Western Civilization and Its Discontents: “What’s Left?” December 2015, MRR #391


Mistah Kurtz—he dead…

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.

Jean Raspail, author of The Camp of Saints, 1972

I’ll put it bluntly: Nothing you love will survive without white people.

Jared Taylor, “An Open Letter to Cuckservatives,” American Renaissance, July 2015

Let’s take two people: Bill Maher and Gavin McInnes. Both are writers, actors, political commentators, media personalities, and comedians of a sort. That’s what they do for a living however, and there the similarities end. These two individuals couldn’t be more different when it comes to what they believe.

Bill Maher calls himself a liberal, albeit one with a libertarian streak, an advocate of decriminalizing if not legalizing most “soft” drugs and prostitution, a pro-choice, pro-feminist, gay-friendly atheist who is anti-racist and against US military interventionism abroad. Gavin McInnes considers himself a conservative with libertarian tendencies, an opponent of legalizing “adult vices” like drugs and prostitution, a pro-life, anti-feminist Catholic with assorted issues about the usual suspects—gays, trans-folk, blacks, illegal immigrants—who likes his wars necessary and just. Funny thing is, despite these obvious political disagreements, Maher and McInnes both agree on a political tenet so fundamental as to constitute a common worldview, the need to defend Western civilization.

Catch Maher’s tirades on Real Time with Bill Maher, or McInnes’s rants on Red Eye and TheRebelMedia, and they sound remarkably alike. Muslims suck. Liberals are brain-dead or self-hating idiots and need to wake up. The West is ashamed or oblivious and needs to cultivate some brass. We’re at war. We need to defend Western civilization, the West, our way of life from those goddamned Mooslims!

This umbrella sentiment—defend Western civilization—held by mainstream left-right-and-center, as well as certain elements on the fringes, relies upon volatile, highly emotional symbols. The Muslim hordes are once again at the gates of Vienna and Poitiers, symbolically speaking. And, there is a search for the next 9/11 to wake us all up. 11/M—the Madrid train bombings of 3/11/05—was the next 9/11, and 7/7—the London bombings of 7/7/05—was the next 9/11. Now, the Paris shootings of 1/8/15 (and 11/13/15) have been equated with 9/11, and the hope was that the events in Paris would act as a rallying point around which the West could marshal its resolve.

A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think about Western civilization?” Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” So while I broach the subject in this column, I can only scratch its surface. Consider for instance just the distinctions between Maher and McInnes among the myriad “defenders of the West.” For McInnes, Islamic culture is backward, violent, inbred, not civilized, requiring a culture war or a religious war to protect “our entire civilization.” For Maher, all religion is a bad idea, but Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, necessitating a war against them by those holding liberal Western values and ideas to preserve “our way of life.” But what the hell is “Western civilization” anyway?

If we use strict political categories and define Western civilization as that aggregate of liberal democratic nation-states that purport to be based on and supportive of Western (e.g., Enlightenment) values, this is entirely ephemeral. Liberal democracies often become authoritarian or totalitarian regimes with alarming consequences (Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, Czechoslovakia in the 1940s), and those nations touted as “the Switzerland of X” (Uruguay in South America, Uganda or Rwanda in Africa, Singapore in Asia) are anything but upon closer examination. Maher and McInnes are proud citizens of liberal Western-style democracies even as they consider liberal democracy the Achilles heel of those countries. And despite their professed libertarianism, when push comes to shove, Maher and McInnes often advocate very illiberal, undemocratic means such as racial profiling to combat the perceived threat of Islamic extremism.

