Dyson, West, and Obama

When I first saw Dyson’s essay about Cornell West in The New Republic, I winced for a bunch of reasons, but I wanted to wait to see what black commentators would say before I formed my opinions. Lots of good writing, but none that I’m fully on board with, even though some of these are favorite, go-to writers of mine. This piece, from Malaika Jabali at For Harriet, is entitled The Audacity of Pettiness: Black Intellectuals Need to Find Something Better to Do. Hers is, essentially, a call to unity, arguing that these arguments are petty. I’ve always admired Jabali, but I think that framing misses a lot. Glen Ford over the Black Agenda report is more critical, arguing that Dyson is trying to curry favor with the Hillary camp by trying to make Obama’s enemies his enemies. I don’t think so, but Ford has some excellent reasons for criticizing Dyson’s actions here, and why unity is not necessarily the right call, to wit:

Black America has plummeted to such economic depths under Obama’s watch that there is no possibility of ever reaching economic parity with whites absent a social revolution, the beginnings of which we may be witnessing in the growing mobilization against brutal police enforcement of the oppressive social order.

Dyson’s essay frankly shocked me. His scholarly work strikes me as much, much better reasoned than his sprawling assessment of West. I wish Dyson hadn’t written his essay, and I really wish TNR hadn’t published it, not because black intellectuals should show unity around either West or Obama, but because there’s no way Dyson speaking on West can ever be anything but screwed up. Dyson has made his career writing about social and cultural meanings of black celebrity and, in particular, black maleness and celebrity. As a black male celebrity academic, West would be a likely object of study for Dyson. But West and Dyson were close; West was a mentor and friend, and that means it’s personal, no matter how hard somebody tries to be objective. And that is not scholarship or grist for TNR because it’s something very unique to scholarship and the academy.

The entire episode is ugly and is predicated on puerile assumptions among most spectators of the controversy:

1) that black people can’t disagree politically about complicated things, and if they do, it’s a petty squabble rather than a genuine disagreement about priorities or how the world works.

To me, the fact that people are losing their shit over the fact that West criticizes Obama, or that Dyson disagrees with West, demonstrates what a ridiculous hothouse the few, annointed black intellectuals we have live in, and TNR exploited it. Nobody penned any calls to unity when Robert Reich went on tears about President Bush. Why not? Because white people are assumed to be grown-ass people who are capable of principled disagreements about complicated things like “how to run the world properly” while black people are assumed to think the same things, and if some of their leaders don’t, then there’s something amiss here instead of, well, the fact that smart men can disagree about difficult things.

West’s (and Smiley’s) criticisms of Obama have been very, very pointed because the issues in play (poverty, mass incarceration) kill people. I think some vehemence is warranted. And nobody promised any president he was going to live in a criticism-free bubble.

2) that a scholar can only be a scholar if he spends all his time producing one scholarly product after another. Yes, West has become a scholar-activist, and to some degree, a performance artist, but most scholars never write a book as fine as Race Matters (Dyson has; he has two very fine books to his credit IMO) and sometimes, all we get is one fantastic book and a collection of middling ones (which is not true of West; he has many fine short-form contributions, too)–particularly in the later stages of a career. I think speaking out against poverty and mass incarceration is at least as important as anything else one might do later in one’s career, which as far as I can see for many full professors involves yammering on about how important their contributions are and silencing everybody around them who isn’t *them*. So Dyson’s “He used to do real scholarship” criticism of West can be spread around liberally in the academy,

