Friday, January 27, 2012

The high-rise conundrum

In the film “Shame,” currently in cinemas, the Anglo-German hunk Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict who can never seem to get any satisfaction. His quandary is symbolized by his sterile, high-tech apartment located in a luxury high-rise in lower Manhattan. Just as the suburbs almost automatically symbolize familial dysfunction in the movies, so do residential high-rises signal anomie.

Some high-rise buildings are clearly problematic places to live, but others are not. How did they become so stigmatized? The bum rap is due in the first instance to the writer Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), who fifty years ago published her “Death and Life of the Great American Cities,” a book that proved incredibly influential. Earlier Jacobs had taken on the formidable New York City planner Robert Moses. She organized a coalition to oppose his Lower Manhattan Expressway and won. Then she took on an even more powerful adversary, the French-Swiss starchitect Le Corbusier.

In the 1920s Corbu sought to address the ilots insalubres (slum blocks) in Paris and other older French cities through his Radiant City concept. Put simply, this is the formula of the “skyscraper in the park.” By in essence verticalizing the street, Corbu sought to provide light and air for everyone at higher densities than heretofore.

The Radiant City ideal found little favor in interwar France, but it was widely adopted in Britain and the US. The mistake made by Corbu was a kind of Pavlovian one: the assumption that a change in housing configuration would be instrumental in reconditioning behavior. Instead, existing behavioral patterns tend to reassert themselves in the new settings. Ironically, Jacobs made a similar mistake, though her candidate for the reshaping situation was different: low rises with ready access to busy streets.

Jacobs’ larger context was her excoriation of modernist planning policies on the grounds that they were devastating existing inner-city communities. She maintained that modernist urban planning disrespects the city, failing to recognize the actual situation of human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. The modernist planners used deductive reasoning to find principles by which to plan and reconstruct cities. Among these policies the most destructive was urban renwal, then widely touted as the solution to many urban ills. Nonsense, said Jacobs. These policies, she claimed, destroy communities and innovative economies by creating isolated, unnatural urban spaces.

Ever since the appearance of Jacobs’ pathfinding 1961 book, residential high-rises have had an unsavory reputation. Some do seem to deserve this critique, while others do not. The reasons are complex, but the argument so eloquently set forth by Jacobs cannot be readily dismantled by adducing a few success stories and setting aside the many failures. That tactic borders on anecdotal evidence.

Another source of the common disparagement of residential high-rises is more specific--the housing projects that sprang up in many American cities after World War II as places for the poor to live. The sites were usually created by aggressive slum clearance, euphemistically termed “urban renewal.” Many fine old buildings were lost in this way. But eventually the projects themselves became, in many instances, notorious for crime, drugs, and general misery. Many have been torn down as hopeless.

The emblematic instance of this fate is the the Pruitt-Igoe houses in Saint Louis. Designed by George Hellmuth and World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki (of Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth), the 33-building complex opened in 1954, its modernist towers touted as a remedy to overcrowding in the city’s tenements. Yet rising crime, neglected facilities, and fleeing tenants led to its demolition-—in a spectacular series of implosions—-less than two decades later. One event was televised, and vivid photos have circulated ever since.

A current revisionist film seems to argue that this destruction was unnecessary. I have not seen the “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” only the trailer (, but I gather that the documentary attempts to reframe the conventional wisdom, suggesting that Pruitt-Igoe might have thrived under different circumstances. No prizes for guessing what the culprit is alleged to have been: institutionalized racism. In fact, as I noted above in discussing Le Corbusier’s fallacy, new residents of such buildings do not generally experience the change as transformational. Instead, they bring with them their own existing culture. And the culture of the rural South, whence many of the black residents had come, provided little preparation for this bewildering new environment.

Focusing on one such project may make for a gripping documentary, but the decline and destruction of Pruitt-Igoe has been paralleled over and over again in American cities. Surely the accounts of the decline of these buildings cannot all be “myths.” In Chicago no fewer than seventy-seven dangerous and dilapidated projects have been demolished in recent years.

