My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Celebrate This

Judging from the wailing of conservative columnists like this one and this one you'd think there was some big liberal-conspiracy assault on Christmas, with hippie parents across the country demanding that all traces of religion be banished from public schools and public space during the holiday season. Of course, like most of the rest of what these "journalists" write, it's an out and out lie. There is no anti-religious movement out there attacking Christmas. In fact, the "villain" singled out by so many of these attacks, the ACLU, is actually a signatory to Religion In The Public Schools: A Joint Statement Of Current Law, along with numerous religious organizations of all political stripes. The Joint Statement (summed up by Eric Zorn)

reminded educators of students' rights to express their faith in public school in numerous ways and for schools to present religiously inspired material--including music--as long as it was in a clearly educational setting.

In other words, students in a public school assembly in December can sing "Silent Night" (as they should and as, indeed, 4th graders will in a Spring Grove program next week), so long as the context makes it clear that the school district isn't taking a formal position one way or the other about the lyrical
assertion in "Silent Night" that Jesus Christ was the son God and the savior of mankind.

So, to put it bluntly, the oft-repeated charge that the ACLU wants to stop kids from singing religous christmas carols at school pageants is a boldfaced lie.

So why does it keep getting repeated? Because the reactionary backlash right needs to be able to continually portray itself as the persecuted victim of an immense "liberal" conspiracy, even though it is more or less in control of the country. Americans are still not ready to back a platform of depriving other people of their rights, so they need to continue to portray themselves as victims seeking recognition of their rights, rather than a party in power trying to suppress dissent. So they must pretend there is an oppressive liberal "PC" movement trying to ruin Christmas, to keep their followers feeling oppressed.

You can tell that many intellectually challenged people actually believe the right-wing lies from this story, at the boneheaded Free Republic right-wing Web community. Apparently a bunch of fundies in the Washington area decided they would march on ACLU headquarters and sing Christmas carols, believing that either the liberals would be offended or at least that they would look like warm-hearted forgiving Christians wishing holiday cheer to the poor benighted liberals. Here in the real world, the ACLU has nothing against Christmas, a holiday which many ACLU members celebrate by singing Christmas carols. So of course, when the carolers arrived:

The ACLU people were incredibly cool about the whole thing -- they set up a little table with cookies and coffee for us, and stayed downstairs and joined in the singing.

And why wouldn't they be "cool about it?" The idea that the ACLU opposes Christmas is just another lie perpetrated by the vast right-wing conspiracy to raise money and get votes from ignorant people who don't know no better. But the poor confused righties couldn't believe their own senses. Read down past the pictures to the comments, it's really funny. One poster called the ACLU staffers caroling "hypocritical in the extreme" for some reason. Another suggested that these must not have been real ALCUers, that they had "brought some true seasonal joy to the abused, sullen, and overworked office staff."

A third agreed: "You're absolutely right. I shouldn't be so hard on these folks. They probably aren't in the same serpentine class as their employers."

A fourth chimes in: "I would imagine that the people who were nice to you and joined in were either the office workers who don't necessarily share the hard-core beliefs of some of the lawyers or the lawyers who think it's ok to sing carols as long as you aren't anywhere near a government building. The ones who go so far as to wish to end all mention of Christ in any place at any time were probably too busy working on ending Christmas cheer to notice you!"

So they think there's a "serpentine class" (probably with literal forked tongues) "working on ending Christmas." And even if you go out and sing carols with them, they won't see that their charicature world isn't real. The alternative is too frightening and embarassing for them.

It's like those cultists who believed that the world would end in 1975 but refuse to give up their beliefs in the face of the overwhelming evidence that their prophecy was wrong. The world is not as "simple" as these people want it to be, but they can't, or won't, grasp the complexity of it. Take Pat Tillman. The former football star gave up a multimillion dollar contract to join the Army Rangers and fight and die in Afghanistan. Most Americans, including myself, admire this choice of service over wealth. But how many people know he was an athiest?'s poll made him The Most Inspiring Person of the Year without mentioning this fact.

"Pat isn't with God," said his younger brother Rich, addressing mourners at Tillman's funeral. "He's [expletive] dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's [expletive] dead."

To steal a great line from Zorn, I guess there are athiests in foxholes after all. Fundies will try to argue from first principles that it's somehow impossible to have moral society or compassion or honor or sacrifice without God. Again, first principles aside, anyone still bothering to observe the real world can tell that isn't true.

Which brings me back to the final round of my annual wrestling match with Christmas. What do I have to celebrate? Something in this season of consumption and confusion used to appeal to me. What was it?

As usual, it was poetry. Isaiah: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. I love that one. I have actually spent more time reading the Bible than many of the fundies who claim it's all literally true, which becomes obvious five minutes the inevitable debate with them. Parts of it are great and really well written, too. But it's tangled and contradictory and clearly doesn't mean what many people claim it means. In its original context, Christmas wasn't about joy or togetherness or family, it was about hope, in times of despair.

Many of us today are walking in the darkness. The election, the war, illness and death among loved ones and friends, doubt about whether bringing a child into a world like this is a good idea. We all search the skies for a new star to follow. The idea that something so great could start so small is a wonder, and a source of great hope. The light that I see in the darkness is also something small, as small as you. You sit in the darkness waiting for a savior, but no one seems to show up. You can't see anyone because you are looking out of your savior's eyes. Nobody's waiting in the wings to ride in on a white horse and save the day. This is your moment. This is why you were born, and on some level you know it.

Last year my New Year's resolution was to overthrow the government. Obviously that didn't work out so well in November. This year's resolution is even simpler: Save America. Are you in?

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all.

Windy City Blues will return in January.


Fafblog is pushing this book by Donald Barthelme as a Christmas gift, which sounds great, although I've never read it. It sounds like it would fit in with my constant wrestling with myself over a holiday season without God. I love Barthelme. I picked a copy of Sadness out of the trash while I was working at a recycling plant in Columbus. Fascinating stories about loneliness and tatoos that it is about time I revisited. I found so much great stuff going through other peoples' trash it was unbelieveable: besides books, people tossed everything from Craftsman tools to blank payroll checks (a story for another time) into the recycling. Speaking of finding stuff, Found Magazine brough a show of found footage to the Empty Bottle Sunday night, and I was too busy with holiday crap to go. I hear it was great, if it comes to a hole in the wall dive bar near you, you should go.

Fafblog has the right idea. If you, too, are still desperately seeking gifts to prove your worthiness to you family, the monkey book sounds like a great way to go.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Sometimes You Do Need A Weatherman

Sunday at Third Unitarian the Forum discussion was led by Bill Ayers, who was billed as an educator, author, and school reform activist, and he came to talk about his experiences as a teacher and public school policy. But so many people showed up to hear him because he used to blow stuff up with the Weather Underground. In his new book he talks about how standardized testing and other tools ostensibly being used to reform public schools are really being used to discredit them and frame the debate as "what can we do about these horrible, failed public schools." The efforts are being led, especially within the Bush Administration, by people who are ideologically opposed to the public schools anyway. Ayers sees this movement as part of a larger movement towards the privatization of public space, and I agree.

Not only are new communities being build with no clear public realm (private yards replace public parks, private malls replace public streets), but everywhere the effort is made to privatize social life. The goal, I think, is to stop resources from being diverted from one community to another. In the past, this country had a more robust public sphere, with a great deal of commitment to public works, public schools and public institutions of all kinds. But access to these goods was more or less restricted to wealthy native-born white men. As other groups successfully demanded access to the public sphere, these elites have withdrawn their resources, for example from urban public schools, in order to do their own thing, set up new suburbs where their tax money will only benefit people like them. When that fails, of course, they just send their kids to private school and vote to lower their own taxes.

In less diverse countries these issues don't play out in the same way, but here it's fairly obvious that white people don't like it when their money gets taxed from them and transferred to non-whites. Movements for "local control" and the like are fairly obviously designed to capture resources for the wealthy white elite and prevent them from being redistributed.

A similar situation exists with Social Security privatization. Yes, the funding system may need an overhaul, but allowing people to take "their" money out of the system and invest it obviously makes the funding situation worse, not better. So why propose such a counterproductive idea? Because now the system works as a safety net, transferring money from workers to retirees. Privatizers want the high income earners to be able to keep the money the contribute for themselves, and make sure nobody else benefits from it. That this would bankrupt the system is irrelevenat - the important thing is that rich people get to keep their money and not allow it to be used to benefit the poor.

George W. Bush has a name for this scheme to empower the rich. He calls it the "Ownership Society." In such a society, private interest who own stuff will control everything that happens. People who don't own much will be shit out of luck.

In practice, poor people, minorities, powerless people want the same thing rich people want - power over their environment, power to shape their communities and their lives to their desires. Democratic government should provide institutions that spread power around and allow as many people as possible to do exactly that - privitization, by contrast, allocates all such power to the wealthy few.

Conservatives like to claim that big government is inherently corrupt and difficult for people to control - but government at least can be held accountable to voters and elected authorities. Private organizations, corporations and the like have no such built-in system of accountability.

