PART 1—THE YEAR OF GOING TRIBAL: In 1961, Gidget went Hawaiian.
Following suit, the liberal world went a bit tribal this year, following the conservative world down a long, dumb rabbit-hole.
As an example of what we mean, consider the fortunes of Benton Harbor, a small lakefront city in Michigan which was recently profiled, at length, in the New York Times Sunday magazine.
Benton Harbor is in a world of hurt. It’s a worst-case example of crumbling urban America in a stagnating, plutocrat-driven age. In his long profile of the city, Jonathan Mahler described the state of play in Benton Harbor; what follows is just one brief excerpt. “Harris” is Joseph Harris, the city's '”emergency manager:”
MAHLER (12/18/11): Benton Harbor's problems begin and end with the city's chronic joblessness, which has not only crushed the spirit of generations of residents but also destroyed the town's tax base. Delinquency is also a major issue in Benton Harbor: at least 20 percent of its residents can't, or don't, pay their city bills. Harris recently combined the town's trash and water bills in the hope that residents will pay their garbage bills to avoid having their water shut off.Oof. With Benton Harbor in disarray, Harris was put in charge of the city in April 2010. Here is Mahler’s account of the law under which Harris became the city’s emergency manager, a law which was toughened this year:
Making matters worse, two of the town's key income sources are drying up. A state revenue-sharing program dating back to the 1930s is being decimated by ongoing state budget cuts, while a neighboring town that has long purchased its water from Benton Harbor—accounting for half of its water revenues—just finished building its own water-treatment facility. To offset the loss of at least some of these revenues, Harris is planning to raise water rates as much as 40 percent for Benton Harbor residents.
But the erosion of Benton Harbor's underlying finances has been accompanied by a history of almost farcical mismanagement. Between 2000 and 2010, no fewer than five city administrators filed whistleblower lawsuits against the city, claiming that they had lost their jobs after raising questions about how the elected officials were running the government. Most were settled out of court, costing the city—or its insurers, anyway—a total of more than $2 million.
The latest plaintiff was Richard Marsh, Benton Harbor's city manager from March 2008 to September 2009, who claimed that the city commission had declined to renew his contract after he went public with the findings of an independent internal audit and requested an F.B.I. investigation of the government's management of the city. Marsh settled with Benton Harbor for $192,000, but the state subsequently sent its own financial review team to the town, which in turn led to Harris's appointment in April 2010.
MAHLER: Harris is Benton Harbor's "emergency manager." He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor Snyder and the state's Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor's approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. Snyder has even made it clear that Detroit is a strong candidate for takeover.This is not the normal way of doing things in this country, though it’s true that state take-overs of this general type are not unique to Michigan. But Mahler provided a gruesome portrait of the problems in Benton Harbor which underlay this approach. If you want to ponder the lives of people caught in America’s poverty zones, we suggest you read Mahler’s report, which you may find depressing.
Benton Harbor sounds like a depressing place—unless you watch the Rachel Maddow Show, which has sometimes served as ground zero in the tribalization of us on the pseudo-left.
Back in April, Maddow cast Benton Harbor as the star of a stirring morality play. If you want to relive the bathos, we suggest that you read the transcripts of Maddow’s programs from April 18 (click here) and April 19 (click this), programs in which Maddow told the tale in a way designed to please our tribe.
Maddow mentioned Benton Harbor’s dysfunction, but she focused on its “one cherished jewel.” The violins began to play as she started crafting her tale:
MADDOW (4/18/11): Benton Harbor has not got much besides heartache. But it has always had this one wonderful communal asset, one cherished jewel of the community. It’s called Jean Klock Park, with a beach right on Lake Michigan for the people of Benton Harbor. The park was a gift to the town in 1917 from John Nellis Klock, who founded the local newspaper and who served as Benton Harbor mayor.For what it’s worth, that beautiful, beautiful story-telling just isn’t “journalism.” At any rate, Maddow went on for two nights in this lachrymose manner, discussing the little jewel on the big windswept lake and the efforts by mustachio-twirling villains to take it away. Warning: The full story is rather complex; it involves conduct by corporate America as well as by Michigan’s Republican governor. Read those transcripts if you dare—or read Mahler’s lengthy report about this complex mess.
The Klocks named the park after a daughter they had lost as a baby, Baby Jean. They told the town when they gave the beach, quote, "The beach is yours. The drive is yours. The dunes are yours, all yours. It is not so much a gift from my wife and myself, it is a gift from a little child. See to it that the park is the children’s."
And for nearly 100 years after that, Jean Klock Park remains a place people went for baptisms and picnics, to pass a summer's night, to teach their kids to swim, to fish, to build sand castles on the Lake Michigan shore. This beautiful, beautiful park was their place.
At any rate, Benton Harbor made for an excellent story on the Maddow Show. And sure enough—various factual errors by Maddow had made the tale that much sweeter! A few days later, Julie Mack offered a bit of a rebuttal. We think her column was one of the most interesting texts of the past year.
Mack is a columnist for the Kalamazoo Gazette. She’s also an unabashed Maddow fan, or so she said in the column which pointed out the factual errors Maddow had made. If you want to review the mistakes, we’ll suggest that you read the whole column. But here’s how Mack ended her piece:
MACK (4/21/11): I like Rachel Maddow. In fact, she's so well-known in my household that she's simply known as "Rachel." I understand her concerns with the new emergency financial manager law, the commercialization of parkland, the ways corporate America can run roughshod over community interests.Ouch. Mack’s column carried this headline: “The facts in Benton Harbor get in the way of a good story for Rachel Maddow.”
But as the story of Benton Harbor shows, these issues are much, much more complicated than good versus evil. What's worse for Benton Harbor: A financial manager with dictatorial powers or an utterly dysfunctional city government? Are Benton Harbor residents better served by 90 acres of parkland, or 68 acres and a new source of revenue for cash-strapped city coffers? Is it insensitive to build an upscale development in a downtrodden community, as Maddow suggests? Or does it show that the business community hasn't turned its back on Benton Harbor?
Are there reasons to be upset about what's happening in Benton Harbor? Absolutely. But are Maddow's villains really the villains here? Or are they serving as useful props to score political points? It's interesting that in accusing Republicans and Whirlpool of exploiting a vulnerable community to serve their own agenda, Maddow does the very same thing.
As Mack explained, Maddow had mistaken some basic facts as she told the pleasing tale of the cherished jewel on the big blue lake. In typical fashion, Maddow saluted Mack’s column as “thoughtful and smart,” while failing to mention the errors Mack had corrected (click here). But it was Mack’s larger view that stuck in our heads, not her correction of a set of mistaken or massaged facts.
Benton Harbor shouldn’t be used as a tool for telling a pleasing tale, even if the pleasing tale is designed to please us liberals. That was the point Mack made in her piece, which we revisited after reading the New York Times story.
How bad is Michigan’s emergency manager law? That’s a very good question; it deserves a careful review. In the Times, Mahler reviewed various perspectives on the Benton Harbor mess, which is complex and daunting. But here’s our question:
Do we liberals still want a world in which complex problems get careful review? Or do we prefer the silly shit too—the silly, feel-good stories? Whatever the answer, we recommend Mack’s column, which doesn’t attempt to solve the ongoing riddle of Benton Harbor.
We thought Mack showed good solid sense. As this past year unfolded, we increasingly wondered: Does our tribe still want that?
Tomorrow’s memorable text: A column by two professors