Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In Praise of Cities

I'm inspired by a blog post by Paul Krugman:

I was born in a big town …

OK, actually I was born in Albany, and grew up on Long Island. But here’s my question: I understand why it’s political poison to show disrespect for small-town values — dignity is precious to all of us, and often trumps material interest. But why is it OK to disrespect big city values, even to suggest — as Bush has — that big-city dwellers aren’t part of the “real America”?

I mean, I get a lump in my throat when visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The big-city immigrant experience is as much a part of what made America as the rural, small-town experience. It deserves the same degree of respect

I was born in San Francisco, lived in the Bay Area long enough to be tear gassed several times by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, and grew to adulthood in a rural area of Washington state. I did travel around the country quite a bit and even took a long trip to Europe while in high school (putting me one up on Barry), but mostly it was mailboxes, ditches at the side of the road and riding the horse everywhere.

I was never happier than when I ditched that backwater and went to New York City. Culture shock doesn't begin to describe what I felt, at first revulsed and then fascinated and finally in love with this incredible hodge-podge of humanity. I might have acclimated sooner had I not been attending grad school (a soul killing experience in any location), but I love New York in a way that goes beyond the rational. I was there, watching the smoke and hearing the sirens the first time those bastards attacked the WTC, and I sat, glued to my computer, sobbing, when the second attack happened, outraged at the assault on my city.

New York, capital of the world.

Krugman touches on something in his post that I think gets to the heart of what it means to be a Democrat and a way of understanding particularistic values that does not denigrate, though it darnwell is going to judge. The disdain we've been reading lately from the Obamacan crowd, the dismissal of non-Obama voters as nothing but racist, ill-educated, narrow minded, parochial idiots who are not quite fully human is the inverse of the bile spewed by the Right against dirty cities with their "dangerous underclass", its welfare queens, the vile and perverted sybarites, the wicked liberals who deserved the punishment of 9/11 raining fire and brimstone down from the heavens upon their Godless heads.

There is a reason for the phrase "city air makes free," and that is where there is urbanity, the combination of proximity and anonymity, where wealth can be garnered and the world made anew through imagination and perspiration, there is a place for those who don't fit or can't make it back home. A place for gays and feminists and people of fluid origins and inchoate beliefs. You learn to hold your own in the hurly-burly of the city. I want to be sure in our criticism of elitism that we do not thoughtlessly fall into uncritical valorization of the "heartland" that strengthens Republican demonization of that urbanity. Lest we forget, Matthew Shepard was crucified on a fence in Wyoming, James Byrd was dragged to his death in Texas. Those states are red with the blood of their own citizens.

Pulling in the threads of Krugman, Lind and Somerby, what binds them into a coherent Democratic narrative is respect for the person without giving anyone a pass for denigrating others. It's giving people enough respect to say that what they think is wrong, and not condescend to some kind of vulgar Marxist dismissal of them as ignorant rubes, or else rail against them as immoral and irredeemable and make them the scapegoats for the sins of an entire nation. That applies as much to stereotypes of urban dwellers as rural ones.

In Lind's article, he talks about a kind of elite arrogance that confuses its location with its substance:

Should anyone doubt that dissing rather than flattering the "rubes" is an aberration, examples of liberal snobbery are not hard to find in progressive publications. Sometimes it's genteel, sometimes it's raw. In an essay titled "The Urban Archipelago" a few years ago, the editors of Seattle's alt-weekly the Stranger wrote: "It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud: Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion -- New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on ... And we are the real Americans. They -- rural, red-state voters, the denizens of the exurbs -- are not real Americans. They are rubes, fools, and hate-mongers ... We can secede emotionally ... by turning our backs on the heartland ... We're everywhere any sane person wants to be. Let them have the shitholes, the Oklahomas, Wyomings, and Alabamas. We'll take Manhattan."

Manhattan. Home to the Lower East Side, the Meat Packing District, Harlem, East Harlem, Hells Kitchen. Some of the roughest, most blue collar, most in-your-face, least namby-pamby effete locations America ever produced. When I lived there in the 90s, you didn't go walking around after dark by yourself in these places, unless you were tough. "Fuck" is a four syllable word in these neighborhoods, the speaker drawing out every dram of invective from each letter. These are the ethnic enclaves that were instrumental in converting the Democratic Party from nothing more than a revanchist, brutal power elite in the South into a national party that defended working class interests, however imperfectly. These blue collar workers and the rest spread throughout the industrial belt of the US and whose grandchildren and great grandchildren are now being dismissed as racist Archie Bunkers because they vote for their class interest, the ungrateful bastards.

