The Fury of Oleanna: Visceral Art and Privilege

9 01 2013

What David Mamet “meant” to say with his controversial drama Oleanna is irrelevant, for the purposes here. Divorce the frustrating artist from this powerful work, and you have a compelling artistic rendition of the amorphous concept of “privilege.” Oleanna in its visceral effect on certain audiences is much more interesting than whatever milquetoast political point its author may (or may not) have been trying to make. This disclaimer is necessary because I am not even passingly interested in defending Mamet or Oleanna as a piece of historical/political commentary.

Privilege is often employed in debate as a way to explain why a particular individual or group of individuals thinks or acts the way they do. But it is rarely sufficiently detailed to create a picture of the social relations at play. Being skeptical of the concept of the “privilege,” as I am, is not the same as saying privilege (male privilege, race privilege, heteronormativity) does not exist. It is more skepticism of its power as an explanatory phenomenon in social dynamics.
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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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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





Quantifying Social Science Units

17 01 2012

The positional advantage enjoyed by classes of individuals–privilege–is an important factor in operation of social systems. I worry, because particularly on the left, it is considered a very important–often the most important–factor, but I don’t know exactly what it means, or, more to the point, how it works. Reified from an explanatory concept to a concrete concept, it is often little more than a rhetorical cudgel that can have a desultory effect on civic discourse, and thus become trivialized. It should go without saying that exactly because privilege in some sense or another “operates,” its trivialization is a real problem.

Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene was a revelation to me in high school, at least to the degree I could understand it. I re-read it every few years, and so when the 30th Anniversary Edition dropped* I was particularly excited, the added sections and footnotes serving something like hidden bonus tracks. When I got to the short section where Dawkins first suggests the existence of “memes,” the cultural (or social) equivalent of genes–indivisible units of learnable cultural information, I recalled for the first time really disagreeing with it when I first read the book. It was almost viscerally unpleasant. The short excursus on memetics is dissonant from the rest of the book, which while packed with thought experiments and analogies is actually pretty stolidly scientific and meticulous.

A week or so ago a Twerkuffle** broke out between various political writers and journalists on my Twitter timeline. The details of it aren’t important; the relevant portion is that the word “privilege,” as in “racial privilege,” was used a number of times, and I had a reaction similar to that I had when first encountering “memetics”. This got me thinking about what the two concepts–“meme” and “privilege”–have in common and why they strike a resonant tone with each other in my mind.

Social scientists, and the journalists/essayists (I’m just going to call these people “writers” from now on) who synthesize social science for public debate, have always had trouble with this kind of thing. From the Enlightenment until probably around Marx’ time, political philosophers and other intellectuals had a sort of tic where they would reify concepts to explain observable behavior or historical conditions–you know the tic I’m talking about; it was usually expressed by Capitalizing the first letter to make it seem Big and Important and deserving of a Proper Noun. This is actually a kind of logical fallacy, and it makes reading a lot of the early modern philosophers so grating. I don’t believe in an Over-Soul that can actually act on the natural world. It’s like when you meet someone who says they don’t believe in a god but they do believe in an “energy” that we’re all a part of. That’s nice, but it’s also either meaningless or just employing a synonym for god.

Dawkins raises and moves on from the idea of memes in just a handful of sentences, but the “work” on them has been plentiful, and the concept has certainly entered popular consciousness. What bothers me is when they are treated as actual, concrete entities that can be studied somewhat quantitatively, but they haven’t been properly defined. Remember that in The Selfish Gene Dawkins was advocating for the “gene-centered” view of evolution by natural selection. A debate then raging (and still on-going) in evolutionary biology was at what “level” natural selection operated: are “traits” selected? Individual organisms? Groups? Entire species? Dawkins and his fellow travelers were arguing that in fact natural selection is unconcerned with anything of a “higher” level than genes–he famously said that bodies are nothing more than machines meant to ferry genes around. Evolution is the process of differential survival of competing alleles in a genome.
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Eww! Poors!

25 03 2011

Al Franken relates a story wherein Jesse Jackson said once that he was ashamed to admit that when he walks down a dark street at night and hears footsteps behind him, he’d feel relieved if it were white man. I’ve always thought this was strange; if I was walking down the street and heard footsteps behind me, and saw that it was one of the white men from Deliverance, I would not be relieved. I would much prefer a black man in Brooks Brothers.

This guy?

...Or this guy?

The point being, the class indicators of the person are relevant, if not solely determinative. I don’t think I’d feel differently about a white guy or a black guy in a pink polo shirt with flipped up collar jabbing on a Bluetooth. Now if I had a choice between Paul Wall and apl.de.ap, I’d rather be followed by apl.de.ap,though there is a chance that seeing him out of the corner of my eye would cause me to laugh to death.

This guy?

...Or this guy?

Let’s put it in clearer terms. I used to work at a cafe, the sole person on my shift. This was up on Belmont near Clark, at the tail end of its stretch as a seedy area, when there were still lots of homeless street kids in the alleys, and heroin addicts nodding off on the curb. We also got some of the many homeless folks who still wandered the neighborhoods north of Lakeview, victims of the shutdowns of federal shelters in the 80s.
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What Google Tells Us About Race Relations

14 05 2010

It’s very likely this has been done by somebody else, but I figured in case not, I’d provide this little service to America’s race and ethnic relations: