The Danger of Revenge Fantasies

Last night, voters in San Francisco rejected Prop I, which sought to impose an 18-month moratorium on market-rate housing in the city’s historic Mission district. I’m thankful to be writing this post in light of the measure failing rather than passing; despite its support from numerous groups claiming to support affordable housing and the progressive agenda, the measure reflected not progressive tendencies but in many ways the worst illiberal indulgences of the contemporary Left, a phenomenon that I will seek to explore here.

But first, if you will indulge me, a foray into a much older text whose values cannot possibly be consistently identified as liberal.

7 Then the king Ahasuerus said unto Esther the queen and to Mordecai the Jew: ‘Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and him they have hanged upon the gallows, because he laid his hand upon the Jews. 8 Write ye also concerning the Jews, as it liketh you, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s ring; for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse.’… 10 And they wrote in the name of king Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king’s ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, riding on swift steeds that were used in the king’s service, bred of the stud; 11 that the king had granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey, 12 upon one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar. 13 The copy of the writing, to be given out for a decree in every province, was to be published unto all the peoples, and that the Jews should be ready against that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.

5 And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them. 6 And in Shushan the castle the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men…15 And the Jews that were in Shushan gathered themselves together on the fourteenth day also of the month Adar, and slew three hundred men in Shushan; but on the spoil they laid not their hand. 16 And the other Jews that were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand–but on the spoil they laid not their hand–(Esther 8:7-9:15, OJPS translation, via Mechon Mamre)

As some readers know, my undergraduate education wasn’t actually in anything related to urbanism or planning; I have a B.A. in Hebrew Bible and another in archaeology, and it’s fun to retreat to my previous intellectual endeavors sometimes. In this case, though I hardly think tussles over housing in the Bay Area rise to the level of (failed) genocide, I actually think that the book of Esther illustrates well the dangerous temptations facing progressive activists in contemporary urban America.

The narrative of violence over Chapters 8 and 9 of Esther has long troubled Jewish commentators, both traditional and contemporary. At this point in the story our heroes, Mordechai and Esther, have triumphed over the evil Haman, who has already been strung up from the gallows he intended for Mordechai. As such, the primary human drama of the the story has already concluded; these chapters represent the narrative zooming out to a near-worldwide (from the perspective of the characters) level. If the major plot line is over, and the Jews empowered, why the orgy of violence and revenge?

To some extent, the answers people have proposed to that question go to a much more fundamental question about Esther:  what the purpose of the book–a late addition to the Jewish canon–is at all. Contemporary scholars have proposed that Esther is a satire; a farcical comedy; or, as proposed at a public event at my alma mater, an ancient Jewish revenge fantasy in the vein of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds(yes, that event occurred while I was there. No, I didn’t go, and I actually still haven’t seen the film) The book obviously mixes elements of all of these genres, but at its heart I think it–and especially the last two chapters–belong most in the revenge fantasy category, whether self-consciously or not.

And that’s the connection I see between Esther and, however unlikely, Prop I, with its provocative noises about keeping the Mission Latino, and its progressive-NIMBY ilk. I argued here recently that the most unfortunate characteristic of recent identity-based lefty urban activism is its determination to preserve and advantage existing communities at all costs, including the expense of newcomers of all levels of privilege. It’s a politics of exclusion that relies on inverting the use of traditional discriminatory tools and implicitly arguing that the tools themselves are OK to use if they’re just placed in the hands of “the right people”–people who have previously been oppressed. As the argument goes, it’s OK for communities of color to use the power of government to exclude others from “their territory,” even though–or rather because–they have (and still do!) suffer the same kind of discrimination. This line of logic also pops up among less-than-thoughtful college students from time to time, generally in the realm of censoring critical discussion on difficult topics, such as recently at Wesleyan  and Colorado College (ignore the snarky tone of the writer in the second link, who–shockingly for someone at Reason–has apparently never spent time with LGBTQ people or their lingo; the case is still rather striking). In other words, the politics of lefty exclusion represents the Estherian (Esther-esque?) revenge fantasy of the identity-politics Left.

Sound familiar? Discomfort with using the tools of the oppressor to “empower” the oppressed is exactly what drives the lingering Jewish unhappiness with the conclusion of Esther. Esther is a revenge fantasy because its Jews use the exact same tools on their opponents that were intended to be used on them: Haman is hung on the gallows intended for Mordechai (who also takes his seat at the king’s right hand), and the king’s seal becomes a writ for pro-Jewish instead of anti-Jewish violence. No one would confuse the still-vulnerable Jewish community in post-Esther Persia for a dominant group, but they have–for now–adopted the symbols and mechanisms of power and used it not just to defend themselves but to slaughter.

In much the same way, some urban “progressives” are seeking not to fully dismantle discriminatory, exclusionary regimes of zoning, planning, and building, but to turn and adopt those mechanisms in ways that advantage their own communities. And that’s a problem not just because it’s inherently hypocritical, but because it will worsen the affordability crisis in places like San Francisco, and because it legitimates the use of those tools by completely unenlightened and very privileged groups, such as the racist, classist suburban NIMBYs whose voice still dominates planning in this country. Despite the words I’ve devoted here, the urban left is only a small (though very vocal) part of this country’s overall problem.

