Blog #105 – Vietnam – The Film, Contributions and Open Questions


Blog #105 – Vietnam – The Film, Contributions and Open Questions

The Vietnam War, the film Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is by any standard a major achievement, a detailed and evocative history of that war and as powerful an anti-war film as there is, but precisely because of its honesty, historical ambition, and attempt at balance, it leaves a number of critical questions open, the depoliticization of its conclusion, its lack of broader historical context, its forced avoidance of moral issues. No film could hope to answer all such questions, but it would be doing an injustice to the film if it were not a basis for some serious discussion about the meaning of the events it recounts. The questions they raise are still critical today, and their meaning for understanding and acting on the painfully similar issues confronting us almost 50 years after its end.

What follows is a very preliminary attempt to raise, but not to answer, four of those questions: I. The assumption of good faith, II. The desire for reconciliation, III. The implicit depoliticization of the history, IV. The ethics of participation.

                    I.          The assumption of Good Faith

The film opens with an uncharacteristic statement: The war was begun “in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” The film strives for nothing so much as balance and nuance, but that statement is hardly the complete story. To warrant such a statement as if it were the result of detailed examination both of the war’s historical setting in the history of western colonialism in east Asia and of the motives and of those that begat and pressed it onwards, is unwarranted. Indeed, throughout the film the narration questions motives and intent, and tries to explain actions that were both constrained by a long history as well undertaken by sentient human beings with mixed and conflicting emotions and interests, and limited but hardly unbiased or un-self-interested understanding of what they were doing. The issue of where “good faith” lies when leaders as well as followers complain that they are only doing what they had to, even when they regret the results of their actions, is an issue that has perplexed philosophers, theologians, psychologists, judges and authors for millennia. Buti in the film it is put aside in the interests of fundamental desire not to condemn, with or without hindsight.  Indeed, the “good faith” both Ken Burns and Lynn Novick need not be questioned in order to suggest that this statement does not come up to their standard of nuance and balance.

The film’s ending has the same flaw, but is even less warranted.

                   II.         The Desire for Reconciliation

 

The film ends with a background song with the refrain, “let it be,” “let it be,” “let it be,“ repeated over  and over. The filmmaker’s motives are themselves in fact well-intentioned but mixed and not consistently pursued. The intent is clear: having forcefully presented decades of unmitigated horror flooded with deep animosities, and having shown in conclusion that whatever good intentions any of the parties had in acting as they did, they did not produce anything of their best hopes – that war was an unmitigated horror, whose wisdom needed to be challenged whenever it reared its head as a possibility, to say “let it be” is hardly the first conclusion that comes to mind. Certainly, one can understand the desire of the participants to put behind them the pain of reliving and being tormented by such horrible events, even a desire to achieve reconciliation, with the hope of having a film such as this come to what is almost a happy ending.

“Never again,” indeed, would seem to be a more fitting final message than “let it be.”

Similarly, Bob Collins argued, on PBS that the film “concludes with a whimper, not a bang,” and called the ending “a cop-out.” [1] And in fact there is an ambiguity in the ending that justifies the concern. In the last episode of the film. John Musgrave, a very impressive, thoughtful, soft-spoken veteran of the war quoted frequently                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 throughout the film, is asked how he now feels about all he has seen and survived. After giving it some thought, Musgrave says that now finally he has arrived at “a kind of peace.” In an interview, Burns says

“ it’s possible to just say “let it be.” And that’s not about forgetting. It’s about an ultimate reconciliation, which I hope is what we can do….  “Let It Be” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music. That is offering, not the sense of forgetting it, but the ability to reconcile all the conflicting tugs of the information that have just been dumped on you over the last 18 hours.”

Reconciliation is a theme that recurs in the film’s ending, and it can be interpreted in three ways:

  • Reconciliation of the conflicting strands of information, of declarations of intentions and actual motivations, of emotions and repression of emotions, of bravery and cowardice, of self-serving and of altruism. That is, in context, I think what Musgrave meant when he spoke of peace: let the attempt to understand, to rationalize, to lay out in order exactly what happened when and where and to whom and why, stop torturing yourself about what you could or should have done or not done. Achieve an inner peace, Each to him or herself. A human and a healthy goal for those traumatized by the war.

 

  • Reconciliation among all the conflicting actors in the events: the troops on the battlefields,, the planners, the governmental leaders, the ideologies, reconciliation of the countries themselves. “I think that reconciliation is possible within our two countries, where we’re both divided, as well as between the two countries, where we seem to have, at least superficially, solved the distance between us,” Burns says in an interview.[2] But that is a form of reconciliation that would wipe out real conflicts of interests and motives, equating the actions of all the various participants and implicitly justifying all actions, depoliticizing and accepting as all equally simply as facts on the ground, just the way things are. It is a form of reconciliation that calls for a broad social amnesia among all participants for it to be successful.

