Generalizations vs. Details, the hidden story.

I received this message from a dear friend of mine:

“Jim, I would argue that in many ways we’ve remained very similar – instead of public slavery, we have private slavery in the form of prisons. Instead of bloody murder, we slow clotting of arteries from shitty food for the poor. Instead of legalized segregation, we have property tax/gentrification/and empty lots, which keep cities looking super segregated. So, yes, I am very critical of what I see…and NO, I am lured by the rhetoric of progress.”

And I think of so many different things that my mind reels, it does. Let me try to disentangle this and make some sense of this simplicity, or shall I say, “sloganeering” – or, “platitudes” – frankly, I’m not sure what to call it – and I’m not looking for a disparaging label, or a sarcastic one, nor anything amiss, but merely to figure out what to call this sort of breezy sentiment, no doubt dearly held, and perhaps with good reason, for the thinker is a complex woman, this I know. These sorts of things are uttered daily by millions in this nation, commentators on this blog included. She had made a facebook post about minstrel shows and racism, I commented, this came through to me … and so, what does it mean, and what sense can be made of it? Or, if not sense, what parameters can we see? Yes, parameters … for life is filled with parameters, those vague lines at the end of absolutes … for absolutes are very rare, and fuzziness is paramount, and thus parameters are better to use than any other rhetorical device.

Let me start with “I am very critical of what I see” – oh dear, indeed. 100% agreement. Good start.

Then, “NO, I am [not] lured by the rhetoric of progress.” – I think the lady forgot the word I put in brackets … hey, people rush in writing nowadays, I can fill in the blanks. Well, I know her, so I know she is Not lured by the rhetoric, but truly seeks an answer … and so, yes, “progress” is vastly overrated, and often ill defined. For “progress” is a wobbly term. Progress to a criminal would mean he’s obtained the goods, progress to the robbed means he keeps his goods. Progress, then, clearly, is different for different people. The examples abound in politics. Progress for “progressives” is more taxation. Progress for “libertarians” is less taxation. So, say I did not know this lady, but read her anon … of what side of “progress” would I think she be? I cannot say, not from this. And so, whenever I see people write such words and phrases as “we need progress” – or “reform” – or “A better way.” I can both agree in the general, and perhaps vehemently disagree, or agree, in the particular. Where is the devil, the details? What “progress” do we speak of? It’s not that this lady is either purposefully or negligently using this word in this way … it’s that our society has morphed as a near whole to think this way. Yes, indeed, I’m for “progress” – but, now, let me hear your definition of what “progress” might be … and either I shall be for or against that particular sort.

If a person is “lured by the rhetoric of progress” – well, then, there’s no help for them. To be lured by rhetoric shows a compliant non-thought I can’t contemplate. I know this lady, so I know this can’t be true … but, what if I read some person I didn’t know, commenting on FB or a blog? Well, then, I’d worry, and quibble.

Now, to a meaty bit: “Instead of legalized segregation, we have property tax/gentrification/and empty lots, which keep cities looking super segregated.”

– and well, since property taxes, and the zoning and housing codes which lead to gentrification and empty lots are indeed “Legal” and thus, the segregation, if that’s what’s sought, is indeed “legalized.” But, true, it’s very much hidden in the, um, “rhetoric of progress” – and in this case “community progress” or “redevelopment” or other such modern terms of the “urban renewal” sort. Well, the solution would seem to be, to rid us of the very specter of “legalized segregation,” would be to rid us of such things as downtown development districts. These are groups of dogooding folks all for “progress” and much steeped in the “rhetoric” of development, renewal, rebirth … oh, the plethora of terms can be overwhelming: civic growth, zoning enhancement, maximizing property values, increasing city tax revenues … there are many terms. It’s a glossary one would need, or, since they are in effect synonyms, perhaps a mere thesaurus of current terms in government.

