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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
11.1 (Winter 2011)
the polis vs. progress
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Livable Spaces: A Radical Alternative to False Conservatism (Part One)
John R. Harris
I. Ship in Distress: Captain Overboard
Say that a ship is sinking, far from any port. The crewmen are divided about what to do, and so fearful of imminent death that the captain’s word has no authority with them. Or say that the crew and captain have already abandoned ship (as in Conrad’s Lord Jim), and that only a hundred or so passengers who have no particular knowledge of seamanship remain. Half of these insist on bailing and working the bilge pumps. The other half insist with equal urgency on jettisoning everything portable. The two sides are furious with one another; for the bailers need every able-bodied person to bail, while the would=-be stevedores need everyone to life and carry. The plan of either side possesses a certain amount of logic. Weight, after all is pulling the ship down, and both water and cargo contribute weight. Yet whatever the passengers collectively decide to do (and consensus is nowhere in sight), some few of them should devote themselves exclusively to stanching the leak. Unless the original problem is addressed, no amount of reducing the problem’s consequences will allow the ship to reach safe harbor.
This is approximately the condition of American politics today, in my opinion. One side is virtually taking apart the ship of state in an effort to “save” her. The other has a more effective plan for reducing the immediate crisis, but no apparent plan at all for solving the long-term problem–no inkling, indeed (to judge from its most vocal exponents), of just what the problem is.
II. The Death of Socrates
If I have devoted far more space to describing the “conservatives” at the bilge pumps (i.e., they who do not wish to throw the economy’s very scaffolding overboard), it is because I consider their option the only one worthy of criticism. Human nature doesn’t change. At gunpoint, it may briefly go underground. Those who expect it to change in response to lofty exhortation, if they have reached the age of consent, can only be called fools; while those who intend to fill mass graves until it changes surely have the damnation of high heaven and the loathing contempt of all decent people. To argue with fools is folly: to talk policy with butchers is to dine with the devil.
With whom, then, may we remonstrate about our ghastly urban sprawl, our brutally coarse “pop culture”, and our insipidly servile “careers” if not those mature enough to grasp that nobody works for nothing and that no one willingly pays for wine to drink grape juice? Free enterprise allows people to live in squalor if they refuse to resist it, or to lose their employment if they loll about on the job. It is a hard taskmaster; but the alternative is to steal from those who persevere in order that free passes may be supplied to those who on no account lend a hand. Communities seldom permit their dysfunctional flotsam and jetsam to starve: common humanity demands that the indigent, even if indolent, be provided for somehow. Yet the idle must not be rewarded with mansions, chefs, and butlers. This would fly in the face of justice: it would indeed outrage sanity.
So much for the flag-waving hymn to virtue and industry which the “our way of life” exponents typically recite at campaign rallies and over air waves. What worries me about this position is–if I were to condense much into one word–Socrates. In his Memorabilia, Xenophon (who remembered Socrates from frequent personal contact) recalls when the philosopher once questioned the young Euthydemus about fair government. The naive lad was of the opinion that those who had more than they needed should surrender the excess to those who had less than they needed (Mem. 4.2.38). Socrates leaves his interlocutor nonplussed by asking if there are not powerful despots who have committed atrocities for want of sufficient resources, Euthydemus must surely know, as well, that the man before him is the antithesis of the “needy” megalomaniac: that Socrates goes unshod in winter, has but a single cloak, and never accepts payment for his tutelage. The lesson is clear from either direction: human need can be indefinitely scaled down in a person of character or indefinitely magnified in a person of no discipline.
Socrates’ state, of course, is the human ideal: not to live in the biggest house on the block or to extort a subsidy from that house’s occupant through the tax code, but to have a sufficiency of all material necessities while being so free of wasteful addictions and covetous passions that one is not a salaried slave. Which of these would you imagine to be the happier, more exemplary, more civic-minded, and more spiritual human being, ceteris paribus: the senior partner in a law firm who inhabits a 5000-square-foot domicile in a gated community, or the owner of a small business who has settled into 2000 square feet in a suburb full of cracked sidewalks and ancient oaks? The CEO who endows charities and candidates with tens of thousands of dollars a year, or the dad who coaches a Little League team and volunteers to serve as a Cub Scout denmaster? The single mom who makes company president at 40, or the mother who home-schools her own and several other neighborhood children?