If we defer to what we learned in our primary and secondary education, Western civilization is based on some combination of our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian traditions. Right off the bat, atheists like Maher would take issue with any form of religion counting positively toward the heritage of the West. For the classic liberalism that Maher claims, the Enlightenment legacy of reason, science, and skepticism constitute the best of what the West has to offer. For McInnes, he accepts the whole vague social/cultural package defined as Western civilization, having converted from atheism to Catholicism and from anarchism to conservatism. Certain white power types would take offense at inclusion of the Jews in any affirmative evaluation of the West, since the Jews and Judaism are evil incarnate. This leads the ultra-right to efforts to redefine Christianity without its Judaic core, as in Christian Identity, or to abandon Christianity altogether for some amalgam of European paganism or out-and-out atheism. As for the Greco-Roman part of the equation, and again aside from the Enlightenment emphasis on these roots as the classical West’s cultural and philosophical beginnings, there are many contenders for more-European-than-thou sources. The Celts and Germanic peoples—the latter a part of some mythic Aryan race—to pan-Slavism and Eurasianism—which seeks to shift the focus of European civilization from west to east, and to a Greater Russian geopolitical dominance that rejects Western European values—are all contenders for the origins of Western Civilization.

So, which values are real, true Western values? Is Western civilization at its core pagan Celto-Germanic tribalism, or Talmudic Judaism, or Greek city-states, or Roman imperialism, or crusading Medieval Christianity, or Enlightenment modernism, or Slavic orthodoxies, or Russian Mongol corporatism? Aside from broad and banal generalizations, can anything uniquely Western be discerned in the music, literature, dance, painting, and architecture subsumed under the label Western culture? Can Western and Eastern be convincingly separated? Are the rule of law, secularism, science, and technology what distinguishes Western civilization? Can any combination of the above stand for the whole, or must we be satisfied with an undifferentiated, cumulative understanding of Western civilization? Or is Western civilization like pornography, something that cannot be clearly defined, but we know it when we see it?

If the political is ephemeral and the social/cultural is vague, the biological seems to offer certainty. Western civilization is the product of white people, and white people are the source of all that is good in the world. Hence the current popularity of DNA ancestry analysis that attempts to associate certain DNA markers with geographic locations as when, for instance, the distribution of the maternal haplogroup H is correlated overwhelmingly with the European subcontinent. From there it’s a small step to equate such analyses with a genetic causation for ersatz races and their behaviors, bringing us back to the “scientific” racism and eugenics of two centuries prior. Maher clearly detests and denounces such racialized definitions of Western civilization and resists taking this step. But McInnes shamelessly flirts with them. According to McInnes, sub-Saharan Africa had no written languages before white people arrived. Our advanced technologies were all invented by white people, and our material superiority is all due to the hard work of white people. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. […] I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” (NYT, 9/28/03) McInnes even denies that black people had much to do with creating rock and roll, he’s so dead set on affirming that “white is right.”

When he’s not playing the contrarian, McInnes is responding in part to increased anger and frustration on the ultra-right as white racists feel increasingly besieged. The issue here is power. When white people held uncontested social power, white racists gloried in being white supremacists, fully backing the superiority and domination of white people over all others. When that power was challenged in the slightest degree and Enlightenment values such as equality threatened to emerge, white racists became the voice of the “embattled white minority” and fancied themselves white nationalists seeking to secede as a separate white nation. Countering the biological explanation for Western civilization does not merely require invoking the statistical truism that correlation is not causation, that the correlation of genetic factors with geographic location is not the cause of a so-called race’s achievements and failures. What also is required is countering a logical fallacy that confuses the repeatability and predictability of hard science with the lack of either in history.

That the past 10,000 years of human history and 2 million years of human evolution have led us to a world where capitalism, the nation state, white supremacy and patriarchy reign supreme tells us only so much. We cannot repeat history over and over, like a scientific experiment, to see whether or not we get the same results. Science depends on predicting future experimental results from successful past experimental results. But despite some historians seeing patterns in history, any ability to predict the future based on a study of the past has remained elusive. A particularly virulent configuration of wealth and power won the game we call history this time around, but since we can’t ever play the game again there’s no way to know whether that win was a fluke due to luck or a certainty due to merit.

