The Implications Of Physical and
Fragmentation On Being Human
paper critically examines the increasing physical and spatial fragmentation of
U.S. society. I look at the 'hyper-suburb' as a symbol and metaphor of our
increasing physical and spatial fragmentation. Hyper-suburbs are highly
affluent housing enclaves found deep within the bowels of rural districts in
the U.S. I argue that the increasing physical and spatial fragmentation of
U.S. society—as seen in the rise of the gated community' and the
hyper-suburb—along class lines reflects and fosters a politics and economics
of separation and division. This politics and economics strive on an ethos of
selfishness, deceit, and greed. I also argue that our increasing physical and
spatial fragmentation reflects a deterioration of the human condition. That
is, our increasing physical and spatial fragmentation disconnects us from the
plight of the poor and marginalized. It spares us the hard work of expanding
our empathy and compassion. Our increasing physical and spatial fragmentation
thereby undermines the evolution of ways of being that are vital to us
becoming fully human.
Identity politics gives us no
solution to the fact that the U.S. is increasingly being geographically
balkanized along class lines. As the wealth gap widens between rich and poor,
so also the physical division between the groups widens. Our living and
working spaces increasingly have no physical common ground. Class is
physically and spatially fragmenting us (Goldsmith & Blakely, 1992;
Liggett & Perry, 1995; Massey & Denton, 1993; Phelan & Schneider,
1996; Southworth & Ben-Joseph, 1993; Stoesz, 1996; Wilson, 1991). We no
longer have just suburbs and urban worlds. We now also have the hyper-suburb
and the gated community.
The hyper-suburb is found beyond the
suburbs. It is carved deep within rural districts in the U.S. Its newly built
houses look like castles, with lawns like golf courses. Developers often refer
to these houses as McMansions (Goldberger, 2000). Its occupants are
obviously highly affluent. In the hyper-suburb, common spaces are nearly
nonexistent (Blakely & Snyder, 1997; Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck,
2000; Southworth & Ben-Joseph, 1993). Even sidewalks tend to be absent.
Perfectly manicured and arranged lawns extend to the curb. We find a hegemony
of private spaces (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck, 2000; Southworth &
The rise of affluent suburbs and
hyper-suburbs shows the elevation of class in our ethics and politics (Blakely
& Snyder, 1997; Boger & Wegner, 1996; Bullard, Grigsby & Lee,
1994; Calmore, 1996; Cook, 1997). The assumption in the hyper-suburb is that
the best people make for the best neighbors, the best
neighborhoods, and the best schools (Blakely & Snyder, 1997). We
supposedly have no need to worry about whom our children will play with or
date, about our property being devalued, about charitable organizations
wanting to establish homeless shelters and soup kitchens in our neighborhoods,
or about our houses being burglarized and vandalized. The hyper-suburb is
about the culling of the suburbs. It is about wanting our children to go to
the best schools and be removed from supposedly deviant influences (read
black, brown, and poor children) (Thomas, 1995). It is about wanting to get
away from that supposed class (and race) of people who once belonged to the
urban world but now is increasingly moving out to the suburbs (Boal, 1978;
Cutler, Glaeser, & Vigdor, 1999; Hwang & Murdock, 1998; Liska, Logan,
& Bellair, 1998; Marcuse, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1997c; Ross, 2000; South
& Crowder, 1998). It is about wanting to get away from the problems that
such persons supposedly bring to the suburbs (Caldiera, 1996; Downs, 1998;
Dreier & Moberg, 1996; Farley, 1995; Hwang & Murdock, 1998). In other
words, black and brown and poor folks once again have white folks on the run.
The hyper-suburb and the gated community attempt to finally end this running
(Blakely & Synder, 1997). It is believed that the housing cost in the
hyper-suburb is simply too high for even the most ambitious of the poor and
downtrodden. Renting is simply out of the question. On the other hand, the
economics of the hyper-suburbs save us from revealing our real motives as to
why plush suburbs no longer suffice for our housing needs. We profess to
simply want a nicer and bigger home for our growing family, a quieter
neighborhood, and access to better schools for our children. These are all
equal opportunity excuses. Even the few persons of historically marginalized
groups who happen to gain access to the hyper-suburb often use such excuses to
avoid issues of class and opportunity and history (Liska, Logan, & Bellair,
1998). In the hyper-suburb, class appears to trump all other differences.
But what results from this increasing
physical fragmentation and class balkanization on our society? What are the
effects on our politics and ethics? In fact, what are the effects of this kind
of fragmentation on the human condition? In Fortress America, a book
that focuses on the rise of the gated community in the U.S., Edward Blakely
and Mary Gail Snyder (1997) put the matter the following way: “What is the
measure of nationhood when the divisions between the neighborhoods require
guards and fences to keep out other citizens? . . . Can this nation fulfill
its social contract in the absence of social contact?” (p. 3). In this
paper, I argue that our increasing spatial fragmentation and balkanization
reflects and fosters a politics of separation and division. This politics
strives on an ethos of selfishness, deceit, and greed. In other words, this
physical and spatial fragmentation diminishes our humanity by pitting us
against each other.