Needless to say, I don’t think this is progressive, and I don’t think it’s any way forward. I’ve devoted significant time recently to critiquing my fellow travelers on the political Left, and I still think we share more than we don’t–a vision that sees the world through the lens of structural social forces, a determination to bring down inequality, a commitment to social justice. But I think significant elements of the Left have lost their way on urban issues, and it threatens the viability of the progressive political project. Progressivism is about keeping alive the dream of altruistic policymaking, about tearing down barriers rather than using them for revenge. That many so-called progressives don’t act that way in real life perhaps speaks to the extent to which the movement has been infiltrated (corrupted?) by hardcore, dead-ender Marxist, anti-capitalist hardliners who really do envision a class revolution in which oppressed groups will rise and return the moral sin of their oppressors on their heads.

I’m grateful that San Francisco voters reject Prop I; though I’m not especially hopeful, perhaps it represents an opportunity for a turning point. As I’ve said before and will say again, it’s time for a new progressive politics of urbanism–one that is inclusive, and dedicated to fundamental reform, if not quite revolution. Let’s forget fantasies of revenge and go about the mundane work of making life better for everyone. After all, in the end of Esther, with Mordechai by his side, ditzy King Ahasuerus still had to raise taxes.

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High Standards–A Unifying Cause for Transit Advocates?

Yonah Freemark over at The Transport Politic has been writing a lot recently on the need for higher-quality transit infrastructure and services. His most recent post is called “A Call for Minimum Service Standards,” and while the post itself is very good–analyzing the tendency of American transit agencies and cities to invest in very expensive new transit infrastructure but provide it with subpar service–it was his use of the word “standards” that got me thinking about a topic on which I’ve been meaning to write.

There’s a well-known division in the world of transit advocacy between, for lack of better phrasing, those who are transit purists concerned with technical improvements and those who are more concerned with aesthetic, physical, and political factors. The dispute is perhaps most publicly embodied in the persons of Jarrett Walker, author of humantransit.org and the book of the same name,  the leader of the “transit purist” faction, and  Darrin Nordahl, whose book My Kind of Transit envisions an aesthetically pleasing, almost quaint experience being the key to successful transit. Their contentious relationship is chronicled in a number of places, and particularly in this hyperbolically-titled, but fair, Salon.com post from Henry Grabar. Alternatively, Alon Levy frames the split in the transit world as an argument between “technicals” and “politicals.”

At times the debate between different sides of the transit world can seem completely out of control–like transit advocates are strangling themselves in the same way most leftist movements (not that all transit advocates are lefties by any means, but most are) have done–by allowing their movement to fall apart in a cascade of hairsplitting and mutual recrimination. Mixed-traffic streetcars seem to be generally the biggest flashpoint, provoking strong feelings on both sides of the proverbial aisle.  Is there, in fact, anything that holds “the transit world” together as an entity?

For me, there still is. I don’t want to co-opt anyone’s language or try to speak for any of the people whose work I’ve linked to here, but it seems to me that the common thread here is that everyone wants to hold American transit to high standards. What the most important part of those standards is may (and does) differ from person to person and sub-community to sub-community, but there’s a consensus that America has just not taken transit seriously, and now it’s time to do so.

That consensus, whether people realize it or not (and I think most do) is driven by the historical experience of the last 60 years–decades that transit, the red-headed stepchild of the American infrastructure family, has spent begging for table scraps. Transit funding, infrastructure, and operations have been a political football, used and abused by politicians at all levels of government with little concern for the day-to-day, year-to-year viability of operations and infrastructure. For most transit advocates today, with the revival of many of our cities, increasing concern for the environment, and the rise of a class of American citizens who genuinely don’t want to own or use automobiles any more than is necessary, the desire for transit isn’t nostalgic, and it’s not based on thinking of transit as a social or welfare service, fit only for the few citizens who lack the means to use cars. We don’t want transit to be thought of as a basic service provided to the desperate, and we don’t want its primary political value to be as a photo op for glory-seeking politicians–we want it to work, and work well.

And sadly, there’s a crying need for transit to be held to those kinds of standards. There’s no doubt that American transit, both intra- and inter-city, is well behind Europe, Japan, and even China and a few other places on many technical grounds. We need to build and operate the same kind of transit other countries have done for decades. And yet, in transit as in other sectors of governance, technical innovations matter little–and can even be a recipe for waste–if the political class is acting in bad faith. We don’t need to get over our differences of opinion, but we do need to build a political movement that is capable of forcing politicians to take transit seriously and hold it to high standards technically, fiscally, and yes, experientially. When Yonah uses the phrase “A Call for Minimum Standards,” he’s not actually looking for minimum standards. He is, ultimately, asking American politicians, transit agencies, and advocates to hold themselves to the same high standards as do their counterparts worldwide.