I can rant about such things all day, and people will just tell me to drink less coffee. But when Bill Ayers does it, people show up and listen. This is disconcerting to say the least. While he has been a teacher for years (Kindergarten, college and points in between) and does know a lot about education and all, he has a megaphone because he detonated a bomb at the Pentagon, etc. I agree with him on a lot of stuff, and he's a very personable, friendly guy. But do you have to blow stuff up to get a hearing in today's America? The problem with Ayers as a spokesman is that by listening to him, you are assumed to be taking sides in a cultural conflagration that happened before I was born. And people either love him or loathe him before they even hear what he has to say.

But who else is talking about this stuff at all? Too often our communities, our "culture," gets dismissed as non-political, as background, as uncontrollable as the weather. But our communities are being rebuilt every day, and we deserve a say in how we live. If the rest of us won't speak out, then for now we're gonna have Ayers as a spokesman. Maybe we do need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Annotated Idiot

I enjoyed this haloscan troll comment from Atrios so much that I decided to repost it here, with footnotes to aid those unfamiliar with Red American Culture. It doesn't matter what the original post was about, the comment was a total non sequitur (1) anyway.

1. Liberals (2) openly gloat when U.S. soldiers get killed in action and the war effort. Liberals want the USA to fail. (3)
2. Liberals provide aid and comfort to terrorists and tyrants with their mindless lies, accusations, attacks, etc (4)
3. Liberals worry about terrorists/tyrants rights so that more Americans can die. Liberals want to ban the Patriot Act.(5)
4. John Kerry, a typical liberal who has engaged in anti-American activities during the Vietnam war, is the perfect embodiment of the "hate-the-military" Democrats ---- a political party that simply cannot be trusted to defend and protect America. (6)
5. Liberals support and promote socialism and communism, a FAILED philosophy (7)
6. Liberals think all corporations (America's employers) are evil and that big government should support them (8)
7. Liberals demanding to ban "The Pledge Of Allegiance". (9)
8. Liberals engage in spitting on and burning the American flag and not honoring it (10)
9. Liberals ashamed of using the words "patriotic" or "God Bless America". (11)
10 Liberals block every effort to drill for USA oil and force Americans to buy foreign oil (12)
11. Liberals and the Democrat party (John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, etc) use their power to emasculate our intelligence services and weaken our military. Liberals want to ban the Patriot Act. (13)
12. Liberals = Good news for America is TRAGIC news for Liberals (14)
13. Over 1000 more NEGATIVE reasons (15)
By any definition, you'd call them dirty little cowardly traitors. Defending the age-old, FAILED system of liberalism/socialism/communism. (17) Typical godless philosophy preaching perverted ideas with twisted logic.The ranks of the spineless Left are infested with traitors. (18)
True American Patriot Email Homepage 12.13.04 - 12:58 pm #

(1) non sequitur
n 1: a reply that has no relevance to what preceded it 2: (logic) a conclusion that does not follow from the premises or evidence

(2)As I discussed in my long post about existentialism that everyone hates and no one read to the end of, the backlash right views "Liberals" as a sort of ethnic group, a culturally alien ruling elite that conspires to make America lose wars and watch TV shows featuring tits and ass and celebrities eating bugs.

(3)These people are furious that we were right about the war in Iraq - no WMD, no connection to al Quaeda, no cakewalk, no happy peasants with flowers. And everybody likes to be right. But the sad fact is, the most glaring evidence that the invasion was a mistake, to most Americans, is the steady trickle of dead American bodies. So every time we said, "see, we were right!" We pissed somebody off, who inevitably said, "those bastards are sooo fucking happy to see our boys die because it proves them right." So their pain at the loss of our soldiers and their hatred of us blur together and somehow it's our fault. Look, buddy. We're not gloating, we're not happy, we didn't want this stupid war. We didn't want that idiot to be President at all, remember?

(4)I honestly have no idea what he's talking about here. But if he's saying that it aids terrorists to criticize people in authority who are doing a crappy job of dealing with the global Islamic fundamentalist movement . . . no, I still don't get it. But I do know that the whole point of living in a free country is getting to speak you mind and disagree with the powers that be. Actually he fears criticism because he can't counter it, and can only keep believing in the flimsy "logic" of the conservative movement if he can protect himself from rational debate.

(5) Actually, the Patriot Act was really really long. There was something in it for everyone to love, and hate. For example, many of us think it's a good idea for the FBI, the CIA, and the Border Patrol to share intelligence about suspected terrorists, but don't believe these organizations should be investigating what books you check out of the library. Also you don't "ban" an Act, you "repeal" or "amend" it.

(6) Actually Kerry's big complaint was that the civilian government had forgotten about its soldiers, and had condemned them to keep fighting and dying in a war the government already knew it would lose, but wouldn't stop fighting for political reasons. Ironically, many people were afraid a President Kerry would do exactly the same thing in Iraq - something I doubt very much.

(7) Arguably, any government intervention in the economy can be called "socialism." Is he arguing for the end of Social Security? Occupational Safety and Health? The FDIC? FEMA? How have these programs "failed?" NOTE THAT IT IS ACCEPTED CONVENTION AMONG ALL EXTREMISTS THAT CAPITALIZATION IS A PERFECTLY ADEQUATE SUBSTITUTE FOR A CONVINCING ARGUMENT.

(8) Guilty as Charged. Big corporations are evil, or at least amoral. They work to improve their bottom line and don't care about the costs they externalize, the communities they destroy, the damage they inflict on the environment. The government should regulate them to protect the public interest.

(9) Huh? The only reality this charge comes near is that one guy who sued to get "Under God" removed from it. Which only makes sense. Why should my kid be required to pledge allegience to your God?

(10) I haven't seen anyone do this stuff in years, and I don't approve of it. But I get the feeling that by honoring the flag, he means blindly following the people who are waving it. If the Founders had behaved that way, we wouldn't even have a country.

(11) Only because we're afraid we'll end up sounding like you. "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," they used to say. That was before TV preachers.

(12) There is perhaps a 2 year supply of oil in Alaska, not enough to make us oil independent ever. The real force behind Americans' continued dependence on foreign oil is Big Oil and Big Auto companies that keep resisting common sense measures to promote conservation (like requiring more fuel-efficient cars) and alternative fuels. In other words it's you and your big stupid truck, buddy.

(13) We covered the Patriot Act already. As for intelligence, John Kerry got slammed in the campaign for proposing a cut in intelligence, but the money in question was for a spy sattelite program where the sattelite had never been launched. No sattelite, no program. Duh. Kerry was warning about shadowy terror networks back when Condi and Rummy were still blathering about rogue states and missile defense. In fact, they are still blathering about those things, and missile defense still doesn't work.

(14) Number one again - the party out of power always benefits from the mistakes of the party in power. That's because the public occasionally holds the party in power responsible for their mistakes. It's called democracy. And conservative policies are always going to result in bad news for the not-wealthy. Conversely, the incumbant party gets props from the people for good news. So yeah, we were kinda hoping the bad news would hit before the election when it would do us some good, rather than now. But did I really long for bad things to happen to America? See footnote (3).

(15) All the reasons you guys can come up with are negative because you don't have a positive vision for America. You blame everything you feel has gone wrong on an imaginary "liberal elite," and rail against changes to society wrought by the economy and social mobility which no government policy can hope to undo. By your logic, the only solution would be to put all us liberals in camps and kill us. I hope you are too unimaginitive to figure that out.

(16) What is America? Does he mean the land? Who hates that, it's mostly pretty here. Does he mean the principles behind the American Revolution? We hold fast to the Founders' vision of democracy, freedom of speech, the rule of law, and separation of church and state. James Madison rocked. It's the "conservative movement" that has abandoned those principals in favor of Iranian-style theocracy. From the liberal perspective, there ain't no difference between Jerry Falwell and the Taliban in terms of goals - only the tactics differ.

(17) See footnote 1 for a concise definition of "non sequitur." Far from "cowardly," it would take elephantine balls to come out and defend Communism in today's America. It would be wrong, but it would certainly be brave. As opposed to defending lower-middle class social conformism, which is chickenshit. I read an article in the Sun-Times today expressing shock at the names ditzy rich people give their children. Now, I would agree that naming your kid Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily is kind of mean. But the author also objects to Coco and Hazel, which seem like cool names to me. Apparenlty he's not comfortable unless we all go ahead and name our children Jennifer like everybody else does. Nothing personal, Jen, Jenn, Jennifer, Jenny, or Jen, but that kind of enforced conformist mediocrity does not lend itself well to a vibrant, creative society. I'm sorry you are intimidated by people who dare to be different and have different ideas - but if somebody's cowardly here, it is you who so desperately wishes to disappear into a crowd and have everybody's approval at the same time.