Marx committed this fallacy himself in seeking to formulate a scientific socialism based on historical materialism. But there you go, another dead white European male whose ideas and the movements he inspired are very much a part of Western civilization. Again, whatever the fuck that means. Maybe the only way to make sense of Western civilization nowadays is how Joseph Conrad did it by counterposing Europe to The Other, in his case Africa, as a “foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” as Chinua Achebe once commented.

Maher, McInnes and other defenders of the West against radical Islam consistently contend that what Islam needs today is its own Reformation or Enlightenment. Seriously? Consider that from 1517 (the start of the Protestant Reformation) to roughly 1650 (an arbitrary start for the Enlightenment) between 10 and 30 million people perished across Europe in various conflicts related to the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism. In less than 150 years, on a subcontinent of roughly 4 million square miles and 70-80 million people, something like 20 million people died in Reformation, Counterreformation, the Thirty Years War, indeed scores of major wars and upheavals. This doesn’t include the “New World” that Europe was exploring, conquering and colonizing at the time. The period in Europe from the Reformation to the Enlightenment was truly a slaughterhouse, yet a comparable social transformation is being urged onto the Islamic world as a great idea.

Or maybe, perversely, it’s already happening. Perhaps Islam is undergoing it’s equivalent of the Reformation and Enlightenment right now. But to soberly compare 16th/17th century Christian fratricide to the modern Middle East—to the sectarian, ethnic, national and class conflicts engulfing vast swaths of a region with some 7 million square miles and half a billion people for the past 2 to 3 decades—we need to realize that we’re are all in for some nasty shit. The exponential expansion in firepower from Medieval Europe to the Middle East today alone should give us pause.

Our brave defenders of Western civilization have a hard time seeing what’s under their noses, much less the future.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Advertisements

Je Suis Charlie: “What’s Left?” March 2015, MRR #382

I woke up on Thursday morning, January 8, to learn of the massacre of twelve French individuals at the headquarters of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, by two other French nationals, Muslims who claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This Al Qaeda affiliate which operates primarily in Yemen acknowledged that it had directed the Paris attack “as revenge for the honor” of the long-dead Prophet Muhammad, who had supposedly been blasphemed by the bandes dessinées of Charlie’s four famous cartoonists. Right away, I noticed that virtually all of the online stories and posts covering the bloody assault from major media outlets featured a video of the two masked gunmen fleeing their strike that looked severely edited. When I tracked down the original, full version of that video, it showed what was missing: the escaping gunmen wounding an unarmed policeman on the sidewalk outside Charlie Hebdo, then circling back to dispatch the policeman with a shot to the head as he lie begging for mercy.

This was just the most obvious example of media self-censorship in this incident, an act of squeamishness made more ironic by being contrasted in my mind to the regular cop-heavy American TV fare with its colossal—if fictitious—graphic body counts. Add to this the media outcry over the attack on “freedom of expression” that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is assumed to represent and the irony is complete.

Emily Greenhouse commented in Bloomberg (“What’s at stake in Europe’s response to Charlie Hebdo,” 1/8/15) on the “complicated cultural realities” across the continent as illustrated by France. Home to the largest Jewish minority in Europe, France also has the largest Muslim population in Europe. So, while French president Hollande proclaimed a nationwide battle against racism and anti-semitism in 2015, “[f]or all of France’s fine political abstractions, ethnic identity is inescapable. Everyone is obsessed with where everyone else comes from. The French government tells itself that it doesn’t ‘see’ or recognize race, so racism is impossible—but those are just words.” Holocaust denial, as well as overt anti-semitic hate speech, is illegal in France as well as the rest of western Europe, but this is not the case with anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hate speech. Using the case of the French government’s political harassment of comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala to illustrate the larger issue, Greenhouse writes: “It might upset some people that Dieudonné’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Jews—is illegal, while Charlie Hebdo’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Muslims—is not.”

