Friday, February 15, 2013

Obama Goes to Chicago; Is Joburg Coming to Detroit and Other U.S. Cities?

Barack Obama is in Chicago today to give a speech about the plague of gun violence and murder in the city.

His visit, and that of the First Lady to Hadiya Pendleton's funeral, were the result of public shaming, and pressure put on the White House from a petition sponsored by The Black Youth Project

Citizen activism can work.

However, beyond the symbolic gesture of the country's first black president visiting a community where black and brown young people are killing each other for sport, what will Obama's visit accomplish substantively? Symbolism matters; however, do symbolic gestures translate into changes in the quotidian, the day-to-day lived realities of people in these violence plagued neighborhoods?

[This is also an empirical question. Is there any research on if elites through symbolic gestures (speeches, outreach programs, public condemnation of offenders) can actually impact local crime rates or other types of social disorganization?]

In thinking through questions of crime and violence in America's central cities, I keep returning to a worrisome coincidence of trends and values that have been developing since the rise of Post-Fordism in the 1960s and the acceptance of Ronald Reagan's "common sense" claim that government is the problem and not the solution.

Once more, neoliberalism hyper-conservatism wins as the American people are unable to disentangle the spurious belief that capitalism, the corporation, and democracy are one and the same.

Austerity is going to be a way of life in the United States. As such, Barack Obama shows no signs of substantively engaging income and wealth inequality. With his bargain to modify the Bush era tax cuts, he actually protected the very rich. There are also no signs that either the carried interest loophole will be closed or a financial transactions tax will be enacted--basic steps that could help to rebuild the country's infrastructure, help to pay down the national debt, and shore up a frayed and broken social safety net.

Major American cities are going broke. Detroit, as an object lesson in this crisis, is abandoning its basic responsibilities to the people of that once great city: police no longer immediately respond to calls for assistance in response to murder and other violent crimes. Chicago police are no longer immediately responding to calls about property crimes. Thus, in both cases, the taxpayer is left to fend for him or herself. 

The result is a creeping state of nature where the basic social contract has been broken. People then have no choice but to form posses, arm themselves, or hire private security forces for protection. The militarization of our communities becomes a de facto state of affairs. And the corporation is left to fill the gaps created by a retraction of State responsibility. 

Grover Norquist must be smiling at these developments. Sheldon Wolin and Henry Giroux must be shaking their heads in how their observations about inverted democracy, biopolitics, and the Age of Disposability have/are coming true.

The rich do not care about the destruction of the public commons, and breaking of the social contract because elites (Congress and other professional bureaucrats are part of this cohort as well) have the resources to hire private security guards, their own fire departments, and send their children to private school. 

Moreover, the destruction of the public good is an opportunity to increase the maldistribution of resources in favor of the top income earners because those monies saved on basic services can then be returned to elites in the form of tax cuts and other subsidies.

Ultimately, if citizens actually believe that "freedom from" is a more important imperative than "freedom to", how can the State ever be given sufficient resources to successfully intervene in basic matters of public safety and health?

The BBC's Louis Theroux is an indispensable TV host and documentarian. He is also very entertaining and skilled, using his nebbish, self-effacing personality to encourage his subjects to let down their guard, and to "be real." 

His investigation of crime, privatization, and hyper-conservatism run amok in Johannesburg is eerily prescient as we look at the condition of America's central cities today. The world is a "world of slums." The challenge: how do we keep America from joining it?


RBGmachine said...

As far as symbolic acts goes, you should look at Stuart J Kaufman who has done research on civil wars and ethnic violence. One of his arguments is that symbolic actions can help mend wounds caused by violence. It's not exactly the same idea but he could be a place to start.

chauncey devega said...

I will have to check that out. Is this related to truth and reconciliation commissions?

Michael Varian Daly said...

Each side waves the Red Flag soaked in The Blood of The Children. The Right's bears a fetus and The Left's a gun. But all this is just so much sound and fury.

As I Posted/Tweeted a few days ago, “No domestic industry left. Massive unemployment. Crushing personal debt. The bankers still free. Drone strikes. Drug war. Social violence. Paralyzed politics. Diminishing public services. 65 US vets committing suicide every single day. 200,000 homeless children nationally.

I could go on and on. That is what Collapse looks like, not tattooed barbarians racing along the highways. The steady slide downward. #SOTU”

The Rulers are hoarding resources while The People fight over symptomology and are blind to the causes. The People battle ferociously over Guns and Abortion while The Rulers quietly buy up water rights...and so on.

But each side has become so ideologically entrenched that has become impossible for them to see anything else. And each is going to pay a very harsh price for that intransigence.

chauncey devega said...

Water is the future/present. How many are even aware of this most basic concern. Water used to be Marx's classic example of how capitalism distorts use and exchange value. Ironically, perhaps now the cost of water is in keeping with his classic theory.

ML said...

