Wednesday, January 11, 2012
I just came from a thing at the hipster hot dog bar set up by Ohio City Writers, a new group that I'm excited to see start holding events in town. Mostly because I've never been in a room with so many writers before, and I even got a card from someone offering some freelance work, and it's nice to get that sense of community without having to subject myself to an open mic in Willoughby. Tonight was a panel pitched as a discussion of the prickly topic of writing about Cleveland, which is another way to say "hey, let's get some pro-Booster people versus some anti-Booster people in the same room and have them duke it out." There are plenty of vocal Cleveland cheerleaders out there, and plenty of people who get annoyed by the cheerleaders. This is situation that lots of small to mid-size cities face, a turf war of social media. I even talked to people in Huntington WV once who had Booster- Anti Booster opinions, they exist even there Folks, in a town that is mostly known for a mediocre college and the time their entire football team died on a bus.
The discussion itself was too loose, it quickly devolved into a back and forth between those who wanted to scream how great Cleveland is to everyone and those who want everyone to calm the fuck down and look at the facts and stop being so happy. Because here's the thing about trying to argue with people who are bristling with enthusiastic emotion, you can't. They want you to yell back, they want to get into a fight about it. Like an avid sports fan, all they want is a chance to beat you up over the very wrongness of your own emotion which is contrary to theirs.
It turns out that I feel the same way about the Boosters that I do about God. As in, maybe they exist, maybe they don't, it doesn't affect my life one way or the other, so who cares? That's oversimplifying it, but I wonder if maybe the better discussion should have been, why do we care if Cleveland Cheerleaders exist or what they do? The whole thing is too personal, too entrenched in individual insults and negative experiences. The Boosters are mad because they think everyone should agree with them, and the anti-Boosters are mad because they feel like anytime they try to say anything realistic about Cleveland, they are subjected to very over the top criticism for their negativity. They are told if they don't like it, they should move. In fact I heard "Leave, get out, move" shouted several times at panelists tonight. Which, no matter what it was in response to, was ridiculous and stupid. All the panelists, without exception, were people who contribute positively to Cleveland culture, and if that's who you are looking to run out of town just because they want you to acknowledge the actual poverty level in your city, your idea of how to help Cleveland grow is fucked.
The kernel of the problem here, I think, is perception. Ohio City, Tremont, Downtown, they all have these tightly knit communities of social media savvy 30 yr olds with expendable income and iphones, and what that has led to is a type of civic blindness. In fact, I'm going to go ahead and contribute all the fault for this rift to Facebook. We are overexposed to each other. Before FB and twitter and everyone in the world having a blog, there were still people who worked hard on making Cleveland a better place, and some of them were annoyingly positive at parties when you ran into them there, but like any social circle, you picked and chose who you were going to interact with and the serious people kept to themselves and their projects, and the Boosters worked for their marketing firms or CDCs, and people talked about each other individually behind their backs like always, but that was it. Now we, but especially nonprofit or social networkers, we are all over each other. We are friends with all the same people. When any one positive or negative press item comes out about Cleveland, we get to see it retweeted and reposted a thousand times in front of us, replete with every person in the world's comment about it. Events, outrages, opinions are all spouted off like second nature, having an opinion is like breathing to us.
On one hand, the Boosters have understood this better than the rest of us. In their social media based world, it is important to stay on message, that's how all good and effective propaganda works. You pick the message, in this case how awesome Cleveland is, and you pound it into people's brains ad nauseum until it becomes unacceptable to believe anything else. The Boosters, by and large, are marketing people. They have a product, and they are pushing it. It's not frank intellectual discussion, it's not nuanced civic strategy. It is just straight up emotional reaction, and they want you to have it. The world has over and over again proved the effectiveness of propaganda. Most recently, let's all think back to a certain recent Presidential election that had those Hope posters plastered on every rusty bridge and alley from coast to coast. Hope is not the way you run a government, but it is a way to get people emotionally involved. It breeds a feeling of us versus them, of camaraderie. It is true that lots of Clevelanders feel stupid telling people out of town where they are from. It can't hurt to seed some civic pride. We're a fucked up city, but lots of cities are, and the Boosters' main mission is to convince other young people with expendable income to either move here or stay here because really it isn't so bad. And for that particular population, it really isn't so bad. Speaking from that class level, it's pretty okay here.
