The Pleasure and Power of Backyard Politics

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.