 

  • Reconciliation among some participants but passage of judgement as to others. Perpetrators are different from those benefiting from their actions, those inflicting harm from those harmed, the powerful from those subject to their power. In some ultimate sense, indeed, all men and women are children of God and the imposition of punishment and pain on any human being is to be avoided, but there is certainly a difference between calling for reconciliation of the Nixons and the Westmorelands with the Bao Dies and the Diems, or of the Lyndon Johnsons and the Daniel Ellsbergs.

The film does not make these distinctions, and the failure has significant political and moral consequences.

When Henry Kissinger is quoted, in the opening of the film, as saying:

 

“What we need now in this country is to heal the wounds and to put Vietnam behind us.”

one can easily understand his vested political – and indeed personal — interest in pushing that result.

                 III.         The Political Role of Induced amnesia.

Depoliticization is one of those consequences of the unwillingness to distinguish victims from perpetrators, or of seeking a balance that would avoid not only popular tropes but go further and not even attempt any grounded thoughtful evaluation of what was done by whom, to whom, and why. Burns and Novick clearly reject any desire to present a comparison between the events of the Vietnam war period with events of present-day U.S. foreign or military policy, probably wisely, for showing what the film shows so vividly speaks movingly for itself, and might lose some of its effect if encapsulated in “partisan” rhetoric. But nevertheless, an insidious message results from this approach. Human weaknesses, all around, basically explain what happened: sadly unavoidable, consequences are unforeseen, plans misfire. That the results, terrible as they seem, may have been the results of some deliberate actins undertaken by specific actors and interests with particular objectives knowingly heedless of their costs to others is thus not explored, even though the raw material from which to draw conclusions is dramatically presented. The film deliberately steers efforts away from confronting its own lessons for today’s realities, and undermines capturing the very lessons of those pregnant years for those watching the film today. It produces perhaps overwhelming sadness, but not targeted anger or resolve for deep-going change,

                IV.         The Insidious Depoliticization of History

Depoliticization further also results from the again well-intentioned effort to avoid examining the larger context in which the events described in the film took place: colonialism, anti-communism , great power rivalry, vested interests vs. democratic change.[3] Answering the ultimate “why” questions about why things  happened as they did is perhaps asking too much of any single effort of scholarship or analysis and far more than can be asked of as meticulous film as the Burns and Novick, but at least naming the forces and making their roles more transparent would be an attempt that might have been  pursued somewhat further.

The very language Ken Burns and Lynn Novick use in describing their approach to the film feeds, insidiously, the depoliticization. They are quoted in an interview as saying:

…perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and instead…focus on what it can teach us about courage, it can teach us about  courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness, and, ultimately, reconciliation.[4]

We”? Teach “us?”       The film is full of ample evidence of how divided are “our” not only remembrances but roles and interests in the events it portrays. “We” have quite different reasons for remembering what we remember, remembrances continue to plague, not all of “us,” but some of us and not others

Putting perps and victims in the jumble of “us” references at best that the lambs may lie down next to the lions – but in the reconciliation of whose zoo?

                  V.         The Ethics of Participation

The question of motivation for participation is one that produces a frequent and troubling unease in anyone watching the film and attempting to understand what motivated the killings, the torture , the inhuman conduct of so many people, is a harrowing question. The individual interviews provide some insight into what moved some of the individual participants. But the interviews describe rather than explain.

Take a glaring example. Over and over, fighters on both sides are presented as willing to undertake obviously inescapable risks to their own lives, yet proceed to kill and be killed regardless. In some cases, their actions may have been simply self-defense, or carried out where disobedience was not possible. But  strong socially-constructed convictions, faiths, beliefs, values, were deeply involved. To grossly over-simplify, the striving for national independence, ethnically and historically based, was a driving force for many. It was played on by leaders on both sides. Communism, with all its shades of meaning, was at least articulated as a key concern pro and con, a concern willing to die for and against. Was freedom from colonial exploitation or dominance the same goal as establishing an independent state, independent ethnically or economically or politically constituted, were among proclaimed goals. Goals important enough to produce an apparent human obliviousness to the tragedies to which the use of these concepts were leading? It would be asking too much to want a film, even of the length and quality of this one, to answer these questions, but they might have been illuminated more from the striking provocative material at hand.

Where would the answer to the question of social motivation/conviction leave us? That a Nazi is honestly and firmly convinced of the merits of fascism and the treachery of all Jews is not an excuse for patrolling concentration camps or gassing Jews. Strength of conviction is one, but only one, aspect of the answer, but only one. And it has even been suggested that the strength of a conviction on a particular question under debate may be inversely related to likelihood of its corresponding to the truth.

