Whose City Is It?

Politics is not a bad word in and of itself. It started out meaning “affairs of the cities” when Aristotle first introduced the term, politiká. But we all know how powerful connotations are, and the word has become burdened with an identity of contention, greed, and backroom dealing. When we don’t get a promotion we say it’s because of “office politics”; when we’re explaining why a referendum did not go the way we thought it should , we say it was “too political”; and apparently many are admonished at Thanksgiving dinner not to “talk politics.” (Of course, that probably won’t be such an issue this year as everyone is staying home with their Swanson’s Turkey TV Dinners). But shouldn’t we be concerned about the affairs of our cities, and suburbs, and villages, and counties? Can’t we all have a chance to talk about these affairs without fear of a dangerous fireworks display?

The affairs of the city and county of Los Angeles are many. I have never seen a ballot with so many measures, propositions, “down-ticket” candidates and the like. We’re being asked to decide, for example, if “scientific research” is really sciencey enough to deserve increased funding (Prop 14); whether corporate properties worth more than 3 million dollars should be taxed (duh! Prop 15); and if rent control should be expanded — a proposition that apparently many folks with money are against because the only ads I see on TV are “vote no on 21.” Fortunately the good people at Black Lives Matter and Democratic Socialists of America provide handy voter guides wherein they both say “hell yes,” to 21 and that’s good enough for me. Of course, there are always arguments to support each side, but that doesn’t mean the arguments are for the good of the “body politic,” for the cities these bodies live in, for the people.

When did we get so selfish? When did we become a NIMBY, everyone for themselves, you’re a jerk if you don’t agree with me kinda place? Oh, we always were? Because it was a part of the country’s DNA? Because we left an oppressive society in order to start a free one where everyone could do just what they wanted, but not really because it was actually that everyone could do just what the powerful wanted? That? But wait, one has to be selfish when one is carving out their rightful space in a new land, right? Like when a scholar secures a job at a university (this is hypothetical of course because there really aren’t any jobs at these places anymore, and these places probably won’t exist much longer in any recognizable form anyway). The scholar moves into their little cubicle, self-consciously places some books on their shelf, and then keeps to themselves until they have mastered the environment, right? Maybe if they are a male of European descent. But if they are a woman, and especially a woman of color, they will actually be pulled limb from proverbial limb to help with that program, sit on this committee, and advise a very particular cohort of students.

Where am I going with this? The founding fathers were males of European descent, right? So they took some time time to settle their land. Of course some folks were already there, so that had to be dealt with. But once they built their houses and got the farms started — or blacksmith businesses or silver trading posts (I’m just making things up now as I draw from memories of my 5th grade social studies unit on colonial jobs ) — they staked their claim, with no intention of going anywhere. This left lots of time and space to discuss the affairs of their cities. The women meanwhile were cooking, cleaning, churning butter (we did that in the 5th grade unit, with a jar and some cream) and thus weren’t invited to join in on the conversation. And of course we know that the non-White folks were mostly creating the wealth that allowed for the White people (men) to sit around discussing (their) politics in the first place. Flash forward, as they say, and it kind of looks like that now. Certainly lots of women and people of color and those who fall into less defined groups are visible in the vast world of politics, but when it comes down to it, who are we electing to hold office? Who is giving us the information that we base this voting on anyway? Who are we fighting when it comes to housing discrimination, or labor rights, or immigration reform? Just saying.

I had a male White student email me last semester after his essay’s rough draft was workshopped by a peer who was a woman of color. She pointed out what she saw as some blind spots having to do with race in his US History I paper. He told me in that email that in no uncertain terms that this was “reverse discrimination,” that he would never be “allowed” to make such racialized comments to her because she was Black, and that he refused to continue the workshopping process if he was to be paired with her again. “I don’t have to hear this kind of stuff,” he stated adamantly, “I am not a racist.” (She did not accuse him of such, by the way). But he was right about one thing. As a White male his identity will allow him to sidestep, skirt, and skidaddle away from most any uncomfortable discourse, including politics. Or he will enter politics, urged on by the myopia of this young lady when it comes to race. Eventually he will rule his own fiefdom with a focus on the rights of (certain) folks not having to take insults anymore, exhorting that it is time to take back this country — and the country’s discourse — to how things used to be. When things were “great.” Hmm, that sounds familiar.

I read a fabulous poem recently. The LA Times includes one in their daily “Essential California Newsletter.” The poem was called “ted talk,” written by Jenny Zhiang. (See the link at the bottom). My favorite line?: “I have never seen someone forgive themselves/as elaborately as the wealthy.”

Wealth comes in a lot of packages, including that of privilege. Politics needs to be returned (or given to for the first time) to the people, the people whose quotidian experiences are based upon the affairs of our cities. Us, we, the people.


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