Beyond the Aesthetics of Progress

Reflecting on the events in and in response to Ferguson, Missouri I wrote this on Facebook, “So if you want to know how I really feel: I was talking tonight about how despite my radicalism I had this naive idea that culture would “progress” and politics would have to follow. But now I feel like we’ve only “progressed” aesthetically, sort of, and really what we are left with is a legacy (and current practice) of slavery, colonialism and extreme racism (as well as sexism and many other ugly things). But because of those aesthetics of progress those who call out injustice are often shut down and made to feel crazy and like they are “subjective.”


With so many trolls and often unproductive exchanges I’m reluctant to talk about politics online, but I thought more about this idea of the “aesthetics of progress” and wanted to write a little more about that. In the past ten years I feel lucky to see some kind of “progress” on a political front in the United States – gay marriage is legal in the majority of states, Barak Obama is President,  Sheryl Sanberg and Beyonce feminism is part of the norm, we see big pop culture movies with strong female heroines… and these things are powerful and some of them have a profound impact on peoples’ lives, but at the same time there’s been so many disturbing things happening that it can make all of this supposed “progress” look a bit wan.

A friend who commented on my Facebook page commented, “I agree that we mask our shit much better than we used to, but I also think that we are digging at deeper and deeper psychological levels of hatred. 300 years ago the murder of an unarmed black teen in would have barely caused an eyelash to bat, now it’s world news.” And while I completely agree, I have to ask, at what price this perspective and slow progress?

In our progressive society we see brute racism such in the case of the shooting of Michael Brown, the erosion of a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will have children (or even have access to health care and birth control), violent backlash to feminist critiques of tech and gamer culture (or event the suggestion of the important of diversity) that we’ve seen in gamer gate, the erosion of job security and the middle class at the benefit of the super wealthy… and the those are just the examples I could think about off the top of my head.

I know that addressing injustice is uneven, but this is more about political stagnation and back tracking on political gains, a culture that is hostile to all those who are not white, rich and male under the guise of diversity and empowerment, United Colors of Benetton style. I feel we are living out the specific legacy of George W. Bush’s policies and culture, as well as the influence of groups like the Tea Party – conservatism, restriction on women’s right and belief in trickle down economics – combined with a sense of entitlement and a willingness to ignore connections between issues and events.

There’s nothing new to this, but I’m realizing that what I want is not just aesthetics of progress, but an end to what bell hooks called in her more politically pointed earlier writing the “white, supremacist, capitalist, [heteronormative] patriarchy.” I realize I sound like the late 1990s cultural studies student that I am, but there’s real truth and power in remembering that oppressions act together. It may sound strange to bring up Ferguson, MO and “Gamergate” in one short post, the point is that what we are witnessing is a violent crack down on “difference” and a society that is becoming more and more closed and hostile, while spewing rhetoric of progress and greater equality.

I find myself returning to James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, not necessarily for answers and hope, because he wrote of the same cultural forces and histories 60 years ago, but for a reminder to keep analyzing, keep going deeper into the histories and prejudices that drive these events, and to keep fighting and taking care of ourselves and nurturing the vision for a society we truly want to see. And so I’ll leave you with a (long) quote from Baldwin:

“The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the one that matters; all precious civilizations are simply “contributions” to our own) and are therefore civilizations guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelming undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that the approached the pathological.”

And finally, “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

– James Baldwin, from Notes of a Native Son


Things That Make Me Go “Argh”

"Winning a bike race"

I enjoy biking and public goods like the shore parkway bikelane, a relatively clean New York Harbor, and the Verrazzano bridge (even though bikes and pedestrians cannot go on it)

It’s been a long time since there’s been anything “political” on this blog. I’ve honestly stayed away from it, letting my politics play out in my real life and letting the blog be for posting pictures of pretty things that I find and snapshots and reflections from my adventures near and far. But these past few weeks I’ve found myself the maddest I’ve been about politics since George W. Bush was in office! There’s a few big issues that are sticking in my craw, but I feel that they can all be understood via the prism of economic analysis.

