Demonization: Single-family homeowners are deplorables, especially Palo Altans | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Demonization: Single-family homeowners are deplorables, especially Palo Altans

Uploaded: May 26, 2019

I have been attempting to produce a summary of the positions and arguments on the collection of bills in the California State Legislature advertised as responses to the "housing shortage". However, many of the arguments of the advocates of the bills demonize the opponents as being "racist", "immoral", ... In regional and national media stories, we Palo Altans are frequently cited as prime examples of this.

In the Public Comment section of the May 6th Joint Councils Study Session (^video (@22:56)^) these smears were used and objected to. I found that my draft blog was taking too many detours in response to the demonization and decided that this needed to be separated out and addressed first. And then it broadened to be more general.

Although the most prominent of these bills-- SB 50 -- was just taken off the table for this year, others are still moving forward. Regardless of what happens, the public debate is likely to continue uninterrupted. Hence my decision to publish this now.

Demonization is obstructionism: If you decide to demonize the opposition -- and often the undecided -- you announce that questions and criticism will be met with denunciations. That you will not hear of flaws in your proposal, of situations you neglected to consider nor serious impacts on others. You announce that you aren't interested in a good solution, only in your solution. Debate is irrelevant -- it is only a matter of raw power.

For those targeted by demonization, it is inadvisable to enter into any agreement that doesn't have a strong guarantor, and sometimes not even then. The other party will act in bad faith whenever they can -- they hold you in contempt and their sense of moral superiority over you enables them to justify immoral actions against you.

Not trickle-down from national politics, although that and the local situation may have a "common ancestor". Palo Alto saw this demonization in the 2012-2013 conflict over the Maybell rezoning, and as a significant part of both the 2014 and 2016 City Council election campaigns. The decision of the housing advocates to try to bully their way to approval for Maybell generated so much grassroots opposition that they lost a referendum, contrary to all expectations of the local political establishment. For examples and details, see my 2016-09-22 blog "^The 'You're despicable' style of politics^".

Please, no finger-pointing: If you follow national news, you may see parallels to current events. While reflecting on that may be valuable to yourself, avoid the temptation to comment on it here. The national situation is so polarized and partisan that any such comments are likely to only trigger finger-pointing by the various "tribes", followed by shouting back and forth at each other. So please think carefully about whether a comment involving such a point is likely to be a productive addition to the discussion.

Wealthy Homeowners are cited by the housing advocates as the primary force obstructing the massive amounts of new housing they want. And just who are these selfish, immoral obstructionists? Here in Palo Alto they include the owners of Eichlers and similar single-family homes who have large mortgages and high property tax bills. These same advocates strongly support measures that have been pointed out as providing large indirect subsidies to big developers and large-scale property owners. So ... the middle class has too much wealth, and the wealthy not enough??

Suburbs and single-family zoning are inherently racist?? People who pay attention to politics may wave off accusations of "racism" as the current go-to generic invective by Progressives and the Far Left -- employed when they don't have a competent argument for their position, don't care about others' perspectives and situations, or simply for bullying others. However, for some, this is not a tactic but an ideological belief that racism was responsible for the creation of suburbs and that single-family zoning is "exclusionary", that is, designed to exclude all non-Whites because (supposedly) only Whites are able to afford single-family homes. Really, that is their argument! There are movements in multiple states to outlaw R1 zoning (term "R1" = Residential, one house per property). Several speakers during the Public Comments of the City Council Study Session seemed to voice this position. (foot#1) My experience is that this belief is resistant to facts and replicated scientific studies. (foot#2) (foot#3) (foot#4) Ideology provides a "safe space" for those that are unwilling or unable to engage with the complexity of the real world.

Working backward from the dogma that suburbs and R1 are racist ... allows advocates to dismiss very real concerns about their proposals as simply being excuses meant as cover for the underlying racism of their opponents. Parents can't truly be concerned about the quality of the schools or of the safety of their children bicycling to and from school. Community members can't possibly be worried about
- traffic congestion and parking,
- over-loaded public facilities and infrastructure,
- open space, such as parks, being converted to housing (more likely some housing over offices).
Nah. It must be racism.

----My background/journey----

For people my age -- over-60s -- this may provoke memories to pass on to the next generation. For younger adults, these events may nothing more than dry words in a history book, or not even part of the school curriculum. For those who immigrated here for college or after, this may help you connect the experiences of your previous country to the teachings and experiences of those who grew up in the US. Recognize that you may have been desensitized by the nastiness of social media, online discussion groups and comment sections on videos and news articles.