(18) Once again, it takes a lot of courage to publicly be an atheist in this country, so "spineless" and "godless" really don't go together. As for his charges of "treason," once he has defined Americanism as expressing total agreement with his uninformed reactionary views, anyone who disagrees with him is of course going to be called a traitor. What he's really objecting to here is any deviation from the norm. Not being a standout success himself, probably because of his profound ignorance, he takes comfort in being as mainstream as possible. His support for american militarism and bible thumping religion give him a sense of belonging, of validation as part of the community. As long as he follows the rules he is okay. Or so it would seem. But there is a darker motivation at work here. Deep down, he knows he's inadequate, mediocre. So the "liberal" forces that question the value of everything he works for also give him an opportunity. By publicly "defending" his values by attacking liberal bloggers, he shows himself and his ilk that he is worthy of them, a champion of traditional values, and thus a valuable person deserving of respect, and not just a big fat loser.

Monday, December 13, 2004


As a follow-up to last night's grousing about the holidays, I went to Beliefnet and took the Belief-O-Matic test to determine if I have a religion at all anymore. My top ten results:

1. Unitarian Universalism (100%)
2. Liberal Quakers (96%)
3. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (89%)
4. Secular Humanism (87%)
5. Theravada Buddhism (83%)
6. Taoism (76%)
7. Neo-Pagan (73%)
8. Mahayana Buddhism (67%)
9. Bahá'í Faith (66%)
10. Nontheist (57%)

This should not be terribly surprising. I used to be a mainline Protestant, I go to a Unitarian Church, I have explored Buddhism before. (Trope scored 100% Unitarian when she took the quiz a few weeks ago, too. I wonder if it is possible not to score 100% Unitarian - aren't they supposed to be accepting of all kinds of belief systems?) I think I don't score 100% Quaker because I said I wasn't a pacifist. Where does that leave Quaker President Nixon? Dwell on that last link for a moment. Taft was a Unitarian? Props to the Adams Boys, but the Alien and Sedition Acts, the USA PATRIOT overreactions of their day, still sting after all these years. Still, it's interesting to note that there have been 4 Unitarian Presidents, and only one Roman Catholic (by far the largest religious denomination in America). Perhaps there's still a feeling among Protestants that Catholicism is "alien" (I was only 17% Catholic), but I suspect that Unitarians, like Quakers, used to be a bigger presence in American public life than they are now, and that pacifism (as well as the ongoing Great Awakening*) diminished their standing and appeal. It's good to say that killing is bad, but in the imperfect real world sometimes you have to do it. There's a feeling on the left, brought on by the disasters of Vietnam and Iraq, that the use of force by the U.S. government is always wrong. But what was their answer to Afghanistan? To Rwanda? To Bosnia?

I guess my problem isn't with this or that belief system at all, but with moral certainty itself. Moral decisions have to be made in the real world, not a priori in philosophy essays or prayer meetings.

*I think America's history of religious Awakenings is probably a good way to undestand the ongoing Anti-Enlightenment. You can find competing interpretations of it here and here. The first two Great Awakenings led to bloody wars on American soil. Necessary wars, in my view.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Holiday Blues, by Elwood Scrooge

It's the Holiday season here in Bucktown. We have lights up, and a Christmas tree. We have a houseguest right now, Trope's old friend B is staying with us while she looks for a place. I hope she takes the attic apartment here - while the place is empty I live in constant fear that it will be rented by a drummer. B does not play any musical instruments that I am aware of.

I made fudge today - something I always did with my mother this time of year. She's gone now, but Fantasy Fudge lives on, though now you have to look for the original recipe on the Net because they want to trick you into buying all the ingredients from the same conglomerate. The new recipe doesn't work though, ask anybody. It won't set right. What can I say? Big corporations are evil. Ambrose Bierce, in the Devil's Dictionary, defined corporations as "an ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility."

But I digress. I made fudge today, and helped decorate the sactuary at Third Unitarian with evergreen boughs. But why? I am not strictly speaking a believer in any religion. I think most of what Jesus said was right on, but as for the religion that grew up around his death, I can find little evidence supporting its specific claims, even in the Gospels themselves. The overall worldview seems sound - the real one, not the fundamentalist born-again distortions. Original sin seems true and obvious (don't believe me? Try to go all day without exploiting or harming anyone. That means no fossil fuels, no Chinese-slave-labor clothing, no Tyson chicken or migrant-worker picked vegetables. See? In living, you are complicit in evil). Salvation by faith through grace is a intriguing concept, chewed over in Pulp Fiction, still one of my favorite films.

But I don't really believe in any kind of existence after death. It simply seems impossible, and I'm not about to go believing something just because I desperately want it to be true. So what's with the holidays? Spending time with family is a good thing, but I won't be doing much of that. This will be the first Christmas since we got married and we'll be with Trope's mom and her family on the 25th. Which is great, they're very nice people, but I don't know them all that well and I still feel like I have to be on good behavior while I'm there. But Christmas without my family, and without God, is mostly a bunch of obligations I feel I need to fulfill to forestall the disapproval of others. The big parties are mostly over for the year, and now I feel compelled to go down to Michigan Avenue and give a bunch of money to the aforementioned big evil corporations to get a bunch of useless crap to reassure people that I have been thinking about them. I have bought people books in the past, which makes me feel better for a while, but I don't think that anybody actually reads the stuff I buy for them. I thought about buying everyone in the family tickets to Spamalot, but they are sold out and I really couldn't afford it anyway. So I don't know what to do about Christmas presents, and I'm running out of time, and I don't feel very merry about it at all.

So Bah, Humbug to all, and to all a good night.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The "New Media" Gets Shown Up

Ever since that whole forged-draft-dodger thing with Dan Rather, techies have been preening about how cool all us bloggers are, how much power we can wield as fact checkers of the dominant media regime, and so on. Well, this story has been definitively proven as crap. Today's On The Media told the story of how a journalist got a soldier to ask Donald Rumsfeld about why the troops have to scavenge landfills for metal to use as vehicle armor in Iraq. The question caused quite a stir and now the Administration is making noises about how they are going to fix the problem. The issue of inadequate armor and equipment for troops in Iraq has been big in Blogistan for months, and exploded around the time of the April assault on Fallujah, when Rumsfeld had sent all but 70 US tanks out of the country, believing the war to be almost over. Yet you didn't see any action, pretense of action, or even public awareness of the problem back then, did you? In fact, I've just wasted fifteen minutes of my time trying to figure out how to find the old posts at Kos and Atrios, to no avail. If I can't find 'em, the average American probably can't either. And remember all those political blogs who were so sure Howard Dean would be the next president, because of all the enthusiasm on the Web? Sorry, guys.

Big Media: 47,276,974
Blogistan: 5

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

History Repeats Itself, as Farce

I want to be a good progressive and all, but I'm not going to sit here and pretend that school "busing," that is the court-ordered desegregation of urban school districts, was anything other than a disaster. And yesterday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras continues to prosecute this failed and useless policy.

What's wrong with it? First of all, to say there are no white kids in Chicago Public Schools anymore would only be a slight eggageration. In the 2000 census, Chicago's population was 31% non-Hispanic whites. But the Studen population is a little less than 10% white, and the city's definition of "white" includes South Asian students for some reason, and they account for about a third of that total. In other words, about 93% of the school district's students are "minority." So what happens to all the white kids that you see getting pushed around in strollers, but who never end up in CPS schools? The parents who can afford it send their kids to private school. The parents who can't generally move to the suburbs, precisely so they can be in a "good" school district. I'd be willing to bet that a good chunk of the remaining white students are the children of CPS or city workers who are contractually required to live within city limits.

The reason it works this way is the nature of local control in American federalism. School districts are not allowed to discriminate, and federal courts can order a local school district to desegregate if that school district is in violation. But each school district is considered as a discrete entity, and families who move across the border into the next district are no longer affected by the court order. So if one school district has 1000 kids, and puts all 500 black kids in one school and all 500 white kids in another school, it's illegal. But if there are two school districts right next to each other, each with 500 kids, and one district is all white and the other is all black, that's completely legal. So the history of "desegregation" has been the history of increased residential segregation, rather than decreased school segregation.

There are almost 450,000 children in Chicago Public Schools, more than 400,000 of them "minority." The dispute currently being decided in the 24-year-old legal case is whether there might be several hundred spots available in the 25 (out of several hundred) locals schools that still have a white majority (by "majority" we mean "more than half." There are no overwhelmingly white schools in Chicago to my knowledge, and many schools are nearly 100% Latino or 100% black). I don't understand why we are still wasting time on this issue.

Since the only truly segregated schools in Chicago are all-minority, they will remain segregated even if a few students are allowed to transfer (if they actually do. Only about half of the 83 kids who were allowed to move due to NCLB did so). Meanwhile, the white students who were improperly admitted to the neighborhood schools in question will probably be moved to the suburbs. They will be replaced in their neighborhoods by either Latino immigrants or childless yuppies. The net effect will be to increase segregation, and deprive the city of additional middle class residents. And holding on to middle class residents is important to a city - they pay more in taxes than they consume in city services, thus subsidizing for services to poor residents, who consume more in services than they pay in taxes.

