11-2 polis2

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.2 (Spring 2011)

 

the polis vs. progress

prae-203

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Livable Spaces: A Radical Alternative to False Conservatism (Part Two)

John R. Harris

IV.  Regulation and Taxation Dictate Social Policy

In the first part of this essay (see Praesidium 11.1), I lamented that neighborhoods in most American cities–and even in most large towns–no longer reflect a human scale of activity, but are rather built to accommodate machines.  Widened streets and segregated functions (especially residence and commerce) have eradicated sidewalks and friendly corner shops in order to meet the needs and minimize the risks of our cars.  Because businesses are concentrated in specified areas, tall buildings must be constructed to exploit costly space; or in younger, more westerly cities where space abounds, an endless sprawl results.  Furthermore, because residential sections have grown so distant from these areas, other tall buildings–offering apartments with staggering price tags–have arisen a few blocks from business megaliths in confined eastern spaces.  Here and likewise farther west, speedy, regular mass transit receives major emphasis, as well: metro trains and commuter flights, in particular.  Trains require unhampered track space, which further divides and degrades inner-city neighborhoods–factors rendering escape to the far-flung suburbs yet more attractive.  Airports, of course, cannot safely be surrounded by residential areas even if anyone should choose to live within the radius of their steady racket.  Hence the city’s sprawl oozes still farther, and the car becomes less dispensable than ever.

I contend that this situation can only represent progress if we completely eliminate human comfort and happiness from our calculation.  From a machine’s point of view, we do indeed appear to be creating more and more spaces for wheels to turn and pistons to pound with ever greater ease… but why should we be so solicitous about the satisfaction of steel hulks?  Would not a better measure of progress be the number of miles a city-dweller might walk in safety and peace (dare we even throw pleasure into the equation)?  What about indexing our level of civilization to the number of people we address directly, eye to eye, in the course of a day without expectation of monetary exchange or material profit?  Or perhaps to the number of children we can name in the residences adjacent to our own?

If any of these latter is a true measure of human success in civilized circumstances–and only an uncivilized brute or a robot could doubt that all are so–then our contemporary megalopolis is, in fact, retrogressing.  I am well aware–painfully and indignantly aware–that some among us, perhaps many, don’t give a fig about the lost world of our grandparents; that they would regard shaded sidewalks and neighborhood diners as a recipe for deadly tedium, and that they would kick and scream if deprived of their cocktails in first class served by blonde models, their business lunches in cordon bleu restaurants covered by expense accounts, and their nights on the throbbing, luminous town in the company of professional escorts.  I think the vapid, push-button brats of “technopoly” should certainly have the “darkness visible” of their Big Apples and Big Easies as long as their patronage suffices to pay for the operation of such costly fantasies.  I cannot, however, see a speck of justification for their visiting misery upon the rest of us in order to protract their naughty childhood.

For contrary to popular impression, preserving human settlements does not require a vast legislative umbrella of artificial nurture, like the habitat of an endangered species.  The high-tech megalopolis, rather, is that setting which feeds on the artificial intrusions of big government and big business.  Urban life on a human scale has existed for thousands of years: it has perfectly overlapped, until very recently, the decision of humans to live in towns.  (Yes, I am having my ironic joke–but how absurd it is, on the other hand, for progressive to imagine that we would soon perish unless smothered in “convenience”!)  If 500 refugees were stuck for months on an island after the ditching of a jumbo jet–if, for some reason, they concluded that they would pass the rest of their lives in this isolation–the order established within a year would feature a degree of safety, helpfulness, and general neighborliness which would shame our most “advanced” capitals of progress today.

