Monday, January 9, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: Big Bang

Jane Jacobs
Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a new year of Blogger Candidate Forum.  A new administration means fresh insights into the way the President-elect Donald J. Trump's policy initiatives will impact  urban life.  Today we begin with a look at how the rise of Trumpism was predicted about ten years before PEOTUS considered standing for election.  Richard Florida's CityLab article, "Did Jane Jacobs Predict the Rise of Trump?" focuses on her last book, Dark Age Ahead, which eerily predicted a dark age and how to survive it.  Mr. Florida writes,

Jane Jacobs was one of the most prescient writers of the 20th century.  In the 1960s, when suburbanization and heavy-handed urban renewal programs threatened urban neighborhoods, she published her classic Death and Life of Great American Cities.  During the 1970s and 1980s, when policy-makers and economists focused on industrial competitiveness and national economic strategy, she drew attention to the role of cities and clustering in powering innovation and economic growth in her books The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations.  

Her final book saw the future.

Dark Age Ahead
Dark Age Ahead ( was published in 2005, at a time when commentators and political scientists were singing the praises of the end of history, the emerging Democratic majority in Congress, and the virtues of globalization.  The late-Ms. Jacobs saw a dark future of urban crisis, mass amnesia, and a populist backlash.  Mr. Florida writes, "Eerily prescient as always, rereading the 2005 book today serves as a survivors's guide to the Age of Trump."

Over the course of her book, Jane Jacobs outlines " increasing distrust of politicians and politics, a burgeoning new urban crisis in cities, worsening environmental degradation, entrenched segregation, and an 'enlarging gulf between rich and poor along with attrition of the middle class'" as signifiers of a coming Dark Age.

Nationalism and xenophobia are the essence of Ms. Jacobs's Dark Age.  She writes,

...Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society's decline from cultural vigor as self-imposed isolation leads to a fortress mentality.

Ms. Jacobs goes on to write That mentality,...with a conservatism that looks back to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.

Mr. Florida points out, "Jacobs borrows that phrase from Karen Armstrong's Short History of Islam, who points to Ferdinand and Isabella driving Muslims out of Spain in 1492, signaling a turning point for Mesopotamia in the Middle Ages.

Milan, Italy in the Middle Ages
From a historical point of view, the dark ages have quickly returned in the form of radical jolts that precipitate "...the collapse of once-vital economic political and cultural institutions."  The original European Dark Ages was brought about as local governments and city-states were

expunged by imperial decree and were replaced by a centralized military despotism.

Jane Jacobs cites the cities of the Roman Empires, which lost the benefits of subsidiarity-proximity to the people-and fiscal accountability to the imperial treasure prior to the collapse of the Empire.  In her final book, she poses the over arching question at the core of dark ages: how and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?

The answer is in the rise of mass amnesia.  Mass amnesia is define as "...a widespread, 'permanent and profound' society-wide loss of memory,"  something that was such an anathema at the time Ms. Jacobs wrote her book.  However, in the age of Trumpism and Brexit-where every fresh outrage leads to another outrage and facts have no value-collective memory loss is all too real.

Family and community
 The Five Pillars of Dark Age Descent

Jane Jacobs lays out how our own dark age is taking form around the erosion of the five key pillars of society.

The sign of a dark age is the decline of family and community.  We all heard politicians extoll the virtues of families as the foundation of society.  Yet these very same lawmakers support politics that weaken and undermine this bedrock.  Extended families have been replaced by nuclear families making it impossible to meet rising housing costs.  Declining birth rates mean a smaller labor pool to look after an aging population.

Simultaneously, the greater community is victimized by market pressures, materialism, and "the hegemony of brands."  Ms. Jacobs singles out the automobile as a destroyer of worlds "that not only wastes energy and promotes sprawl, but skews priorities from public interest to self-interest."

The second dark age signifier is the decline of education, which morphs into vocational training.  Mr. Florida writes, "Education becomes an individualistic investment instead of a public good that produces well-rounded citizens."  When this phenomena occurs, employment and profit become the gauge of progress and the ultimate reason for political decisions, at the expense of everything else.

Third indicator of a dark ages is an attack on science or what Ms. Jacobs referred to as "false analogies that mask reality."  To wit, the questioning of global warming by PEOTUS and members of Congress.  She writes,

If a body of inquiry becomes disconnected from the scientific state of mind, that unfortunate segment of knowledge is no longer scientific...It stagnates.

Objectivity and scientific progress are overtaken by dogma.

American federal tax form
The fourth sign of a dark age is the dumbing down of taxes.  This is not the over simplification of the tax code, not going to happen anytime in the near or distant future.  Rather, it is wasteful taxes and government investment instead of investment in proposals that build cities and societies.  The result is that investments in the public good-i.e. education, transportation, infrastructure, and safety which further a functioning and cohesive society-begin to deteriorate.  Jane Jacobs accurately identifies the looming new urban crisis of unaffordable housing, growing inequality, increasing sprawl, and urban congestions as the result of this dumbing down of taxes and public investment.

Architect at work
The final signal of a looming dark age is the the subversion of learned professions.  Learned professions are defined as: architecture, medicine, law, engineering, and journalism.  Honestly speaking, we cannot know everything there is to know about the world around us.  Thus we need professions to instill a sense of trust and promote the common welfare.  For example, doctors adhere to the Hippocratic Oath.  Lawyers are bound by the ethical requirements of their profession.  When these professions come under attack and their norms and functions are undermined, Ms. Jacobs observes, "society falls victim to the whims of frauds, brutes, and psychopaths."

What Would Jane Do?

Fortunately, Jane Jacobs provides us with two crucial insights to help break and combat our own nascent Trump-induced dark age.

First, her life's work demonstrated that the vitality of the city and its neighborhoods is the ultimate light in the tunnel of darkness.  To be honest, she did have her pessimistic side.  Richard Florida describes,

In Scranton, she saw first-hand the devastating toll of the Great Depression on industries and workers.  As a young woman, she saw the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in Europe.  During the 1950s, she witnessed the chilling effect of McCarthyism.  Robert Moses-style urban renewal reflected the same unbridled top-down power.

Jane Jacobs saw cities and neighborhoods as more than walkable, mixed-se place, and more than mechanisms of innovation and economic growth.  They were guardians against the forces of darkness, the source of social progress, of human civilization, and democracy.

This may sound very heroic but Jane Jacobs has very optimistic view of urban life.  That said, she did implore us to use whatever means necessary to protect ourselves for the "forces of top-down power and mass amnesia that would destroy our communities and the key pillars of human civilization.

richard Florida recalls the last time he and Jane Jacobs spoke.  He asked her where did she and and her cohorts find the strength to battle Robert Moses and the centralized power he stood for.  Ms. Jacobs had just finished Dark Days Ahead and was focused on her unfinished book with the knowing title A Brief Biography of the Human Race.  Mr. Florida observed, "Still, her optimism came through."

He continues, "For the longest time, she told me, people would avoid their protests.  But one day, a few people started picking up their leaflets; soon many more were joining in and ultimately this cast of neighborhood characters won the battle and save their neighborhood."

If a dark age starts with a big band, it will end with one too.

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