Thursday, March 25, 2010

When the Reactionary Is Visionary: The Illusion of Low-Income Housing in Sunbelt San Diego

In the Spring of 2007, New York City witnessed the revision of a city planning legend long steeped in controversy. Three separate exhibits – “Remaking the Metropolis” at the Museum of New York, "The Road to Recreation” at the Queens Museum of Art, and “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution,” hosted at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery – attempted to reimagine Robert Moses and the built environment he constructed in New York City.

Without question, Robert Caro’s magnificent
The Power Broker:The Rise and Fall of New York remains the seminal work on Moses's career. While notable problems with Caro’s sourcing and interview methodology persist, much of The Power Broker’s narrative remains the accepted wisdom on the Moses legacy. In terms of race, the narrative fundamentally asserts that Moses’s public works reflected his disdain for lower classes and non-whites. First, Caro points out numerous examples of Moses’s subtle but telling class bias: “He restricted the use of state parks by poor and lower middle class families … by limiting access to state parks by rapid transit … he began to limit access by buses. He instructed [his assistants] to build the bridges across the parkways low – too low for buses to pass.” (Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Rise and Fall of New York, 318). Not only Caro noticed this prejudice. Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member and FDR’s Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, reflected, “He doesn’t love the people … It used to shock me because he was doing all these things for the welfare of the people. … He’d denounce the common people terribly. To him they were lousy dirty people” (Caro, The Power Broker 318).

Moses’s views on race proved no more advanced as Caro suggested that the New York power broker viewed Blacks as “inherently dirty,” limiting the ability of black groups to obtain permits to visit Jones Beach or discouraging African Americans from using the “white beach.” Moreover, within New York City Moses often refused to build recreation sites such as vest pocket parks and pools in minority neighborhoods. As one aid summarized, “Well You know how RM felt about colored people.” (Caro, The Power Broker, 513). There would seem little doubt that Moses’s contributions remain tinged by racial and class biases, so why the attempt at revision?

Published in conjunction with the three exhibitions, the Kenneth Jackson and Hilary Ballon-edited Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York juxtaposed handsomely crafted photographic images of Moses’s work around the five boroughs and Long Island with short essays on the meaning of them.

[Author’s note: in the interest of full disclosure, the author was once a student in a graduate course taught by Professor Jackson]

In particular, Martha Biondi’s essay “Robert Moses, Race, and the Limits of the Activist State” made a critical observation about Moses’s contributions. Biondi acknowledged that it remained “troubling that the man who built so much of the New York metropolitan area’s infrastructure was influenced by the long arm of Jim Crow” (121). Yet Biondi pointed out that “the built environment is not forever bound by Moses’s vision.” Today, after the demographic changes of post war New York recreated and reorganized communities several times over, those very pools and parks built for middle and upper class whites now serve non-white patrons. Despite his racism, Moses ended up building for the very people he disdained. A delicious irony not lost on the book’s essayists. New populations absorbed Moses’s legacy for their own uses, their own lives, their own lived experiences. At least, Robert Moses built things.

Sunbelt San Diego – 1979 - 2009

In 1997 while attending the annual meeting of National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, Chicago Housing Authority George Phillips commented on a tour of San Diego’s newer public housing reflecting positively. “This is totally different from what we have in Chicago,” he said. “Our public housing is much larger, with a greater concentration of public-housing residents [AC1] . . . This is the model we would build on." (Weisberg, Lori, "Public housing conferees like what they see, November 9, 1997)
Praise poured forth as The San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), the municipal agency responsible for administering public and low income housing in the city, received recognition for excellence throughout the 1990s and most recently 2008 for its innovative approaches in creating low income and affordable housing.

Certainly, the city’s exit from the federal system in 2007 served as a shot heard across housing circles nationwide. A sign that perhaps there existed another way of administering public and low income housing at the local level. Federal policy had long ago shifted toward dispersed, scattered site units. Nixon shifted federal monies away from construction to what became known as Section 8 or subsidized housing, which redirected funds to the private market. In the early 1970s, Nixon placed a moratorium on the federal construction of public housing units. Though he increased funding for housing assistance, Nixon shifted federal monies to block grants that encouraged infighting between the fragile “liberal” network of housing agencies, developers, builders, and unions. Also, Nixon’s adoption of what became the Section 8 program “shifted resources from building and maintaining public housing to handing out rent subsidies, so poor tenants could rent from private landlords,” Bruce Schulman writes in The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (p. 29). Typically, as in this the case in San Diego, Section 8 participants pay 30% of their income toward rent[AC2] , with the subsequent difference subsidized by the city.

Architectural trends also favored how observers viewed San Diego housing. The emergence of New Urbanism styles among architects in the late 1980s and 1990s meshed well with San Diego affordable housing activists. Even the scattered site, dispersed nature of public and affordable housing in San Diego earned approving nods. One might step back and gaze longingly at the city’s lazy good luck; no one here suffers the deprivations of poverty like unfortunates in St. Louis or Chicago may have in their vertical prisons. Thank God the wisdom of city fathers.

Or maybe not. A closer look reveals a sunbelt city that avoided building nearly any type of public housing, a reticence that contributed to the municipality’s late entry into non-profit community development corporations (CDC) private-public affordable housing. Such timely failures have had costs, as one local housing activist point out: "The city of San Diego has the largest proportion of low-income renters in need of affordable housing, when compared with the rest of the country." (Shapiro, Melvin, SDTU, "Where does San Diego Housing Commission money go?" July 11, 1999) Moreover, the lack of concentration noted by Phillips reflected not just the style of San Diego’s public housing, but also its paucity. Ironically, other attendees credited the SDHC for being “further along” than their own housing commissions, but this viewpoint failed to acknowledge that much of San Diego’s housing style and “dispersal” did not represent a new orientation but rather one born out of resistance to public housing in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Lori Weisberg, SDUT, "Public housing conferees like what they see?", November 9, 1997).