So the state of contemporary cities cannot be explained to most sane adults by the sheer joy of living in them.  In what respects are these near-chaotic places the malignant manifestation of a public-private sector pathology rather than the robust prow of Progress’s advancing ship?  Allow me to begin by remarking a few untreated infections latent in modern economic and political life:

*  Legal regulations imposed upon the work environment (OSHA standards, wheelchair access, fire exits, etc.) ALWAYS favor big business.  Such laws initiate a chain-reaction of at least three stages that allows larger enterprises to thrive, and I suspect a fourth stage is often involved.  1) The corporation funds whatever expense is necessary to come fully into compliance with a new code while its smaller competition struggles to meet stricter standards.  2) Many smaller businesses simply shut down, since they can no longer turn a profit under the growing legal burden of operational strictures.  3) Big companies, having survived the regulative strain thanks to their greater resources, can now raise retail prices because much of the smaller competition that used to undercut them has evaporated.  Informed by this paradoxically happy ordeal, said companies may also 4) donate heavily to political candidates championing the cause of further government intrusion; for the process can be repeated with the same benefits as long as such companies are somewhat better financed than their remaining competitors.

*  In a closely related matter, the “seal of approval” supplied by various accrediting agencies (some of them private-sector “for profit” entities) seldom significantly protects the buyer from anything, while collectively the process further undermines a system that allows buyers a diverse marketplace.  Safety ratings, for instance, often function similarly to an arm of government oppression.  Larger businesses can afford lawyers, self-study officers, quality control checks, and other luxuries involved not only in bringing them into required compliance with government standards (as above) but also in acquiring the additional fluff and frills of gold-medal certification (i.e., advertising wears a disguise of clinical evaluation).  As a career teacher, I would say without hesitation that the licensures and accreditations so coveted by institutions from kindergarten to college have a net negative impact on the educational product; for they consume valuable resources in generating reams of paperwork, and the “quality standards” of the licensing bodies are often outrageously subjective (if not rigidly ideological).

Or say that a man with carpentry skills makes rockers from a workshop in his back yard.  This industrious artisan would probably be ruined if a certain 300-pound customer decided to sue him for injuries incurred when a rocker collapsed under his enormous weight.  In contrast, the furniture-manufacturer with five factories in China will infallibly affix a small-print sticker beneath the rocker warning of limited liability beyond a precise weight limit.  Another sticker will clarion that this assembly-line clone is approved by The American Society of ****.  Meanwhile, the hard-working carpenter is taking out a second mortgage to pay his court fees.

*  The previous anecdote leads directly to another cancer in the American body-politic: trial lawyers.  In a sane, responsible society, the public would renounce its “right” to preposterous suits if it wished free enterprise to thrive in small communities at an individual level.  After all, industry and creativity are natural to man: the invention and exploitation of verbal formulas with hidden meanings is quintessentially artificial.  Common sense dictates that a producer’s legal liability should be strictly limited to cases where a high risk of life or limb attends normal and competent use (i.e., children who fall from swings, cooks who cut themselves on knives, and boxers who break wrists on punching bags would have no legal recourse).  The unholy brotherhood of attorneys, however, has long ago slipped a noose around common sense’s neck.

How likely is change in the legal profession to occur when it requires action on the part of the very professional class which most profits from the status quo?  Yet the public would be well served simply to recognize that trial lawyers as a group constitute a big business whose stifling effect on economic opportunity and creativity far exceeds the conspiracy-theorist’s wildest fears of oil companies.

As for the romantic notion that these same lawyers routinely haul wicked corporations into court to answer for their misdeeds, large businesses (each with its own fleet of attorneys, naturally) can often forestall such suits with a letter or two.  Extremely large corporations may indeed find themselves shielded by the very government agencies intended to police them.  Case in point: the recent pursuit of foreign-owned Toyota by U.S. government prosecutors even as government-underwritten General Motors began to enjoy a host of new contracts for vehicles rejected by the private-sector consumer.  To say that government-fixed-and-enforced safety standards invite a rash of bribed inspectors would be excessively harsh at this time in this country (though throughout most of the world, the relationship often blossoms precisely into a “shakedown”).  Yet the presence of “a good lawyer” on its payroll usually equips any organization with the “stealth” technology needed to fly under Big Brother’s paternal radar.  My own struggles to bring The Center to a 501(c)3 status, opening the door the donations enjoyed by “recognized” charities, would have been immensely easier had I simply known to avoid certain phrases and to repeat others during the application process. Under the circumstances, if someone were to say to me that our system actually represents a much more complex, lucrative, and subversive shakedown than the Third World cop’s who tears up tickets for a fiver, I would not have the heart to call him a cynic.

