More Basic than the Culture Wars: when communities collapse

In a recent article on his Via Media blog, Walter Russell Mead highlights a development getting little attention in the mainstream media: the collapse of the once great city of Detroit amid decades of economic transition, incompetent management, and corrupt government.

The latest scandal, which leaves even hardened observers of the abysmal Democratic machine that has run the city into the ground bemused, involves a real estate firm which gave the felonious mayor massages, golf outings, trips in chartered jets and other perks as this enemy of the people went about his hypocritical business of pretending to care about the poor while robbing them blind. The firm, apparently run by a sleazy low class crook named by the reprehensible Kilpatrick to be the Treasurer of what was left of Detroit’s finances, used Detroit pension funds to buy a couple of California strip malls. Title to the properties was never transferred to the pension funds, and they seem to be out $3.1 million.

Mead wonders why this story has received so little attention.

I honestly don’t know why there is so little national outrage about this despicable crew and the terrible damage they have done. The ultimate victims of the crime are Detroit’s poor and the middle class and lower middle class, mostly African-American municipal workers who may face serious financial losses in old age.

As he points out, this is a catastrophe that transcends the divide between left and right, and it should be taken seriously by concerned Americans of both political parties.

There is something profoundly wrong with an American political culture that accepts chronic misgovernment in major cities as OK. It is not OK; the people who do these things may call themselves liberal Democrats and wear the mantle of defenders of the poor, but over and over their actions place them among the most cold blooded enemies and oppressors of the weak.

American cities have been festering pits of graft and bad governance since at least the early 19th century, but there is a difference between the “honest graft” of Tammany Hall and the nihilistic destruction practiced by some of today’s urban machines. Today’s situation, in which some city machines are so dysfunctional that the parasite is literally killing the host (and not just in Detroit), is new and, again, the most vulnerable in our society suffer the worst consequences. Minority children are the greatest ultimate victims of this loathsome corruption: they attend horrible schools and grow up in decaying, unsafe urban landscapes where there is no growth, no jobs and no opportunity for the young.

To be sure, Detroit is a city that has long been run by the Democratic Party alone. But as Mead points out, the culprits in Detroit use party and political theory as a cover, not as guide. Today the great tragedy takes place in the Democrats’ backyard. Tomorrow it might show up in that of the Republicans.

The lead article posted by the Drudge Report this morning shows just how bad things have become in Detroit. Posted in Bloomberg, the article explains:

Detroit whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

This step may not be unprecedented but it is certainly not normal. For people and businesses in the areas that will lose their funding, the results are disastrous.

A single, broken streetlight on the northeast side brings fear to Cynthia Perry, 55. It hasn’t worked for six years, Perry said in an interview on the darkened sidewalk where she walks from her garage to her house entrance.

“I’m afraid coming in at night,” she said. “I’m not going to seclude myself in the house and never go anywhere.”

Jamahl Makled, 40, said he’s owned businesses in southwest Detroit for about two decades, most recently cell-phone stores. He said they’ve have been burglarized more than a dozen times.

“In the dark, criminals are comfortable,” Makled said. “It’s not good for the economy and the safety of the residents.”

Of course, most of us can’t do anything about the problems in the city of Detroit, even if we were interested enough to follow the details of the story. But colossal messes like Detroit should remind us that there are elements of justice and basic governance even more important to daily life than the hot-points of the culture wars. These are elements that transcend party and ideology and have to do with essential principles of accountability, common sense, and order. The main reason why we need to approach politics in a spirit of love and cooperation – rather than bitterness and conquest – is because at the most basic level, we need to keep our communities running. That, not inaugurating the kingdom of God, is the primary task of government.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 25, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on More Basic than the Culture Wars: when communities collapse.

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