One notable exception is the ethnic restraurant. Why? In part because all parties involved get a fair deal out of it. In part because it is enjoyable. In part because it is natural. No one is self-conscious; no one is made to feel uncomfortable. The owner makes a good living; the customers get a good meal.

Diversity counts within cultures as much as between them. Just because jazz is important to black culture doesn’t mean all blacks like jazz. Or that colleges shouldn’t recruit black cellists as well as black forwards. Or that just because someone’s white, they have to be Anglo-Saxon or a Protestant.

Share power fairly. One of the clearest manifestations of decency is equitable power. In a society wedded to winner-take-all solutions, sharing power can be difficult to achieve. But it’s worth trying. One way is to learn from children. Notice how much time they spend on whether the game is “fair.” They’re on to something.

Find something in common that’s more important than what’s not: It can be a political goal, a sport, an avocation or a business. I’ve seen it work in situations as diverse as a project to train church archivists or a kid’s team headed for a playoff. The importance of ethnicity is often inversely proportional to what else we have on our minds

Stop being shocked by racism. We have attempted to exorcise racism much as Nancy Reagan tried to get rid of drugs, by just saying no. It has worked about as well. Once we recognize the unpleasant persistence of human discrimination, once we give up the notion that it is merely social deviance controllable by sanctions, we will be guided away from puritanical corrective approach towards ones that emphasize techniques of mitigating harm, and towards activities and attitudes that become antibiotics against prejudice.

Get real. When not on the podium or in front of a mike, people in politics talk real talk about real things. Like how you’re going win the black vote or carry a Polish ward or not piss off the gays. Elsewhere, when the subject of ethnicity or sex comes up, the discussion often turns disingenuously circuitous or maddeningly abstract. This is one time when the politicians are on the right track. Lay problems and feelings honestly on the table and then deal with them.

Talk about it but not too much. At a meeting called to discuss racial problems, a black activist said, “I don’t want to talk about race unless we are going to do something specific about it.” It’s not a bad rule for every public discussion of race. Unproductive talk can leave

Diversity includes those you don’t like. Even liberals don’t talk about this but a truly multi-cultural community will include born-again Christians opposed to abortion, Muslims with highly restrictive views on the role of women, prayer-sayers and atheists, Playboy readers as well as Seventh Day Adventists. Remember that you’re not required to express — or even have — an opinion about everyone else in the world.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: Common sense is a great civil rights tool. Even in a multi-cultural society, loutish sophomores are going to use tasteless language, fundamentalists will sneak in private prayers on public occasions, and eight-year-old boys will grab girls where they shouldn’t. Hyper-reaction to such minor phenomena hurt and trivialize the cause of human justice.

Go for the important stuff: One of the reasons the little stuff gets such big play is because of the lack of a clear and meaningful agenda of social justice. People wouldn’t be talking so much about who said what to whom and in what tone of voice if there was a serious effort underway, for example, against discrimination in such long-neglected areas such as housing and public transportation.

Avoid putting virtues in competition: School bussing placed the virtue of integration in direct conflict with the virtue of neighborhood schools. Often such conflicts can be avoided or mitigated by choosing other tactics. For example, why was there so much attention to bussing and so little to residential integration?

Lighten up on the lawyers: While of great assistance in securing basic rights, lawyers are not well equipped to deal with complex human relationships. We need to train large numbers of people who can serve as peace-keepers, mediators, and referees.

Timely courage helps: When anti-Semitic attacks began in Billings MT, the town responded quickly — getting rid of Nazi symbols and posting paper menorahs in the windows of homes. A little early courage at such times works better than a lot of belated hand wringing.

Attack economic discrimination too: After every group gets its rights, the powerful among them will discriminate against the weak and the wealthy against the poor. As Saul Alinsky said, “When the poor get power they’ll be shits like everyone else.” Opposition to affirmative action might have been much less had the programs been based on zipcode as well as on race and sex. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in 1964 that “the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education.”

Stop worrying so much about language: It provides a warning sign and serves as an inter-cultural safety valve. Paul Kuritz, in an article on ethnic humor in the Maine Progressive, pointed out that “as early as 1907, the English-speaking rabbis and priests of Cleveland united to protest the Irish and Jewish stage comedians. ~ The suppression of crude ethnic humor both accompanied the economic exploitation of the lower-class work force and paralleled the dismissal of the lower classes’ tastes as ‘offensive’ to the newly refined sensibilities of upwardly-mobile second and third generation Americans.”

Kuritz, a third-generation Slovak, was arguing that the real problem with a recently fired French-Canadian radio host was not that he had made fun of his own culture but that the full panoply of ethnicity was not also represented on the air. This would have allowed all these groups to experience what anthropologists call a “joking relationship,” helping to reduce tensions between potentially antagonistic clans. Said Kuritz, “As a general rule of thumb, an attempt to suppress speech as ‘offensive’ or ‘disempowering’ is not a signal to lessen the amount of talk, but to increase the amount.”

Today, inter-ethnic joking is mainly found in rough-and-tumble enviroments such as the modern vaudeville of comedy clubs or in sports and politics, but is frowned upon by those whose social status leads them to presume that manners create reality. The problem is that under the latter ground rules, words often disguise feelings, sidetrack action, and no longer serve to keep tension and hate apart.

Be tough on leaders, not on followers: Those with tightly defined ideas about how we should behave often make little distinction between people who merely accept the values of their culture and those who market and manipulate them. It helps to remember that we are all creatures of our cultures and often speak with their voice. This may not be an admirable characteristic but it certainly is a human one. After all, if it weren’t for Rush, dittoheads would have nothing to ditto.

Make justice pay off: The modern civil rights movement started with a bus boycott — and many more economic actions soon followed. Its leaders understood that one of the easiest ways to get people to give up a prejudice is to discover that it’s costing them money. That’s why you may find more racial mixing at a shopping mall than you will in a nearby church, club or neighborhood.

Recogniz that we are all part of something else: By dint of exposure to TV alone, it is virtually impossible to live in America and not have absorbed aspects of other cultures. We all, in effect, belong to a part-culture, which is to say that our ethnicity is somewhat defined by its relationship to, and borrowing from, other cultures. There are almost no pure anythings in America anymore. The sooner we accept and enjoy this, the better off we’ll be.

Remember that everyone has an ethnicity. There are no unethnic Americans.

Why a white buy likes living in a black city
Despite a widespread yearning for better cultural and ethnic relations, we too often only talk about problems and tensions. So let me tell you a different kind of story. I offer it not as anything special, but simply as an example of the sort of things we could be telling each other but rarely do

I’m a native Washingtonian and have lived in DC most of my life. DC is two-thirds black. When someone asks me where I live and I tell them, they sometimes look at my fifty-something white face and say, “You mean in the city?” What they mean is: with all those blacks?

I don’t live in DC out of any moral imperative. I’m not doing anybody except myself a favor. I live here because I enjoy it. Beside, I’d rather be in the minority in DC than in the majority in a lot of places. Here are a few reasons why:

I’ve found black Washingtonians exceptionally friendly, decent, hospitable, and morally rooted. They’re nice folks to be around.

Black Washingtonians will talk to strangers without knowing “who are you with?” White Washingtonians, especially in the political city, are often far more formal and distant. — and more likely to treat you based on your utility to themselves. Not knowing anyone at an all-white event in DC can be pretty lonely; not knowing anyone at an all-black event in DC means you soon will.

Black Washingtonians understand loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They have helped me become better at handling these things.

Black Washingtonians value humor; many white Washingtonians try (as Russell Baker once noted) to be somber under the illusion that it makes them serious. I like to laugh.

Black Washingtonians value achievement as well as power. Teachers, artists, writers and poets are respected in the black community. As a writer, I like that.

Living in close proximity with another culture provides a useful gauge by which to judge one’s own.

The imagery, rhythm and style of black speech appeals to me far more than the jargon-ridden circumlocution of the white city.

Many black Washingtonians are actively concerned about social and political change; much of white Washington is seeking to maintain the status quo.

White Washington always seems to want me to conform to it; black Washington has always accepted me for who I am.

