Thinking for ourselves
Fact, fiction and the assault on democracy
By Shea Howell
August 10-17, 2013
Week 18 of the occupation
The majority of Detroiters are outraged over Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s latest utterance. By now most of the city knows that in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Detroit Emergency Manger (DEM) Orr claimed much of “Detroit’s dysfunction” is “ due to simple complacency. For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich.” This statement has justly sparked protests and demands for an apology.
Bill Nowling, the spokesperson for the DEM, tried to explain the whole thing away saying, “I believe Kevyn Orr was speaking about the attitude of the body politic of the city of Detroit, not Detroiters themselves. And, I am pretty sure that history, both recent and ancient, bears out such a comment.”
As outrageous as DEM Orr’s comments are, Nowling’s explanation deserves serious attention. His attack on the “body politic” and his effort to separate it from the people of the city, are part of an ongoing counter-revolutionary assault on the very idea of democracy.
Nowling’s comment reveals the underlying ideological position that he, Mr. Orr, Governor Snyder, the corporate-foundation elite, and most of the mainstream press hold about Detroit, about people of color, and about all those who live within the heart of urban America.
According to their way of thinking, the people are the reason democracy is dead. The fact that we have participated in making decisions about our own lives has become evidence to the ruling elite that we cannot be trusted. This is because the decisions we have made are unacceptable to them.
These decisions reflect the political choices of Detroiters to provide living wages for people; to ensure modest pensions for our elders; to tax ourselves to fund schools, libraries, parks, and art; and to ensure that people providing services to the city live here. These decisions are all deemed “irrational,” signs we are “incompetent,” and given to “magical thinking.” Even the watered-down notions of representative democracy have become too radical for the elite.
Thus we have national columnists like George Will comparing us to insects, saying our “bedraggled city’s decay” poses “worrisome questions about the viability of democracy.” He proclaims that, “Self government has failed in Detroit. We “died of democracy.” This is because of the collusion between our “political class” and the “docile voters who empowered it.”
This assault on democracy has a clear strategy. Disrespect. Disparage. Destroy. Dismantle. It begins with the effort to disrespect the people, by labeling them, “docile, disinterested, or dumb” This is followed by a disparagement of all those who hold or seek public office. Then, having eroded confidence in the people and their candidates, legal fictions destroy the framework of local decision making. Ultimately, the elite intend to dismantle the city, not only of its assets, but as a political entity.
Local pundits aid this effort. Nolan Finley recently disrespected people saying, “You can’t tell the truth and get elected mayor of Detroit.” He said, “Voters obviously expect candidates to pander to their worst instincts, to indulge their takeover conspiracy theories, to beat the tar out of the white bogeyman.” He disparaged all candidates offering the following descriptions: oddballs, cranks, quixotic dreamers, buffoonish bully, nutty, certifiable crackpots, frothing, loud, angry, and crazy.
Finley’s frequent companion, Stephen Henderson. is given to less enthusiastic but equally assaulting views. He simply claims that those who disagree with him are being ruled by ‘fiction” and “fooling ourselves.”
Detroiters are becoming increasingly aware of the dimensions of this assault on democracy and are finding new ways to educate ourselves and organize resistance. A week after the polls close Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) will hold a People’s Forum on August 17 beginning at 9:30 am at the Samaritan Center. It is a good opportunity to engage with others to invent new democratic practices in our town.