On March 30, 2011, the final high-rise of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago came down. The building-by-building dismantling of Cabrini-Green had unfolded over ten painstaking years.  Originally constructed in the post-war era to accommodate the massive influx of African Americans from the South, the Chicago housing projects had become symbols of violence and poverty. Once home to 15,000 residents, Cabrini-Green in particular stood as an example of failed urban planning. Life was chaotic and often violent for residents of the poorly-maintained buildings. The housing project gained notoriety in 1981 after a spree of gang shootings left eleven residents dead in only three months. The violence continued, claiming the life of a seven-y ear old in 1992, slain by a stray bullet as he walked to school. The most violent attack occurred in 1997, when a nine-year old girl was brutally attacked, raped, choked, and poisoned in the complex, leaving her unable to walk or talk. In 1981 mayor Jane Byrne moved into the complex for a few months to signal the seriousness of the housing project’s problems. But to little avail. It took three more decades for the monstrosity finally to disappear.

In summary, the continuing disparagement of residential high-rises stems from two causes: the Jacobs campaign against modernist planning in general, and the more specific issues stemming from the morass of public-housing projects. Obviously the latter is a subset of the former. Yet there is a spill-over phenomenon that affects our judgment of even luxury buildings such as the one the Fassbender character inhabits in “Shame.” Probably these negative sentiments should be more nuanced, but one documentary film won't do it.


Saturday, January 21, 2012


Several years ago, when I was experiencing a time of grief, I found great consolation in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which I had never read before. I was aware that the Roman emperor relied on the teachings of Epictetus for many of the ideas and precepts he expressed. Only now, though, have I found the opportunity to make a close (well, fairly close) study of that thinker.

Epictetus (ca, 55 CE-135 CE) was a Greek sage affiliated with the Stoic movement. He was born a slave at Hierapolis in Asia Minor, and resided in Rome until banishment when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece where he lived and taught for the rest of his life. His teachings were recorded and published by his pupil Arrian in the Discourses. Philosophy, he held, is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. Epictetus believed that there was a fundamental distinction between the relatively restricted sphere that is within our control, and the vastly larger realms that are not. Still, in keeping with the concept of prohairesis or volition, we must act forthrightly when we can, as happiness depends on this All the same, external events are beyond our control, and we must accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power. However, this realism does not mean a kind of monastic retirement from the world. As part of the universal city that is the cosmos, human beings have a duty to care for all fellow humans.

After some reflection, I have concluded that there are two obstacles to my signing on to this program.

1) Epictetus recommends a highly constricted sphere of human agency. While we may experience sympathy, we shouldn’t even think of trying to affect the larger sphere of affairs that lies outside our control. Among other things, the minimalism thus commended would discourage engaging in movements for social change (something that has been important to me), or indeed making any large commitments. As regards human action, small is beautiful. But is it? Isn’t it better to have fought the good fight, even though what was sought did not turn out to be fully attainable?

2) The observable regularities of the cosmos provide, the Stoics generally believed, the template for personal morality. Observing such profound consonances will secure the benefit of “living in accord with nature.” This attempted derivation looks very much like an improbable journey from the realm of is to that of ought--a philosophical mistake trenchantly pointed out by David Hume. Moreover, the notion of living according to nature means the downgrading of living “unnaturally,” however defined. Over the course of European intellectual history, the dubious concept of the unnatural has been deployed to forbid all sorts of harmless, even rewarding behavior, including same-sex love. The whole construction, sometimes termed Natural Law, must be rejected.

A final caveat has occurred to me. Now that I have reached old age, with its necessarily more limited opportunities, maybe I can subscribe to the two precepts just noted more easily. To do that, though, would be to betray my earlier self.

PS. One iconoclastic Internaut has come up with the following summary of Epictetus' teaching: "Some things are up to us and others are not. Up to us are opinion, impulse, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is in our own action. Not up to us are body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own action." A caricature? Probably, but so be it.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Creative destruction

Lately the term “creative destruction” has gone viral. The concept received its classic formulation in the work of Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1883 –1950), who taught at Harvard University in his later years. in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter used the term to describe the disruptive process of transformation that accompanies radical innovation.

