Sunday, December 30, 2007

A New Year's Resolution To Be Intolerant When It Counts -- About Our Civic Dysfunction

Memphis is always tough on tolerance, but it’s been an especially bad year for a virtue that’s defining cities looking to succeed in the global economy.

Even if you are uncomfortable talking about a city’s moral values, there’s also a reason anchored in enlightened self-interest: Tolerance is a critical competitive advantage for cities today, particularly as they work to attract and retain college-educated young workers.

That’s because two out of three of these people – the gold standard for the knowledge-based economy – pick where they live before they pick where they work, and they say that they want to live in a city where each can “live the life that I want to lead.”

The Pot Boils Over

Incidentally, the percentage of women who say they want to live in this kind of city is slightly larger than the percentage of men, a fact made more important by the fact that women are now 20 percent more likely to be college-educated than men. In that regard, economic growth today is powered by the 25-34 year-old college-educated demographic, but cities getting on the front of the wave also have are figuring out ways to attract women in particular.

But we digress. The point of this year to us is that if had set out to send the most negative messages to the rest of the country and to the target demographic, chalk 2007 up as a total success. It was a year when Memphis’ toxic displays of intolerance – now a regular staple of our civic and political life – burst in the national media time after time.

The Kwanzaa tempest in the Memphis teapot that closed the year seemed almost the perfect punctuation for a year in which intolerance was a overpowering theme. Unfortunately, the conflict over the African-American cultural celebration attracted more national attention to what appears to be Memphis’ flirtation with self-destruction.


Of course, publicity of this kind was in great supply in the past 12 months, particularly during the venomous election for city mayor, a race that featured the most overtly racial pandering in modern times. Meanwhile, in City Council meetings, some members repeatedly poisoned the atmosphere with racial invectives against people appearing before them, to the point that one council member called the head of a city-county agency a bigot, despite the person’s lifetime of work for civil rights.

Not to be outdone, on the county side of the street, a couple of equally belligerent commissioners tossed around racial epithets, oblivious to the corrosive atmosphere they were creating for reasoned discussed. Then, there was troubling undercurrent of anti-Semitism that has existed since the election of U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and that fed the anti-gay screed by some scripturally-deprived Baptist preachers opposed to his support for hate crime legislation.

All in all, it’s a troubling commentary on Memphis’ inability to come to grips with the simplest of principles – live and let live. Rather, we are capable of jumping on the mildest of disagreements to launch into the kind of vitriol that undermines any sense of civility in our community. (The media’s codependency with this culture of crassness is a constant indictment of their leadership for a better city.)


A few days ago, we were talking with a psychiatrist friend about dysfunctional families and the difficulty that its members have in breaking away from the abusiveness and antagonism that are their constant companions. Ironically, in the midst of a destructive relationship, members fear – and fight – any change to things.

The problems are twofold: one, the family members think all families are like theirs, and two, the dysfunction becomes familiar and comfortable albeit it hostile and painful.

In this environment, communications is raw and attacks are common, and communications has been used as a weapon so long that family members can no longer interpret each other’s dispassionately or react proportionally. Instead, every one is forced to take sides in every disagreement, escalating every issue into a controversy that bursts the family at its seams.

Resisting Change

As he talked, we forgot for a moment that he was describing dysfunctional families. We thought he was describing Memphis.

But we didn’t tell him. Instead, we asked: What does someone do to change things?

He said that it’s no easy or quick. The people who use the dysfunction to have power resist change the most. They immediately feel threatened and set up roadblocks and obstacles. We thought of some old guard political leaders.

What To Do

If people are serious about changing things, he said, there are several things they have to do:

1) They have to realize that one person’s not in charge of another person’s life, and every one has the right to make their own choices free of attack;

2) They have to quit fighting old battles, because there are no winners, because every one loses;

3) They have to identify what they want to happen and then change their behavior to make it happen; and

4) They simply refuse to respond to the dysfunction or engage in the old combative ways of communicating.

Paying Attention

Most of all, for change to happen, it requires constant attention to positive behaviors and improvements in relationships, until the people who try to perpetuate the dysfunction find no reward or power in it.