The first impulse most have when conceptualizing public housing inevitably conjures up monolithic block towers. Growing up on the south suburban fringes of Chicago proper, public housing elicited horrific fantasies of deprivation and crime. The 1992 horror movie Candyman which utilized the Cabrini Green projects as a central aspect of its story line. The reader can assume that Cabrini Green's portrayal in the film highlighted its darker aspects. For those driving from the southern suburbs into Chicago on I-94, public housing towered over everything. Moreover, even in their destruction, they remain infamous. Few images have resonated like the implosion of the Pruitt Igoe homes in St. Louis. The demolition of Pruitt Igoe (1972) and towers in Chicago during the late 1990s and early 2000s symbolizes the perceived failure of public housing. Certainly, the modernist severity of the Robert Taylor homes, the density of low-income populations in underfunded isolated high-rises suggested little hope.

However, recent scholarship suggests life in public housing to be more complicated than popular conceptions. Recent works such as Sudhir Venkatesh’s American Project or Rhonda Williams’s The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality have found support networks, political activism and community that many observers failed to acknowledge. With that said, many observers might argue that San Diego deserves recognition for avoiding the construction of a Southern California Cabrini-Green. What if San Diego’s innovation is really just a case of unintended outcomes born out of exclusionary housing policies?

The Southern California metropolis entered the federal public housing system late and with ambivalence. In 1978, the Federal government threatened to cut off San Diego Community Block funding monies if it continued to operate without an agency committed to housing. Mayor Pete Wilson bowed to federal pressure, creating the San Diego Housing Commission in 1979. Most cities formed similar entities decades before. By the time of its creation, the day of public housing high-rises had long passed. Still, though the city avoided the kind of problems older “frostbelt” municipalities endured, its housing situation remained far from secure. By the turn of the 21st century, San Diego’s lack of affordable housing came to be seen as a pervasive quality of life issue.

The problem with San Diego’s approach was that it had no approach. Local officials and residents objected to even the idea of a housing commission. While avoiding the superblock styles of history certainly deserves praise, San Diego failed to build much of any affordable and low income housing. By 2008, the city only ran a total of just over 1300 public housing units.

Moreover, the few low-income units that did get built failed to conform to the “balanced communities” policy the city promoted. The city’s neighborhoods were each to shoulder the burden of low income housing equally, but the result was a complete concentration of units in South San Diego. San Ysidro, a town that sits on the US-Mexico border, absorbed more public housing than most other municipalities nationwide, to the point that in the early 1990’s conflicts emerged between Latino and Black residents of local public housing. As one journalist noted, “The influx of blacks angered the residents of predominantly Hispanic San Ysidro, many of whom believed that the housing should have been rented only to those already living in the area” (Ozzie
Roberts, "Racism's many shades", SDUT, November 20, 1991).

Local newspapers identified social tensions three years earlier, as the local South Bay publication The Star News noted nearly identical problems. Since the opening of a 225-unit low-income housing project in 1988, “complaints from residents of the projects have ranged from expression of racist, anti-black sentiments to violence between teens.” Andrea Skorepa, director of Casa Familiar, a social services agency, admitted that the presence of blacks caused “resentment among some Hispanics” (The Star News, “Five Minute News Brief, August 11, 1988). To be fair, the city of San Diego cannot be blamed for San Diego County’s mistakes. However, one would imagine they had some influence decision regarding the location of such housing.

This reticence not only prevents the development of physical units, it retards the growth of the kind of infrastructure, experience, and connections that government and private agencies need to stay effective in their provision of housing. Thus, when the federal government’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit (1986), Credit Readjustment Act (1977), and 1990s HOPE VI legislation all combined to facilitate the development of mixed income affordable and low incoming units through public private relationships with CDC’s and CBO’s, San Diego failed to take advantage, once again starting from behind. As a 1991 San Diego Union Tribune article pointed out, “Non-profit housing groups in 20 U.S. cities this year will divvy up $62.5 million in loans and grants, compliments of a national consortium that finances low-income housing. San Diego won't get a dime” (Marsha Kay, July 7, 1991).

Two years later in April 1993, observers still described the growth of the non-profit development sector as “fledgling”. Despite its founding in the late 1970s, the national organization Low Income Support Initiatives (LISC) only opened its first San Diego office in 1991. How important is LISC? A 2001 study written by Kim Slack for the Harvard Business School reported that since its creation in 1979, LISC had “invested . . . more than 3 billion dollars in community organizations to help combat poverty” most often by developing affordable housing for low income residents.” (Slack, Kim, “Low Income Housing Support Initiative”, June 12, 2001) From 1987 to 1993, the region had only produced 1000 units through the low-income housing tax credit and private public partnerships. Nationally, the combination of tax credits and CDCs created 125,000 units annually. (Weisberg, Lori and Sharon Spivak, SDUT, "A new optimism on housing for poor" April 16, 1993) The absence of LISC, CDCs, and other aspects of the private public affordable housing infrastructure exacted a cost for all San Diegans.

By the early 1990s the city estimated there were about 60,000 low income and very low-income households in need of housing assistance, while local planning agency SANDAG suggested a need of 161,000 low income units in the region. Unfortunately, only about 40,000 such units existed. When the SDHC announced it would open up its waiting list for low income housing assistance, the agency was inundated with 40,000 calls in fifteen minutes (
Weisberg, SDUT,"Bond provides measure of hope for low income housing", April 16, 1990). In 1990, the SDHC administered Section 8 housing assistance to 6,707 families with 22,000 others on a waiting list. A year later the city assisted 7,395 households (Weisberg, SDUT, "Missed deadlne shuts out subsidies, Dec 13, 1991) By 1997, the number had grown to 8400; nearly ten years later, the SDHC assisted over 12,000 families through Section 8 vouchers, while 40,000 remained on a waiting list that averaged between five to seven years (Weisberg, SDUT, "A blueprint for change", November 17, 2006). As of December 2009, 14000 households received Section 8 vouchers (Weisberg, SDUT, December 1, 2009).

Naturally, this dependence on Section 8’s means the city’s stock of affordable and low-income housing becomes even more crucial. Unfortunately, it took political leaders until 2003, when the City Council declared a “state of emergency” regarding the city’s lack of affordable housing, for anyone to really acknowledge the issue, and even then it seemed as much a matter about levels of future homeownership than really assisting the working poor (
Patricia Butler and Cary Lowe, SDUT, "California needs to rethink its land use policy for affordable housing", May 23, 2003.)

Granted, haranguing an overburdened and underfunded agency can appear unseemly. After all, when the SDHC established a Housing Trust Fund in the early 1990s, it witnessed the raiding of the fund’s coffers by the municipal government to plug budget shortfalls. The commission itself endured a mid-1990s grand jury investigation that questioned its “lending practices,” identifying specific loans as inappropriate. (Weisberg, SDUT, "Agent of change" January 20, 2008) Along with these difficulties, for the past three decades federal funding of urban programs development declined precipitously. Even under Clinton, though minority homeownership increased significantly, affordable housing failed to experience the explosion in federal funding many activists had hoped for. Combined with San Diego’s and the larger Sunbelt’s ideological aversion to taxation and government more generally, circumstances for the SDHC never proved ideal.

Perhaps the SDHC difficulties represent a symptom of a larger problem: the privileging of homeowner/taxpayer identities over all others, such that homeowner status represents the ultimate in citizenship. Richard Ronald’s The Ideology of Homeownership: Homeowner Societies and the Role of Housing addresses this very issue, concluding that the home as a form of capital accumulation undermines other forms of membership while reducing the state’s responsibility for social welfare, shifting this responsibility to the individual. Thus, those lacking land tenure such as renters and public or low-income housing residents find themselves denied the same level of citizenship.

The perceived effect of certain groups on housing values emerges as a chief characteristic for their judgment. Former San Diego Democratic Congressman Jim Bates (44th Congressional District- San Diego 1984-1992) said just as much in the early 1980s. Speaking to the Star News in December of 1984, Bates summarized his views on those lacking land tenure: “I am not a fan of low income rental housing because there is no question that renters don’t maintain the property” (Star News, “Bates continues probe of Navy housing”, Dec 23, 1984). Just to place Bates in context, he was the liberal Democrat of the four House members representing San Diego, the other three being conservative Republicans.

Other writers have addressed the Sunbelt ideology and its broader effects. Robert Self’s American Babylon: Race and Class in Postwar Oakland explores the rise of the taxpayer/homeowner identity that culminated in passage of the infamous Prop 13 (it drastically limited property taxes), passed by the anti-government/anti-tax enthusiasm of Orange County, and the suburban residents fleeing Oakland. Prop 13 proponents masked naked racism with the race neutral language of middle class homeownership. Becky Nicolaides', My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles 1920 – 1965 explores similar perspectives in Southern California, where working and middle class whites, despite historic divisions, united in the name of “community” to prevent school and residential integration.

Bruce Schulman’s excellent The Seventies points out the pervasiveness of Sunbelt identities, referring to such individuals as “demi-rednecks” or “faux bubbas”. According to Schulman, they “brandished a set of shared political attitudes: they resented government interference … they disliked bureaucrats, pointed headed intellectuals, and “welfare Cadillacs.” Demi-rednecks formed the foundation for conservative populism, the tax revolt, and the Reaganite assault on the welfare state. The ascendant Sunbelt, a new political force was primed to accelerate the erosion of American public life” (Schulman, The Seventies, 117). The celebration of the white, middle class, respectable homeowner ideal helped mask the racist impact of housing policies by trafficking in race neutral language.

For all his faults, Robert Moses at least built things. Granted, Moses built more infrastructure than housing, but he left a built environment that ironically has become a central aspect of the minority communities he long viewed as inferior. San Diego built almost nothing. Certainly, race and Sunbelt economic beliefs contributed to this situation.

The larger point here is that the condition of San Diego’s low income and affordable housing results from a pervasive political ideology, grounded in the rhetoric of free markets and property-based citizenship. San Diego never wanted public or low-income housing. Segments of the population rejected those it perceived as low-income residents. According to a SDHC Task Force report, by the end of the 1980s, not only did San Diego exhibit a severe shortage of affordable housing, many landlords and realtors continued to discriminate in terms of housing: “Blacks seeking to rent apartments in seven separate sections of San Diego faced some form of discrimination 40% of the time, according to a covert test of the housing market presented to the San Diego Housing Commission.” Moreover, the same study “concluded that the city has racially and ethnically segregated housing patterns, an imbalance that is partly attributable to low-income housing programs enacted by the city. (Leonard
Bernstein, Los Angeles Times, “Black Renters Met Bias, S.D. Study Finds,” January 13, 1989.)

