Paradigm Shift

In a recent column about urban relocation, Neil Pierce noted that “for humans, displacement from their known settings may be exceedingly painful…the psychological impact of forced removal from a familiar neighborhood is like a plant being jerked from its native soil.” He went on to acknowledge that holding neighborhoods static isn’t practical.

Of course, it isn’t just neighborhoods that cannot remain static. The whole world is in a state of flux, what scientists might call a “paradigm shift,” and the pain and discomfort that undeniable fact is causing is manifest in our communications, our economy, and especially our politics. (How else do we understand the angry and frightened voices insisting that they want “their country” back?)

Most of us do manage to handle social change and the discomfort it brings without taking to the streets or indulging in paranoid conspiracy theories. We learn to accept new technologies and discard old prejudices, and to recognize the benefits that accompany the dislocations. But even those who welcome the new paradigm need to recognize its challenges, and that is especially true for those of us who care about our cities.

Let me offer just one example. When I was a young professional, civic leadership in Indianapolis was provided by people like Tom Binford and P.E. MacAllister, people who did not hold—or want—public office. They had deep roots in this community and believed they had a civic obligation to nurture it. Many leaders were drawn from locally-owned banks and industries—enterprises that depended for their viability upon the health of their city. Whatever the benefits of globalization and nationalization, those trends have largely robbed us of the corporate headquarters and local banks from which we used to draw people committed to the civic enterprise.

Political actors and elected officials can’t fill these roles. Furthermore, elected officials are less able to be effective without the help of a cadre of civic leaders who are committed to the long-term health of the community and who are not constrained by political considerations. (Long term to a politician, understandably, is ‘until the next election.’)   

The challenge we face is to simultaneously embrace our roots and our wings: to cultivate a city with a quality of life that rewards our allegiance on the one hand, and to welcome the opportunities that come with increasing globalization on the other. To meet that challenge, we need to figure out how we will cultivate the next generation of civic leadership.

A couple of years ago, a television commercial proclaimed “This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.” Today, of course, it isn’t your Oldsmobile either—it is no longer manufactured, and the American auto industry no longer dominates the economy. This isn’t your father’s Indianapolis or America either. If the old saying is right, if change is the only constant, we need to do what previous generations did: accept reality and inhabit the world as it is.

Our job isn’t to whine about the inevitable—our job is to make it better.

Beam Me Up, Scotty

I should probably be ashamed to admit it, but my TIVO is set to copy episodes of Star Trek—mostly, the “Next Generation” but also the Deep Space Nine and Voyager spinoffs. I’ve watched some of these so often, I can repeat the dialogue. Verbatim. And although I like most science fiction, I vastly prefer those that—like Star Trek—depict a future more utopian than dystopian.

Which brings me to a seemingly unrelated topic: my unsolicited correspondence file.

I rarely get hate mail from readers of the Word (although I do seem to prompt the occasional bitchy post from local gay bloggers), but my columns for the Indianapolis Star generate quite a number of nasty emails and snail mail. Some of these are one-time rants about my elitism, liberalism, lack of common sense or morality and general unworthiness to occupy the planet; others are predictable messages from persistent “pen pals” who evidently believe that the fortieth time they explain to me that God doesn’t like homosexuals, a light will finally dawn and I’ll suddenly agree with them.

One of those persistent correspondents was the man I referred to in a 2009 column titled “Dear Nutjob.”  (I know—not very civil. I was steamed.) This is the guy who keeps sending me “research” proving that my son can be “cured” of his gayness. In the previous column, I vented; after receipt of his more recent correspondence, I have taken to wondering what possesses him and people like him—what leads them to insist that difference equals less than and otherness is to be feared and/or hated (or “cured”)?

It isn’t just GLBT folks who generate this response. Look around at the “teabag” folks who are constantly proclaiming that they want “their” country back. It’s not difficult to figure out who they want it back from: African-Americans, immigrants, uppity women who no longer know our place. Look at the hysterical efforts to keep Muslim-Americans from building a Mosque in lower Manhattan, and the claims that all Muslims are terrorists. How dare all these outsiders consider themselves equally American, equally entitled to civil liberties, social status and political office?

I have my own theories about what motivates all this. (You’ve probably noticed that I’m never short on theories—how valid they are is, I know, debatable.) The world is changing, and if that change isn’t really more rapid and disconcerting than ever before, the internet and the 24-hour news-hole certainly make it seem that way.

For some of us, that change is exciting, and much of it is welcome, but for others, it is profoundly destabilizing. In a way, they are all like Rip Van Winkle, waking from a 20-year sleep to confront an alien reality. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised if experiencing change that way pushes some folks over the edge. The good news is—at least, if polls are to be believed—most of the ugliness of our current public discourse is the product of us older Americans. (As I tell my students, once my generation is dead, things should improve!)   

All of which brings me back to the Starship Enterprise.

I know it is more than fiction—it’s probably an impossible fantasy—but part of me really wants to believe that we humans will eventually learn to behave the way they do on the bridge of the Enterprise, respecting and cooperating with a wide variety of human and alien comrades, and turning our combined energies to the task of exploring and understanding the mysteries of the universe.

Oh well. A girl can dream.