Infuriating Inferiority

Charles Buki's picture

I recently posted an open-ended question on facebook to my friends about Governor Palin, asking for their views. It was remarkable how condescending many of those views turned out to be, just as Gerard Alexander noted in his excellent February 4 Washington Post editorial.

Herewith are my thoughts on the tea party thing - whatever it is - and how it relates to the challenges faced by the New Urbanists and advocates for Smart Growth....

First, about her, let's keep it simple...

  • She is not stupid. Nor however is she is a deep thinker (and it's irrelevant either way).

  • She is perpetually stuck in 11th grade as a C/C- student in the easy classes, with a decent jump shot.

  • In other words, being neither booksmart nor low-IQ moronic...she's kinda average

Second, about what she's saying...

  • Most important thing she ever said was that the nation "needs a commander-in-chief, not a law professor." Why? What does this tell us about her, those who like her, and what this is all about?
  1. This is an anti-authoritarian group on one hand, and, on the other, a group that is hard-wired to the idea that there is an authoritative right way to do things and a wrong way, and they desperately want to be told what to do, so long as it comports with what they think they ought to be doing.

  2. They seek to live in a black and white world, not the gray reality that defines much of modern life. It's not because they are too stupid to grasp nuance, it's that they've never been taught to think for themselves, having been raised to see the world according to an edict based on feeling and dogma.

  3. If the world can be divided into "thinkers" and "feelers", this is more a feeling group, going forward less on evidence and reason and logic than on faith and myth.

  4. This is a group that did not do well in school. This does not mean they are stupid, but, importantly, very likely felt stupid in school. School failed them. They could be geniuses the educational system lacked the ability to tap into and encourage, or they could be, in fact, dumb as stumps; doesn't matter. What matters is that they were not A students in tough classes in high school on their way to Cal and MIT, and there is a lot of resentment in the societal flow of rewards accruing not to them but to those who did make it to Berkeley and Cambridge (substitute Chapel Hill and Palo Alto if you are so inclined).

  5. The crib notes on her hand are a very powerful reminder that this group is not one but many steps behind in intellectual fencing ability, and this inferiority infuriates them for it is a reminder of how they felt in school.

Finally, what the Governor Palin thing adds up to in my mind: resentment resentment resentment. The Stephen Colbert report's humor notwithstanding, this is about:

  • Resenting that the nerd in 8th grade now makes the rules
  • Resenting that the world is rapidly moving past a need for manual labor
  • Resenting that society isn't asking these people for advice
  • Resenting that things are not getting better for them
  • Resenting that the tools needed in 2010 and for the future are tools they lack
  • Resenting that getting these tools means changing in ways they do not want to do

In is kind of irrelevant whether Governor Palin reads books, or not, or gets her advice from the Bible or her husband or some snow oracle (snoracle...hmm)...what is relevant is that the people supporting her don't feel listened to because in a real way they aren't being listened to. This is a train wreck and though these are not my people, I think it's both good manners and in everyone's self interest to stop criticizing and caricaturing these Opreyland Bible Gun Truck Hunter types and listen, actually listen to what they have to say. It might turn out that they are unintelligible, though I doubt it. When people feel listened to and honored - rich or poor, educated or not, black or white - they can be remarkably contributive. I am convinced that there is a middle of this country deeply at fault here, on one hand laughing at the Tea Party goers and labeling them one minute, and the next doing the same to kids from the poor urban neighborhoods with terms like Ghetto Hoodlum Slum Criminal.

How in the world does this connect the challenges of New Urbanism to the liberal condescension and the Tea Party and Governor Palin?

In our field of planning and urban studies, we see this in the Smart Growth movement and in New Urbanism.

A small handful of designers (the nerds in 8th grade who were good in school) with real ability and talent (and some rather effete views of the world to be sure) have vilified the places most Americans have become accustomed to calling home, and derisively labeled it suburbia (with its discontents) (yes this is a triple entendre).

What some of the New Urbanists and many advocates for Smart Growth have done while demonizing large-lot cookie-cutter subdivisions is to demonize the people living inside them.

Back at CNU III and again at CNU VII this point was raised - inarticulately perhaps - and it was glossed over by both the design set from Oregon and Florida and New Haven, and the policy set from Brookings. It remains by-passed as a serious issue and imperils the policy genius of what's taking place in HUD-EPA-Transportation today due to a continued derision of suburbia as form, but which will be heard instead as derision of those who choose to live there.

These people of the cul-de-sac (sounds like a NOVA show), regardless of the aesthetic value of their ranch style homes, lead happy lives, raise delightful children, and have fun dinner conversations with their families. They pay their taxes, mow their yards, work hard, and have a lot to contribute. I am convinced the urban planning irony of our time is our intention to pave over these realities in a manner very like how the subdivision developers we decry wreck greenfields.

Until planners begin to truly understand that people who like cul-de-sacs and are scared of inner city violence and who want good schools are not the enemy, suburbia and it's residents will not ever see the connection between their settlement and larger issues like environmental degradation and urban core socio-economic segregation.

This is remarkably similar to the way liberals and their condescending ways are treating the people who find in Governor Palin something they can relate to.

We all have our uniforms. Ford F150s or Volvos. Cycling spandex or Carhartt boots. Black turtlenecks or metrosexual architectural eyewear that says you're cool going either way but wish to be seen as hip whether or not you are (tongue in cheek here lest it not be obvious). Such projections divide us into groups but they also risk oversimplification.