The question of morality involved in the assessment of actors’ role in the war has to be seen from two different aspect, if a fair judgment is to be passed, moral criteria to be applied. Buns and Novick are quoted as saying:

“it was super important, I think for us, to leave — at least in a war that has no outward redeeming feature like the Civil War or World War II — to leave you with the realization that sometimes it is the sum total of the heroic contributions of individual people in many different spheres that make it.

If national independence or ethnic self-determination or retribution for anti-social actions or for treason are “outward redeeming features,” do they then justify morally any and all “heroic contributions of individual people”? A distinction could certainly be made between weighing the justice of actions against social goals, against “outward redemption,” against the standard for individual behavior in personal relations. One might find extremism in defense of liberty – read “heroic contributions” to be desirable, and yet have questions about murder and torture as socially desirable actions. Solidarity is both a social and an individual virtue, socially desirable and individually desirable. When John Musgrave warmly embraces a soldier on the other side in the and takes public leadership of an organization of Vietnam Veterans who have fought “heroically” in an unjust cause and spilled blood for no redeeming cause, is he doing something that is socially harmful – embracing others in human solidarity although they have acted in opposition to outwardly redeeming social values? The film leads to confrontation with the question, but does not ask it. Perhaps it need not; the material may simply be let to speak or itself. Yet…?

  1. Conclusion

What, then, is one to make of the contribution of the film as a whole? I would venture only three firm answers:

First, it is an amazing film, a documentary par excellence, a hyug accomplishment, technically in its accessing a wide range of scattered materials and making a coherent and indeed enthralling whole out of them. It is a humane accomplishment in its breadth of concerns, efforts at balance, ability to show and present differing viewpoints and experiences, contributing much to understanding sharply conflicting actions with warmth and concern.

Second, It offers a powerful lessons in what is wrong with war, where false extremism can lead, in the lesson of the over-riding importance that avoiding violence, and certainly government-sanctioned violence, should not play in the making of public decisions and implementation of public policy . It is a profoundly anti-war move.

Third, it raises profound questions about social justice and individual morality, concretely and sympathetically presented, questions that have plagued philosophers and thinking men and women throughout the centuries, questions of social and individual responsibility, the meaning of courage and heroism and brotherly and sisterly love, questions that are way above what can be resolved in one  movie, but that could be the basis  for broad and open and constructive discussion in many venues in years to come.

Ken Burns’ and Kim Novick’s  The War in Vietnam should be widely read, debated,  and treasured for all three reasons.

 

 

[1] https://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2017/09/final-episode-of-the-vietnamwar-fails-to-deliver/

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-ken-burns-and-lynn-novick-on-face-the-nation-sept-17-2017/

 [3] An excellent summary (among others) is in “The Insidious Ideology of Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War” By Alex Shephard, The New Republic, September 19, 2017.

 

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/29/opinion/ken-burns-lynn-novick-vietnam-war.html?_r=0

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Personal – moving, contact, invite


Friends,                                                                                 November 3, 2017

Big family news, and a double invite:

We are moving from Waterbury to a Continuum of Care retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif, .

It was a big decision, with a lot of ambivalence. We’ve lived in Waterbury over 60 years, raised our three children here, Peter has practiced law here, held public office, taught; Frances has taught many grades in public school and done volunteer work here since retiring. We have dear friends here, and like our community. But we’re pushing 90, have multiple stairs in our house on Greenwood Avenue, and although we have help and assistance from many friends, even the chores of everyday life are becoming a burden.

Our son Harold, who lives in Santa Barbara and teaches at UCSB, has found a very attractive retirement community called Vista del Monte in Santa Barbara, and we have applied for a two-bedroom unit there, move-in hopefully mid-November. It will be for an Independent Living unit, and our medical conditions need to be approved as adequate for what it offers that we want. We are looking forward to it with both pleasure and pain, pleasure in the expectation that it will make life a lot easier for us day-to-day in beautiful surroundings, pain at leaving behind friends and comrades to whom we’ve become very close and whose friendships we treasure highly. But all life involves change, and aging is a part of life; better to acknowledge and adapt to it than to fight it in an inevitably losing battle. .

Harold has been wonderful in helping with the pending arrangement in California, and we hope to see his two children more often. Irene is with us right now helping with this end of the moving, quite a task after so many years in a relatively large house and multiple interests. Tabitha has been a solid support. Andrew in Pennsylvania and some of his four children have been visiting with us to help out, as has Fran’s sister Barbara, and all have happily promised to come visit us there regularly.