^McCarthyism^ was still a recent memory when I started paying attention to politics during high school in the latter 1960s. Accounts of that period would come up during discussions of its multiple remnants, such as the characterization of the Civil Rights movement as Communist subversion and the "America! Love it or leave it!" attitude toward Vietnam War opponents. And the resulting violence from both sides.

In college, I saw the other extreme: The Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist. That experience confirmed and reinforced what I had read about the inevitable evils of such ideologies. During one long gap between speakers during a rally, I lucked upon someone who was explaining the trivial, but essential, differences between the 5-10 Marxist groups present, including two very different ^Rosa Luxemburg^ factions, both of which saw themselves as providing the ^vanguard^ of the "Revolution" -- rejecting Luxemburg's rejection of the importance of such a vanguard. While those details might make for a difficult version of the game ^Trivial Pursuit^ aimed at academic political scientists, the lesson for me from this fracturing was a demonstration of how intolerant the Far Left was of minor deviations from orthodoxy -- on the scale of their orthodoxy being effectively a non-theistic religion. This lesson has been reinforced repeatedly over the years, especially during the last decade.

McCarthyism and ...: My high school curriculum included civic indoctrination on the evils of McCarthyism, with the play ^The Crucible^ being a common drama production for high schools.
Note: "Indoctrination" is not a negative term.(foot#5)
For students on the academic track, books about the Stalinist terror were on the suggested reading lists. And Mao's ^Red Guards^ (1966-1967) were current events.

The novel ^1984^ is a must-read for the concepts and terminology of its dystopian world, but the actual story is at best mediocre. Its vocabulary is increasingly appearing in what I read.

Civic indoctrination about the potential of great evil from false accusations began earlier. The most memorable for me was James Thurber's fable "The Very Proper Gander" (1939). (foot#6) The fable is about the phrase "Proper Gander" being misheard by an "old hen" as the word "propaganda", triggering a string of false accusations, culminating in a mob driving the gander and his family out of town ("#BelieveAllChickens").

Today's common definition of McCarthyism is of the form "McCarthyism was the practice of investigating and accusing persons in positions of power or influence of disloyalty, subversion (working secretly to undermine or overthrow the government), or treason. Reckless accusations that the government was full of communists were pursued by Republican-led committees with subpoena power and without proper regard for evidence."(foot#7) This is much too restrictive. For example, it covers only those directly investigated by a Congressional Committee, with Hollywood writers receiving the most attention in popular culture (no surprise there). But the conduct of the committees spread much wider by creating norms elsewhere, creating a climate of anxiety, an inclination to keep your head down and to stay out of political activism, labor activism, pushing back at corporations, ...

Aside: Some of the seemingly falsely accused were, in fact, guilty of being Soviet agents, but the evidence was from decrypted messages and the US was trying to conceal that they had broken an extremely important Soviet code (see ^Venona Project^).

Fears of guilt by association -- being declared a "fellow traveler" -- was one of the tools to persuade people to shun those who challenged the elites.
Aside: China's developing Social Credit System updates this using social networking to cloud-source the repression of dissidents.

Becoming a suspect took very little (Aside: this arbitrariness is a key component of authoritarianism). For example, attending a Communist Party USA rally in the mid-1930s to hear about the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe or simply to impress a girl.

The press largely collaborated with McCarthy and his ilk: The journalist ^Edward R. Murrow^'s broadcast about McCarthy is widely cited as being a turning point, and most people assume that the rest of the press was similarly opposing McCarthyism. Wrong. Much of the press actively promoted McCarthyism and the false accusations. Why not, it sold newspapers and news magazines. Reportedly, members of the press corps covering Congress would gather in McCarthy's office at the end of the day for whiskey, cigars and the next day's headlines.

Corporate collaboration: When faced with an accusation against an employee, customer or supplier too many corporations took the easy route and summarily terminated the relationship. Although some corporations stood up to the pressure, that didn't matter: The uncertainty pushed people to avoid risks.

Regrets: In my speaking to parents and others who were adults during the peak years of McCarthyism, most saw it as very bad times. And there often seemed to be a sense of regret, although I don't know what they could have done to change what happened.

But there was also a lesson from those that defended McCarthyism: Their overblown fear of Communist subversion allowed them to justify ignoring fundamental American principles.

