Summer is here and the gardens are overflowing. I was just in Barcelona, at the Fearless Cities Conference http://fearlesscities.com/about-fearless-cities/ with two of my Burlington comrades. One of them, Ibnar A. Stratibus, found the word “fecund” most fitting to describe the smells and sites of this wonderful city, as we walked down the crumbling stairwells through Parc Guell through an abundance of flowering bushes and vines and trees. Life persists, life affirms itself, even as terror and tourism and heartache and commodification and homogenization threaten to deaden our senses and dull our diversity until we are zombies. Life persists! Nature seems sometimes, despite all, to be indefatigable. Let us take Her as our model and insist on growing and striving and joying in being alive no matter what obstacles, no matter how hopeless things might sometimes seem.
Mud, rain, sleet, sun. We are churning up the muck and it is not always pretty. But it is always beautiful. I went to the Intervale yesterday and there were mushrooms and new buds appearing right before my eyes. A sign told me not to pick the ramps and the fiddleheads. I did not, but I wondered how many others had disregarded the rules. I certainly have picked them at other times, along other paths, innocently enough. People ride by on bicycles. We shed the sweaters, the raincoats, the hats we needed in the morning, and wrap them around our waists or stash them in our bike baskets. People are feeling more feelings than they can stand and in the evenings the music wafts out of the opening and closing doors along North Winooski Avenue, just north of Pearl Street. Who is it who feels alive enough to live up to the Spring? Which of us can meet her without feeling the thorny lacerations of old regrets and new longings? Which of us is stoical enough not to feel disturbed by the stirring of ancient sap underfoot?
So, it is March, almost “the ides” even, and finally it is wintery cold and wintery clear and quiet. Locally, we have yet another election (March 7th) behind us, following November’s somber fallout. Most of us have “lost”. Our candidates did not win, our ballot items did not get quite enough support, the status quo is still standing, or some new, even more dangerous innovation is in the works. What is there to do? How do we proceed?
In local elections we keep getting 47% of the vote. Almost half. And the majority of people don’t even vote. What does this mean?
Most people say that, at least, people are more politically engaged than before, which is certainly good. But they still did not come out to vote. Why not?
People say, we have to move forward. By this they mean different things:
Keep pushing through projects and ways of living that are destroying the planet and creating increased income inequality and uglification;
Learn to work together with the people who are promoting this kind of moving forward because, well, they are the winners and have all the power, don’t they?
Keep building a movement that will one day be strong enough to inspire more people to believe in the possibility and necessity of another way of life. Keep strengthening neighborhood power and expanding our connections with each other so that one day we will break the 47% ceiling and break on through to a city where the decisions about our lives are in the hands of the people who live here. Spring Forward Neighbors!
Following the recent Public Hearing on Burlington’s downtown zoning change, after various factions had gone off to compare notes, nurse wounds, and celebrate what each was claiming as victory, I ran into a City Councilor and another vociferous “multi-use-mall-housing-office-parking garage-structure” supporter, who suggested that all sides should keep partying. I demurred, saying I had too much work to do, fighting city hall. The Councilor surprised me by quoting Emma Goldman’s line, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution”. It was not that I couldn’t imagine him dancing (I am sure he can cut a good rug), but that I found it incongruous that a man who had recently called some community organizers in Burlington “N.I.M.B.Y.” (Not in My Back Yard) “attack dogs” chose to quote the words of a notorious anarchist agitator―with apparent approbation. What would he be calling Emma if she were a contemporary concerned citizen of Burlington?! It also made me wonder about the tensions between pleasure and politics and the terrible tendency politics has of being no fun. Abbie Hoffman, the great yippy agent provocateur who endeavored to levitate the Pentagon and ran a pig for president, knew well how to transcend partisan dogmatism and make politics a party. Most of the time, however, politicians and activists vie with each other to present the worst possible sour faces, squeezing out a well-orchestrated sob for the poor and disenfranchised when necessary, and deploring, castigating, warning, threatening, doomsday-saying, till the cows come home―as if she who is most morally outraged on behalf of others, most piously selfless, is by right the one whose cause is most just. As if she who would willingly have a mote in her own eye or an eyesore in her own backyard were the finest shining example of citizenship.