In Schumpeter's vision of capitalism, innovative entry by entrepreneurs was the force that sustained long-term economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies and laborers that enjoyed some degree of monopoly or oligopoly power derived from previous technological, organizational, regulatory, and economic paradigms. Schumpeter’s thinking can be traced back to his 1939 book Business Cycles. Here the Western world first learned about Nikolai Kondratieff and his long-wave concept with its cyclical patterns. Such cycles, Schumpeter believed, were caused by innovations.

Current examples include the decline of the Kodak firm, occasioned by the rise of the digital camera, and the insecure status of print newspapers, threatened by Internet sites such as the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast. Not so long ago, the cassette tape replaced the 8-track, only yield in turn to the compact disc, itself being undercut by MP3 players. These are technological manifestations of the process of creative destruction.

Sometimes the traditional form does not disappear, but becomes marginal. In this way legitimate theaters, once found in virtually every American city and town, were eclipsed by movie theaters, now threatened by Netflix. Still, we can expect to retain some theaters of both kinds for the foreseeable future.

To be sure, creative destruction can cause temporary economic distress. Layoffs of workers with obsolete skills can be one consequence of new innovations valued by consumers. While a continually innovating economy generates new opportunities for workers who can acquire the necessary skills to participate in the newer enterprises, creative destruction can cause severe hardship in the short term--and in the long term for those who cannot acquire the skills and work experience.

This downside must be frankly acknowledged. Yet some analysts have pointed out that in the long run society as a whole enjoys a rise in overall quality of life due to the accumulation of innovation. For example, 90% of Americans were farmers in 1790, while the number had declined to 2.6% in 1990. Over those 200 years farm jobs were destroyed by exponential productivity gains in agricultural technology and replaced by jobs in new industries. Today farmers and non-farmers alike enjoy much more prosperous lifestyles than their counterparts in 1790.

Schumpeter’s concept might be called the Kali Principle, after the Hindu goddess who presides over both destruction and creation. Significantly, Hinduism is imbued with a cyclical concept of history.

Schumpeter’s theory has been compared with Karl Marx's idea of the recurring crises of capitalism. Yet Marx thought that these crises were propelling the present economic system to its its doom, when it would be replaced by socialism. By contrast Schumpeter held that the situation was normal: superannuated things were constantly yielding to newer ones, thus assuring the continuity of the system. In this way the overall picture is homeostatic. Paradoxically, stability is achieved by instability.

Full disclosure requires me to state that Joseph Schumpeter is one of the modern economists I most admire.


Monday, January 09, 2012

A pivotal summer

Looking over my Memoirs (at the allied site, Homolexis), as I have been doing these days, I noted an extraordinary coincidence. In the summer of 1973 I had too unrelated experiences that shaped the rest of my life.

In July I went to San Francisco for a month, to assist in recovering from a serious illness. I was lucky enough to stay in the apartment (actually I was cat sitting) of a very intelligent Danish woman who was away for the month. With a well-stocked library, Lili J. was an enthusiast for libertarianism. At the time, I had a stereotyped and negative view of that political philosophy, but I couldn't help picking up the books. The more I read, the more sense it made. Once I got back, I read everything I could find by Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Milton Friedman, among others.

I have since moderated my adhesion to libertarianism (as some enthusiasts never do). I do believe that there is a role for (limited) government, and efforts to achieve privatization must be carefully calibrated as to means and ends. But I remain staunchly opposed to unprovoked attacks on foreign nations and I hold that the use of recreational drugs should be decriminalized--with adequate safeguards, to be sure.

The second thing that happened in San Francisco was that I read a news item about the formation of a new gay-liberation group, the Gay Academic Union. I joined immediately after I returned. GAU is long gone, but my concern with homostudies has persisted.

I don't know what would have happened to me if I did not go to San Francisco that summer. No, it wasn't the "summer of love"--that had happened some years before. But it was a double turning point for me. First, my political philosophy became more complex. I was too mature and cynical simply to "convert" to libertarianism. And second, I started on a long, occasionally meandering journey towards a career in gay studies. I am heartily glad that both these things happened to me.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Moral panics and sex panics

The term moral panic has been popularized by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen (beginning in 1972). Cohen took the term over from his colleague Jack Young, who developed it in relation to the popular reaction to drug users in London’s Notting Hill district. Moral panic is commonly ascribed to the intensity of feeling a given population exhibits in response to something that appears to threaten the social order. In Cohen’s view, a moral panic occurs when "[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." Adherents of this concept term those who foment the panic "moral entrepreneurs," while individuals who supposedly threaten the social order are characterized as "folk devils."

