Sunday, September 13, 2015

Death by Suburb

I recently read a book called Deathby Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing your Soul, by David L.Goetz.  I had marked it on my list of potentially interesting books a long time ago, and I ordered it to complete the $35 minimum for Amazon to send me something for free.  (I am not a big fan of Amazon’s business modeland generally try to avoid the site, but I do use it for obtaining things that are not available from other sources).

It turns out this is part of the hugely popular category of modern Christian self-help books.  I normally have little use for either modern, or nondenominational Christian, or self-help books, but here was all of the above right on my doorstep.  I don’t know if I hadn’t read the fine print long ago when I initially marked this book as potentially interesting, because at least by the time I actually ordered it, I was expecting it to be some sort of secular sociological analysis of suburban living.  At any rate, now that I had it, I went ahead and read it, and as you will see, I was both pleasantly surprised by the relevance of its content and intellectually engaged in exploring the larger implications of the author’s arguments.

Goetz seems to use a figurative definition of the suburbs as a comfortably middle-class, consumerist society.  He recognizes the actual ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of today’s suburbs, which are largely non-rich and non-white, but then seems to brush this aside and focus on the white bourgeoisie as the implicit center of his characterization and his critique of the suburbs.  I don’t begrudge him this sleight of hand—“suburban” is a convenient shorthand for the upper-middle-class, achievement- and status-obsessed, largely white culture that Goetz describes.  That said, his analysis extends well beyond the suburbs (and at the same time doesn’t apply to large swathes of them); I know many people living in the middle of the big city that suffer from some of the issues Goetz describes and who would do well to apply some of his lessons, and at the same time many areas and people in “suburban” Arlington, Virginia do not exhibit the tendencies the author discusses.

Goetz structures his book in chapters headed by an “environmental toxin” offered by the suburban lifestyle, and a spiritual practice that can solve or counteract this toxin.  The first chapter touches on the desire for control, counteracted by prayerful silence.  The second aims to counteract our tendency to define ourselves by our work and possessions, through a better exploration of our real selves through contemplation.  The third chapter counteracts envy with spending time around people who have little material wealth.  The fourth recommends replacing a quest for ease and feelings of entitlement with gracefully accepting the challenges in your life.  The fifth urges us not to arrogantly seek accomplishments and results in life, even in noble pursuits to help others, but rather to find meaning in the honest pursuit of the good, whether or not it yields immediate results.  The sixth calls for us to remain rooted in a church (and by extension in a community, if you’re not a religious practitioner) as opposed to shopping around for the place that most entertains or delights us.  The seventh calls us to seek deep and meaningful friendships, not functional or self-serving networking relationships.  The last piece of counsel urges us to avoid trying to program and optimize productivity in every moment of our lives, and instead to learn to savor and cherish time on its own terms.

In general, “Death by Suburb” is a book about how to stay sane in a socially and morally toxic environment.  Goetz looks at it from a certain brand of Christian morality, but I think that many of his observations and recommendations are relevant for all people, Christian and non-Christian alike.  The author’s categorization of the suburbs (again, “suburbs” as shorthand for modern consumerism and the clustering of economic elites into homogeneous neighborhoods) as a toxic environment rings true to me, but I also find a major flaw in his own thinking as a bourgeois white suburban male.  He is unable to fully divorce himself from the values of his own suburban milieu, such that instead of offering a structural critique of the suburban conception of “the good life” as excessive material consumption, dependence on cars, and physical and social separation from people of other socioeconomic classes, Goetz simply offers advice for dealing with or avoiding the noxious effects of this “good life”.  That is to say that he doesn’t question the supremacy and desirability of living in the suburbs; for him the norm, the gold standard, is still suburban life, so even while he details all the personal and social woes that inherently arise from this set of values, he isn’t willing to totally discard the consumerist, elitist values for an entirely new set.  

 I appreciate Goetz’s implicit recognition that each of us needs to work where we happen to be if we wish to make our lives and the world more decent.  If most of his audience is in the suburbs, surrounded by materialism, racial and economic segregation, car-worship, etc., then they must work in that milieu to seek spiritual and moral improvement.  The hundreds of millions of people in the US living in the suburbs can’t all simply uproot and move to an ashram somewhere.  I get that.  In fact, it echoes a reflection fromDavid Foster Wallace that I much admire about finding decency and nobility and worth even in therelatively sterile contexts (like waiting in line for groceries at rush hour)that characterize much of modern life.