( However, when you decide to bully people on their own blogs about their suspected lack of devotion to your message because they point out other people live here too, or when you yell at someone to leave town? That's trolling. )
Which brings us to the anti-Boosters. Most of the people I know who are staunchly against the Boosters are very smart educated individuals, who sincerely want to make Cleveland a better place. None of these people have given up, because the ones who have really given up don't go to panel discussions about this sort of thing. They just feel that the best way to improve our city is to face the facts, and acknowledge that the population of the city is much more than a select minority of middle class single folk. Cleveland is a very poor town with a horrible school system. It is known across the country for being ground zero of the national foreclosure crisis. Environmentally, decades of industry and a fear of more jobs leaving has left us dirty and gross. Lots of people who live here devote their careers to trying to fix these problems. They deal with the disturbing reality of what living in the Rustbelt means every day, that it is an ongoing struggle to provide education and paychecks and housing to a population which has been steadily leaving for greener pastures or staying put and getting poorer and poorer. So when they face these realities every day in addition to their own personal struggle to pay their bills and be happy, and then are bombarded online with "Cleveland is Amazing and Awesome and Wonderful" sentiments, there is bound to be bitterness. It makes them feel that everyone else is out of touch, that if all these Boosters were really aware of how fucked up everything was, if they had to be on food stamps and couldn't get a job without a car because the bus lines don't run out regularly to the suburbs, then their enthusiasm would wane immediately. In other words, covering a beat up Chevy Van with pretty paint isn't going to make it a Rolls Royce. You can't reinvent a city just by making a very small middle class population believe it's going to be okay.
That is a little bit of a killjoy attitude, but I share it. Cause yeah, I'm tired of seeing all this Cleveland fluff on my facebook wall too.
I wonder if the real problem the Anti-Boosters have with the Boosters is that they see all this energy and enthusiasm, and they want to direct it towards another purpose? In which case, don't you understand that all that energy and enthusiasm self-perpetuates BECAUSE they aren't dealing with the rest of Cleveland's issues? You can't redirect that, it only exists because it is centered around a very simple and easily followed concept. You bring heating bills and taxes into the mix, that souffle is going to fall flat. To write a blog post about heating costs rising requires more research than regurgitating the press release for a new restaurant. That's mostly why I don't write those kind of posts myself. It is much easier and way more fun to be a cheerleader than it is to be an activist.
The whole thing reminds me very much of the fighting words that came out between the Detroit Boosters and the Ruin Porn photographers. Boosters in Detroit were claiming that photographers were only showing the bad decaying side of Detroit, and photographers were shrugging and responding with "But it IS there. We didn't PUT it there. If you don't like it, get RID of it." Honestly, that should probably be the response of the Anti-Boosters. "Hey, we didn't create these problems, if you don't like us talking about them, then fix them." And then to promptly ignore them. Take them off your facebook list. Take them off your twitter. Because this isn't a "we have to win them over" disagreement. It doesn't matter. At all. If the Boosters convince a couple people to move here, or stay here, good, that's more tax money. You don't have to be friends with them. And if it is all a waste of their time, then it was their time wasted. Who cares? If a few of them are going to be rude and pushy and leave insulting stupid comments on the internet, well, it's not like we're strangers to that. Don't you have tea party relatives that you've blocked on FB? They don't have the market cornered on internet bullying. But we need to stop treating this like an actual civic issue, cause it's not. It is, at it's very root, just cheerleaders versus nerds, and it's about hurt feelings and being shouted over when you are trying to make a point, or being insulted by being told your way is wrong. Also, the rest of the school is wondering what the big deal is.
Here are my conclusions:
1) If you don't like the Boosters, stay away from them. They are not actually preventing you from doing anything, or affecting your life in any meaningful way unless you let them. Just because the people who agree with you don't use Facebook as much doesn't mean you are alone.
2) If you are a Booster, stop trying to get validation of your own righteousness. Yours is not a movement that is going to convert anyone already entrenched in this fight, you should only focus on new converts. Unless you really want to just battle.
3) If Boosters or Anti-Boosters won't stay away from you, ignore them. There are not as many of them out there as Facebook would have you believe, and the majority of this city (the majority which doesn't have the kind of money to go out drinking every other night on the W.25th strip or even own a smartphone) well, they don't even know that this discussion exists at all. If you care about people listening to you, make your focus the people who aren't involved at all.
4) Working on trying to import a solid middle class to certain urban neighborhoods is not a bad thing. It's good to have people live here who are happy. Happiness and optimism, sense of community, these are important necessary things. But good luck trying to get any of them to stay once they start popping out kids, is all I'm saying.
5) For god sakes, everyone stop taking this personally. It is so meaningless to actual change, the real pity is we waste our time talking about this rather than actual development issues. Don't let the other faction (who is still on your general side) control the conversation. They aren't the law. They can't stop you from talking about things just because they disapprove of them. You just keep doing what you're doing, and they will keep doing their thing, and we will all continue to go to different parties.