It occurred to me further, after hearing the Burlington Mayor stigmatize those who were against creating a completely out-of-character zoning in the town center as people who were against equality and affordable housing, how easy it is, in Hamlet’s words, to “smile, and smile, and be a villain”—just as long as you claim you are helping to feed the hungry and house the homeless by doing so. Building high-rise luxury multi-use mall-office tower-monstrosities with three floors of above-ground parking garages and 80 units of expensive student housing and a very small percentage of affordable housing is, apparently, now a campaign to help “the poor and disenfranchised”. I really might respect Mayor Weinberger more if he would just admit that it gives him pleasure to help developers like himself make money and cleanse the town of riff-raff and impecunious artists and hardly-working troublemakers. Instead, he plays pious. Those against the project also—with greater validity—have used the minimal affordable housing as a justification for not wanting the zoning to go through. Presumably, if we only talked about the views that would be lost, or the ugliness of the structure, or the added traffic that would make our lives less enjoyable, we would be considered N.I.M.B.Y’.s, and our concerns would not be respected as much. But the dichotomy, as the dichotomy between beauty and justice, is a false one. We don’t have to choose between acting in an ethical manner and fostering lives of pleasure and happiness—for ourselves and others.
The environment can also be manipulated as a free ticket to do atrocious things. Worrying about the ozone layer gets you more sympathy than complaining about the inconvenience and stress of traffic. In this case, the Mayor has made the disingenuous claim that a huge development, which would put excessive strain on the lake and increase carbon emissions, is the only way we could now require LEED certification, a new storm water runoff system, and to use the McNeil Power Plant for a district energy system that has been clamoring for attention for years—until he suddenly realized that opportunistically promoting it seemed like a good opportunity to sell an unpopular project to the people. Of course we can do all of these ecologically smart things without approving this new zoning change. Those against the project have counted—again, more rightly—their environmental concerns as points for their side, citing the threats to an already-ailing lake, the need for urban green spaces, and a need for a reduction of cars in the city. But if we were to defend the environment only because it is beautiful and pleasurable to experience, we would surely be called selfish N.I.M.B.Y’.s concerned with our lake views. And yet the whole city is the back yard of everyone who lives here.
The environment can be used as a moral cause because it is suffering greatly from human selfishness, because it is fundamental to our physical health, and because it is fundamentally useful (we need it to breathe, for medicines, for food). But what if it were not necessary for our continued existence on the planet? Would a call to save the endangered redwoods or the monarch butterflies be considered merely frivolous? Probably. It seems that our administration really does have a hard time letting beauty just be beauty without putting it toward some practical or personal use. Recently, a lovely patch of the bike path which used to be wild and weedy has been transformed into a paved-over work-out center with contraptions for joggers to stretch and tone themselves along the trail. How convenient. How useful. How utterly ugly.
Does this work-out pavement help the poor and disenfranchised? No. Does it decrease the permeable surface which soaks up toxins on their way to the lake? Yes. Not good for the poor, and not good for the eco-system. And not even pleasurable! A paved exercise area may be theoretically in service to personal physical attractiveness or fitness (which others may enjoy by looking), but at what cost to the beauty of the surrounding environment? To human enjoyment of undeveloped, wild nature? But pain trumps pleasure. A sweating jogger can claim that he is aching from all those self-flagellating miles. If a poet misses the field of flowers, well, that’s merely something more for her to lament about in the next ode. But neither can claim that their suffering in response to this new paved fitness area will help the poor and disenfranchised, those who are unable to run due to old age or infirmity, or those who do not understand poems. The moral posture of helping others by suffering some personal sacrifice is reserved for the hypocritical apologist for bad development who is happy to have an ugly building with a 24-hour fluorescently-lit garage built right next door to his lakefront home. He piously pretends that the presence of these “lofts” lowers rent prices (which it doesn’t). This fortress of “wealthy living” is neither healthy nor socially beneficial to the underprivileged. Perhaps he just gets a perverse pleasure out of making the world uglier because beauty somehow discomforts him.