Getting along with minorities of the mind

One of the hardest things for many of us is the conflict between what might be called ethnicities of the heart — the things we believe deeply, the clashing moral cultures by which we choose to live.

For example, some of the worst recent violence in this country has not involved race at all, but the issue of abortion. Attacks on abortion clinics come out of a hypertrophied sense of self-righteousness and the belief that one is entitled to not only judge but to punish those with whom you disagree.

Those favoring abortions have responded without violence, but with no less certitude, and thus many of our communities and much our politics has become enmeshed in bitter conflict.

Worse, there are the seeds here of far more serious problems, for it is when both sides deny the existence of moral doubt that cultural values can become deadly. The slaughter in Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and the Middle East is not the inevitable product of beliefs, but of the unmitigated rigidity with which they are held.

Consider, for example, that three-quarters of Americans believe abortion should be permitted when a woman’ health is at stake, the fetus has a serious defect, or a woman has been raped. Roughly half of Americans believe an abortion should be permitted for unmarried women or mothers who don’t want more children.

These figures haven’t changed much in twenty years. Neither pro- nor anti-abortion activists have been particularly successful in changing people’s minds. We can assume that we will remain deeply divided on this issue for the foreseeable future.

So what are we going to do about it? And what about a country that will continue to include both Christian fundamentalists and people who don’t practice religion at all? Feminists and orthodox Muslims? Gun-owners and animal rights activists? Gays, heterosexual adulterers, and people who believe in the sanctity of the male-female marriage.

Too often there is mostly the implicit notion that those who are outnumbered should shut up or go away. Periodic discussions of how many gays and lesbians there are in America, for example, seem to imply that the answer should make some policy difference. In fact, there is no minimum threshold for protection under the Constitution. The theory of that document is that even one of us counts.

Being American means living in close proximity with people whose values, intrinsic nature or behavior may not just be different, but which you may not like at all. Does that mean we just sit on our front porches and glare at our neighbors? Or worse? It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some things we can all do, regardless of what we feel in our hearts:

Encourage debate, not hysteria: Whether at a meeting, speaking to a friend or calling a talk show, we can affect not only the substance of a debate but its tone. Keeping the discussion civil is not just a nicety; it’s practical — it makes it easier to find a solution when you need one. Not only do well-run debates inform, they take the edge off demagoguery. Besides, most people would rather be convinced than manipulated.

Find ways to talk: Even implacable foes can carry on surrogate discussions through a third party. Communities can establish cross-cultural mediation. Everyone should be encouraged to try talking before filing a law suit. Communities should hold regular common ground conferences at which the broadest possible spectrum of citizens — from the prominent to the pariahs — come together to find things about which they can agree.

Dilute divisive issues with unifying ones: Finding issues that bring antagonists together can help mitigate the anger they feel towards one another. A rifle-owning abortion opponent might be an important member of a committee to save the park or a progressive might join with conservative libertarians on a ballot access issue. Remember: nothing scares politicians more than seeing people get together they’d rather have stay apart. Besides, once you start working with these folks, you might find you actually like them.

Find local solutions: Communities are great places to find workable solutions to problems. Actually knowing people makes it much harder to see them as walking bumper stickers. Remember that behind most law suits and mangled public solutions to human problems was somebody’s complaint — and the failure of others nearby to do something about it. Communities are where many of these problems start and where many of them could be resolved.

Give each other some space: I’m a non-churchgoing seventh day agnostic. My wife Kathy has taught Sunday School and has been a vestry member and church archivist. Somehow we’ve managed to work it out so neither of us has felt the need of a class action lawsuit to maintain our respective views of organized religion. The same could be true of most communities. But we need time and space to do our thing, play out our rituals, speak our minds, even express our annoyance and disagreement with one another.

One good rule is this: You won’t have to get the judge’s answer if you can work it out first. The 1st Amendment not only doesn’t restrict free speech, it doesn’t prohibit accommodation and compromise. Come up with a solution with which everyone’s comfortable and the ACLU never has to be the wiser.

Who’s to blame?

The increase in ethnic tensions in recent years is no surprise. When an economy starts to falter, people start looking for someone to blame. The answer they often come to — with considerable help from politicians and the media — is that some other group of Americans is having all the fun.

Economist Leon Keyserling once observed that when the Titanic sank, the men drowned and the women and children were saved. A modern sociologist looking at this, he suggested, might conclude that the men died because of some particular characteristics of men. In fact they died because there weren’t enough lifeboats. This happens in the economy, too.

It’s easy to cite the wrong causes. In 1995, a survey found that over half of white Americans thought blacks were doing as well or better than whites in the job market — this at a time when black unemployment was twice as high as white. The poll also showed that those who were wrong about such basic facts were twice as likely as other whites to favor cuts in food stamp spending, 50% more like to oppose affirmative action and nearly four times as likely to believe that discrimination against whites was greater than that against blacks.

On the other hand, data compiled by Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, shows just how complex the issue of who is really getting what actually is. For example, white men with a high school education or less have seen a dramatic drop in earnings. Yet instead of attracting sympathy, they are often stereotyped as racists. Women seem to be doing well until you realize, for example, that women in the poorest paying jobs earn about $100 a week less than men at the same level and that women lawyers’ incomes lag behind those of males by tens of thousands of dollars. Black men are blamed for taking white jobs when in fact they not only suffer far greater unemployment but are losing ground in wages. Black men blame black women for taking their jobs. And so forth.

So, what’s next?

At least until we all become much better than we are, working things out with other Americans is going to require a lot of trial and error, a lot of patience and a lot of forgiveness. Having a sense of humor won’t hurt either.

Neither will a sense of history. We humans have come a long way from the days when we couldn’t deal with anyone more foreign than our extended family or tribe. While genocide still occurs, the world regards it as an appalling remnant of a primitive past and has organized to prevent it — although often not effectively. Slavery is now inconceivable to most societies. Perhaps someday obsession with race will also be a considered a part of a cruel past rather than an accepted way of relating to each other.

Some scholars believe that the mixture of inherited and acquired characteristics we call race once served a useful purpose. When humans spread throughout the world, they did not, like other creatures, need to split genetically into new species in order to adapt to new surroundings. We changed physically only in very limited ways. Says anthropologist Robin Fox, man “did not have to redevelop his hairy coat in order to survive in Arctic climes — he could invent clothes.” In the end our ethnic and physical variation allowed us to live almost anywhere in the world, an astounding feat for one of the earth’s creatures.

Ethnicity will not disappear. We will continue to be different from each other if for no other reason then because we come from different traditions with different stories. And because we are rightly proud of these stories and will try to protect them just as we protect those of our more immediate family.

At the same time, however, our notion of — and need for — race will undergo steady change. The stages will, of course, overlap: we watch the results of ethnic massacres in Bosnia on CNN, then switch channels for a dose of benign ethnicity on BET or energetic, happy multi-culturalism on MTV. Some may fight against racism yet just as strongly oppose ethnic intermarriage. Some will never lose a sense of the sacredness of the old ways. But increasingly race and ethnicity will be the place we came from and not where we’re going. It will remain at the core of our experience but it will no longer determine the limits of our dreams.

In the end, how well we get along will be decided not by our cultural differences but by the significance we place upon them. We may all be creatures of our own culture, but we are also all free to determine just what that means. Most important, the future is the one culture — for better or worse — we will all inevitably share and all help to make. We are, each of us, brothers and sisters in the tribe of tomorrow.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The case for DC statehood

This article appeared in the DC Gazette in June 1970. It presented, for the first time in print, the case for DC statehood. It also described for the first time how DC could become a state without a constitutional amendment. Three months later, the author joined a small group of activists led by Julius Hobson to form the DC Statehood movement. As of 2018, 80% of DC resididents support DC statehood.

Sam Smith, June 1970- About a year ago, the peripatetic Rev. Doug Moore had a good idea. He proposed that the District become the 51st state of the Union. A news conference was held, a committee was formed, a flag was devised and then -- as so often happens in this town -- nothing happened. Rev. Moore moved on to other matters and the fight for local suffrage was once again turned over to the polite liberals. The idea of 51st statehood moved north to New York City for the duration of Norman Mailer's campaign.

