The Monument Debate: A Good Use for Disorder

Blog by John Crossan

29 Sep 2017, 12:59 p.m.
John Crossan

The Monument Debate: A Good Use for Disorder

John Crossan

The current manifestation of the monument debate centres upon the US city of Charlottesville Virginia. On Saturday August 12th, 2017, white supremacists of varying shades (alt-right, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis etc.) rallied in opposition to a plan by the local municipality to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general during the Civil War, from a public park. Lee, like many of his high-ranking compatriots in the confederate army, was a slave owner and amongst other confederate causes fought for the continuation of slavery. As such, citizens of Charlottesville and elsewhere in the US see his monument as a symbol of oppression. Hence the plan to remove it. 


The planned and actual removal of Confederate monuments has also stirred up emotions in New Orleans and Durham N.C, amongst other southern US cities. In the case of the Virginia rally, anger resulted in the death of Heather D. Heyer, who was fatally injured as a car driven at speed by a person who was attending the white supremacist rally ploughed into a group of counter protesters. Heather was in their ranks.  


I have previously written about the relationship between a form of far-right nationalism and the city. 20th Century Italian Fascism, Women and the City shows how the urban environment was seen by Italian fascists as a threat to the virility of their desired nation. The current monument debate sparked from events outlined above has re-energized my wish to better understand this relationship.


The Myth of Purity

In attempting to better understand the relationship between the far-right and the city I was drawn again to a book I last read a decade ago. Richard Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life was first published in 1970. The book is both a critical unveiling of practices that attempt to sanitize the urban experience and a celebration of our “dense, disorderly and overwhelming cities” (Sennett 1970: 29). The book offers some useful insights about the relationship between the urban environment and social control.  Part one centres upon a myth that Sennett names “new puritanism”. This myth, he argues, distorts the construction of individual-identity, community and the material environment. The following sections consider each of these in a little more detail.


The Myth of a Purified Identity

A city can be a messy and disorderly place. Sennett argues that for many people this disorder arouses the threat of being overwhelmed by difficult social interactions. This threat is dealt with “by fixing a self-image in advance, by making oneself a fixed object rather than an open person able to be touched by a social situation” (ibid: 6). Youth sub-cultures such as Mod, Punk or Skinhead are relatively benign examples of this purified identity fiction. Here the self is constructed within the predetermined framework of specific sub-cultural characteristics – e.g. music and clothing. This is essentially a defensive action: “the effect […] is to create in people a desire for a purification of the terms in which they see themselves in relation to others” (ibid). ‘I am a Mod’, ‘I am a Punk’, ‘I am a Skinhead’.


The enterprise involved in naming oneself as a member of a relatively rigid social group is, for the author, “an attempt to build an image or identity that coheres, is unified, and filters out threats in social experience” (ibid: 9). A malign example of this process can be seen in the building of a fascist identity. The 20th Century Italian fascist, faced by the disorderly modern city, fixed himself to a romanticised image of the rural Italian peasant, racially pure and hard working in the service of the nation. But the cosmopolitan freedoms of the city – e.g. less defined gender roles, the proximity of different ethnicities – continued to be a threat to the sense of security and fixity provided by the self-imposed illusion of racial purity. The solution for the fascists was to change the social and physical contours of the city by moulding it in their own image, codifying in real time and space their fear of disorder.   


The Myth of a Purified Community

Sennett contends that this need to construct a purified identity is most prevalent in young adults as they leave the relative solidity of family life to confront the fluidity of the urban world. There is a sense from the author that the social purification process practiced by the adolescent is to be expected and to a degree maybe even encouraged. The real danger comes when the delusion of purity travels with the adolescent into adulthood and begins to find community expression.


The author provides us with an example of the myth of a purified community that resonates with the segregationist arguments of the alt-right. Sennett tells the story of a prosperous black family who, after only three days of moving into their new home in a wealthy suburb, were ousted by their white neighbours. The people of the community united “in a great show of force […] to drive the black family from their home” (ibid: 32). Residents said, “we are a community of solid families” and “we don’t want the kind of people in who can’t keep their families together”. “This is a happy and relaxed place” said another resident.