*  ANY form of taxation other than a universal sales tax can easily be manipulated by special interests.  Licensing fees, though justifiable when they help to maintain facilities used only by a small segment of the population, can potentially screen “undesirables” from certain activities (e.g., the very exclusive confraternity of undertakers, whose life’s work–with the help of government–is to make dying too costly to endure).  Property taxes effectively keep people at a certain income-level from entering certain parts of town.  More than that, the property tax has played a major role in keeping American families on the move, much to the delight of developers and real estate agents.  As taxes within the city limits rise, homeowners exit to the suburbs–which, inevitably, are roped into the more highly taxed circle within a few years.  Improvements upon existing homes are also promptly punished by the local tax assessor, thus providing yet another motive to move.  (I am reminded of nineteenth-century tenant-farming in Ireland, when your landlord would immediately raise your rent if you built a door for your hut.)

Naturally, that most infamous and onerous tax of all–the income tax–punishes hard workers even before they dare to buy property.  Certainly the fear of stumbling into a higher tax bracket must motivate anyone of average intelligence to weigh carefully whether he really ought to expand his business or invest his money where it is likely to earn big dividends.  If government were to bribe citizens to remain indigent, would the result look very different from a graduated income tax?

Most of the moralizing offered on behalf of the taxes named above (“Someone needs to pay for society’s up-keep–let the ones who have profited most from living here pay the most!”) would be fully satisfied by a sales tax.  If necessities such as food and medicine (necessary food and medicine) were excluded from the levy, then the high-roller would pay every time he purchased a Cadillac instead of a Ford, every time he vacationed in the Bahamas, and every time he bought Champagne.  Those who should be shopping at Wal-Mart rather than spending themselves into debt at Tiffany’s would have further incentive to learn a little thrift–for this tax is essentially one on luxury.  The wealthy Scrooge who prefers to live like a pauper would (unless his mind were touched) have invested his hoard in sound enterprises, which would proceed to prosper even more with his patronage and produce further jobs for laborers.  Society’s illegally resident element and its criminal class would also ante up at every trip to the movies or the barber shop.  All would chip in.  And because the funding of local, state, and federal government would come almost entirely from this source, citizens would be constantly and acutely aware of just how much government was costing them.

The very resistance of the universal sales tax to devious manipulation is, of course, the main obstacle it faces.  How will the powerful elite control the rest of us when they cannot set one class against another and hide their squandering folly within a mist of complex bookkeeping?  Of course, our tax code is a raging example of devious artifice.  If such a design reflects the triumph of rationality in the progressive world, then Suleiman the Magnificent’s harem was a model for simple marital bliss.

*  Probably the most direct way of influencing significantly a neighborhood’s appearance through taxation comes from intrusion at the very highest level–and the influence is pernicious, I hasten to add, exactly because the central authorities sit hundreds or thousands of miles away from the affected community.  Our system, for instance, allows the federal government to collect tax revenue from law-abiding residents throughout the nation and then re-introduce that money with strings attached into its original setting.  The construction of interstate highways perhaps applies this kind of manipulation in more daylight than any other such project.  Municipal leaders want federal money pouring into their district (and maybe into the pockets of their friends or relatives in construction and real estate… who knows?); so they lobby actively to bring these highways straight through their cities, usually plowing under or otherwise ruining the oldest neighborhoods, in the process.  Federal and state money is indeed usually available for any kind of mass transit, whereas no such money at all awaits the rare planner who wishes to keep cities tightly knit rather than continuing to scatter and sequester their functions.  Big-government patronage of mass transit, always a favorite of self-styled “green” politicians, simply aids and abets urban sprawl by making daily migrations of workers all the easier.