It is one of the ironies of this town that there hasn't been a sustained militant drive for self-government here since the demise of the Free DC Movement. Instead, we have annual piddling negotiations on the Hill that move the cause ahead with all the haste of a paraplegic turtle climbing the Washington Monument. Over the past couple of weeks we have once again observed the old charade. A straight-forward and just proposal to give the District voting representation in Congress offered by Senator Kennedy becomes mireds in legislative muck. Suggested as a rider to a national electoral reform amendment, it is quickly attacked as endangering the legislation upon which it is riding. A separate constitutional amendment to the same end is criticized as too difficult to pass. And Walter Washington and Gilbert Hahn tiptoe up to the Hill to support a sham of a proposal that would grant one District resident the right to be a salaried non-voting observer on the House floor.

Half a loaf, half a loaf, half a loaf onward. Into the valley of urban decay ride Gil and Walter. We must be practical. We must take what we can get. And Congress rightly surmises once more that not only would we accept a partial loaf, our leadership will thank you massah very much for a few stale crumbs.
Our congressional commissars and Racetrack Richard, the flimflam man working the south side of the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Ave NW, will never conclude that they have to give us anything until we begin demanding something.

Those who could provide some sort of alternative for the bland blather that passes for home rule activism haven't been much help. Some are victims of a masochistic pragmatism that dilutes goals before the battle has even begun. Considering themselves experts on what Congress will "accept," they define away our demands until the home rule fight centers on legislation that would provide a charter commission with no guarantee of home rule at all, or until the sought-after representation measure becomes a semi-representation measure and then a demi-semi-representation measure.

Others tend to treat the matter as Rev. Moore did, the topic of this week's news conference, a transitory talking point. Because home rule seems to difficult to obtain, those concerned with black doors getting bashed down by cops in the night, freeways being rammed through neighborhoods, and public housing tenants being evicted, naturally tend to put the more distant goals on hold and take care of today's business.

But as long as we fail to make clear what it is we demand -- unfettered, uncompromised self-determination -- and until we show some inclination to fight for this goal, today's business will be tomorrow's business and the next day's and on into the future. If we display little disposition to be free, can we really be surprised that we remain a colony?

We need a plan, a sense of destiny, something to replace the endless quibbling over colonial reorganization that passes for a fight for freedom.
Though Doug Moore may have forgotten, he gave us such a plan.

Statehood is a clear, just and attainable goal to which District residents can aspire. Unlike the ambiguities of "home rule" -- whose home rule?: Lyndon Johnson's, Richard Nixon's, Channing Phillips'? David Carliner's? Joseph Tydings' ? The Washington Post's? -- statehood is a concept whose prerogatives and privileges are easily understood. Statehood means nothing more nor less than what Wyoming, Rhode Island, Delaware, or any of the states smaller and larger than the District enjoy. When Alaska became a state, Congress declared that it was "admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other States in all respects whatever." That's what we should demand: equal footing, not some more benevolent form of colonialism foisted off as "home rule." In the old days, when Congress admitted new states, it put it even more gracefully and accurately.
The states were declared a "new and entire member of the United States of America."

The District has never been an entire member of the United States of America. It is the indentured servant of the nation. Our goal must be simple and clear: the US must let us in.
It can be done. In fact, it can be done more directly and more simply than all the tortured meanderings proposed by those who claim to have a pragmatic vision of the District's future. It can be done without constitutional amendment, requiring only two legislative acts on the part of Congress to accomplish the prime objective:

First, redefine the District. The Constitution does give Congress exclusive legislative jurisdiction over the District. But it does not define the District other than to restrict it to not more than ten square miles. At the time the city became the seat of the government, it contained a mere 14,000 residents, whom Madison assured in the Federalist Papers "will of course be allowed" a municipal legislature "for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages." On this land sprung a metropolis of three-quarters of a million, as large as all the New England states in 1800 combined, excluding Massachusetts. Only the peculiar perversity of the congressional mind has led to the conclusion that the framers of the Constitution expected Congress to exercise total control over, and deny franchise to, a population equal to five of the 13 original colonies. If John McMillan and Joel Broyhill had been around then, pushing such a scandalous suggestion, the Union might never had made it past Philadelphia.

But we need not continue the debate on the intent of the forefathers. We can swiftly correct the ill effects of their vagueness by redefining the District (perhaps to a narrow strip running from the White House to the Capitol) over which avaricious national legislators can exercise their domain, and the rest of the city shall be evermore free of the curse of Article I, Section 8.

The initial exercise, therefore, is to force Congress to restrict the size of the District, and to declare the rest of the city the Territory of Columbia, or whatever other name we would wish.

Second: Admit the city as a state. A constitutional convention should be called to draw up a plan for statehood. An interim government must also be elected, with or without the acquiescence of the national administration and Congress, in order to provide to provide a body with a mandate to represent the city-territory in the difficult days prior to statehood. This can be no overnight operation for the benefit of the evening news. We must avoid the errors of our unwanted masters and begin in the neighborhoods. The specifications of freedom must sprout from the communities.

Once the neighborhoods have defined their needs and goals and elected their leaders, the constitutional convention can proceed to draw up a state constitution and apply to Congress for membership in the Union. By mere majority vote, Congress can grant that admission.
Objections:

If Washington can become a state, why not New York City, Philadelphia, Boston or Phoenix? Why not indeed? The Constitution tells you how to go about it. Work out an agreement with the state within whose bounds the city presently rests, and then petition Congress for statehood. I think it's only fair, however, for the District to ask other localities not to barge in ahead o the place that has been most victimized for the longest period of time.
Long before Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin conceived of the possibility for New York City, Alexander Hamilton remarked: "...the immediate object of the federal Constitution is to secure the union of the thirteen primitive states, which we know to be practicable, and to add to them such other states as may arise in their own bosoms, or in their neighborhoods, which we cannot doubt to be equally practicable." [Emphasis added].
It isn't practical. By what standards? By the record of the last-half century of the fight for local suffrage, it is certainly as practical as anything else that has been tried. And since nearly every other proposal for a major grant of self-government involves amendments requiring not only two-thirds vote of Congress, but the acceptance of three-quarters of the state legislatures, while the statehood plan would require only a majority in Congress, it is in this respect eminently more practical than any of the current suggestions.
What about the federal payment? The basis for the federal payment is not hush money for colonialism, but stems from the excessive use of otherwise taxable lands by the national government. The status of this would not be changed by statehood.

There would be, finally, a certain poetic and historic justice in granting statehood to the District. Admittedly, the concept of a state is itself an inefficient one, a compromise initially conceived as a means of achieving union. The differences today between black American and white America far exceed those between Rhode Island and Georgia in pre-constitutional times. We need union today as badly as we needed it then. Creating the first black state would be a dramatic step towards restoring a sense of union. So let's off the talk about home rule and representation. Our right is entire membership in the United States of America as the 51st state. Let us seek nothing less.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The myth of corporations in America

Sam Smith, Shadows of Hope, 1994 – Encomiums to the wonders of market forces fill speeches and media reports. One National Public Radio reporter even went so far as to describe a form of government called market democracy, apparently a blend of the Bill of Rights and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

In fact, most free workers in this country were self- employed well into the 19th century. They were thus economic as well as political citizens.

Further, until the last decades of the 19th century, Americans believed in a degree of fair distribution of wealth that would shock many today. James L. Huston writes in the American Historical Review:

“Americans believed that if property were concentrated in the hands of a few in a republic, those few would use their wealth to control other citizens, seize political power, and warp the republic into an oligarchy. Thus to avoid descent into despotism or oligarchy, republics had to possess an equitable distribution of wealth.”

Such a distribution, in theory at least, came from enjoying the “fruits of one’s labor” but no more. Businesses that sprung up didn’t flourish on competition because there generally wasn’t any and, besides, cooperation worked better. You didn’t need two banks or two drug stores in the average town. Prices and business ethics were not regulated by the marketplace but by a complicated cultural code and the fact that the banker went to church with his depositors.

Although the practice was centuries old, the term capitalism — and thus the religion — didn’t even exist until the middle of the 19th century.