Such questions, to be sure, are loaded. In reality, a great many of us populate the interstices between Norman Rockwell and Jacques Lyotard (e.g., the low-octane attorney whose digs are humble and whose children hand the moon for him). To the extent that such profiles capture reality, however–and they have a certain value as generalizations–we may surely admit that whatever moral fault line separates “either” from “or” in this case does not put Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. In the popular mind, the billionaire CEO must beyond any question be a conservative (or a Republican: the popular mind seldom grasps the distinction, thanks largely to the propaganda of political hacks: Charles Gasparino”s Bought and Paid For would be a useful corrective on this score). Yet what about the female company president? Is she not a feminist success story? The home-schooling mom is apparently a feminist’s nightmare… but is not this woman’s frugal lifestyle and her dedication to the neighborhood quintessentially suited to the liberal vision of a virtuous lower middle class struggling against fat-cat conspiracies?
More to the point (since I have already confessed my uninterest in the left-wing extreme make-over), conservatism itself, as styled by those who piously invoke its high authority, is riven through and through by such images. The CEO, whether male or female, young or old, white or black, is achieving the American Dream of dazzling wealth through long investment of skillful, persistent labor–but he or she is also roiling suburbia like a mild earthquake, changing residences every four years, pulling children out of school, straining marriages beyond their limit of endurance. The small businessman, for that matter–another private-sector conservative success story–has likely ruined his own marriage, along with his health and his fatherly aspirations, in the losing struggle to save what he has built; and the forces driving him to fifteen-hour days and alcohol are partly stirred by big government, but primarily by private-sector monstrosities like the Internet and the corporate giants’ outsourcing of labor. What is the recommended “conservative” course of action for him now? Return to college and study computers, twenty years too late to catch the wave?
Camille Corot, The Belfry at Douai
We would like Socrates to be our neighbor: we would like, if we are pure of heart, to be Socrates ourselves. Who would not want a next-door neighbor proficient at pulling troubled youths aside and talking some sense into them? What residential area does not profit from older people with enough time, energy, and benevolence to stroll the sidewalks, direct lost traffic, briefly exchange an encouraging word with the orphan or the widow, toss a few pitches to children on the playground… but, alas, this world is now dead. It is so, not because Socratic individuals may no longer exist, but because the environment in which they must exist has been devastated. More than one of the activities just described would have our kindly moralist sitting in the back of a squad car within minutes, under close scrutiny as a child-molester or prowling vagrant. Virtually all of them would subject the “perpetrator”–especially an older person–to constant risk of assault, robbery, and even murder. Children have guns. Residential streets in the “wrong part” of town are patrolled by gangs and avoided by cops. Windows are barred and boarded. Playgrounds are fairs for drugs and prostitution. Alejandro Martí, whose son was lately kidnapped and murdered by simian thugs, remarked in an overpowering address to the Mexican Congress last year that parents used to release their children into streets and parks without fear just a brief while ago. No longer: not in Mexico City, or Atlanta, or Sioux Falls.
So what creates this “siege scenario” of pedophiles, punks, prostitutes, and pirates? Is it big government? On the contrary, the member nations of the former Soviet bloc countries were very tidy in this regard, as are fundamentalist Muslim nations today. The suspension or cancellation of individual rights by autocratic authority and the Procrustean punishment of violators is a recipe for very quiet streets. Yet Mr. Martí is correct: our streets here in the West were also safe a mere thirty or forty years ago. No doubt, if local governments had ten times more cops on residential beats, order might be somewhat restored; but this, too, is a big-government solution (at the local level). I do not recall, frankly, ever having seen a squad car in the neighborhood from end to end of which I habitually rode my bicycle fifty years ago.
