Top 19 of '19: Chas Gillespie's "Every NIMBY’s Speech At a Public Hearing"

Hello, patrons! We've tabulated our most-read articles of the past year and we'll countdown the full list on the Tendency between Xmas and New Year's. Until then, we're offering a Patreon-exclusive peek at some of the pieces that have made our "Top 19 of '19," along with micro-interviews with their authors.

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"Every NIMBY’s Speech At a Public Hearing" 

by Chas Gillespie 

Published June 13, 2019

Excerpt:

Friends, neighbors, it’s good to see all of you. I know you, you know me, and just seeing all of your faces at this city council meeting reminds me why I love living in this town. Because I feel comforted by stasis and regularity, both fed by ignorance, and which combine to perpetuate injustice.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak tonight, and I look forward to contributing to our robust debate by making claims that are floating in an ether of confusion, prejudice, and unearned authority. But for those of you who may not know me, let me introduce myself. I’m a retired professional who rose through the ranks because competition in my field was minimized due to systemic discrimination against women and people of color. My job was well paid, did not punish me for my lack of soft skills, and convinced me that I know what’s best for other people, even if it seems like what’s worst for other people. I grew up here and, after leaving for a time to go to college and start my career, returned to this town, my true home, in order to raise a family and stop time from progressing. I’ve lived in the same house in the Elm Heights neighborhood for the past twenty years, and I just love everything about this town except for the problems that my politics have directly created.

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On the inspiration for the piece...

Like many people, I am completely disgusted and frightened by the state of our country. Each day brings with it new horrors that make one sad, angry, scared, and ashamed. Mass shootings responded to with pat, dangerous nonsense, inaction, and a dereliction of legislative duty; a climate crisis the effects of which our leaders do not acknowledge; rampant human rights abuses at the border in which our border agencies are ignoring their own guidelines, resulting in overcrowding, illness, and needless death; the proud annihilation of the natural world in the service of short-term energy profits concentrated in areas far from the energy project’s pollution; a new emboldening of white supremacists who are treated either as respectable people with whom one might casually disagree before burying the hatchet, or as rogue agents disconnected from the larger history of white terrorism designed to kill and restrict the freedoms of African-Americans and immigrants; the silencing and abuse of women who stand up for equality and respect; the pursuit of profit at all costs by businesses that have manipulated the political process in order to acquire unfair competitive advantages; and conspiracy theories raised to the status of official party dogma are all part of the American tapestry at the moment.

I am also extremely concerned by the facts that Fox News is a propaganda organ of the executive branch; that Trump has accomplished near-total party discipline despite his egregious flaws; that Trump is hostile toward academics, artists, independent journalists, dissidents, and the people and institutions that produce knowledge; and that if Trump wants to go after one of his critics, he simply has to name them on Twitter, and a lawless militia will appear to harass, threaten, harm, and terrorize the person. This form of rule is very dangerous and insidious, and because much of his base is composed of paranoid, rageful people who are amenable to conspiracy theories and appeals to their pride, he has a large pool of supporters he can deploy to discipline his party and his critics. Allegedly serious Republicans stand by and let this happen because they dislike the alternative, which they view as godless, socialist, and too “politically correct” (a term they don’t bother defining because they view it as an emotional stand-in for complex thought), and because they support the fantasy that the best way to serve poor and working-class people is by first of all serving the wealthy and well-connected, not understanding that the damage Trump is doing to our nation and the world is permanent.

In this context I decided to get more involved in local politics, believing that despite the national situation, there is concrete progress that we can accomplish in areas such as environmental justice, racial justice, and housing affordability at the local level. This has proven very difficult, and the obstacles I and others have encountered are formidable. I live in a small city in the Midwest that thinks of itself as liberal and reasonable, but when I go to city council meetings and listen to people talk, I don’t hear reasonable people disagreeing about the best way to meet a common goal. I hear people who are severely misinformed and very prideful and generally hostile to the idea that their righteousness is not wholly earned engaging in angry, bullying tactics to convince politicians that, because they are angry and loud, they must be right. Their comments are fact-free and irrelevant, told in a tone that somehow achieves the status of superciliousness despite being completely bizarre and meandering. On issue after issue, people more or less believe, “Yes, we need to do something about climate change—just not in a way that makes me change my behavior or the behavior of anybody else.”  “Yes, we need to reckon with our city’s history of white supremacist redlining—just not in a way that will affect my home value, street, or neighborhood.”  “Yes, we need to address wealth inequality—just not in a way that will inhibit my selfish program of wealth accumulation and hording.”

One underlying assumption about our political discourse is that “activists” who advocate for environmental justice or racial justice are loud and angry and need to calm down, but I have found the complete opposite. Some activists are indeed angry—Greta Thunberg comes to mind, among others—but their anger is a necessary alarm and a call for action that comes from a place of knowledge. At the city council meetings I go to, on the other hand, the angriest, loudest voices are almost universally coming from older, wealthy white people. Certainly not all people who belong to this group act that way, but many do in this context, and it is disturbing to watch. When these people are responded to with patience, calmness, and an attention to the facts, they are not pleased. They’re mad that their community is changing. They’re mad that their investment in real estate isn’t being more stridently guaranteed to produce a 3-5% year-after-year return. They’re mad that young people want things. They’re mad at the concept of redistributive policies designed to produce salutary educational and economic outcomes that benefit everyone. They’re mad about the possibility that the government will work to make the social conditions that led to their own success available to everyone. In my experience, what angers them more than anything is not even calling them racist but just pointing out that the policies they support will disproportionately help one race instead of another. Questioning their commitment in the fight against climate change is also a lightning rod, and their responses range from “It’s not that big of an issue,” to “It’s too late; it doesn’t matter,” to “We should focus on personal choices like eating less meat,” none of which are convincing or relevant in the context of the 2018 IPCC report. 

