THE PASADENA FRAY
Doing politics in a small city is challenging.
By Ryan Bell
Doing politics is especially difficult in a city like Pasadena with a powerful mythology about conflict-free politics. I suppose many cities have these idealistic notions. On the surface, they can be seen as a guard against needlessly aggressive—even cruel—behavior in the struggle for power. The idea that we can all sit down, discuss our differences, and calmly come up with a shared vision for the future is something worth aspiring to.
But let’s be clear-eyed about it: politics is about power—who has it and who doesn’t, what those who have it do with it, and what those who don’t have it must endure at the hands of those who do. Rodney King asked the question that is so often on our minds, “Can’t we all get along?”
Theoretically, yes. Or as economists like to say, ceteris paribus—all things being equal—of course it is possible that we can all get along. But all things are not equal. And we haven’t yet established what “getting along” looks like. Does getting along just mean that no one is visibly upset with anyone else? Or does getting along mean that everyone has the essential ingredients of a thriving, purposeful life? We’d have to spend some time, as a city, talking about that before we could decide whether we can, in fact, all get along.
Those who most often call for civility, those who tone police others and castigate anyone who dares to raise their voice to point out how those in power manipulate the system to their advantage, these tend to be the people who stand to gain the most from the status quo. Those that do their research, “follow the money,” and speak the truth about what they’ve discovered and experienced, even if it upsets some people, tend to be the people on the blunt end of economic, gender, or racial inequality. Political politeness also favors the wealthy and well-connected who have access to the back rooms where deals are struck. The poor and working class don’t have access to those rooms. Those who suffer most from our politics only have power when they disrupt the status quo with inconvenient truths.
The reason people get angry and display that anger in City Council public comments, protests, and other political demonstrations is that they are not getting along. They are being left out, left behind, marginalized, crushed. If we aspire to be a city where we calmly discuss things and come to consensus without conflict, then we first need to have a serious conversation about what “getting along” looks like. Unless we do that, calls to be nicer are just a way to silence the underclass.
Ryan Bell‘s column “The Pasadena Fray” appears monthly in print and more frequently online.
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