Vista del Monte, between the mountains and the sea, is a community of some 150 units, with a wide range of facilities and activities We will have a living room, two bedrooms, a basic kitchen, two meals a day at a central dining room. We think it will be ideal for visitors. We really don’t know quite what to expect in what will be essentially a completely new life for us, but we hope that close continuing contact even if at a distance with family and friends here will make it at least endurable, and even a pleasant way to keep going as far as our abilities will let us. Even with limitations: less travel, no doubt, but forms of communication and contact are multifarious today, and we hope to make full use of them with you all.

And we hope you will reciprocate as well!

***

We’ll be here another two weeks. We are planning an Adopt-a-Plant Open House Sunday Nov 12 -noon -, with refreshments and the hope that most of our house plants will find a new home with some  of you in congenial surroundings. And we hope you may find some of the various items and tchotchkies we have accumulated over the years good souvenirs to remember us by. Or you maybe could use some other items we will be leaving behind as too awkward to move or as further unneeded. So come and see, visit, and say au revoir.

And after we arrive at our new digs: Vista del Monte contacts below, we’ll send you details on how we find our new life and what  we can offer our old friends if they have a chance to come and see for themselves what the other coast is like.

With regrets but anticipation,

New address: Vista del Monte, 3775 Modoc Road, #235,  Santa Barbara, California, 93105

pm35@columbia.edu, francesmarcuse@yahoo.com. Till then, Waterbury 203 753 1140

Blog #107 Immigration Local Policies Column in Waterbury Ct Newspaper


To the Editor

(Re: “Awaiting Puerto Ricans, September 38, 2017, p. 1)

Immigration in our Future.

Immigration is desirable; it should not be either opposed or tolerated; it should be appreciated. The large majority of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, many from countries far beyond our national borders. And it is lucky for us that it is so.; without immigration, cities like Waterbury would be more rapidly shrinking than they already are. The names of our city’s leaders, from the mayor to the aldermen to our state and national representatives; reflect a wide range of national and ethnic names. The recent Gathering in Library offered a chance for representatives from dozens of countries to celebrate and share their cultures, to enjoy in peace enjoy our diversity More than 1,000 people attended the downtown event. It showcased dancers, exhibits, and goods from 115 countries from Albania, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, West Africa and many more. We do not consider African-Americans as immigrants, although their history reflects centuries of forced arrival in this county, and their experience still reflects that history in painful ways.

This Gathering in downtown Waterbury has been described as “the most diverse and inclusive cultural festival in New England.”

We can be justifiably proud of such a description, and it should lead it for consider what we already have and what further we can do to benefit from its implications. Waterbury is already a major cross-roads in New England, both for highways and shortly as well as by rail with the pending new rail station. It already has two major hospitals, a branch of the state university, a thriving community college, all with strong multi-cultural programs. It has strong social organization, from community and ethnic -based clubs, churches, mosques, and synagogues, and rich cultural offerings, in music, the theater, the arts. Its restaurants reflect its diversity.

It could do more. Bi-lingual programs can be fostered, both to and from English. An Office for Assistance to New Arrivals could be established, dealing with access to housing, jobs, community involvement, links to other resources.  Legal aid can be provided with expertise in the relevant fields. Immigrants could be officially welcomed, together with new arrivals, there might be a newcomer of the month high-lighted publicly, there could be volunteer mentoring programs established perhaps enlisting senior groups, , Unions and workers’ organization, inherently multi-racial and ethnic , could be encouraged, economic development efforts could further focus on small incubator-type efforts targeted to help newcomers,. Research, lectures, public discussions, such as being undertaken at Silas Bronson Library in its “Who Was Here” and “Here and Now” programs in the next two months, could be expanded and widely publicized.

If assistance to Puerto Rican families displaced by the devastation in that island Is organized and funded, it may provide good experience for the effective and human handling of problems of immigrants and displacees from other causes as well.

Waterbury should stake out a claim, perhaps even a national claim, as a city welcoming of immigrants, and known nationally as such: Waterbury is a city built on the contributions of immigrants, appreciative of immigrants, affirmatively welcoming of immigrants. It should make the most of the strength Immigrants provide for its future. “WATERBURY THE WELCOMING CITY” as a city slogan?

Blog #104 – – An Incomplete but Useful Inconvenient Sequel


Blog #104 – An Incomplete but Useful Inconvenient Sequel

Al Gore’s continuation of his An Inconvenient Truth is an important contribution to the effort to combat global warming and pay attention to what is and what is not being done to the natural environment by largely unregulated economic development. It is a bit too long, a bit too much Al Gore, but on the whole a striking antidote to climate change denial.

But it has unfortunate weaknesses.