The evolution of the hyper-suburb
correlates with the evolution of hyper-capitalism and the widening gap between
rich and poor (Marcuse, 1995, 1997; Wilson, 1991). Peter Marcuse (1997) uses
the term hypersegregation when discussing our increasing physical and
spatial fragmentation. Indeed, the hyper-suburb physically captures the
widening gap between rich and poor. Most of all, our increasing physical and
spatial fragmentation reflects a deterioration of the human condition. It
reflects our increasing apathy to the plight of the poor, marginalized, and
downtrodden. That is, the hyper-suburb demands no risking of life. Our
increasing physical and spatial separation saves us from expanding our empathy
and compassion. In so doing, the hyper-suburb blocks the evolution of ways of
being that are absolutely vital to us becoming fully human. This paper ends
with a call for a new politics. It is a politics premised on our potentiality
and striving for deep and complex relations to the world and each other. It
assumes that our redemption resides within the blossoming of such relations.
But let us first begin with a discussion of the background that frames this
The thesis at the center of this
paper is by no means new. In recent years, many scholars from across the
academy have written compellingly about the perilous and pernicious threats to
our democracy and society that our increasing physical and spatial
fragmentation—as seen in the rise of the affluent suburb and the gated
community—poses to U.S. society (Blakely & Snyder, 1997; Boger &
Wegner, 1996; Bullard, Grigsby & Lee, 1994; Calmore, 1996; Cutler, Glaeser,
& Vigdor, 1999; Dreier, 1996; Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck, 2000;
Farley, 1995; Flynn, 1995; Garreau, 1991; Keating, 1994; Liggett & Perry,
1995; Marcuse, 1994, 1996, 1997; Goldsmith & Blakely, 1992; Massey &
Denton, 1993; Phelan & Schneider, 1996; Southworth & Ben-Joseph, 1993;
Stoesz, 1996; Wilson, 1991). Whereas I use the term hyper-suburb, other
scholars use such terms as affluent suburb, out-ring suburb, xuburbs,
citadels, and the totalizing exclusionary suburb. Many scholars contend
that our increasing physical and spatial fragmentation is making for and
reflecting a society that is increasingly unequal through the elevation of
political power in affluent suburbs and the diminution of political power in
urban districts. Massey and Denton (1993) make this point forcefully in a book
titled American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.
This political power is selfishly being used to forward the interests of
affluent suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites (Marcuse, 1994, 1996, 1997;
Goldsmith & Blakely, 1992; Massey & Denton, 1993; Phelan &
Schneider, 1996; Wilson, 1991).
Scholars consistently point out that
this political hegemony that the suburbs and affluent suburbs possess is
directly contributing to the pauperization and ghettoization of urban
districts as the gains that such places now enjoy is a result of the transfer
of resources away from urban districts (Dreier, 1996; Marcuse, 1995, 1997;
McClain, 1995). Many scholars offer solid descriptions of this transfer of
resources and the debilitating effects of such transfer on urban districts
(e.g., Dreier, 1996; Jencks, 1991; Judd, 1995; Mingione, 1996; Stoesz, 1996;
Sugrue, 1996; Wacquant, 1993; Wilson, 1987, 1991). Most analyses of this
increasing spatial fragmentation highlight the fact that black, brown, and
poor folks are unfortunately bearing the full brunt of this transfer of
political and economic power to the suburbs and hyper-suburbs. According to
Peter Marcuse (1997), “The residents of ghettos stand in an inferior,
generally dominated and exploited (although resisting) relationships to those
outside” (p. 315). Whereas those in affluent suburbs benefit
“disproportionately from their economic and political relationships with
others.” Besides the pauperization and alienation, many scholars contend
that what is emerging is a new kind of ghettoization that appears bent on
keeping black, brown, and poor folks confined to certain spaces that are
without any kind of political and social power (McClain, 1995). About this new
kind of ghetttoization, Marcuse (1997) explains:
excluded ghetto of today is not simply an extreme form of the traditional
ghetto but a new form in which permanent exclusion from participation in the
mainstream economy, whether formal or informal, has become its defining
characteristics. The historical changes in the traditional ghetto that have
produced the excluded ghetto include a range of contemporary economic
forces–from post-Fordist changes in the organization of production to
globalization to business activities to development of new informational
technologies–and the political and social consequences of these forces
interact with entrenched patterns of racial discrimination and spatial
segregation. The excluded ghetto is today both the home and the place of work
of those whom Wilson (1991) calls the ghetto poor. Its characteristics
have been often described. It is inseparably linked in the United States to
racist patterns. One may thus speak of hypersegregation not as identical with
exclusion but as very largely overlapping it, and the figures show little or
no reduction in its extent despite more than four decades of formal
governmental commitment to its abolition (p. 316).
