Monday, May 07, 2007

Urban right, pt 4: A reflection on Gurda

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.


Anonymous said...

"Unprepared" is quite an understatement. The psychological and habit formation/nonformation of much of the urban "labor pool" is ruinous.

Anonymous said...

In the last 25 or so years I have represented scores of young black men accused of murder or armed robbery (sometimes both), and a litany of violent crimes. All, yes all, have a common biography: they experienced child abuse, saw and then participated in drug use in the home, and had poor to nonexistant school attendance. No amount of community prosecution or policing, no cascade of government or agency social programs, and nothing MPS does will have any effect whatsoever until the african american community decides that the flood of drugs into neighborhoods, blocks, homes, and into people stops. Then the community can get a handle on child abuse. Then the schools can teach the way they were meant. And MPS must de-centralize into neighborhood schools that serve a small but local core of students. Shipping kids out to schools around the county divests the shipping neighborhoods of a certain script and commitment that comes with walking your kid to school. Finally, we must bring back the draft. 16 years old and you're not going to school? Then you're going to Ft. Campbell. Let me say it again: until the community rids itself of drugs and epidemic child abuse, nothing changes, and there is no future for this city, or county, or country. We may have already crossed the "event horizon" for this city, and if so we are all part of that doom.

Anonymous said...


Drafting these kids into our modern military is a bad idea.
If we had a WWII style military, it would be productive.

Anonymous said...

I landed at Ft. Campbell in June 1968. DI's were 101st Airborne, and all had done a tour of Vietnam. You messed with them at your peril. Coming in with me were regular army recruits, but most were draftees from the streets of Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit, and yes, the hills of Tennessee. The hard case kids were broken down in a couple of weeks. By the end of the 8 weeks basic training all were entirely compliant (me, too!) OK, today's military probably isn't as stiff or rigorus, so maybe it will take all 8 weeks to redirect these kids, but it will be far better than simply letting thousands of feral kids run the streets of Milwaukee. What we're not doing now isn't working. What we used to do seemed to work better.

Anonymous said...

rearranging deck chairs on the titanic...

just a question / thought experiment:

what would constitute terminal, final failure of MPS, or the city, etc.?

are institutions capable of meaningfully defining failure (and what wd it mean?) or must it come in the form of "the hand of god," i.e. the undeniable and self-evident fact that the individuals leading and sustaining the organization are gone?

it seems business organizations do this--define a point at which you cut your losses and move on. the corporation is dissoilved and you may or may not move to another, start another, etc.

but governments and quasi-governmental agencies do not do this. is there any historical precendent?

In education and in general human relations where there is some shared purpose and accountability for the purpose of achieving goals, I perceive that a lack of consensus on 1) the possibility of failure and 2) what failure is in a concrete, specific sense (so you know where you are in relation to it) is ESSENTIAL to the authenticity, functioning, and prospects for success.

Perhaps governmental bodies are or have become (more so) insulated from the reality and prospect of failure.

This inquiry is motivated by the absurd phenomenon of MPS which by any sensible account has, at best, a majority of failed schools within it. If its leadership is now essentially in the position of going down with the ship, it would be good to know and be honest about that. They do not appear to believe this is the case, but it certainly looks that way.

Anonymous said...


The military cannot redirect junkies and most losers.
They go underground and drag others with them.
Late in the Vietnam War, discipline broke down in some units due to this problem.

Anonymous said...

Clearly, the military wouldn't be a good fit for all - some kids are just too far gone (deeply rooted oppositional defiant disorder or full blown anti-social personality) but what we are (not) doing now isn't working at even the most minimal level. And if kids that are drafted go beyond mere occassional misconduct to outright criminal offenses, well...that's what stockades or Levenworth exist for.