It stresses the human contribution to climate change, but leaves it simply at showing there is such a contribution, and lamenting it. Yet this is perhaps the strongest argument that the deniers raise: admitting there is climate change, but arguing that the human contribution is a minor factor in producing it. Yet at the end there is the admission that, even in the best realistically possible set of public policies, there will be climate change, it can be slowed down but not stopped. That cries out for some facts and figures on the proportional contribution possible from better public and private policies, and leaves open what can be done about the residue that is apparently admitted to be inevitable, regardless of human counter-measures. Even if exactitude is not within reach, at least some orders of magnitude, some reasonable estimates with their biases, would be very helpful.

Even more important, it is woefully inadequate on the political and economic forces that affect public action on that human input. The implicit if hidden analysis is that what is needed is greater understanding of cause and effect, more public education, evidence more convincingly presented of the evils of present policies, and then state actions, appropriate public policies, will follow as the day follows the night. It is, in this way strangely non-political, no doubt to avoid being accused of being “politically motivated.”

But there is a difference between partisan party politics and fundamental recognition of the political/public policy determinants of public decisions. Trump is barely mentioned at the very end, and then simply by showing his name and citing briefly his skepticism. There is little discussion of who benefits and who suffers from the reluctance to confront climate change: only passing reference to oil company profit and power, to the role of lobbying in making the relevant decisions, to the Koch brothers or Citizens United or official scare-mongering about government take-over of private personal choices. It’s not that Gore is ignorant of or unconcerned about all this; it’s that the overwhelming weight of his argument is on understanding, convincing, educating.

The implication is there, if not intended, but insidious: reason will prevail when it is clearly presented. And the clear presentation of reason is surely an important contribution to putting its results into effect. And even the mas protest that Gore properly sees as necessary for change need to be informed by reason in what they do, what they demand, what the protest, what they see as required for change. But, when all I said and done, there are major forces, both economic and political, that are threatened by climate control measures and that profit from activities resulting in climate -changing consequences, that oppose change for very concrete, profit-connected and power-connected reasons. They need to be called out more sharply.

Gore recognizes this, but touches on it only gingerly. We need to confront the realities of power in public decision-making, and the importance of ideologies in undergirding inequalities. If we have to wait till Al Gore convinces Donald Trump “to come to his senses,” we face a bleak future.

The Sequel is sub-titled “Truth to Power.” It needs a second Sequel: “The Truth OF Power.”

APPENDIX

Al Gore on paths to climate change.

“…the pathway to solving the climate crisis is through the building of a massive grassroots army of men and women who will go out there and win the conversation on climate, and persuade businesses, and universities, and towns to switch to renewable energy and to reduce emissions. We’re gonna win this regardless.”
LEE COWAN: When you met with the president-elect at Trump Tower — and I know you don’t want to go into the specifics of the meeting — did you find him receptive, Mr. Trump, to your argument?
AL GORE: I found him attentive, and you can misinterpret that for being receptive. And I think he’s probably pretty good at that as a businessman. But yes, I did think that there was a real chance that he would come to his senses on this.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/al-gore-on-environmentalism-trump-and-solving-the-climate-crisis-full-transcript/

Blog #101 — Jackie Leavitt – An Ethical Peoples’ Planner


JACKIE LEAVITT: A PEOPLE’S PLANNER, ETHICAL AND PROGRRESSIVE

What was perhaps most unusual about Jackie Leavitt’s professional and political social justice work was the relationship between them and her personal life: how she informed her own work by her lived experience with people, and drew the lessons of that work for socially concerned planners and planning. One of those lessons was that work was only one aspect of life, and should not be used as the defining characteristics of people, characterizing them as individuals simply by what they did, what role they played in society. People were central for her: central in her life, an amazing set of friends and contacts that enriched her life and the lives of those who she touched, and central in her work, in which she never treated the people involved as numbers, as categories to be dealt with according to their position in one hierarchy or another, but as full and unique individuals, to be respected and treated in all their diversity and humanity. Her life illuminates both who planners are and what planners do. One of the outstanding threads in her life, which runs through both who planners are and what they do, is the focus on the humanity of the individuals involved. Both in her