To reiterate my main point, if such regulations and taxes as those just mentioned were obliterated from the books, our local communities–without further stimulus than that–would at once begin to conform themselves again to more human (and humane) patterns.  Many contemporary Americans would shrink from this proposition with the cry, “But how would we survive without oversight, bothersome and intrusive though it is?  Take it away, and robber barons will run roughshod all over our towns!”  In fact, the historical robber barons of the late nineteenth century were ruthless businessmen who monopolized market power and bought political influence.  That is, their modus operandi was closely analogous to that of Warren Buffet, George Soros, Teresa Heinz, and other champions of paternalistic government today.  If you bought your clothes from your neighbor, the tailor, and an assembly-line apparel factory suddenly moved into town, would your neighbor go hungry?  Probably not: his product could be individualized to suit each client’s size, he would surely correct any flaw or repair any damage without a customer’s having to “go through channels”, the quality of his work would surpass the cost-cutting mass producer’s, and he would extend credit in cases where he knew trust was justified.  What has put people like this out of business in our time is not a market-flood of merchandise assembled by slave labor in China and Mexico, but incidental fees and hassles  such as the following incurred by any would-be tailor: purchase of a vendor’s license, filing for an Employer Identification Number, purchase of place of business if home workshop is deemed to violate zoning laws, taxes on place of business, local sales tax on all articles sold (not to be confused with a universal sales tax), payment of franchise tax, upgrading of work and sales locations to satisfy safety code, payment of OSHA fines, engaging attorney to handle “nuisance” lawsuits… at some point, people would rather punch a clock at the factory.  And the factory’s owner knows it–which is why he is always a covert friend to the bureaucracy that buries small entrepreneurs.

V.  Sole Owner and Operator: Happiest Man in the World

To be sure, communities cannot be left completely unguarded by regulations and ordinances, any more than their streets will be safe without a police force.  I do not suggest that we embrace a libertarianism that would flirt with anarchy.  If a homeowner were allowed to graze cattle in his back yard, neighbors might buy milk from him or not, as they chose; but no neighbor would exercise any choice over whether or not a dense fly population settled upon the area, and flies spread bacteria–they import diseases.  Hence such zoning laws as would force this man’s livestock beyond the city limits are common-sense.  They are not top-down mandates from invisible powers whose innumerable hangers-on very likely stand to profit from some arcane restriction: instead, they are the will of the majority that actually lives in the neighborhood.  Thus Zia Giuseppina can make a diner out of her front room if she wishes and serve pasta from her kitchen to anyone who walks through the door; but the moment that she collects more garbage than her trash cans can hold–or is found to have trash cans that won’t resist stray dogs–she will receive a fine and a court order to clean things up.  This much makes sense.  It is not inimical to individual enterprise: it gives the individual entrepreneur, rather, a safe and healthy community from which to draw clients–people who are not frightened away from filthy, dangerous streets.

Of course, the zoning of certain areas as exclusively residential and others as commercial was originally intended to maintain health and safety, for the fear was that racing, wheeling auto traffic would harrow spots where children rode their bicycles if the two functions were mixed.  This fear fails to withstand scrutiny, however.  If every neighborhood contained small shops as well as residences, then the typical patrons of any particular shop would be pedestrian.  Why get in your car and drive ten miles for a haircut when a fellow two blocks down can satisfy you?  In any case, nothing prevents neighborhoods from creating car parks where those from outside the immediate community must leave their vehicles and walk (or be conveyed, for a small fee, by golf carts).  Technology makes such an operation more feasible than ever: a scaled down, affordable, and downright pleasant form of “mass transit” might even be created to serve larger neighborhoods.  This arrangement, then, need no more be conceived of as Luddite than as anarchic.  In the case of both technology and regulation, the major criterion of selection would simply be what makes sense to the locals.  Commands from on high would be sent back to the clouds.

I shall return to the subject of regulation in the final section.  For now, I wish to emphasize how happily a creative individual could live in the “reduced circumstances” I have described.  Let us admit, first of all, that circumstances would indeed be reduced in the accepted sense of producing less profit.  A local entrepreneur who serves a largely neighborhood clientele would make less money–probably far less–than his counterpart in the downtown office of a multinational corporation.  Let us leave entirely to one side the matter of how very limited is the number of jobs in any such downtown office (where “lean and mean” has been the catch-phrase for years): let us grant, for argument’s sake, that our hypothetical laborer might have either gig.  If he stays in the neighborhood, he will enjoy certain intangibles that are intimately related to the happiness of successfully socialized adults.  He will not fight traffic two hours a day, he will remain among friends and acquaintances, he will be close to his family, and he will have a far richer involvement in his work (such that he can make his own hours, doubling his output or cutting it in half).