See, the country doesn't break up so neatly into the hip urban elites and the troglodytes outside the cities. That hip urbanity has its roots in the union organizing of the Ladies Garment Worker union after the Triangle Factory Fire in SoHo. The blue collars that built up the Democratic Party machines in the cities are a part of the liberal democratic tradition, and deserve better than the two-faced pandering offered by Obamcans.

No party can afford to be an island, even in an archipelago.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for mentioning New York City. I will continue my graduate studies in NYC starting in the fall and I can't wait! Where did you go to school? I worked in NYC for two summers and I definitely have a love/hate relationship (mostly love) with the city. Sometimes I just want to get away but I always get pulled back there. Once NYC gets in your blood it's hard not to go back. What I love most about NYC aren't the hip clubs where the young, sexy, educated urbanites go to play. It's the places you mention that I often love to just walk around on the weekend: the Lower East Side, Harlem, Chinatown...I love the history and culture that the immigrants and working class have largely left behind.

The urban poor are often forgotten in the glitz and glamour of the elite who continue to push out the working class in cities like New York. We should also fight against these stereotypes of the urban poor that the Republicans have used to scare small town America into believing that city liberals are immoral, unpatriotic freaks who deserved 9/11 and will destroy their way of life and turn their small towns into mini New York Cities. Seriously, I'm sure that is probably why many small town folks don't vote for Democrats and comments like the one Obama made demonizing their way of life doesn't help.

The first step is to actually respect people who choose to live a different lifestyle than us "creative class" elites but ultimately want some of the same things we are fighting for as a party: universal health care, a plan to get our troops out of Iraq, more jobs, and ways to pull people (of all races) out of poverty. How does Obama expect people to vote for him when he doesn't even respect their beliefs or their way of life? Gosh, can you imagine Obama coming close to winning some of those red states he won earlier if these "typical white" rural voters had known how Obama had really felt about them and had a racist spiritual advisor for twenty years? I really wonder how many people out there have buyers remorse right now.

I never want to own a gun in my home, I have no desire to hunt, and I'm not religious. But I respect their way of life. Democrats need to find a way to bring these people back to our party and the Clintons are the ONLY Democrats in national politics who can do this right now. There is absolutely no way Obama can win the general election now. How can he when he's virtually lost a huge chunck of the electorate: working class and rural white voters? I just don't get it. Are politicians like Dean and Pelosi so completely out of touch with reality that they think he can still win this election?

Anonymous said...

Since you like cats I thought you might like this video:

Chinaberry Turtle said...

This is why this blog is so good - it is not an echo chamber. I've never been to a big dense urban city (other than the airport layover), so I don't know anything about it. I'm sure lots of my preconceptions are all wrong. Reading your (Anglachel's) and CutePeach's description of NYC, I'm actually sure I'm wrong. Thank you for reminding me.

gendergappers said...

Cities that become nations - featured in today's news. Just another office closed to women - the majority supporters of that church. Irreverently, and with apologys to anyone who is offended, I offer this homily:

"Mother Superior's Announcement"

Mother Superior called all the nuns together and said to them, "I must tell you all something. We have a case of gonorrhea in the convent."

"Thank God," said an elderly nun at the back. "I'm so tired of chardonnay."

Cathy said...

Wow another Native San Franciscans (like me). That's where you really learn the "truth" about cities because SF's hip image didn't always extend out the outer avenues. :>

I would say that cities force folks to be tolerant. After all everyone gets to remake themselves because everyone doesn't know your family or past (unless you lived in the outer aves :<).

But like every other living organism we need diversity. That includes people who don't like us for our sexual orientation, lack or practice of religion, and skin color (pink or brown or black).

That's the saddest thing about this election. We really are losing the only vehicle we have right now for organizing disparate interests. Shrug. But if the Dem party can't handle that much diversity then it won't survive in an increasingly colder and more dangerous world.

We have a lot of work to do post election. But right now I have to keep telling myself that Hillary will pull it out.

Anonymous said...

This is the other part of me -- the part that LEFT the working-class Phila-area burb where I grew up and lives in LA and loves it.