When it removed itself from the federal public housing program in 2007, many hailed San Diego for its innovative approach. One year later nearly 18 other municipalities had applied for similar status. No one seemed to notice that nearly 30 years after
the city relented to federal authorities in creating the SDHC, San Diego left the federal system altogether, all while having committed itself to minimal levels of low income and affordable housing construction. One might even argue the city’s ethos had won. However, its effects punished not only the working poor but its middle class residents as well, who witnessed a steady rise in the cost of housing. Apparently, what’s old is now new. Of course, following a housing crisis and a damaging recession, what does the homeowner ideology mean? A glance at the local newspaper might help. A September 2009 article in the San Diego Union Tribune reported that SDHC hoped to add 1035 subsidized units over the next five years.

The reason for such largesse? Severely “depressed housing values” (Weisberg, Lori, SDUT, "The price is right", September 20, 2009).

Ryan Reft

Monday, March 22, 2010

Telling the Story of Healthcare Reform

For a party that seemed moribund just a few years ago, the Democrats have shown they have a big, and fractious, coalition. All the really important arguments over the last year occurred within the Democratic Party, but who were the winners and losers?

One of the most striking realizations for me was that the pro-life wing of the Democratic Party has a lot of pull. Until recently, I never realized there were pro-life Democrats. The caricature of liberals during the Bush era was that of a tiny, coastal, cosmopolitan elite for whom Roe v. Wade was the Magna Carta of sexual freedom. Little did I know that Bart Stupak was lurking in the shadows waiting to make our lives miserable and wage jihad against women's reproductive rights. Nor did I realize that Democratic leaders would roll over to the demands of a few Midwestern social conservatives in order to get a bill done, while negotiating serious concessions to the pharmaceutical industry, unions, and so forth.

Clearly the labor movement has done its best to influence the process, despite not getting everything it wants. Indeed, the AFL-CIO seems to have put its broad commitment to social welfare over the interests of its dues-paying members. It's hard to see the upside for union workers who will see a new tax levied on the costly insurance plans they have fought so hard to win from employers. This is the so-called "Cadillac tax," which is meant to curb the inflation of healthcare costs by discouraging generous insurance plans that lead patients to use medical services inefficiently. This tax has been pushed off into the future, such that it may never even go into effect, and perhaps it will not make a big difference in any case. But it is interesting to see Richard Trumka threatening Democratic legislators who waffled on supporting the healthcare bill, when part of the bill is a slap to the benefits that are the hallmark of union membership for many workers. In order to provide subsidies and assistance for millions of Americans who don't have good union jobs, the movement was willing to make sacrifices and deal.

Much has been made of the odious and illogical concessions that the Senate had to make to get Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, and a bunch of other prima donnas on board for the crucial Christmas Eve Senate vote that made this all possible. As bad as the "Cornhusker Kickback" and the "Louisiana Purchase" were, they were the ultimate fig leaves -- providing just enough cover for Lincoln to vote for the bill, and quickly discarded by the House and Senate (one hopes) through the reconciliation process.

But much bigger compromises are much more telling. The fact that President Obama worked out a truce with the pharmaceutical industry from the beginning, and promised not to do much of anything with reform that would hurt their bottom line, gives you an idea of who really has power. Cheaper drugs will not be imported from Canada, due to some bogus concerns about "safety," and the sanctity of the industry's monopolistic property rights will be insured for the foreseeable future. The deal gave Obama the political room to pursue reform without waging war with the Tea Party, the insurance companies, and Big Pharma, but it is interesting to see which interest groups were placated and which were not.

Progressives, in contrast, were not to be compromised with. The likes of Joe Lieberman, to say nothing of the actual GOP, never showed the slightest recognition that they should actually negotiate with the party's left flank -- Lincoln and Lieberman and company simply did not consider meeting progressives halfway on the public option, despite Harry Reid's heroic efforts to work out some sort of half-measure, like an opt-in, opt-out, state-by-state coop-based kind-of sort-of public option (some restrictions may apply). In retrospect, I think progressives held the line against further watering down of the bill by conservative Democrats, but they could do little more than this.

The American Medical Association, the hospitals, even the Catholic nuns got on board for this reform. Thanks to the media's facile obsession with "bipartisanship," little attention has been paid to the substantial compromises that Obama and the Democrats worked out with this legislation -- the fact that a lot of interested parties and stakeholders in the existing system were persuaded to support reform. In the long term, the nitpicky nitty gritty about doughnut holes and gatorade will fade from memory, and we'll be able to see this from the enlarged perspective that one would have liked to have seen from Democratic lawmakers over the last year.

How will this legislative victory be understood fifteen years from now? As a sign of Obama and Pelosi's ability to build consensus, despite wrestling with the most emotional and explosive issues around? Will the dynamic duo finally get some props for LBJ-like negotiating skills? Or will it be seen as a fateful overreach, which consigns dozens of Democrats to the unemployment lines this Fall? Liberals are hopeful their reform will become a bulwark of American social policy like Medicare or Social Security, while conservatives will frame it as costly social experiment that taxes the middle class for the benefit of the poor, like the War on Poverty. No one knows whether this big, complicated bill will do anything to slow the rise of red ink in the federal budget or shorten the unemployment lines, no matter how many soothing scores the Congressional Budget Office can produce.

Perhaps George W. Bush will ultimately get the most credit for this landmark legislation. If Dubya had not so thoroughly screwed up the country in every conceivable way, we probably would not have elected enough Democrats to push healthcare reform over the line by just a few votes.

