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On liberalsm and subversive facts

Another  random choice from Downtown Carnegie Library’s shelves that proved to be quite a smart  one:  Timothy Garton Ash – Facts Are Subversive .

The author is a well known historian and political author , currently teaching European Studies Studies at Oxford University, who wrote in the past for two prestigious newspapers – the Independent and the Guardian. The book – he calls it a feuilleton, you may call it a collection of political essays – is centered on the premise that beyond the postmodernist claim – that everything is subjective and therefore to be interpreted – there are indeed facts and it is our duty to establish them. His point is that no matter what ideology we embrace and in spite of our biases and idiosyncrasies, we  have to consider the facts – and we shall consider the facts with an open mind and critical eye. Because, in the end, it is the reality – facts – that may prove to be subversive and not other people and/or their ideologies.

Timothy Garton Ash makes a very good case for subversive facts. Whether he writes about post-communist East Europe, Islam , Aung San Suu Kyi’s  NLD or George Orwell , all essays are well documented and researched , explicit on the matter of personal bias – up to the requirements of solid academic work. His style however is crisp and clear and he makes sure that each essay is accessible to a broad, very diverse group of readers – well beyond the Academia.

However, at times his own point of view raises qestions about the honesty of an objective approach to facts – the author is himself, subject to personal and cultural bias. He cuts straight lines between the west and the rest , lines that might cause some readers feel – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. But he notes, in a honest way, that democratic societies and countries will only be built from within the not-so-Western cultures and nations. Referring to post-Milošević Serbia he notes that it  …”poses a great challenge to the West, but above all to Europe – and specifically to the European Union”(p. 24, Ash T.G. 2010) [1] .

From a personal point of view , Facts Are Subversive, was an opportunity to get familiar with major political events that occurred around the world ( and in East Europe in particular) during 2004- 2009 – a period in which I was working hard on adjusting to U.S. culture and therefore I ignored most events that hadn’t  much to do directly with the U.S. – events such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. I had also the opportunity to verify my own opinion according to which liberal/liberalism is a bad word in the United States [2]. ” Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting – to put the matter a tad frivolously – some unholy marriage of big government and fornication” (p. 252, Ash T.G. 2010).

Yet one of my favorite essays is not about the US or East Europe, but about Islam. In Respect?  Ash articulates, and he does it  so much better than I do, the rationale beyond my religious choice ( I am a practicing Christian ) and my political one ( I am a progressive liberal). It is not silliness or the outcome of a confuse mind, but a rational position. I was raised as a Christian and I firmly believed that  Christ was the Son of God , begotten and not made, and that He died in order to redeem humankind.  As a rational person I am very much aware of the shortfalls and misdeeds  of Christianity during the history, as much as I am aware about its core role in the development of the modern state under a secular law – a law that protects our freedom to utter loudly our opinions about religion and government. As a liberal  I do respect (and I demand respect for) any religious  belief  as well as the lack of it, as long as it does not become ideology. And it is because  Ash ( an agnostic or atheist?)and I ( a Christian) are both liberals that we are at odds with those who dismiss religious belief as a mere system of superstitions and claim that any chance for a country to become a democracy is for its people to embrace atheism.  An ideology that does not respect everybody’s freedom to choose what is that they believe in and to speak freely about it and gather with those among their peers who share the same beliefs is not a liberal ideology. And, argues Ash , it will not lead to a democratic ruling as it is to be considered a fundamentalist ideology in its own right.

 

Notes:

[1] As a former citizen of  the Balkans , I consider the fact that he mentioned  the West  first (and often as separate entity from Europe) as “that British bias” – because they might’ve got it right before the East , they think they have to teach the rest of the world how to do it as if we couldn’t figure it out for ourselves (given the right amount of time, resources, national independence and cultural freedom)

Quotes are from this edition:

Ash, T.G. – Facts Are Subversive, Yale University Press, 2010.

 

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Urbs

The “cities vs suburbs” trope prompted me to muse about another term that we often misuse in the United States  – urban area.