----Moderating Community Discussion Groups----

Participating in online discussion group where most of the participants were techies only partially prepared me for participating in and moderating general-community groups, such as my neighborhood's email lists and the Weekly's Town Square Forums. My biggest surprise came when I tried to encourage neighbors and other community members to participate. Most were unwilling to do so. Their reasons? They expected that their posting would be attacked unfairly. A shield of anonymity was not enough. Some worried that others might guess that they were the commenter, but the overwhelming reason was that although others would not know that they were the authors of the posts being attacked, they would know. And this was in the late 1990s and early 2000s when things weren't as vicious as today.

People who would have attended a physical town hall meeting and pushed back against bullies can be highly susceptible to bullying in online forums, both as participants and as merely readers.

----Being too fair can be unfair to everyone----

The most important lessons I learned in college courses were not in the course materials, but in the asides and other little stories from the professors. One such came from my Computer Operating Systems course in 1970. The professor (John J. Donovan) told the story of being called in as a consultant by a university computing center in response to its users complaining that their bills were much higher than at similar facilities. He found that the billing/accounting program was consuming roughly half of the CPU resources. He then found the program was tracking resource usage at a very fine scale, for example, a print job would be billed for the paper used and also the number of characters printed (ink ribbon usage and print chain wear). He recommended that they have a much simpler algorithm for billing, estimating from only a few measurements. The result was that all users were now being charged less, although different users saw different percentages less. Or at least that is the story he told.

The first lesson I took away was to pay attention to overheads, because they can dominate everything else. The second was that the facility had used the wrong version of fairness, defining it as relative to other users' jobs, rather than relative to the service provided.

----Summary----

Prior to Internet search engines and social media, accusations and demonization of people tended to spread slowly and not far, except for the special cases of the already famous or of very unusual events. Now, false accusations and reporting that gets the facts wrong or reversed persist. If the social media gods want you banned, someone can dig up a comment from 3-10 years ago and put a different spin on it.
"Show me the man and I'll find you the crime." - Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police under Stalin.

Censorship is not a solution to false accusations because the techniques are so unreliable: Too many false positives (legitimate accusations censored) and too many false negatives (false accusations classified as legitimate).

Mocking the person making the false accusation may be a marginal help, except that the people engaged in this behavior tend to exist in a filter bubble that protects them from such disdain. But I guess it is better than doing nothing, and doesn't leave you regretting that you didn't at least try.

----Footnotes----

1. Belief that suburbs are racist: Example from Council Study Session:
^@50:30^: "... Local control of housing and land-use has a century-long history of being used for exclusion: exclusion of the poor, exclusion of African Americans, exclusion of many other groups...."

2. Evidence contrary to suburbs having racist origins:
This belief seems based on suburbs being ^Levittown^-likedevelopments. The original Levittown (late 1940s) had 6000 houses in a planned community and Whites-only deed restrictions. However, suburbs came about in many other ways. Some grew in small increments, for example, a farmer subdividing his property and selling the undeveloped lots. Other suburbs started out as rural communities that transformed as cities expanded toward them. Housing further from the city -- especially unincorporated areas -- was typically less expensive. Current day Palo Alto is the result of many annexations of communities that were unincorporated areas(governed by the County). The current Ventura neighborhood had a large African-American population. Barron Park -- my neighborhood -- had many residents who were blue- and pink-collar workers, and still has some of those families.
Joseph Eichler -- the developer of large portions of Palo Alto -- was famously non-discriminatory(see section "Exclusionary Zoning" in my blog ^The "You're despicable" style of politics^ of 2016-09-22.

