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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A First-Rate Society


David Simon (creator of The Wire): The parting message is we are no longer a culture that can recognize our own problems, much less begin to solve them. We will accept the short-term solution, the juked statistics, the jerry-rigged profit over actual substance every time. This is the America we've built and paid for, and it's all we deserve. We have not paid the real cost of being a first-rate society. As long as we buy into the notion that you can build a just society with capitalism alone, it's not going to get any better. It was a critique. I am not anti-capitalist, but if you think that's the prescription for building a just society, you're just naïve. It was a real, angry critique of the last 30 or 40 years.

To me this should be the central message of modern liberalism. If you disagree with this statement (in bold) then you are just a fool who refuses to look at the facts in the matter. When people argue against socialized medicine I ask them to point to a health care system that works better for the people than the systems created in Western Europe. Conservatives will point to silly anecdotal stories where these systems have failed an individual but they won’t look at how our privatized system has failed most of our society. Imagine if we just allowed our roads and highways to be built by private enterprise alone with no help or guidance by the government? It is an absurd thought yet this is how we have chosen to run our health care in America with results every bit as tragic and pitiful as you would imagine coming from this make-believe highway system.

We have already given over to the private realm the planning of our suburban population centers and for the most part they are completely awful and barely fit for human habitation. We have let the parking requirements at Applebee’s trump the needs of the people for a shared human space. In fact, we have gone so far to accommodate the retailers that we have completely forgotten how to even construct a livable urban area. It is no wonder that America has become a country of maxed-out credit cards and people stampeding after one new diet craze after another—we haven’t given people much else to do besides shop and eat.

This is the most important argument in the liberal ideal: How can we expect the needs of citizens to be met when they do not participate in the process? Where are citizens when the strip malls are being planned? I can’t imagine that even the most heartless individual would sign off on a plan that makes a parking lot of about 60% of his environment urban environment. They certainly wouldn’t if they had at least one other choice. It’s not even human beings who design these landscapes; it is committees and flow charts and sales figures that shape sprawl. The biggest problem, as Simon points out, is that we are incapable of even recognizing our problems. We seem to have all of the answers (especially if you ask a conservtive) but we aren't asking the right questions. Most people don’t even realize that they could be living in a much better environment because they have lived with the present landscape of sprawl for so long. To many people Applebee’s is real food and the strip mall is a real town.

I think that what has fueled so much of America’s conservative movement was born out of the mentality of suburban sprawl. Voting statistics will certainly back me up on this. People who live in cities are almost always more liberal than those living in the country or suburban areas. Sprawl has created separation and an unwillingness of many citizens to try to live together with disparate elements of our culture. Why bother to get along when you can just move to a gated community? Tolerance? Who fucking needs it when everyone in the parking lot looks just like you?

It’s difficult to see the benefits of cooperation when you live in the suburbs. There’s no mass transit, few common areas for people to congregate, and almost everyone around you mirrors your income and often your ethnic background. I like to ask conservatives to point out the sort of society they are trying to build. They often tell me that they want America to be more like we were before. They are pretty vague about exactly when their idyllic American society existed. What they really mean is they want us to roll back all of the things Americans literally fought in the streets to achieve and live like we did in the days before income tax, child labor laws, safety requirements in the work place and for products, back when citizens had little say in how the world was shaped, back in the days of completely unregulated capitalism. Man, those were the days.

What I have in mind for America isn’t some dopey utopia or an amnesiac’s cherry-picked view of our past. I can point directly to examples of how we should look in the future. You don’t need a crystal ball to see the kind of society I am talking about; you just need a passport and a couple of weeks of vacation. Take a look at The Netherlands, or Denmark, or Belgium, or France to see evidence of what Simon calls “first-rate” societies. We could learn a lot from Spain about how to build a better place for our citizens to live. Of course, anyone who suggests this is immediately branded as anti-American because America is the greatest country in the world. Period. End of discussion. Except we didn’t really have a discussion.