The ancient term –Urbs – referred to a walled in town characterized by cohesion, population density and to an extent size. And as the story goes, when Constantine re-built Byzantium into  Constantinople he knew exactly what he wanted. And his directions were closely followed by its planners, engineers and builders. This is why, from all the kingdoms and  their mighty Urbis , Constantinople was the  last to fall to the successive invasions of the  middle ages.

Uban area, as it is understood today is mainly defined by density and to an extent size, while the core requirement of cohesion has been long lost in the United States.  What we call today an “urban area” is in fact a multitude of fractured municipalities located in the immediate vicinity of a major city – a high density area with a relative administrative unity that is playing an important role in local economics and in certain cases could be defined historically.

Consider the city of Pittsburgh and the suburbs in the nearest vicinity that are the Allegheny County municipalities. The actual urban area stretches further than Allegheny County’s borders, but in order to simplify the argumentation we shall limit ourselves to the places that are within its borders.

The map featured above paints the diversity of the sa-called Pittsburgh Urban Area .

Imagine yourself as the person in charge of developing a functional transportation network. Transportation , the brick-and mortar infrastructure of an urban area , is as important as your body’s circulatory and nervous systems.  A good flow is vital – any clogging, any interruptions in each of the systems will lead to illness.  A good transportation flow is equally vital for the urban area you are living in -if people and businesses cannot achieve  the  mobility/access they desire , they are very likely to move on and move out…

To achieve this steady, healthy flow in the Pittsburgh urban area , the planner needs to deal  first with an unfriendly topology –rivers, streams and  high steep hills, the need for bridges and tunnels.

The second challenge —  having to deal with each individual municipality – and there are 130 municipalities “all with a strong tradition of statutory municipal independence and self government.” One hundred thirty fragments that do not make a whole is a serious problem for someone who is trying to build an uninterrupted, functional transportation flow through the area.Especially as each place holds to its history, its rules …

So,

You have 88 neighborhoods in the city and 130 municipalities in the county, therefore  you would have to deal with 218 individual communities,  some that are so obsessed with preserving their identity that they are now  enclaves among larger communities.

And only 305,704 of the 1,526,006 county residents live in the actual city –that is only 20%. The rest 80% live in communities as diverse as

  • old cities -McKeesport , Borough of Leetsdale
  • walking suburban areas -Mt. Lebanon, Crafton, Bellevue, Avalon;
  • suburbs that are very similar with  the city neighborhoods they border – Dormont, Beechview, Brookline or Brentwood, Carrick, South Baldwin ;
  • suburbs  with an older, walkable core sprawling into the new driving only type –Baldwin Borough, Ben Avon, Shaler  and surrounded by sprawlites – Bridgeville.
  • Typical sprawling suburbs – North Fayette , Monoreville, Pine, McCandless etc.
  • Typical suburbs that are yet still close to the city borders –O’Hara, Whitehall (the South part of it)
  • Enclaves – Mount Oliver (that’s a sore spot) , Oakdale, West View, Bridgeville, Bradford Woods, Pitcarin

Some municipalities are actual old cities , that were in the old  times cribs of prosperity and growth. Old, walkable cities  outside of the actual city with their own  satellite boroughs and townships that had once sprawled from their prosperity. With their own customs, traditions and the desire to preserve themselves as independent entities (one example is MonValley).

Some municipalities combine the old borough with sidewalks and mom and pop shops with sprawling areas of the  typical drivable suburban sort -they look like snakes uncurling their tails towards  the borders of the county , stealing space between other boroughs and townships.

Some municipalities sprawled in the typical American way – that is towards the outskirts and beyond. Some municipalities found themselves enclosed by borders  and took advantage of the topology to sprawl towards higher altitudes. Some municipalities are enclaves that resisted the growth of neighboring boroughs and found themselves encircled by those.

How can you achieve that healthy transportation flow when some will encourage cars, some public transit and you have to pass through one municipality to get to another. Plus you cannot build highways in the older boroughs and a transit system grows ineffective because the sprawl. Not to mention that a municipality your transit system has to pass through can make its roads quite unfriendly for it….

Admit it , there will be no solution to the transportation flow without the cohesion of the Urbe.

Hello world!

Once  before this time there was a blog titled  Anais.  Since its author reached the story’s dead end and was yet unable to find her way back , a new story was started…Therefore this blog.