and finally

3) people often break with their mentors at some point, and sometimes the relationship straightens out, or it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the world’s business. Even if a scholar writes about it, it’s really, really difficult for people who are not within the academic context to understand how much influence mentors have simply on the emotional and intellectual lives of the people they teach. I’m sure variants of this are true in other contexts; I’m sure people who bring young people along in law firms or other businesses have special relationships that I don’t understand, either. Usually, people say this to diminish academia (because when isn’t that fun?), but I don’t: academia is an odd place, and intellectual work is intensely, intensely idiosyncratic and personal. If West really was a mentor to Dyson when Dyson was a young scholar, that closeness does not yield better information about who West is. From TNR and celebrity culture’s perspective, it yields juicy information, but it’s not good information, because I think it’s nigh-on-inevitable that academic mentors are always–always–viewed (whether currently or in hindsight) through funhouse mirrors of attachment, anger, and emotion. Being taught and nurtured is exhilarating. It is also, often, painful. Those come in cycles, and you love your mentors, you hate your mentors, you decide they are the smartest people around you, you decide you have outgrown them and are smarter, you realize that they are just human beings and learn to appreciate them for what they do, repeat. Mentors are not perfect. They lose interest in proteges and drop them, too.

Undoubtedly that last bit of writing reveals a lot about me, and maybe there are people out there who have emotionless, functional relationships with their mentors. Good on them. But that’s not what I experienced as either a protege or as a mentor myself, and it’s not what I see happening around me. Learning to do academic work at the level that West and Dyson do it–it’s hard and the relationships that take you there are messy. (Anybody see the movie, Whiplash?) Writing about your mentors is never straightforward; no matter what you do, it’s going to seem fawning or dishing to those outside the relationship.

The Paper Chase on when meetings go south

While I was frittering away time in Seattle this week, I re-read the Paper Chase, a book that is just as charming as the movie. The character of Susan, actually, is much more interesting in the book than in the movie, where she just comes off as rather neurotic.

Except for that, the movie follows the book rather closely, and anybody who saw the movie with remember the difficult study group, full of competitive law students, that Hart and his friend, Ford, put together. The other members of the group are Kevin Brooks, a student who struggles in law school because of depression; Bell who is obsessed with property law and doesn’t want to outline anything else (and is a bully); and Anderson, who is what the other students call a “robot”–a studying machine who learns everything, but has little love or affinity for the law.

During one of their less-productive meetings, when the insults rage and pettiness ensues, Ford reboots:

Ford rocked back in his chair.

“All right, we’re just going to sit here quietly for the next three minutes. No one is going to say anything. Then after we’ve all enjoyed the silence, we’ll start this meeting over again.”

The movie skips this brilliant bit of dialogue, which is a shame, because all of us who have these kinds of meetings recognize the need to put adults in time-outs.

Here is the movie version:

Donald Shoup: A scholar who looks at the overlooked

Last night, UCLA and USC hosted a reception in honor of Donald Shoup of UCLA for receiving the American Planning Association’s Pioneer Award. It’s given to those who have transformed the profession.

Donald was one of my teachers from 2000 to 2004 when I was at UCLA. I was not one of his proteges, per se. He had other students at the time that he simply found more interesting than me. That happens. At the time, I took it rather personally, until I began teaching myself and just realized that you have more affinity for some students than you do others, and it’s a matter of fit, not a matter of like or dislike. Regardless of how little we had in common intellectually, Donald was unfailingly kind to me, always urbane, funny, inspiring. He is a marvelous classroom instructor.

The speeches last night focused on Don’s most famous contribution: his writing and thinking about parking. By the time I’d come to UCLA, he had established his reputation as a parking specialist. He was working on his masterpiece, The High Cost of Free Parking, while I was there, and he very kindly let me read it. Donald would pay armies of students to read the book; it was mostly finished by then, but even so, he took nearly 3 more years to polish it. I was always broke, always needed money, and Don’s hourly work allowing me to edit a) bought me a little pizza now and then and b) taught me a lot about the dedicated, disciplined, long-haul creative process that goes into a book that, now that’s it is published and famous, reads as though the writing were effortless. It wasn’t. He wanted that book to be excellent, and it is, but he worked on that sucker to make it shine the way it does.

