Sunday, October 01, 2006

Platitudes and Pity

Respect your elders.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Waste not, want not.

These quaint platitudes and many other similar old clichés have been passing through my mind the past few days, but with a twist. I’ve been in Red Wing, Minnesota the past 3 days while Beth attends a “Preserve Minnesota” Statewide Historic Preservation Conference here. I didn’t attend any of the sessions, preferring to catch up on some Continuing Medical Education (and sleep) while Beth attended lectures on color theory for old neighborhoods, preserving and renovating historic city parks, and developing civic efforts to preserve and promote historic downtowns statewide. But I certainly heard about preserving the past over dinner and at their awards banquet Friday night.

Our local neighborhood organization, SCHNPA (St. Cloud Historic Neighborhood Preservation Association), won an award from the Statewide HPC for grassroots efforts to recognize and preserve the historic downtown and Southside areas of St. Cloud. I’ve been on the fringes of most of these efforts, since Beth is vice-President of the organization and has been the architectural and artistic heart of the beast. I have been to more community meetings, city council meetings, fundraisers, civic events, and historic house tours than I care to count.

To their credit, the folks at SCHNPA have instigated a great deal of change: they have succeeded in making important changes to city ordinances, changing biases among city politicians and employees, helped to create two historic districts, and promoted a historic downtown area. Their efforts to create a Heritage Preservation Commission resulted in city ordinances to promote historic preservation and to prevent “remuddling.” It just makes sense to rescue and renovate the best of the old, which is why the old platitudes have been drifting through my mind: it’s just not that hard to figure out that old buildings have a charm and an appeal that is missing in many of today’s mass-produced cardboard (OK, chipboard) structures.

In the same way, the quaint platitudes of yesterday have a charm and an appeal that is easy to identify, but difficult to put to use, at least without some renovation. Modernism and now postmodernism have been hard on these time honored social conventions, just as their architectural soul mates Brutalism and Modernism have been on historic downtowns. Many a lovely Victorian storefront was assaulted by well meaning “modernizers” with a 50s or 60s era aluminum or plastic façade which smothered the charm of the building until it finally lay fallow altogether, another victim of the heartless and soulless Big Boxes of the suburbs.

The anonymity and dehumanization of postmodern life isn’t a result of building Big Boxes; the Boxes are a product of the process. I don’t pretend to be an economist or a political philosopher, but it seems to me that we are becoming victims of our own success. Selling our souls in pursuit of material success and comfort, we wonder how we got where we are now, and how we missed the place we were hoping to go to instead.

It seems to me that morally speaking, we can take a cue from our historical preservation colleagues to look for the charm in what has gone before, and seek to preserve at least a little of what seems attractive but outdated, like old-fashioned courtesy, pity, and charity. Our Victorian ancestors knew instictively how to be kind, merciful, and loving toward one another (whether they actually practiced it or not). Modern and postmodern citizens seem to have lost that instinct, and our social landscape shows its own form of "Brutalism."

Having recently returned from Paris, I’m struck by the “politesse,” or formalized courtesy, of relationships there. There are no malls or Targets there, and it takes longer to get anything done, because you have to actually greet people, shaking hands with the guys and kissing the ladies on both cheeks. But therein lies the humanity: you make real contact with real people who don’t always smell nice or have halitosis, but who also have the power to render to you a measure of humanity and groundedness missing in an exurban SuperTarget. In the same way, our political and social “business district” has suffered from dehumanization.

Pity is utterly outmoded, having given way to dispassionate “rights” and desultory pride. Of course, no one wants to be pitied; therefore it is legislated away. A scene that would have moved our ancestors to deep, gut-wrenching pity (like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath of destruction) now brings mostly pronouncements about which political party or administration is responsible for this disaster, and how important it will be to vote them out of office next election cycle. Pity gives way to political self-righteousness.

Charity has given way to an entitlement society: doctors are no longer allowed to give “charity care” for free, because we have come to believe that “everyone has the right to basic medical care.” So our state governments develop under funded programs that do not adequately cover medical needs AND fail to pay doctors and hospitals enough to cover their expenses in caring for the poor. The doctor no longer sees Mrs. Jones, the widow in need of free care, he sees just another Medicaid patient. Charity gives way to entitlement on one side, and begrudging resentment on the other.

I’m perfectly guilty of this dehumanizing anonymity myself: I am much more inclined to give some money to an anonymous charitable organization and never get my hands dirty actually helping out. It’s true that your hands do get dirty doing good, as I’ve discovered over a number of trips to rural Guatemala to provide medical care to destitute victims of the prolonged civil war there. I recall washing my hands a lot during my visits there, but it’s funny: I never remember feeling the least bit resentful about it.

The best way to address the ills of the world, as I see it, is to get your hands dirty touching other people. Unfortunately, human touch is so old-fashioned, so quaint, so unsanitary, that it isn’t likely to find a large following among the movers and shakers of the modern and postmodern world, who just might prefer to knock down some more old buildings and erect yet another Wal-Mart. Pity. If we all tried it, it just might work…

No comments: