Watts Towers

February 29, 2016

For someone of my age and skin tone, the word ‘Watts’ elicits definite feelings of unease. wattstowers7While I am probably too young to actually remember the images of the 1965 uprising, it was part of the mid-to-late 60s period when American cities seemed engulfed in fire, destruction and racial tensions. I certainly do remember the 1992 riots, living here in Los Angeles at the time, standing on the roof of our apartment building, a 10-15 minute car ride from the south-central area of the city boiling over, watching the smoke from the fires that were alight in the city again.

“But Watts is country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel,” Thomas Pynchon wrote in a New York Times essay, 9 months after the ’65 August riots, in the wake, incredibly, of another shooting of an unarmed black man, in his car, in front of his pregnant wife, by a white police officer who, unsurprisingly, was not charged with the death. “She’s going to have a baby,” was the last thing Leonard Deadwyler said. I Can’t Breath. Watts, 1966. Staten Island, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri.

To my discredit, these were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I made my way to Watts last week, wattstowers8the reasons why I never had even thought to make the trip back 20 years ago when I last lived here. This is not my part of the city. Terra vetita.

It is does such a disservice to the place and communities living here. This blinkered, limited view diminishes what Watts actually is, what it’s been, the totality of its history. How can anywhere be reduced to any one thing? I’ll tell you how. Willful ignorance.

Like much of Los Angeles, Watts was, with the appearance of the Europeans, originally farmland. Then the railroad came in the late-19th century, and Watts grew into a working class city, connected to other parts of Los Angeles by an extensive intra-urban public transit rail system. (It’s important to always make that point for people who still think this is a city built for the car.) Many of the residents, in fact, worked for the railroads. Watts was incorporated as a city in 1906 and became part of Los Angeles in 1924 through annexation.wattstowers6

Three years before that, Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant and tile worker, had begun what would be a 33 year quixotic art installation endeavour. The Watts Towers, or Nuestro Pueblo, Our Town. It was an imaginative recreation of elements of Rodia’s hometown in southern Italy, single-handedly constructed in his backyard with scraps of metal, cement and other neighbourhood detritus and found objects of broken tiles, glass, seashells.

It is a staggering work of artistic imagination and determination. And defiance. And the individual idiosyncrasy that Los Angeles is noted for.

Not long after completing it, at the ripe old age of 75, Rodia handed over ownership of his house and property to a neighbour before leaving the city to live with family in central California. He never returned, never came back to look upon his creation. Subsequent owners spent five years or so, fending off the city’s attempts to tear the work down, citing safety concerns. wattstowers5But in 1959, after it proved to be earthquake sturdy, the city backed off and the towers remained in place, now part of a community arts centre.

Today, wandering through the project, looking up at the spires which have no logical reason for still being up there, the Watts Towers seem to symbolize for me a constancy, a sense of permanence that withstands the pressures of change and evolution that neighbourhoods and communities are always subject to. Sabato Rodia chose the location, the house with the backyard facing the railroad tracks so that lots of people would see his work of art as they commuted back and forth to work. Before he was finished in 1954, the rails had been torn up, nearby jobs departed further afield, a working class neighbourhood transformed into a highly racialized one, rife with all the tensions and conflicts that boiled over into an uprising one week in August, more than 50 years ago.

Like the Towers, some things haven’t changed that much. “50 Years And I Still Can’t Breath” was an exhibition on display in the adjoining gallery, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. wattstowers7Yes, the hate and oppression and state-sanctioned violence against marginalized communities has not gone away. In many ways, it remains as virulent as ever, gone underground and re-emerged, more covert than overt.

But, in Watts, like other economically and social segregated parts of Los Angeles, the trains have returned, in the form of LRTs, re-connecting neglected and ignored neighbourhoods to the wider region. The demographics are changing too as new immigration seizes the opportunities to make a better life for themselves. There’s an amazing resiliency, a potent timelessness, as represented by the towers, to the struggle against all the malignant forces that have besieged places like Watts pretty much from the outset. Conformity, misguided city building, economic dislocation, prejudice, both hard and soft, that see places like these only through a very narrow lens of skewed preconceptions set in mind a long time ago. Preconceptions I should have known to let die a long time ago.

shamefully submitted by Cityslikr


Transit Intransigence

October 30, 2015

Just a quick (here’s hoping) update on the post yesterday re the Brampton city council rejection of the north of Steeles section of the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT, and the ugly horrors the intrusion of parochial interests have on transit planning. columbo1(Still looking at you, Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker).

I late linked to a more in-depth article about the Brampton debacle from Sean Marshall at Marshall’s Musings. If you didn’t catch it then, I advise you to do so now. Here’s a snippet.

The Hurontario-Main corridor was selected for LRT simply because it is one of the busiest transit corridors in the Greater Toronto Area outside the City of Toronto; it connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors, it would help urbanize south Brampton and several neighbourhoods in Mississauga. It’s part of a larger regional network, yet six city councillors in Brampton, looking out for narrow, local interests, sunk it.

Earlier in the post, Marshall points out that the line at its proposed southernmost terminus, at the Port Credit waterfront, had been snipped off in a similarly, if less dramatic fashion, due to what he called “community opposition”.

This brought to mind stories our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, told us about the obstacle that city faces in its transit plans, a place called Beverly Hills, swimming pools and movie stars. It is one of 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County, home to 35,000 of the county’s 10 million people, and yet it has the heft to be constantly throwing up road blocks to wider regional projects. Bike lanes? Forget it. Rush hour dedicated bus lanes? No way, José. As for a westward subway extension tunneled under Beverly Hills High? Ummmm…

Yikes!

What often times gets lost in the back-and-forth debate over transit planning and proposed projects, all the wonkery and nerd talk pushing it from polite conversation, is any discussion on class and race. The northern portion up into Brampton of the HMLRT was opposed by that city’s well-heeled living in big houses on Main Street. This group included former Ontario premier Bill Davis. monoclewearingTerms like ‘heritage preservation’ or ‘maintaining neighbourhood character’ get tossed around but it’s hard to avoid looking at the deeper context. Public transit is for other people.

Rarely do you hear those who depend on public transit — many, economically and socially marginalized — complain that the service is too close to where they live. That it negatively impacts the character of their street. That it threatens the heritage of their neighbourhood. How the overhead wires interfere with their view. Those kinds of concerns are for other people.

Equally, just how much say should we be giving to individual communities when it conflicts with wider objectives? Yeah, I’m talking about the greater good here. As Marshall writes in his post, the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT was chosen because it runs along “one of the busiest transit corridors” in the GTA and “connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors”. upyoursAnd it gets tossed aside because a handful of elected officials, listening to a handful of voices, albeit persuasive ones, don’t want it?

It’s a prickly situation, to be sure. I’m advocating for the railroading, so to speak, of local opinion because it’s acting as a detriment to a wider regional transportation plan for no other discernible reason aside from self-interest. But I’m at a loss how else you put the ‘we’ ahead of ‘me’ when it’s the emphasis on the latter that’s got us all bogged down in the first place.

classically submitted by Cityslikr


CAPITALIZING The Future

June 9, 2015

“Realistically cars are NEVER going to disappear.” [Capitalization ENTIRELY the author’s doing.]

So proclaimed former city councillor and transit advocate, Gordon Chong, in this weekend’s Toronto Sun, and in one sentence putting out there EVERYTHING that is wrong with the Gardiner East’s “hybrid” supporters – led by Mayor John Tory — argument.blinkers

They cannot get see a future that will not be exactly like the past, their past.

That no one I’ve ever heard (or, at least, taken seriously) has stated that the private automobile is going the way of the dinosaur is of no consequence to “hybrid” proponents. Hyperbole and the assigning of extremely held beliefs to opposition voices is the hallmark of those pushing policy that lacks any sort of evidentiary base. The entrenched status quo sees any change as wild-eyed and unthinkable revolution. Utopian. Idyllic. Latte-sipping.

The fact that driving patterns have changed since the Gardiner first went up seems of little consequence to unabashed automobile enthusiasts like Gordon Chong. The number of drivers using the Gardiner, the ENTIRE Gardiner, during peak commute hours has remained relatively stable since the 1970s despite the explosive growth the GTAs have seen in the period. Why? Because there is only so much road space. Only so many cars can fit onto it at any given time.

So people use alternative methods to get around the city and region. Public transit, for one. There’s where you’ve seen a corresponding EXPLOSIVE GROWTH to our population boom. Despite what the TTC CEO called this morning “a chronic lack of funding” for public transit in this city, people in greater numbers keep using it. keepdiggingStill, “hybrid” supporters don’t think it’s up to the task of accommodating whatever overflow may occur if the elevated portion of the Gardiner East is removed.

Which is a funny position to take because, looking at the morning rush hour to downtown (that is where the Gardiner east is located), there isn’t a ward in the city that has more than half its commuters driving. (h/t Laurence Liu). Fun fact? In Ward 2, the beating heart of Ford Nation, transit users coming downtown in the a.m. outnumber drivers, 77%-22%. You read that correctly. Unfortunately, I can’t capitalize it for emphasis.

Driving has become only a component of how people move around the city and not the primary one either, certainly not downtown. There is a shift in our relationship to automobiles. Many more of us aren’t experiencing the freedom we’re promised in car ads. Trends suggest more people are settling down into the core. Driving becomes less desirable.

That’s before we even get to the hard charging technology of driverlessness which promises to alter not only the occupant’s experience but the efficiency with which traffic flows. Will it? Who knows? But pretending it won’t possibly be a factor is tantamount to suggesting computer chips haven’t changed how we live our lives.

Refusing to accept reality, though, is a big part of the “hybrid” game plan. caradIt’s no mistake in his speech yesterday to the Empire Club Mayor Tory raised the spectre of Fred “Big Daddy” Gardiner, the first chair of Metro Council and the political architect of urban expressway building in Toronto. The mayor talks Gardiner, and speaks of cars and driving, while ignoring process.

Gardiner (the man) threw his energy into making Toronto car-friendly because he was operating on the best available evidence of the time. The private automobile was about the future, with cheap gas and limitless land in which to build our suburban getaways as far as the eye could see and the mind imagine. It’s easy, with more than half a century of hindsight, to roll your eyes. What were they thinking?!

Unless, of course, you support the “hybrid” option. You can’t let go of that thinking. As it was, so it must ever be. Mayor Tory touts Fred Gardiner. Who can argue with Big Daddy, am I right?

In their mind, as expressed by Gordon Chong in the Toronto Sun, “ …an expressway under Lake Ontario is the REAL VISIONARY FUTURE [capitalization mine], much like the Bloor Viaduct was decades ago.” Build more car infrastructure! Screw the cost (BOSTON) or technical nightmares of tunneling near water (SEATTLE). This ‘guerilla war fought against the car for decades’ must come to an end. Driving is not the source of congestion. aroundinawarenessNot enabling more driving is.

It’s not that cars are NEVER going to disappear (although, it seems, they do if you take road space away from them). It’s the zombie-like belief Gordon Chong, Mayor Tory and all the other “hybrid” supporters hold in the primacy of cars as the transportation mode people will use that refuses to die or, at least, face reality. Driving habits have already changed since the time of Fred Gardiner. Evidence heavily suggests it’s a trend that will continue into the future. Investing unnecessarily to fight congestion in the name of cars is doing nothing more than fighting the future, and investing in a dream Fred Gardiner had more than 50 years ago.

As it turns out, a dream that has not aged particularly well.

submitted by Cityslikr


Picking Sides

December 22, 2014

It’s difficult for me to determine which of this is the most dispiritingly fucked up. The number of civilians killed by law enforcement officers in the United States since… well, pick a number, any number. Incredibly, these kind of statistics aren’t routinely kept. The execution style shooting of two New York police officers over the weekend. Or the statement issued in response to the shooting, allegedly by the inaptly named Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, one of the NYPD’s unions:

“The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies, and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”

It is the latest twist in the uneasy saga between New York mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s police force, going back to the election campaign when he talked of reform. The police have viewed his not critical enough opinion of the protests which emerged in the city after yet another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, was killed at the hands of the police and yet another grand jury refused to pursue prosecution.

Not to diminish anyone’s deaths here, not the slain police officers, not the hundreds of civilians killed annually by police and law enforcement officers but the above statement has to be as close to treasonous as you can get if that’s possible in a non-military situation. Officers sworn to uphold the rule of law declaring war, essentially, on those who have granted them that right. ‘We will act accordingly’ uttered threateningly in the direction of an elected leader.

