I think that Milwaukee historian John Gurda is a local treasure. I enthusiastically recommend his recent books, The Making of Milwaukee and Cream City Chronicles: Stories of Milwaukee's Past.
There is much I agree with in his column in yesterday's Crossroads section. Much of the fear about crime in the city is overblown. I have written about the urgency of the crime problem on this blog and in the paper and have spoken about it on WMCS as much as minot pundit, but it really has no impact on my willingness to work, play and (if I ever get my house ready to sell) even live in the city. Playing off what Gurda writes, I have little or no fear that "the social chaos associated with that poverty will one day touch [me] personally. " None of us is immune from potential tragedy, but a little common sense in traveling about town (and recognition that there are a few "no-go" zones - at least at certain times of day and on foot) will reduce your odds of falling victim to violent crime to about zero.
Actually, it is the people who have to live in these "no-go" zones that are at risk. They are the reason that the violence in our city is a scandal.
Gurda would not disagree but, unfortunately, he at least hints at diagnoses of and prescriptions for resolution of the problem that are unlikely to help. I am glad that he used his monthly column in Crossroads to address the issue, but I'd like to offer a different perspective.
John raises the absence of good jobs and welfare as we knew it. He writes that "we should hardly be surprised when people raised in savage conditions engage in savage behavior."
Elsewhere in the piece he pulls out his cred as a historian. He knows, for example, that economic conditions and racism in the city were once far worse.
But it is the implication of this that he completely misses. The view of the liberal establishment in the city is that our unprecedented levels of urban violence are largely driven by poverty.
But if, as Gurda points out poverty (and racial discrimination) were far worse in the past, what are we to make of the fact that, when these things were worse, the level of violence was substantially lower?
Gurda (echoing a common refrain of the Journal Sentinel editorial board) refers to the drop in "good" (commonly meant to refer to manufacturing) jobs. I think that the degree to which people were paid large amounts of money for low-skill labor in the past has been overstated but, in any event, the decline in manufacturing employment has been going on for 30 years.
There is not, as Gurda writes, a shortage of good jobs. There is a shortage of good jobs that require little education and nominal work skills. The problem for the "the able-bodied young men gathered on the street at midday" is not that they are ready for opportunities that society has failed to provide for them, but that the cultural milieu in which they have been raised has left them unprepared for the opportunities that exist.
Gurda is right in that the challenges of the inner city require hard slogging. But he is wrong in the implication that they can be remedied if only those outside the inner city resolve to do so.
He is right in observing that there is "the inner city has no shortage of organizations, religious and otherwise, working overtime to address the distress in their midst." There is much that the community at large can do to support those organizations.
But we have to be clear about the objective of all that hard slogging. It is not to "fight the power," as exciting as that might be. Rather, the need is to change the culture - to convince people that the way out lies in civility, education and marriage. Many poor people - probably most - already get that. But it's hard to live into that in the middle of a shooting gallery.
But when I started this, I wanted to get at where conservatives go wrong on these issues. I hope to do that later in the week.