Americans were intensely commercial, but this spirit was propelled not by Reaganesque fantasies about competition but by the freedom that engaging in business provided from the hierarchical social and economic system of the monarchy. Business, including the exchange as well as the making of goods, was seen as a natural state allowing a community and individuals to get ahead and to prosper without the blessing of nobility.

In the beginning, if you wanted to form a corporation you needed a state charter and had to prove it was in the public interest, convenience and necessity. During the entire colonial period only about a half-dozen business corporations were chartered; between the end of the Revolution and 1795 this rose to about a 150. Jefferson to the end opposed liberal grants of corporate charters and argued that states should be allowed to intervene in corporate matters or take back a charter if necessary.10 With the pressure for more commerce and indications that corporate grants were becoming a form of patronage, states began passing free incorporation laws and before long Massachusetts had thirty times as many corporations as there were in all of Europe.

Still it wasn’t until after the Civil War that economic conditions turned sharply in favor of the large corporation.

These corporations, says Huston:

“killed the republican theory of the distribution of wealth and probably ended whatever was left of the political theory of republicanism as well. . . .[The] corporation brought about a new form of dependency. Instead of industry, frugality, and initiatives producing fruits, underlings in the corporate hierarchy had to be aware of style, manners, office politics, and choice of patrons — very reminiscent of the Old Whig corruption in England at the time of the revolution — what is today called ‘corporate culture.'”

Concludes Huston:

“The rise of Big Business generated the most important transformation of American life that North America has ever experienced.”

By the end of the last century the Supreme Court had declared corporations to be persons under the 14th Amendment, entitled to the same protections as human beings. As Morton Mintz pointed out in the National Law Journal, this 1888 case ignored the fact that “the only ‘person’ Congress had in mind when it adopted the 14th Amendment in 1866 was the newly freed slave.” Justice Black observed in the 1930s that in the first fifty years following the adoption of the 14th Amendment, “less than one-half of 1 percent [of Supreme Court cases] invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.” During this period the courts moved to limit democratic power in other ways as well. For example, the Supreme Court restricted the common law right of juries to nullify a wrongful law; other courts erected barriers against third parties such as banning fusion slates.

It was during this same time that the myth of competitive virtue sprouted, helping to justify one of the great rapacious periods of American business. It was a time when J.P. Morgan would come to own half the railroad mileage in the country — the same J. P. Morgan who got his start during the Civil War by buying defective rifles for $3.50 each from an army arsenal and then selling them to a general in the field for $22 apiece. The founding principles of what we now proudly call the “American free market system” flowered in an era of enormous bribes, massive legislative corruption, and the creation of great anti- competitive cartels. It was a time when the government, in a precursor to industrial policy, gave two railroad companies 21 million acres of free land.

And it was also the time that American workers, who had once used commerce to free themselves from the economic and social straitjacket of the monarchy, found themselves servants of a new rigid hierarchy, that of the modern corporation.

The political movement of populism, which Jonathan Rowe calls the “last spasm of economic freedom in an American context,” did battle with the new corporations but lost, as did the eurocentric socialists who followed. Save during the depression, generations of Americans would come to accept the myth of the free markets and free enterprise.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Of pink suits, gold balls and civil liberties

SAM SMITH

From a talk given at an upper school assembly
at Maret School, Washington, DC, September 2006

In my son Ben’s senior year at Maret, he and a couple of friends visited a used clothing shop where one of them – Chris Friendly – found a pink suit and a pink fedora that he wore for his graduation. Chris and Ben were also featured with two buddies in odd poses in the Maret yearbook in a two page photograph accompanied by a caption from Nigel Hufnel, lead guitarist for Spinal Tap. “There is,” Hufnel said, “a thin line between clever and stupid.” My son explored this narrow divide by being pictured standing inside a large city trash can while playing a violin and wearing a ski cap. Ben no longer plays the violin in super cans – he prefers guitars in clubs – but the pink outfit continued to make regular appearances at Maret graduations – worn, so I’m told, by those who best exemplified the spirit of the pink suit.

And what exactly is that spirit? It is a spirit, to be sure, of independence but also a spirit based on confidence that others will tolerate this independence and perhaps even applaud it. At the very least it is based on the confidence that classmates will respect what the cartoonist Walt Kelly said was the basic right of every American to make a damn fool of themselves.

As I watched that graduation ceremony, my mind drifted back to the first meeting I attended at Maret. The speaker was the headmaster, Peter Sturdevant, an amalgam of Orson Welles and Rodney Dangerfield. He lumbered up to the stage and leaned into the microphone and began to speak. His first words to the new parents were these:

“Maret doesn’t have a dress code . . . Let me tell you why Maret doesn’t have a dress code. I used to teach at the Landon School. One day the headmaster sent us a memo saying that the boys could not wear tight jeans . . . Some of us in the faculty sent him one back in which we asked, ‘How do you define tight jeans?’ He replied that tight jeans were those where a golf ball could not be dropped between the waistband and the body and have it fall out at the ankle. We wrote back: “An English or an American golf ball?” . . . That’s why Maret doesn’t have a dress code.”

Part of America’s long struggle over civil liberties can be described as being between those who favor the pink suit principle and those who prefer the golf ball rule. Since I suppose some teachers would prefer I use a more elegant metaphor, let me also cite David Hackett Fisher who, in the book Albion’s Seed, describes the differences in four strains of early American settlement from the British isles. In the matter of civil liberties he notes that in New England, freedom was defined by the community. As long as you played by the community’s rules you were free. If you didn’t you either suffered punishment or, like Roger Williams, had to leave town and go found your own colony.

Much of the political battle in America today involves people attempting to impose their own community’s standards on the whole country. And it’s not just the right. Listen to liberals speaking of the “red states” and you often hear as much disgust as when a Christian fundamentalist talks about gay marriage.

In the frontier communities, Fisher notes that there was a sense of natural liberty – or what we might call libertarianism. It was personal freedom taken as far as possible. This spirit is still at home in much of America and tends to be conservative in economics and progressive in personal freedom. And you’re theoretically so free that the government isn’t meant to help you get out of trouble.

The third view of liberty – what Fisher calls hegemonic liberty – is based on power. This was found among the elite of early Virginia where the more power you had the more freedom you got. If you were a slave you had no freedom, if you were a tradesman you had more, but if you were a cavalier you had virtually unlimited liberty. This is the idea of liberty that we see with increasing frequency today at the top levels of business, sports, entertainment, and politics. Again, drawing a political division doesn’t really help. For example, both Bill Clinton and George Bush considered their power as a license of liberty in ways that the more restrained Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower never would have.

Finally, in the mid-Atlantic states, with no small help from the Quaker influence, you found what can be called a sense of reciprocal liberty, which is to say that I can’t be really free unless you are as well. You are entitled to your freedom as long as it doesn’t hurt mine. Thus, we must constantly negotiate the terms of our mutual freedoms.

Note that two of these forms of liberty – that defined by the community and that which is the privilege of power – are inherently unequal while other two strive for equality. And guess which two predominate in America today?

Sadly, the weakest form is reciprocal liberty. Both left and right seem to have forgotten that America is about sharing spaces with others who may have quite different views of the world. While writing one of my books, I asked my friend, the black journalist Chuck Stone, to give me a one sentence description of how to get along with people who are different than yourself and he immediately replied, “Treat them as a member of the family.”

Being the third of six kids, I appreciated that. And I recalled my father saying from time to time, “You don’t have to like your relatives, you just have to be nice to them.” It works for other Americans, too.

In fact, to extend the analogy a bit, it may help to think of America less in terms of left and right and more in terms of a dysfunctional family. We have always disagreed but we haven’t usually been so nasty about it.

Now if I’m doing a talk show and someone calls up to berate gay marriage my response is along these lines: “If you don’t like gay marriage, then don’t marry a gay. Beyond that it’s really not your business or mine. As a good American you don’t have to like gay marriage, but you have to be willing to share your land and its rights with those who do.”

My theory – and I come at this as a onetime anthropology major – is that tolerance usually precedes approval. You see this in families where parents have had to adapt to the fact that their child is gay or is marrying someone of another ethnicity. At first they may just bitterly bite their tongues but with time often become proud and loving parents once again. The stereotypes eventual surrender to actual experience.