The ruling does not affect the city's growing number of "magnet" schools, which are mixed-race by definition and have strict entrance requirements based on academic performance. In the nation's worst school district, some of these "magnet" schools are the best in the state - Whitney Young and North Side College Prep were the two best schools in the state last year, beating out New Trier, pride of the North Shore suburbs. Strange to discover that CPS can, in fact, run a good school if it chooses to, but doesn't do so for the rest of the city.

And therein lies the key. This issue should not be approached from the perspective of individual rights at all. It's not about the right of South Side kids to enter a lottery to go to a North Side school 20 miles from home. It's about the responsibility of the nation to educate its children. We need to make all of the schools better throughout the city, not bicker about who gets in to the 50 or so that don't suck. The same problem crops up when we talk about school vouchers or magnet schools - the kids that get left behind are in even worse shape when the good students leave. Meanwhile we have a school board that squashes school-level efforts at improvement. The only real solution is to find out what the neighborhood schools need to improve, whether it's equipment, security, teachers, curriculum, or parent involvement, and get it done.

"Desegregation" was a great theory but it won't work until the Feds have the authority to order integration across a region, not just within a district. When they start busing West Side kids up to New Trier, well that will be something.

Comments, Mr. Wells? Ms. Heliotrope?

The Bunnyman Returns

Harvey: "Don't be mean to the fascists?" What kinda bullshit is that?
EG: I just meant that exacerbating social tensions was playing into the hands of . . .
HR: Be nice to them when they take your rights away. Thank them for their hospitality when they throw you in prison . . .
EG: Dammit, Harvey!
HR: Oh, look! It's a Gold Star! And I need a shower!
EG: I was taste testing whisky when I wrote that! Scotch vs. Bourbon, you know. I've always held the Kentucky stuff was better. But is that pretention, or honest judgement? I had to know.
HR: The cheap-ass, dirty old man blended scotch. Admit it. Dirty old men know something about life.
EG: Too true Harvey. But, look, it's a fascist movement not a fascist regime. We should try to understand what's going on and change it. Not engage in name calling and finger pointing. Unless they start up with the jackboots and stuff . . .
HR: A fashion faux pas?
EG: Absolutelty. It's objective reality, man. We have to face it. Jackboots just suck.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Kansas and the Other Jean Paul (or, Which Side is Really More French?)

"In the cosmology of bigotry Jews are not just another despised minority. The stereotype with which they are always smeared is a very partidcular one: they are held to be affluent, alien, cosmopolitan, liberal, and above all, intellectual."

So writes Thomas Frank in his new classic, What's the Matter with Kansas? I finished the book over Thanksgiving, surprised more than anything to find it readable - I had been avoiding it precisely because his previous work, One Market Under God, was so godawful boring. Kansas, however, is an insightful tour de force. Reading this book, I was struck by the familiarity of the line of argument advanced by the conservative "backlash" movement he describes, especially the way it ascribes all power in society to liberal elites who are somehow destroying the noble values of little people using their awesome power over the cover of Maxim magazine and the after-lunch repartee at University cafeterias.

It struck me that this type of thinking, the triumph of community values over modernity, evidence and reason, seemed familiar because it closely resembles the French anti-Semitism described by Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew, a book I read long ago when I was supposed to be studying something else. I am not here to argue that today's Christian Conservatives are themselves all or even mostly anti-Semites. I am merely saying that the pattern of their thinking, the shape of their worldview, resembles that of the haters and fascist sympathisers Sartre described. The anti-liberal, anti-secular hate and rage of the backlash plays a similar role in the lives of its followers and the anti-Jewish hate and rage of the anti-Semites. Frank continues:

Anti-intellectualism is one of the grand unifying themes of the backlash, the mutant strain of class war that underpins so many of Kansas's otherwise random-seeming grievances. . .
Today this kind of anti-intellectualism is a central component of conservative doctrine, expressing in glorious brevity the
unifying theme of nature beset by overweening artifice. The corporate world, for its part, uses anti-intellectualism to depict any suggestion that humanity might be better served by some order other than the free-market system as nothing but
arrogance, an implied desire to redesign life itself. The social conservatives, on the other hand, use anti-intellectualism to assail any deviation from a system of values that they alternatively identify with God and the earth-people of Red America. Just who the hell do these conceited eggheads think they are?

Hijacked from an anti-intellectual tradition on the historical left: "As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, "nonviolent social control" was the founding rationale for many of the American professions. The professional middle class sold itself as the group that would keep the workers in line, whether with efficiency studies, with public relations experts, or with the pseudoscience of corporate management. And workers responded to its claims, naturally, with skepticism and derision. "For working-class people, relations with the middle class are usually a one-way dialogue," Ehrenreich continues. "From above come commands, diagnoses, instructions, judgements, definitions - even, through the media, suggestions as to how to think, feel, spend money, and relax.

That this would cause resentment should come as no surprise. The long tradition of elites using the mumbo-jumbo of technical expertise to exploit working people more efficiently is a long tradition, carried on in today's workplace battles over whether information technology will be used to make staff time more efficient or will be used for blogging.

But here, as throughout Frank's Kansas, economic context is removed from class issues, transforming them into cultural conflicts between what amount to newly created ethnic groups. On the sad, dying suburb of Shawnee, Frank writes:

The implacable ideological bitterness that one finds throughout the state has here achieved a sort of saturation. The eastern part of Shawnee is still a blue-collar suburb, but after three decades of deunionization and stagnant wage growth, blue-collar suburbs like this one look and act very differently than before. Shawnee today burns hotter than nearly any place in the state to defund public education, to stamp out stem-cell research, to roll back taxes, and to abase itself before the throne of big business. The suburb is famous for having sent the mosted determined of the anti-evolutionists to the State Board of Education and for having chosen the most conservative or all Kansas state legislators, a woman who uses her hard-knock life story to dress up her constant demandes that the state do whatever is necessary to lessen burdens on corporate enterprise.

. . . the backlash offers more than this ready-made class identity. It also gives people a general way of understanding the buzzing mass-cultural stereotype of liberals that comes up so often in the backlash ouver: arrogant, rich, tasteful, fashionable, and all-powerful. in my real-world experience liberals are nothing of the kind. They are an assortement of complainers - who wield about as much influence over American politics as the cashier at Home Depot does over the company's business strategy. This is not a secret, either; read any issue of The Nation or In These Times or the magazine sent to memberts of the United Steelworkers, and you figure out pretty quickly that liberals don't speak for the powerful or the wealthy.

But when you flip through People magazine, you come away with a very different impression of what liberals are like. Here you read about movie stars who go to charity balls for causes like animal rights and the "underprivileged"{ . . and beautiful people of every description don expensive transgressive fashions, buy expensive trandgressive art, eat at expensive transgressive restaurants, and get edgy with an expensive punk sensibility or an expensive earth-friendly look.

Here liberalism is a matter of shallow appearances, of fatuous self-rightousness; it is arrogant and condescending, a politics in which the beautiful and the wellborn tell the unwashed and the beaten-down and the funny-looking how they aught to behave, how they should stop being racist or homophobic, how they should be better people . . .

So you have working-class people in communities which have fallen behind, people who have worked hard but do not have access to the glamorous world of the elite, in their view. What we have, of course, is an economic system that guarantees nothing, under which you can work hard all your life and not end up with much, if the market value of your skills is not very high. This situation creates a feeling of failure and desperation among people who realize they are never going to make it to the top of the heap, a social resentment against those who deem themselves their betters. The path they have found to self-justification is to claim that value comes not from accomplishment or merit but from sharing in the traditional culture, thus it is the good, honest, Christian common folk who possess virtue. This kind of cultural or ethnic self-justification should sound familiar to any student of social history, because around the world it was used to find meaning, value and self-worth by people who were dazed by the rapid modernization and social change that characterized the early twentieth century world.

And so we come to my boy Sartre:

The anti-Semite readily admits that the Jew is intelligent and hard-working; he will even confess himself inferior in these respects. This concession costs him nothing, for he has, as it were, put those qualities in parenthesis. or rather they derive their value from the one who possesses them: the more virtues the Jew has the more dangerous he will be. The anti-Semite has no illusions about what he is. He considers himself an average man, modestly average, basically mediocre. There is no example of an anti-Semite's claiming individual superiority over the Jews. But you must not think that he is ashamed of his mediocrity; he takes pleasure in it; I will even assert that he has chosen it. This man fears every kind of solitariness, that of hte genius as much as that of the murderer; he is the man of the crowd. however small his stature, he takes every precaustion to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find himself face to face wiht himself. He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone. The phrase, "I hate the Jews," is one that is uttered in chorus; in pronouncing it, one attaches himself to a tradition and to community - the tradition and community of the mediocre.