Charlie Hebdo itself exemplified this contradiction by, on the one hand, firing a cartoonist in 2008 for making illegal anti-semitic comments while, on the other hand, regularly printing perfectly legal, nasty anti-Muslim cartoons. Jordan Weissman argued in Slate: “So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. […] We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it.” Free speech absolutist Glenn Greenwald goes the step further in his column “In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons” on The Intercept website (1/9/15). “One defends the right to express repellent ideas while being able to condemn the idea itself.” Greenwald lays out this principle, which he heartily supports, while taking things to an extreme, which is his wont:
But this week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show ‘solidarity’ with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. ‘The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,’ announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”
Greenwald then proceeds to reprint some vile Nazi/white supremacist anti-semitic cartoons, as well as some of Carlos Latuff’s more thoughtful, virulent anti-Zionist cartoons, in a tongue-in-cheek “solidarity.” This is plainly a case of “what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” to use an old cliché. Greenwald proceeds to lambast the suppression of ideas and the media’s self-censorship “out of fear (rather than a desire to avoid publishing gratuitously offensive material)” and argues that “there are all kinds of pernicious taboos in the west that result in self-censorship or compelled suppression of political ideas, from prosecution and imprisonment to career destruction: why is violence by Muslims the most menacing one?”

Glenn Greenwald excoriates unreflective calls for solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in order to bolster his defense of the right to express repellent ideas while condemning those ideas themselves. I do admire free speech absolutists like Greenwald, while not being one myself. One reason I am not is based on “fine political abstractions” like not believing in the concept of “rights.” Our “rights” cannot be guaranteed by some spook in the sky (God) or some piece of parchment (the Constitution’s Bill of Rights) or some fanciful state of nature (which seems in conflict with concurrent notions of “the survival of the fittest”). If we depend on the government to defend our “rights,” then what the government gives the government can certainly take away. And if we depend on ourselves, individually and collectively, to defend our “rights” through organization and action to advance our power, we come awfully close to declaring that “might is right.” The idea of “rights” then is sorely lacking in any intelligent foundation.

My main reason, however, is practical. If I belonged to a minority group, and some other group of people were organizing to massacre me and other members of my minority, I would do everything in my power to defend myself and my group to prevent being killed, including denying my attackers their free speech as a tool for organizing their attempt at genocide. In a previous column, I defended Vidal Sassoon’s history in joining the British 43 Group of Jewish war veterans in 1947 to streetfight against Oswald Mosley’s resurgent fascist Union Movement, with the 43 Group’s intent to bloody the Union Movement’s members, shatter its organization, and crush its social movement. Individual freedoms can never be absolute as they are invariably in conflict, with my freedom to stay alive in conflict with some fascist’s freedom to liquidate my commie pinko ass, for instance. If some Nazi scum were talking smack in preparation of wiping out me and my fellow Reds, I would not hesitate to shut them up to keep them from organizing and carrying through with their plans.

All of this is crucially important, what with the violence at Charlie Hebdo threatening to “fuel support for the far-right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic politics throughout Europe” and here in the United States, again according to Emily Greenhouse. James Neuger details many of the particulars of this supposed turn to the right in Europe, from the National Front in France to Germany’s Pegida, in his article “Europe’s Islam Debate Erupts as Paris Killers at Large” (Bloomberg News, 1-8-15). It is far too simplistic however to argue that Islamic terrorism feeds rightwing reaction, squeezing out “freedom of expression” in the middle. This is actually part of a broader polarization of European politics which sees the rise of more extreme politics on both Left and Right due to a number of factors, as correspondents from The Guardian/Observer sketched in “Across Europe disillusioned voters turn to outsiders for solutions” in November of last year. Listed are not just the National Front but also the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire in France, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy, the ultra-left Syriza and ultra-right Golden Dawn in Greece, leftist German Die Linke as well as rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the rightwing Sweden Democrats and Norway’s Progress Party as well as the leftwing Feminist Initiative in Sweden and Danish Red-Green Alliance. Also discussed are Britain’s UKIP and BNP on the right and the pro-secessionist Scottish National Party, the rise of the Socialists and People Before Profit in Ireland alongside massive popular tax rebellions, and the left leaning Podemas Party that grew out of the indignados protests in Spain in 2011-12 in addition to regional secessionist movements such as the Republican Left of Catalonia. The Left’s anti-austerity and anti-globalization concerns are counterpointed by the Right’s anti-immigrant nationalism, with issues like anti-corruption and secession ranging across the typical Left/Right spectrum. But whether Left or Right, there are aspects to this “rise of insurgent parties across the continent,” to this anti-establishment, anti-EU upsurge, that mark a pause—if not a retreat—from the project of European integration.