But if you do indeed believe that the suburban environment is toxic, as Goetz’s arguments would lead me to believe he does, then his series of personal spiritual exercises to stay sane and safe in that environment (while not working to fundamentally change it) is essentially a way for you to save yourself, and everyone else is screwed.  It’s like protecting yourself from a war while others suffer around you.  It’s like teaching white kids in the Jim Crow South to train their minds away from the evil of institutionalized racism, to keep from being spiritually contaminated by it, while not fighting against that racism.  What’s more, by not engaging head-on with the fundamentally flawed and incorrect value system that sees material consumption and social advancement as the ultimate source of worth and personal fulfillment, by not condemning this system explicitly and totally, Goetz and his readers are themselves condemned never to escape its noxious effects.  If he insists on continuing to bask in the short-term and shallow satisfaction that he gets from buying junk, being entertained, and feeling materially comfortable, then he cannot attain the moral, mental, and spiritual enlightenment that he himself implies will only come from recognizing the emptiness of this fleeting satisfaction.

From Goetz’s (and my) more explicitly Christian angle, this shortcoming of his approach becomes even more apparent.  Christ doesn’t stand for saving yourself and leaving others behind, but rather for sacrificing yourself in order to save others.  I think that most Christian morality today would argue that it is our duty to fight injustice, to change the toxic elements we see at work in our world.  If you don’t see the toxic injustice around you, and especially if you’ve segregated yourself in order to be surrounded only by life’s winners, how will you even know what problems exist in the larger society that you as a Christian, or simply as a decent person, are called upon to address?  In this sense Goetz appears to suffer from that common aversion of rich, white people in the US to admitting any systemic problems with the (white-run, rich-run) society.  He plainly sees many problems around him, but is unwilling to entertain the possibility that they stem from fundamental shortcomings in our current way of doing things.  The health, environmental, social, economic, racial, and even geopolitical problems that I would argue are inherent results of a suburban lifestyle based on cars, material consumption, elitism, racial and economic segregation, etc., to Goetz are mere technical glitches in an otherwise sound system.  They can simply be resolved by technical means (or personal spiritual exercises) that do not fundamentally challenge the supremacy of that system.

So while Goetz’s analysis of the problems of suburbia is much in line with my own, his approach for dealing with them is fundamentally opposed to my understanding of Christianity.  I understand Christianity not as a way of ensuring your own salvation by tolerating or avoiding the problems around you, but rather as a way of lifting up everyone around you by fighting these problems.  Goetz explicitly calls out multiple negative traits and tendencies of suburban life.  To wit, consumerism, greed, envy, hubris, competitive and compulsive accumulation of wealth, and isolation from others (especially the poor).  When are these traits ever okay for a Christian or anyone else to possess?  If your way of life is founded on these, then you need a radical change of life, not just a more enlightened state of mind while you live amid the toxic dump.  It’s good to see hints of the Kingdom of God even in the mundane and in our flawed surroundings, as Goetz does, but my understanding of the Kingdom of God is that it is a future goal to work towards, something that we ourselves must bring closer to fruition by spreading life and justice in the world, especially in the dead parts of the world like the suburbs Goetz describes.  

All these general criticisms aside, I liked the book.  The tone was accessible and unassuming, and Goetz coins a few useful phrases and concepts, such as seeing your big house or your high-achieving child as “immortality symbols” for a parent.  Maybe Goetz avoids the explicit systemic critique of suburbia because he doesn’t want to sound too radical or ascetic, and thus lose his audience. 

But the question remains:  If the suburbs are so inimical to Christian (or simply humane) life, then why not move?  In this sense Goetz’s book is like an advice tract on how to lead a decent Muslim life while living in a bordello that sells beer and pork sausage.  I’m sure it can be done, but it would probably just be more logical and simple to get away from inherently immoral settings.  This is the fundamental issue I have with the book, especially as someone who grew up in a very urban environment.  It’s as if Goetz doesn’t even consider the possibility of getting away from the suburbs (despite the current trend of young professionals’ living more urban lives, renouncing cars, and consuming less junk). 

I appreciate that each of us needs to live and work in the community we belong to, but the elite suburbs the Goetz describes are places people move to, places you choose to live in.  Even in settings where such suburbs seem ubiquitous (northern Virginia, for example), and even if you grew up in such a suburb, living in this way implies a decision, though admittedly one so embedded in our collective national value system that it’s hard to see as anything but inevitable.  If you have elected to live somewhere remote, unwalkable, expensive, inconvenient, and removed from human contact, there must be a whole set of cultural factors at play that have driven you to this choice despite all the apparent drawbacks.  And whether or not you’re conscious of it, your living in a suburb means that you have basically accepted this baggage of cultural norms to drive your choice of where to live.  This decision to live in the suburbs then necessitates any number of further choices—to buy a car, to commute long distances, to be always in a rush after hours of commuting, to compete for scarce spots in schools and other kids’ activities, to helicopter parent so as to ensure your kids get ahead of others, to consume lots of junk to fill the hole left by lack of daily human contact on the street, etc.  Instead of opting for all these things, and then having to read Goetz’s book and make a conscious effort to reconnect to humanity and your soul, why not just make the conscious choice from the start to live around other, normal people in a city and realize that you’re just one of them?

