Our 14th most-read article of 2019
(Originally published June 13, 2019)
Friends, neighbors, it’s good to see all of you. I know you, you know me, and just seeing all of your faces at this city council meeting reminds me why I love living in this town. Because I feel comforted by stasis and regularity, both fed by ignorance, and which combine to perpetuate injustice.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak tonight, and I look forward to contributing to our robust debate by making claims that are floating in an ether of confusion, prejudice, and unearned authority. But for those of you who may not know me, let me introduce myself. I’m a retired professional who rose through the ranks because competition in my field was minimized due to systemic discrimination against women and people of color. My job was well paid, did not punish me for my lack of soft skills, and convinced me that I know what’s best for other people, even if it seems like what’s worst for other people. I grew up here and, after leaving for a time to go to college and start my career, returned to this town, my true home, in order to raise a family and stop time from progressing. I’ve lived in the same house in the Elm Heights neighborhood for the past twenty years, and I just love everything about this town except for the problems that my politics have directly created.
Now that we’ve heard from all the members of the city council tonight, I think we as citizens need to make a few things clear. The first is, we aren’t Madison. We aren’t Boulder. We aren’t Terre Haute. So when I hear a member of the council saying, “Well, Waukesha made a few small but substantive changes in such-and-such an area and the results have been very promising empirically,” what that council member fails to understand is that we aren’t Waukesha. We aren’t Tacoma. We aren’t Amherst. We aren’t Portland, Maine. Are we Scottsdale? No, we are not. And so all this so-called “evidence” about how policies have worked in other towns simply does not apply to us. No evidence applies to us. Our town exists in a fog of mystery and enigmatic strangeness, and nothing that happens outside city boundaries should have any bearing on how we govern or exist.
The second thing the council must understand is that subject-specific expertise built up through a lifetime of education and research doesn’t mean much unless you are also able to make exaggerated claims that stoke fear and resentment, ideally combined with a kind of faux-folksiness that harkens back to an age that never existed. Am I impressed that you have a Ph.D. in city planning or education or environmental science and are using your expertise to make the commons more equitable, livable, just, and human-centered? I mean, maybe. But the thing is, you haven’t frightened me with your expertise. There has been no “Oh God, the Other is taking over and we must stop them from inflicting their strange ways on our all-American life” moment tonight. And so, I’m afraid, you have wasted all of our time.
If I haven’t convinced you yet of my point of view, this surely will: as a middle-class white Christian man who came of age during the most profound and sustained economic boom in our nation’s history, I understand struggle. I never received anything in my life, except a world-class public education that cost virtually nothing. I wasn’t handed anything, except two loving parents, a comfortable upbringing, and the general feeling that our nation’s institutions and structures were designed for the success of people like me.
So when the city council talks about poverty, when it talks about affordable housing, when it talks about Medicaid, what we’re really talking about is work ethic. What we’re talking about is a culture of give-me give-me give-me that, yes, I directly benefited from via the university I attended, but now that I’ve benefitted from public programs, I don’t want anyone else to benefit from them. The question is not, “How can we help other people?” The question is, “How can other people help themselves via policies that rely on magical thinking?”
Or, to put it another way, let’s make a list of public programs that have directly benefitted me. Those are good. Now let’s make a list of public programs that benefit other people. Those are bad. That’s what small government means, after all: the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of those who already have those things, because the idea that in a democratic society we are all equals is dangerous and frightening to me.
Please, stop talking, folks. I didn’t talk while you were saying things that I wasn’t paying attention to.
I’d like to conclude my remarks with a NIMBY rant about how, first of all, we should not take any action on global climate change, because making a carbon sacrifice is something we should outsource to people whose lives would be more greatly affected by that carbon sacrifice. And, second, we need to preserve the character of our neighborhoods, by which I mean prevent immigrants and people of modest means from buying or renting near where I live.
Thank you, and remember: you should pay special attention to what I think, because I’ve been saying offensively wrong things about this place for over forty years.
Head on over to our Patreon page to read an interview with Chas Gillespie about writing this piece.