How does this man find true happiness, though, on an income perhaps one fourth or fifth of what the office offers?  Besides the spiritual rewards of being closer to the significant people in his life and taking pride in the work of his own hands, he is substantially diminishing his cost of living.  He may well sell one of his cars: the savings on gasoline will certainly be enormous, and also on auto insurance.  No need to pay for day care: he is at or near home when the kids return from school.  His health improves as his stress level declines: fewer visits to the doctor.  The taxes which he is now not paying–whose disappearance would greatly contribute to the possibility of this scenario–are now on the “credit” side of his ledger.  He need not sell his house for a more expensive but less taxed one in remote suburbia as his family grows: he may simply add a room (or pay or barter with a neighbor to have it added) without fear of that wandering ogre, the tax assessor.  Enough savings are implicit in his new way of life that he may very well end up breaking even.

Contributors to this journal have occasionally made the case that the image of the independent, self-sufficient individual is a male one–that it repels more than attracts females, and that the recent ascendancy of women in our economy is indeed a major cause of growth in intrusive centralized government.  I have advanced some of these arguments myself.  Inasmuch as women are usually more social than men, they would presumably feel less oppressed–and might even feel exhilarated–by a work setting of intricately layered bureaucracy.  If this is so, then many women might regard a return to stable, self-contained neighborhoods as being cast back into the oubliette of kitchen and nursery.  The destiny of the stay-at-home mom would loom heavily over their heads.

Yet I find these fears exaggerated.  My observation is that energetic women often draw at least as much pleasure as men from creating and sustaining a small business, and the localized and tax-liberated environment I envision would multiply their opportunities to engage in such enterprises.  In fact, men would have far more opportunities to share in household duties such as child-rearing.  No doubt, the bureaucratic setting does offer the petty-despot personality greater latitude for making the world just a bit more miserable; but if women seem to some to have excelled in these roles over the past thirty years, we must surely concede, at the same time, that this most loathsome of character-types is gender-neutral.  Perhaps its female representatives have only lately enjoyed the chance to climb onto a little throne, and are making their edicts heard with a vengeance.  The revitalized neighborhood will still allow such people to commute to and from their urban domains: it will simply allow, as well, more civilized, sane, and mature people to stay away from them for longer periods of time.

VI.  The Freedom of Families to Make Neighborhoods

So far, I have argued that settled, neighborly communities would be highly likely to reemerge in North America if individual citizens and private businesses were simply relieved of a whopping and manipulative tax and regulative burden.  Human beings do not require compulsory legislation to act in a humane fashion: they require, rather, to be liberated from a duress that squeezes them toward an inhumane conformity, a desperate frustration, and sometimes even a violent reaction of some sort.  I have not yet written of the reduction in crime certain to occur in more tightly knit communities, but this benefit is surely worth mentioning.  Not only are young men less likely to commit crimes when they have jobs, and people of all ages more likely to be law-abiding when they find their work environment personal and rewarding rather than the equivalent of an assembly line or an anthill; children and adolescents, as well, will more likely grow up honest and decent if their years are passed in a single locality where neighbors come to know them well.

The crucible of such uplifting values is indubitably well worth preserving–and, no, such a precious incubator is not generated merely by removing artificial restrictions on behavior.  If people can be driven to bad deeds by bad circumstances, they also carry within them the seed of malevolence.  A functional neighborhood, then, must assist the individual in keeping buried that which must stay buried as well as in freeing him from the suffocating pressures of faceless, remotely centralized power.  I have referred to the necessity of safeguarding public health by limiting what sort of livestock a resident may import into a neighborhood.  The principle does not stop with animals.  All rational adults would further agree that no resident has the right to set off fire crackers at random hours of the day or night on his property; that no resident may build a glass room atop his house wherein he and his friends dance nude before the surrounding block; that no resident may throw up an earthwork in his back yard and fire pistol rounds into it, be his marksmanship ever so accurate; that no resident may give a pet python free range among the trees of his front lawn; and so on, and so on.  There are innumerable constraints to how one may act on one’s private plot of land in a communal setting.  Ownership of land differs from ownership of a coat.  You may shred a coat if you wish, or clothe an image of Satan in it, or set it on fire with photos of your worst enemy in its pockets.  The purchase of land within a neighborhood, however, carries a tacit consent to employ that land as part of the neighborhood.  The recluse may buy a country plot and do any of the antisocial acts cited above to his heart’s content; in purchasing his quarter-acre within the city limits, however, he submits and subscribes to the idea that he will practice ownership in a neighborly fashion.

