Monday, September 19, 2011

The gates of hell

By Carl 

I've been contemplating the problems that face America: the economy, the insecurity, the unemployment, the classist state of our society, the (marginal, admittedly) rise in civil unrest.

I've been coming to grip with, as David Byrne would sing, "Well, how did I get here?" What systemic problems does America have that put us in the position of practically being at each other's throats when we should, in point of fact, be all over the powers that be, both actual and implied?

I came up with one I hadn't given much thought to before: gated communities.

It never really occured to me how deeply this facet of America affects the people who live within and without, and more, how culture reinforces this paranoid creation.

You can go all the way back to colonial America to find a form of isolated community in this nation. Indeed, the moment people started looking for more room and leaving the harbor cities and towns, people have effectively gated themselves off from other people. When you have to ride a day on horseback to get to the city, you've become out of touch with social interactions of a diverse sort. People who move out and are closer to you share at least one attribute, the need to be out of the city.

Western expansion, with all the room to the left of the coast, made this phenomenon part of the American experience. Indeed, the customs and mores of that era -- personal responsibility, multiple gun ownership, a rugged individualism, paranoia about strangers-- echo to this day amongst people who ought to know better. The distances involved in moving through Montana or Colorado, the rugged terrain, and the natural dangers abounding, these all made for a healthy distrust of people who just showed up at the end of Main Street. How did they get there, and what did they want?

Natural questions. The very topography and isolation formed what would be in effect gated communities, with their own security forces as well as their own media, their own medical care, commerce, and justice.

Slide forward to the 20th century. While out west, these isolated communities were slowly, glacially, becoming less and less isolated, back east, people were being thrust together in larger and larger cities and megalopolises.

See, until the rise of the automobile and public transportation, a city dweller with a lot of extra cash could buy a "country" home just a few miles away fro the squalor of the inner city. Believe it or not, for example, in New York, Coney Island was once the reserve of the well-to-do like the Astors and Vanderbilts. If you went there now, you'd be hard pressed to find remnants of those families. Indeed, you'd find an inner city environment, squatting right by the shore. Affordable housing, paved streets, infrastructure... and a gated community.

At least the denizens of this gated community have to leave to shop for food.

In a nutshell, we start to see where the problem lies. When a community stops being part of the community, then it is no longer a community. At least in those old west towns, a body could walk in and have a drink at the saloon and talk to people, however uncomfortably. In today's modern gated communities, you can't even make it past the security booth, and woe betide you if you do have a reason to be there: you're under constant surveillance, marked and tagged as an outsider from the second you walk in to the second you leave the compound.

One can understand how these compounds could have arisen in the redder parts of the country, but why have these "reservations" sprouted up in some of the most diverse and integrated parts of the nation?

Fear. Nothing more, nothing less. And it's a manufactured fear, if you ask me.

Fear of crime. Fear of terror. Fear of them. Fear of information. I'll get to that last in a moment.

And the media feed these fears, despite the fact that there's more important news to be covered.

If five years ago, you had led a newscast with the fact that the American debt is skyrocketing through the roof because of spending on two wars and the Bush tax cuts, you'd have been fired from any local newscast, much less a network cast. "If it bleeds, it leads," is a truth, not a truism, in journalism. And if you watch the news closely, despite the fact that most violent crime is committed by the majority race of white people, inevitably and disproportionately one of the lead stories is about a minority criminal.

Why? What is the point and/or purpose of fomenting that aspect of American society? To foment fear. And fear drives like-minded people closer together.

The dynamic of huddling together for protection is nothing new to the American experience. Indeed, the very cliche "circle the wagons" was in response to an attack on the (mostly) white folks heading through (mostly) Native American territories.

And probably acting like jerks as they did, but I digress.

Gated compounds are just circled wagons with lawns and hot tubs.

But look. A gated compound also gives the illusion of being responsible to a community without the mess of actually having dissenters and outsiders to inject an opposing viewpoint. It encourages "samethink" and punishes, through ostracism and shunning, people with minority views.

Or worse, views that would be majority in the larger world. It allows for a purification of the belief system that reinforces whatever squeaky wheel is the loudest. This is where things get interesting.

We've all seen the dissonant memes coming from the far right: there is no poverty in America, blacks are doing much better than ever, but committing crimes at an alarming rate.

Not that middle class or even wealthy people don't commit violent crimes, but huh? How is that even a possible line of logic? Why would any people who as a whole are "doing better" commit crimes at an increasing rate?

It's the perception of crime. It's the fact that the media hump this shit until they're blue in the face, and these memes get made up by the opinion makers who feed into these pockets of purity. And those pockets echo these inconsistent and mistaken (to be kind) memes until they are conventional wisdom, common knowledge and accepted as fact.

Which they aren't. By any means.

But worse than this it gets. See, it's one thing to reinforce a wrong-headed belief amongst a group, that's wrong, but when confronted outside the group, say at work, with conflicting information, and suddenly the violent reactions range from utter close-mindedness to rage at the person trying to put a new perspective on things.

This gets carried back to the community as "you know what this idiot at work told me?" There's no reasoning with fear, you see. It's not a logical construct. It is, in fact, a deeply emotional reverberation because it fits that most basic of human emotions, terror.

Fear is hell.

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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