Sunday, July 26, 2015

So if we can't talk about race productively, can we talk about culture?

Before reading this, I must give a disclaimer and ask an indulgence.  The disclaimer is that these thoughts are not fully baked, and already while writing it I ended-up somewhere I didn't quite expect.  The indulgence I ask is to be gentle in your comments, but not uncritical.  Challenge them all you want, offer your own interpretations, point-out mistakes, mischaracterizations, etc.  Don't hesitate criticizing the ideas, but in criticizing the author.  There's no small amount of risk involved for someone without national prominence or celebrity proposing a different approach to our conversation on race relations without being accused of being a racist, bigot, or white supremacist.
There's a lot of talk about talking about race and we hear it on radio and TV--a lot.  But none of it seems productive because it's impossible to have an honest conversation about race, especially without it being recorded, where the participants won't be accused of racism.

So let's instead have a conversation about culture.  I should think we're all more comfortable with being called culturalists.

Let's start with the premise that not all cultures are equal.  Depending on how we measure them, some cultures are more successful than others.  There are some that offend our sense of morality (female circumcision) and our sense of fairness (woman not being allowed to drive or own businesses) or our sense of liberty (caste-based societies or theocracies).

But how do we measure cultures and avoid the subjectivity of morality?  How can we make the conversation more objective?

Before we get to measurements, let's examine the premise we started with: not all cultures are equal.  It's easier to start with what should be obvious, cultures are different.  Cultures have different origins, different evolutions, and have been influenced by their language, geography, natural resources, and clashes with other cultures either through war, or radio, television and the cinema.

Cultures have expectations of their members as much as their members' expectations are shaped by their culture. What a young woman may aspire to in Troy, MI is different from what another may aspire to in Sangalkam, Senegal.  Young men's expectations are similarly different between themselves even as they are different from young women--more so in some cultures than others.

I think it's a fallacy to assume all cultures are equal simply because they co-exist, as some biologists might argue all species are equally evolved simply by their present (as in right-now) existence.  While extinct species might be said to have lost the evolutionary race and are therefor inferior to those that survived to present, we commit the "naturalistic fallacy" in comparing human cultures to nature in this respect and assuming that simply "existing" is sufficient to measuring equality.

It's worth reconsidering, for a moment, the relationship between cultures and their habitat.  For example, the Aborigines of Australia are well-suited to the Australian bush, but less well-suited to the cement jungle (the fictional adventures of Crocodile Dundee excepted).

But there is where we'll begin.  If we begin with the co-dependency of cultures on their environment we can begin to measure the suitability of different cultures in different environments, and observe what happens when cultures get separated from their geography and relocated to another unlike where they came from.

When in the bush, do as the bushmen.

Before considering different cultures (which are complex and difficult to define), let's start with something smaller and easier to imagine.

If you only spoke Dutch and it became necessary to move to France--would you learn French?  Whether you would or not isn't as important as whether you think your prospects would improve if you learned French.  Would they improve faster or slower if all the French learned Dutch?  Which is more productive, your learning French or everyone else learning Dutch?  If you're dress was much different than the French, would you be better off dressing in your native costume or dressing as the French do?

Or how about this scenario, if the French found your foreign tongue and style of dress a delightful curiosity and took measures to protect your culture for their own sense of accomplishment of having "preserved" the exotic, would you be anymore free to succeed than a similar exotic curiosity at a museum or zoo  (both of which are not coincidentally the providence of government)?  Or is patronization a mechanism to keep members of the new culture from succeeding in a geography dominated by another?  Even if suppressing the minority's prospects isn't the goal of the majority culture, the majority's paternalism seems to have the same effect for its goals of self-gratification at the preservation (as though they'd discovered a new biological specimen in Loch Ness) or entertainment.  Either motivation leads to the same ends.