Perhaps, there’s no better New Year’s resolution for Memphis than for each of us to pledge to find our own ways to change our dysfunctional civic family.

Maybe, before it’s over, we can actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing behavior that attracts national attention.

Competing In A New World

As we said, it’s much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and collections of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect - or compete - in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Or put another way, a city that is open, inclusive and tolerant has the best chance of competing for the kinds of jobs – and workers - that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.

That’s why we think if Memphis is going to adopt a new bumper sticker slogan as part of our latest economic growth plan, it’s this: Tolerance: our most important competitive advantage.


Anonymous said...

We don't need to elect a mayor. We need to elect a chief city psychiatrist.

Anonymous said...

I agree, we're congenitally doomed to tearing each other to bits while cities in competition with us laugh at us.

Anonymous said...

Hasn't Krugman written enough about this. Unless you reduce inequality, there will be intense political battles and an intolerant, polarized, political culture.

Anonymous said...

There is inequality in every city (underline every), but you don't see the kind of polarized places that you have here. It's too simplistic and glib to just chalk this up to inequality.

And I'd argue that no place has done more to reduce inequality than Memphis where it matters - in control of government - and it only gets worse. Or no place should be more primed to attack inequality because of the black control of our political culture.

We need to quit giving ourselves excuses and do something to make things better. We don't have any more inequality here than Boston, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, etc., but they don't have the level of hateful dialogue that we have here.

gatesofmemphis said...

re: the economic argument, those who worship racism and racialism have proven again and again that they'll push Jesus, Aristotle and Adam Smith off a cliff before they give up their god.

As anonymous 11:22 alludes, maybe this isn't just a Memphis problem after all. The political theatrics of Memphis seem no more dramatic or corrosive than that in Washington. It's a got a Memphis flavor (more race, less class). This isn't an excuse -- we should still work at it. But I think the "only in Memphis" attitude about our problems blinds us to similar struggles in other places, and deprives us of possible colleagues, solutions and strength we will likely find outside the city.

(Intrigued by the Krugman comment, I did a search for "Krugman inequality" and the first hit was Graduates versus Oligarchs, which could been written for Memphis, but it wasn't. Great quotes: "What we're seeing isn't the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we're seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite." and "Both history and modern experience tell us that highly unequal societies also tend to be highly corrupt.")

Finally, regarding our desire to create an inclusive Memphis: I thought economic growth is powered by creativity, a universal human trait. How did you get from that to "the 25-34 year-old college-educated demographic"? I think this incredibly narrow focus is an exclusive cul-de-sac for Memphis. A broader initiative to transform Memphis with creativity would be more inclusive: it would be attractive and would include the other 95% (now shunned as less desirable).

Happy New Year!

Anittah N. Patrick said...

On a macro level, Amy Chua has studied the rise and fall of hyperpowers. In a nutshell, she argues that the rise of a hyperpower correlates highly with tolerance, and the fall with intolerance. Tolerance is defined as the ability of diverse religious and ethnic peoples to live, work, and play within a society (although not necessarily share in the same level of freedoms).

Anonymous said...

Great, great post. Now let's make it happen.

Anonymous said...

"We don't have any more inequality here than Boston, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, etc.,"

Sorry, but that isn't accurate. How many of those cities populate the lowest rungs of social indicators the way Memphis does. A more accurate comparison would be Memphis vs Detroit/Jaskson MS, Little Rock/Savannah/NOLA pre-Katrina. Those places have some pretty screwed up politics too.

Another rather unique thing about Memphis' political culture is the fixation on the local. Most Memphians don't have a clue who their state rep or state senator is. All political focus is on the city council, county commission, etc. We're an island. Memphis bordered on west and south by states we have no political influence on yet these areas greatly affect us. Nashville seems far away. The rest of Tennessee looks so different from us their politicians couldn't really care much less about what hapens here except when it flips the State Senate over to Republican control. Did most Memphians even care when something that important happened. Not really because it wasn't local.

