plans and policies
Comment 1

on austerity, violence, and what it takes to be a citizen.

Today I want to try to bring together a couple of narrative threads that I’ve been picking up and mulling over lately.  I don’t always talk about current events here, but it just seems too important to ignore at this moment.  *NB* this is an edited version, after some comments and suggestions I’ve received.  Thanks for contributing, always, and making me think twice!  That’s my favorite thing about blogs.

First of all, I can’t not mention the recent Congressional showdown over the budget ceiling, its lamentable end result, and the subsequent downgrading of the US credit rating and continuing stock market collapse.  You know the details already, and are probably sick of the play-by-play.  But if not, I like this article by Krugman from this morning’s Times, and this analysis by the paper’s Editorial board.  But I think there’s an urban, spatial aspect to this issue that isn’t sufficiently discussed in the analysis.  Okay, maybe it’s just how I always look at things.  But you can’t deny that something more is going on here than a conversation about the national debt.  For three days now, there have been riots in London.  This isn’t a coherent political movement, of course, but an extreme and somewhat shocking expression of profound demoralization in communities that have been hit hardest by reforms and already have a tenuous-at-best relationship with government, like the police and a sorely lacking public education  We know that since putting into place their own austerity measures, the British economy has barely grown, calling into question the economic soundness of the reforms, but it is a different story when you see the kind of violence that has erupted in London, for want and rage.  We know that demoralized immigrant communities in Britain are also hotbeds of extremism and terror recruitment, for the same reason.  And yet we blame foreign forces and wage wars of words and weapons, and treat these fiscal issues and domestic governance issues as if they’re completely unrelated.  (Actually, the US government released a strategy for local combating of radicalization, articulating the idea that a “lack of identity” among youth can make them susceptible to radicalization by skinheads, jihadists, and other violent groups.  The idea that we can use schools and communities to help youth build identity and confidence in their government is exactly what I am talking about.  But of course, confidence in government requires a government that works, and provides sufficient funds to support such measures.)

It’s fascinating that the prospect of this kind of domestic unrest did not seem to cow our own politicians, since they had a model to consider as they made their decisions, as they played with the future of their constituents.  It’s not the same, but we’ve had riots here too, over police brutality in Oakland in the past year, most notably.  And one can’t deny the not-so-subtle language of violence that suffuses the Tea Party rage.  No, we’ve only even just begun to admit that America might have a problem with radicalized or violent members of our own population (though we still seem to have trouble admitting that they can be white, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary).  We’ve had a number of tragedies like that which struck Oslo (think of the mass shooting in Arizona), and we still have not really had a national debate about domestic unrest, disempowerment, and radicalization.  Again, I’m not talking just about political protest, but also about the senseless violence that comes from people who have no hope for a future and no faith in the system.  But it’s undeniable.  When people get poor, they become desperate.  And everything the government is doing is likely to make its citizens poorer and less able to participate and feel confident in that government.  When the Arizona shooting happened in the winter, we talked about inflammatory rhetoric in our politics.  But we never mentioned why our people are so susceptible to that language, or so hungry for it.

I think this kind of willful ignorance comes from the fact that to many of these politicians, rioting and extremism and civil unrest is simply not a concern that they have, while right-wing (white) anger and inflammation is cast as a virtuous, “patriotic” anger that has a place in political discourse (though research by the consistently fascinating Southern Poverty Law Center, such as their hate map, should probably dispel these assumptions).  Rioting though, that is an urban problem, you see, and the roadblocking Right (okay, yes, I think that the Right is primarily to blame for the constant political stalemates) is, increasingly, decidedly, Not Urban.  It’s actually interesting (and now I’m in speculation mode here) that right-wing violence we’ve seen lately seems to come in solitary form, when in fact many Conservative non-city dwellers cite motivations like privacy and having fewer people around as a motivating factor for choosing where they live.  I wonder if there’s something disempowering in solitude, that causes the writing of manifestos, the writing of blogs, the performance of violence that looks like a shout for support.  Anyhow, that’s for psychologists to think about.  I just don’t want to suggest that violence is solely urban, quite the contrary.  And of course I’m not trying to suggest that violence is only cultural, when it’s clear that individual psychology and biology plays a major role.  But collective violence requires a collective of people, a density of humanity, that is certainly only achievable in our (increasingly) urban society.  So back to geography.

