“Empowerment zone,” huh [“EZ Does It,” March 3]. Dollars dangled from D.C., PC buzzwords jam the PR lines downtown, the people come running with fists up and hands out, acronyms fly in alphabet flurries as the scramble for control commences.
Have we seen this movie before?
Thirty years since the War on Poverty began, the programmatic vogues come and go. The names change, the alignments of power shift around new players, but it’s still the same standoff on the payoff. “Community Development” is liberalism’s Battle of Verdun–typists in the trenches huddled over tomes, bodies on salary thrown into the fray, papers fly amid noise and bombast, costly surges and retreats in carnage, and no ground is gained. As they say in France, “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.” (The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.)
Now just for the record, I’m no damn Republican. Fact is, I’m a “CD” Geronimo from way back, and the backwash is getting really boring: Whether by thinly veiled racism or pseudolibertarian supply-side litanies, the Right has done nothing but drag on the community agenda forever.
But durn if they ain’t right about one thing: All the Do-Gooder Guvmint programs have not worked very well, if at all. The standard of performance sucks. While the retro-honkies use this to discredit the whole idea of social remedies through public action, it is only a failure of means: The Libs keep stumbling on the “administrative fix”–the fallacy that real-world problems are magically solved by paper-pushing agencies with fancy names. Change is not a white-collar job.
So now the scent of money is in Chicago’s nose, the battle forms along familiar lines. Once again, the government holds out “help” with strings firmly attached (“It hazta go t’ru da Mare”). If city folks got their feelings hurt, they’re a bit naive about the boondoggle economics driving city policy: casinos over neighborhoods, toothless jobs programs, the local industrial agenda gone slack. Stewart-Warner finally came down, a big symbolic defeat. And recall the mayor’s first campaign, when he was queried about Goose Island: “This land is too valuable for soap factories.” Well, there’s a promise he kept: The Palmolive complex is being demolished as we speak.
On the flip side, the activists bang on the bureaucrats for “The Community” (“Where’s My Program?”). They’re good at meeting and “talking” economic development, not so good at planning and doing it. That work is tough and different; skills are mismatched to the real tasks. Established groups persist in the “social services” mode, and squeezing City Hall for funding is part of staying in the game.
Yet it seems like one big club, with stiff turf boundaries. Insiders get in (What organization did you say you’re with?). The marching music starts, righteous rhetoric flies in long refrains, then the marathon dance of mutual validation, tired back-scratching just to stay awake and shuffle into next year’s budgets.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
I look at community development like a carpenter: YapFlap doesn’t get the wall up. It takes knowledge of materials and process, skills and cooperation with the right tools, and ya gotta bend over and do it. Otherwise it’ll never stand. Polemics are lazy and distracting; orthodoxies on all sides just get in the way–bloated pretenses upon half answers to dumb questions on false premises. With all the conceptual pollution, who’s gonna know a clear idea or a good solution if they saw one?
I think back to ’69. Maybe as a college punk my simple straight grip was smarter:
I discovered that poor people were poor cuz they had no money. (Still true.)
I proposed Community Development Banks for local investment and control. (Ain’t been done yet.)
I asked William F. Buckley in person why conservative political philosophy was tantamount to a grandiose denial that problems exist. (We never figured out his answer. It was in Latin. Caveat emptor.)