Alex Cummings

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Tea Party: A Long Geritol Commercial Interrupted Occasionally by the Banning of Guns

I fancy myself something of a collector of conservative paranoia. As a kid, I remember reading the lurid fantasies about one world government, the Gay Agenda™, and Clintonian schemes to propagate the Mark of the Beast in the pages of Texe Marrs newsletters and John Birch Society rags.
This tradition has continued with the various conservative listservs I subscribe to, most notably the American Family Association and the venerable Human Events (founded 1944). Their messages feature screaming subject headings and paragraphs of multicolored, bolded, italicized, and underlined text about the insidious deeds of Barack Hussein Obama. I’ve been saving the particularly juicy ones for several years.
We at Tropics of Meta have decided to survey these messages to give a sense of the demographics and ideology of the Human Events crowd. Though this is certainly not a gauge of sentiment among rank-and-file conservatives, it does allow us to take the temperature of the Tea Party underground.
Certain themes are readily apparent. A constant sense of siege from familiar enemies (lawyers, Muslims, unions); breathless predictions of imminent doom; tips to protect one’s “wealth” from destruction; and advertisements for a variety of cures for old age ailments. Below is a run-down of some our favorites.
Tbe Shocking and Misleading
One might be surprised to learn that the Pentagon is burning Bibles, but that is what I discovered in my inbox last May. (“Pentagon burns our soldiers' Bibles,” 5/17/09.) Likewise, it was surprising that the Senate had banned gun sales (6/5/09), at a time when the NRA and the Supreme Court were making huge strides toward dismantling all gun control regulations, and Democrats refuse to touch the issue with a ten-foot pole.
Given news like this, one can understand why your aunts and uncles and grandparents might get the impression that a radical, God-hating, gun-confiscating dictatorship is in control of the country.
Perhaps less surprising is the conservative media’s habit of describing normal procedures of democracy as unprecedented power-grabs. The prototypical example is the phony outrage, whipped up by Fox News, about Obama’s “czars” – a silly term invented by the media years ago to describe various officials in the executive branch.
Likewise, we learned in June 2009 that “Obama stacks Supreme Court” (6/5/09) – this is their way of saying that a democratically elected president had his choice for the Court affirmed by the Senate, as per the Constitution.
Human Events also told us that Obama planned to “make private insurance illegal” (7/25/09), even though every Democratic reform bill has been designed to preserve the private insurance system. And just this month I read that “Obama Imposes HealthCare Edict on America” (3/6/10).
What was this “edict” that our shameless despot issued? Why, of course, it was passing a bill that had been approved by 60 out of 100 Senators. That’s an “edict,” in Tea Party speak.
You Keep All Your Money in a Big Brown Bag, Inside a Zoo
Another frequent genre of conservative emails involves imminent threats to the bank accounts of hard-working and/or well-heeled Americans. Often, stock tips from Dick Morris are involved. Obama’s election heralded terrible things for the investing class (11/25/08), and a year later, Human Events cautioned, “The Worst Is Still Ahead... Protect Your Wealth Now” (10/18/09). They also forecast a “Black October” that never came (8/31/09).
One of my recent favorites addresses a reasonable fear that we all experience from time: “Is Somebody Secretly Planning To Sue You This Year? Protect Yourself Now…” (3/14/10).
The Usual Suspects
The allusion to sneaky lawyers and wanton litigation brings us to the familiar cast of conservative villains – a wonderfully madlibby resource for filling in the subject headings of emails. In this category, we learn:
Who Bankrolls Jesse Jackson? (7/18/08)
Liberals and unions bosses working to “beat” us (3/15/10)
At first glance, it is hard to say whether the “beat” is meant to quote the liberals and union bosses, or if it is just another example of people who don’t know how to use quotation marks. (Like the local store where a handwritten sign says, 50% Off “Sale” Today!)
Then, of course, there are the Muslims. I have repeatedly received a message declaring that “Islam Will Conquer Rome” (6/7/09, 7/20/08, 6/12/08) – as if secular Europe is going to trade its shopworn and half-hearted Christian tradition for radical Islam, as hordes of Muslim immigrants dot the Vatican City skyline with minarets. Another perennial email promises, “PROOF: The Koran is no ‘Book of Peace.’”
“Are you ready for a new Dark Ages?” (1/17/08) is another classic of the genre. In this case, Human Events is hyping Mark Steyn’s book on the biological and cultural threat Islam poses for the West. “The Western world’s demographic collapse and mass Muslim immigration means that much of the Western world as we know it will not survive the 21st century.” Oddly, the book also promises to be “laugh-out-loud funny.”
In a related vein, plenty of conservative emails appeal to latent racism by inveighing against “politically correct” history, reminding readers that the South’s “secession was legal” and Stonewall Jackson was kind enough to help teach slaves to read (“The Civil War: Reality was different,” 12/11/08.)
Most persuasively, we learn that “if the South had won, we might be able to enjoy holidays in the sunny Southern state of Cuba.” Meddlesome Northern aggressors!
Your Base Are Belong to AARP
But the most striking pattern may be the endless marketing of geriatric products to the Human Events reader list. One email promises to “Slow Your Aging Clock by 50%” (4/29/08) and another offers “8 Easy Heart-Saving Diet Tricks.” I unfortunately deleted many messages that were hawking various contraptions to assist the elderly, but I have received many such sales pitches.
I don’t get emails like this from MoveOn.
The most curious of all may be the following: “Isaac Hayes Killed by a Treadmill” (9/16/08). It had something to do with cholesterol, “heart attack causing hormones,” and supplements that prevent cancer. The overall idea, as with so many health gimmicks, was to ward off the effects of old age without making any effort: “Throw Away Your Jogging Shoes and Beat Heart Disease in Just Minutes a Day.”
Given that the market research for Human Events clearly skews elderly, you can imagine that Sarah Palin’s “death panels” canard was a big hit. Last August the magazine demanded to know why AARP was “lying” about the healthcare bill’s “euthanasia” policies (8/16/09), and declared “Grandmas and Babies Exterminated by Obama ‘Health’ Care Plan” (8/9/09).
One wonders why the senior citizens’ organization would support a plan that involved killing off its dues-paying members. But that is a conversation for another day.