This paper brings further commentary
on this increasing spatial fragmentation of U.S. society. Like many other
scholars who study this phenomenon, I am of the view that this trend makes for
a “deeply divided and very troubled society.” I am principally concerned
with pushing forward the claim that this trend seriously undermines the
quality of our humanity and thereby undercuts the moral development of our
society. It does so fostering and legitimizing a deep fear and suspicion of
others who appear, either racially or economically, different to us. Our
differences are exaggerated so as to mask our common humanity. A politics and
economics appear that put us at the throats of each other. The result is also
a diminished understanding of identity. We are increasingly forced to
understand who and what we are by our differences to others so as to justify
the growing disparity between the few and the many. I will draw upon Erich
Fromm’s theory of union and separation to show how this way of constructing
our identity harms our humanity.
Nature of Our Politics
The affluent suburbs and
hyper-suburbs are increasingly determining and shaping U.S. politics (Cook,
1997; Dreier & Moberg, 1996; Goldsmith & Blakely, 1992; Lehrer, 1998;
Longman, 1998; Marcuse, 1997a, 1997b, 1997c; Mingione, 1996; Musante, 1998;
Wilson, 1987, 1991). In a compelling paper about how electoral trends show
suburbs and hyper-suburbs gaining control of political power in the U.S.,
Robert Cook (1997) writes:
is no doubt these days that the suburbs are the power center in American
politics. A 1993 analysis by David C. Huckabee of the congressional research
service found that 212 congressional districts--nearly half--have populations
with a suburban majority and that 160 have populations at least 60% suburban.
By either measurement, the number of suburban district dwarfs the total for
either the cities or rural areas, which have each lost ground to the suburbs
over the last two decades (p. 1214).
Many factors are making the suburbs
and hyper-suburbs the new power center in U.S. politics. I will briefly
discuss four factors: shifting population patterns, redrawing of electoral
districts, voting consistently and overwhelmingly conservative, and directing
political issues to favor suburban interests. The first factor deals with
shifting population trends, that is, the increasing outward migration from
urban districts to suburbs and hyper-suburbs. Increasingly, most U.S.
residents now live in the suburbs and hyper-suburbs, and this number is rising
rapidly (Cook, 1997; Farley, 1995). The result of this outward migration makes
for the redrawing of electoral districts, which is the next factor that is
contributing to the suburbs and hyper-suburbs being the new power base in U.S.
politics. The redrawing of electoral districts is directly transferring
electoral representatives—and electoral power—away from urban districts
(Cook, 1997). Suburbs now have the most congressional seats of all electoral
regions. In fact, in the last two decades, suburban seats have nearly doubled,
whereas other regions have significantly declined (Cook, 1997).
Third, electoral voting trends
plainly show that suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites consistently and
overwhelmingly vote for conservative representatives, conservative presidents,
and conservative causes (Cook, 1997). The mildly liberal hegemony of urban
districts is no longer a factor in national politics. Suburbanites and
hyper-suburbanites now control who becomes president (Cook, 1997). The control
is nearly total as, again, both groups overwhelmingly vote conservative.
Presidential candidates have to align themselves with the concerns, causes,
and interests of both groups.
Finally, as with any kind of hegemony
and recognition of power, suburbs and hyper-suburbs want full control of the
direction of the status quo. Both use this newfound power for purely selfish
ends--ends which work to the detriment to urban and rural districts.
Suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites vote overwhelmingly for presidents and
representatives that have little interests in redeeming urban districts
(Goldsmith & Blakely, 1992; Marcuse, 1997; Massey & Denton, 1993). In
fact, such presidents and representatives are often hostile to the interests
of urban districts (Wilson, 1987, 1991). Paula McClain (1995) writes about a politics
generation of black youth is being wiped out, and the issue of urban homicide
is not on the governmental agenda in a meaningful way. There is clearly a politics
of homicide. The politics of homicide results from the use of race in
American politics and the image of white victimization by black criminals. The
politicization of the problem of urban homicide as one of blacks preying on
whites is a nondecision--the mobilization of bias to regard the phenomenon of
black against white. The
consequence has been to push the development of policies that do not help the
true victims of urban violence, urban black residents, but that clearly
confront the racial overtones of black-on-white crime (p. 643).
Indeed, this hostility to urban
districts is best seen in the politics of Ronald Reagan, who achieved nearly
total control of the suburban and hyper-suburban vote. Reagan’s politics and
policy initiatives were particular harsh on urban districts (Dreier, 1996;
Massey & Denton, 1993; Stoesz, 1996; Wilson, 1987, 1991). The origins of
urban blights were seen to be personal rather than structural, therefore
needing personal rather than structural solutions. McClain (1995) apply
describes Reagan’s philosophy to urban problems:
and associated problems are viewed as a result of individual personal failings
and limited intellectual capabilities rather than structural and institutional
factors. Government programs and intervention are undesirable and a waste of
money. Solutions, if there are any to what they view as fundamentally
intractable problems, will emerge from the private sector, and the free market
will find them (pp. 642- 643).
drastically slashed funding in all kinds of urban programs. Even many
successful programs were cut by over 70% (Calmore, 1993; Dreier, 1996; Stoesz,
1993). Reagan also completely eliminated general revenue sharing, “which in
1980 had provided $10.8 billion in direct funds to local governments” (Dreier,
1996). In addition, Reagan imposed a huge number of mandates on urban
districts, which cost these districts billions of dollars. As Peter Dreier
combined impact of these cuts and mandates has been devastating to the ability
of local governments to deliver services and to the capacity of urban
residence to cope with poverty and various health, housing, and other problems
associated with poverty. Because the number of poor Americans grew
significantly during the past decade while concentration of the poor in cities
increased, cities experienced the most serious repercussion from the cutbacks
and programs designed to serve individuals. The recession, which began in
1989, exacerbated the local fiscal crisis by undermining the capacity of local
governments to raise revenues from property taxes (p. 109).