First, the issues:

The lawsuit against NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan over the (amazing!) bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn and general backlash against bike lanes, bikers, and traffic calming measures in New York in general. Never mind that traffic accidents are down, speeding is down on Prospect Park West, bike ridership is up, and business has increased in areas where traffic calming measures have been put into place, such as Broadway.

The backlash against NPR and the move by the federal government to remove all federal funding from NPR and PBS. Despite Republicans constant whining that NPR does not represent them fairly or give them enough air time, NPR often features more republican interviews than democrats and is really one of the few truly balanced news options available for the US. And never mind that PBS is the only channel on television that offers intelligent, non-hyperbolic analysis of the evolving situation in the Middle East (thank you, Charlie Rose).

The move to severely reduce funding for the National Endowment for the Arts on the federal level, and the New York State Council on the Arts on the state level. Yes, we have a deficit, but is cutting funding to the arts, which provides jobs and enriches our culture (in fact, defines it) worth the benefit and savings? I say no.

The move by the federal government to remove all funding from Planned Parenthood. Barefoot and in the kitchen, here we come.

Excuse my sarcasm, but others have done a much better job outlining the situation than I. The question on my mind lately has been, “Where is the coordinated, energetic movement to support and protect these important public assets?” Yes, there’s been campaigns to write your representatives, and some nifty protests, but not widespread, public support. “Why?” I asked myself, “When many people benefit from these resources.” Fortunately, there’s economics.

Basically, it goes back to the theory of public goods versus private goods. A good is public when anyone can access it (as in they are “not excludable”) and one persons use does not diminish another person’s use. Rival goods are when anyone can access it, but a person’s use of that good takes away from another person’s enjoyment of that good. Economist Jonathan Gruber states that most goods we think of as “public goods” are really “impure public goods,” because they are not fully non-excludable or non-rival. ANYWAY… economic theory goes that people undervalue what they can get for free or don’t have to directly pay for. While we all pay for public services like roads, parks, and libraries via our taxes, we tend to undervalue them because we are not directly paying for that service.

Then there’s the problem of a “free rider,” someone who doesn’t pay at all for these services (as in “public goods”) and enjoys their benefits. NPR is a good example. I’m a total free rider. I haven’t given to WNYC in about 4 years, but I listen everyday! Bike lanes are another example. I have absolutely benefited from the work of Janet Sadik-Khan and the Department of Transportation to make the city a more bike and pedestrian friendly place. I just joined Transportation Alternatives last year to put my money where my wheels and feet are, but mostly I just took for granted that things would get “better” for those of us non-drivers.

So my theory is that most people who enjoy services that tend to be championed by the democrats (but really cross party lines and have nothing to do with political parties really) are free riders who enjoy the benefits without thinking about the cost. In addition, people like drivers who are angry that their parking has been reduced by a bike lane and that they can no longer drive 50 miles an hour down a city street are not thinking about the fact that public resources like city streets can be rival in consumption and that their use of streets takes away from the ability of others to use it. In addition, drivers and parkers are “free riders” because they don’t think of cost of streets and parking and when they are asked to bear even a little bit of it (such as in Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal for downtown Manhattan) they freak out and bring a lawsuit.

This also relates to theories of positive and negatives “externalities”- the additional social benefit (positive) or cost (negative) generated by a good or activity. I would say that bike lanes are a positive externality and thus undervalued, and driving is a negative externality, which means that society bears a cost for driving (through air pollution, dangerous and congested streets, etc.) that is not borne by the drivers themselves.

I was totally vindicated because a writer for the Economist came up with almost the exact same theory in respect to the bike lanes! I am so grateful for the Economist I will certainly renew my subscription!

But my message is this: Think about the benefit you receive from the things you value, whether it be safe streets, quality news coverage, reproductive health and choice, and a vibrant arts community, and think about how you can support those. It need not be with money, but think about the opportunity cost here: when we are talking about public goods, whatever we give up, be it our time, money or energy, we get back even more than we could possibly put a price on.