What do we have, in total? Human Events is hardly the full scope of the Tea Party movement. Surely some evangelicals, Ron Paul libertarians, and small businesspeople are also powering its apocalyptic politics -- people who don’t belong to an arthritic class of terrified white retirees.
But what we do see from an organization that is pushing every angle of Socialist-Muslim-baby-killing racial paranoia is an interesting profile: an elderly person with some money in the stock market, worried that his savings and guns will be confiscated by a ruthless demagogue who sees no Constitutional safeguard that he wouldn’t love to shred.
“Know thine enemy” is a command that the Tea Partiers have taken up with great zest – and a fair amount of imagination. Those of us who believe that the President is not, in fact, a radical dictator would be wise to develop a clearer sense of who our opponents are than the view they have of us.
Alex Sayf Cummings

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Conservative Idea of Americanness

Half way through their essay Lowry and Ponnuru veer off on an otherwise inexplicable disquisition on European critics of the United States, which they then identify as the source of virtually any argument or political position that has diverged from the ideology of modern conservatism. Jane Addams, Herbert Croly, New Deal economist Stuart Chase—all of them, and many more, failed to understand and appreciate America’s exceptional character and sought to replace it with “the best innovations of the modern dictatorial movements taking over in Europe” during the 1920s and ‘30s. That’s America for you: Members of the modern conservative movement squared off against the European-inspired liberal fascists, forever searching in desperation for “a foreign template to graft onto America.” If only the latter could be convinced not to hate—let alone to like or love—their country. But alas. . . .

– Damon Linker, The New Republic

Damon Linker’s critique gets at an intriguing contradiction of today’s conservative movement: it is at once profoundly sensitive to any serious criticism of the United States and alarmingly damning of formative American leaders and the policies they represent. The way Glennbeckistan deals with this glaring contradiction is simple: either label their opponent’s policies as distinctly un-American or ignore inconvenient facts. The Texas Board of Education’s recent vote to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Texas curriculum is perhaps the most ridiculous example of the latter, but the former tactic is the most prevalent.

The condemnation of LBJ and his contribution to America’s welfare system is a common example of this phenomenon. Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis cogently illustrates how de-Americanization works. In describing white resistance to the influx of poor African-Americans to Detroit from the south, Sugrue points to Detroit’s white neighborhood’s creation of neighborhood associations (“variously called ‘civic associations,’ ‘protective associations,’ ‘improvement associations,’ and ‘homeowners’ associations.’”) aimed at preserving the racial integrity of Detroit’s white neighborhoods. “As improvement associations, they emphasized the ideology of self-help and individual achievement that lay at the very heart of the American notion of homeownership. Above all, as home and property owners’ associations, these groups represented the interests of those who perceived themselves as independent and rooted rather than dependent and transient.” (p. 211)

The booming automobile industry, the seemingly less antagonistic race relations of the North, and the promise of middle class livelihood drove many blacks to Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, creating a severe housing crisis and prompting a movement for public housing by blacks that received a sympathetic hearing by liberal politicians. Discrimination by employers, realtors, and city planners, among others, left a majority of Detroit’s black population in dire need of affordable housing. Over time, economic and racial antagonism led to the development of a distinct political ideology. White Detroit persistently associated “whiteness with Americanism, hard work, sexual restraint, and independence…To be fully American was to be white. Popular images of whiteness and blackness—and the ways in which they changed—influenced the day-to-day encounters between whites and blacks at work and on city streets.” (p. 9) Thus, the liberal push for desegregation and social services for the poor (including many blacks in urban centers) is not seen as part of the slow process of progress in American history, but rather as an abrogation of “American” beliefs in independence, hard work, and so on.

That this view of what is “American” is apocryphal is obvious to anyone with a loose grasp of history, but under the influence of modern conservatism’s most visible pundit, Glenn Beck, this understanding of American history is slowly seeping into the mainstream. Featured prominently on Beck’s website and television show is a purported history of the United States: A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. Coming in at nearly 1,000 pages, the cover of the updated paperback edition of the book informs us that it now includes “Swift boats, Katrina and Iraq’s liberation.” A cover like that normally guarantees the book will not receive serious scholarly attention, but one extremely patient historian took a look. The review deserves to be read in full, but this passage is representative:

In their chapters on recent U.S. history, the authors make claims that are not even remotely endorsed by the footnoted sources. In excoriating the Great Society, for instance, Schweikart and Allen observe that one "malignant result of AFDC's no-father policy was that it left inner-city black boys with no male role models" (p. 689). In support of this Gingrichian pronouncement, the authors cite a single 1989 study from Social Forces— an article that makes no mention of AFDC, inner-city black youth, or role models and indeed has almost nothing to do with the argument to which it is attached. In the same paragraph, we read further that after the 1960s, "gang leaders from Portland to Syracuse, from Kansas City to Palmdale, inducted thousands of impressionable young males into drug running, gun battles, and often death" (p. 689). For this dramatic observation, the authors rely on two broad studies of family structure and drug use, each published eight years apart in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. Among the phrases that do not appear in either study: "Gang leaders," "Portland," "Syracuse," "Kansas City," "Palmdale," "impressionable young males," "drug running," "gun battles," and "death." With little effort, this reviewer has identified nearly a dozen such cases in which the authors have tortured their sources to score points against social programs they oppose, political philosophies to which they object, or historical actors whom they do not like.
Although I find my opinion changing repeatedly, Tony Judt’s essay on social democracy and the United States has become more convincing to me over time. The American left does have something to defend; the left is in a way now part of the status quo: “The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.”