We must remember that a man is not necessarily humble or even modest because he ahs consented to mediocrity. On the contraty, there is a passionate pride among the mediocre, and anti-Semitism is an attempt to give value to mediocreity as such, to create an elite of the ordinary. To the anti-Semite, intelligence is Jewish; he can thus disdain it in all tranquility, like all the other virtues which the Jew possesses. They are so many ersatz attributes that the Jew cultivates in place of that balanced mediocrity which he will never have. The true Frenchman, rooted in his province, in his country, borne along by a tradition twenty centuries old, benefiting from ancestral wisdom, guided by tried customs, does not need intelligence."

In opposition, Sartre points out the contributions that out-groups bring to a society. In France it was the Jewish minority, in the U.S. I would say Jews, blacks, homosexuals, secular people and many immigrant groups all share a situation in which they are outside the dominant cultural mainstream, not sharing the irrational values one must hold without proof to be a member of the mediocre elite. Because of this situation:
The Jew demands proof for everything that his adversary advances, because thus he proves himself. He distrusts intouition because it is not open to discussion and because, in consequence, it ends by saparating men. If he reasons and disputes with his adversary, it is to establish the unity of intelligence. Before any debate he wishes agreement on the principles wiht which the disputants start; by menas of this preliminary agreement he offers to construct a human order based on the universality of human nature. The perpetual criticism with which he is reproached conceals a naive love for a communion in reason wiht his adversaries, and the still more naive belif that violence is in no way necessary in human relations. Where the anti-Semite, the fascist, etc., starting out with intuitions that are incommunicable and that he wishes to be incommunicable, must use force in order to impose the illuminations he cannot impart, the [outgroup struggling to assimilate]* seeks to dissolve by critical analysis all that may separate men and lead them to violence, since it is he who will be the first victim of that violence.
So the presence of the alien and the outsider in society triggers the birth of a "reality-based community," as ousiders seek to justify their existence by searching for universal truth deduced from evidence.

But mediocrity you say? Isn't that [gasp] a value judgement?

The sad thing is, of course, that for all their faults, elite culture is superior to that of the common folk. I don't just mean that elites have better taste in music, art, film, food, and clothing - although that much is true. Art films are better than pop-cultural drek, Disneyfied sugary pablum, brainless plastic vehicles to launch the media-company-driven stardom of brainless plastic pop stars etc, and that's not just "my opinion," or personal taste. I am no postmodernist. I believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, beauty, and good taste.

But there's more to it than that. Evolution is sound scientific theory, "Intelligent Design" is not. Homosexual couples are just as likely to make good parents as are heterosexual couples. "Abstinence-based" sex "education" does not protect teenagers from sexually transmitted infections. These are not just my opinions or elite tastes. There is such a thing as scientific method, all "opinions" are not equally valid. Research is done, evidence is collected and analyzed, theories are tested. The truth can be determined by exploring the world. If the things you discover disagree with a treasured book, whether the Bible or the Communist Manifesto, so be it. The book was wrong. The rational mind must be prepared to accept the consequences of the evidence.

Basically, the desire for society's losers for validation is, well, valid. When you set up a society in which everyone is "free" to succeed or fail according to their own abilities, inheritance or luck, you inevitably get a lot of failures. They rail against a world that does not give equal weight to their contributions and opinions, against the enormous experienced injustice of modern life. Of course, in many ways they are not equal to the elite, and to argue that they are is to devalue science, art, study, creativity and human striving for knowledge, justice and progress.

In order to feel good about themselves and have more satisfying lives, these failures look to an identity which gives them value based on group membership rather than individual accomplishment. This tendency to define value through community membership rather than accomplishment is an important part of what I mean when I talk about fascism. Yet such a definition has been progressive in some circumstances. In European countries, the motivating factor behind the establishment of strong welfare states has been ethnic solidarity, not wanting to allow one's countrymen fall behind. But here, the response to the feeling of ostracism and marginalization felt by non-elites has too often been channeled into hate and fear of the other.

Why? Racism, as usual, is a key factor (It's the American original sin, after all). In a diverse society like ours, such community-based identification can have the opposite effect than the cohesiveness it brings to an ethically homogenous nation: in the US, mainstream whites have come to opposed the redistribution of wealth to the poor, out of concern that this may represent the transfer of wealth from one racial group to another. This means that non-elite whites often end up opposing policies that might benefit themselves, out of fear that they migh benefit blacks more.

So what is to be done about Kansas? How can the desire of white trash for validation and approval be channeled towards egalitarianism rather than fascism? For the moment, I have no idea. But listen up, you elites (and anyone who actually read to the end of a post about the relevance of French Existentialism to American politics is pretty much an elite) - I've heard quite enough bashing the "Red-Staters" already. Should we tell the truth? Yes. Should we mock faith-based illogic and stand up for Reason? Absolutely. Should we confront gay-bashing, racism, and sexism? Always. Should we listen to country music radio? Death first! But I've heard some very hateful vitriol over the past month, as well as some truly bad policy proposals like insisting that money not get redistributed from Blue States to Red States through Federal spending. I mean, sure we should stop subsidizing the building of new subdivisions in uninhabitable desert. But redistribution of wealth is a fundamental progressive principle, and not one I'm willing to give up in a fit of pique. The South gets more money than they pay in taxes because they're poor. Most of these "values voters" are struggling to keep their families housed and fed. And making fun of their ignorance does nothing to end it and only pisses them off more. Would you make fun of the retarded kid? (You did, too. I know you did. Don't lie. But don't you feel ashamed about it now?) Educate, don't humiliate. They know you're smart. That's why they're so jealous.

*Yes, I deliberately changed Sarte's phrase from "inauthentic Jew." The whole issue of authenticity and how Sartre felt about how minorities should go about dealing with their situation was something I just didn't want to get into here. It's another long-winded discussion, and it comes perilously close to all that postmodernist identity-politics crap. A moment's thought should be enough for anyone to see how all that PoMo junk denying objective reality only encourages the fundies, who are after all attacking the same objective reality, for different reasons. Another essay, for another day. So I just fudged it.

Ready for Reform?

No, this blog is not "on hiatus" or anything like that. I'm just writing something really long, and I don't have much time to work on it on my lunch break or anything, so it's taking several days to put together. But I promise it will be something good enough to start a fight or two with, anyway.

Speaking of starting fights, there was something strange about the article in the Chicago Tribune Magazine on Sunday about former Mayor Jane Byrne. The article claimed to be re-examining her rise and fall, and explored whether her own temperament was responsible for her downfall, or whether it was sexism among the press corps and the power elite. The strange thing, of course, was that the entire article failed to mention Harold Washington, the man who actually defeated her at the ballot box and succeeded her as Mayor. Mentioning Washington would have brought up a third explanation for the brevity of her stay at city hall. Byrne says she turned away from reform and collaborated with the "evil cabal" of the Democratic machine, including "The Eddies," Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th) and Ald. Edward Burke (14th), in order to get things done. But is it any wonder that the liberals, independents and African Americans who had backed her run for office felt betrayed, and turned to a man who might actually do what she had promised and take on the Machine? Washington is remembered as the city's first black mayor, but what he should be remembered for is facing down the machine in the council wars, bringing transparency to city government, and ending the corrupt practice of hiring political operatives as perennial temporary city employees in exchange for their delivering votes in their precincts. While Chicago still has a long way to go to clean itself up, replacing political hacks with a unionized professional workdforce was a good start.

Maybe Chicago was ready for reform, after all.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Demolition of the Week

2127 W Walton

Actually these condos are very nice places to live - but why are they here? This building is obviously too tall for this block, and interrupts a nice row of single-family cottages, one of which was demolished to put this monster up. There are rows of greystones just a few blocks away from here with "missing teeth," where a building like this would have been a nice addition. But you can sell it for more money in the Ukranian Village because it's "nicer."

And it is a great neighborhood. Driving down the street to get the "Demolition of the Week" picture, I found rows of houses and trees marked with flags and plastic bag ribbons:

The orange ribbons are to show solidarity with the demonstrators in the Old Country. Chicago's Ukranian-American population is firmly behind Yuschenko. Chicago Avenue between Damen and Western is lined with these orange ribbons, and old men in fur hats are wearing them pinned to their lapels. Selfreliance Ukranian American Federal Credit Union, at Chicago and Oakley, had set up accounts through which 16,000 Chicagoans have donated $273,000 to the protesters.

I tend to agree with them for reasons I went into here. For a different view on the history of Ukraine, check out this history, from a Polish point of view, of a small town in what used to be called Polonia, a region of Western Ukraine that used to be part of Poland. He is very critical of the Ukranians he sees as driving his people off their land, a feeling my ancestors in Danzig would probably have about the Poles who drove everybody else out of that area. I looks like everybody moved out west along Milwaukee Avenue after the Russians started moving in downtown . . . okay, only Max is going to get that joke, but I still like it.

Thompson Mystified by Lack of Terror

Tommy Thompson resigned! The guy's been the bane of my working existence for the past two years. His push for the universal standardized testing of Head Start four year olds is one of the most misguided attempts at program improvement you could possibly dream up. One hopes for a little more sanity at the top - one can be a conservative and care about public health and education, after all - but if a sweet tongued lackey is appointed rather than someone knowledgable, things could get worse, not better.

