The Gentrification of Ideas 05/24/21

I was listening to the DrugCultGang podcast recently, which had an interview with Adam Lehrer, who’s an interesting thinker.

The major focus of the episode is on Lehrer’s politics, which I find more and more resonant as the Hell Now rolls on.

I won’t try to condense them all here, because there’s a lot to pick through, but at one point in the episode, he says something to the effect of “liberals gentrify ideology.” I’m paraphrasing, or maybe completely misrepresenting his idea, but I’m going to keep going, because I think this is one of the most compelling framing devices I’ve come across in a long time, and sort of perfectly illustrates how I’ve been conceptualizing modern politics.

What are some characteristics of gentrification? This is in no way a complete list, but I’ll pick some off the top of my head that suit my purpose of making an analogy to the ways in which we think over here on “the left” get “gentrified”:

  1. Displacement – gentrification usually kicks out a significant amount of the original inhabitants of a place, keeping a few around to maintain “the local flavor.” The originators of what made the place interesting in the first place are often not allowed into the spaces they helped create, because they’re ugly and poor. Transpose “place” for “idea” and I think the point is pretty clear.
  2. Pricing out – this is what causes the displacement, for the most part. It becomes too expensive for the original inhabitants to live in their own homes anymore. People can get “priced out” of ideas once they abandon their original cultural context for the Cathedral, as universities often cost money to attend. Time is also a way of pricing people out, and the rich have plenty of it. They can do this bullshit all day!
  3. Aesthetic whitewashing – there’s a great piece I read recently about “Airspace.” The general idea is that as more people want the “hotel” experience through Airbnb, we begin to see similar airport-style rooms no matter where you end up on the globe. There are style guides and rules online for what an Airbnb is supposed to look like, now. God forbid you do something like “display personal items” in view of your guest! Gentrification in a broader sense is notorious for bringing with it artisanal coffee shops, bike repair, “green” veggie spots, craft beer. In a sense, it’s a big aesthetic suitcase wealthy suburbanites “bring with them” to a gritty new home. Gone are the ugly taverns with scowling locals. Instead you have a beer menu that is modeled after a Starbucks. When the rich gentrify an idea, they bring along their aesthetics that make them comfortable. You get lots of flat cartoon animations explaining why you should care about their “thing” in 30 seconds or less. Little whistling soundtrack.
  4. Increased policing – take NYC in the 70s. Graffiti on subway cars, The Warriors type shit…great stuff. Then, in the 90s, you have Giuliani and broken windows policing. Many New Yorkers I’ve met will tell you this made the city a much safer, nicer place to live in…but at what cost? Was Times Square turning into a theme park worth the thousands of innocent black men stopped and frisked for no fucking reason? No, of course not. But let’s be fair here. Was having the peace of mind that your kids wouldn’t be mugged on the way to school worth that same price? I’m going to be a little controversial here and say “also no.” Because gentrification and the policing that came with it, no matter how “safe” and “comfortable” they made the city, was not worth violating people’s civil rights. This is a difficult subject, but I ultimately come down on that side. You make dangerous neighborhoods less dangerous in two completely opposing ways: by introducing positive shit like community programs and job opportunities, or by beating the shit out of everyone and throwing them in jail. Both kind of work. One is morally reprehensible. However, having cops beat the shit out of the troublesome (yet original) members of a community is what you get with gentrification, because the alternative would require the new inhabitants to “pay their dues” to the people who already lived there, and they are not interested in doing that by and large. They want all the parts of the city that work for them, and none of the parts that scare them, and they’ll look the other way. In what way do these same gentrifiers (BROADLY SPEAKING) “send in the troops” on the less wholesome elements of an ideology?
  5. Refusal to grapple – if someone has the money to move to a space that is not their home, they should at least consider not moving there. This is difficult to do, and some might argue that without that infusion of capital, a space may never “progress.” The question remains: does it need to “progress” at all? Locals don’t want their locale to change, and that should be respected. But gentrifiers do not grapple with this. Fuck you, I can live where I want! they seem to say. And they’re right…but the problem remains. If they really wanted to help, they could choose not to live in a place at the expense of other people. Instead, they take a person’s home and then use that as their home base to write about how shitty it is that people’s homes are being taken. The mind boggles. Similarly, I’ve often wondered why many blue check “thought leaders” on Twitter do not simply use the retweet button. They have to insert themselves into places where their commentary is not needed. They don’t seem to realize that their presence itself is a detriment to the argument they are trying to make. For example, check out all the rich kids who spend all day arguing about Marxism. Find some real broke Marxists who have skin in the game and amplify those voices, if you want to help. But that’s not quite what happens. Instead, we have people who have occupied space, and who occasionally deign to allow smaller accounts to share their space…but they’d never give that space up to someone smaller, more deserving. Never. Not in a million years. And until people are willing to do that, we have an intractable problem.

Please keep in mind folks, this is a daily mini-blog, not an extensively thought out essay. But I’d like to start thinking with the ways in which some of those points listed above might play out in the ideaspace of the left, particularly when it comes to dealing with those sour-faced, ugly denizens of the local dive bar. What happens when, ideologically, you have people who are not willing to abide by the HOA standards set by the gentrifiers when they moved in? What happens when one of those trust fund kids gets robbed at knifepoint by a part-time McDonald’s employee with an addiction to research chemicals? A city is a complex, teeming mass of scum and angels, and gentrification is a massive SSRI that makes what was once vibrant and dangerous into something inert and safe. It brings these changes not with love and understanding, but all the authoritarian police fury of a human resources department. And it always, always favors the rich.

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