Even at a point in our history when liberals are pushing for major progressive change to America’s health care system, they defensively couch their arguments in conservative terms (efficiency, incentives, competitive markets, oh my!). Linker is of course right to point out that “liberal love for the United States is complicated by criticism,” but liberals also have a stake in being assertive about the progress they helped produce. The conservative contradiction would be more obvious if liberals did just that.

William Orangeman Williams

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Spectre of Racism at UC San Diego

In recent weeks the University of California San Diego has been affected by a series of racist acts, including the hanging of a noose in the library and an off-campus event that involved demeaning caricatures of African Americans. Though UCSD served as the site of the initial controversies, actions taken by mostly unknown members of the UC community at Davis and Irvine have led many to question the university system's commitment to diversity. Some say the incidents illustrate only that pockets of homophobia and racism persist, while others argue that students of color and individuals identifying as LGBT face a pervasive atmosphere of intolerance on campus.

Either conclusion remains extremely troubling. At the very least, recent events have spurred a dialogue that needed to occur. The advocacy of UCSD’s undergraduates, notably students of color, and social organizations like the Black Student Union, the central actor in the protests, have forced the campus community to address internal questions regarding race and equality. Questions about privilege, whiteness, structural racism and the place of social scientists and historians in the struggle for social justice serve as central themes in UCSD’s collective conversation. A good representation of this discourse is second year PhD candidate Elizabeth Sine’s recent letter to the university. The point here is not to convince anyone of the protesters' arguments or demands, one way or another -- those are conclusions individuals will need to draw for themselves.

Rather, Sine suggests that we use this experience as an instructive way to come to terms with how people see themselves in the university, how they see each other, and how factors such as privilege and whiteness intervene in such interactions. As Sine notes, the key is adopting a “politics of listening": learning to listen from not only our own methodological and epistomelogical views, but those of other persons and disciplines. We need to recognize intersectionality. The letter is provocative -- some might react negatively, some positively, and some may remain on the fence. So be it. Sine’s letter represents well the ideology that many of the scholars in UCSD’s History Department embrace.

Ryan Reft

Dear Allies, those I know and those I don't (i.e., whomever may read this):

Before and above all else, I want to thank the BSU, MEChA, and everyone else who helped to ignite the movement taking place on our campus, and who have helped to open up some real maneuvering room within this university for all of us who want to transform it and to make it a fully public institution. I write today not only in celebration of the struggle we are currently engaged in, today, these past few weeks, and—for many of us, in varying ways—for a long time before that, but also with an eye toward the long haul we have ahead.

Like many have already noted, the diversity of coalitions and people who have come together to support this movement, and to support the demands laid out by the BSU, is remarkable. The effort to challenge the racialized hierarchy that holds this institution together, and to combat the ongoing process of the university’s privatization, has brought together so many people, across lines of racial and cultural difference, and across the ranks assigned to us by the university system—undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff. I want to address the question of how we might continue to build and engage in meaningful dialogue and common struggle across lines of difference, with particular attention to varying forms of privilege and underprivilege attached to those differences. More specifically, I want to raise some issues and questions for students committed to the struggle for greater diversity in the university who are operating from positions of privilege—white privilege or otherwise.

I think most who read this will recognize the institutional nature of the racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia that the student movement aligns itself against. I think many recognize the uneven and hierarchical nature of the distribution of power in our university system, as well as the extent to which the ongoing corporatization of UCSD in particular, and public education in general, threatens to intensify already-existing inequalities and modes of oppression (with a particularly menacing threat to underrepresented groups within our community). And I think that it’s important to acknowledge, and to become comfortable thinking and talking about, the implications of the university’s hierarchical structure for internal relations within our movement—what it means to engage in struggle, in a coalition as diverse as ours, against an institution that has been designed to privilege some at the expense of others.

Indeed, it is vital for all of us to understand that the problems of racism and inequality are collective, and that every person here has an important role to play in the struggle against the denial of human dignity and for institutional change. At the same time, the institutions of privilege and inequality that exist on this campus and in our society mean that we all approach this struggle from different vantage points and from a playing field that has never been even.

And so, trust to exist among us and for the full strength or our collective action to be realized, I think we have to take fully into account the varying forms of privilege that come attached to our to our socioeconomic status, our racial and ethnic identifications, our gender and sexual practices, and whatever other factors affect our social position and relationship to each other. In fact, I would go even further to say that those among us whom this university has been designed to benefit bear a responsibility to think critically about, and to disinvest from, our own social advantages (beginning with a recognition that those advantages are not a pure result of our own hard work).

Surely, there are many among us who have been thinking about working through these issues for a long time. But I think it’s worth putting on the table for serious reflection and discussion in this critical moment in which new forms of solidarity are taking shape and when there is so much at stake. We have to be comfortable acknowledging the ways in which some one who is racialized as white (such as myself) cannot ever really understand the experience of racial oppression, even as we participate in the struggle against it. And so, for such individuals, the struggle against institutional racism must begin with a disinvestment from whiteness, from the advantages of middle-class upbringing—from whatever other advantages have been tied to the social positions we were born into.

So, what does this mean in practice? What does it take to disinvest from privilege—from white privilege, or class privilege, male privilege, or the privileges attached to normative sexual practices and identities? Of course, there is no simple or singular answer to these questions. But there may be a couple of starting points to build on.