On the other hand, as funding was
being slashed to urban districts, Reagan was generously allocating funds to
suburban districts for highway development, public works, and other
infrastructure projects. This kind of support was and remains instrumental to
the expansion of the hyper-suburb (Lehrer, 1998; Longman, 1998). Yet this kind
of expansion is actually being subsidized by non-suburban residents. This
subsidizing is evident in the allocation of federal funds to build new
highways rather than expand mass transit systems. According to Joe Persky,
“It’s all a matter of people not seeing the right price. In many cases,
governments are subsidizing highway construction over mass transit and doing
all sorts of other things that results in people paying too little for the
resources they use; the result is sprawl and traffic congestion and it’s
becoming a major problem” (Lehrer, 1998). But the costs of the hyper-suburbs
exceed federal dollars spent on new highway construction and public works.
Other costs can be found in the pollution that comes with the increasing miles
being traveled between home and work in gas-guzzling behemoths, the
environmental degradation that comes with the increasing pollution, the
physical heath problems that come with this increased pollution, the
allocation of limited funds to protect land areas so as to control
hyper-suburban development, and the loss of prime farm land to suburban and
hyper-suburban development (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck, 2000; Jackson,
1985; Massey & Denton, 1993; O’Meara, 1999).
Most scholars project that suburban
and hyper-suburban development will continue to grow exponentially. There
appears to be no immediate end to our increasing physical and spatial
fragmentation. Yet the tremendous cost that comes with the expansion of
suburbs and hyper-suburbs raise many important questions. How much of this
kind of selfishness can our society and democracy bear? How much physical and
spatial fragmentation? In fact, how much of this fragmentation can our
humanity bear? In my view, Erich Fromm’s (1956, 1973) theory of union and
separation gives us a solid calculus to begin understanding the different
threats that our increasing physical and spatial fragmentation poses to
society and the human condition.
Union and Separation
Erich Fromm (1956, 1973) contends
that any society that fosters any kind of fragmentation-- physical, social,
racial, cultural, and so on--ultimately harms the human condition. The reason
being, according to Fromm, is that human beings have a moral, existential, and
spiritual striving for union. It is through the forging of union that human
beings become fully human. This expansion of our humanity deepens our capacity
for love and compassion. In other words, love and compassion heals the human
condition. In The Art of Loving, Fromm (1956) writes, “This desire
for interpersonal fusion is the most powerful striving in man. It is the most
fundamental passion, it is the force which keeps the human race together, the
clan, the family, society. The failure to achieve it means insanity or
destruction—self-destruction of others” (p. 17).
Human separation reflects human
relations that disconnect us from each other through fear, distrust,
suspicion, and apathy. Thus, fragmentation harms the human condition. It makes
us less human, less decent, less civil, and less moral. Fragmentation
undercuts our capacity for love and compassion. It fosters
alienation---alienation from each other and our own humanity. Fromm (1973)
contends that alienation makes for powerlessness. It undermines our ability to
act purposely and courageously upon the world.
by no means does union undercut diversity. In fact, only through union can
diversity expand without any need or fear of assimilation (Rodriguez, 2000).
Union gives us the communication capacity to deal compassionately and
patiently with new and different ways of being in the world. Fromm’ theory
of union and separation gives us a solid calculus to understand the threats
posed by our increasing spatial fragmentation and physical balkanization. It
allows us to understand suburban and hyper-suburban electoral voting trends,
the lack of love and compassion for the poor, marginalized, and downtrodden
that such trends reflect, the increasing hostility of suburban and
hyper-suburban politics to urban problems, and the increasing fragmentation
that many scholars are documenting within suburban and hyper-suburban enclaves
(e.g., Blakely & Snyder, 1997; Bullard, Grigsby & Lee, 1994; Cutler,
Glaeser, & Vigdor, 1999; Putnam, 2000).
also gives us a heuristic framework to understand the complex relation between
identity, psychology, and separation. Our increasing physical separation is
making for a new kind of identity and psychology. Identity is being
increasingly defined in terms of success, that is, winners and losers. Though
still compelling factors, race and ethnicity are less and less determining our
neighbors, schoolmates, friends, lovers, colleagues, and, most of all, our
political candidates. This is no doubt a positive trend for a plural society
like the U.S. Unfortunately, this trend is being used to mask the fact that
race and ethnicity still matter in determining who becomes winners and losers
(Farley, 1995; West, 1993). Orlando Patterson (1997) contends that the
political interests of affluent Blacks have hardly any overlap with poor
Blacks. He argues that affluent Blacks’ political interests focus more on
social class issues and less on racial issues. Indeed, this group shows no
political intent on expending political capital to end harsh sentencing
guidelines that are making for an explosion of the prison population with poor
Blacks, or dismantling an educational funding system that allocates less money
to schools in ghettos and barrios, or other such issues that directly impact
poor Blacks. In Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American
politics, Manning Marable (1995) calls for a human rights politics to
contest this abandonment of the political interests poor Blacks and other
marginalized and disenfranchised groups.