At these city council meetings, certain memes arise over and over again, and the piece started as a riff on one of them.  When you mention a program that another city is doing that seems to be working, someone will inevitably stand up and say, “Someone mentioned what they’re doing in Portland. Well, we’re not Portland!” This comment is often told as a joke meant to denigrate the person who thought that our city could actually learn something from other cities. We see this exact formula replicated on the national stage, when a progressive will mention a program in Denmark or Sweden or another country with high levels of social cohesion, happiness, and trust in the political process, and a corporate centrist or conservative will inevitably say, “Well, we’re not Denmark!”—again as a joke meant to enforce the idea that American exceptionalism precludes the possibility that we can learn from others, least of all countries that are doing far more than us to combat climate change yet still have thriving business sectors.

So the piece started with that meme, “We aren’t Madison! We aren’t Portland, Maine!” and went from there. I decided that the speaker shouldn’t be angry, or at least that they are sublimating it. The person is a type who, despite their occasional down-home demeanor meant to mask their resentment and pride, has a background that generally inhibits their ability to think and act with sympathy toward those who don’t have their privileges. I think what they have to offer the public sphere is misguided, and I think it needs to stop.

If you are a Christian, this is a season of joy, and I would like to also say that I harbor no ill will or rage at my neighbors, but I do think that people who find themselves being taken captive by dangerous political narratives should alter their media and social media diets so that they understand that there is room for everybody at the table, and just because we are asking you to change or accommodate others we are not attacking your spirit or humanity. Things escalate so quickly in the perpetual rage machine that passes for our civil discourse, and I hope that people can come together, acknowledge their similar hopes and dreams, replace their easy instinctual combativeness with the hard work of empathy, and advance forward starting from an articulation of human values rather than start with a strong position and then justify it by retreating to the fuzzy ground of hastily conjured and uncritical political ideology.

On the writing/editing process...

I wrote it over the course of a month and submitted it shortly before my wedding earlier this year. The timing turned out not to be a very good idea, because after the wedding we went on our honeymoon, during which time I didn’t use the Internet. The piece was accepted, and the editor, Chris Monks, contacted me to get the go-ahead to publish the piece, but since I wasn’t online and had forgotten to post an away message, I didn’t get his emails. Eventually, we came home, I checked my email, and I apologized to Chris for not responding. He was very nice about it, and this is how I’ve learned the value of the sorry-I’m-away auto-response. Chris also suggested the title, which I am grateful for.

On the audience reaction...

I got a significant number of emails from people all over the country telling me that my portrayal of NIMBYs is something they have to deal with in their own city. At first, I felt heartened by this in a spirit of solidarity, and in a moment of pride I even felt flattered because I felt I had gotten the representation “right.” Over time, though, I also felt disenchanted that so many people from all over could relate to what I wrote. It meant that cities that I had thought got it or were on the right track actually had very serious issues with NIMBYism, which was inhibiting progress in a number of areas. The Bay Area, Cambridge, New York, Portland, all sorts of places seem to be captive to similar forces of the city where I live. Local politics is incredibly important, and I hope that people keep fighting despite pushback from the wealthy and well-connected. I have friends working at the local level who I am very grateful for, and I am glad that many folks have not given in to the cynicism and exploitative nihilism that animate the current administration.

Chas's favorite humor pieces of 2019...

There were a lot of great ones this year. Here are some of my favorites:

“I’m a Clog Bitch Now” by Lillian Stone

“In Order to Be My Bridesmaid, You Must Complete This Scavenger Hunt” by Cara Michelle Smith

“Thank You for Coming to Our Used Clothing Store to Sell Your Ugly Garbage Clothes” by Riane Konc

“New—It’s Adjunct Barbie™!” by Katie Burgess

“I Used My Wife’s Vibrating Dildo to Achieve My First Prostate Orgasm And Now I’m in Narnia And I Can’t Get Back Home” by Keith James

“Comparative Media Studies 201: Heterosexual Undertones in Top Gun by Max Davison

“Here At Our Crazy Furniture Warehouse, Everything Must Go! Especially You, Ted!” by Alex Baia

“The Six Remotes in Your Dad’s Entertainment Center” by Evan Allgood

“ ‘New Day, Same Bullshit,' Whispers Dalai Lama Before Slapping On Smile To Greet The Masses” - The Onion

I might also draw attention to this one from 2014:

“FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States” - The Onion

I would finally just like to add that I really enjoy McSweeney’s and am so happy that it publishes the material it does, from the satirical to the whimsical. So many great people contribute to it, and I am grateful to count myself among this community of creative writers and engaged and thoughtful readers.

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By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 292 exclusive posts
7
Audio releases
307
Images
1
Livestream
1
Poll
11
Writings
10
Videos