How can that not be the most shocking element in this already shocking story?

The fact that no solid record or numbers have been kept in terms of civilian deaths at the hands of police forces is shocking.

The blind eye we as a society turn to excessive force and brutality from our police officers is shocking.

The ease with which a convicted criminal with acknowledged mental health problems could access a firearm is shocking.

But little undercuts a democracy more than the idea of armed insurrection by those expected to serve and protect.

Am I missing something in those ‘wartime’ words?

I ask this from my privileged perch where my last interaction with the police was getting the speed reduced on a ticket I received in order to avoid losing points. I am not unaware that large segments of our society already see the police in a much less benign way than I do. People of colour. Those with mental health issues. The poor, the indigent, the outsiders.

Police baring their teeth at them is nothing new.

But we, those of us on the safe side, collectively shrug. It’s a dirty job, right? Where angels fear to tread…

Increasingly however, the net of undesirables has seemingly widened. Somehow expressing understanding of mostly peaceful protests against the death of another unarmed black man has made the mayor of New York complicit in cop killings. You’re either with the police or you’re with the police killers. Levelling any sort of criticism of the men and women in blue is now akin to levelling a gun at their temple.

Toronto’s police union president got into the frenzy, penning an editorial in the Toronto Sun, pointing his finger at ‘anti-police rhetoric’ as destabilizing. Carried to the extreme – “police officers are the enemy”, McCormack puts in quotes, although I’m unsure exactly who he is quoting – can only lead to the tragedy we witnessed in Brooklyn on Saturday. Police actions have no consequences. Criticisms of those actions, which amount to anti-police rhetoric, do.

The murder of police officers is indeed a tragedy. But so is the murder of every person who dies at the hands of our police. To say those deaths are beyond questioning, or the anger that arises when those deaths are not properly investigated and prosecuted is somehow anti-police, threatens, if not democracy, maybe that’s too broad a stroke, it undermines the quality of justice.

Some lives are more valuable than others. Everyone is not equal in the eyes of our law. That kind of eats at the heart of our democracy.

This isn’t about us-versus-them. It’s about order-versus-justice. Some of us think out of the former will come the latter. Right now, I’m seeing very little evidence of that. Instead what we’re witness to is that without justice, there is no real order.

— unYuletidely submitted by Cityslikr


An Off-Kilter Moral Centre

October 22, 2012

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled flow of municipal news, information and opinion to give way to our wayward colleague, Acaphlegmic – back from hinterlands unknown – and his thoughts on yesterday’s death of Senator George McGovern.]

*  *  *

If you’re reading this there’s a very good chance that I am much older than you are. The news of George McGovern’s passing, in likelihood, had the same impact on you as being told a distant great-great something or other had died peacefully in their sleep. A compassionate shrug and I’m sorry for your loss. This does not make you a bad person. Only a young one.

But if you find yourself these days disturbed, dismayed, disappointment at the far right drift of our society, the cult of hyper-individualism, the deification of greed as sound economic policy, wars without end waged against vague concepts, you, my friends, are all children of George McGovern.

It can be argued that his landslide loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 American presidential election was the official death of the 1960s (although I would mark the occasion 4 years earlier and the assassination of Robert Kennedy). Dirty hippism was soundly relegated to the fringe sidelines; pet projects and peeves of hapless Marxists, jobless malcontents, the socially and sexually deviant. The counterculture was out. Reactionism was all the rage.

We are all Nixonians now.

(And let’s not take comfort in the naïve notion that the likes of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan would be too liberal for the Republican Party these days. Both would’ve changed their skins to suit their political needs. They were as conservative as they needed to be and are the progenitor’s of our age’s radical right chic.)

By voting so overwhelmingly for Nixon in ’72, Americans signalled to politicians that appealing to our worst instincts, dividing rather than uniting, operating under craven cynicism and not any sort of honourable principles would be the surest way to winning elections. From that point forward, no decent candidate would get anywhere near the White House. Jimmy Carter was merely a blip on the screen, an electoral eeek! at the revealed hideousness of the Nixon administration, a collective statement that we may be bad but not that bad. Four years later, Americans shrugged and proceeded down the low road.