For those on the activist social movement and professional planning end of her work, Jackie had much to offer. Rather than bow to the pressures for “objectivity” and “neutrality” often encountered in academia and professional research, she was clearly politically committed in the best sense of the phrase, to the ideals of social justice and how her work might advance at interest. Start with her conception who of who planners are – and what they are not. They are not simply professionals, servants of whoever employs them or contracts for their services; they are not simply technicians for hire. Their clients , for planners, in their own minds, should be those in need, those poorly served by existing societal arrangements, particularly in day to day urban life, those for whom a deeply felt and thought-through concept of social justices requires priority to be given.
Further, those priorities are the ones that those in need themselves set, to be ascertained by transparent processes in an effective democratic manner. The conception goes beyond the advocacy model suggested by Paul Davidoff, itself a giant step forward for planners hold though it was. It requires planners themselves to think through and espouse the values needed for the improvement of urban life for those ill served by it. Planners, true to the social function they are asked to perform, are ethical persons with ethically-grounded values which they must use in their work.
But planners are technicians as well. They need to know how the urban system works, for whom, how, what alternatives are possible, how they might be shaped. She recognized the dangers of an over-stress on the work of professional planners, the danger that they might become technocrats, seeking technical accomplishments as ends in themselves, efficiency as a goal per se, isolated from their social and particularly distributional consequences.
Jackie was a teacher all her life, and not by accident . She saw students as individuals studying to learn what planning was about, not only how to do it but why to do it, for whom, following what principles. In her consulting work, , she was a teacher as well, not of the techniques of planning as such but of how those techniques might be applied in a manner to promote social justice, to serve those that most needed help in their own pursuit of social justice.
As a feminist planner, Jackie had much to offer for those typically on the receiving end of what activists and planners do. A large part of it was dedicated to changing the relationship between the two: between the activists and professional planners on one side and the intended beneficiaries of their work on the other. She wanted to overcome the separation between the two, to make the targets of the work participants in it, in its direction, in its implementation. Her dissertation, Planning and Women, Women in Planning (1980), provided a critique of “the relationship between the planning profession’s impact on women planners and women planners’ impact on the profession and its products.”
Jackie’s foregrounding the interests of those suffering from social injustice was not one that saw the definition of justice as quantitative, defining it by the level of inequality or the number of the homeless or hungry or ill. How many there were of course relevant concerns, but Jackie saw the poor, the homeless, the sick also as individuals, as human being entitled not only to help but to dignity and respect – and indeed to the power to speak and act for themselves, to determine their own destinies. That led her, willy-nilly (more willy than nilly!) into political controversies, to speaking truth to power, and indeed often helping organize others to do the same effectively on their own behalf. Much of her own research was directly motivated by the desire to gather facts and understand processes that would be useful to those struggling for their rights.
It seems to me that Jackie’s view of planning and who planners are and what they do, requires a redefinition of planning, to see it not only as a professional activity but also as a political one, one serving an actively defined concept of the public interest, one rejecting the concept of professionalism as an entitlement to make decisions as experts for others. Professional planners indeed had a certain technical expertise, but it did not give them the right to set public priorities for others; rather, their skills had to be used within the political processes to make those priorities truly democratic and responsive to the wishes and needs of those most requiring the kinds of governmental actions with which planning today deals. The technical expertise of professional planners needs to be advisory, in a political process in which planners can also legitimately be involved as citizens, but not as themselves decision-makers. Their role is to enlighten the political process, not to dominate it.
All of this had consequences for Jackie’s concern with who planners are. To the extent that planners’ expertise gives them a particular voice in the politics of public decision-making, they should themselves already be a democratically constituted and effectively representative group. Jackie’s first major research project, her dissertation, cited above, had to do with the role of women in planning. Her involvements in various aspects of the civil rights movement since then, including the efforts to expand minority enrolment in planning schools and in the profession, are well known.
Those efforts were part of an over-all view of who planning students were that saw them, not simply as persons who happened for complex reasons to want a degree in some field that looked interesting and would give a decent living, but to see them rather as rounded human beings with hopes and fears searching for meaning in their lives and exploring a career in planning as one option. She understood that they had lives outside of planning, and came into the field with some generally held misconceptions of the role of planners in society, including in particular their power to “fix what’s wrong with cities,” as so many of them had indicated in the applications for admission. And she dealt with them as fully rounded individuals, not as fixed vessels to be filled with the accepted verities of a particular program in which they were enrolled. I recall faculty meetings at Columbia when we were both teaching there in which particular problems of individual students were discussed , in which we all looked to Jackie to tell us what the problem was. She would know whether there was a split up with a boy or girl friend, or a death in the family, or some other particular outside event in their lives that ought to be taken into account in efforts to help them with their academic work. She knew her students as people.
The Community Scholars program that Jackie founded and ran at UCLA seems to me to exemplify ideally what Jackie was about. It took individuals from the community, non-academics but engaged activists dealing with the problems bringing labor and community leaders together with urban planning graduate students to conduct applied research projects. “It embodied her deep commitment to participatory planning, and both brought the university into the community and brought the community into the university,” commented Chris Tilly, IRLE Director and Professor of Urban Planning. [add further description]
Jackie believed deeply that all men and all women were created equal, equal but not the same, equal in deserving the understanding, respect, and dignity of treatment by the society, include recognition and respect for their astounding diversity, wants, and needs. Her work is full of people: taxi drivers, graduate students, undergraduate students, social activists, the homeless, local community-based business people, architects, sociologists, community researchers, housing managers, public housing residents, grass-roots women in the third world, immigrants, home care workers – all not as objects, but as subjects. People to be interviewed, worked with, learned from and taught, individually as well as collectively – and people to be gotten to know as persons, with families, experiences, desires, limits and potentials and contributions to joint efforts and projects.
Looking back at Jackie Leavitt’s life and work, I think we can draw some important conclusions about the educational processes involved in the education of planners? They have to do with the value that hinges on the human relationship between teacher and student, in which the knowledge and experience of the teacher is put at the service of the student, and not made the maser of what is done.
And what conclusions as to the practice of the profession of planning could one draw? That professionalism involves a constant consciousness of the limitations of the knowledge and power of the professional, and requires a human relation between the professional and those affected by the professional’s work, a relationship of equality and mutual respect in which the ethical values of the profession and the democratic relationship manifest in the solidarity between the professionals and the object of their planning becomes one of solidarity and mutual learning, and their work is fully being jointly undertaken/
Jackie Leavitt’s life and work offers some shining examples of these conclusion in action. It deserves to be celebrated, memorialized, –and continued!
Peter Marcuse December 7, 2015