Perhaps when some more indictments come rolling out concerning the county commission, school board, city council, people will be begin to understand why all the focus is on local politics.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous guy who posts the insulting comments that have to be deleted, if you want to act juvenile, why don't you take it somewhere else? The rest of us really want to talk about these matters.

Smart City Consulting said...


Economic growth is indeed powered by creativity, but the reason that we spotlighted 25-34 year-olds is because they are defining whether cities succeed or fail in the knowledge economy. They are so important is because they are the demographic that is mobile, highly-educated and entrepreneurial. Cities that attract them and keep them are the ones that are succeeding in the knowledge-based economy, and they are looking for places where tolerance is a civic characteristic.

We mentioned the importance of tolerance on this age group, because if Memphis is to succeed, we have to have more of them - lots more of them. Right now, we aren't attracting them, and when we do educate them here, we lose them.

That was the only reason that we mentioned them specifically. We agree completely with you that creativity is a universal human aspiration and the trait that we need to be expand in all of us, as expressed in the Memphis Manifesto.

Anonymous said...

No one has a corner on the truth. In fact, in most cases, you only know your little corner of it. Never assume you know THE truth.

Frank said...

Dear Anonymous, Just what the hell is "populate the lowest rungs of social indicators"? That sounds almost , dare I say racist! And "don't know who their " elected officaials are. You need to work at the polls for years as I have done, to figure out the reason for the later. Untold numbers come into the polling place with a printed flyer that tells them who to vote for. And being that the flyers have to incompase the whole of the city instead of just individual precincts, the voter becomes confused when the flyer is telling them someone to vote for someone that doen't appear on their ballet. That happens to be because that voter was to lazy to find out who was running for offince in their precinct and so becomes confused. That voter is not voting for the best person for the job but for the person they "were told to vote for".More often than not, one of the "seperated church and state" churches. The former can easily be explained by the fact that those "lazy" voters are part and parcel of a large portion of our city's inhabitants that are not willing to (work) or strive for a better life, thus reducing themselves to the "lowest rungs of social indicators.

gatesofmemphis said...

scc, as vanguard group and gauge, it sounds reasonable but I worry that, for the cultured and regressive near the top, it is an end in itself. And, given its income, that it could easily become a segregated hipster court for the rich and powerful rather than a catalyst for creative change in Memphis.

What would be interesting would be to update the Memphis Talent Report based on the Memphis Manifesto, work by people like Leadbetter and Tepper and the huge changes in inexpensive personal, social and creative technology since 2002. When you get a moment.

btw, taking your post to heart, I retract "(now shunned as less desirable)". There is a danger of ignoring, but I don't think there is shunning going on.

Anonymous said...

SC, that was a great post and true for the most part. One of the things I would take exception with is the characterization of anti-Semitism as it relates to Steve Cohen. This type of one-sided view, without context, is what holds us back from real discussion. Not saying it's something SC usually does, just something you've helped to feed in this instance. I don't think I remember there being any anti-Semitism quotes in the recent spate of attacks on Cohen, homophobic and anti-gay were apparent to be sure. Those Black preachers were wrong in their attempts to stop the hate-crime bill, and it may have been a calculated ploy against Cohen, but where was the anti-Semitism?

Smart City Consulting said...

Our reference to anti-Semiticism is in response to reports that have come to us, but more to the point, it relates to comments by ministers when Mr. Cohen was running for office that specifically referred to his not believing "like we do," and in some cases, more directly, not believing in Jesus.

Anonymous said...

SC, I guess I disagree with your choice for the undercurrent of the "anti-gay screed". The undercurrent is clearly more of the continuing question of white representation for a majority black district. Even more, the ability of Steve Cohen to represent the district. The anti-semitism, as repugnant as it may be, is more a tool of those pushing for black representation. The black preachers who oppose Cohen clearly have taken pages directly out of the right-wing, evangelical Republican playbook to find ways to dispute Cohen. In reference to the "believing like we do" comments, I think that particular quote had more to do with Cohen's social liberalism (gay rights, marijuana).

Anonymous said...

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