Our increasing physical fragmentation
demands a psychology that also disconnects us from the suffering of those left
behind in ghettos and barrios. Our supposed success must be
psychologically legitimized in a system that must also produce losers. If our
success is deserved because of our efforts and dedication, then the failure of
the poor is deserved because of their lack of effort and dedication. So the
identity of many poor people is increasingly being defined in terms of
failure. This discursive strategy allows the status quo to mask the deep
ideological, political, cultural, and racial structures that are making for
the widening gap between rich and poor. As Ellen Goodman (1984) insightfully
observes, “If we are going to limit opportunities for those stuck in the
Other America, it is much easier to think of these people as failures. If we
are going to chip away at social programs for the have-nots, it is much easier
to name them losers. We used to call this blaming the victim. Now we call it
winning” (p. 5).
Fromm’s theory of union and
separation makes plain to us that this emergent psychology of separation is
making for an identity that only perpetuates our separation. We can have no
real separation from the plight and misery of others. We are connected to each
other—our actions (or lack thereof) always affect the condition of others.
We know from system theory and chaos theory that all life forms are
biologically connected. About our connection to each other, Thomas Merton
(1967), the distinguished theologian, writes:
Only when we see ourselves in our
true human context, as members of a race intended to be one organism and
“one body,” will we begin to understand the positive importance not only
of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes
are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors
is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor
are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they
are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of
life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements.
It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures
with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, . . . .
Every other man is piece of myself, for I am part and a member of mankind (p.
system is ever neutral. System theory reveal to us that systems as either
evolving or devolving. In other words, our actions are either fostering union
or separation (Rodriguez, 2000). The point being that our increasing physical
separation is making for a psychology that distorts our understanding of who
we are as human beings. Our political and psychological efforts to justify our
separation are ill serving us.
Fromm’s theory of separation and
union portends the dangers that come with our increasing spatial
fragmentation. It makes urgent our need to work against this kind of
fragmentation. It exposes the perilous consequences that come from this kind
of fragmentation. Indeed, even many scholars that support suburban politics
now warn ominously about the threats to our democracy and society that this
politics is creating. On the other hand, what also needs to be understood is
that the politics that is emerging out of our increasing physical and spatial
fragmentation works in tandem with an economics that is also legitimizing and
encouraging this kind of fragmentation. Let us now look briefly at the nature
of this economics.
Economics of Fragmentation
Our increasing physical and spatial
fragmentation also reflects the evolution of an economics that thrives on
fragmentation and division. This economics is dedicated to the unleashing
of market forces and obediently serving the interests of elites of wealth and
power. In this regard, this politics is determined to end political and social
practices that supposedly bridle the power of capitalism. This
economics is explicitly committed to the evolution of capitalism (Benson,
1998; Greider, 1997; Sowell, 1994; Williams, 1995). It wants to end government
or at least governments that are undedicated to the expansion of capitalism.
In fact, this economics wants all of us to be subservient to the mission of
capitalism. Integral to achieving this ambition is convincing us that
capitalism is the only path to the good society. This is how George
Will (1995) defends this economics:
that values individualism, enterprise and a market economy is neither
surprised nor scandalized when the unequal distribution of marketable skills
produces large disparities in the distribution of wealth. This does not mean
that social justice must be defined as whatever distribution of wealth the
market produces. But it does mean there is a presumption in favor of
respecting the market’s version of distributive justice. Certainly there is
today no prima facie case against the moral acceptability of increasingly
large disparities of wealth (p. A15).
We are to fully accept the many
bedrock assumptions that undergird capitalism, foremost of which is that human
beings have a proclivity for devolution and death, and that competition is the
natural order of the world. Supposedly, capitalism gives us the superior
mechanisms and structures to control this proclivity. In fact, a popular claim
is that capitalism actually harnesses this proclivity for the good of all
human beings (Dawkins, 1989, Sowell, 1994). It is believed that the
competition that capitalism fosters makes for the constructive playing out of
our supposed natural yearning for aggression, competition, and destruction.
Supposedly, without capitalism, this aggression will be channeled towards
destructive ends. In short, competition supposedly makes for the good society.
It supposedly makes for the most productive use of human and natural
resources. It therefore supposedly blocks us from fostering dependency and
acquiring other dysfunctional habits of being. The Wall Street Journal
editorializes endlessly about this claim.