"Shaming" the president? That's a despicable comment. Since when has this president had to be shamed into showing compassion?

chauncey devega said...

Snark or seriousness?

q_r said...

Speaking as someone who studies the "world of slums"... America is already pretty much there. Similar to all of the half-joking / half-serious things people tend to say about how the UN should be monitoring our elections, everyone should be taking a serious look at the strategies development organizations have used in developing countries to try and secure housing, work, and basic services for those living in informal settlements and working in the informal economy. Those are the kinds of things we should be trying in our own cities - and in rural areas too, don't forget our trailer parks where the housing options may not meet the basic criteria of durable housing.

The worst thing we can do is ignore what is going on. So many cities have waited decades to officially acknowledge the fact that half their population lives in shanty towns. The trick to dealing with these realities is to say, you know what? We are in crisis. Let's listen to those who are suffering and ask them what they need. Let's acknowledge that they are doing the best they can, and honor their efforts.

Shady Grady said...

The problem from the more individualist pov is that given free reign the state never stops extending its control in the name of "freedom from". So with a few (to me obvious) exceptions I do tend to come down on the "freedom to" side.

I'm from Detroit and the basic issue there which will be repeated elsewhere is poverty, hypersegregation, and capital flight. I don't know the solution to the issue but I don't think anyone else does either. Speaking just to the housing and segregation issue you can't make (nor should you be able to) people live where they don't want to live. Detroit needs the equivalent of a domestic Marshall plan but there is definitely no constituency for that.

chauncey devega said...

Freedom from poverty? Freedom from violence? Freedom from discrimination? If you don't have a minimum standard of living and a proper social safety net how can you enjoy your freedom. You can see I am an FDR type of guy.

With segregation we missed a great opportunity after ww2 to solve lots of problems. Imagine if redlining had not been legal, or if you wanted gov't free money then you had to live in racially integrated areas. Alternatively, if black and brown folks were given free and equal access to the VA and FHA programs along with the GI BIll and could actually use what they earned by being in the service?

chauncey devega said...

Great points. Never mind the homelessness, people living under bridges and tent cities, sro's, informally homeless and living with friends and family.

Do you think microlending and other programs would work here? For what it is worth the UN needs to monitor elections in this country given all the mess during the last few election cycles.

What is your specific area of expertise, sociology? anthro?

q_r said...

There are already some agencies doing microlending within the US, and Kiva is getting in on it as of this year:

I would love to see some of the participatory processes used in putting together slum upgrading projects, sites-and-services offers (basically a latter-day homesteading effort, giving people a piece of land with basic water/sanitation installed) and self-help projects. One of the biggest problems in the US is that thus far we have been avoiding the idea of creating local solutions and getting really far into the specific problems and potentials of a single neighborhood. I think the key to all this is recognizing that the right kind of help will look totally different depending on the specific place we are working in.

On a different note, one of the most inspiring things I have seen is how the urban poor are organizing themselves. There is even a global network to share ideas: I have often wondered how it might transform our mentality, if say the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were to start an affiliate organization to Slum/Shack Dwellers International.

I'm in urban management.

Shady Grady said...

I am obviously much less sanguine that you are about the possibility or desirability of making people integrate when/where they don't want to do so. I agree (obviously) that black people should have equal access to any and all government programs that exist.

But I don't think that then or now most white people (regardless of their political beliefs) want to live or go to school with more than a small percentage of black people. And this can't be forced. People can and do move. Black folks have (at least in the North , which the area with which I'm most familiar) been chasing white folks from city to suburb and back to city with not much changed. We need to find a different framework.

So (and this is lifted somewhat from Harold Cruse's and Derrick Bell's writing) the question is how do black people thrive and survive in a nation where the majority prefers social distance? There are limits to integration.

Invisible Man said...

Say word Che-Vega, say word! Chicagoans are just sad. Obama polled another Al Green Moment on Black in Chicago, Like when the Congressional Black Caucus demanded he pay attention to the Black community like he pays attention to the Latino, white male Gay, Financial, liberal white women, and joe six pack community. Obama told them to basically shut up on National TV. Then to under cut, Black politicians who would dare complain again, he went to the Apollo Theatre and crooned "Lets Stay Together" And all was forgiven. Same with Chicago, its been raining dead bodies of Black children. And Black people have been calling for in Chicago were calling for major structural investments in the Black community on a federal level. Hadiya Pendleton gets killed( who was lucky enought to preform at his Inauguration) and still we have to beg him to come to Chicago. Finally he comes and these Negroes are so happy that he "looked our way" for a couple of hours that the demands for major federal intervention, which is the only thing that's gonna correct decades of neglect( that formed a perfect storm under Obama's Presidency), went out the window. Negroes are still standing around talking about the great speech he gave and how nice it was for him to talk to those young Black males, while the bodies continue to rain. F*ck it, might as well call out the National Guard.

chauncey devega said...

Did he throw grits in our collective faces?

You know how I feel about symbolic politics.