Looking West, not East–Analysis of Chicago’s Transit Future

On Thursday, a coalition of Chicago nonprofits, advocacy groups, politicians, and corporate leaders unveiled the Transit Future campaign, dedicated to bringing improvements to Chicago’s public transit system through dedicated revenue streams. On Friday, I offered my thoughts on some of the specific lines proposed; today, I want to take a step back and look at the political processes that might lead to some of this actually getting done.

The primary reaction to the revealed map of proposed improvements on Chicago planning Twitter and in the comments on Streetsblog Chicago’s article about the campaign was surprise, ranging to shock, at the extent to which the ideas presented consisted of extensions of the L into relatively sprawly suburban areas, such as Schaumburg and Oak Brook. Personally, I’m skeptical of the utility and fiscal efficiency of these extensions, but I do think there is a method to the madness in some ways, and that it actually says a lot about the political strategy being implemented with the purpose of getting these projects done.

Traditionally, Chicago’s transit system has (and for good reason) been most closely compared with those of the older, core cities of the East Coast. The Transit Future campaign, though, is looking west. The presence of former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the press conference, and the prominent mentions of Los Angeles’ Measure R sales tax campaign, which Villaraigosa helped shepherd through as mayor, make it clear that the leadership of Transit Future intend to copy not from the playbook of New York’s MTA (as the governor’s commission on Chicago transit had proposed), but from that of Los Angeles, acting at the county level. A brief recap: Measure R was a half-cent sales tax increase on Los Angeles county residents approved by referendum (which, in California, requires a 2/3 majority) on the November 2008 ballot. At the time of passage, it was expected to raise up to $40 billion for transit projects. Since then, LACMTA has expanded its transit system with alacrity, with a combination of Measure R and some federal funding.

So how, exactly, did a massive spending increase on public transit pass with a 2/3 majority in famously car-mad Los Angeles? One possibility is that Angelenos had simply tired of sitting in traffic all day and wanted options for getting around. More importantly, though, I think, is the careful coalition-building that the supporters of Measure R conducted. The Measure R coalition included politicians from several different constituencies, labor groups, business groups, and environmental groups–the same mix apparent on Transit Future’s “supporters” page. For better or for worse, determinations of where Measure R-supported lines would go weren’t determined by technical measures alone; the benefits were spread around to ensure political support, even from semi-suburban constituencies who might not be expected to vote for transit funding. It’s worth noting that, even though an LA County follow-up measure known as Measure J failed very narrowly in November 2012 because of a drop in support from suburban voters, a majority (though not enough to pass a 2/3 vote) supported transit improvements in almost every suburban area. Is every line built with Measure R funds going to show maximal return on investment? Probably not. Is the system going to get built, when it would not have without massive county-wide support? Yes.

Chicago’s task is, in many ways, easier than LA’s was. First of all, for better or for worse, Cook County’s Board of Commissioners can approve a tax hike without a referendum, needing, as far as I can tell, only a simple majority of Commissioners. The Transit Future plan appears to already have the signature of 9 of the 17 commissioners, and the presence of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Board President Toni Preckwinkle at the press conference means they are at least willing to consider lending their considerable clout to the project. Ultimately, though, the ability of the Commissioners, especially those from suburban areas, to continue supporting the Transit Future plan will rely upon their ability to present the plan to their constituents and point to specific benefits which those constituents will be receiving. That means spreading the love around.

And that, ultimately, is I think one of the major factors underlying the structure of the Transit Future plan. Everyone wins a little. The white, liberal North Side gets a rebuilt Red/Purple Line. The poor, African-American South Side gets better service along the Metra Electric District (the “South Lakeshore Line“), and a way to get to Midway Airport and the industrial corridor with its few remaining jobs along Cicero Avenue (the “Lime Line,” or Mid-City Transitway). Commuters in the western suburbs, who confront horrible traffic on any given day, get a new commuting option with the Blue Line extension to Oak Brook (which is, oddly, in DuPage county–I don’t know how that would work). The northwest suburbs would also get a new commuting option, with the Blue Line extension from O’Hare to Schaumburg fitting in nicely in the geographic gap between Metra Milwaukee District West and UP-NW line service. The denser first-tier northern and southern suburbs would get extensive Arterial Rapid Transit (think express buses, with many of the amenities of full-blown Bus Rapid Transit, but without dedicated lanes) networks. The business community gets improved access to both airports, including a direct link between them (though I think that’s the single least likely project to get built). There’s a little something for everyone.

Is every one of these projects going to be a success on a dollars-for-riders basis? Probably not. But some of them will be, and we won’t get those projects without countywide political support, and we won’t get countywide political support without a few projects that satisfy the the parochial needs (ok, probably wants) of certain constituencies. Given the timing of then announcement–in an election year–and the fact that 9 out of 17 county commissioners have already signed on, there seems to be a decent amount of confidence in the plan’s ability to go forward. Ultimately, this is Chicago. Chicago has the benefit and curse of having a tradition of strongly centralized, almost authoritarian political maneuvering. And though that tradition has certainly been weakened in recent years, if Rahm and Toni want Transit Future to get done, it probably will.