Conservative commentators sooner or later cite the rising incidence of unwed mothers and of teenaged mothers (two distinct but related graphs) as a cause for unemployment, high crime, and degenerating neighborhoods. They are right to do so–yet they are again pumping water without patching the leak. Among the major forces driving the sexual revolution were two generated by the free market: the proliferation of automobiles and the mushrooming of “trash” TV. Of course, the waves of assault came in just that order. Automobiles spread out communities and also allowed young people instant, easy mobility: teenagers could suddenly go places and commit follies without any fear of being recognized and reported to their parents. (One day a socialist will have the bright idea of indexing, not just single-motherhood, but also the growth of gangs to the rising abundance of cars.) Television was actually quite conservative throughout the fifties and most of the sixties. As its fare increasingly escaped the jaws of de-toothed censors, however–and especially with the arrival of UHF channels and then cable–the volume of dissolute behavior placed at every child’s fingertips multiplied like a killer virus
It should be noted that such trends are seldom as natural–as proximate to the wholesome and proverbial “growing pain”–as their champions contend. Cars would never have managed to take over our landscape and our lives to the present extent had not the federal government favored the interstate highway system and the airlines over railroads (much the most efficient of haulers) after World War II. Cable networks, too (and, to a mounting degree, the Internet), are primarily the feeding ground of very big corporate fish who generally manage to make regulations drive small fry into their maw.
A free market without strictures protecting the community’s health is eventually a captive cesspool. Those who prosper acquire more and more power, by fair means or foul, with their prosperity; and the quickest path to the greatest prosperity is the forbidden, the gaudy, the vulgar.
Free enterprise has killed Socrates from another direction, as well: not just by degrading the stoa to a jungle, but also by making Socrates himself choose between life as a white-collar bureaucrat and a dumpster-diver. You say he should move to a safer neighborhood? Moves cost money. In the age of the automobile, nothing is within walking distance, and mass-transit is a gas-guzzling debacle; in Kansas City or Peoria or Des Moines, one must have wheels. The car itself is a huge expense. Gasoline is a further expense, rising all the time. Insurance demands its sacrifice of thousands. Having thus accoutered himself to reach a job every morning, Socrates finds his ruminations preoccupied with traffic for about two hours a day. Now time itself must be added to the costs which eliminate leisurely walks through the neighborhood: that is, once possessed of a safer house and street, when would the philosopher have hours of liberty to discuss the good life with his neighbors? If his rush-hour commutes have not stultified him, furthermore, by requiring the utter absorption of his consciousness into the rhythms of a machine, then his job itself–following stocks on the Internet or processing forms for grim applicants–will beat the word “why” right out of his soul.
I would say this in all candor and simplicity to the lions of the supposed, self-styled conservative scene: Messrs. Limbaugh and Beck and Krystol and Rove, Mmes. Ingraham and Palin and Charen and Whitman. Where is the savor of this life–the beauty, the reverence, the grandeur? The intellectual and spiritual depth? Is Socrates’ best hope–his only hope–a fatter paycheck that allows him to flee the prevailing squalor and eventually find a golfing or drinking buddy who loves to shoot the breeze? Is this the kind of snapshot we wish to offer into evidence that shoes are superior to sandals?
III. A Tale of Two Cities
My wife and I drove our fifteen-year-old son this past summer to Indianapolis for what is known as a baseball “showcase”. (Scouts no longer condescend to drive dusty backroads to rural sandlots: baseball now pulses with so much money that would-be mountains must come to Mohammed.) None of us had ever seen this part of the nation: I had visited Chicago in the mid-eighties, but via plane and without intermediate touchdowns. It turns out that every American town and small city, from Texarkana to Hope to West Memphis to Cape Girardeau to Effingham to Terre Haute, looks the same from an interstate highway. The green signs preceding exits advertise food, gas, and motels in different logos sometimes; but, once having taken the exit, you descend into the same spaghetti of impatient traffic navigating in and out of eateries, filling stations, and cheaply stuccoed horseshoe chateaux (with rooms as low as $69 a night). I don’t know if a young Limbaugh or Rove would–with excited naiveté–have viewed lunch at the Cracker Barrel or El Chico as tantamount to a cultural odyssey into backwoods Appalachia or to a hacienda on the high sierra. My strong suspicion, however, is that they would not have. With no more dread than that of the mawkish and the mass-produced, such men would never have been driven to insulate themselves with wealth from the nauseabund reign of tawdry artifice over Main Street, USA. When one plays lumberjack or cowboy with one’s toddler, off-the-cuff impersonation is great fun; but at Flapjack Heaven or Rudy’s Wild West Steakhouse, the peeling decor that squints at wooded Arcadia or wide-open spaces draws no smile as one sets about imbibing enough endorphins to face six more hours of road.
