from the Other Side of the Glass
As I fast approach the ending moments of my thirties, a near-constant fear is what seems like an inevitable degradation of my hard-Left socially progressive mores and their replacement with a more morally repugnant narrow-minded "Outraged from Superbia" mindset delivered straight from the heart of the Daily Mail (here's a clue kids, if the title of your newspaper sounds masculine, it probably reinforces a gender-normed conservative hegemony).
I've been reading Stephen Graham's Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism to try and combat my Olympic-euphoria and restore some anti-authoritarian balance to my life. In the build up to examining the increased militarism of urban environments and the importation of military tactics used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza back onto the streets of Western cities (what he refers to as "Foucault's Boomerang" after Foucault's Society Must Be Defended lectures wherein he touched upon the way in which tactics for repressing colonies were swiftly adopted by the colonisers for oppressing dissent at home) Graham explores the demonization of the urban environment by the forces of social conservatism.
Cities are seen by the Right as outposts of the Other, their multiculturalism defines them as enemy beachheads with the Homeland, though this hostility and fear of the city is nothing new. Graham quotes Jeremy Adam Smith who suggests that the Bible itself is the source of much anti-urban anguish in the Right:
"The [Christian right] homelander vision of the city starts with a story in Genesis 11:1-9. When God saw the first city of humankind and the tower its residents has built, He destroyed the tower and then confused their language, 'so that one will not understand the language of his companion' and 'scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city'"The takeover of the US Republican Party by the Christian Right has cemented this anti-urban philosophy into mainstream US political and social discourse, with "Urban" fast becoming a whistle-word for the Right that encompasses every perceived ill from socialism to homosexuality. Graham continues by drawing upon David Harvey who argues that:
- Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, p42
"deep anti-urban revulsion taps into a wider cultural trend within conservative circles, whereby discussions of the city tend to 'conjure up a dystopian nightmare in which all that is judged worst in the fatally flawed character of humanity collects together in some hell-hole of despair'. All too often, then, conservatives imagine poor neighbourhoods in cities as a sort of 'Hobbesian stat-of-Nature' - an image that merges seamlessly with portrayals of the 'failed' or 'feral' cities of the global South, producing a fantasy or urbanism that straddles the inside and the outside of the conservatives' United States."As the city is demonised by default, no one questions the reasons for urban disintegration in the rush to expropriate the neighbourhoods of working-class or marginalised populations and gentrify them with gated luxury apartments and glass-walled office blocks for a safe Capitalist elite, as anybody who has watched David Simon's TV series The Wire or Treme will understand what he means when he says that in the American city, "the why has ceased to exist".
- Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, p43
The "white-flight" to a suburban or exurban existence so prevalent in the US was mirrored here during the Celtic Tiger boom, with many Dubliners taking advantage of record house prices to sell up family homes and move out to the country. The suburban homes they left behind were passed on to young couples desperate to snap up a "Family Home" before they were priced out of the market altogether, and the city was left to a transient population of students, twenty-somethings and foreign workers crammed in to the new slums of the 21st century, all knowing that their accommodation was a temporary stop on their own journey out to Superbia or back home. But if the city is never truly Home, then you will never treat it with respect, it becomes just one more disposable piece of street-detritus like your cigarette butt or emptied beer bottle.
For me, in the twilight of my thirties (so late in the day that it just might be the false dawn of my forties) living in the city is a political act, as much a statement of my Left and Green beliefs as my refusal to own a car or my vegetarianism. The city to me is a place of ideas, where a cosmopolitan multiculturalism challenges and inspires on a daily basis, a place of mental and physical creation that by necessity is progressive. The city is the place of the worker and the artist, the Academy and the Fourth Estate. The owners and the bosses, the politicians and bankers don't live here, they just visit when they have to and stay in their bijou pied-à-terre or gated leafy suburban enclave, before scurrying back to their country demesne or tax-exiled McMansion in Malta or Cape Cod, protected from the damage their actions wreak on the society they so carefully insulate themselves against.
The city is as much an idea to me as a place, a symbol of the values that I so strongly believe in and try to live by.
I just wish it wasn't so hard to live here.
I'm used to our streets being used as a public toilet, I'm used to the junkies shooting up in the phone boxes and the thieves stealing anything on two wheels that you fail to leave completely welded to a bike rack. I'm used to the racist taxi-drivers and kamikaze buses, the convenience shops whose only act of convenience is providing you with the opportunity to pay exorbitant prices for food shipped in from the UK while destroying our native food producers in the process, the dirt and the grime and the grim look of bludgeoned horror plastered on every poor soul's face as they run from greyness to greyness with the weight of the world propelled upon them by every sodden cloud above.
All these things I am used to, but I think I can no longer take the violence, the calculated assaults and the random acts of thuggery visited upon us by our fellow urbanites, those whom we would call neighbours.
Fellow urbanites like the two gentlemen using our street last night as a public pissoire on their way from bar to nightclub and thought it would be a lark to start hurling glass bottles at our windows, our now shattered windows, before running back off into the thumping noise of the anonymous night beyond with a look of pure delight on their drunken little faces, never to be seen again.
I despise the ongoing transformation of our cities into militarised police states, with private streets, free speech zones, gated enclaves and the omnipresent eye of the closed circuit camera watching over everything the carries on beneath. I despise the demonization of the city by the forces of social conservatism and the idolisation of a mythical rural/small-town homogenised ideal. I despise the notions of "Real America" or "Middle England" or any of the other forms of The Moral Majority who would gladly see the city wiped off the map like the Sodom and Gomorrah they believe it to be descended from.
All these things I truly despise, and as I grow older I live in constant fear of this abhorrence weakening, like a winter's storm blowing itself out before it makes landfall. But this morning as I swept up the shattered remains of our window from the street below, avoiding the piss and the puke and the other bodily remnants of someone else's Friday night, I started to wonder if city living was a zero-sum game, if to enjoy yourself must others around you suffer? Is the notion of community an idealised mental construct that bears no relation to the reality of an accidental agglomeration of Hayekian automatons upon which most cities are constructed? When you devote much of your time fighting for the notions of equality and social justice why is the only reward that you get an avalanche of abuse from your fellow citizens?
The question of why bad things happen to good people is as old as humanity itself, the notions of heaven and hell were created to instil a sense of ultimate justice in a world where there so often clearly is none, but it is easy to debate these questions in an abstract way and more of a challenge to philosophise when drunken louts are smashing up your home, and it is very hard indeed to respect your fellow man when they are hurling glass bottles at your head.
I want to love this city, but it is just so damn hard.
Marcel Duchamp, To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, 1918, MoMA, New York, September 2010Tweet