But why is hypocritical, self-sacrificing suffering such a popular position in political debates? Why should it bear more weight than the tastes and preferences of a self-interested individual who gathers together with other neighbors to protect their view or to limit traffic on their street, or to define, in any way, the boundaries of their small community according to their own interests—aesthetic, practical, or otherwise? Nietzsche and Wilde, following Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, questioned the concept of “disinterested” criticism in the 19th century, arguing that humans are always interested, always subjective; our judgments are always colored by our tastes and our lives. This interestedness, however, was not seen as a bad thing, but as a meaningful force, a source from which pleasure fountains forth. Of course, if we considered only ourselves we would not experience much pleasure in either personal or political life. All of our considerations of self-interest must needs consider that we live in the world with others whom we affect and whose lives and interests concern us greatly. We can assuredly be both other-directed and self-interested at once, just as long as we don’t insist on our “right” to do just any old reckless thing without acknowledging that our own happiness is contingent on the harmony of the neighborhood.
Kant defined ethics as other-directed action, while insisting upon the basic subjective lens of the individual agent. And this is the seeming paradox of existential action: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will it to be a general rule” (the categorical imperative) is not that different from “Do unto others…”. That is, an existentialist who is a N.I.M.B.Y. not only doesn’t want a bad development in his own back yard, but doesn’t want that bad development anywhere else either. N.I. A. B.Y.―Not in Anyone’s Backyard. But the Nay-Saying must begin wherever we live. If we don’t say no to bad things in our own back yard, where will we say no to them? And we hope that others, elsewhere, will also say no to things in their back yards that we would deem harmful here. Their success in determining their own communities will inspire us to better cultivate our own gardens at home.
And even though Kant probably did not dance, and may have had precious little pleasure in his highly regimented scholarly life, somehow there is a connection—through Nietzsche and Wilde—to Emma Goldman’s dancing revolution. True revolutions begin and prosper from a source of personal pleasure (not just against the pain of others), within small communities of people who love and argue with each other, who care about both their built and natural environments, their neighborhoods and traditions; and who work together to protect these things from powerful external forces which impinge on their own home-grown interests, tastes, and sense of ethical community-building. Community groups (“N.I.M.B.Y. attack dogs”) fight outside interests off so that they can win the time and freedom to envision and manifest new ways of living and interacting with each other from back yard to back yard, as existential models of universal resistance and creativity. If we forget what it is we are fighting to preserve—something we might well define as a beautiful, meaningful life—we have already lost.
Today, November 10th, we are trying to orient ourselves to the new world order, but trying also to not orient ourselves. What seems most important, in the wake of local and national elections, is that we do not succumb to fatalism or nihilistic acceptance of those parts of the status quo that seem to be winning. They are no more real than the other aspects of our world, they are no more entitled to assert their values than the rest of us who envision something different, more beautiful, more brave. And, in these next weeks, as we regroup, we will be celebrating all there is that is fine and wild and courageous in our complex world, remembering that there is at least as much good as there is bad, at least as much wisdom as foolishness, at least as much miraculous delight as wretched violent vulgarity. We must, indeed, expand the outpourings of our visions, must strengthen our voices, must widen our circles, and carry on.
If a political system were a genre of art, it would constantly invite new practices and perspectives to remain alive. Not necessarily revolutionary, but vitally evolving, linking past traditions with new realities. And yet governments have a staggering tendency to get stuck in ruts that have little to do with creative processes. Stymied systems continue on, with their accumulated corruptions, calluses and carbuncles. Many point them out, with varying degrees of outrage, but the people most complicit, the politicians and those who influence them, soon lose any perspective they might once have had. The improprieties, the fatal compromises seem less and less egregious from up-close, among ethically lazy colleagues. And yes, governments have always resorted to illegalities.
