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The Creation of Culture


On This Week, with George Stephanopoulos conservative columnist George Will criticized the suggestion that state or federal help in investing in Detroit could pull the city out of its economic crisis, claiming that federal assistance, in his words, “[c]an’t solve the problems, because their problems are cultural.”

According to Will, “You have a city, 139 square miles, you can graze cattle in vast portions of it, dangerous herds of feral dogs roam in there. Three percent of fourth graders reading at the national math (sic) standards, 47 percent of Detroit residents are functionally illiterate, 79 percent of Detroit children are born to unmarried mothers. They don’t have a fiscal problem, they have a cultural collapse.”

Shrinking from a population of around 2 million in the mid-nineteen-sixties to barely over 700,000 currently, 83% of whom are African-American, Detroit has dropped from the United States’ fourth largest city to its eighteenth. Only two auto plants remain in the city. The median household income of $27,000 in Detroit is approximately half of that in the state of Michigan as a whole, which itself ranks 34th among the states. The jobless rate is close to 30% and the poverty rate is nearly 40%. A quarter of the population never graduated from high school and only 12% have college degrees. The police force of 2,700 officers is down from nearly 4,000 ten years ago. The  rate of violent crime  in Detroit is the highest in the country among large cities.

The arguments will continue as to whether Detroit represents the future of the American city, or at least the American industrial city (Flint, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toledo, Chicago, Milwaukee, Akron) of the old Rust Belt. At the least it represents a symptom of the woes of big American cities in which manufacturing has left—not just jobs, but the all-important taxes from the employers— and from which affluent residents, and their property taxes,  have fled to the suburbs.

George Will is seeking to affix blame for Detroit’s woes and he clearly blames its citizens. That seems to me to be blaming the victims. I’m not sure who is to blame for Detroit’s circumstances, although fingers have been pointed in enough directions (politicians, the auto industry, city workers and pensioners) that the fault is surely multi-determined. One thing is sure however: Detroit represents a cultural failure.

A recent article in Boston Review by Jess Row examined the focus of many white writers in America (Richard Ford being a prime example) on seeking a safe, suburban or exurban community where matters of identity, conscience, existence, etc. could be examined against a backdrop  of what for those writers is traditional (White) American culture. The plight or even existence of a Black or Hispanic urban population has been studiously ignored by these writers… as it has by the rest of White America.

The cultural problem we live with in this country is a division between rich and poor, which often coincides with a division between White and Black or Brown. Those who are not doing well in our society; those who are undereducated, un- or underemployed, those who are not safe in their neighborhoods, those who require government assistance to have enough to eat, are unrepresented and uncared for. Not only do the country’s intellectuals ignore them, but so do the politicians, who rant about the “middle-class” but ignore the truly poor, who preach the dire consequences of the country borrowing more money than it can easily repay but ignore those who haven’t got enough money to live, who proclaim “family values” but ignore social circumstances that destroy families, who serve the super-rich—the group that has increased its relative income by nearly 20% while the rest of America has remained stagnant or drifted backwards—and who are more concerned with abortion issues, the profits of health insurance companies, the defeat of fundamentalist Islam, than the fabric of American culture… all of America and all of its culture.

George Will is right that Detroit represents a failure of culture, but it is the culture of which he is a  part which has failed, not the culture of the victims of that failure. (For a glimpse of the culture which exists in the Detroit area—actually Flint, MI—read Randall Mawer’s review of Gordon Young’s  Teardown in this  issue of Lost Coast Review)

The Editor





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