His comments today reflect his general befuddlement, or perhaps his inability or unwillingness to distinguish between the Bush Administration's political poses, and what they really want to do. Today he warned of a potential global outbreak of the flu and health-related terror attacks. "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," he said.

At the risk of looking like an idiot if there's a terrorist attack tomorrow - let me say this. Al Quaeda attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, after which they didn't mount another serious attempt at an attack on U.S. soil until the New Year's Eve 1999 "Millennium Bombing" plot to topple the Seattle Space Needle. Seven years. If they hate us so much, why did they wait so long to attack us again? Was it because anti-terrorism was so strong under Clinton that all of their plots were foiled? Ask Richard Clarke about that.

I have another theory, a simpler theory. I think the threat posed by terrorism to the American Way of Life has been eggagerated, intentionally, for political gain. Look, nobody's going to poison our food supply and kill us all. They're not even going to but LSD in the water supply, more's the pity. The jihadists have understandable political goals: they want to overthrow the existing governments in the Islamic world and establish a central religious authority to rule them all: a new Caliphate. They want to do away with "corrupting" Western influences such as women's rights, alcohol, and going ouside without a hat on. None of these goals requires the destruction of America to succeed. What they are doing with these big attacks is to draw attention to themselves and recruit new suicidal kids willing to blow themselves up. Most of their activities will be concentrated in the countries they actually want to take over. The U.S. of A. is not one of these countries. So while they may be tempted to attack us again to provoke another crisis and keep people's attention if things start to settle down, there is very little risk of an attack while we are actively recruiting for them in Iraq. They want to drive us out of there part of the world for good. That's why they attacked America. They don't "hate our freedom." They don't care about us at all. They just want to purge their own country of alcohol, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, uppity women, atheism and independent thinking and re-establish "traditional values." The party in power here in America doesn't want you to know the Islamists agenda, because they don't want to admit how closely it resembles their own.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Caption Contest Winner, At Last!

Well, it's time for me to make good on my promise and award the winner of the caption contest his or her grand prize of a 12-pack of beer. I had hoped someone would come up with an interpretation of this picture that would do a better job of explaining what the hell is going on in Iraq than the blather coming out of the Pentagon does. And, while several contributions were funny and insightful, our winner provided a frame through which I can better understand the whole Iraq story.

It's a horror movie. Our hapless protagonists blunder into life-threatening situations through some combination of naivete, cockiness, ignorance and avarice. One by one they die. The violence is monstrous and inhuman, but sometimes you find yourself laughing at the stupidity of it all. There will be sequels.

"See this? THIS is my BOOM STICK!"

Jason, I owe you some beer.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Smells Like Holiday Spirit

Now that we have more space we can put up Christmas decorations just like real Americans! Trope is looking for a spot to hang an ornament where Little Boy can't eat it or smash it. Remember when he was all fuzzy and cute and new?

Aww. He's so perfect! He would never scratch anyone, or break anything, or torture Fat Man or anything. And it's so cute when he sleeps on your head! Now he runs the house and we just live here.

Never trust the cute ones.

For Sale: One Windy City, Slightly Used

OK, so I stole the title from the Guardian. But it was just so cool! A couple weeks ago I joked about the City of Chicago having a Going Out of Business Sale. At least I thought it was a joke. Turns out, tomorrow the city is auctioning off just about anything that isn't tied down in an E-bay auction they're calling The Great Chicago Fire Sale. Art cows, Playboy bunny outfits, manhole covers. Hey does anybody else remember that story a couple weeks back about someone stealing manhole covers? Coincidence, or conspiracy?

Nah, these guys would never steal from the city, would they?

The big news around here is that the mayor's kid is joining the Army. (Yeah, Michael Sneed is a woman. I hear her parents wanted to make her tough. One of her sisters is named Robert). When asked about it, the big guy was proud, paranoid, and incoherent, just like he always is. I'm telling you, this is our candidate.

Update: they are auctioning off the privilege of dying the river green for St. Patrick's day, our local Mardi Gras. Of course, the river green every other day too, but don't tell the tourists.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Hope VI: Taking the Long View

While I was in Decatur over Thanksgiving, I was able to drop by Wabash Crossing, Decatur's Hope VI public housing redevelopment project, at and around the former site of the Longview public housing project. In a nutshell, Hope VI is the Federal program that funds the demolition of "severely distressed" public housing projects and their replacement by livable neighborhoods, which include replacement public housing, moderate-income housing, and market-rate units. A severely distressed building is basically one for which the cost of modernizing it and bringing it up to code would equal or exceed the cost of knocking it down and building something decent.

The program is controversial in some quarters, but I strongly support it, in part because it was introduced just as New Urbanism was coming into its own as a development scheme, with the result the Hope VI in effect destroys modernist monstrosities and puts traditional neighborhoods in their place, in the process demonstrating the viability of traditional neighborhood design to developers. It's true that there is a patronizing element to the program concept; destroying the bad "neighborhood dynamics" of the poor and putting them in housing where they can benefit from observing the better "moral habits" of the middle class, etc. But another interpretation holds that with residential integration, poor people will benefit from amenities put in place for the middle class: public safety, parks, good schools and so on.

And let's face it, the housing sucked. The old public housing high rises, in addition to being a really poor design based on the most idiotic of Modernist theories, were cheaply constructed, shoddily maintained, and horrible to live in. In Chicago, they were sited far away from jobs, placed where they were intentionally to maintain segregation. Much of the federal money for construction was simply pocketed by unscrupulous contractors. The unions cashed in too (they were the intended beneficiary of the program anyway), a licensed electrician had to be present and paid an hour's wage to plug in a refrigerator according to the work rules. So yes, existing communities will be destroyed, inconveniencing a lot of people. But chances are better than even whether that they'll end up in a better situation, whether they move into replacement housing or take a Section 8 voucher and leave the neighborhood. The only people who should be seriously concerned are gang members forced to move into somebody else's territory, and those guys bear some responsibility for their own troubles.

Public housing is associated in the public imagination with huge urban high-rise projects like Chicago's Cabrini-Green, perhaps the country's most notorious neighborhood. But there are literally hundreds of Public Housing Authorities in Illinois, and thousands around the country. Longview in Decatur was a collection of townhouses built back in the New Deal era. They looked like this:

The last remaining Longview townhouses, currently used as a Head Start facility

The Longview Project had 386 units, 275 of which were occupied by "families in good standing" at the time of the initial grant application. The new development, which covers the site of the old housing project, will have 650 units, including about 260 units of public housing - sliding-scale rents set at 1/3 of income, reserved for families making less than 30% of Area Median Income (AMI). There will also be about 250 units with a low, fixed rent targeted to families making 30%-60% of AMI. These units are actually funded by a funky IRS tax scheme through the Illinois Housing Development Authority - developers are granted tax credits, which they can "sell" at a discount to raise funds for the project. These days, the government won't fund social services, but they do love their tax cuts. The rest of the housing is to be rented or sold to the general public. The idea is that the different types of housing shouldn't be identifiable from the street. From what I can see they have done a pretty good job of this:

Looks more or less like a normal neighborhood, doesn't it? The issue that came up is that Decatur has been shrinking in recent years, and there is a large supply of middle class housing. So new construction in the city proper costs more than market value for a home: it costs about $100,000 per unit to build, yet older houses are available nearby for $90,000 or less. So market-rate housing in central Decatur is a money-losing proposition.

Compare this to Cabrini-Green, where market-rate housing sells for several hundred thousand dollars a unit and is considered a good deal because of its proximity to Old Town, the Gold Coast, the Magnificent Mile and downtown. At Cabrini, developers have wanted to get at the CHA's land for years. In Decatur, the neighborhood stood largely empty and unused for years; in fact the city is trying to use the Hope VI project to spur new development downtown and on the Near North Side. So far this seems to be working - in the few blocks around Wabash Crossing, a new Walgreens is going up and private developers are building townhouses - the first privately developed housing in central Decatur in years.

So both projects are in some sense neighborhood development or "gentrification" projects, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially if you want to see traditional neighborhoods survive and thrive rather than decay and die. And anyway, the Cabrini project is the only way somebody like me could ever afford to live in Old Town, and I've given it some thought.

