HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 30, 2007
From Liberty Street

In Chicago

John Turner


Being in a large city, as I have been for the past week, forces the problem of democracy more insistently on one’s attention than is the case in a small New England town like Montpelier. In Montpelier, though it’s not realistic to think so, it’s at least possible to imagine an informed citizenry being intimately involved in the formulation of national policy.

In Chicago, such an ideal is, at the moment, clearly bizarre.

When I’m in Chicago I stay on the southside, which is locally referred to as “the hood,” meaning not simply a neighborhood but rather a vast domestic stretch sheltering mainly, low income black and Hispanic people. The notion, held by some residents of the posh northside that this entire area constitutes a depressing uniformity is wildly inaccurate. There are pockets of quite pleasant middle-class housing, and there is also Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, where many of the houses sell for more than two million dollars. Still, despite these irregularities, there do remain miles of neighborhoods that are not actually slums but that do exhibit signs of fairly severe social decay. And, it is the inhabitants of these neighborhoods that raise the most severe questions about the possibility of democratic rule.

If you, for example, were to drive toward the center of downtown Chicago on the Dan Ryan Expressway and get off at 43rd Street heading east, you would immediately find yourself  among a population whom you can’t suppose to be knowledgeable about conditions in the Middle East, the effect of U.S. farm subsidies around the world, the relation of the American political system to scientific research, the pollution of the oceans, or to many other issues that influence the policies of the U.S. government. Saying so is not snobbish but merely realistic. The conditions of life along that stretch of 43rd Street don’t permit global understanding. And it’s difficult to believe that a significant portion of the children growing up there will ever develop an intellectual engagement with the problems of international relations. But, in theory a least, they’re all supposed to vote. So, how do they do it?

At the moment we know the answer. When they vote, they cast their ballots for somebody they can identify with, usually based on a sort of racial affinity. They give their support either to politicians of their own race or to  white politicians who have managed to build a reputation for caring about fairness for minorities. It’s not an irrational decision-making process but it’s not adequate for the full range of political problems either.

I don’t mean to imply that the ostensibly better educated classes are any more competent in judging serious political issues than the people of 43rd Street are. It’s just that on 43rd Street, you can’t fool yourself about what American democracy is, or how it works. And you know, therefore, beyond doubt, that there’s nothing in the current system to insure us against near-total disaster.

Perhaps that’s the nature of politics in all times and all places. But we have told ourselves that the American governmental system is better than that. And that telling is charged with falsehood.

Forty-third Street is America, as far as political wisdom is concerned. The only difference between it and shady, tree-lined suburbs is that it makes no attempt to shield us from the truth. If you want to make America better, and more intelligent, you’ve got to make 43rd Street better and more intelligent. And all the other 43rd Streets that sprinkle the American landscape and raise up children who are unaware of the problems of the global community.

We haven’t begun to understand that about ourselves, and there is no guarantee that we will understand it quickly enough to head off terrible disasters. That’s what being in Chicago means to me. Sure, there are the glittering shopping emporia of upper Michigan Avenue, and the yacht-lined parks along the sparkling lakefront, and the abstruse and fascinating understanding of the physicists at the University of Chicago, and many other cultural manifestations that would make any city proud. But 43rd Street is the real deal. That’s where the future of American politics, for better or worse, lies. So if you want to grasp what the genuine challenge is, go there and check it out.


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