This is how it happened in many places in the south after segregation just as Martin Luther King knew it would. He told his lieutenants to keep in mind that some day the people they were fighting would be their friends.

So one of the best things you can do to preserve freedom in the United States is to stand up for the rights of those with whom you disagree or even dislike. As William Allen White put it, “Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others.”

How has this struggle over the right approach to liberty worked out in America? It depends what year you’re talking about. Obviously, lots of things took much longer than they should have, but still, over the first two hundred years, many Americans became freer and more equal. This is in part because while America often did not have the right answer; it was a good place to look for the answer. America has never been perfect; it’s just been a place where it was easier to fix things that were broken. The ability to repair ourselves has long been one of our great characteristics and is absolutely dependent on the freedom to try things out. As Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” Even if some cross the line from clever to stupid.

While we all know about the successful battles of women, labor, blacks and gays, you may not be aware of how many other struggles have been won as recently as during the lifetime of your parents and teachers. Here are just a few of these more recent victories:
The right of poor people to be represented in court

The right to have a lawyer after being arrested

The right of married people to use contraceptives

The right to be informed of your rights following an arrest and to remain silent

The right of young people to be protected under the Constitution

The right of free speech for students

The right of unmarried people to use contraceptives

The right to an abortion

The right of a student to notice and a hearing before disciplinary action is taken
If you were to count everyone involved in winning these suits you probably wouldn’t end up with more than a few hundred committed Americans who had dramatically changed the course of our history. A handful of citizens – with a lot of help from a few lawyers – going before a court and proving that something was not constitutional or lawful. I’ve done it myself seven times and we’ve won three times. As members of the baseball team know, that’s a .429 average and not all that bad. And just as in baseball you’ve got to be prepared to miss more balls than you hit.

But in 2001 the whole game changed. With 9/11 the standard of liberty became that determined by the level of fear.

It was not the first time. During the Civil War, constitutional rights had been short-circuited. During World One non-conformists had been thrown in jail including the Eugene Debs just for having given an anti-war speech. Debs ran as the Socialist candidate for president while still in prison and got nearly a million votes. In World War II, people were put in concentration camps because they had Japanese roots. And during the McCarthy era suspicion of disloyalty was enough to get you fired.

We now find ourselves in a similar period. Just as in the earlier instances, there was justification for the fear but not for its dangerously dysfunctional response. In order – supposedly – to protect our way of life, we find ourselves dismantling some of its basic characteristics beginning with civil liberties that have helped define what America was.

In fact, the trouble started even earlier than 9/11. If we had paid more attention to the unconstitutional aspects of the drug war, for example, we might have seen Guantanamo in the making. If we had paid more attention to the mistreatment of inmates in Supermax prisons we might have avoided Abu Ghraib.

Even before 9/11 your rights as a citizen of the United States were being. There was searches without warrants, increased use of roadblocks, wiretapping, drug testing, punishment before trial, travel restrictions, censorship of student speech, behavior, and clothing; excessive requirements for IDs, youth curfews, and video surveillance.

These are a few reasons why attention to civil liberties – even when most things seem to be going okay – is so important. Justice William O. Douglas once said, “As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything seems seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

This is what happened in Germany. Everyone talks about the brutal results of the Holocaust, but too few consider the many mundane acts that led to it. An exception was the reporter Milton Mayer who in his remarkable book – They Thought They Were Free – quoted a German professor on the rise of Nazism:

“. . . To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’

“. . . Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

“. . . Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.”

When Hitler took power he helped establish his dictatorship by repeatedly invoking Article 48 of the Weimar Republic constitution which stated, “In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights . . . partially or entirely. “

And why was it all so peaceful and easy for Hitler? In part because the supposedly democratic Weimar Republic had already used this provision 57 times prior to Hitler’s rise to power..

For such reasons, many of the real lessons of the Holocaust are not to be found so much in its death camps as in its birth places. And this is why the changes taking place in our own country now – some eerily reminiscent of Article 48 – deserve such close attention.
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But, you say, we must protect ourselves against the terrorists. . . .

Yes, we must. But before we trash our constitution and our liberties, here are a few things to consider.

Are our efforts working? As in the picture of bin Laden with the caption: “I’m still free. Are you?” Simply because a strategy is invoked with much fanfare doesn’t mean it is the right one. Foreign Policy magazine recently asked a group of experts – including former secretaries of state and ex-CIA directors – how we were doing with the war on terror. 84% said we were losing it. It’s not a good idea to lose both a war and your liberties as well.

Then there is the moat problem. Building a moat around your castle seemed a great idea until someone came along with a way to send fireballs into your courtyard by catapult. It’s still happening. Five years after 9/11 you’re told you can’t carry bottles on board because someone has figured out a new way to kill you. And yet as you respond to each new threat in such ways, you are building your own prison.

Then there is the question of courage vs. fear. We’ve been taught to be afraid of so many things since 9/11 but we haven’t been helped much with our courage. On 9/11 one of the first things I thought about was a young British girl who came to live with us during World War II. Ann became a virtual sister and a person whose quiet courage I have always admired. A couple of years ago she wrote me of her trip to America as a nine year old:

“I set sail in the Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed on. . . My mother told me we might well be sunk. If I was dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to the surface naturally, then not to strike out to England or America but float on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was picked up.”

A few months later, Britain stopped sending children to America because two ships carrying them were sunk. Meanwhile back home, there were 57 consecutive nights of bombing. 27, 000 civilians lost their lives in the Battle of Britain, 32,000 were injured. Repeat 9/1l ten times in a two month period and you get the idea.

Ifan, the man Ann would later marry, was working as a medical student in London. Each day he would be given a set of colored tags to tie to the feet of victims of the Nazi bombings so the ambulances would know to which hospital to send them. When a particular color ran out, that meant there was no more room at that hospital. Meanwhile, London went about its business.

We need the quiet courage of the British during that awful time.

Then there is the question of risk. A recent article in Foreign Affairs estimates the probability of an American being killed in an terrorist incident is about 1 in 80,000. You are, in fact, more likely to drown, die of a workplace accident, be murdered, commit suicide, be killed by the side effects of a prescription drug, or die of cancer or heart disease. You are also more likely to die in an auto accident or from a hernia. Why are we so afraid?

There is also the message that history gives us. These problems don’t go away because some guerilla leader is killed. When I was in high school I played the role of a commander in the Irish Republican Army in The Informer, which was a play about a rebellion taking place thirty years earlier yet still going on as we took to the stage. Only recently – about a half century later – did Britain’s problems with Ireland subside – thanks not to force but through negotiation. I pray you do not have to reach my age before seeing an end to the current conflict.

Finally, I would argue that the easiest, quickest, least dangerous, and most cost-efficient way to reduce the danger of terrorism is to reduce the anger felt towards our country. You limit the constituency of the least rational by responding to the concerns of the most rational. Yet ask yourself: since September 11 what have we done to reduce our risk in this way? In what ways have we changed our foreign policy to change how others react to us?

Now you may discount or disagree with any or all of my points but what you can’t disagree with is that we never truly argued about them before assaulting our own civil liberties. The media has not discussed them, the Congress has not debated them. We just charged ahead as though there was only one answer. Yet, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

I’m afraid you’ve got your work cut out for you. The twin threats to your liberties and our environment is unprecedented. They’re not about to go away. There are several ways to react. You can – as many of my generation did – pretend it’s not happening, fail to ask obvious questions, fail to act. Or you can react with fear and avoidance as we, in many ways, are being encouraged to do. But you can also act with the simple witness of a free American, prepared but not paranoiac, determined but not self-destructive, loyal to our country’s ideals and not merely to its symbols.

One of the best ways to pursue such a course is to always act and think of yourself as a free American. Above all avoid what Spengler called the “terrible censorship of silence.” Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you believe is right.

Don’t let others bully you into fearful behavior.

Help others retain their freedoms.

Treat those with whom you disagree as a member of the family

Learn your rights. It’s not that hard. In fact, In fact, the important aspects of the Constitution are easier to understand then, say, the rules for the NFL player draft or free agentry and salary caps.