How many Americans keep body and soul together by scurrying about in bistros like these–waiting tables, tending registers, flipping omelets? Even gas stations are now fast-food outlets, some with Serve Yourself hot-dog buffets and smoothie bars. Truckers deliver, stock boys shelve, attendants ring it up, and motorists hit the road again with guts as restless as a troubled conscience, hoping to get home before their shift at the mall begins or to reach Toledo before Cindy’s second daughter leaves for college. Eat, and drive, and dream while trying to stay awake… home… a bed of one’s own, without strangers on the wall’s other side…
In places like Indianapolis (i.e., in most mid-American cities), little burghs have grown together by running tendrils of these fast-food alleys and strip malls. A developer creates a new subdivision just beyond the reach of this hamlet’s taxes, another plans similar escapes from the opposing direction… and very suddenly, as it seems–often in less than a decade–ten such whistle stops collide in the same way that asteroids form planets. A body of visionaries (consisting of ambitious lawyers and developers who need to keep the middle class on the run) throw a traffic loop around the whole mess, declare it a single municipality, and hike taxes to improve the quality of life through new schools, civic centers, freeways, parks, parkways… multiplying someone’s riches with every stroke of the pen. Free enterprise in bed with populist-flavored paternalism: no one-night stand, but an illicit liaison that survives most marriages. And its offspring are all monstrosities.
If the sun had not shined pitilessly on central Indiana during most of our stay, I doubt that I would ever have found the varied venues on our schedule–this stadium or that high school or S0-and-So College. Only thanks to shadow could I always sort out east from west and north from south, like a castaway in a jungle. Every map I could find was already hopelessly outdated, lifelong residents were themselves puzzled by my requests–and, no, I do not own a GPS. Since most of the city was never conceived as part of a greater unit, streets doubled back on themselves or changed names without warning. A central parkway which promised to get us expeditiously from A to B turned out to have no exits where we needed them, as if the sprawl alongside them had been meadow and forest during their construction. This road abruptly became one-way; that one inexplicably vanished after a mandatory turn; there the locals were prudently running a red light which never changed; and over there, of all things, a sign warned of stray deer! Is this an American city on its way to greater things… or is it not, rather, a typical American city–a garbage dump of chaotic construction traveled quickly only by rats who have worn ruts to favorite spots?
In my estimation, certainly, Indianapolis is the latter–and I would stress the word “typical”. We have encountered very similar frustrations in trying to find tournaments buried under the pullulating sediments of Shreveport (transformed by offshore casinos) and Dallas (awash in Mexican refugees). Maps rendered useless, GPS devices (as I hear) scarcely more helpful, unnamed or mislabeled streets to nowhere, single streets of many names, crisscrossing streets and highways without any means of transit from these to those for five miles, roads that glibly reverse their original direction, pastures or forests or oil derricks in the midst of metropolitan bedlam, residents who speed from apartment to job but couldn’t direct you to a major landmark for ready money… this is the rule rather than the exception in America. Indianapolis is Middleville, USA.
Urbanites joke wryly about the bedlam as they would about the summer heat–except that even the heat is now being laid at the dorrstep of global warming. Americans confront the horrors of their cities, that is, with more resignation than they do the weather. They must know at some level–even the dullest of them–that men and women have not always lived this way. Yet they accept their common misery as a fact of life from now on: the cost of admittance into a wonderworld of pizzarias, drive-thrus, malls, sports arenas, airports, car lots, and strip clubs. What worries me is the thought that many may really consider this a fair exchange–that human taste and intelligence have already grown so debased that we “live for” shopping sprees and eating binges. If we have indeed been reduced to such a tribe of gaping, belching kine (and a trip to Houston’s Minute Maid Park last year very nearly forced me to that conclusion), then our indefinite imprisonment in these hell-holes really does present itself to the mind with all the grim gravity of Fate.