In 2010, a little discussed aspect of the so-called “Tea Party Election” is that while local elections went predominantly in favor of Republicans, bringing them to power in the House, statewide elections with large urban, pro-Democratic centers remained Democratic.  Rural, sparsely populated ares are red, and dense, urban areas are blue.  What looks like a sea of red with small islands of blue, on a map, is actually a far different story if you consider population and, by extension, electoral influence in statewide elections.  And this trend is only growing stronger, as cities become increasingly known for their liberalism, diversity, and youth, and as outlying areas become whiter, older, and more grudging of social supports. Robert Bishop discusses this trend, the result of a profound culture of geographic self-selection that has result in our polarized geography — and, by extension, our polarized Legislature — in his book, The Big Sort.

You see, what we should be paying attention to right now is not the deficit, or even job-creation programs (well, okay, yes we should be thinking about job creation.  Let’s start by trying to think of ways to make jobs that don’t involve buying things, to support entrepreneurs with low infrastructural and permitting barriers to entry, and to make the resources of production and innovation, read: scientific and technological and artistic materials, available to the general public.  Oh, and maybe let’s consider educating our children to be creative and resourceful, rather than dejected and competitive and malnourished, and providing lifelong learning to adults, so that they can take pride in their work and grow in the process.  Moving on.).  We should be paying attention to redistricting.  It’s extremely partisan, and it’s what will shape the partisanship in Washington for years to come.  Because if our communities are becoming more homogeneous, and partisan politicians are handed even more homogenous districts, then they have no incentive to try to see the other side.  More importantly: they have no way to see the other side.  As Bishop describes, even as national politics become more contentious, people locally see no representation of the other side of the argument, so we can keep imagining that the urban poor is morally flawed, or that rural communities can’t possibly be struggling like the inner city, and never get anything done.

Aaaand this is what brings me to my silver-lining, look-to-the-future moment that you’ve probably been waiting for.  And that is: citizens are weighing in on redistricting themselves.  Through countless apps, blogs, public mapping processes and more, citizens are participating in a new way in this historically labyrinthine, opaque process.  These aren’t citizens with angry signs demanding govenrment shutdown, or citizens throwing rocks through windows.  This is about turning our profoundly destructive culture into something constructive.  This is about educating citizens about how their government works, and about how issues as seemingly uninteresting as census data can have a profound impact on our lives, so that they can do something about it.  Do most people know how to find data about their communities?  To navigate a census map made in GIS?  I barely can.  Putting these tools — and, more importantly, the knowledge to understand their value and their consequences — is essential for putting our broken democracy back together.  And not just because it might be a tool for exerting control over the ridiculous bickering in Washington.  Because ultimately, the kind of collective violence that we are seeing is about one thing.  Power.  Let’s give it to them: with education, information, and the skills to make change.

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1 Comment

  1. Diana Limbach Lempel says

    from my friend and colleague, nick (an englishman).
    I am shocked as you are, reading the events unfolding at the moment- whether on Wall Street, or on the High Street in the UK.

    I just wanted to say that in your blog you are perhaps giving the rioters too much credit by implying they are directly protesting the austerity measures there.

    I believe that their actions are less a coherent political expression, and more a very sad, criminal reaction to their economic exclusion, poor environment, poor education that have been allowed to persist for years (which is in itself criminal). Certainly the government’s cutting back youth education/ counselling/ sports services will certainly have made their situation worse…but these kids are not protesting with a political goal in mind, like those on the streets in Madrid, Athens, or even Tel Aviv, as far as I can tell, this is just crude violence.

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