Now hold on a minute, I hear you saying. No decent candidate? What about Bill Clinton? What about Barack Obama?

Read the following passage from the New York Times OpEd on McGovern and imagine either of them taking such a stand in terms of the country’s foreign ‘entanglements’ in Afghanistan, Iraq.

Yet unlike most presidential candidates since 1972, Mr. McGovern had a moral streak that he refused to suppress regardless of the cost to his ambition. During a remarkable campaign speech at fundamentalist Wheaton College in Illinois, Mr. McGovern called upon his audience to grieve not only for American casualties in Vietnam but also for the Vietnamese lives lost from American military actions. Indifference to Vietnamese deaths troubled him, so he insisted that Americans confront their own responsibility for the consequences of war and “change those things in our character which turned us astray, away from the truth that the people of Vietnam are, like us, children of God.” Words like these led critics to castigate Mr. McGovern as a moralistic scold who was angry at his own country.

‘A moralistic scold’. An apologist. Forty years after that election and it is still considered fringe or radical to question the actions of your country and leaders. America, Love It Or Leave remains the norm.

And look not southward so condescendingly, Canada. Our governments can hardly be viewed as paradigms of good democracy at the moment. Don’t believe me? Even Mr. Andrew Coyne righteously and rightfully has his knickers in a twist.

Now, the strength of many 1960s causes has resisted crippling pushbacks. Women’s rights, gay rights, visible minority rights – equality and inclusion in a word or two – continue their inevitable march toward wholesale acceptance. Not unscathed or free of the relentless and mindless attacks from the right thinkers who remain doggedly in our midst. Still, it would be too overly pessimistic and entirely incorrect to conclude that George McGovern and politicians of his ilk ultimately died in vain.

But we are less of and a smaller society because the likes of George McGovern were pushed aside and thought of as being too out of touch with the mainstream, a far left extremism. By demonizing basic common decency and morality as fringe traits, nice to haves not need to haves, we normalized radical, anti-social political thought. Liberals began to quake in their boots at the prospect of being labelled as such. Tories took flight. True and destructive radicalism from the right assumed the pole position in the race that is now winner-take-all.

sadly submitted by Acaphlegmic


Conservatives Versus Cities

October 19, 2012

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s paid so much as even a passing notice of Toronto that we’re presently groaning under the weight of a downtown-suburban political divide. The entirely predictable result of an amalgamated mash-up done at the hands of a disinterested provincial government that possessed an animosity toward the city it was largely unrepresented in. At war with itself so as not to be bother to anyone else.

While it may be an extreme case what we’re experiencing at the moment, I do think it’s indicative of a wider, fundamental phenomenon cities are enduring here in North America. Conservatives, as they have been hard-wired for a few decades now, simply don’t understand and actively distrust cities, especially those parts of a city with fewer detached house than not and higher reliance on public transit to get around. It’s almost a foreign land to most conservatives who run such places like absentee landlords.

Insert ‘Conservatives’ every time you read ‘Republicans’ and ‘Tim Hudak’ or ‘Rob/Doug Ford’ for any Republican politician in these paragraphs from Kevin Baker’s New York Times Sunday Review piece from a couple weeks back, How the G.O.P. Became the Anti-Urban Party.

For Republicans, cities now became object lessons on the shortcomings of activist government and the welfare state — sinkholes of crime and social dysfunction, where Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” cavorted in their Cadillacs. The very idea of the city seemed to be a thing of the past, an archaic concept — so much so that Gerald R. Ford seriously considered letting New York go bankrupt in 1975…

Yet the national Republican Party still can’t get seem to get past its animus toward the very idea of urban life. The only place that Amtrak turns a profit is the Northeast corridor — yet all Republicans can think to do is privatize it, along with the local rail lines on which millions of Americans have been commuting into cities to work for as long as a century and a half. Republicans promise to ban same-sex marriage, make it easier for anyone to get a gun, delegitimize and destroy what they mockingly call “public employees’ unions,” and deport the immigrant workers performing so many thankless but vital tasks.

In short, they promise to rip and tear at the immensely complex fabric of city life while sneering at the entire “urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” There is a terrible arrogance here that has ramifications well beyond the Republicans’ electoral prospects.