And don’t let anyone tell you that your rights must be balanced by this or that. Lately, politicians and the media have taken to talking about “rights and responsibilities,” as though free speech and free religion and not having cops raiding your house without a warrant were privileges we citizens only get when we’re well-behaved. Don’t believe them. Your constitutional rights, to borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, are “unalienable.”

Finally, long ago I worked with a civil rights leaders whose wife use to say, “the trouble with Julius is that he takes the Constitution personally.” Now my wife says the same thing about me. I hope you will feel the same way. Your country desperately needs your help in making its promises possible once more. The best way to start is to learn your rights and then take them personally.

Monday, September 03, 2018

A new bottom of the ninth

Sam Smith
2006

Urban planning and New Orleans

The Ninth Ward of New Orleans is about to be struck by another disaster – not a natural one like Katrina, however, but by the human disaster of modern urban planning.

The problem with urban planners is two fold. First, they work for the wrong people, the government, rather than for the citizens. As local governments have become more corrupt and more beholden to the interests of a small number of developers and other businesses, urban planning has inevitably come to reflect these perverse priorities.

Second, urban planners believe in sweeping physical solutions to social problems. The idea, Richard Sennett has written, goes back to the 1860s design for Paris by Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, Sennett suggests, bequeathed us the notion that we could alter social patterns by changing the physical landscape. This approach was not about urban amenities such as park benches and gas lighting or technological improvements such as indoor plumbing but about what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of “altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”

How effective is such a course? Some just released data on Washington DC gives part of the answer. Few places have spent more money and placed more political and psychological emphasis on physical planning as a human solution than the nation’s capital. Over the past quarter century or so, billions have been spent on ‘economic development’ including a massive new subway system, two restorations of Union Station, two convention centers, a major new indoor sports stadium, downtown urban renewal, a redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, increased tax breaks and financial benefits for developers, as well as numerous smaller projects. Yet according to new figures from the Center for Budget Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, the income of a typical citizen in the city’s lower economic quintile has grown exactly $382 in real dollars since the 1980s while someone in the top quintile now earns $70,382 more. Further, there are fewer jobs for DC residents and sales tax revenue – a reasonable indicator of ‘economic development’ – has barely kept up with inflation.

The jewel in the crown of local planners – the subway system – not only turned out to have the biggest cost overruns of any domestic public works project this side of Boston’s Big Dig, it has served as a major impetus for new development – most of whose occupants come by car, thus masochistically contributing to an increase in street traffic. Metro has removed jobs, population and tourist facilities from the city and has left the capital colony – which is not allowed to tax commuters – with the largest percentage increase in daytime population of any major city in the country, all by economic freeloaders.

In short, as a route to economic development, Washington’s urban planning has been a bust. As a way to ameliorate social ills and inequalities its effect has been precisely the reverse. And there is nothing in Washington’s approach to urban planning that is significantly different from the national average, except for the time and money spent upon it.

Urban planning wasn’t always like this. Grandiose and even imperial, yes, but without the strong tie to large commercial interests that has so altered city design since the early 20th century. Older planners saw themselves more as architects or sculptors on a grand scale. Thus L’Enfant’s plan for Washington was an attempt give the new nation iconographic shape. The 19th century Central Park in New York and Rock Creek Park in Washington were gifts to their cities’ less affluent as well as to the rich. Frederick Law Olmstead, in fact, was a former journalist who had had written critically of slavery for the predecessor of the New York Times with views that helped spur the anti-slavery movement.

It is true that while Olmstead called Central Park “a democratic development of the highest significance,” 1,600 lower income residents were evicted by eminent domain to make way for it. Nonetheless the beneficiaries proved considerably more ubiquitous than, say, in the case of Bush’s Texas Rangers or for the new Washington Nationals.

Modern planning was in part spurred by the desire of the elites to recover their cities from the immigrant politicians and riff raff who had seized urban America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of what was described as “reform,” was in fact just a transfer of power – including the power to corrupt – back to the elites.

Certainly the new zoning laws, which coincided with the rise in urban transit, helped. Zoning laws were created early last century before we understood the ecological costs of a highway-dependent society and at a time when women were expected to stay at home. These conditions have changed but our zoning laws have not kept pace. For example, today in homogeneous single-family, double-income neighborhoods whole blocks may be deserted during the day. We spend our Saturdays driving to distant malls in part because we have zoned shops and services out of our own communities, another monument to failed planning.

Among the effects of zoning – again, with the aid of the streetcar – was to dismantle the ethnically and socially connected – albeit not integrated – city. Where class and ethnicity might have once been divided by blocks, now the more successful could move safely several miles away. For example, Washington’s Georgetown, where I lived as a child, reflected its pre-zoning origins despite segregation and restrictive covenants. We lived with our mother and father, he a middle level New Deal official, on a street that included a row of black shanties, one occupied by our mail man and half without indoor plumbing. My public school was segregated but my streetscape wasn’t. Imagine a mid level Bush or Clinton administration official living on the same street as their postal carrier regardless of ethnicity and you can sense the change that has occurred.

Zoning wasn’t the only thing happening. One of the New Deal’s reforms was the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which provided federal guarantees for home mortgages. According to the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, between 1933 and 1936 alone, the HOLC supplied funds for one tenth of all owner-occupied, non-farm residences in the country. The FHA, and later the VA, took over the task. By the end of 1958, the FHA had enabled nearly five million families to own homes and helped more than 22 million to improve their properties.

At the same time, however, the legislation discouraged the construction of multi-family units and provided only small short-term loans for repair of existing homes. This meant, Jackson noted, that “families of modest circumstances could more easily finance the purchase of a new home than the modernization of an old one.” Jackson continued:

“The greatest fears of the Federal Housing Administration were reserved for ‘unharmonious racial or nationality groups.’ The alleged danger was that an entire area could lose its investment value if rigid white-black segregation was not maintained. To protect itself against such eventualities, the Underwriting Manual openly recommended ‘enforced zoning, subdivision regulations, and suitable restrictive covenants. In addition, the FHA’s Division of Economics and Statistics compiled detailed reports and maps charting the present and most likely future residential locations of black families.” In a March 1939, map of Brooklyn, for example, the presence of a single non-white family on any block was sufficient to result in that entire block being marked black. Similarly, very extensive maps of the District of Columbia depicted the spread of the black population and the percentage of dwelling units occupied by persons other than white.”

Jackson noted that “black neighborhoods were invariably rated ‘D.'” These were neighborhoods described with such phrases as “the only hope is for demolition of these buildings and transition of the are into a business district” or “this particular spot is a blight on the surrounding area.”

“Residential security maps” were drawn up for every block of a city. These maps were available to lenders and realtors but were kept secret from the general public. Some of these maps, including those for DC, Jackson found to be missing from government archives.

The suburban bias of the FHA was extraordinary. For example, 91% of the homes insured by the agency in metropolitan St. Louis between 1935 and 1939 were in the suburbs. This practice would continue into the 60s and even the 70s. Jackson found that in 1976 the federal government had supplied three dollars in loans for suburban St. Louis for every one dollar to the city itself. Between 1934 and 1960, $559 million was loaned for suburban construction in the St. Louis suburbs but only $94 million for the city itself, a suburban per capita loan in 1961 of $794 vs. an urban one of only $126.

Behind such attempts was what Richard Sennett has called a search for “the purified community.” Describing the psychology of urban planners in The Uses of Disorder, Sennett says, “Their impulse has been to give way to that tendency, developed in adolescence, of men to control unknown threats by eliminating the possibility for experiencing surprise.”

This tradition continues to today and is already driving the plans for New Orleans.

My own introduction to the impact of urban planning came in the late 1950s as a radio reporter. I was sent to interview a woman who was refusing to move out of her house in DC’s Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres had been leveled around her and still she clung on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing. The project, the largest in the nation, had begun in April 1954 and five years later some 550 acres had been cleared. Only 300 families remained to be relocated. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.

The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years. Just as today, many liberals saw nothing wrong with eminent domain as long as it produced a more purified community. Not everyone was so sanguine, however. One of the leaders in the fight against SW urban renewal was Rev. Walter Fauntroy, later active in the civil rights movement. And in a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O’Grady said, “It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another.”