It is also argued that capitalism undercuts discrimination (Sowell, 1994). The reason is that discrimination blocks the blossoming of competition. It defeats the promise of competition. Winning demands acquiring the best persons, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth. Increasingly, many members of historically disenfranchised and marginalized groups are the most vociferous proponents of this argument (e.g., Sowell, 1994). This argument is often showcased as a compelling reason as to why liberalism is supposedly dead. Capitalism is increasingly celebrated as the crowning achievement of Western civilization, and the U.S. full commitment to capitalism makes for the unsurpassed greatness of the U.S. The latest claim is that capitalism is supposedly an outgrowth of our spiritual evolution (Gilder, 1981; MacFarquhar, 2000). It reflects our spiritual questing for a society that will unleash all of our potentiality. In other words, capitalism is supposedly of God. It makes for the only society that God has blessed. Consequently, to be against capitalism is to be against God, and to do so, to be against capitalism, is to face the wrath of God. This kind of reasoning is often used by ardent proponents of capitalism to explain the downfall of socialism and communism (e.g., Gilder, 1981; MacFarquhar, 2000).
So the economics of the hyper-suburbs
is explicitly against the redistribution of wealth and resources. This kind of
redistribution supposedly only sponsors programs and initiatives that stop the
poor and downtrodden from developing superior habits of being that make
for a better life in a capitalist system (Dawkins, 1989; Liebmann, 1999;
Mansfield, 1996; Wilson, 1978; R. Wright, 1994; W. Wright, 1998). It undercuts
the evolution of our preservation instincts. Again, the economics of the
affluent suburbs and hyper-suburbs is explicitly committed to the evolution of
capitalism and the devolution of government. It champions the power of
self-interest (read greed). The mansion in the hyper-suburb is the promised
reward of self-interest. It supposedly stands as testimony that capitalism
offers a new paradigm that transcends race, ethnicity, and class history. The
rewards of capitalism are supposedly only for persons who exercise the highest
levels of self-interests, regardless of race, ethnicity, and other
differences. In this way, for proponents of capitalism, the hyper-suburbs
reflect the evolution of the good society and, conversely, the end of
collective interests. It is supposedly collective interests—such as civil
rights, unions, and identity politics—that bedevil the evolution of the good
society. Thus, the economics of the hyper-suburbs is openly committed to
eroding the power of unions and other interest groups that press the interests
of historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups.
The economics of the hyper-suburbs is
also committed to hierarchy. It assumes that hierarchy is the natural order of
the world. The elites of wealth and power are supposedly biologically
advantaged to rise to the top of society (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994). In
this regard, the hyper-suburbs reflect just rewards. The economics of
the hyper-suburbs is against programs and initiatives that reject the supposed
truths of biology. It argues that such efforts are useless and work
against the natural order of the world. Accordingly, the politics of the
hyper-suburbs is strenuously against any new school funding system that will
make for parity between rich and poor school districts. It is equally dead set
against other initiatives and programs that will expand opportunity and access
to persons of historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups (Fischer et
al., 1996). In the end, the politics of the hyper-suburbs is beholden and
committed to the evolution of capitalism and global capitalism. The
hyper-suburb believes the truths that capitalism professes. It believes that
self-interest (greed), competition, and hierarchy will ultimately make for the
good society, regardless of race, ethnicity, and other such differences. In
the end, the politics and economics that are emerging out of our increasing
physical and spatial fragmentation are harming community and the human
condition. This harm can be aptly seen in our increasing crisis of
communication ( Buber, 1970; Cissna & Anderson, 1994;
Crisis of Communication
refer to the deterioration of communication is to refer to ways of being in
the world that diminish communication, that undercut meaning creation, that
block the evolution of new and different ways of experiencing the world, and
that undermine the deepening and expansion of our relationships to the world,
each other, and our own humanity. Such ways of being are consistently and
distinctively devoid of empathy, compassion, transparency, and trust, which is
to say that such ways of being are laden with apathy, deception, suspicion,
and distrust. The end result is alienation and fragmentation. Alienation
dispossesses life of meaning. It undermines our ability to act deliberately
and purposely upon the world. It fosters hopelessness and despair. In sum,
alienation heightens our fear of the world, each other, and our own humanity.
Ronald Arnett (1994) contends that our losing of faith in our ability to act
upon the world makes for despair, mistrust, confusion, loss of moral
direction, and what Lasch (1984) refers to as a culture of survivalism.
contends that alienation is the hallmark of separation. It reduces us to
objects. It dehumanizes us. It erases the complexity of our humanity. In Anatomy
of Human Destructiveness, Fromm (1973) writes:
Alienation as we find it in modern
society is almost total; it pervades the relationship of man to his work, to
the things he consumes, to the state, to his fellow man, and to himself. Man
has created a world of man-made things as it never existed before. He has
constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine
he built. Yet this whole creation of his stands over and above him. He does
not feel himself as a creator and center, but as the servant of a Golem, which
his hands have built. The more powerful and gigantic the forces are which he
unleashes, the more powerless he feels himself as a human being. He confronts
himself with his own forces embodied in things he has created, alienated from
himself. He is owned by his own creation, and has lost ownership of himself
from the increasing deterioration of communication and community—undercuts
our ability to deal with others who are increasingly different to us. As a
result, many of us are forced to run to the suburbs, and now that the suburbs
are becoming increasingly populated with black, brown, and poor persons, must
run again. The gated community stands as a physical manifestation of our
strenuous efforts to keep a group of people out of our world (Blakely &
Synder, 1997; Flynn, 1995). It is probably the most explicit expression of
human division and fragmentation. It is also, unfortunately, a poignant
symbolization of human devolution. In our strenuous efforts to keep the other
out, the gated community and the hyper-suburb make us less human.
