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Infuriating Inferiority

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....

Charles Buki | February 12, 2010, 6am PST
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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 closing...it 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.

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