Design-wise, Wabash Crossing is a mixed bag. The new buildings use the same mix of materials used in the kind of new housing going up at the outskirts of town, a mix of brick and siding. Some of them mimic the more traditional designs of Decatur housing:

Other units look a little more like townhouse or apartment complexes:

Now it's not finished yet, and when I was there it was obviously a mud pit, so to some extent I'm going to have to reserve judgement. And looking at these pictures now I have a more positive reaction than I did on site in the rain. But obviously it's not quite the kind of design I like, the more classic brick and stone look of older neighborhoods. But there are some very positive developments here. First of all, as I said it looks like new housing built elsewhere. So obviously a lot of people whor are used to seeing this stuff and are willing to buy it won't think it looks different, or weird, or like "the projects." Indeed, after poking around the site I have no idea which units are public housing and which are moderate-income or market rate. So the design is very egalitarian and none of it says "poor people live here," indeed it looks better than the run-down neighborhood around it, if only because it's new. And it's a true urban design, with sidewalks and houses that face the street, often with porches or patios. True, often there is parking where you'd expect to find a back yard, giving the inside of the block the feel of one of those horrible suburban townhouse developments:

But none of that will be visible from the street when all the buildings are in place. The project does include a decent amount of open space, playground and so on, as well as a new school, and for me the important thing is that it restores the old city grid to the area and knits it together with the surrounding area. And some of the new multifamily designs look better, and more urban, that some of the "high end" condos that have been built on my block in Chicago.

So overall I'm encouraged by what I see here. There's been opposition to the program from all sides. Some public housing advocates, including residents who had attained positions of authority in residents' organizations, claim they're being forced out of their homes to suit the whims of wealthy people. They believe that existing projects should have been repaired, or that new housing should have been constructed before the old housing was demolished, and that all existing residents should be guaranteed a spot in the new development. They are often angry that some residents won't be allowed back because they failed to comply with provisions of their old lease, etc.

I don't buy this argument. First of all, the idea that HUD and the local PHA were going to fix the old housing strikes me as ridiculous. In this counry, in this political climate, there was never any chance that significant new investment would be made in existing projects. Secondly, there has never been enough public housing to meet existing housing needs. There are long, long waiting lists to get in. Why should existing residents have a right to that housing that other poor people don't have, even if they have violated their lease? Anyway, my last landlord sold the house from under us and I had to move, too - them's the breaks, guys.

On the other side are people who don't think the government should be in the business of providing housing for poor people at all. But as I intend to keep pointing out until I turn blue and fall over, the government policies, especially local government policies, have caused an artificial housing shortage. And Hope VI, both by building decent, affordable housing and by pioneering good design in an era of Modernist and Postmodernist drek, can model good development that can be replicated by the private sector (if government will allow it). This strategy carries risks, of course, the biggest being public neglect. I hate the design of old school public housing, but design alone didn't make it hell, lack of approplrate maintenance did. Thanks to the unwillingness or inability of housing authorities to maintaint the properies, they were vermin-infested, unsafe, dirty, and often elevators, water, even heat didn't work. Better design won't mean much if the PHAs or developers won't maintain the properties. Most of these projects are privately managed. The public needs to be prepared to reclaim control as soon as we learn that these companies are not doing their jobs. Otherwise these new neighborhoods will end up just as hellish as the places they are replacing.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Random Cat Blogging

Fat Man and Little Boy begging for food, 11-29-04

Tonight we had salmon, which always drives the little furballs crazy.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Gone Mad on the Prarie?

When I was a "disaffected youth," it was an unspoken article of faith that young people were nonconformist, rebellious individuals who hadn't yet been completely socialized by society, but that most of them would settle down or "sell out" and end up being more or less like every other adult. The fact that I could hold such a preposterous belief at all should shed some light on the sheltered nature of my suburban upbringing. When life and work finally exposed me to the great diversity of the human experience, I was somewhat shocked to learn that the opposite appears to be true. People start out more or less the same, but the things they experience and the choices they make carry them to very different places and make them very different people.

I have also discovered that as the years go by, many of us slowly go mad.

I spent Thanksgiving at my father's in Decatur, Illinois, which is actually quite an interesting place. Labor strife, racial tensions stemming from a brawl at a high school football game and exacerbated by a neo-Nazi violinist, the Firestone tire plant that manufactured all those exploding SUV tires, the giant agribusiness firm behind that massive price-fixing scandal a few years back . . . the town is flat out fascinating. It's also got a couple great Frank Lloyd Wright prarie style houses if you're into that sort of thing. (I will have quite a bit to say about the local housing authority, and soon, but I don't have time to get into that tonight.)

One example of people who seemed to slowly go mad occured right in my father's neighborhood in Decatur. Call them the Klopeks. We did, although it's not their real name. They reminded us of the family in The Burbs with Tom Hanks, the family that everyone believed was up to no good even though they didn't have a shred of evidence. They lived here:

Although when they lived in that house, there was a fence and a hedge blocking the view from the street. Keep in mind that these were longtime productive members of the community. They had raised five children, all of whom have gone on to happy, productive lives as far as I know. Mr. Klopek had a decent job in the public sector for years. But gradually the neighbors began to suspect something was amiss.

It was the little eccentricities: I personally watched Mr. K drive up his driveway to the locked gate, get out of the car and lock it, open the gate, get back in the car and drive it through the gate, and lock it behind him. No one else in the neighborhood had a fence or a gate at all. And then there was the smell. On hot summer days when neighbors would cook out, they would notice it. In fact, if the wind shifted the wrong way, they would consider going back inside to eat. This in a town that routinely smells like roasting soybeans from the Archer Daniels Midland plant ("it smells like money," the locals tell me). Mr. K himself was moved to a position at work that involved less contact with the public after complaints surfaced about the way he smelled.

The work crew that that trimmed the neighbors' trees complained that working on the side of the house nearest the Klopek's made them want to retch. Residents of the Millikin University fraternity and sorority houses on the block began to make nuisance reports to the police, especially after a sorority sister counted more than fifteen cats peering from the windows one day.

The response has gone down in local mythology. One day in early fall, 1998, animal control was dispatched, followed by the police and an ambulance. The authorities had discovered over 250 cats in the home. Apparently they had been inbreeding for years, because certain genetic defects had become apparent, including a few cats born with three legs or no eyes or other deformities. An entire room had been turned into a litterbox, the source of the smell plaguing the neighborhood; filled with litter, it was simply raked a few times a day.

The Klopeks refused to go quietly. Mrs. K gather 20 or so cats with her and barricaded herself in the bathroom. Eventually both of them were taken away in restraints, strapped to gurneys. The house was condemned and has been unoccupied for the past six years. (For those of you who have been following this page but wondering whether I'm just making all this up, the evidence is here, although it costs $2.95 to read the whole article.)

Now, I like cats, too. We have two cats, Fat Man and Little Boy, as destructive as their names imply. I clean out the litter box on a daily basis - in spite of which, the house sometimes has a slight odor of cat poop. So this is a matter of degree: the Klopeks are carted away and confined, while I am left free, for behavior similar in kind if different in degree. Society or its representatives have drawn a line, and crossing it can get you dragged from your home strapped to a gurney.

To say that such a line is socially constructed and arbitrary is not necessarily to say that it is illigitimate. The cultural right basically argues that such lines should be drawn wherever our great-grandparents drew them, while some on the left still argue that social rules regulating behavior are inherently fascist and illigitimate. Both positions are lunacy. Rules must be drawn up which are appropriate to the current social situation without unduly trampling on the dignity and autonomy of the individual. If you live in a shack in the woods you may disagree with me, but anybody with neighbors would agree that they should't be allowed to hold week-long coke orgies, at least not during the school year. I also believe they shouldn't be able to tear down a 110 year old house to put up ugly condos - property rights be damned, it's my neighborhood too and I deserve a say in what happens to it. But an offensive odor? Are we going to start telling people how many kids they can have, too?

I watched an annoying episode of Boston Legal last night. One lawyer's shrink asked for her help because he had a client who was threatening to strangle his wife. The lawyer pretended to be a psychiatrist consulting for a second opinion - the TV shrink had said that no one was willing to do this for real for "liability" reasons. There were questions about "doctor-patient privilege." Wackiness ensued. The whole thing was depressing and bogus. In the real world professionals have a "duty to warn," meaning that they are required to report certain things to the appropriate authority immediately - including child abuse and threats to harm oneself or others. Most states have a law that spells out this duty, including Massachusetts (although I'm told the rules aren't laid out with the same specificity as in Ohio or Illinois). These laws were put in place after the murder of Tatiana Tarasoff in the 1970s - the California Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the killer's therapist had a "duty to warn' when he'd made threats. I took action in such situations more than once in social work practice. Such a rule does not interfere with a therapeutic relationship. The professional should be up front about this duty from the beginning, and tell the client under what circumstances a report will be made. This becomes simply one of the ground rules of the relationship. Without such rules it would be much more difficult to treat potentially dangerous people.

I am thinking about such issues because my grandmother is slowly losing her ability to care for herself. A few words about my grandmother. She has been functioning as an adult since she was 12 years old, back in the Depression. She raised four children, served as a local elected official, and cared for my grandfather for several years after he suffered from a debilitating stroke. So she has been perfectly capable of making her own decisions and running her own life for the past 70 years, and if she was eccentric in some ways, it was certainly nobody else's business.

