The Domestic Infection of Empire

27 03 2012

“Our security will require…being ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner…and our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives…”

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Why I am Not Voting

20 03 2012

Owly Images

Unless a last-minute change of heart overtakes me, this will mark the first election I miss since becoming eligible in September of 2000. Since then, I have voted in every primary, municipal, and general election I was eligible to vote in–though I do think one of my “provisional” ballots was thrown out because I voted in the wrong precinct after moving. Making the decision not to vote was a difficult one, not cavalierly reached. Voting is both a duty and a right, to my mind, and I personally support universal, compulsory voting on the Australian model. That’s not the system we have, though, and with each passing election the meaning of my vote has tranmogrified into something ugly: a negative speech act against the apparitions and shades conjured up by those nearer to me on the political spectrum–my supposed ideological allies–rather than for any principles I can actually support.

In other words, accepting the proposition that a vote is essentially an act of speech, the dictum that if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all, would apply. Perusing the sample ballot, I see little nice to say.

I do consider voting a duty, but in all honesty my compulsion to vote in each cycle was more motivated by partisanship than civic responsibility. I was a Democrat full of visceral dislike and distrust of Republicans, to the point of virulence. Like most partisans, I built a shabby intellectual structure to house what was really little more than a set of strong emotions. I saw historic Democratic sweeps in state and federal governments, historic elections; I saw local activists whom I knew personally and admired get elected to local office; I breathed sighs of relief when campaign season predictions of Republican governing apocalypses were narrowly avoided by key victories. Years passed. And there was little meaningful progress toward any fundamental change; not only that, but the case for fundamental change wasn’t even being articulated. From my remote vantage, peering through the window into the halls of power, the pigs and the men were increasingly indiscernible one from another.

A vote against something is an act of desperation and weakness. It legitimizes a system of comparative justifications, where superficial or even reactionary policies and institutions are defended solely on the grounds that the immediately available alternative is worse. And while that’s certainly often true–as frustrated as I am with President Obama on most issues, I have no doubt whatsoever that a President McCain would be “worse”–it isn’t reason enough to vote–it isn’t reason enough, more specifically, for an act of speech that puts force and legitimacy behind a candidate or a set of policies that I wholeheartedly disagree with.

I, like I’d wager you, have principles on civil liberties, criminal justice, civil rights, workers rights and property rights that the Democratic Party does not stand for, at least in practice. And what candidates do tend to agree with me on these issues, once elected, are stovepiped into a narrow range of action by powerful party leaders and executives.

Our two-party system means that I can either vote for candidates and policies I do not actually support, or risk candidates and policies I abhor winning out. But that really means lending my speech to something I don’t believe in–this is the worst part of the two-party system drowning in money. It can pressure you into acts of mild hypocrisy out of fear.

For the first time, this petty act of intellectual dishonesty just doesn’t feel worth it. I don’t want to be bullied into voting because otherwise the boogeymen will come and get me in the night. I don’t want to, for the umpteenth time, see men and women I lent my voice act destructively on things that are dear to me.

Until an independent and capable movement develops outside of the two party system to act on it to be actually responsive, voting in these elections will feel too much like being bullied, too much like negative speech, too much like an act of desperation and fear not befitting free people in a supposedly democratic society.

So I’m not voting today. No, that’s no kind of solution to a huge problem. But it’s easier on my conscience.





My Birthday Wish for Chicago: Desegregation

5 03 2012

Chicago is huge. Geographically, very, very big for an old city. At 225 or so square miles, it could fit four Bostons inside it. New York is only 75 square miles larger, despite being almost three times as populous. Excepting Alaska, there are only three cities north of the Mason-Dixon line that are larger. I don’t take seriously critiques of Chicagoans’ parochialism; we live in a city of neighborhoods and Chicago’s sheer scale makes comprehensive circulation throughout the city prohibitive. Besides; New Yorkers tend to stick to their boroughs.

But the city turned 175 this past week, and there is one wish I’d make as we blow out the candles: to make a serious commitment to desegregating the city.

chicago-segregation-map.jpgChicago’s desegregation is stubborn. It persists for a variety of reasons, as many invisible as visible, and not all attributable to official political policy or market pressures. But the fact is somewhat inescapable that 44 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act, almost 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there is an easily identifiable white Chicago, Latino Chicago, and Black Chicago.