But Señor Martí and I (if no one else) can recall another world of not so very long ago. Speaking only for myself, I can remember the Austin of my childhood, a city which passes for old in Texas and which we would visit two or three times a year to see my grandparents. In his infinite wisdom, my grandfather warned that the University should move its campus to Lake Travis rather than trying to expand into the city center. It did the latter throughout the sixties, sending shitless-and-shoeless waifs into every quarter of the downtown area, creating incessant traffic congestion, nourishing Third World-caliber blocks of hovels with high rents, imbuing every shady avenue with disorderly conduct and drug traffic, releasing a fleet of stench-ridden rattletrap buses upon the whole metropolis to haul surly students to and from their classroom indoctrinations… the Austin I once knew, as of 1968, was as dead as Socrates.
But when I was a child, towering pecan trees kept old sidewalks permanently cool. Century-old residences of granite or limestone were maintained by elderly people who wouldn’t hesitate to wave from behind a mesh screen, their windows and front doors wide open. Jackdaws cackled more loudly than cars could grumble, and the University Tower (from which Charles Whitman would gun down three dozen victims to ring in the new age) could be heard chiming the hour far more often than an ambulance would hits its siren. Yet Breckenridge Hospital was scarcely a mile away from my grandmother’s 1870-vintage premises, whose second-storey rooms she rented out as apartments to “respectable” state workers. (She would pay off the house eventually from those years of collected rent, my grandfather having been forced to change careers abruptly after a crooked politician ousted him from his teaching employ for daring to contend in a small town’s school-superintendent election.) There was no plumbing for washing machines of any kind in the old manse–but no great need for it, either. My grandmother and her celibate tenants thought nothing of rinsing dishes in the sink after supper or wringing out underwear in the bath tub. For larger jobs, there was a washateria two blocks down the hill, toward the high school and Pease Park; and by the laundromat sat an H.E.B. grocery store, from which I would later, as a teenager, transport many a brown bag home on foot.
In the other direction (due east), the Capitol was a mere three blocks away: an easy, pleasant stroll. Within those three blocks, one would have passed another antiquated structure with “Austin School of Beauty” emblazoned over its facade; and then–an indispensable pilgrimage on every childhood visit–the Toy Palace. I recall at least two restaurants farther up Guadelupe Street, as well. In my grandfather’s company as a boy of five or six, I would sometimes walk all the way to the way to the Capitol grounds and beyond, up Congress Avenue. Lamme’s Candies sat at the corner. Mexican farmers would sometimes, in mid-summer, be parked along the sidewalk selling cantaloupe out of the back of their trucks. There was a jeweler’s, a family-owned department store, and a movie theater, as well. My mother marched all of us kids to this last to see Babes in Toyland one afternoon. For some reason, I recollect this as one of the happiest days of my childhood, simply because the real setting was no less idyllic than the film’s.