Blog #100 – Competition: What’s Socially Desirable and What Isn’t.


Blog #100 – Competition: What’s Socially Desirable and What Isn’t. ,

In the discussion here , the phrase “winners and losers,” as it is understood in day-to-day exchange by Donald Trump. There are other definitions that are not insidious. Not every competition that has winners and losers is bad.

Sports are the classic example of what can be desirable and healthy competition. It is of the essence of such competition that the competitors go by understood and fair rules, and that they start out as equals, and even as friends, recognizing the outcome as just, and it their earned achievement that is celebrated that is celebrated, not the loss of the losers. That achievement is the greater if the winner’s achievement is narrowly followed by the achievement of the loser – a 10 to 2 victory in a true sport is less noteworthy than a 10-9 victory. Above all, victory in a fair competition should not be used to justify a grossly unequal reward, certainly in the public sector, where winner take all is not a desirable result for a narrow victory. Both the rules of the competition and the reward for success should be democratically determined and agreed. The precise drawing of lines between desirable and undesirable competition and between fair and unfair treatment of winners and losers may be hard to spell out in advance and vary by context, but at the extremes social injustice is usually easily discernible. When, as in so many economic relationships, the winner wins through the exploitation and domination of the loser, winning is nothing to celebrate.

Perhaps one might define the undesirable social uses of “winners and losers” by four criteria:

1. Clearly if in the competition, the winner has started out from a position superior to that of the loser, if the win is the result of violation of the “all men are created equal” rule there is a problem. The examination must then investigate the circumstances that permitted the winner to win; was it by using some unjust advantage that the winner won. If a slight woman loses a weightlifting contest to a heavily-built man, or if the scion or a rich family is able to outbid an-up and-coming but poor architect to win an auction of piece of real estate, then the competition the contest and the winning is undesirable.
2. Has the achievement of the “winners” reduced the achievement of the “losers?” In a one-mile race, if the winner achieves his/her speed in one minute, and others require more than that ,the time the losers achieved is not reduced by the time the winner achieved they are not the slower for the winners speed. The one achievement is not at the expense of the other. In Donald Trump’s world, every real estate transaction in which he engages and “wins” means that someone else has lost, and the lost is the mirror consequence of the win.

3. Is the reward to the winner such that it will deprive the loser of a benefit that it is socially desirable that he or she have? Is the reward a socially desirable good that is in scarce supply, so the winner necessarily deprives the loser of something it is desirable the loser have? A medal for winning a race does not deprive the loser of anything the loser needs or ought to have. However, if the winner gains great wealth or necessary accessibility from winning and the loser is deprived of an adequate income or accessibility because of it, it is competition with an undesirable prize. If there is a housing shortage and inexpensive apartment on a desirable location is torn down and a luxury tower built by a developer that won the competition bidding for the lot on which they are built the competition is undesirable.
4. Has the winner won by unfairly capturing something to which the lower has equal or better claim? Is it the result of a taking by force, or by exploitation in which the winner makes a profit by the exploitation of the labor of the loser? The definition of “unfair” or “equal” claim may then be debated, but if it is a greed taking advantage of a housing shortage to charge a rent unaffordable to the tenant, then the landlord winning the contest for the value of lease is undesirable.

This blog is one of the set:
Blog 98 – The Political Implications of ‘Winning’ and ‘Losing’,
Blog 99 – Social Competition without ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers
Blog 100 – Competition: What’s Socially Desirable and What Isn’t.

Blog #99 – “Winning” – Is It Really Desirable?