Now, big government–remotely centralized authority–is NOT the best arbiter of the standards determining a neighborhood.  It may well be the worst, at least among all the practical options.  One reason, among many, is once again that it may yield to the persuasion of big business.  The preeminent example of such sabotage must be the grotesque abuse of imminent domain in recent years.  Those who fear how the lawless, rowdy bravos of capitalism would shoot up a town if the state capital or Washington, DC, were not walking the rounds of the local sheriff should ponder some of the cases all over the nation where huge speculative enterprises have, through government and the courts, literally chased people out of their homes.  No doubt, the advocates of centralized power (which always means power and force to the maximum) will scream “murder” if we allow local communities to pass and enforce ordinances pleasing to local populations.  They will shriek, first of all, that we are inviting a return to the days of racial segregation.  Indeed, certain overarching principles must not be violated at the local level.  Citizens must not be banned from living in this part of town or occupying that job because of their race anywhere in the United States.  The truth is, though, that segregation remains very much alive in American residential areas–self-segregation, where people choose to reside among their “own kind” because they feel more “comfortable” in that setting.  If anything, centralized government’s attempt to desegregate the nation by emphasizing racial identity (In diametrical opposition to Dr. King’s vision) has been a major force in creating such comfort zones.

A huge majority of mainstream Americans is immensely more concerned about the appearance of new construction in the neighborhood than about the appearance of new residents.  A strip mall requires acres of flat, soulless tarmac for parking in a way that businesses operated out of the home and serving local customers do not–which was precisely the reason, in the beginning, for zoning laws.  Yet residential property-owners (especially those with a little clout at Town Hall) can readily have their land re-zoned if it sits near a residential-commercial seam.  Such situations initiate a series of falling dominoes whose final state of rest is neighborhood collapse.  A new motel is currently rising at the edge of my own neighborhood, next to a busy highway loop.  Once operational, this enterprise will multiply traffic congestion tenfold at certain times of day.  A steady flow of trash will find its way into adjacent yards.  Homes immediately beside the motel will seem less private.  If the establishment should degenerate over the years, its clientele could even pose a degree of danger to nearby residents.

Home-owners begin to sell their property in such circumstances, one after another.  A few even follow suit in having their land re-zoned to appeal to a broader market, using the spearhead business as a legal rationale.  At the very least, and in the immediate future, the neighborhood does not look the same.  It now possesses a great wide gap, like a smile missing an incisor, and its quiet is fractured at dawn and dusk by departing and arriving cars in vast volumes.  The individual home-owner can do little about this.  Typically, nearby residents may receive notice of a public hearing where they can voice their disapproval–and if that disapproval reaches some vaguely defined volume, then they win the day.  Yet the arrangement is notoriously prone to abuse (the BBC Radio classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, satirized such a meeting at its beginning to account for the destruction of Planet Earth).  I have known of at least one case where not a single resident was demonstrably informed of the impending issue before it was decided.  Thus the community-minded citizen is stuck with the hard truth that his neighbor enjoys the “right” to begin the process of collapse at any time, or to sustain it without any general consultation.  A piece of property, in this regard, is considered to be like a coat: you can sell it to whomever you please.