All that is gone now–long gone. My question is not why people must grow old and die, by why places in their prime must be razed to the ground and replaced by inhuman racket, rush, and ugliness. The businesses I have mentioned made a nice go of it: they were not fatally flawed with some internal deficiency. What has torn American cities asunder, in a manner which I think both a national disgrace and a profound symptom of the cancer rotting our whole society, is the diabolical allegiance of free enterprise and paternalistic, top-down government. H.E.B. and the Toy Palace went under long before anyone ever heard of the microwave of the Internet. The University’s explosion drove them to the bottom in a tsunami of tax hikes and shattered residential blocks. People in real estate and banking who had Town Hall’s ear (or perhaps some other part of its sickly anatomy) within easy reach knew precisely where the wave would move and what damage it would do. Property values skyrocketed. Construction companies and their tentacles (mostly leading back to the banks again) feasted off of fat new contracts. Century-old homes were demolished to make room for high-rise office buildings. (My grandparents’ house, sold immediately after their death, survived only because it wore the Historical Commission’s medallion–and survived only partially, at that.) The high-rises rose so high, grasping after the premium rent of downtown spaces, that they threw the Capitol itself into their shadows. (A few legislators fought to impose height limitations: they lost.) Traffic multiplied exponentially. New highways had to be constructed for its expeditious rush to and from the city center. More taxes, more federal grant money, more construction boom-time. Even if a small business had been able to cling to its premises, none of its clientele wanted to battle the ant swarm of downtown congestion only to park–expensively–five blocks away after a half-hour’s search for one space. I believe that Lamme’s Candies survived, miraculously, through a strategy combining the Internet and a multiplied “live customer” base of white-collar types on break. Attorneys and politicos are not supposed to return from lunch stoned: being revved up on sugar, however, is entirely acceptable,
My liberal friends in Austin sometimes put me out of patience with their response to the city’s meltdown (my translation of “build-up”) even as they vex me with their “babes in toyland” reaction to other crises. Most of them can think of little more than riding bikes to work–which, of course, few actually do. Austin is usually hot. The darker truth, to me, is that they really don’t mind working in air-conditioned government offices or law firms on the twenty-eighth floor, making stops at the Starbuck’s by the parking lot. After all, as students, they had railed and clamored against the bourgeois life which allowed an apartment house, a toy store, and a “beauty school” to turn a humble profit among blocks of quiet, clean residences. Toward the end of my grandmother’s life, they very nearly drove her into the red as their phalanxes supplanted the mannerly celibate state employees of the fifties. Since she paid all her tenants’ utilities, my grandmother could ill afford to subsidize girlfriends and boyfriends who sneaked in (violating the lease agreement, but often not at once detectable) after the new guest had taken a month to settle down. The live-and-love-free crowd turned out also to be very hard on furniture. Though my grandmother had supplied all her apartments with tasteful antiques, squatters were not deterred from tossing mattresses on the floor and resting lukewarm beers on end tables. Their “natural” style very nearly trashed the neighborhood before the banks had time to buy it up and plow it under.
I am uninterested, then, in listening to a “social revolutionary” talk about anything. I have wasted too much of my life listening to the hypocritical bombast of those who crush little people on their way to freeing the Common Man. Where, though, are the voices of the Right? When a proposed Wal-Mart threatens to transform a neighborhood in the fashion I have just described and a citizens’ group mounts resistance, on which side are the golden voices of Talk Radio? When a metropolis ineffectually struggles with traffic congestion by attempting the umpteenth resurrection of the mass-transit option, what alternatives do self-styled conservative mouthpieces offer to this indubitably flawed strategy? What is their conserving vision of a community where people can walk pleasant streets in health and safety? Simply to behold the mixed response of this group to such atrocious private/public sector conspiracies as using imminent domain to create posh new resorts must inspire indignation in any of us who rates lucre well below justice or decency.
In the second half of this essay, I shall suggest a mechanism for political centrifugy, without which any attempt to restore a human rhythm to our kidnapped tastes, values, and cultures must be futile. I shall argue for how communities might be able once again to push their shared vision of a certain quality of life to the head of the pack–well to the front of various private-sector “visions” radiating dollar signs, well ahead of their covert-bedfellow public-sector “visions” aswoon in hopes of mass manipulation. I am the more eager to offer this alternative in that certain recent contributions to our journal have advocated “neo-conservatism” with a swagger little to my liking. Praesidium turns away no point of view; but one contributor, in particular, characterized–or rather caricatured–people like me who value a quasi-rural simplicity in urban settings as technophobic Luddites. Yet this author, beyond deriding anyone who would resist change-for-cash, could adduce no further evidence of his cause’s superiority than that he enjoyed frequent travel, craved lively parties, and found himself bored in more sedate circumstances.
I am angered when I think of my grandmother’s home (for so she considered every inch of the living space under her roof) being vandalized by spoiled, ideology-soaked sybarites; but I confess that I grow far angrier when I ponder an entire city’s being transformed into a pulsating playground for Ivy League frat boys with money to burn and appetites to feed. Such people may inherit a great deal of power, but genuine progress requires that they be parted from their ability to shape our living space as best amuses them. This would be an honest conservative’s progress: i.e., keeping good things substantially the same as the world’s essential degenerative forces seek to gnaw at them.