A bit of good old fashioned listening, so people feel heard and are heard, is long overdue. In its absence as the default manner of treating one another, people resort to shouting.

Charles Buki is principal of czb, a Virginia-based neighborhood planning firm specializing in deep dive analysis, strategy development, and implementation of revitalization plans.



Michael Dudley's picture

Now Who's Labelling?

There's a lot here that I agree with. There is widespread anger at government, and this can’t be dismissed because of a few barely literate placards. It is a problem whenever we classify others, and this leads, as you say, to oversimplification and shouting on all sides. We as planners do need to be listening to people, regardless of political beliefs.

However, you lost me at "liberals and their condescending ways."

Not only is this label, in fact, intended to be pejorative it is also a gross oversimplification. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 71% of Americans have an unfavourable view of Palin (see so negative attitudes on her and her followers are not likely confined to "liberals" (however that's defined -- here in Canada our official opposition is the Liberal Party of Canada, so we wear the term proudly).

As well, the Tea Party movement itself is hardly monolithic, having a libertarian, anti-war and anti-imperialist Ron Paul wing, which you don't mention.

At a basic level, I'm also not sure I accept your argument that Smart Growth advocates demonize suburbanites merely because they oppose the suburban development pattern. This, too, is an oversimplification that, in turn, feeds into the very demonization against planning that one finds in the writings of the "antiplanner" Randall O'Toole, Wendell Cox etc.

Charles Buki's picture

It's not anti-planner at

It's not anti-planner at all; it's urging that we be clear when we are addressing form, clear when we are tackling community, and more capable when we try to blend these equally important efforts than we often are.

There's also enough subrosa tongue in cheek here - or one would have thought - for alert readers catch the oversimplified simplifications.


Perhaps this message is still needed, but I can't help thinking that its accuracy at CNU III (1995 for the rest of us) and CNU VII (1999) may not be an indicator of its accuracy a decade later. The failure to listen to and respect people is never a great approach to public policy, urban design or land planning.

Are we still guilty of it? You bet.

But the wholesale dismissal of suburban residents and the denigration of their needs, wants and values is really not a feature of smart growth advocacy in 2010. I have been as guilty as anyone of putting down the 'burbs, but I don't work with anyone today who thinks that suburban development is not a valid - if extremely costly - choice for local governments and families.

All liberals deserving of the label are probably excruciatingly aware that they do not listen carefully enough to enough points of view. We create shortcuts and accept trusted reporters' viewpoints because none of us has the bandwidth to register all we need to know. When someone like Ms. Palin comes along, it is difficult to ignore the reflex reaction - dismissal, disgust, and disdain - and the accompanying reflex of tarring all of her followers with the same brush. (And if I had feathers...they're into that sort of thing, aren't they?)

But that is my personal reaction, not my professional, policy-making reaction. It may not be realistic to divide those worlds and selves any more, but we deserve some credit for trying - and for investing years' worth of scarce resources in listening hard.

Funny Thing

As a libertarian-leaning person living in the middle of "Progressive-land" in San Francisco, I thought the funny thing was that when I read your points, is that they also describe exactly what a "typical tea-partier" would say about a "typical liberal", with the exception of numbers 4 & 5 (but all you have to do is substitute monetary success with academic success). It definitely cuts both ways. Listening across the aisle is a very difficult thing to do and I think promoting the trend is a very good idea, especially on land use issues.

Please spare us...

I had a difficult time continuing to read your commentary after referencing Sarah Palin's "nice rack." Please, don't talk about women in this way in professional, planning related commentaries.

Charles Buki's picture

Lighten up

Recommend you try a lot harder to understand the piece, or stop trying.


The substance of the piece seemed to be located far down in the article. The point is, talking about women in that way is disrespectful and not professional.

The downfalls of political correctness

As a woman in the professional world, I understand your discomfort when the author of this article referenced Sarah Palin's "nice rack" (reference now deleted). However, I feel your objection to it is largely invalid. Though it is not invalid. It is invalid in so far as it keeps us - and many women on this point specifically - from moving past the discomfort. Saying it is invalid goes against a lot of hard-nosed, albeit old-school feminist ethics. I generally can't stand feminists because they're so hung up. But I did shave my head.

Sarah Palin is average. She's largely terrible. The blonde cheerleader in high school was also average and largely terrible because she did nothing but exist and fling her hair to become popular.

New Urbanism does the same thing; style lacking in much needed substance. But we must move past being offended by calling these things out to understand the root of why Palin and New Urbanists get so much attention - we must be smarter and more adult than simply getting upset when someone points out a largely known and hard to avoid truth.

In any event, a license should be the least we permit in prompting missing dialogue. In the absence of candor in the planning fields, we have no real debate about people and place. No give and take. Lost in the process are those who live in places some regard as ugly, and stupid for having chosen to live there, but who have valid things to say, and, I gather, lead perfectly happy lives.

So, again, I understand your discomfort when the author of this piece takes his arrogant finger and points it at the seemingly underlying elephants in the room, but if he doesn't - if we don't - a whole range of nasty fissures of gender inequality and social ills will continue to be convenient excuses for avoiding conversations we desperately need to be having.

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