3. My childhood's purportedly "Lily White" suburb(somewhat self-indulgent):
My childhood home was in a semi-rural village (pop. 2500) in upstate New York, centered on a heavy manufacturing plant, with hamlets as its suburbs. It was also itself a suburb for a small city (pop. 20K) down the valley, which was also centered on heavy manufacturing, but had a research facility.
My neighborhood was a post-WW2 neighborhood expansion on the village's periphery, in sub-divided lots on previously marginal land(very steep hill, poisonous snakes). My parents were late arrivals and we wound up near the "big houses"of the General Manager of the local factory and some others. From kindergarten onward, my schools, classes and friends were multi-racial, mixed-race (Japanese and Pacific Islander war brides), from the rural poor and from a large -- for us -- trailer park. At least one of my teachers was Black: memorable because he taught French despite speaking it with a Deep South (Alabama?) accent.
At least one of the churches had a missionary activity in Latin American that included sponsoring families. My elementary school class (20-25 students?) and onward had a brother and sister from Honduras.
There were prominent Lebanese, one of whom was the longest serving mayor of the neighboring city and the area's top trial lawyer.
My father worked for the company down the valley (Corning Glass Works, now Corning). It was expanding into India, and was training the Indian managers and tech leads by cycling them through various US facilities. They socializing with the families of people in the hosting groups(such as my family). Later, Indian families moved into town, including the Hathwar family that produced two ^Joint Champions of the Scripps National Spell Bee in 2014 (Sriram) and 2016 (Jairam)^.
Growing up, none of this seemed unusual to me, only interesting. Then I went off to college and started encountering academics and what was then the "New Left".To them, my experiences were a delusion. I have encountered many others from similar environments suffering from the same delusions.
Meanwhile, students arriving from diverse, inclusive big cities came from such cocoons that they were unaware of the basics of multiculturalism beyond food. For example, many were unaware that different cultural groups have different interpersonal distance, and would persist in imposing theirs on others who were clearly uncomfortable with it.
This is not to say that racism didn't exist in these environments -- it most definitely did, but nowhere near the level academic papers and theory would have you believe.

4. Supposedly racist suburbs vs. scientific studies:
The conventional narrative of the post-WW2 movement from urban areas to suburbs is that many families now had the income to escape the dirt, noise and crime -- and accompanying stresses -- for a somewhat larger house with a small yard for the children to play in and more privacy.
The suburbs-are-racist narrative dismisses these reasons as a cover for racism. The cities that these new suburbanites were leaving are widely described as being very segregated, often not only racially, but ethnically (Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, ...).So how can a desire for segregation be the cause for leaving segregated neighborhoods??
Multiple studies have found that mental health problems are sharply higher in cities than in suburbs. But that is only correlation, not evidence of causation. Noise is a major stressor -- people talk of immense relief upon exiting noisy environments -- and long-term stress has been found to have a significant impact on mental and physical health. Air pollution has been found to affect not just physical health, but mental.
There are a wide range of studies finding positive effects of exposure to nature on physical and mental health. This subfield took off with research credited to Roger Ulrich, and especially his research on outcomes for hospital patients (1972-1981) that found that those patients who had a view of greenery instead of a wall had faster recovery time and fewer complications. There had been numerous earlier studies involving animal proxies that had been highly suggestive of these results.
There are multiple studies finding that a break from work involving a walk in nature has mentally restorative effects, more so than simple exercise, such as walking on sidewalks in a parking lot. Aside:I haven't seen anything that tries to quantify "nature", such as is a lawn with traditional border flowers enough? What role does size and configuration play?
Housing prices have been used as a measure of how much people value a view of nature. One starting place is "^New market for developers: homebuyers want view of woods, not large lawns^", The University of Michigan press release, 2004-06-28. Note: Links to the research articles are broken -- the researcher moved to another university -- but this press release provides web search terms that produce related and subsequent work on this topic.
Note: Some of this was discussed in an earlier blog "^Housing Policy: It's community, not generational^" (2015-10-20).

5. Indoctrination is not a negative term:
"Indoctrination" is simply the teaching of doctrine, although it is often used as a euphemism for forcibly changing people's beliefs. When "doctrine" is mentioned,many people think of religious doctrine:The set of beliefs of a religion. But for civic indoctrination, the relevant analogue is military doctrine. For example, the US Army's Training and Doctrine Command develops the curriculum and training materials. This consolidation of lessons-learned and theories for handling of evolving situations not only makes units more effective in their own operations, but creates a base of shared expectations to facilitate cooperation and coordination. Units learn what they should expect of other units and what other units should be able to expect of them (their duty to the larger operation).
Similarly, civic indoctrination is the difference between a crowd of independent actors and a society whose members can leverage off each other to create something that is better for themselves and for the whole society.

6. The Very Proper Gander: In the 1939-02-04 issue of The New Yorker and republished in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (1940).

7. McCarthyism definition source:
"^The Cold War Home Front: McCarthyism^" by Michael Burns.
I chose this definition because it is the cited source of the ^definition used in Wikipedia^and thus likely to be representative of definitions used by others.


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An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.


----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.

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