How “freedom of expression” will fair through all of this is anyone’s guess.

BAY AREA CONFIDENTIAL…

When Tim Yo started me out with my own column, I was one of the original MRR news columnists. He wanted my column to be a study in three dot journalism a la Herb Caen, replete with snarky news items and snide bits of gossip. I took to the format like a fish to water, and ever since I’ve been a purveyor of snark and snide, news and gossip. Longtime readers remember I covered the incident when the East Bay BASTARD conference took umbrage with the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair for expanding to two days and overlapping one of their conference days. This caused a minor split in the local anarcho scene which produced, among other things, a second annual Anarchist Bookfair. So now there’s an overall Bay Area bookfair and an East Bay bookfair every year because, you know, old splits never die and besides, there can never be enough time or opportunity to sell anarchist merchandise to the kids.

The East Bay Anarchist Bookfair on December 14 of last year was a study in bucolic harmony where the lion lies down with the lamb, and AJODA folks staffed a table near one run by the Qilombo folks without incident. After the demise of Occupy Oakland, all of OO’s myriad tendencies (pacifist, insurrectionist, unionist, communizing, squatter, decolonialist, etc) were in the doldrums, depressed, at a loss for what to do and where to organize, and hence prone to sectarianism and infighting. The whole AJODA/Qilombo kerfuffle that I reported on last year was typical of the internal nastiness that the entire Bay Area anarcho scene was experiencing. The Left tends to form a firing squad, rifles facing inward, when they have nothing better to do. But with the death of Michael Brown, rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Eric Garner, and protests around the country, Bay Area anarchos are no longer inward looking and focused on fighting amongst themselves. They’re looking outward, enjoying an upsurge of demonstrations, protests, and riots almost daily across the Bay Area, and no longer battling against each other.

Suigetsukan Dojo’s Girl Army opted out of providing security for December 2014’s East Bay Anarchist Bookfair, so one of the organizers recruited a bunch of muay thai ruffians to help keep the peace. The verdict: the anarchist bookfair was so mellow it was boring. Just goes to show that it’s nice to have a common enemy in the police and the powers-that-be to generate some scene unity, even if that unity is faux and forced and flash-in-the-pan.

For the love of cities: “What’s Left?” July 2008, MRR #302

I strained my neck the first time I visited New York City. Walking around Manhattan, craning my head looking up at the surrounding skyscrapers in the mid-80s, I was properly awed by the city’s architectural display of power. And, I was reminded of John Lennon’s reply to the question of why he chose to live in New York. It’s the center of the empire.

But the empire ain’t what it used to be.

The 5-12-08 edition of Newsweek excerpted a long piece from free market fundamentalist Fareed Zakaria’s new book The Post American World in which he argues that the world “has shifted from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism” with “the rise of the rest,” meaning the growing economic prosperity of countries like Russia, China and India. This has not meant challenging the United States militarily, but rather the claim that the rest of the world has “moved on, and [is] now far more interested in other, more dynamic parts of the globe.” What Zakaria is talking about is economic, social and cultural dynamism, not military might. “America remains the global superpower today, but it is an enfeebled one.” In New York, the imperial city par excellence, this shift is perhaps best symbolized by the destruction of the World Trade Center, at one time the world’s tallest buildings. As Zakaria points out, “[t]he world’s tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai.”

