The frustrating parochialism of urbanism as a speciality, the frustrating state of political reporting

I’ve been reading about Athenian democracy again here lately, and the point of such reading is, of course, to think about your own capacities and experiences as a citizen of a republic.  I think an Athenian citizen probably would be appalled at  the US political arrangement; the very idea that only a small group would be informed and take a decision on something as significant as the Syrian crisis would be unacceptable to somebody who was a member of a body of 40,000 people who each had the same right to vote on every issue as it was heard, if they were Pynx to hear the debate.

I often hear “urban” applied as an implicit put-down among colleagues who see it as a less worthy focus—a ‘small’ thing—for scholarly work than whatever it is they study–usually federal institutions or something they perceive as a greater phenomenon.  Those of us who study urban politics (and everybody who watched The Wire)  know, cities present a universe of things to study.  I generally never regret my decision to be an urbanist even if, in the status hierarchy of my school, it’s not treated particularly well.

That said, my general day-to-day focus on the urban frustrates me a great deal when international relations issues arise because I just do not have an intellectual basis to be the sort of democrat I should be.  I don’t understand the   world I see to be able to have an informed policy position  on many matters of foreign policy, and it annoys me. I feel like I read and read, and I still can’t pull together a position for what the US should do in Syria.  I just want people to stop dying. All of the belligerents are explicit enemies for the US. From a strict self-interest perspective, we should let them kill each other. I’m grateful that we aren’t doing that—I don’t think–because the toll in innocent human life is too high. We can’t just stand by, and we shouldn’t. But what action?

Political reporting and commentary doesn’t help me much. In general, The New Republic is one of my go-to outlets, but this piece from Julia Ioffe lets me down.  Yeah, I know now that John Kerry isn’t doing a bang up job and Putin is a jerk.  But I’m not sure that losing in a no-win game is really worse than not winning, if you know what I mean.  There is no policy position taken here, only that Kerry screwed up and the option on the table–of surrendering chemical weapons–isn’t a clean or easy goal. I think we knew that, too. Should we be sad we don’t nuke them to glass?