The reality of community life was in fact very different from the image presented by white residents. The rate of divorce in the suburb was four times the national average, juvenile crime was also high and the incidence of hospitalization from stress related illness was frequent (ibid). Of the residents, Sennett writes:


The racial prejudice was a cover for their fear of having to be social beings […] In order to defend against this social participation, and all its pain, they had to proclaim a lie about who they were, about their own coherent and unified community image. This resulted in a lie about the corresponding “otherness” of blacks (Sennett 1970: 42).


Lies about “otherness” and the parallel myth of purity can be heard in the rhetoric of the alt-right. In 2000, prominent alt-right speaker Jared Taylor’s New Century Foundation published a booklet called The Colour of Crime, which details the “innate” criminality of Blacks. Over the last few years similar sentiments have found expression across US and European far-right websites and amongst the mainstream political elite. Donald Trump tweeted in November 2015 that 81% of white homicide victims are killed by Blacks. More accurately, statistics show that a black person is killed every 28 hours in the US by police or vigilantes and that 83% of white murder victims are killed by whites. Richard Spencer, another prominent alt-right speaker overlooked this last statistic when he asked, “how can we build a White society, one that reflects the values and traditions of our people?”


The myth of a purified community outlined by Sennett and evidenced today in the rhetoric of the alt-right is, as Sennett argued, a product of the fear of difference. This fear produces a culture of wilful ignorance. Taylor’s belief in the innate criminality of black people stems from his travels in the African continent during the 1980s. Mark Driscoll (2017) writes, “it dawned on Taylor in Africa that Black people are genetically predisposed to violence and socio-political chaos – European colonialism, IMF austerity programmes, extractive capitalism and climate catastrophe be damned”. For Taylor and the alt-right more broadly, to meaningfully engage with a brutal history of global white privilege would lay bare the inadequacies of the ‘academic’ arguments behind their attempt to forge a white only America.


How Cities Support the New Puritanism

Since the end of WWII until the subprime lending practices of the early 2000s the low-income mortgage market in the US was mainly directed at suburban homes and the white population. Government-produced lending regulations in this period made it extremely difficult to make Federal Home Association (FHA)-insured loans in minority and racially dynamic neighbourhoods (Shlay 2006). Land use zoning regulations further empowered white homeowners to exclude all manner of developments that could have diversified land use and demographics in these regions – e.g. factories, shops and apartment buildings. This has resulted in socially and racially uniform suburban city regions. Rosenbaum and Freidman (2007) argue that such initiatives have served to promote the assimilation of European immigrants, even as dark-skinned Americans have faced persistent rejection. 


For Sennett, the character of the suburb centres around the “intensive family”. This refers to an inward looking and intrinsically defensive social unit.  This marriage of urban form and family life creates socio-spatial conditions that allow the myth of a purified community to thrive:


The growth of intensive family life […] and the functional simplification of the urban environment in the suburban movement of the last quarter-century have made particular regions in the city all too identifiable in socioeconomic, racial, and functional terms. Now people really are getting to know who their neighbours are: they are just like themselves (Sennett 1970: 78).  


Here we get to the crux of Sennett’s argument. Post-war suburban planning initiatives create conflict-free public spaces. Residents have little or no opportunity to engage daily with difference and when, from time-to-time, difference finds its way ‘over the border’ it is treated with suspicion or derision because it threatens the socio-spatial order. Disorder (social, cultural and spatial) for Sennett, plays a critical role in debunking the myth of purity because it creates multiple points of social contact, where people “learn to tolerate painful ambiguity and uncertainty”; where people “feel incomplete without a certain anarchy in their lives”, and where people “learn to love the “otherness” around them” (ibid: 108).


Returning to the current monument debate discussed briefly at the beginning of this blog I believe a healthy dose of disorder will help the US (and the same can be applied to the UK) to find its path towards being a freer and more equal society. Contra the calls by liberal elites and members of the far-left to remove the statue of General Lee, pull it down and leave it lying where it falls. Such an act of sanctioned citizenry vandalism would play havoc with the too often sanitized choreographies of public space, and serve as a constant reminder not only of the brutality of slavery and racial prejudice in the US, but also that no-one’s history and no-one’s order is unchallengeable.      


Sennett, R (1970) The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life. Yale University Press


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