I was, like many others, confused about Donald’s devotion to the topic. I had noticed in our few conversations that he was a man of clear, obvious, and sparkling intelligence. What was he doing with such a small topic when the rest of the world was talking about globalization? Or major structures, like capitalism? Or culture? Nonetheless, after I read the first two chapters he gave me, it was clear what he was doing: brilliant work on land economics and urban regulation that examined parking, a topic that everybody else had just not thought about sufficiently.

For those of us who knew Donald in his pre-book days, when people rolled their eyes a bit and called him “the parking guy”, watching Donald’s fame explode after the publication of that book was a pleasure unadulterated by professional envy–and for me that is saying a lot, for I get jealous at lot. But Donald had, for so many years, labored on a topic that people told him, over and over, was not important. He had faith, and he had vision. And he was right, and his perseverance paid off for him. I’ve never known an academic who took a more genuine, ample, and good-hearted pleasure in his own success than Donald, and that, too, made me happy. He says, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was, simply, “a late bloomer” in the academy. There is always time to make a contribution.

That, I would argue, is not strictly true, simply because there is way more than “a contribution” here. Donald has a lot more work that attests to his considerable gifts as a scholar. Two of those stand out. One is his work with two of his most accomplished students, Jeff Brown, now at FSU, and Daniel Baldwin Hess, at SUNY Buffalo on universal access to transit for students here:

Jeffrey Brown, Daniel Hess, and Donald Shoup, “Fare-Free Public Transit at Universities: An Evaluation,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 69–82.

That article doesn’t have the world’s most rigorous evaluation in it, but the idea of marketing, promoting, making transit free to students is brilliant. It was an insight on cultivating transit customers when relatively young, long before people really started to understand that you really do need to market public services.

The other papers I have always thought brilliant, and I am not alone, are:

Donald Shoup, “Graduated Density Zoning,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter 2008, pp. 161–179.


Donald Shoup, “Regulating Land Use at Sale,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer 1996, pp. 354–372.

The first of these won the Chester Rapkin award for the best paper in JPER, and with good reason: once again, Donald had his land economist hat on, pointing out a policy change that that, if implemented, alters the incentives so that holdouts become less of a problem in land assembly for infill. Holdouts are a major problem that everybody complains about, and nobody had a fix for. Until Donald.

Donald is retiring from UCLA, which means I suspect that he will just go to fewer meetings, and, as he said last night, he can disobey his chair with impunity. He’ll keep writing, he’ll keep teaching, and he’ll keep delighting us with his magnificent explorations of what everybody else overlooks. In honor of his retirement, the Luskin School is creating the the Donald and Pat Shoup Endowed Fellowship in Urban Planning. From the website:

The Donald and Pat Shoup Endowed Fellowship will support students at UCLA Luskin in perpetuity, lowering the costs of attending graduate school and making advanced study possible for those who might otherwise not be able to attend.

Professor and Mrs. Shoup have generously offered to match each donation to the fellowship endowment 2-to-1. For every $100 you give, the Shoups will give an additional $200.

The man understands incentives. 😉

Maybe white people should stop writing about Los Angeles for a bit

I am going to pick on Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s piece from Slate because it crossed my desk this morning. I’m sure she’s a wonderful journalist, and she’s clearly a good wordsmith, but this piece pretty much exemplifies why I’m tired of tired screeds about bad-old, bad-old Los Angeles. Her overtures to trying to confront the “myths” of Los Angeles (because she’s so different than all the snotty urbanists who wrote before her about the wicked, wicked Gehenna known as LA) don’t work as she then goes on trade on the myths, and I’m just not in the mood.

Her thesis: the sustainability plan is a gloss for an unsustainable lifestyle, but is it a sign of change? Sure. Sustainability is pretty much that, everywhere. (Note: In New York, people who control capital flows that are completely and utterly destroying world environments take the subway to work. Is that sustainable because people aren’t driving?) Sustainability is aspirational,; it’s always aspirational, and I’m tired of having that discussion, too. Yes, LA is a problem. And yes it tries to fix itself and fails. But it still tries. Like everywhere else, even cities that urbanists love.