In watching The Visitor, a current movie set in Manhattan partly about the human consequences of US immigration policy, I was impressed with how damned good New York’s skyline looks without the twin towers, as seen from the Staten Island ferry. I admit to sharing the prejudice of many of my New York friends who considered the World Trade Center a blight on Manhattan. Not to say that I reveled in its destruction, nor should my anti-WTC remarks be construed as any kind of anti-urbanism. I’m a city person. I love city living, and I think that cities are potentially one of the most brilliant expressions of human activity. There is a character and life to any world-class city that is memorable. There is a grace and, dare I say, virility to the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building that was completely lacking in the twin towers. The World Trade Center was brutal and ugly. New York City looks so much better without it.

Speaking of world-class cities, lately I’ve been jonesing for Paris, more so than New York. I’ve visited New York over a half dozen times, the last trip five years ago, so the city feels like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. I was in Paris three years ago, and only for my second time. That city has the feel of a still mysterious lover.

City of love, city of light, Paris is hauntingly beautiful. I’m attracted to the millennia of history captured in its layered architecture, the vitality of both its public spaces (parks, concourses, squares) and its public life (open-air markets, frequent holidays, political demonstrations), the generous slice of western civilization contained within its museums, libraries and universities, and the sensuousness of daily existence—the appreciation for food, wine, leisure, beauty, sexuality—among many other things. Paris seems capable of passively defeating those who would change it for the worse, from outright enemies like the Nazis who were unwilling to burn down the city in retreat, to the French themselves like that American wannabe Sarkozy who tried to repeal the 35-hour work week and make the French work harder. The meteoric fall of Sarkozy’s popularity, along with his reform plans, is particularly gratifying.

This doesn’t mean that the “Spirit of 68” is alive and well in Paris. A 4-19-08 BBC broadcast of From Our Own Correspondent entitled “Visiting the Ghosts of Paris 1968,” has the following observation: “The students had specific grievances in 1968 as well, notably against the rigidly hierarchical way the universities were organized – but they went on to believe they could change France, if not the world. A teacher highlighted the difference for me: ‘This generation doesn’t want to change society. They just want to be able to get a job good enough to pay the rent and that’s why they’re worried about the quality of their education’.” I admit I was enamored with the city’s revolutionary mystique, fostered from 1789 through the 1871 Commune to May-June 1968. I made sure to visit the Butte-aux-Cailles district that, with the Latin Quarter, was the location of some of the fiercest fighting between students and police during 1968. It was also one of the strongholds of the Paris Commune, and I bought a commemorative t-shirt from an office/library/social center there dedicated to preserving the Commune’s memory. As of 2005, the Butte-aux-Cailles was being rapidly gentrified, with little resistance from anybody.

Regrettably, circumstances prevent me from vacationing in either New York or Paris any time soon, so I’m enjoying my own world-class city, San Francisco. Often referred to as “the Paris of the West,” San Francisco does have a certain charm, with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Parts of it have the appearance of a lazy Mediterranean town, delicate whitewashed residences interspersed with trees covering the city’s famous hills. Yet I thought my hometown looked shoddy and rundown both times I returned from Paris. There’s an elegance and cosmopolitanism to Paris that makes San Francisco seem downright parochial, an impression accentuated by the city’s relatively low urban density when compared to Paris, and especially to New York. I’ve had visitors from New York tell me that San Francisco isn’t really a city, but more like an urban town. They walked among the modest skyscrapers of the downtown financial district, sniffed condescendingly, and explained that San Francisco couldn’t possibly be serious about the business of being a big city without more tall buildings.

Unfortunately, that’s going to change, and soon.