The aesthetics of the hyper-suburbs
also lend to alienation and fragmentation. The houses tend to turn us inward
rather than outward (Blakely & Snyder, 1997; Duany, Plater-Zyberk, &
Speck, 2000; Southworth & Ben-Joseph, 1993). In most cases, again, front
porches tend to absent. The huge lawns maintain separation and fragmentation
between neighbors. As sidewalks also tend to be absent, this subtly blocks
neighbors from walking through the neighborhoods. Further, the huge houses are
often located behind big trees and further away from the curb. Public spaces
like parks, community centers, and playgrounds also tend to be nonexistent
(Blakely & Snyder, 1997; Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck, 2000;
Southworth & Ben-Joseph, 1993). The street arrangement found in affluent
suburbs and hyper-suburbs is also deliberately meant to discourage entry of
nonresidents (Southworth & Ben-Joseph, 1993).
The huge houses in the hyper-suburbs
show materialism as a religion. Materialism begins when spiritualism ends, and
spiritualism ends when communication diminishes. Communication again is about
meaning creation, meaning negotiation, and meaning devolution. Communication
is about our questing to bring meaning to bear on the world. The process is
existentially transforming. That is, communication transforms our humanity.
However, how much communication transforms our humanity correlates with our
willingness to allow our questing for meaning to flourish. The expansion of
our communication capacity correlates with the expansion of our humanity. Both
expansions deepen our relations to others, the world, and our own humanity. In
my view, the hyper-suburbs are born out of a crisis of meaning, a crisis of
Materialism captures our crisis of
meaning. It reflects a grasping for meaning, any meaning. The huge houses in
the hyper-suburbs stand as really the new temples, mosques, churches, and
houses of worship to the new religion of materialism. We now each have our own
house of worship. There is no need to fellowship with others. Yet the dominant
spiritual teachings of the world consistently teach us that our spirituality
is entwined with our relation to others and our relation to our own humanity.
Love of God is about love of others. Indeed, our love of others (all others)
reflects and measures our love of God. Accordingly, many prophets stressed
again and again the need to love others deeply, completely, and selflessly.
This kind of love deepens our spirituality, deepens our understandings and
meanings of the world.
To love others deeply, completely,
and selflessly is a praxis. It reflects a way of being in the world that is
committed to transformation and evolution. In most cases the end result is
revolution, devolution of the status quo. Spirituality expands both
communication and our humanity. It deepens our relations to others, pulls us
towards each other, lessens the threat of our differences, and enlarges our
empathy and compassion. Spirituality fosters trust and transparency,
tenderness and kindness, and generosity and selflessness. Yet, besides
deepening our understanding of God and the world, spirituality deepens our
understanding of what being human means. It undercuts the fear, distrust, and
suspicion that give legitimacy to the evolution of the hyper-suburbs.
On Being Human
No one is denying that the threat of
physical harm is unimportant or undeserving of serious consideration. No one
is also denying that preservation of life instincts tend to have a certain
kinship with our physical being. The point being that the hyper-suburb
deliberately privileges the physical realm of being human. It perpetuates the
notion that human beings are one-dimensional beings and, like other such
beings, fixated with physical security. Our physical safety is seen as the
be-all and end-all of our existence. It is apparently deserving of all the
sacrifices made to get that income that will afford that house in either a
gated community or a hyper-suburb. Yet the prophets tell us that focusing on
physical safety can distract from the work of redemption. What matters most is
spiritual security--safety from fear, despair, hopelessness, and apathy. This
kind of security only evolves with the evolution of community. No amount of
money or walls or fences or gates can give us this kind of security. The
prophets teach us that this kind of security has to be forged through love and
compassion. The hyper-suburbs again show us turning away from the teachings of
But most suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites have no intention of abandoning the ambition to live far away from black, brown, and poor folks. The belief resides deep within our consciousness that such folks, especially blacks, have a natural proclivity for criminality and deviancy. In The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray sought to justify—really affirm—this nasty belief to suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites. The success of the book is revealing. No doubt, many suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites bought a copy. So many parents in the suburbs and hyper-suburbs will simply hope that therapy and prescription drugs will fix the children’s problems. We know now that most of the children who have been doing the school shootings were either in therapy or on prescription drugs for various psychological and social problems. But the children in the ghettos and barrios are also hurting. Because building of suburbs and hyper-suburbs transfers money and resources from urban districts, urban housing and schools are left under-funded. The tremendous political clout of the suburbs guarantees the continuation of this unjust system. So the children of the ghettos and barrios are left to strive in housing and schools that are unfit for even animals (Kozol, 1992). To deal with the obvious hypocrisy of all of this, suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites back a politics of competition and voucher programs for urban schools, neither of which can be found in suburban schools. The fact that suburban schools are simply better funded never enters the equation (Fischer et al., 1996; Kozol, 1992). The vulgar hypocrisy of suburbanites and hyper-suburbanites knows no end.
