Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Detroit - Imagining the Unimaginable (and fixing blame)

Like preschoolers with a wiggle tooth many Americans have for some time now been unable to stop wiggling the painful image of the collapsing metropolis that is Detroit. So many writers and photographers have  produced pieces on the ongoing and almost unbelievable devastation there that their articles and columns have gotten a name: "Ruin Porn." Vince Carducci - Revealing Detroit Photography

Do people actually live among such ruins? Yes. By choice? Highly unlikely. This, too, is like a popular children's passtime, only here played in reverse - the game of Musical Chairs. The music plays -- a catchy tune -- and each player walks around and around in a circle knowing that when the music stops someone will be left without a chair. Or in this case stuck in one.

Yet, underneath our sophistication and well worn air of experience, we all remain children when it comes to games. Loose teeth.  Being left chairless. Winners and losers. And on and on the music goes until...

For the once glorious city of Detroit the tooth has come out and the music has stopped. Who has been left toothless? Who will soon find himself without a chair? The country waits and watches with equal fear and fascination knowing, and perhaps fearing, that our music will one day stop too.

How did such a thing come to pass?  Is there a tooth fairy who can in some way bring us some comfort amidst the pain?

Asking (as we must) the question "how?" will likely start a new game of its own. The game called Shift The Blame. If we are not ourselves players we will likely at least be tempted to start rooting for one of the teams. -The one whose philosophy most clearly matches our own.

Those of a Liberal bent will continue to blame the wealthy capitalists -- especially the auto makers. After all are they not still making their fortunes? How selfish of them to abandon the city that did so much to create their wealth!

Political Conservatives will put the blame on the auto unions who, in the auto companies' pre- world competition heyday, made such demands on the companies that once those companies had given in they were trapped forever in an  untenable situation. For those with this POV, those companies were from then on trapped. It was simply a matter of flee Detroit (and those union contracts) or die.

And then, of course, there are those who will blame the politicians and the municipal workers who took the roles together of "company bosses" and "union bargainers" but who in fact hardly "bargained" at all. Instead they simply looked out for themselves -- taking all that they could -  early retirements, double dippings, and all the other tricks that fall under the rubric of "Looking Out for Number One" -- and then passing the totally unfair (and unpayable) costs on to future generations.

Others will look yet deeper, seeing the forming and then springing of a very natural human trap. -The one that comes so often with victory. In this case the winning of WWII and with it the building of an enormous industrial base, a world-wide appetite for consumer goods and (perhaps most damaging of all) a belief in the efficacy of a top-down structure with government largess behind it - the very thing that brought on and assured the enormous victory that had just been won.

And then there is another fall guy: "Democracy" as we Americans have come to see it, where our nation is no longer so much a Republic under laws, with wise decisions made largely by those with a stake in the game, but a free-wheeling "Rule of the People" be they educated or illiterate, productive or stagnant, creators or takers, encouraged -- egged on really! - to "have a say" whether they are inclined to or not. And where better to celebrate "motor voter laws" than in "Motor City" - Detroit.

There is enough truth in all these arguments for its adherents to, in their own eyes, hold sway.  But in the end this arguing will prove to be merely academic. Those who are at all far seeing will, as they did in Detroit, continue to move on before the music stops. The politicians will have been long out of office. The union guys on the golf course. The early retirees in their Florida condos. And the young, underpowered and uneducated will be -- no, make that "are" -- left in a city that was. No Tooth Fairy will be found. The State of Michigan has debts enough without picking up the city of Detroit's. The Federal Government itself is broke and for largely all the above reasons writ yet larger.

All this is the true "ruin porn."

And watch it we must.

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