The Supreme Court disagreed. In 1954 it had upheld the underlying law and in a decision written by none other than William O. Douglas, declared:

“It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole.”

Years later, a woman who had lived in Southwest recalled that when her mentally ill mother had a spell, there were always neighbors or relatives to take her in and shield her from what was happening. It wasn’t until they were forced out of the community of Southwest and had to live alone that she learned how sick her mother was.

Today, the new Southwest is rarely cited as a model of urban living. It reflects the planning biases of the 50s – cold, boxy construction and a lack of convenient shops, thanks in part to the deal struck at the time with the now struggling commercial mall. Many people seem to prefer less planned communities, places whose character developed from those who live and work there rather than being imposed from without.

In the years to come, I would become involved in endless planning battles both as a journalist and as an activist. Many were successful such as the effort to end the freeways that threatened to turn DC into an east coast Los Angeles and the campaign to save the historic buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue that the planners wanted to trash. Some were not, such as the effort by small business people to stay in downtown DC. In my own neighborhood we fought off developers three times on one site until a builder came up with a decent plan. The group leading the fight disbanded with $3,000 left in its bank account which was given to another group fighting yet another soon successful battle. We stopped a ten story office building, saving instead one of the earliest park and shops in the country. And we even defeated the local bishop of the Episcopal Diocese, leaving the community with a place to run its dogs for the next thirty years.

During this whole period, I only once came across an urban plan actually designed for the people who lived in the place being planned, and that one had a non-governmental patron. Lady Bird Johnson had gotten landscape architect Lawrence Halprin – the man who thought it was all right for children to play in his fountains – to propose improvements to the then ethnically and economically mixed neighborhood of Capitol Hill where I lived in 60s. Colorful Mexican playground equipment began appearing at local public schools and children in vest pocket parks found turtle sculptures on which to climb. In a relatively short time, Capitol Hill became not only more attractive but more fun. It was an exception, but an instructive one: how it feels when a planner works for the citizens and not the government. In nearly every other instance it was either explicitly or implicitly assumed that the plan would attract a better class of people and business to the place being planned. The people presently there were at best an afterthought.

An article by J. William Thompson in Land Online speaks of Halprin’s “democratic identification with the people who built his landscapes and those who use them. For this, to my knowledge, no award is ever given – yet it’s a quality I consider crucial to the building of great landscapes. . . I discovered a very different side of Halprin when he led me on a tour of the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., at its opening in 1997. What struck me first was Halprin’s absolute joy at seeing the public take possession of the memorial. ‘Boy, look at all those people!’ he exclaimed as we turned the corner into the first memorial room and saw the crowds; he was even more delighted that, as he pointed out, the crowds were flowing through the memorial’s rooms in the patterns that he had ‘choreographed.’ Looking back, I realize that the memorial is successful because Halprin had cared deeply about how users would move through it. . . ‘Equally inspiring were Halprin’s interactions with the construction crew, with whom he seemed to have bonded in an almost paternal way. . . Somehow, Halprin had created a community of intense purpose. He was the master builder, but every single person involved in the effort understood that he or she was creating something of great public value that would endure for centuries. In short, Halprin had the power to rally the foot soldiers in the service of a vision of democratic urban space that he himself glimpsed long before.”

But no more Larry Halprins showed up and there then came a time when fighting city hall began getting much harder. The city officials and the planners were learning from the troublemakers, co-opting our rhetoric, figuring how to get around us, using new postmodern language to disguise old feudalistic aims. They had fraudulent “town meetings,” and “citizen input,” and “community reviews” and endless talk but no action about “affordable housing” and limitless “sensitivity to the issues.” It was Orwell come to the ‘hood, deceitful language and behavior designed to conceal what really was going on – almost as if they had been taking lessons from Karl Rove. And the lawyers didn’t help. What once had been a fairly simple agreement became a multi-page document riddled with escape hatches.

I guess we’d lose most of our old battles if we had to fight them again today. Gone is the feeling writer Dorothy Allison described so well: “I had the idea that if you took America and shook it really hard it would do the right thing.” It no longer seemed possible.

This is the America that New Orleans faces. An America whose politicians are boosted into office by contributions, not constituencies. An America whose planners must serve those corrupt politicians. An America resigned to a culture of impunity in high places. An America in which the eminent get the domain and everyone else gets what’s left.

You can already see the signs in New Orleans. The NY Times reports, “Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s commission to revive this city proposed that residents of the districts most heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina get four months to demonstrate strong support for rebuilding their neighborhoods or face the possibility of having to sell to the government. The proposal, a centerpiece of the mayor’s ‘Bring New Orleans Back’ recovery effort, drew outrage from residents and community activists, who argued that many citizens – especially the African Americans who predominated the flood-struck areas – might be forced out of the city for good.”

Four months to come up with a solution to one of the most difficult urban problems ever faced – in part because of the failures of the very government issuing the ultimatum.

And, of course, we don’t want to waste public funds for rebuilding in the flood plain.

In the best of all worlds, this is true, but this isn’t something that worried us so much before. For example, David Conrad of the National Wildlife Federation told a House committee in 2001:

– “Twenty-five year average national flood losses (in constant dollars) have soared to $4.2 billion annually, more than double what they were early in the century. . . Approximately $140 billion in federal tax revenues has been spent during the past 25 years preparing for and recovering from natural disasters

– “Repetitive loss properties occur in all 50 states. Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Florida lead in numbers of repetitive loss properties.

– “Repetitive loss properties have received a disproportionate share of payments for flood losses. While repetitive loss properties represent only 2% of all insured properties, they experienced 25 percent of the losses and claimed 40 percent of all [national] flood loss payments. . . Less than one percent of flood-prone properties – those with three or more losses – received more than one fifth of all flood insurance payments costing the NFIP nearly $1.4 billion

– “As of April 30th of 2001, FEMA reports the total number of repetitive loss properties has risen to approximately 91,300 nationally (up from 74,500 five years ago).”

But now it’s not just the Wildlife Federation that is concerned. Part of it’s because of geography and nature, part of it is ecological consciousness, but part is also because of the character of the victims. The LA Times described the results of a study by Brown University sociologist John Logan:

“His study found that the population in the damaged areas was 45.8% African American, compared with 26.4% in the undamaged areas.

– “He said 45.7% of the population in the damaged areas lived in rental housing, compared with 30.9% in undamaged areas.

– “In the damaged areas, 20.9% of the population was living below the poverty line, compared with 15.3% in the areas that were not damaged.

– “The data also showed that the New Orleans areas most affected by Katrina housed half of the city’s white residents and 80% of its African Americans.”

In a time when the Supreme Court has declared that no citizens is immune from eviction to fulfill the dreams and ambitions of urban planners, such data is not comforting. Neither is the “dream team” of experts named by the Louisiana governor. It includes Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution, a tired old holding tank of policy wonks waiting for a new administration. While think tanks can sometimes be productive and occasionally provide a haven for truly original thinkers, they primarily function as the Catholic priests of the conventional wisdom: propagating the faith, blessing the faithful, redirecting the errant and showing up at fundraising dinners to add a little class and offer the benediction. And their collection plates are regularly filled by large corporations with some distinctly non-academic goals in mind.

A recent summation by Liu of what needs to be done in New Orleans reeks of plan speak: there needs to be a “planning process put in place” (in case you hadn’t noticed) and that the matter was a “regional issue.” Her presentation began with the ominous declaration that New Orleans – presumably even before the hurricane – was a “weak city.” What they used to call “blighted.” Let the wild rumpus begin.

The dream team also includes architect Andres Duany who has gotten a lot of favorable press for promoting “new urbanism.” Some years ago I checked out an example of Duany’s work in suburban Kentlands, Maryland:


Wandering around Kentlands recently, I accidentally drove into a adjacent conventional development of suburban townhouses. What immediately signaled my error was not just the comparative blandness of the architecture but the rows of cars parked perpendicular to their respective abodes. At Kentlands, with its garages and off street parking, the automobile is far less intrusive.