Typically, episodes of moral panic are characterized by absence of the "objective correlative." That is to say, the intense emotion displayed is disproportionate to its ostensive cause.

The media have long harbored elements of moral indignation, even when they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. In some cases, simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety, or panic. Of course supermarket tabloids are more directly and explicitly responsible for inciting mass concern, for that is one of the main ways they make their living.

Some sociologists, especially in Britain, ascribe the outbreaks of moral panic to the contradictions of capitalism. This manner of framing the issue shows the way in which it is capable of being politicized.

Examples of moral panic include the Red Scare of the early 1920s in the US, anti-Semitic pogroms in tsarist Russia, witch-hunts in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and attacks on Muslims in Western countries today. As this list suggests, the researchers generally focus on instances in which the victims are sympathetic, while the instigators of the phenomenon are much less so.

There is some reason to detect a political agenda--something bordering on political correctness, to be blunt about it--behind the selectivity involved. This factor is set in relief if we turn to some other possible candidates. Cannot organized opposition to Wall Street be regarded as a form of moral panic? As a sympathizer of the Occupation movement, I would say that, if so, the campaign is well justified. During the late ‘thirties, my parents, as “premature anti-fascists," tried to sound the alarm against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It took quite a while, but thank goodness people in this country eventually "panicked." Another example is the concern about climate change, sometimes manifested with a fervor that resembles moral panic.

In short, as a tactic of popular mobilization. panic may be wisely as well as unwisely mobilized.

Recently, some have sought to extend the scope of the concept into the erotic realm--as regards human trafficking, for example. Moreover, some speak, negatively, of concerns about pedophilia as “sex panic.” This last topic has been explored in what appears to be a thoughtful book by Roger Lancaster that is just out from the University of California Press. I hope to return to this book later, after I have obtained and read it.

The issues are evidently complex, but I think that one must acknowledge that not all opposition to human trafficking and pedophilia is panicky or unwarranted.


Friday, January 06, 2012

The vast wastelands of intolerance

When I first joined gay liberation some forty years ago, I found that adhesion to "progressive" politics was mandatory. This position had, we were told, a rational basis because since gay men and lesbians were only 10% of the population, we must ally with other groups for success. There wasn't much prospect for allying with Wall Street or Christian evangelicals, so we had to seek our allies among disadvantaged ethnic groups and students--as Herbert Marcuse had recommended.

It wasn't so much this view strategy I objected to, but the tendency to suppress other viewpoints--left-liberal intolerance in short. PC ruled. I fell afoul of this mandatory progressiveness with my Encyclopedia of Homosexuality which was prematurely declared "out of print" because of pressure on the publisher. That is a long story that I won't repeat here. Suffice it to say that the effort at suppression was not wholly successful, for the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality is still available on Amazon and at several electronic sites.

Still, weary of being muzzled, I decided to join a conservative gay group with a closed list on the Internet. I soon found (no surprise there!) that these folks were even more intolerant than my erstwhile progressive comrades. So I dropped out.

Recently, along with many others, I created an ad hoc group of friends on Facebook. As it happens, they are, most of them, "progressives." These people speak pretty much in unison, and ignore my dissenting posts.

This urge to ignore and suppress has now come to a head with the candidacy of Ron Paul, who seems to be hated by all sides, even though he has important things to say. I take the liberty of quoting a portion of a recent email by my friend David McReynolds:

"I belong to the Socialist Party. I will support Stewart Alexander, our candidate. I do understand the Libertarians, much better than . . . a number of other liberals and left-wing good folks who, once they find that Ron Paul doesn't fit their politically correct image of the world, decide he is a fascist.

"Let's me clear. I do not support his NRA positions. I am for gun control. I do not approve of his position on AIDS (which is due in part to his age - younger people lost whole phonebooks of friends - older people, particularly if they are not gay, didn't feel touched by this). I strongly support the needed federal laws to protect the voting rights of minorities. One reason I am a socialist and not a libertarian. I support social security, socialized medicine, a higher minimum wage and, yes, socialism!

