Opinion: The Town Hall Myth
While watching from afar the political backlash over President Obama’s health care reform proposal, I have been trying to figure out what exactly has happened to cause a sizable chunk of the American population to resort to hysteria and violence as public discourse.
I can’t help but wonder – having been trained to analyse issues – who exactly are these people who carry weapons to a public meeting, shout down their own elected officials, and blithely accept the most improbable falsehoods? What are the demographics? At the risk of stereotyping, I have a few guesses: white, middle class, homeowners, insured, employed, more than one car per household, largely suburban... In other words, a fairly privileged group, all things considered. So why the rage, the bitterness, the alienation? By most measures – and I’m thinking globally here - these people have it made. However, it would seem that being middle class in America is not such a good deal after all. (Note to immigrants: turn back now while you still can!)
I am not clueless about what’s going on back home, and I have as personal an interest in it as do you. The economy is nasty, unlike any that we have seen. These people are scared, but so is everyone else. That makes it only doubly curious that there would be such gnashing of teeth over a proposal that is supposed to add to security and peace of mind. (I won’t debate the relative merits of health insurance options; I am assuming that effective health care reform is a good idea.) As a personal aside, if the economy was better, I would wing my way home from NZ and try to get a job, but that’s too risky at the moment. I might as well stay here for now, despite being way too far away from all that’s important to me. And not incidentally, I would not be able to get health insurance if I just show up at LAX one day, jobless; I have guaranteed health care here no matter. But I digress.
Then it hit me. There is an explanation, at least a partial one: the culprit, the beast, the cancer, He Who Shall Not Be Named... Ready? Yup, Euclidean zoning. That’s right, laws that make people live in isolated compounds only with others just like them – ethnicity, income, values, opportunities, etc., etc. – are the problem! It’s an old story to urbanists; it goes back 80-90 years. The demographics tend to be... what? white, middle class, homeowners, insured, employed, more than one car per household, suburban - in their personal space that is all very predictable, easy to relate to, risk-free, unthreatening, cozy. They shop and eat in places that serve people like themselves. They don’t even *know* anyone else.
Suburban sprawl has many documented negatives, but this may be the most insidious: complete alienation, not just from each other, but from the very *idea* of community of any scale. We are eons removed from what a “Town Hall” really was: People from all walks of life gathering to consider important civic issues, disagree respectfully but come away enriched, then go about their business as individuals and a community. Everyone saw everyone else at the post office, the butcher, the county fair, everyone bought each other’s goods. Town Hall meetings were a manifestation of civic identity and shared destiny.
Homeownership once promised “participation” in society. (Does it then stand to reason that renting is exclusion from society?) Single-use zoning was supposed to make homeownership more accessible to the middle class, live the dream, “raise them up.” How wrong we were. Ownership of one’s own home has enabled avoidance of not only The Other, but of *all* others. Civic – national! - identity is not possible in a rigid structure that enforces isolation. What is a nation but it's many peoples?
“Who can’t get health care? Nobody I know. You’re sick, you go to the doctor. You cut your leg off with a chainsaw, you go to the hospital and they put it back on. What’s the problem?” That perspective is inevitable with the way most people live today. Compassion is optional, knowledge a distraction. Opinions are formed in a complete vacuum. But the big chicken that has come home to roost (if the farm is still there) is that the lost values that make a strong community are exactly those that make for a unified nation.
Exclusionary zoning has led to a community-less society – we all know that. But it is not far-fetched to assert that, as a natural extension, it has led to an abnegation of e pluribus unum at the national scale. Why does this lead to derangement over a policy proposal? Not just because of the distance between the haves and have-nots, that’s not news. Maybe it is because that gap is very defensible behind the gates, so they defend their comfort with everything they’ve got. Militarization of defensible space.
It goes without saying that there are many elements to every social phenomenon. I write this piece because I was startled at the magnitude of damage that has been done *simply by our chosen model of physical development,* by the pervasiveness of the toxin. Individual de-legitimization of large swaths of the population, even those in the subdivision across the road, breeds self-absorption. Such is the danger of self-segregation.
Do I believe that health care reform would happen if we were a more urban people? Yes, I do. In fact, I believe it wouldn’t have been allowed to become nearly the problem it is today. I also believe it would mitigate at least some of the political sclerosis that chokes off all major policy debates. Such is the power of human contact.
I’m not sure I have presented my argument as clearly as it appears in my head, but at the risk of going on too long, I want to conclude with a Tale From the Suburbs. I lived in a nice, professional suburban-like neighbourhood of Phoenix, 10,000 sq. ft. lots, swimming pools, the works. I liked it. There was a little problem in the area and my community-organizer spouse at the time gathered a small group from our block. The turnout was surprisingly good (the temperature a balmy 121), and among those were the old man who lived next door to us, and another old man who lived three doors down from him. They both bought their houses new, 25 years before. They met for the *first time* at that meeting. Does that have national implications? At the time I thought it merely sad, but I know now that that situation, multiplied by many millions over many years, is tantamount to an auto-immune disorder.
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