The current 550-foot height limit in the city was a reaction to the building boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that saw the rise of the 779-foot Bank of America Building, and the iconic Transamerica Pyramid at 853 feet. In particular, the controversy surrounding the construction of the Pyramid produced a proposition to limit buildings to six stories in 1971 that was defeated, and a “compromise” 1972 urban design plan that capped downtown building heights at 700 feet. The subsequent rise of the financial district further fueled anti-height sentiment that culminated in the mid-80s with the success of Proposition K (1984), which prohibited towers from casting new shadows on existing city parks; another “compromise” urban design plan (1985), which capped downtown building heights at 550 feet but raised previously low heights south of Market; and voter approval of Proposition M (1986); which restricted new office buildings for ten years.

These modest successes signaled the eventual demise of organized popular opposition to downtown development forces. As is frequently the case with grassroots social movements, widespread interest and support could not be sustained, the ordinary people who participated went back to their very busy lives, and organizational and institutional gains languished in the wake of relatively incremental victories. What’s more, capitalists are often capable of long range strategic planning and great patience, despite their impatience for immediate profits. In the case of San Francisco, downtown interests also waited out their progressive opposition.

The waters were tested in 2003 when the Planning Department rezoned Rincon Hill to allow almost a dozen towers to be built over 35 stories to increase downtown residential density. The 641-foot One Rincon building is scheduled to open this year, with two more on the way. City officials approved a redevelopment district around the Transbay Terminal in 2005 that permitted six residential towers of 35 to 55 stories on land once covered by freeway ramps. These towers will rise from public land sold to raise money for rebuilding the terminal. “The notion of extra-tall towers also is the culmination of efforts since the 1980s to shift the focus of downtown development – taking growth pressure off neighborhoods such as Chinatown and North Beach and steering it south of Market Street.” This, according to a 4-27-08 article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Reaching for the sky South of Market.” In 2006, Planning Director Dean Macris came out in favor of extremely tall towers in the Transbay Terminal area. A year later, the winner of the Planning Department’s proposal competition for the Transbay site, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and the Hines development firm, recommended a 1,200-foot tower. And in May of this year, the Planning Department proposed new zoning in the terminal area that would once and for all overturn the 550-foot building limit.

One Rincon Tower did generate a measure of concern and complaint, but nothing compared to the opposition provoked by the Transamerica Pyramid. “The anti-height fervor downtown quieted in the 1990s,” the Chronicle article states. “[A]nd there’s been little controversy about the towers erected during the past decade along Mission Street.” This is due, not merely to the ability of capitalists to wait out their opponents, or the inability of those opponents to build a lasting resistance movement, but also to the changing demographics of San Francisco in the intervening years. Much like Manhattan, San Francisco has become home to the well-to-do and rich, with poor folk shunted to the margins, and middle class families no longer able to afford to live in the city. A demographic with little interest—class interest, that is—in fighting the Manhattanization of San Francisco.

Me, I’d like to see San Francisco shed its roll up the sidewalks at 11 pm provincialism. But I would rather see the city emulate Paris than New York. For one, this is earthquake country, with a big shaker due any time now. Do you want to be a thousand feet in the air when the ground starts to really rock and roll? For another, the proposed skyline, particularly with the Transit District towers (see sfgov.org/site/uploadedfiles/planning/City_Design_Group/CDG_transit_center.htm) looks more like Blade Runner than Manhattan. They make the old World Trade Center look positively enchanting.

  • MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL

  • "Lefty" Hooligan-"What's Left?"
    My monthly column for Maximum Rocknroll.

  • MY BOOKS FOR SALE:

  • Free excerpts from 1% FREE

  • 1% FREE on sale now


    Copies of 1% FREE can be purchased from Barnes & Noble POD, and the ebook can be had at Barnes & Noble ebook. The physical book is $18.95 and the ebook is $4.99.

  • END TIME reprinted


    Downloads of END TIME can be purchased from SMASHWORDS.
  • CALENDAR

    May 2019
    M T W T F S S
    « Apr    
     12345
    6789101112
    13141516171819
    20212223242526
    2728293031  
  • META