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The Gated Community Mentality

Anyone who has been following the news recently is familiar with the controversy surrounding the death of young Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claims to have acted in self defense, despite the fact that the teen was armed with nothing more than a few snacks from a local convenience store. Many are convinced that the issue is yet another example of the racism that still plagues the nation today. However, perhaps the issue is indicative of a lesser known, yet prevalent, problem. The US suffers from “mean world sydrom.” Citizens everywhere are concerned for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones due to an exaggerated perception of crime rates. It has only been in recent years that crime rates and crime prevention have been elevated to a national level. Most of us cannot remember a time when a presidential candidate, or anyone runnning for office, has not referenced crime rates and the steps he or she will take to restore order to our nation. But all of this talk of crime has had far reaching and unforeseen affects on the country. Gated communities and “intimate neighborhoods” are becoming more and more popular throughout the country. Rich Benjamin of the New York Times wrote an article about this very issue, and the negative affect it is having on the nation.

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The Myth of Progress

Within the last couple of months women across the country have been made subject to numerous attempts, some of which have been successful, to strip them of their reproductive rights as well as their rights to basic health care options. Simultaneously, efforts have been made in numerous state legislatures to require identification in order to vote; ostensibly disenfranchising numerous minority, elderly, and youth voters who might not possess the required documentation.

While seemingly disparate issues, they do share something in common- at least for citizens who take women’s health care and voter enfranchisement as institutions and opportunities that are hallmarks of a flourishing liberal-democratic society. The attempts made by the right to smother and dismantle these practices are almost universally viewed as not only antithetical to modern democratic principles, but further, contention surrounding them was considered to be passé. In other words, there is a sense among many concerned citizens that the time for debate regarding these issues had come and gone; that ‘progress’ had won. Clearly these assumptions were misguided, and our democracy is anything but flourishing.

Beyond recognizing the importance of maintaining and defending these practices, there is a larger lesson to be learned from all of this. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr wrote: “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” This passage remains timely. As we witness hard fought victories regarding such issues as women’s health care and minority voting rights come under attack and erode, we need to be mindful of the reality that, as King put it, they did not roll in on wheels of inevitability. Rather, the persistent hard work of men and women across the country engendered tension; tension which forced dominant political interests and power-brokers to take heed of the oppressed and maligned and to address the gross inequalities to which they were subject.

The progress narrative (the idea that time itself will right all wrongs) not only overlooks the rigorous attention that is, and was, necessary to bring about and maintain social change, but it also breeds apathy. Take for example current debates surrounding LGBT marriage rights. With the recent overturning of Proposition 8 in California, many feel that proponents of gay rights are on the ‘right side of history.’ Moreover, there is a tendency to cast the issue as ‘generational’ in nature. Such views not only presuppose historical inevitability, but they also have the potential to subvert what gains have been, and remain to be, attained. Unfortunately, history takes no sides.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the recent attempts made to dismantle women’s and voter’s rights, it is that time, as such, counts for little. Constant vigilance is needed to secure social advancements, as they can always come under attack and be revoked. For those struggling for LGBT rights, the rights of undocumented immigrants, or for that matter any group looking to gain recognition and overcome maltreatment, it becomes all the more important to learn from these recent attempts to revoke what had previously been thought of as entrenched and unassailable. It is not only the case that no victories are guaranteed by time itself, but it is also the case that once gains have been made, there is unfortunately no shortage of people who will look to dismantle them.

Event: This Thursday, March 8 at 4:40 p.m.!

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Four Glimpses of Democracy’s Future: Deliberative Innovations in India, Brazil, Canada and the U.S.
with John Gastil, Head and Professor, Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University
Presented by the Political Theory Club; co-sponsored by the Political Science Department and the Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service