This harks back to Goetz’s reflections on being around people who do not possess the immortality symbols you may be mistakenly valuing (fancy houses, cars, etc.).  He would have readers seek out refugees and desperate people to find God’s people.  I generally agree with the spirit of his argument here.  But this conception of refugees and the poor as a tool for reflection or spiritual enlightenment, and not as people for their own sake, is both condescending and dehumanizing.  Goetz and his ilk would do better to simply invite over some of his kids’ classmates and their families for dinner.  He vaunts the ethnic and economic diversity of his town’s school, so he could surely get to know people from all walks of life, and make human friends with them.  This would be a relationship based not on charity, pity, or spiritual seeking, but simple neighborliness and decency.  Goetz describes as almost heroic a peer who simply pointed a poor neighbor towards some potential clients for that neighbor’s new business enterprise.  To me this isn’t an act of charity or heroism, but simply common decency and friendship.  Finally, even the refugees and “apartment people” (he actually uses this term to describe people who don’t live in big McMansions like him) are probably not as alien and destitute as Goetz would imagine.  I currently live in a somewhat precarious economic situation, with five people living in a two-bedroom apartment, but I am a very literate person with a masters degree.  I have a Syrian refugee neighbor that formerly held a high-level government position, and a Honduran refugee friend who used to have her own business and multiple cars but now mops a US grocery store after hours.  There are all kinds of people in the world, and they don’t neatly fit into categories of “noble poor” and “comfortable wealthy”.  Goetz here, in his narrow characterization of refugees and the non-wealthy, shows just how little time he spends with people outside of his preferred socioeconomic niche. 

The last and most important problem with his injunction to spend more time with the noble poor is that Goetz is unable to recognize or admit the many problems and privations suffered by his white, wealthy suburban neighbors.  I’m sure that, if they were willing to let him into their lives, he would find in his “well-off” neighbors all sorts of loneliness, loss, grief, debt, worries, health problems, depression, alienation, etc.   They may have some of the immortality symbols he values, like a nice car or house or a kid in a top college, but they surely also lack some other immortality symbols, like a stable marriage, or they may have children with disabilities, etc.  If Goetz wants to help his fellow man, he doesn’t to seek out a Calcutta to enlighten him—the suffering and imperfection that he rightly believes lead us away from a shallow, unconsidered life, can be found all around, even in his wealthy surroundings.

Goetz repeatedly calls for people to step outside the suburbs in order to advance their spiritual development.  He mentions going to elite wilderness vacation spots like Aspen or Wyoming in order to get closer to nature and God.  But if he lived in a city, and even surely within the suburban settings he knows, Goetz could find plenty of nearby places to find solitude, nature, God.  He’s from the Chicago suburbs, so I can recommend any number of places in the city for him, from blighted streets where second-growth forest is peeking up through abandoned sidewalks and basement foundations, to under-utilized parks designed in the 1800s, to rocks and beaches on lonely stretches of the lakefront.

In the end, if Goetz wants to offer people a path to spiritual enlightenment in the suburbs, it must involve not just changing oneself, or looking outside the suburbs to find “poor people problems” to keep you real.  No, a true path to living a more human life in the suburbs must first of all recognize the very real and inherent problems of those very suburbs.  Such a path would call us to see and denounce the damaging tendencies present there, and it would allow us to rework the elements in the culture of the suburbs that favor these tendencies of consumerism, selfishness, envy, etc.  A path to enlightenment in the suburbs would make each of us recognize that we must tear down the walls that separate us from the rest of humanity, walls epitomized by the entire suburban paradigm.  Above all, this path would have people acknowledge that white, wealthy suburbanites should not only be looking to help the benighted rest of us, but that both the wealthy and the poor, the suburban and the urban, the white and the non-white, are all bearers of both many problems with which we need help, but also the potential to help others with their own problems.  (I will repeat one last time the disclaimer that "suburbs" here describes more a way of unconscious, uncritical, materialistic living than an actual place.  There are plenty of city people and city places that are full of Goetz's "suburban" traits, and plenty of suburbs and suburbanites that are very much in contact and solidarity with a more conscious, real way of living.) 

I fear that Goetz, having lived his entire life in a paradigm where wealthy, mainly white suburbanites are considered the top of the heap, is unable to see that the problems of suburbia are not merely minor blemishes on an otherwise optimal way of living, but rather that some of the most dire need and emptiness may be present among the supposed winners of society, those living in Goetz's idealized suburbia.  The world is not split neatly between well-off suburbs where people have most of the answers and just need a bit of spiritual guidance, and deprived ghettoes or Third World countries where suburbanites may find this missing spiritual fulfillment while providing the material help that the poor are unable to provide themselves.  No, we are all neighbors and partners in the human enterprise, and a social structure based on consumerism, elitism, envy, segregation, and exclusion can only keep us from realizing this and working together to better our shared world.

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