As for “empty lots”: there are many reasons for them. One could be the zoning … either the land has been zoned beyond its economic value, or under it. I find that Phoenix, were the lady lives, is a very zoned city, with many empty lots. I find that Houston Texas, a very unzoned city (it having no zoning laws or commission to speak of, and one may build what one wants wherever,) has a much less segregated situation, and many fewer empty lots than Phoenix. This is because, I believe, the land is allowed to go to the value that people set for it in reality – rather than what some planner or zoning commission wishes it to be for his purposes, which is often “progress” of course – -while no zoning is considered somehow against “progress” – for when people do as they wish, well, the negative affects on progress are quite large, most people seem now to agree – for we are moving to a society where “experts” and “politicians” decide what “progress” is – even if the people don’t want it or the economics can’t sustain it. We are sacrificing reality for platitudes. (I’m trying to stop that.)

Then, too, there are empty lots for many reasons relating to ownership disputes, legal issues, and the costs of environmental impact statements, and too, some owners just want to wait for a little while longer (which is their right, yes?) and so, any individual lot in a city might have one or more reasons to be empty at this time. Let us look at that lot individually and see why, rather than talk about “empty lots” in some general way.

Then too, many cities for decades, under the rubric of the “rhetoric of progress” pushed for every wider geographical spread – why, some cities in this nation have snaked their borders down thin strips of highway, or on to lots that they wish to keep empty (Jacksonville Florida devoured a whole county, making it the largest square mile city in the nation, and thus, oddly, proportionately, way ahead of anyone in the “empty lot” brigades.) – or, weirdly, gobbling up legally a lot of land, but leaving a smidgeon here or there out of their borders. Hammtrack, Michigan is one such place, South Tucson another, Belair, Texas yet another – cities completely surrounded by their much larger counterparts – Detroit, Tucson and Houston being the biggies – precisely by the most local of folks, in those small areas, who made sure that they had a different zoning experience, including empty lots, than the surrounding metropolis. These localities engineered what they have … it didn’t come because of any other reason than the um, “rhetoric of progress” as those people saw fit. Some cities allow “wards” or other small divisions to make decisions like this too – I’m not familiar enough with Phoenix to know the zoning code and divisions, sorry.

And still, too, there’s a great need for inner city emptiness, aka, parks, playgrounds, environmental easements, natural areas … again, lots of terms for very similar things. Why must every city be dense to the point of no more empty lots? Now, if you say, well, those lots are weed infested … no, they can’t be … weeds were invented by weed killer chemical companies, and farmers … they are wild flowers, of a less popular sort, perhaps. And then, too, think of what loss it would have been to today if the empty lots which now are consumed by many of the nation’s great urban parks were filled to the brim with, oh, say gentrification or “Affordable housing” of their times?

Now, gentrification, and “affordable housing:” well, zoning raises the price of housing. So does popularity of a city. So does rent control. Limit a thing, the price goes up. Limit housing allowable on a parcel, the price must rise to meet the costs. Land is more dear now in Phoenix than in Detroit – the former is a growing city, the latter a shrinking one. That there are vast stretches of empty Detroit does not mean, however, that we should have kept those people there, doing the same jobs they did decades ago. No, they moved (allegorically at least, for some went elsewhere,) to Phoenix – lowering the property values in Detroit and raising them in Phoenix. Well, I have never seen it writ in stone that a city must survive for ever. Ur and Babylon, Thebes and Troy … gone with the wind. And how will one keep people in a city of empty lots like Detroit, when they want to move to a city like Phoenix? Are we to preserve one at the expense of the other? Because the “we” got themselves into power and position to make sure that “we” kept our city as “we” wished – the people be damned?

I blame too such things as the Community Redevelopment Act. I blame things like legally pushed easy mortgages, that made it rational individually to move to the suburbs, out of the inner city, and thus collectively lessening the demand for in-filling lots within the city. There are many laws and policies of this nature that pushed people to diffuse themselves, rather than concentrate. Yes, cars had an influence. But weirdly, it was Marx who proposed moving people out to the suburbs, and out of the cities … and it’s now, “leftists” and “progressives” who complain most about the phenomenon. I can’t help if people don’t know their own ideological precedents.