Another part of the fractured blue-collar/white-collar psyche in a country that prides itself on being classless. Yeah, right.

Anonymous said...

You know , they didn't even mean "small town." That's what it all boils down to -- they meant "working-class," or all types and in all areas of the country.

These urban elites don't even know that working-class city neighborhoods even exist. For them, the "working class" is a rural thing. But like CT remarked a while ago, even though he and I are respectively urban/northern and rural/southern, we could probably meet in the middle more easily than the cocktail-party crowd could with either of us.

I really do want to go watch "Rocky" again, now.

CMike said...

Paul Krugman looks at some related data here.
Looky there Sen. Obama, those nineties weren't quite the lost years you claim they were.

Last October blogger Krugman linked to this Kung Fu Monkey post: "Farm Fetish." (Krugman vouches for the numbers here.)

CornFed said...

Thank you. A number of blogs have tackled this issue in one form or another since Clingathon '08 kicked off last week, you're one of the bare few to actively work at respecting both sides. I'm not sure how it happened but somehow in recent decades a distressingly large number of Democrats embraced the idea that it was acceptable to treat anyone not like them as a sort of political/cultural Borg, a pasty-white spiritless collective of drones worthy of (at best) immediate suspicion.
Strangely enough some of the same people promoting this view also talk alot about breaking free of right-wing framing.

Having said that I would like to add a few thoughts molded by my own patchwork city/county/small town experience. I currently live in a major rust-belt city but I am not a city person. I'm happiest and feel most at home on the prairie where I can see the weather coming and tune myself to the rhythems of agriculture. That's what works best for me. I wouldn't demand that of someone else anymore than I would demand that they wear my shoes. My joy in Iowa is not diminished by the joy someone else takes in NYC, LA, or anywhere else. Personal fulfilment is not zero sum. Personal fulfilment is, well, personal as is the choice of infulences people draw from to find that fulfilment. An environment may be more likely to promote a partcular outlook or set of values but ultimately a person chooses what they take from what what they find around them. For example, I'm not sure it's wholly fair to say as an absolute that cities force tollerance. Living in a city may foster a greater inclination towards tollerance but it doesn't guarantee it. Plenty of city sidewalks are as stained as country gravel by innocent blood. And while many small towns are still hard places to be gay or feminist or non-conformist not all of them are. Small towns evolve and so do the people in them. The luxury of watching that evolution in one particular town over the course of almost 20 years taught me alot about the futility of assumption and the necessity of empthy.
I fear I'm degenerating into small town defensiveness so I'll close with this; the battle isn't between city and country or "creative class" and "blue collar", the battle is between those who see people as individuals with their own unique joys, hopes, and dreams and those who see all people, other than a select few like themselves, as things, objects to use or destroy as need demands. We're strongest whem we draw people in, not when we push them away.

Sugar said...

"No party can afford to be an island, even in an archipelago."

Such a well-thought and well-written post! I'm from the South, but I've lived in other parts of the country and I appreciate it all--the good and the bad. That's what all Americans need to realize--there is good and bad everywhere.

CMike said...

For anyone who wants their credential-itis scratched, blogger Mark Thoma, Professor of Economics at the University of Oregon, weighs in on a NY Times op-ed by Larry Bartels, Professor of Economics at Princeton University, *here*.

Bartels claims:
Small-town people of modest means and limited education are not fixated on cultural issues. Rather, it is affluent, college-educated people living in cities and suburbs who are most exercised by guns and religion. In contemporary American politics, social issues are the opiate of the elites.

AdrienneJ said...

Thank you Anglachel and thank you Cornfed. The only problem I had with the original blog was the line about the states painting themselves red with the blood of their people (or words to that effect). Cornfed pretty much summed up my concerns with that by pointing out that all is not
well in cities, either. Anglachel "sings the city electric" (sorry Mr. Whitman). And rightfully so, as one in love should do. But one should also note that the loved one has a few blemishes. I'm sure Anglachel is fully aware of that. But it just feels better for me to say it, and be done with it, anyway. Gay people get killed in country. Gay people get killed in the city. Women get raped in the country. Women get raped in the city. Poverty in the country, poverty in the city. Pollution in the country, pollution in the city. Fear in the country. Fear in the city. Bigotry in the country. Bigotry in the city. Beautiful people in rhythm with their environment in the country. Beautiful people in rhythm with their environment in the city.