Friday, June 08, 2007

Moral Panic and the City: Steve Macek is makin' 'em hurt!

I grew up in the far west suburbs of Chicago, IL, in a city called Geneva. Geneva was (and remains) a rather idyllic little berg, about 35 miles straight west of the big city. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I recall how Chicago looked from Geneva. Chicago seemed like a terrible place, full of drugs, crime, AIDS, and scary people.

Why might a dorky kid from the 'burbs get this understanding of the city? Steve Macek tells us exactly what time it is with his most excellent book on this very topic. The book in question is called Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City. In this book, Macek shows us how the right wing in the U.S. did the ideological equivalent of turning straw into gold. The story works like this: because of a very large number of structural reasons (deindustrialization, changing ethnic face of the inner city, the expansion of the drug trade, the failures of public housing, and what we could generally call 'continued class warfare'), the inner cities in the late 20th century were facing some tough times. The right wing in the 70s and 80s took quick action, not to solve these terrible problems, but to sculpt a narrative whereby this urban catastrophe could be made out to seem like the active choice of the victims. Violent crime as a result of the drug trade? That's because inner city folk have chosen not to educate themselves. High infant mortality in the inner city? That's because the people in the inner city actively choose unhealthy ways of living. High divorce rates amongst the working class in the inner city? That's because the working class has chosen to ignore the family values that could save them. And so on.

Sometimes a book's quality can be gauged in part by considering how much pain the author must have withstood. Macek demonstrates real Herculean powers by reading, and explaining, the ideas of many of the most prominent conservative thinkers who stoked the flames of this moral panic concerning the city. He shows us the arguments of Gertrude Himmelfarb, Dinesh D'Souza, Myron Magnet, William Bennet, Charles Murray, Edward Banfield, Lawrence Mead, and others. Macek is most thorough. He demonstrates where these ideas come from (tellingly, many of them get tremendous support from right-wing think tanks), and contextualizes them in the all-too-real problems that the big cities face in the U.S. He uses the notion of 'moral panic' to explain this. The idea of a moral panic comes from Stuart Hall and Stanley Cohen, who examined moral panics in the UK. The idea was originally developed to explain how (in Cohen's words):
A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or...resorted to.

Macek does an expert job of applying this to the moral panic concerning the city. Succumbing to a right wing push, the media images about the city for years involved images of cities that fell in line with the moral panic frame of what cities had become. Magazines and newspapers reported about U.S. cities as if they were populated entirely by evil, thieving monsters. Movies made cities look like hell incarnate. And, of course, television shows (especially including the news) ratcheted up the drama even more. This could have been construed as responsible reporting, of course. If there were problems in the inner city (and, of course, there were, and are still today), then we should know about them. But the images in the media didn't just call attention to problems. With few exceptions, media outlets made the problems of the cities appear to be the result of moral decay, individual choice, utter depravity, or some kind of creeping spirit of evil. Mentions of structural problems, political processes, or anything else that pulled the emphasis away from the right-wing approach were few and far between.

One of my favorite chapters here involves how movies in the 80s and 90s cast a particularly grim light on the city. Macek provides a high level of detail to show us how movies like Seven, Mimic, and Grand Canyon portrayed the city as the kind of place you wouldn't want to go, on account of the evil, evil things that lurk there. Here I think he misses one thing. What's that one thing? It's the movie Adventures in Babysitting, starring a young Elizabeth Shue. This movie was about a babysitter and the kids she is watching over having to go into the big city (Chicago, incidentally), where (by the laws of stupid screwball comedies of the late 80s), these suburbanites get caught up in the things the movies made synonymous with the big city: organized crime, random street crime, and violent non-white people with knives and guns. Good lord is that a bad movie.

That said, Urban Nightmares is the best book I've ever read about media depictions of the city. Bravo, Steve. Keep hurtin' Bill Bennett.


Anonymous Marlene said...

Good for people to know.

11:46 AM  

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