Locally, artists are allowed two minutes during public forum, and we may hang signs in City Hall or bring in a cardboard coffin to symbolize the death of the Burlington College land. Last week Council President Knodell gave Ibnar Avilix more than two minutes because he was in the middle of a poem. Our shenanigans will be tolerated, in their place. But recently I spoke out of turn, when Planning Director, David White, misrepresented the positions of the Planning Commissioners yet again. I was chastised: “We don’t speak out” during the deliberations of the council, said the Council President using the royal “we”; because of course they do speak out, all they want. It is We, the People, who normally do not. We behave ourselves during meetings and don’t resort to what they call “personal attacks”. I myself have been known to counsel a less adversarial approach in hopes of winning over people who don’t yet know how corrupt the system is. Some say vitriolic or even humorous satire “alienates” potential supporters. But does politeness do the trick? When the city held a hearing on the Champlain Parkway last year, they successfully stifled opposition by limiting public comment to notes on index cards! The harder questions were shuffled to the bottom of the pile and ignored. We sat there like cows. Outraged. But cows. When the opponents of the F-35 dared to play a recording of the “sound of freedom” another time, the then Council president, Joan Shannon, hammered the table with a gavel. They have their business to conduct.
And yet, it is not theirs, it is OUR business. We elected them to serve us. But there is something broken in this representative system. Is it that people don’t vote? In Burlington, under 25% of the citizens voted in the last few elections, for varying reasons ranging from despair to apathy. How work within a system that is not working? Can we work within it and outside of it? Does any amount of work within it signal an acceptance of its treachery? Does refusal to work within it at all signal a fatalism that has given up on changing it? Ah! And on the national level things are even more troubling: Should one vote one’s conscience? Dare one not vote? Must one (probably) vote so that the lesser evil wins?
Thoreau, in “Civil Disobedience,” notes that disruption is not always worth the upheaval. But sometimes, he thought, it is. Working within the system is not only desperately slow, but often doesn’t work at all. But sometimes it does. The Coalition for a Livable City has induced the City Council put a public disapproval question on the ballot to vote down the zoning change that could not be stopped by a charade of public input sessions. The results of this vote will be binding and it represents a laudable example of the checks and balances put in place to defend against the railroading of public process that occurs in democracies. Burlingtonians: look for it on the November ballot along with a chance to vote down the use of 22 million dollars of TIF money as a gift for developer Don Sinex (and visit http://www.CLCburlington.org for more information).
But we also continue to work outside of the system. Rather than being outright disruptive, we will tend toward the creative. Yet every good artist knows that things need to be taken apart, destroyed, before they are put back together in new ways. We work to break down the one-dimensionality of the status-quo by speaking in languages that cannot easily be co-opted by the simulated democracy. Languages of art, of irony, of humor, direct action, of beauty and of outrage; languages that cannot be contained by time or space. May these counter-narratives make people think, feel, and live more boldly, more complexly, more courageously, more beautifully. There are ways in which the political system should remain traditional (abiding by the Constitution, for example; keeping consistent). Though art too engages with tradition at best, it has more leeway to innovate. Art cannot replace politics, because it would lose much of its freedom and autonomy by doing so. Although art may seem harmless enough, it is, I venture, one of the most powerful tools we have to reshape the way we imagine and continue to co-create our world. Politics is not an artistic genre and that is why many of us choose to not run for public office. Instead, we work in conflict and in compromise with the political system, in a sort of dance which hopefully we both appreciate. Art can very meaningfully provide us with alternative ways of seeing that would make the conversations taking place inside City Council rooms and U.N. chambers seem laughable, if only their outcomes were not so dangerous.
From the Editor
I request that you remove me.
Today on the radio, we learned that ISIS is recruiting criminals from jails around the world. It’s not surprising, given for instance that the American west was colonized by criminals who committed genocide on native populations at the behest of George Washington and his cronies. Perhaps ISIS is really signalling the birth o f a new nation. Sort of like Krakatoa.