This is an open email by Virginia Key Trust Chair, Educator-Artist, Gene Tinnie:
Kudos to UEL for this blog. There is a lot of good stuff here. (GREAT touch to include the Joni Mitchell video, and glad to see that the EJ Conference in Broward, in which I participated, was featured.)
Greg, your June 23rd piece is a reminder of how and why "Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne" still seems to hold true.
All of the "shoulds" in that article make great good sense, even common sense (which, alas, we know is not common), but... There is always that "but," because, preach as we might to the choir of the common-sensical, and believe as we might that there is a logic by which truth, knowledge, and wisdom should "naturally" prevail over falsehood, ignorance and folly, we have that other side to deal with, which, in our time, might be labeled as the spiritual descendants of Columbus. Their mentality is quite simple: land is for the taking by those who can take it, and is for exploitation, to the profit of the takers and the detriment of all else, which matters little in any case.
This intransigent and, to our minds, benighted opposition is, of course, no reason for us to stop our efforts, but, rather, if anything, a reminder of how far off course we have been led, and how extensive the work we need to do actually is. What I am reading in the principles you articulate here is nothing less than a return, as it were, or an advance, as we now need to view it, to traditional village values. The question is whether our urban environments have become such anti-social "concentration camps," and whether our government apparatus has become so unwieldy, that this kind of "village" dialogue is rendered impossible.
The comparison to "concentration camps" may seem exaggerated but it does have its lace in understanding the nature of what cities (urban environments) have become. They have become many things, of course, on many levels, and no single description will suffice, but we do need to acknowledge that aspect of urban life which has been described in Stevie Wonder's old hit song "Living for the City." (This was the latest in a number of literary and artistic variations on the theme of rural people flocking to the lure of the bright lights and big city only to be consumed by it.) The concentration camp analogy was illustrated by the "relocation centers" that were established in Viet Nam during the war. Simply stated, they were places where people were herded after being displaced from the land. In that process, they went from being self-sufficient and in possession of a productive resource (land) to being forced to work and compete for wages (those who could be employed at all), applying their labor to the profitability of others. Some, by fair means or foul (usually the latter) will "succeed' in this prison-like environment, and will be glorified for their fast and flashy lifestyles, and held up a s examples that "anyone, even you" can make it.
Government, such as it is in such a setting, is clearly not on the side of the displaced inhabitants of these artificially contrived environments, and there is little wonder that it exists as only as a multi-layered, corrupt and inaccessible tool that only serves the perpetrators of the urban enterprise, not those on whom it thrives. It is easy to see how this analogy of the wartime "relocation center" applies to these sprawling urban "madscapes" like Sao Paulo, Lagos, Mexico City, etc., etc., in the basic paradigm of onetime rural populations having their self-sufficiency compromised to the point that, in desperation, they seek dreams of survival in the city.
Naturally, that is not the whole story, but it is enough of the story that urban life cannot be fully understood without it, just as American history (both hemispheric and national) cannot be fully understood without acknowledging and understanding the roles of "Indian Removal" and slavery, not to mention a "planet-for-the-taking" mentality vis-a-vis the natural environment.
Our cities in the U.S. are ostensibly free of the squalid shanty towns that surround so many others worldwide, but we ought not to be lulled into complacency by our relative comfort, which, of course, is a direct consequence of that global reality. We might note that the disparities in wealth and power in those other places are scandalously exaggerated between the few and the many, but we would be as sheep to the slaughter if we did not recognize that while the have-nots among us have a lot more than in those other countries, the disparities between the struggling many and the wealthy few in our own country is far more extreme and exacerbated. This is what is not sustainable, except by force of arms, which consume an even larger proportion of natural and human resources.
It seems to me that making peace with urban living requires recognizing the ugly and unreliable foundation on which so much of our unquestioned lifestyle rests. The hope, symbolized and represented by groups like the UEL, is that there are enough people who have the mental courage to do so (I have likened the process to the diners at a fine steak house having the curtain drawn aside to reveal a view of the slaughterhouse), who demand environmental common sense and equitable social relations, so that the city becomes a real asset rather than an impending liability. This is what makes this blog so welcome and refreshing, but with it comes the realization that we have some, often daunting, rather radical transformations to make.
So much of the work at hand is due to the consequences of our own past complacency and/or ignorance. The History Channel, for example, has been running a series on urban infrastructure, revealing that not only our so many of our bridges, tunnels, water mains, sewer lines, etc., being very poorly maintained, if at all (it is not as politically sexy as big, new shiny things), but many were poorly built in the first place, sometimes with skimped-on materials or methods due to the scarcity and hardships of wartime, etc. Miami's and South Florida's infrastructure might be younger than many of the other American cities, but this may well be an issue for closer monitoring.
Then we have such absurdities as the number-one agricultural product grown in the U.S. being grass lawns, with a whole ancillary industry of machinery and chemical fertilizers and pesticides built around it. Dare we grow food in place of grass, with the fear that our crops might be stolen before their time, or sabotaged by some unhealthy anti-social forces at work? Might we not start considering rooftop gardens? What of this madness of corporate control of agriculture through genetically-modified seeds that cannot reproduce, but need to be purchased annually from the "manufacturer"? These are crazy times, but all the more cause for the kind of common-sense values and approaches that are being advocated by the UEL, for which we have to be thankful, and of which we need to be supportive.
The economic times we are now going through are certainly a test. We are being forced to come to our senses on some issues, but whether that will mean a greater tendency to create a more equitable society, or a greater tendency to engage in dog-eat-dog values of everybody for him- or herself will remain to be seen. We would like to think that common sense and enlightenment will prevail, but history gives us no reason to assume so, and so much of our work is just beginning, to ensure that madness doesn't prevail either, which well it might without our activism to the contrary. At least, we don't have to start from scratch. The UEL and other groups have done great and wonderful work in laying a foundation on which a more sane future might be built. Yet, we might be called upon to do even more than we have ever done, just to keep that foundation in place.
At least, that's how it all looks from where I am...
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