She drops a lot of names in the LA Pantheon of Writers (leaving aside Jane Jacobs): all white, all male: Kevin Starr (whom I admire madly); William Fulton; Christopher Hawthorne (wonderful writer), and of course, Mike Davis.

But Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. These are good writers. But. They are limited.

When I read white people’s writing about Los Angeles, it makes me grate my teeth. When I read people of color writing about Los Angeles, for the most part, the writing strikes me as much more relevant and believable. Now, maybe I’m overly hard on my fellow white people, but I don’t think so. I think it has to do with the presumptions about who can know what about what kind of city Los Angeles is, and what places and their archetypes represent LA.

To wit: White people write about Los Angeles like it’s all one place, and that place is the Westside, where relatively affluent white people live. There, maybe–maybe–you have people living in fortresses and cars and only stepping out in public for Ciclivia. Maybe. The partial–as long as it is white–gets to represent the whole.

But people in East Los Angeles have been conserving for years. They’ve been doubling up in homes, carpooling, taking the bus, etc. All the stuff the wealthy and privileged in LA don’t do and that, for reasons beyond me, is always used to represent the whole of life lived in LA. You can go to any Central American neighborhood just east of USC and you will find people all over the sidewalks, on their porches, chatting on street corners, carpooling, and conserving their plastic bags (and not jumping into their Hummers.) They have street life, and it’s not just on Ciclivia days.

(Ciclivic a wonderful event and I wholly support it, but that is your harbinger of change?)

Maybe I just have very good taste in Los Angeles writers of color and in neighborhoods, but…in some respects, it’s white supremacy that actually leads us here. Because the way the world is set up, people of color and their experiences…well, those can’t be representative of the whole, can they? They just can’t be. They are other. So writers of color, writing about Los Angeles, write about the Los Angeles they know (as does everybody) but nobody expects that to stand for the whole of Los Angeles. Instead, these writers write about the way life in Los Angeles is lived in my experience (a lot like I think life is lived in all these mega-regions); in neighborhood spaces, in districts, in parts of the region, rather than the region as a whole. Of course George Sanchez writes brilliantly about certain neighborhoods because a Mexican-American historian would, wouldn’t he? Ditto with Laura Pulido. And Walter Mosley. And so on, and so forth. Their work is expected to be partial, to show a slice of life in a world that is different from “the world.” As it turns out, empirically, these assumptions about partiality actually work out well in trying to represent Los Angeles, which is way too complicated to speak of as one place.

Whereas white writers have both the hubris and the societal approval to represent white Los Angeles as Los Angeles. And that’s not even remotely accurate, and it has never been accurate.

When does all the trickling down start? It would be good if it started to trickle soon

My feed came with this piece from the Raw Story this morning: America leads the developed world in child poverty. Yay, us. Here’s a quote:

The U.S. has one of the highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world. As UNICEF reports, “[Children’s] material well-being is highest in the Netherlands and in the four Nordic countries and lowest in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and the United States.”

Our peer country is Romania.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ready for all the Greg Mankiw-approved bullshit econ ideology to start paying off for poor kids. A timetable for delivering on all that trickling would be appreciated.

Frederich Hayek once thought he dealt a damning blow to the concept of social justice by penning The Mirage of Social Justice. He makes a fair point: given that what many look for in justice concerns the betterment of life for those who are impoverished, any gain in standard of living for those who are wealthy means that any progress for those who are impoverished seems diminished. People can always be made better off as along as any inequality exists. Hence, social justice is an insoluble, chimerical concept.

Sure. He’s right. I don’t see any real problems with the basic logic. Social conditions, and what is good and what is right, are always under deliberation. That’s news somehow?

But lots of life is enmeshed in these types of concepts. If I have to answer the question “How much justice is enough” then those who demand I answer it, in turn, have to answer the following for me: “How much wealth is enough?” and “How much economic growth is enough?”

Yeah, I didn’t think so.