Saturday, January 06, 2007

On Tolerance

The irony isn’t lost on me that New York was once called New Amsterdam. The evidence is everywhere that NY has more in common with a European city than the rest of America. That is why I could write months ago that even though I’m not an American citizen, nor do I live in the states permanently that I am a New Yorker. Even by European standards the New York Metropolis is quite striking for its tolerance. In fact I’ll go out on a shaky limb and say that New York is even more tolerant than European cities, where the absence of overt racism and disenfranchisement causes far more insidious and subtle versions to endure. My Brit friends raise unholy hell when I mention this (and there is the fact that I’ve never been to London), but they are always struck dumb when I mention that New York’s terrorists were at least imported, not born and raised natives of their own city. Instead New York flies all freak flags at full mast, glorifying her melting pot magnificence, patting herself on the back for tolerating all manner of kinds on the subway, including the less than sane. There is really no place on earth like it.

This is also a problem that New Yorkers in their sometime blindness don’t recognize. When tolerance is elevated to the highest moral value it creates as many problems as solutions. Lord knows tolerance is better than bigotry, but this is also the laziest of solutions, a beginning treated too often like an ending; a way of doing nothing that reassures us that we have done something. Diversity is of course a wonderful starting point but tolerant societies mistake this for a goal. This creates a whole slew of problems, nowhere better seen than in New York.

Enter gentrification. But not in the way you might think. Concerned citizens watching New York’s boroughs becoming split between only the very rich and the very poor have demanded housing that reflects greater economic diversity. But this move not only fails to solve the problem but also fools us into thinking that we have solved it. Housing may be set aside for the poor but where are the good, affordable schools to educate their children? Where is solid childcare, health and wealth benefits, and job security—anything that would usher the poor into the middle class? A maid may find an apartment near Central Park South but if she can never afford NYU then she and her daughter will remain maids. And let’s look at the plight of the incredible shrinking middle class for a second. Nothing proves the healthy mobility of a society more than a vibrant middle, the existence of which means the poor are getting richer and the teachers, civil servants, police and firemen are finding opportunities for economic and social stability. But the middle class is going the way of the mastodon in New York, a move that will have its backlash as soon as the state remembers that this is the class that pays all the taxes. In the absence of a vibrant middle there is the stagnant poor. Tolerance, far from a force of social change has become instead, a tool of human resource development departments, two or three lines at the bottom of a recruitment ad, nothing more. This is not progress.

The fact is liberals are to a commanding extent well educated, if not always well paid (and that’s relative, people). Liberals are also and have always been afflicted with a case of blind snobbery that would be offensive were it not well meaning. Take for example the film Borat. Liberals had more problems with it than conservatives. Critics, while lauding the dark humour also expressed concern that Borat’s flagrant anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism may have been misinterpreted as endorsements by “Middle America”. Here again a well-meaning concern betrays the damning cultural snobbery that liberals are frequently (and correctly) accused of, the type of that led Chuck D to exclaim in 1988, “Better a Klansman than a liberal.” Where is this American who is so backward that he would not get this type of joke? I’m not saying that he does not exist, but what about the many Americans, millions who are not New York liberals, who consider themselves open-minded, but was just slotted into an unsavory geographical stereotype without their consent? Again, without realizing it, the liberal has declared himself more intelligent than so-called Middle America and offends the very populace he thinks he’s defending. The “I am smart enough to get it, but my backward brothers will not,” logic. The Dixie Chicks were so lionized as victims that nobody noticed when they turned into antagonists, alienating potentially supportive women such as Reba McIntire and dismissing many of their devout fans as backward rednecks that they never wanted in the first place.

And what is a Middle American anyway? I’ve met farmers if Ashland, Oregon and they are nothing at all like the farmers I met in Florida. Most people I’ve met have no problem with a man willing his property to another man even they don’t like the idea of gay marriage. Most of them believe in God but not religion and most have no problem with abortion. And even if some are conservative or even racist as we often believe, isn’t it a greater offence to simply write the whole territory off as one kind of creature? And yet the more tolerant breed of American does this all the time. Nobody in Middle America calls himself a Middle American, at least nobody I met.

Tolerance is a cop-out, a positive value with no emotional quality. It is hence quite easy, so easy that what most of us think is tolerance is not even that. Case in point. Go back to the beginning of this blog; replace tolerance with Apathy and you will notice that the tone of the article has not changed one bit. Tolerance is a quick way to reach for diversity without ever admitting that diversity is not equality. Racial equality is wonderful but when only 3 percent of that race can afford a good education, it means nothing more than a guaranteed seat on the subway. Because tolerance is a first move mistaken for a final step it reinforces far more serious problems than the ones it fixes.

The poor don’t need you to hold their hand and sing kumbaya. They need opportunities to become less poor and more rich. By the way society moves two things might happen: The poor become wealthier, a restored middle class that will need a new set of economic opportunities that the city has yet to provide. Or the poor are given nothing and the lack of opportunities despite social diversity will create societal fissures that explode, sometimes on a national scale. London’s terrorists were homegrown after all and the Rodney king beating, trial and riots happened in LA, not Alabama.