Is "culture" worth preserving even at the expense of its members?  If its members have become the near permanent wards of another, what purpose does it service?  If preserving a culture handicaps its members with language, dress, or skills incompatible with its geography, and with its survival dependent on the welfare of more successful cultures (as the Pilgrims may have been rescued by native Americans so many years ago), whose purpose does preserving it serve?

Unless the purpose of a culture is to preserve itself at the expense of its members, a culture must adapt to its environment, or its members must, if they endeavor to their own success over their culture's success.  If it were the case that through adaptation a culture were to change so completely as to be unrecognizable, or be lost to or within the dominant culture, but its members' posterity prosper, what real loss was the loss of that culture?

But those cultures are rarely lost, as their descendants keep them alive at festivals, churches, community centers, and neighborhoods--bringing them out on weekends, holidays, weddings, and other occasions with significance to the community.  In these examples, the members of the community keep their traditions alive as the members deem fit and at their own expense and with their own exertions, than as specimens for "outsiders" to maintain (even when they are invited to Oktoberfest).

So, is America's race problem really a race problem, or is it a culture problem?  Does America have examples of culture clash successes and failures from which it can find ideas for resolving its current clash?  Or is it doomed to an un-ending battle between black and white, between its past and present, because it can't describe the problem in terms it can work with?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nowhere to go but up for downtown Ferndale

Downtown Ferndale has nowhere to go but up--literally.  The downtown is land-locked by residences on all sides with virtually no undeveloped land on which to build or pave.  The only way to add more square footage for new businesses, retail, residential, or anything else worth attracting is vertically with taller buildings and dare we admit, taller parking.

Being land-locked, our downtown has only three options; build up, demolish the homes that constrain its growth, or stay the way it is.

Downtown Ferndale is exactly what it is.  A commercial area surrounding the intersection of Woodward and Nine Mile roads, with a mix of bars, restaurants, retail, services, and a few multi-unit, multi-floor condominiums.  With the present restrictions on space, the downtown can only change its face by replacing or reusing existing buildings and parking lots.

The 3-60 Project, which proposes multi-use, multi-story, parking-included developments on both the north and south sides of Nine Mile Road west of Woodward (the green-glass-looking buildings in the picture) proposes a disruptive change to the character of our downtown.  The rub is in speculating whether that change is good for the community or bad for the community.

There are two ways to increase our population.  Increasing the birth rate and subsequently the ratio of persons-per-dwelling, and increasing the number of residential units.  City council and the zoning boards can do little about the former except to have babies themselves.  But government can do something about the latter, increasing the number of residential units, provided they have a partner in the private sector willing to invest in building new residential units--either single or multi-unit.

Office space increases the city's population during business hours, with a little spill-over outside business hours as workers stop for a beer, a yoga class, do a little shopping, or a have their hair done before going home.

But one question that needs to be answered before proceeding with 3-60 (or any other similar development) is what is our downtown's capacity?  And by that I mean, how many people can all our downtown businesses accommodate at one time?  Let's pretend the 3-60 project increases both our city's population and its downtown daytime population--how many seats are available in restaurants?  How many people can shop in its retail?  How many people can fit in a kick-boxing class?  Will our downtown's capacity be overwhelmed?  Are there enough parking spaces for all the new visitors along with the old?

Lastly, it must be admitted that if the 3-60 project proceeds the downtown area will temporarily lose parking spaces it can ill-afford and some businesses may not survive.  Those that do may experience some loss of income.  That's regrettable but unavoidable with any plan.  The potential upside for businesses that do survive, and for new business that replace the old, will be more profitable and durable businesses.

So in the end, city council must decide if they want a new downtown with a new look, but at the expense of some of its existing businesses and its current character.  To protect itself and the community, the 3-60 developers will have to enter some kind of covenant with the city that guarantees the job will be complete.

Before voting one way or another, the council should negotiate that contract and expose it to public comment.

And of course, voters will have the final say on whether they agree with council's decision or not, and will have to live with the consequences either way.

Whatever happens in the short term, this project will finally provide some interesting fodder for this year's council elections.