5 Tons of Flax

What the deuce!

City layout and the masculine & feminine in American politics

Posted by Jon on 15 June, 2007

Glenn Greenwald has another insightful post discussing conservative pundits and the implicit homoerotic tendencies in their speech. The reader comments have some interesting follow-on discussion.

Along with James Burke (see previous posts) others thinkers who have enormously influenced my view of the world are Jane Jacobs, Jung and Campbell. Jacobs writes about the society and economy of cities in a more insightful manner than anyone else I have encountered (and, I think, often misunderstood even by some of her apparent disciples, but that is another post).

One of the insights offered by people like C.J. Jung and Joseph Campbell is that the hero myth is the universal myth because it is a guideline about how one lives and grows. It takes many forms, because people obviously live in many different physical and cultural environments, but it always involves the need to overcome challenges and grow into a more capable, complete person. As part of the complete hero myth, the hero (male or female) must come to terms with symbols of masculinity and femininity – the strict masculine-as-destroyer/conqueror; the masculine-as-protector; the feminine-as-lifegiver/nurturer/protector; and the feminine-as-seductress. This is why Odysseus, for example, upon returning to his beseiged home, proceeds to slaughter dozens of people (destroyer and protector at once), and beds Calypso and Circe on the course of his journey home to Penelope (reconciliation with both seductress and mother). We all contain both the masculine and feminine, and must integrate them. These traits are paradoxical only when viewed through a falsely dualistic worldview.

One point Jacobs makes, in Death and Life of Great American Cities is this: Jacobs discusses how in functional cities children play (among other places) on streets and sidewalks. Idealist town planners believe this is undesirable, and seek to give children a “safe place” to play, such as a park or a playground. But Jacobs argues that streets and sidewalks, in mixed use communities, have lots of eyes on them, from people walking and living their lives, which must either be replicated through hired help or done without when you seek to relocate children to “child-safe spaces” – thus an isolated playground is more costly and less safe than the streets. Moreover (and this is where I’m going with the relationship to Greenwald’s analysis of punditry):

The lesson that city dwellers have to take responsibility for what goes on in city streets is taught again and again to children on sidewalks which enjoy a local public life. They can absorb it astonishingly early. They show they have absorbed it by taking it for granted that they, too, are part of the management. They volunteer (before they are asked) directions to people who are lost… The presence or absence of this kind of street bossiness in city children is a fairly good tip-off to the presence or absence of responsible adult behavior toward the sidewalk and the children who use it. The children are imitating adult attitudes. (p. 83)

Furthermore, in contrast to segregated-use communities such as the suburbs that now define American life:

Play on lively, diversifed sidewalks differs from virtually all other daily incidental play offered American children today: It is play not conducted in a matriarchy.
Most city architectural designers and planners are men. Curiously, they design and plan to exclude men as a part of normal, daytime life wherever people live. In planning residential life, they aim at filling the presumed daily needs of impossibly vacuous housewives and preschool tots. They plan, in short, strictly for matriarchal societies….
Placing work an commerce near residneces, but buffering it off, in the tradition set by Garden City theory, is fully as matriarchal an arragement as if the residences were miles away from work and from men. Men are not an abstraction. They are either around, in person, or they are not….
The opportunity (in modern life it has become a privilege) of playing and growing up in a daily world composed of both men and women is possible and usual for children who play on lively, diversified sidewalks [but not in segregated-use areas] (p. 83-84).

More and more of America is constructed as either a strict matriarchy or strict patriarchy. (This is true despite the influx of women into the workforce – this has not made the traditional domain of men become matriarchal, is has simply depopulated the matriarchal realm to some degree and increased the population of a the patriarchical realm).

Given the post-WW2 model of city construction – segregated uses, car-oriented and spread out – children spend their lives switching between matriarchy and patriarchy, but little of it in a truly mixed environment which teaches them a more balanced integration of the masculine and feminine tendencies of which we are all composed (see also this article about children no longer “roaming” as they once did).

Given that, the now common use of “mommy party” and “daddy party” for Dems and Reps. becomes very understandable. To a person whose childhood, adolescence – and even adulthood – lacked an integrated environment (as is the case with the massive wave of suburban baby boomers who now hold the positions of power and punditry as a generational bloc) masculine and feminine are distinct and segregated principles. The concept of a person as strong and nurturing, as capable of self-defense and capable of self-restraint, as not merely balancing but transcending the dichtomy of “hard” and “soft”, is anathema to a non-integrated personality. This, I’m arguing, can be seen as at least partly a result of segregated-use environments. It makes perfect sense that such a person views the world as having to choose either masculine or feminine, either “Police State-Daddy” or “Nanny State-Mommy”. It also makes sense that our politics has adapted to this social milieu by offering two parties, each of which takes one side of our personalities to excess because it lacks balance.

Finally, Jung and others point out how lack of balance and integration will cause people to compensate by self-denial and self-destruction. That, of course, is what many of the comments to the Greenwald article are discussing. But I think Jacob’s discussion of city layout on the masculine and feminine lends us some understanding of why the tendency to take one trait to excess (which has been with humanity forever, as McCarthy and others show) has reached a level of absurdity today; we have built a physical environment in which most of the population lacks the natural opportunity to experience examples and practice (from childhood onward) integration of these traits.

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