Problems in Suburbia(n Studies), Part 2

After reviewing part 1 of my commentary on America’s suburbs, I realize that to say McGirr “dismisses” race and gender isn’t exactly fair. Generally speaking, Suburban Warriors does not interrogate either issue nor does it do enough to examine the alliance between different types of conservatives (something I discussed in the last post).

An almost completely white city (or county or suburb) does not simply, naturally, appear from thin air. It may certainly appear natural to those living there (thus, I highlighted in part 1, that her methodology might be partially to blame). It is important for McGirr to have taken her interviewees on their own terms. Understanding how and why they thought of themselves as natural is itself important; for example, they generally considered themselves completely deserving of their social status because it was achieved, they thought, by hard work and personal responsibility (to God or the market). But, such a city or suburb is highly constructed by 1) the individuals who reside there (the local) and 2) the grander political forces at work (the economy, notions of identity, power, that is, the wider public context). Suburban Warriors leaves the impression that such issues were left unquestioned.

Race is not only important when blacks and whites clash over integration (see Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis and Kevin Kruse’s White Flight), just as gender isn’t only important when there are equal numbers of men and women present. Simply because all members of a corporation’s executive board are men does not preclude analysis of gender or sexuality. Therefore, in such a way, absence can be importance.

McGirr’s examination of the economic context of Orange County, however, is top-notch and illuminating.  By 1962, the military industry was the United States’ largest business. From the end of the Second World War to 1965, a whopping 62 percent of the federal budget was funneled into the military industrial complex, and no area in the US benefitted more from these dollars than California and, specifically (you guessed it), Orange County. In essence, the federal government—those “Washington planners” who libertarians and social conservatives loved to rail against—funded Orange County’s prosperity. With defense such an integral part of their material lives, anticommunism cemented disparate conservative ideologies. But, again, all of this is done without fleshing out the intersections (and significance) of race, gender, or sexuality.

While no study is ever complete nor does a work cover everything I, as a reader, want to read about, I am left wondering what chances McGirr missed (and, in effect, what urban history is missing as well). Were these conservative grassroots activists influenced by their highly homogenous environment? How? To what degree? What was the make-up of the newcomers to Orange County? Were they part of white flight? Answers to such broad, introductory questions have the potential to lead to answers to clearer, more important ones: how did their suburban politics (shaped by their environment) affect their backlash against the New Left or Civil Rights or affirmative action or public education reform? How did such positioning lead them to support or reject educational reform, tax policies, or privatization?

Perhaps to cover for some of these missed areas, McGirr turns to an argument centered on “modernization.” “Modern” or “modernity” has always seemed like a last ditch argument to me, when you just can’t think of something more precise. McGirr offers one conclusion that conservatism, for so long derided by leftists and moderates alike around mid-century (Schlesinger and Hofstadter), isn’t antithetical to “modernism.” Orange County certainly suggests that “it is possible to live in the modern world and enjoy its largess without absorbing modern values,” but McGirr hasn’t earned the conclusion that “modernity itself may foster values often considered incompatible with it”. When Jon Butler can argue in Becoming America that the nation that emerged as the United States was the first modern country in history, then the arguments around “modernity” or modernization doesn’t hold a lot of meaning. Or, in other words, if modernity can breed laissez-faire economics and Stalinism, liberalism and conservatism, then is it really a causal factor worth pointing out?

Columbus' own public housing, soon to be converted to high-end apartments. Where will the former residents go?

Better than modernization as an argument would have been highlighting the tensions of the public versus the private. This binary is as important as it is old. Not only is it an issue philosophers and theorists have pondered for longer than I care to chronicle here, but it’s had a continuous impact on government-business relations here in the US. For example, the public policy behind “urban renewal” plans—that system after WWII that wiped out whole areas of inner cities to make way for highways and “housing projects”—put up federal dollars to purchase “blighted” areas through eminent domain. (James Baldwin famously called urban renewal “Negro removal” on national television.) These areas were then handed over to private businesses for “redevelopment.” Once again, public dollars funded private profit. McGirr’s topic, it seems to me, has less to do with vague notions of what modernity is than with competing conceptions of the public good. (And Rousseau remains relevant yet again…)

Such a focus on the tensions of the private and public would raise interesting questions: do you join the suburbs because you want to join the John Birch Society or does joining the suburbs make you want to join the John Birch Society? Is it easier to focus on your private property and its importance to you when you don’t ever interact with public things—sidewalks, transport, parks? Indeed, it seems that individuals have identified “public” parks and streets as “theirs” anyways. When does this change from a sentiment to political action—from wanting find a safe place and community to voting for Barry Goldwater?


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