But now that she's in a dependant position, we're drawing lines again. Her disruptive behavior is being discussed. Her paranoia. If she continues to behave in a certain way, she can't stay at a certain facility, she needs to be moved to a "more restrictive" environment. I'm very uncomfortable with all of this. As I said, I do believe society has a right to draw a line beyond which an individuals autonomy can be restricted by society. And perhaps my grandmother has begun crossing some of these lines. Certainly the involvment of law enforcement on more than one occasion in which she felt "threatened" by people or situations that nobody else could detect is cause for concern. But fear of strangers, outsiders and the unknown is positively rampant in this country. Doesn't it strike you as odd that a certain amount of defiance and paranoia is tolerated, often celebrated, among independant "radical individualists" (people with the money and wherewithall to control their own lives), while among people who depend on others (the old and the sick, welfare moms and low-wage employess) the expected behavior - polite, subserviant, cooperative, grateful - is precisely the behavior that makes life easiest for the people with the power and control? What's good for the gander is very inappropriate for the goose, it seems.

Someday I'll be old and have more difficulty functioning independantly than I do now. This bothers me more today than it did a week ago. Which of my eccentricities will be regarded as symptoms? Political convictions of my grandmother's that I used to find disturbing I now simply ignore. Will my beliefs and values be as irrelevant to the people who care for me in my doddery? She's still a person, even if she doesn't remember that she just saw you yesterday. So I wrestle with this. I don't know whether my grandmother should be placed in a nursing home or not. I agree that society needs to set standards and boundaries, and limit the freedom of people who represent a threat to themselves or others. But whether or not you are annoying to those with power over you is not the right standard to set.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Holiday cheer, and links

Ah, Thanksgiving. Good cheer and good company, food and wine, joy and togetherness, family craziness involving the police (God bless you, Grandma). I hope you all have had a holiday as good as mine, but with less drama. More later.

In the meantime, I'd like to direct your attention to this piece at Kos, a salute to Detroit on their annual sporting day in the sun. Many ex-citizens love Detroit, and miss it. But will they move back? The poster says he may return if a trendy enough loft district materializes. But isn't that like saying you're a patriot, and you'll join the Army just as soon as the war is won?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Kids are All Right, If a Bit Loud

I haven't posted in a few days, mostly because the digital camera batteries were dead and I wanted to put up some pictures. They will be coming eventually, as will more neighborhood demolition goodness. Went to the circus last night, which was more fun as an adult than it was as a kid. We met up with Trope's high school friend (who works for the circus) and her fiance there. She took us backstage after the event which is infinitely more exotic than the faux exoticism of the show (alas, no pictures). The company seems to be a gaggle of Brazilian show girls, Moroccan animal trainiers and lip-ringed Australian clowns who cart a "retired" elephant around the country by rail because "she just wasn't happy" put out to pasture in Florida. Apparently she "didn't get along with" the retired zoo elephants, who were boring and just sat around talking about their grandchildren. Trope's friend told us circus elephants live longer than wild or zoo elephants because the "intellectual stimulation" keeps them active. Just when you think there's no magic left in the world.

Trope seems a little concerned about her friend, who is marrying cross-culturally and converting to Islam. It's nothing against the man or the religion per se, but she's worried about a woman entering into a family or a relationship in which she might be expected to assume a submissive role. I frankly don't know her well enough to have an opinion, but mulling it over brings up a whole bunch of issues that deserve some attention.

I think the "culture wars" have a lot to do with the "role" of women in society. The latest round was a sham: stem cell research and gay marriage just don't have any impact on typical Americans unless they are dying from parkinsons or lymphoma, or are gay themselves. Such people are being picked on by the Right in the name of "traditional values" and these issues are voted on as a way to give expression to a desire for said values. So what are people really angry about? Fafblog, the nation's finest source for news and world domination, as usual holds clues. They link to, a "ministry" of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. These people call themselves "complimentarians," by which I think they mean to refer to the belief in society in which men and women are assigned different, "complementary" roles (that such a society has little place for gays and transgendered people goes without saying). They see themselves fighting for "traditional families." Their big crusade of the moment? Condemning married people who choose not to have children. Fafblog also links to this guy who doesn't understand the outrage because "It's fairly obvious that none of the couples in this article is ready to be parents, and would, in the main, fail at it, or at least resent it."

Now, a couple thoughts on this.

1.) I am giving serious attention to issues raised by a website purporting to be the rantings of a giant stuffed bunny who wants to take over the world. What is it with the bunnies lately?

2.) "Complementarian" sounds a lot like "separate but equal" to me. If one "role" is to make all the decisions, and the other "role" is to scrub the toilets, how "complementary" is that?

3.) These people are crazy. They have, among other things, accused the Episcopalian church of worshiping pagan gods.

4.) This is funny: "It was also encouraging to see the rise in [the number of] women who were attending and are supporting." So the complementarian movement has is the past mostly been . . .men?

5.) Biblical Schmiblical. I've read the Bible. Polygamy was viewed as the norm, King David nailed every piece of tail he could get his hands on, and genocidal warfare was seen as blessed by God. The social roles of conservative evangelicals have their roots in early modern agrarian America as filtered through 1950s suburbia as seen on TV.

6.) On some level, they may have a point.

Okay, you can pick up your jaw now. I'm not about to go join the Pea-brain Bigot Society. But it disturbs me that so many of the bright, progressive people I like and admire tell me they're not going to have children, when right-wing zealots appear to be breeding like . . . um, still more rabbits.

I'm no buying into the gender role thing - the "role" of a woman is to live, and seek happiness and a satisfying, meaningful life - the same as man's "role." We are actual living people, not pieces in a jigsaw puzzle or actors reading a script. But in a rapidly changing, competitive world that many people experience as scary or intimidating, the cultural conservatives are offering a plan, a guide to what life is "supposed" to look like. And what are we offering in response? A lifestyle based on consumption of cultural products, priced out of reach of most of our citizens? Purchased experiences, whether in DVD or video game form, or "high adventure" style featuring hang gliding trips to the Andes, are no substitute for real life. Not having kids so you have the time and money to go to the opera and watch drama about somebody else's family seems shallow to me, playing it safe and easy.

So far in this blog entry, I think I've written something to piss off everyone I know. Let's push forward and see if I can finish alienating everyone I've ever met. My point isn't that everyone should have children. I spent a little time counseling children, and my conclusion was that most of their problems stemmed from unfit parents. And in spit of our annoyingly child-oriented (childish?) culture it's not actually easy to raise kids today. Our society seems incapable of supplying health care, child care, good schools, even safe public parks to any but the wealthiest Americans. And the worst schools and services tend to congregate in precisely the areas with the good cultural amenities, leaving many people my age with a bitter choice between having an active life of the mind and the soulless zombiehood of suburban parenthood. Certainly any real progressive movement should be demanding the services that make child-rearing bearable be made accessible to everyone.

But we don't fight for our communities, we hardly even care about them at all. In this mobile society, we might just move to the suburbs or the West Coast next year anyway, so while it's tragic that the schools suck, it's not our problem. The result is that Blue America is largely a patchwork of declining cities and towns with crappy schools and an abysmal gap between rich an poor, dotted through with sushi places. It could be that people aren't buying our progressive vision of America because we don't have one. Consumerism and cultural extinction do not offer a real alternative.

The righties have a plan for society. It's a crappy, outdated plan, but it's a plan. The only people on the left that seem to have a vision are the hippies. I tried that, I lived in an idealistic hippie co-op for a year, and while it was fun at times, there was no food. If I never hear the term "macrobiotic diet" again it will be too soon. And many of these people are going around saying that Bush, the CIA and the Mossad were responsible for 9/11, which makes me wonder - is everybody with a plan a complete lunatic? Their radically self-denying lifestyle is just not attractive, and doesn't always smell that nice anyway.

Until we have a progressive vision that can distinguish self-actualization from self-gratification (hint: it's like sex vs. masturbation) we're not exactly inspiring people to join us. What would that look like? I guess a founding principal should be, no matter who ends up taking out the trash, it's gotta be somebody. I'm not thrilled with gender roles either, especially one where, as a man, I'm expected to come up with all the cash in the event that my wife "chooses" to stay home with the kids. The fact is, I'm just not good for the money, neither are most guys, so that whole "role" thing should just be tossed out the window. But it doesn't change the fact that you gotta get money, you gotta change diapers, you gotta clean the toilet. How people work this stuff out is their own business. If someone volutarily chooses to be submissive, well, a lot of people get off on that. Who am I to judge that? But that's a very different thing than your neighbors or the government coming in and telling you that you should be submissive.

But a perpetual state of open-mindedness ends up as madness. We need a model for a healthy society, and standards that are durable enough that people can rely on them. The demands by gay people for the right to marry and inclusion in the military are good start. Thirty years ago activists were denouncing these institutions, now they are demanding access to them. This about-face represents great progress for movement, indicating the desire to participate in society, as full adults on their own terms, rather than merely denounce and flee from "Western Civilization." Because the Right isn't afraid we'll fail, they're afraid we'll succeed. Right now they have a monopoly. Their God may be a vicious, intolerant, cruel dominatrix, but right not she's the only bitch in the yellow pages.