What is at issue here is the principle of infrangibility: our conception of normalcy and of what groups constitute our social body--those from whom we cannot be separated without losing our identity, so that their achievements become our own and their pathologies our failures.
speak not simply of black poverty but of the nation's poverty; not the
Italian-American Mafia problem but the nation's organized crime problem; not
the pathologies of privileged white teen-age boys but of all our unloved,
alienated young men.
Our increasing physical and spatial
fragmentation and separation is reducing us to beasts. Our loss of
spirituality is revealing a loss of our humanity and decency. Our politics
towards black, brown, and poor children should therefore deeply concern us.
The condition of our humanity will always be measured by our treatment of the
weak and the innocent. The fact that we are increasingly prepared to see
black, brown, and poor children as Other signals the highest manifestation of
alienation, separation, and fragmentation.
No amount of walls, fences, and gates
will save us from the perils of a politics that fosters fragmentation,
division, and separation. We urgently need a new politics and ethics. Only a
politics that focuses on building community through expanding our humanity can
redeem us. As Martin Buber (1994) explains:
That peoples can no longer carry on authentic dialogue with one another is not only the most acute symptom of the pathology of our time, it is also that which most urgently makes a demand of us. I believe, despite all, that the peoples in this hour can enter into dialogue, into a genuine dialogue with one another. In a genuine dialogue each of the partners, even when he stands in opposition to the other, heeds, affirms, and confirms his opponent as an existing other. Only so can conflict certainly not be eliminated from the world, but be humanly arbitrated and led towards its overcoming (p. 311).
need a healing politics—a politics that will heal us from the wounds of
separation, fragmentation, and division. This politics is akin to what Patricia
Collins (1991) refers to as a politics of caring. Integral to a politics of
healing is the focus on communication, compassion, community, and communion.
Instead of putting the focus on explaining, justifying, and defending our
differences, or even finding common ground, this politics focuses instead on
expanding our humanity. It assumes that human beings have moral, existential,
and spiritual strivings that can be tapped. It also assumes that human beings
have a need for deep and complex relationships with the world and each other. So
this politics of healing focuses on the potentiality of human beings. It is a
politics that respects the past, but, on the other hand, is by no means beholden
to it. That is, this politics is unafraid to transgress norms, traditions,
rituals, beliefs, and other discursive practices of the past that limit the
evolution of new experiences and understandings of the world. It is committed to
ending all discursive, communicative, and performative practices that block the
blossoming of our potentiality. A politics of healing is a politics of hope--the
hope being that human beings have the potential to be better human beings and
this world is fecund with symmetry and beauty. It is committed to deepening the
relationships between human beings. It assumes that much of our redemption
resides within such relationships. Consequently, this politics is committed to
the devolution of hierarchy. It is committed to ending practices that foster
deception, apathy, distrust, suspicion, and so forth. This politics of healing
assumes that equality will rise organically with the devolution of such
A scholarly industry is emerging about the deterioration of civility, community, and the loss of citizenship. Proponents of the deterioration thesis complain about the loss of traditional values, the attacks upon various cultural and political traditions, institutions, and structures, the end of voluntarism, and the increasingly high levels of disinterest and disenfranchisement from national politics in the U.S. Opponents, on the other hand, contend that life is superb. Old communist and socialist regimes are tumbling. Global capitalism is rising. The U.S. economy is booming. The ranks among the elites of wealth and power are exploding. Affluent suburbs and hyper-suburbs are proliferating and U.S. democracy is supposedly spreading throughout the world.
Proponents of the deterioration thesis
by no means wish to threaten the status quo. They support the rise of global
capitalism, the booming U.S. economy, and, most of all, the belief that
capitalism is the path to the good society. In most cases, proponents merely
want allocation of enough resources to support a safety net. The goal is a
kinder and gentler new world order. Nobody wants to end the status quo. The
decisional premises between opponents and proponents are tacitly agreed upon.
There shall be no interrogation of the legitimacy of the status quo, no
examination of the origins of the increasing despair and mental anguish that
torment us, and no discussion of new and different ways of being that break
radically with the status quo. Reform is all that will be had. The result is a
politics that considers only solutions that will pose no threat to the status
quo and demand no risking of life. So the solution to urban school problems is
voucher programs, the solution to criminality and deviancy is incarceration, the
solution to the growing chasm between rich and poor is tax relief, the solution
to our spiritual crisis is eastern philosophy, the solution to our youth
problems is the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools, the solution to our
suburban problems is the construction of new and wider highways, the solution to
our diversity problem is either assimilation or toleration, and so forth.
are focusing on symptoms to block interrogation of the origins of the many
problems that increasingly bedevil the human condition. This kind of politics
has serious moral, existential, and spiritual consequences and implications. It
makes for a psychology and sociology that distort our identity as human beings
belonging to one race and life world. It ultimately distorts our understanding
of what being human means by masking human potentiality. To this end,
this politics perilously threatens life.
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