Check out recent electoral maps in Canada. Federally, outside of Alberta, many of the country’s biggest cities are islands of red and orange surrounded by a sea of blue. In Quebec in 2011, it was essentially an orange wave.

In Ontario, provincial Tory blue can barely be seen in any of the major cities. Despite the fact Ford Nation failed to deliver the Progressive Conservatives a single seat in the 416 area code in last October’s election, Tim Hudak is doubling down in support of the mayor’s errant subways, subways, subways plan. He doesn’t seem to get that they don’t seem to get how the city functions, what its needs are.

Take for example Mayor Ford’s campaign promise to cut the number of city councillors in half, from 44 to 22 which would match the number of federal and provincial seats in the city. Why do we need 44 councillors when we have just 22 MPs and 22 MPPs, he’s asked rhetorically on numerous occasions. We don’t, is his answer, revealing a stunning and depressing lack of understanding about the differences in the job description between municipal politicians and their counterparts at the other two levels of government.

The municipalities are where the boots are on the ground, where the rubber hits the road. Councillors are the ones who deal with the day-to-day exigencies of residents. Not just the things that are under direct control of the city but the fallout from both federal and provincial legislation and regulation. Ottawa decides to cut funding for refugees, say. Who picks up the slack?

As Daniel Dale wrote in the Toronto Star yesterday, “A $21 million provincial cut to homelessness prevention funding in Toronto will make it harder for thousands of poor residents to stay out of shelters…” Queen’s Park cuts. Toronto is expected to clean the mess. Quoting Michael Shapcott, director of housing and innovation for the Wellesley Institute, Dale writes, “Unanticipated needs may well arise and then the city has to make one of two hard choices: pony up local property-tax dollars, which are of course already scarce and fully allocated elsewhere, or secondly, say to people, ‘Tough luck, can’t do anything, you’re on your own.’”

Cities deliver the services and infrastructure needed to enact the direction other levels of government dictate. Building a school or hospital is fine as far as it goes but how do you get the people there to staff those places? Where do they live? Who picks up their garbage?

Conservatives like to answer those types of questions with some variation of the private sector and be done with it. Infrastructure is for bush league players to handle when there are wars to be fought and deficits to be wrestled with. Conservatives don’t like to spend their money on other people, thus their general abhorrence of taxes. Unfortunately, without a big enough pool of money, cities don’t tend to function all that well.

Once a city gets to a certain size, its needs demand a budget that delivers services and infrastructure that keeps it operational. People must be housed safely. They must be able to get around easily. There is no way to do that on the cheap. Actually, there is but you do it poorly and everyone suffers.

As we saw in the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives got their fingers on a few ridings in the downtown core of Toronto to go along with their romp in the suburban areas of the GTA that help secure them their strong stable majority government. Traditionally, conservatives do well in the suburbs, convincing voters there that the urban cores of their cities are simply sucking them dry with their demands to house the homeless, assist the afflicted, ride around in their fancy, world class subways and for national transit strategies. Hell, Rob Ford convinced enough voters in Toronto that was the case to get himself elected mayor.

But as everyone’s slowly realizing, it’s a false divide. The urban and suburban parts that make up a city and a region are codependent not independent. Neglect of one part, left unchecked, will eventually spread to the wider whole. It’s a contagion that’s adversely affecting cities across the continent. Bridges collapse. Traffic grinds to a halt. Liveability becomes toxic.

In the face of all that, conservatives want to beat a retreat. Otherwise, to deal with the problems and possibilities of cities, you have to govern. Conservatives don’t get governing. Conservatives don’t get cities.

— urbanely submitted by Cityslikr


Chris Hedges’ Bleak House

November 9, 2010

A commenter to a post from last week accused me of being “optimistic”. Downright Pollyannish compared to the likes of one Chris Hedges. Well, I never. Of all the nerve. I dwell in the darkness. No glass is full enough that I can’t see as half empty. Optimistic? How dare you, madam commenter!

Now, I am secure enough in my ignorance to admit that I wasn’t sure who this Chris Hedges was or anything about the book Death of the Liberal Class. A Google search followed and, well oh well, I have to admit that the commenter was absolutely correct in her assessment. I am a veritable Santa Claus, bringing joy and happiness to the wider world when put up against Chris Hedges. Where he’s seen fire and rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.

