August 10, 2017

Fifty years ago: Thermopolitics



From the Idler, forerunner of the Progressive Review. Less than a year later DC was in the midst of major riots.

Sam Smith, The Idler, Summer 1967 The long hot summer is upon us, and with it the implicit or explicit transferal of power in major portions of our larger cities from mayors and councils to the National Guard. Americans, as the Vietnam war has shown, adapt ell to violence.  Rather than its accumulation horrifying us, we simply undergo a social mutation that makes it tolerable. The insurance companies adjust their rates and the militiaman's training shifts its emphasis from mortars to teargas. And business proceeds.

One of the mutations wrought by the L. H. S. has been the advent of what might be called thermopolitics.  Thermopolitics is based upon the principle that appropriations for a ghetto community should fluctuate according to the mean temperature of that community. Here in Washington thermopolitics has resulted in something called the Summer Enrichment Program. A bevy of street camps, walk-to pools, sprinkler showers, art and craft classes, pre-schools and "Widening Horizons" field trips are being paraded before local youth to keep their minds off the bricks stacked in the alley.

Of particular concern here because Washington , after all, is the capital of the nation that is diligently helping the peoples of Southeast Asia and elsewhere in their search for peace and freedom and a display of distemper on the part of vote- less citizens of this town would undoubtedly set back the cause of Justice around the world. The DC Recreation Department’s program is reviewed by a task-force of cabinet members. Hubert Humphrey turns on the lights at city playgrounds.  And no doubt The Man himself had made a few phone calls to make sure everything is going right.

The difficulty with thermopolitics is that it is hard to solve all the problems of housing, employment and education in the space of three months each year. The kid returns from his bath under the sprinkler to his crowded and crumbling home. The “Widening Horizons” field trip stops short of a successful job interview in this city where a massive effort by the Board of Trade to create summer employment produced only a few hundred positions. And in September the enriched youth of summer become, once again, the students of an academically and psychologically impoverished school system.

Even Congress appears to have some doubts about the efficacy of thermopolitics. A bill is making its way through that body which would make it a federal crime to cross a state line in order to incite a riot. But perhaps they worry too much. If ad- ministered fairly, far more congressmen than civil rights leaders would become subject to its penalties.

Such a law, justly applied, would keep many congressmen in their home districts, fearful of being apprehended at the state border. I suppose, however, that it is unrealistic to expect such blind justice. So it is not surprising that we find the very congressmen who have done least to help riot-prone communities most anxious to pass a bill of attainder against civil rights leaders to stop riots.

It is easier to excoriate Stokely Carmichael than to improve schools, provide housing or create employment opportunities, but until we do the hard things, riot prevention will remain the unrewarding summer preoccupation of the nation.

1 comment:

greg gerritt said...

The more things change, the more things stay the same.