Then this “gentrification” – what is is? Oh, it’s people making money, and living better, and in better homes and gardens, so to speak. And I happen to know that the lady of my interest this day lives in an inner city close to downtown place – with indeed empty lots, and gentrification. And what of it? Let’s look at what happened in lo these years; First the city of Phoenix pushed its perimeter far out to the hinterlands and gave every incentive to move on out there – yes, politicians did this.

Then, poor Mexicans bought up many of the “decrepit” (Aka, untended,) houses of this downtown. No “white” folks wanted them – but, oppositely to “racism” this abandonment of downtown neighborhoods by “rich whites” let “poor Mexicans” buy up houses cheaply by American standards, and poor standards in comparison to the newer houses in Phoenix – but to those Mexicans it was the first time in their life they had such luxury as a yard, a nice house, and something they could own … they were immeasurably better than they were in Mexico – and if you’ve been to Mexico you can make the comparison easily enough.

Now, thirty years on, the politicians of this generation wish to push folks back downtown, so they jigger the tax code and the incentives and the zoning, and now the “rich” – aka, the formerly middle class and poor who left the city decades ago need to be lured back – and too the numbers of millionaires and thousandaires has vastly expanded, while the percentage of the people who are “poor” has stayed relatively the same in these 30 years, and the poor themselves have changed places, the demographics of today vastly different than 30 years ago. So, they come back downtown – and buy the houses their parents and grandparents forsook, and the “poor” Mexicans who bought the house in a distressed condition for $40,000 now sells it for $140,000. He’s as happy as an nopale cactus, but dogooders think he’s being “forced out” but this bad thing called “gentrification.”

This is gentrification – the “poor” making a killing in real estate, so that they now can move to the suburbs, or a bigger or newer house nearby, because of the influx of the former poor, now rich, come back. And in this cycle, the more governments put impediments or incentives in the way the more drastic it becomes, but would happen anyway. Without the intervention perhaps 10 houses a year in a neighborhood, up or down, rather than the 100 houses a year up or down with the intervention. And this governmental intervention must be occurring, or otherwise the many people who call for all sorts of government action to make people do this or that really aren’t rational … for either this government push/pull is true, or it is not. Which do you decide?

Meanwhile, in this vast archipelago of known and pushed incentives, policies, taxes, laws, zoning, and the um, unknowable crass desires of individuals all combine in a morass that mere platitudes couldn’t sort out … which is the very reason I don’t even want anyone to try, but to let what happens happen organically. Remove the zoning, the policies, the incentives, the laws, the development districts – and go the Houston route – let it flow – and in this way, Phoenix might become the 4th Largest city in America like Houston is, rather than the 5th, while the former 5th, Philadelphia sinks even deeper into the governmental morass, on the way to becoming Detroit, which had a million people, but is half that now. And for someone in Phoenix to worry about the condition of their city now seems to portend that they should have stopped the changes, and let Philadelphia stay the 5th Largest city in America. What of the empty lots of Philly? They come about because of the growth of Phoenix. Or Houston.

As for “prison” – end the marijuana laws – legalize it. It’s the cause of nearly ½ or more of our current prison population. The current president, his attorney general and now, ex-congressman Patrick Kennedy, and many others, have all come out repeatedly for even tougher drug laws, tougher enforcement. You want to give young black man a break? Legalize pot. Alas, this lady has had an unsavory experience with the weed, which I shall not delve into but to point out that it colors the view she holds of the issue. Simply put: If you are for tougher drug laws, you are for more prisons and more criminals. Indeed, in every area of human endeavor – which is always real – the more laws, which are fake, or artificial, the more criminals. Stop criminalizing people and what they do – and craft laws to deal with what people do – and not what you wish them to be or do. Liberty is not about force, it’s about allowance.