Polls show that Black Chicagoans in particular are willing and in fact desirous of living in more integrated communities. The lip service our politicians pay to diversity suggests there is at least superficial political support for diverse neighborhoods. But the segregation problem seems intractable. Why?

For one thing, it may be because in our public rhetoric segregation is not seen as a problem. This was particularly conspicuous during the ward remapping debate; the fact that it is still so easy to draw lines around massive areas of the city with homogeneous racial populations didn’t seem to raise any questions about our supposedly progressive city.

My little enclave of Noble Square is somewhat integrated. There are still “white ethnic” families, and Mexican and black families despite the strong lacing of white professionals and college students that usually augurs turbo gentrification. Taking my inexhaustible puppy for a long walk around our neighborhood this weekend, one reason for this island of diversity occurred to me: at either end of the neighborhood are large low-income housing developments, with a senior public housing high rise smack in the middle. In between are two high schools and at least two elementary schools, a park, and two- and three-flats with only a smattering of single-family homes and condo blocks.

Could it be that Chicago’s segregation problem is a zoning problem?

The problem of segregation is two-way. Not only are black and brown residents unable and/or unwilling to move into white neighborhoods, white residents are similarly unable, or perhaps more likely unwilling, to move into black and brown neighborhoods. If we assume that there needs to be an internal migration–that the city’s extant population needs to move in order to integrate it, rather than relying on an influx from outside the city–then we can start to see the problem a little more clearly.

This is part of the uncomfortable problem of even talking about desegregation. Once we start talking about the mechanics of encouraging integration, we’re talking about policies that encourage people of different races to move in predictable ways which is a little creepy.

Chicago’s minority neighborhoods are, in the median, lower income than white neighborhoods. Any integrative migration can’t be merely unidirectional–people moving from minority neighborhoods into white neighborhoods–because the resulting market pressure would be to significantly increase housing prices that are already by definition too high. That is, unless housing density significantly increased in white neighborhoods on the North and Northwest Sides, increasing the supply of housing, influxes of new buyers and renters would just drive up prices. But even an increase in housing supply would be problematic, since it would mean that median to above-median income families from minority neighborhoods would be leaving neighborhoods, contributing to population and wealth loss from neighborhoods that are already struggling.

So a policy of inclusionary, large-scale zoning changes would need to start in border neighborhoods that are already somewhat mixed racially, accompanied by secure amenities and integrative social services (parks and libraries, community health clinics, and legal aid clinics, and so forth). Neighborhoods like East Garfield Park, Kenwood, Washington Park, Chicago Lawn, Cragin, and Ashburn are immediately obvious sites. The idea would be that as borders bleed, capillary attraction would pull people in opposite directions, eventually easing price pressure in exclusive white neighborhoods while introducing capital and services into neighborhoods that badly need them. The inherent value of exclusion in white neighborhoods would drop precipitously.

Inclusionary zoning would be comprehensive zoning changes and incentives that require not just “low-income set-asides” but density bonuses, elimination of exclusionary lot size and floor area ratio requirements, and land use planning that discourages congestion by clearing roads for buses.

Obviously, this would require a serious investment of capital–and the capital of the political kind might be even more difficult. Why should politicians bother sticking a thumb into the still tender wound of racial animus when the present set-up, allowing for the easy manipulation of voter blocs, is so beneficial? In the neoliberal city, the best answer would be an economic one; some mumbo-jumbo magical words about job creation, spontaneous order, or the like. But that can’t be the first step for such a major change in focus. It’s a moral question and we need, first, a moral argument. Segregation is Wrong, capital-w-wrong. It is bad in the abstract and the concrete. It undergirds political manipulation, social animus, it makes service imbalances more palatable for the powerful, severs natural communities of interest among the working classes, and robs future generations of the inherent value of diversity.

I’m heartened by the fact that social attitudes can change so quickly, as evidenced by the rapid turnaround of public attitudes towards gay marriage. The next generation are not zombified stooges fiddling on their phones; they’re nimble minds uniquely–because they’re all brand new–unburdened by the bigotries of past generations. If the older generation makes it a priority to articulate the moral argument, maybe the next generation of Chicagoans, celebrating the 200th birthday of their city, will be able to look back at us the way we look back at the redlining, blockbusting, white flight days today. And if I hear that comparison made on the nightly space news while drinking iced tea in my hover-recliner, I promise not to take offense.

Map source