In my defense, I have not spent any time whatsoever in the world’s war torn hotspots like El Salvador back in the day, the former Yugoslavia back in the day, northern Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s violent suppression of Shia and Kurdish rebels in 1991. I did not leave a high profile post at the New York Times after receiving a formal reprimand from the paper for my denunciation of the Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq. So the opportunity to truly blacken my soul and shrivel my heart has not been offered up to me as it has Mr. Hedges. To such a consummate professional as he, years and 1st person experience combine to provide a dark view. Me? A mere dilettante, an armchair cynic.

So I bought me a copy of Mr. Hedges Death of the Liberal Class from a locally owned, independent bookstore and set down to reading it. Since I’m only a couple chapters in, this isn’t any sort of review but the premise of the book goes something like this: the liberal class, consisting of the media, academia, labour movement and moderate religious institutions, historically acted as the “safety valve” that fought for, at least, “incremental reform” in the face of the vested interests of the “power elite”. But with the rise of the “corporate state”, Mr. Hedges claims that “the liberal class has distorted its basic belief systems to support unfettered capitalism, the national security state, globalization, and staggering income inequalities.” In so doing, it has “relinquished its moral authority” and ceased speaking for the working and middles classes, helping feed the anger that’s given rise to such movements as the Tea Party (and, dare I say it? Rob Ford here in Toronto.)

A dust jacket synopsis to be sure and I bring it up because, despite Chris Hedges’ pedigree including a Pulitzer prize, such a position as he takes in this book will surely relegate him to the fringe bin. That place we put people who spout uncomfortable ideas and question the conventional wisdoms we as a society operate under. It already occurred when Hedges appeared on The Agenda a couple weeks back. During the debate segment of the show, fellow media liberal class member Tony (“The World’s Not Perfect But…”) Keller politely dismissed Hedges’ book treatise as too conspiratorial. Implicit in that argument is the sentiment, and where’s your tinfoil hat, Chrissie?

Why I find all this interesting enough to write about is that at the same time I was discovering Chris Hedges, in an unrelated matter I coincidentally encountered what is now referred to as the Powell Memo. Written in 1971 by Lewis Powell just a couple months before he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, it was sent to Eugene Sydnor, a Chamber of Commerce mucky-muck, and outlined a battle plan for beating back the opponents of America and its free enterprise system. “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack. This varies in scope, intensity, in the techniques employed, and in the level of visibility. There always have been some who opposed the American system, and preferred socialism or some form of statism (communism or fascism). Also, there always have been critics of the system, whose criticism has been wholesome and constructive so long as the objective was to improve rather than to subvert or destroy. But what now concerns us is quite new in the history of America. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.

The irony of this memo is rich and the disengenuousness of it deep. Before assuming his position on the bench, Lewis Powell was a corporate lawyer whose firm represented various tobacco companies. Powell himself sat on the board of Phillip Morris. So yeah, the 60s were a bad time for businesses like tobacco (Damn you, 1963 Surgeon General’s Report!), as government slowly interceded in tying their hands in peddling their poisonous products and marketing them as ‘healthy alternatives’. Powell expresses special disdain for the likes of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and thought it high time for right thinking American business leaders to stand tall against the creeping insidiousness of anti-consumerism and environmentalism.

More interesting about the Powell memo (or at least, more relevant to this discussion) are the pages and pages written, targeting the culprits (**cough** Communists! **cough**) of said attack on the American way of life and the remedies to combat it. Campus, media and the pulpit. That there would be a huge overlap with Chris Hedges’ pillars of the liberal class. Academia, media and moderate religious institutions. So three decades ago influential business leaders targeted what they saw as opponents of free enterprise (“The threat to the enterprise system is not merely a matter of economics. It also is a threat to individual freedom”) and set out to reverse their influence.

Whether or not they succeeded in doing so is not the point of this post. Clearly writers like Chris Hedges think they did. But to dismiss his arguments purely on the grounds of being ‘conspiratorial’ as Tony Keller did is lazy and suspect. Mr. Hedges has earned his dim world view by engaging it on the ground. Those disagreeing with him based solely on the notion of his ideas being too fantastical really only serve to prove the point of his book. We purporting to be of the liberal class are our own worst enemies.

liberally submitted by Cityslikr