If you wish to keep Social Security the same, then you are against poor black families, because black men die younger, and their alleged benefits are simply subsumed into the general fund – allow private accounts, inheritance of input funds, and other measures to rid us of the Social Security bureaucracy and offices and forms, and awards and such and power and control, and let people keep their own money, even if it is still necessary to require everyone to save $20 or so a week for their working lives.

Want to end “racism” by showing the few errant white folks left that blacks can make something of themselves? Then end the drug wars, and let those people do what they do best. It’s true about Chinese Laundries and Restaurants. It’s true about Cuban mechanics and cigar rollers. It’s true about Korean green grocers and Jewish diamond merchants. It’s true about Punjabi taxi drivers and Mexican gardeners. Different nationalities have always trended to one or two occupations until they join the mainstream. Blacks were kept out of the mainstream by first the Democratic Party’s insistence on the laws of the Old South and Jim Crow until as late as the late 1970s – well within our life times the Democratic Party was screwing blacks with wild willful abandon. Then second, too, they, as this current president has done, have ramped up the drug prosecutions. Let those people go. Legalize pot. End of problem.

Erase their “criminal” records. Let them go into business. Hell, I’m usually against government money for business – but, given the large scale screwing, give every black man in prison for marijuana $100,000 on the way out and tell him “here’s the new rules, sell as you wish, be honest, go forth, earn money, here’s your start up capital.” “40 acres and a mule” if you wish to call it. Remember, the Republicans promised that, the Democrats denied that … place blame accordingly. Don’t tell me that the past 10 or 20 years or even 30 years since Reagan somehow eliminated the great weight placed on blacks by Democrats – none of who have ever apologized or made amends. I often wonder, who switched the slavery aspects, if my correspondent wishes to express it like, from overt slavery to hidden slavery? Why, the Democrats. It’s history; deal with it. Don’t blame today’s people for what those other people did not so long ago.

As for “fatty foods” and clogged arteries – that’s, alas, more a matter of genetics than “forcing” anyone to eat any particular foods. One might eat healthily just as inexpensively, and often more so, than out at fast food joints. However, my own grandparents and great-grandparents ate fats and cholesterol by the bucketful and lived to their 80s, all thin and healthy. Genes have a major part – but, we’re told we’re all the same, we’re all equal, there’s no differences, and, worse, any that are apparent, shall never be discussed or considered, for that’s “Unequal” and “Unfair” – – yes, it’s unfair, that I as a European-heritage 55 year old male can consume prodigious amounts of sugars, booze, cheese and fat and suffer not a whit for it – while a African-heritage 55 year old male could hardly keep up with me. On the other hand, I can’t eat Jalapenos or other hot foods. It’s chemical, it’s natural, and, I dare say, racial, because, alas, evolution has not been bringing the races together, but separating them.

We don’t like to think of that, that we could be like Darwin’s finches, each on our own Galapagos Island, and each slowly, inexorably, evolving away from each other. The history of species is diversification, not convergence. I can’t help that. We have now come to say it’s not true for humans. How to keep certain folks away from cheese, fat, booze and sugar … well, there’s no law that could do so – and our culture won’t hear of it. And perhaps I shall be pilloried for even bringing this aspect up … but, it’s reality. Same with Mexicans, and others to the south … Europeans gave up hot peppers for booze, and Mexicans got hot peppers and can’t handle booze. There’s a historical natural reason, after all, that only European peoples made strong spirits and wine, and cheese, out of all the peoples on earth – but avoided the hot stuff.

This is but the briefest look at, what is on the face of it, a normal comment in America today. This is why I dislike such statements … not the makers of such statements … but the very fact that we have all nearly abandoned reason for platitudes and stock phrases. And so “tweets” have overcome exposition of an idea.

And with that out of the way this evening, I stop, before I make it a book.

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