**** Blog #99 – “Winning” – Is It Really Socially Desirable? [1]
A society that writes “WINNING” on its banner tramples on any goal of equality. “Winning” in most usages (in Neo-Lib language [2] by definition produces losers; that is its goal. Yet society exists, and governments are created, to implement, the belief that all men are created equal. A leader who revels in winning shows a limited concern for his fellows. Winners win, in real political life, not because of their greater achievements, their greater contribution to the welfare of humanity, their superior morality or service to the public interest, but because of their coincidental fortune in birth, location, timing, greater aggressiveness — yes, their lesser concern for the losers helps. It is the winners who create losers; the losers do not lose voluntarily.

Today’s winners already have excellent health care: health care for all is needed precisely for the losers. The winners already have adequate housing, food, closing, education, recreational opportunities. Social justice, the Declaration of Independence, and the interests of humanity all require that the losers be protected in their claim to the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The goal is not to have more winners, but to have less, indeed no, losers in the exercise of those rights.
In public policy terms, care for losers might be of at least as great, if not more, concern than care for winners.
****
Winning and losing have their place. Not every competition that has winners and losers is bad. Sports are the classic example of what can be desirable and healthy competition. It is of the essence of such competition that the competitors go by understood and fair rules, and that they start out as equals, and even as friends, recognizing the outcome as just, and it their earned achievement that is celebrated that is celebrated, not the loss of the losers. That achievement is the greater if the winner’s achievement is narrowly followed by the achievement of the loser – a 10 to 2 victory in a true sport is less noteworthy than a 10-9 victory. Above all, victory in a fair competition should not be used to justify a grossly unequal reward, certainly in the public sector, where winner take all is not a desirable result for a narrow victory. Both the rules of the competition and the reward for success should be democratically determined and agreed. The precise drawing of lines between desirable and undesirable competition and between fair and unfair treatment of winners and losers may be hard to spell out in advance and vary by context, but at the extremes social injustice is usually easily discernible. When, as in so many economic relationships, the winner wins through the exploitation and domination of the loser, winning is nothing to celebrate.

Perhaps one might define a socially undesirable system fostering “winners and losers” by four criteria:
Clearly if in the competition the winner has started out from a position superior to that of the loser, if the win is the result of violation of the “all men are created equal” rule there is a problem. The examination must then investigate the circumstances that permitted the winner to win; was it by using some unjust advantage that the winner won. If a slight woman loses a weightlifting contest to a heavily-built man, or if the scion or a rich family is able to outbid an-up and-coming but poor architect to win an auction of piece of real estate, then the competition the contest and the winning is undesirable.
Has the achievement of the “winners” reduced the achievement of the “losers?” In a one-mile race, if the winner achieves his/her speed in one minute, and others require more than that, the time the losers achieved is not reduced by the time the winner achieved; they are not the slower for the winner’s speed. The one achievement is not at the expense of the other. In Donald Trump’s world, every real estate transaction in which he engages and “wins” means that someone else has lost, actually or of a potential, and the loss is the mirror consequence of the win.

Is the reward to the winner such that it will deprive the loser of a benefit that it is socially desirable that he or she have? Is the reward a socially desirable good that is in scarce supply, so the winner necessarily deprives the loser of something it is desirable the loser have? A medal for winning a race does not deprive the loser of anything the loser needs or ought to have. However, if the winner gains great wealth or necessary accessibility from winning and the loser is deprived of an adequate income or accessibility because of it, it is competition with an undesirable prize. If there is a housing shortage and inexpensive apartment on a desirable location is torn down and a luxury tower built by a developer that won the competition bidding for the lot on which they are built the competition is undesirable.
Has the winner won by unfairly capturing something to which the lower has equal or better claim? Is it the result of a taking by force, or by exploitation in which the winner makes a profit by the exploitation of the labor of the loser? The definition of “unfair” or “equal” claim may then be debated, but if it is a greed taking advantage of a housing shortage to charge a rent unaffordable to the tenant, then the landlord winning the contest for the value of lease is undesirable.
—————–
[1] This blog was clearly inspired by Donald Trump ’ frequent divsion of people into winners and losers “ “There are two kinds […] of people. Winners aren’t losers. They’re winners … like me [Trump].” https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2015/12/17/kimmel-ghostwrites-book-trump-winners-arent-losers/77468060/
[2] See Blog #102, forthcoming, for Neo-Lib and Alternative meanings of the word.

[For related discussion, see, at : pmarcuse.wordpress.com:
Blog #98 – Winning and Losing as Political Language
Blog #100 – Competition and Socially Desirable Winners and Losers
And, forthcoming, Blog #102 – Neo-Lib Language — The Hidden Politics of Word Usage