At the same time there was a similarity between the two developments not apparent in the generally well-deserved praise of Kentlands and similar efforts. In neither place, it seemed, was there a story. Nor was there any sign of serendipity. In the traditional development, individuality was limited to the minor variations of vehicle choice. In Kentlands, despite the architecture evoking an assortment of historical styles, it all had the unity of a well-planned, cute HO-gauge railroad layout. Nowhere was there cause to ask, “Now how did that come to be there?” Or “What’s that for?” Kentlands, like the St. Petersburg described by Dostoyevsky, is a totally “abstract, premeditated city.”

As architect John Wiebenson noted, “When you zone out the bad stuff; you also zone out serendipity.” And as planner Terry Fowler argues, children especially — but also adults — need unprogrammed places to play. Yet I suspect that for the first generation of Kentland’s children some of the fondest memories will be that of playing in the mud and mess of a new construction site. For the moment, Kentlands reminds one of Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s remark that a community without history is like a person without memory. . .

Why do we tend to be more impressed by such new developments than we are by the communities they deliberately copy? Patrick Hare suggests that Kentlands’ real advantage is better marketing. . . We have in recent decades been so intent on making our cities neat and orderly that we have forgotten that the major contribution of the city is its explosive and random potential for opportunity. Our goal has been physical order and fiscal benefits; the results have been social disorder and huge deficits. This was a big mistake, but in the end, it was not the fault of the physical form of the city or its economy or even its size, but rather it came about because too few were allowed to decide too much. Without functioning citizens you can not have functioning cities. As Shakespeare said, “The people are the city.” And as Jane Jacobs added: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Another expert – west coast architect Peter Calthorpe, who has done interesting and admirable work on high density communities – is the most hopeful of the lot. Calthorpe, for example, has designed “pedestrian pockets,” which he describes as balanced, mixed-use areas within a 1/4 mile walking radius of a light rail station. The uses within the zone would include housing, offices, retail, daycare, recreation and open space. Up to 2000 units of housing and one million square feet of office can be located within three blocks of the light rail station using typical condominium densities and four-story office configurations.

It sounds like a lot but psychologists have found that it is the perception of crowding rather than actual density that really bothers people. Noise, traffic and lack of open space can create claustrophobia even in low density areas, while one can feel quite uncrowded in the pleasant densities you find, say, in San Francisco or in many European cities.

Calthorpe, like Duany, however, remains a physical planner accustomed to more upscale issues who is being asked to solve what is in many ways primarily a social and political problem.

Further, none of the aforementioned experts has any notable experience in how to deal with being screwed by experts – the problem that immediately faces the good folk of the Ninth Ward.

Yet despite the apparent immutability of imperial planning, and despite the growing disaster of disaster recovery, there are some things that might help. They’re offered here not as more expertise but as a note in the Ninth Ward suggestion box from one who has spent a good deal of his life fighting planners and their ilk:

– Get your own experts, pro bono or supported by foundation grants. Nothing helps even the game better than to have competent and sympathetic architects, economists, anthropologists, public health workers, and historians who can take on the experts forced upon you. Instead of just criticizing plans, you can then present alternative ones. It changes the whole debate, deflates the advantage of the official plans, and forces everyone to think a little differently. Further, the media – which always thinks experts are better than ordinary citizens – will pay more attention to your experts than they will to you.

– Have some of your experts work out the alternative benefits and costs of rebuilding, staying, or moving. Don’t trust the city or city-planners for this information. It’s complicated. For example: what if some of the rebuilding featured modular housing that could be moved if things don’t work out as anticipated? What if a new planned community works out better than anticipated? Will people be able to change their minds?

– Get everyone involved. Keep the planning open and welcoming. Plan for everyone and with everyone. Don’t just use the best known local civic organizations. Even elementary school children can help plan a community. Seniors and the disabled have perspectives that get easily ignored. And asking alienated adolescents what they would like is a lot smarter than finding out later what they don’t.

– Do a community inventory and biography. Before discussing what you want, find out what you have. Don’t try to imitate a conventional city plan with its emphasis on physical form. Instead, tell the community’s story — where it has been, what it is, what it has and doesn’t have and what it would like to be.

– Fight to make any buyouts voluntary as has occurred in a number of flood damaged communities. The land does not have to be taken by eminent domain. People who have suffered as much as the hurricane victims have should be allowed to return home even if it is not the most practical solution. But they should also have an escape route if it turns out they made a mistake.

– If the city insists on eminent domain, fight to raise the ante. Demand additional payments above the typically short-counted appraisal value of the property – such as a cut of future sales of the property to developers or a percentage of future property tax revenues.

– Don’t dismiss the building of a new community. Key to such a plan is location, jobs, and transportation, and whether it is designed for the residents or to get them off someone’s back. At the same time, remember that the last time a planned community for those at the bottom really worked was with Roosevelt’s Greenbelts and with Levittowns and similar developments after World War II. We have lost both the skill and the will.

– Whether in the old city or in a new place, look into forming cooperatives and credit unions. These are sound ways that people left to fend for themselves can build their own economy.

– Look into co-housing, in which housing costs are lowered by sharing certain facilities among residents. Study alternative housing approaches including modular and grow homes (housing designed to be expanded over time). Investigate the creation of a land trusts to accomplish your goals.

– Campaign for shared equity programs in which federal, state and/or local government become equity partners with homeowners. This simple scheme has among its virtues that when it comes time to sell a house the value will have likely increased and both the government and the owner will come out ahead.

– One of the inevitable results of oil depletion will be a rise in food costs. It will become less economical to ship a carrot two thousand miles to your super market. This increases the attractiveness of grow-your-own projects even in an urban setting, either as a part of co-housing or as community gardens and agriculture centers.

– Those who decide to stay or rebuild should demand adequate safety equipment such as readily available inflatable rafts or cheap fiberglass rowboats stored in such places as house basements, churches and fire houses as well as barges that serve some dry land purpose (such as storage or even offices) but which turn into rescue craft in times of floods. It is highly likely that the death toll could have been drastically reduced if the Ninth Ward had adequate rescue vessels available. It needed life boats as much as any ship on the ocean.

– Check out all the angles. You can rest assured that the mayor and governor and their planners won’t tell you about them. Here, for example, is a recent announcement from the EF Schumacher Society:

“The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative one of the most innovative and well-respected planning and organizing nonprofits in the country, has lead the revitalization of Boston’s poor but diverse Dudley neighborhood through the use of a community land trust. In the mid-1980’s residents of Boston’s Dudley Street neighborhood were concerned about a plan to redevelop the area, a move that could potentially gentrify the community and displace a majority of its then residents. [According to Gus Newport], ‘When this planning process became public, the community came out in large numbers to voice its opinion as to what the planning process ought to be, and why a method had to be imposed that would assure the community¹s input in all pertinent planning decisions and protect current residents¹ ability to enjoy the improvements into the future.’

“In 1988, DSNI became the only community group in the nation to win eminent domain power to acquire vacant land for development. They formed a community land trust to hold the land and involved the neighborhood members in the process of planning the use of that land. Since then, approximately half of the 1,300 vacant lots it took control of have been developed with 300 new homes, 300 rehabbed homes, a Town Common, gardens, urban agriculture, a commercial greenhouse, and parks and playgrounds. Neighborhood residents purchase the homes and lease the land on long term leases. The homes have a cap on resale prices so that they remain affordable to future resident-owners. This permits lower income members of the Dudley Street area to build equity in the replacement values of their homes, through not in the land value which is held by the community as a whole.”

– The city should loosen zoning rules to encourage accessory apartments, letting people construct units that would help them pay their mortgage and help others find a flat they can afford. LA, for example, has some 40,000 illegal apartments because people really find them useful.

– The city should use its own land – such as surplus school buildings – for city owned affordable housing instead of selling it to a developer.

Above all, the people of the Ninth Ward and other flood areas must fight constantly against those who would make them pawns in one more attempt to replace real community with paper plans, one more effort to have physical forms serve as proxy for improved social conditions, and one more scheme to make people involuntary servants of economic ambitions. Those who have survived the worst that nature has to offer should not now be punished with a gratuitous tropical depression of human will, responsibility, and decency.