My one and only “more government, more regulation” proposal, then, would be that neighborhoods possess a veto power over such matters as changes in zoning or sale to an entity whose intent for the land’s use radically differs from the surrounding community’s practice.  I mean, to be clear, that residents on the actual city blocks affected should have this power bestowed upon them, and that they should be explicitly, formally, and inclusively polled–not summoned to a meeting announced on the back page of the local rag.  A person who “buys into” a community–who chooses to integrate its setting and values to his family’s style of living–should not later be permitted to “sell out” that setting and those values for a handsome personal profit.  Many new neighborhoods already claim the right (which apparently has legal standing) to require that new construction meet certain specifications: so many minimal square feet of brick facade, so many minimal feet back from the curb, etc.  The preservation of the neighborhood from “drive-thru” culture seems to me of incalculably greater importance than such cosmetic concerns.  (And I would add that, if neighborhoods were indeed to integrate functions in the manner described earlier, this kind of menace would almost disappear; for instance, the number of “bed and breakfast” arrangements in private homes would satisfy the demand for travelers’ accommodations while absorbing or removing the motel’s attendant risks.)

Let me conclude by applying this suggestion to a type of problem whose specific cases are growing exponentially: the construction of mosques.  The view is much publicized (ironically, most often by people who regret the existence of private property) that the owner of a plot of land enjoys the right to build whatever he wants on that land; or, at any rate, that if the land is zoned for churches, then the owner may build whatever kind of church he wishes.  In a predominantly Christian neighborhood, a mosque would likely have an irritating or even subversive effect.  Islam’s holy book does not cultivate the impression that “the true faith” can coexist peacefully with others, non-Muslims as well as Muslims are keenly aware of this in the twenty-first century, and the mosque itself–if constructed along traditional lines–would thrust a physically dissonant image into the heart of most Western communities (an effect much magnified if the muezzin is broadcast several times a day).  The question must indeed be asked, Why would devoted Muslims want to worship in a setting which produced such friction with their beliefs and customs?  The only rational answer is that they hope to see the friction disappear one day–which will only happen when the character of the surrounding neighborhood is completely transformed.  The mosque itself, in other words, is a beachhead in a war of cultural conquest.  One may consult Brigitte Gabriel’s They Must Be Stopped or any of a dozen other analyses of the post-Khomeini expansionist game-plan to assess the body of evidence.

The residents of a predominantly Christian community should have a preemptive right to block such construction.  Similarly, the residents of a predominantly Muslim community should enjoy the right of nixing a Christian church in their midst.  A community whose majority is hostile to religious faith in any shape should be able to stop any church at all from going up.  Neighborhoods are extensions of the private home.  Just as a tastefully decorated home does not mix early-American designs with contemporary furniture, so a pleasant neighborhood whose residents willingly pass decades of their lives within its confines project their shared values to the casual observer through the character of their public parks, the quality of their private landscaping, the supply of general walking space, the sort of small business thriving on street corners, and so forth.  Indeed, American tourists often go to such places (usually in spots far from home, since their own nation now offers so few) though they have no cultural or ideological sympathy with the forces behind the unique structures they see.  The joy of the trip is simply to savor the aesthetic pleasure of coherent human habitations.

It would be perverse to read my example above as “religious bigotry”.  It is cultural imbecility, rather, to maintain that people of a certain faith are bigots if they prefer not to raise their children amid overt and visible challenges to their faith (though big business, to be sure, piously preaches such sermons about “tolerance”: the more readily we put up with anything, the easier everything is to market to us).  In rebuttal, I might mention my disapproval of a huge Protestant church that has slowly devoured the neighborhood in which my parents once dwelt.  Their former home is now all of one block from the latest parking lot, whose way was cleared by the destruction of at least a dozen homes.  No doubt, each owner was richly compensated; but the cost paid by the neighborhood, as a place of settlement and seasoned beauty, is well beyond what any dollar figure can ever equal.  The congregation in question would have done far better to amass its cars in the parking lot of some shopping center closed to business on Sunday mornings, then shuttle itself a few blocks to the church in buses.  Its present envelope of flat asphalt proclaims to the surviving community not yet sealed under a frozen gray slab, “To Hell with the rest of you!”

Of course, even a church can be big business.  Local churches whose congregants tend to walk to services do not rake in enough cash to salary ten ministers, build recreation centers, or lobby the state legislature… so the cycle of dehumanization and top-down edict begins again, this time under the aegis of spirituality.  May God in heaven lead us out of this wasteland!