"But it is bluntly nuts - no better word - to accuse Ron Paul of being anti-gay. The Libertarians (including two friends on my GLBT list) have long welcomed gays. It is worse that nuts to accuse Ron Paul of anti-Semitism. It turns out (and I've checked the "sources" that rabid anti-Paul folks sent me) that his "anti-Semitism" amounts to his being critical of Israel and favoring cutting off aid to it. I am among
those who strongly favor ending all aid to Israel - and am part of a growing movement, led by comrades within the Jewish community.

"What caused the real "panic" about Ron Paul? Why did the mainstream media (except, God bless him, for Jon Stewart) ignore Ron Paul until very recently? It was because he put himself firmly outside the garrison state to which liberals and conservatives both pledge allegiance - the armed might of America, willing and eager to go to war across the world in defense of corporate interests, and to provide, in the process, billions of taxpayer dollars to the corporate arms folks.

"Why did Newt Gingrich say he wouldn't vote for Ron Paul if he won the nomination? Do you think it was because of Paul's conservative positions on gun control, abortion, etc.? No - it was Ron Paul's peace position and - of great importance - the clear break with the "security state" nonsense we have bought into, the Patriot Act, the various attacks on our constitutional rights. Things that Obama supports.

"Again, I ain't voting for Ron Paul, but I thank God there is at least one voice of reason in the GOP primary - it helps those of us who want to "rethink" the domestic and foreign policies of this country."

END of McReynolds quotation.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

The contradictions of liberalism once more

Many find my reservations about modern liberalism appalling. Only a Neanderthal would abandon the last, best hope of humanity, they opine. I tend to locate the (to my mind) disabling contradictions in the contrast between 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism of the John Stuart Mill type and the interventionist trend signaled by the beginning of the triumph of Britain's Labour Party in the election of 1911.

However, Matt Stoller finds more recent origins:

"Modern liberalism is a mixture of two elements. One is a support of Federal power – what came out of the late 1930s, World War II, and the civil rights era where a social safety net and warfare were financed by Wall Street, the Federal Reserve and the RFC, and human rights were enforced by a Federal government, unions, and a cadre of corporate, journalistic and technocratic experts (and cheap oil made the whole system run.) America mobilized militarily for national priorities, be they war-like or social in nature. And two, it originates from the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam era, with its distrust of centralized authority mobilizing national resources for what were perceived to be immoral priorities. When you throw in the recent financial crisis, the corruption of big finance, the increasing militarization of society, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the collapse of the moral authority of the technocrats, you have a big problem. Liberalism doesn’t really exist much within the Democratic Party so much anymore, but it also has a profound challenge insofar as the rudiments of liberalism going back to the 1930s don’t work.

"This is why Ron Paul can critique the Federal Reserve and American empire, and why liberals have essentially no answer to his ideas, arguing instead over Paul having character defects. Ron Paul’s stance should be seen as a challenge to better create a coherent structural critique of the American political order. It’s quite obvious that there isn’t one coming from the left, otherwise the figure challenging the war on drugs and American empire wouldn’t be in the Republican primary as the libertarian candidate. To get there, liberals must grapple with big finance and war, two topics that are difficult to handle in any but a glib manner that separates us from our actual traditional and problematic affinity for both. War financing has a specific tradition in American culture, but there is no guarantee war financing must continue the way it has. And there’s no reason to assume that centralized power will act in a more just manner these days, that we will see continuity with the historical experience of the New Deal and Civil Rights Era. The liberal alliance with the mechanics of mass mobilizing warfare, which should be pretty obvious when seen in this light, is deep-rooted.

"What we’re seeing on the left is this conflict played out, whether it is big slow centralized unions supporting problematic policies, protest movements that cannot be institutionalized in any useful structure, or a completely hollow liberal intellectual apparatus arguing for increasing the power of corporations through the Federal government to enact their agenda. Now of course, Ron Paul pandered to racists, and there is no doubt that this is a legitimate political issue in the Presidential race. But the intellectual challenge that Ron Paul presents ultimately has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with contradictions within modern liberalism."