Holy Moses or “There’s never an irony policeman when you need one”

We watched the documentary. Excellent if problematic, it was basically a morality play: a bunch of old white powerful men in a self-designed and policed echo chamber are eventually brought low by a scrappy band of diverse (gasp) women. And so immediately after the film there was to be a discussion. And a bunch of old white powerful men sat around and started to talk among themselves about their memories, while (BME) women watched on from the back of the room.

Reader, I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

There really never is an irony policeman around when you need one.

The documentary was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a skilfully made but partial hagiography of Jane “The Death and Life of American Cities” Jacobs, and the battles she fought – and won – with the infamous Robert ‘The Power Broker’ Moses. Moses was drunk on the sort of power that being part of the winning side in an World War gives you (planes, tanks and atomic weapons). Moses then planned to redesign New York City to his own particular purposes. Not captured in the film (one of its silences) was just how fantastically racist (even “by the standards of his day”) Moses was. This would have complicated the straightforward (largely white) narrative that got told. So be it. Anyway, Jacobs, a journalist and all-round good egg, fought Moses over his plans to drive a road through Washington Park in 1954. Then, a few years later, Moses had a hard-on for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs and co beat him again.

The documentary then took a good turn – looking at the Chinese government’s falling-in-love with Moses’ technocratic dreams. It didn’t have time to explore the new resistance (e.g. the Shanghai maglev doesn’t make it from the airport to the city centre). There are other problems of course.

For a film that celebrates “diversity” it didn’t have that many non-white faces (though to be fair, it did have some). It didn’t historicise- would it have killed them to say who Moses’ hero was – Haussmann of Paris (instead we got heaps of Le Corbusier. Interesting, but, meh). It could have further contextualised Moses’ will to power (he was both a regime and a Nietzsche actor) by better referencing the chaos of the Depression and the “successes” of US planning and power during the war, and put it alongside the white heat of 1950s ‘successes’ (DDT, the space programme, blah blah), and also pointed to the collapse of that faith not just with Jacobs, but also the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. But to be fair, this was a documentary that needed to have a Bad Guy and a Good Guy (well, gal). It wasn’t, after all, an Adam Curtis documentary. My rule of thumb of a documentary – do I feel I know enough, but do I still want to know more? The answer in this case is an emphatic yes.

Meanwhile, Jacobs instantly puts me in mind of Rachel ‘Silent Spring’ Carson (mentioned by one interviewee) and more latterly Elinor Ostrom. Moses harks back to Haussmann but also to a near contemporary, Robert McNamara, an equally ‘modernist’ figure who prosecuted the Vietnam War (3 million dead at the time, more since from land mines and defoliants etc) with the same gusto and the same playbook as Moses did the enemy ghettos of New York.

Back to the ‘discussion’. Would it really have killed any of the initial speakers to look around the room and say ‘hey, if we’re gonna have a discussion about diversity, it would help if we were all in a big circle. You don’t have to say anything if you join the circle, and you don’t have to move to be in the circle if you don’t want, but we can hardly honour Jacobs and the documentary-maker’s capital M Message about inclucivity if we don’t at least try to reshape the space for conviviality in the Illich sense, rather than a Powerful White Men get to Express-their-opinions-Way.’

Didn’t happen, at least while I was there: I then invoked the law of two feet. Also, I have a thesis to finish.

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