To begin with, as I’ve already been suggesting, I think it will be difficult to move forward without making transparent the ways in which various forms of privilege operate across lines of difference within our coalition. Whether this occurs on the level of personal
reflection, in the realm of political thinking, in our informal discussions with each other, I think it’s important that the issue is brought out into the open.

Secondly, we must bring into a practice a politics of listening. It is way too easy, especially given the individualism promoted by our social institutions, to become absorbed in the way this struggle looks from a particular and personalized vantage point. The danger of this kind of individualist tendency is that it threatens our solidarity by blinding us to the ways in which multiple struggles are intersecting and overlapping in this movement, even as they all ultimately challenge inequality and corporatization in the university. Listening and taking seriously each other’s needs and concerns will not only help to strengthen our solidarity and our movement but will help us to avoid reproducing the kinds of hierarchies that we are struggling to transform.

The disparities of power that shape relations across race, class, gender, and sexuality do not have to persist. But I believe that they can’t be dismantled without our open acknowledgment of them, our critical and careful reflection on them, and a deliberate effort to extricate ourselves from them and to bring into practice a different kind of social relations that prioritizes the dignity of every one here, in ways that UCSD’s administrative power structure has not.

Laying bare and discussing openly the hierarchies of privilege that shape our university—and the social, political, and economic institutions that dominates it—will be uncomfortable for some, but I can guarantee it’s a lot less uncomfortable than enduring first-hand the kind of isolation, marginalization, and oppression that many students on our campus have been experiencing for a long time. And it is necessary to move forward together toward taking back our university.

In solidarity,
Elizabeth Sine

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Inglourious Basterds and the War on Terror

We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won't not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.

- Lt. Aldo Raines

Most people peg Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-nominated film Inglourious Basterds as an audacious romp of revenge through a gonzo version of Nazi-occupied Europe. I myself was captivated by the idea of a colossally southern Brad Pitt going on a spree of "killin' gnat-zis." Given Tarantino's past work, many of us expected a war movie spin on Kill Bill -- an adrenaline pumping orgy of retaliatory violence.

This was not what I thought I saw when I watched the movie. For one thing, it was not particularly violent, with much of the brutality implied or occurring off-screen. More importantly, though, the violence that did occur often seemed repugnant, not cartoonish and comical (as in Kill Bill). When the band of Jewish American soldiers pull off their attack on a theater full of Nazi leaders, who are locked into a burning room, it provided little emotional payoff. The sight of Americans gunning down a crowd of trapped Germans seemed ghastly, even if it’s top Nazis brass who are being shot like fish in a barrel.

In a cunning juxtaposition, the scene itself closely paralleled the propaganda film that the Nazis had just been watching -- a moronic killfest that consisted almost entirely of a "heroic" German sniper shooting Allied soldiers by the dozen. Instead of story or characterization, it served up a mindless series of dead enemies, and Goebbels and Hitler are shown laughing, lapping it up, like pigs.

Is the joke on us? Are we as grotesque as the Nazis were when we get a kick out of watching the "bad guys" ruthlessly and remorselessly murdered? The movie within the movie offers a mirror for Inglourious Basterds as a whole.

If so, what is this movie about? A gang of Americans who go around beating, torturing, and executing prisoners of war, in order to sow fear in the German ranks. It sounds a lot like terrorism to me. Far from glorifying violence, it seems to show how the lust for revenge consumes and destroys. One of the lead characters, who longs to punish the Nazis for murdering her entire family, dies just as her own filmed image is projected on the big screen, laughing maniacally amid the flames of the burning cinema. In the quest to mete out punishment, haven't these characters also resorted to inhuman violence?

One might say that the behavior of the Basterds does not qualify as terrorism, according to some technical definition. Or maybe the Basterds were justified in seeking revenge by gruesome violence, in the sense that the Nazis' world-historical evil rendered any form of retaliation legitimate. But anyone who believes in human rights, as many of us do, would think that even the most despicable Nazi does not deserve to be summarily beaten to death with a baseball bat and scalped.

The behavior is not heroic, nor perhaps even antiheroic. Usually, it is emotionally satisfying to watch the bad guys get it, but I took from the film that the quest for revenge was dehumanizing. In a sense, it recalls the moral ambivalence of Steven Spielberg’s controversial 2005 film Munich, which portrayed Israel’s mission to retaliate against the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Even the decision to cast a Gentile good ol’ boy from Tennessee as the Jewish soldiers’ commander in Basterds suggests a resonance with moral quandaries of more recent vintage. When Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) boasts of his Apache heritage, his disregard for human rights ("Nazi ain't got no humanity!"), and his intention to inflict cruelty on his enemies, he is a booming caricature of the gung-ho ugly American. One could be forgiven for thinking of a certain cowboy president and his love affair with waterboarding.

Tarantino might not have intended this reading -- most interviews do not seem to corroborate my interpretation -- but it's hard not to draw this conclusion as you watch nearly all the characters drown in the bloodbath at the end of the film.
Whether or not it is a cautionary tale about bloodlust, Inglourious Basterds is clever, funny, and suspenseful in portraying its various revenge seekers. The film's alternate reality version of WWII is fully realized and wonderfully absurd, and its band of protagonists -- war criminals, if not terrorists -- offer a compelling case study of what it means to meet a brutal foe on its own terms. When do we become like the violent killers we oppose? With the age of George W. Bush not far behind us, this is a question worth considering -- and liberal Hollywood seems not to have considered it in toasting the Nazi-killers of Inglourious Basterds. Having not seen The Hurt Locker, though, I would still say I'm pulling for it to win Best Picture.

Alex Cummings