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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Progressivism and Housing: Looking at the Roots

Recently, Gabriel Metcalf’s essay in Citylab about Progressivism and San Francisco’s housing crisis threw kindling onto the flame of a long-running discussion about the role of progressive politics in contemporary housing and urban policy. It’s a broad, interdisciplinary discussion that has (typically) devolved at times into name-calling. In my humble opinion, the whole debate has lacked significant historical context and nuance that might help us urbanists understand how progressives come to hold positions that don’t make much sense in the broader scheme of planning. To help get me thinking, and to shed light on some of this, I called on an expert on historical Progressivism–my father, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in the Progressive Era. He’s written a book about the middle class in the (then and now) Progressive mecca of Portland, and is working on another on a topic that I believe has some parallels to the question of progressivism and housing: opposition to mandatory vaccination. This post is likely the first of several from a long email chain. Messages have been edited and condensed. Enjoy!

Sandy: Sends link to Metcalf piece, writes “I think he probably doesn’t give enough credit to SF’s white working class reactionary streak (see White, Dan). But it’s interesting.”

Robert: 

This is a very thoughtful, challenging, insightful, and powerful essay. I really appreciate you passing it on.

I agree that the Dan White strain of working-class (alas, lower-middle-class too?) exclusionary politics doesn’t get any play here.  I think, though, that the power of capitalism also fails to get enough attention.  For all the progressivism in the city, and for all its social democratic practices and institutions, SF was always controlled ultimately by the forces of capital.  I don’t mean to say this in a deterministic way, because it was definitely a loose and contested control, as it always is.  But THEY ran the show.

The author spends most of his time simply supporting “development,” before recognizing that, of course, a very special set of development policies would have been necessary to keep SF “freak, immigrant, and radical” friendly.  But given the tight hold that corporate real estate interests and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have on the city (and, as he notes, the region), what chance would such truly populist policies have had?  I don’t like to be a naysayer, but I’m not sure that the chances would have been good.

So, ultimately, in a combination of self-congratulatory and naïve thinking, Metcalf seems to greatly overestimate the power of progressives.

That said—and you have always been very persuasive on this front—progressives desperately need to have the kind of discussions that he is pushing.  The big question is, then, how do you persuade progressives to move beyond either overt or unconscious NIMBYism?  That, of course, is another core issue in our Larger Discussion.

A couple other things:

–the cities in the graph that he doesn’t talk about, about places that do not have affordability crises, hardly strike me as bastions of progressivism (or, perhaps with the exception of Pittsburgh), middle-class (not necessarily coded white) people.  I would have liked to have seen more discussion of this.

–as he indicates, we know a lot about why white folks fled the cities in the first place.  But why *did* they move back?  Did, indeed, no one anticipate that?  I’m sure you know a lot about this, but I don’t!

Sandy:

Very thoughtful questions! Thanks. I agree that urbanists tend to underrate the structural power of capital in shaping a city. I think there are a couple of aspects to this. First, a lot of urbanists and planners are kind of still under the thrall of Jane Jacobs. And for all her brilliance, structural analysis (of any kind) was not really her thing. Second (and related) I think if there’s a kind of “urbanist nostalgia” it’s for the days when small builders would build new, denser housing on small lots in low-rise neighborhoods. SF urbanists support big towers downtown and on the waterfront–but they also support the kind of small-scale densification of residential neighborhoods that can really lead to affordability (think knocking down a bungalow for a three-flat, in Chicago terms), and which doesn’t require the same kind of concentration of capital. This is also precisely the kind of development that SF’s super-tight housing restrictions (EVERYTHING needs individual approval) is designed to suppress (arguably, suppressing this kind of development actually serves the interests of organized capital by reducing small-time competition).

To be continued….