Sameness

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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24 Responses

  1. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    says:

    Very good stuff. This seems like it may even represent a (very successful) conclusion to this conversation, or at the very least the beginning of a fruitful conclusion.Report

  2. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Thanks, Mark. We’re getting closer, but I think the conclusion is still a riddle.Report

  3. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    says:

    Maybe a better way to put it is that we have at least reached something of an agreement on principle. Regardless, I think I agree with just about every line in this post; the only possible exceptions being the sentences about zoning laws/city planning, and that only because it’s just not a topic on which I have a well-formed opinion. The riddle, as you say, is how specifically to work towards the achievement of those principles.

    Internationally speaking, I’ve got a somewhat vague notion of a proposal that would have a realistic chance of achieving those principles if adopted. Domestically speaking, though, I don’t see any way to get there short of something truly radical; as an alternative, a national policy of no subsidies and no tariffs may be imperfect, but it’s really the best way I can think of to allow localities to better control their economic destiny and to reduce the incestuous nature of business and government.Report

  4. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    My favorite “sameness” moment came last year when I was in NYC, near Times Square. On my left, a Red Lobster. On my right, a Hooters. Don’t get me wrong. I like an all you can eat shrimp platter as much as the next guy. And admiring shapely women. (Although in the latter regard, I am pretty sure there is not a woman alive who can look good in those orage Hooters track shorts.)

    But apart from pointing out the obvious fact of Times Square’s transformation… is sameness really all that bad? Or all that new? And is it something agrarian-minded folks should call into question? I live near Lancaster, PA. Tons of Amish there. About 96 percent of them are named Samuel. They all wear the same clothes. Drive the same buggies. I think there their culture is interesting in a lot of ways. But it does not strike me as one that engenders a lot of diversity.

    Same with small-town America, or even mid-sized cities. You mention Phoenix. A few decades ago it had Mel’s Diner, right? A unique sort of place. Except every town in America had one of them. Or 12. I have been in that exact same place, down to the surly waitress, in Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, New Haven, Philly and a host of other cities. Even going back to the 50s and the chrome diners. They were all… chrome diners.

    And even before that, every establishment pretty much fit a “type.” No, they weren’t the same in the way that Applebees is the same as Ruby Tuesday. But honestly, take a middle class, small-town teenager in 1820, 1850, 1880, 1910, all the way through today. Which one has the edge in “exposure to new and different things”?

    And honestly, was a dairy farm in one state really all that much different than one in another state? One plantation from another? Was 1950 Cleveland really all that much different than 1950 Indianapolis? I guess there were some real distinctions. But that’s true of various suburbs as well. Believe me. I teach kids from suburban areas. And they contend that Shady Acres is as different from Glendorn Ridge as Instanbul is from Paris. I can’t tell the difference. But they CAN.Report

  5. Avatar Nathan P. Origer
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    Superb piece, Erik!

    “I would even say that cities and communities should feel compelled not so much to “city plan” but to enforce aesthetic and enivornmental standards and to push for architectural diversity rather than homogoneity.”

    Yes! Now, there is some need, I’ll argue, for homogeneity. I actually just read a journal article, last night, for class, in which to Hollywood neighborhoods are compared. The more (but not completely) architecturally alike neighborhood, in 1920s architecture and a historic overlay district, is a much “better” — that is, more walkable, with stronger community bonds — neighborhood than the other neighborhood studied, with more diverse architecture and fewer standards. Granted, other factors play significant roles, and too much homogeneity — not to mention the wrong kind, which is what I think you have in mind when you specifically address sprawl — is bad, but some degree of sameness, as it were, architecturally and maybe even culturally and/or ethnically, is important, I think, and at least some planning and community literature seems to suggest.

    That being so, rather than planning, in the traditional sense of the word, cities, I wholly agree, should be focusing on aesthetic and environmental standards. You may be interested to look into what is called form-based coding, the sort of planning/zoning-type policies advocated by New Urbanists to reach ends of this nature.Report

  6. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Sam & Nathan – thanks, you both bring up some good points.

    Sam, I agree that there is and always has been “sameness” to one degree or another. That said, if I were to compare the downtown neighborhood I live in to the suburb I lived in when I was in Colorado, the degree of sameness is so utterly drastic it’s hard to express. Here there are lots and lots of local businesses, restaurants and bars that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. They may be damn similar but they’re not the “same” and they’re locally owned and operated. There are also lots of local bands and artists and a good, healthy and vibrant local scene. Where I lived in Denver this was not the case. There was almost none of this. So while you may be right, I think that there is no reason we can’t have good, diverse local communities that are at once connected via our amazing communications networks, the internet, etc. to the larger world.

    Nathan – I think finding a dynamic way to implement standards but not micromanage is important, because as you’ve noted that micro-management can be as damaging as anything – but also just letting investors and builders build the most “efficient” way possible can lead to Soviet style blandness and superhighways and all sorts of other soul-destroying urban sprawl and madness.

    So it’s a hard balance, sure, but I think the idea of always keeping things small, keeping things walkable, and keeping zoning mixed can go a long, long way to better communities.Report

  7. Avatar Nathan P. Origer
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    “And honestly, was a dairy farm in one state really all that much different than one in another state? One plantation from another?”

    Sam, I think you raise some good points — very good, in fact — but I’m going to have to demur at least on this one. Of course they’re different. Even the slightest changes in landscape, soil quality, and so forth, not to mention market demands and the abilities and drive possessed by the farmer or plantation owner (or human chattel, in the latter case) can have serious, even if not always easily perceptible impacts.

    Erik, no disagreement here. None at all.Report

  8. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    Re: Dairy Farms and Diners – I think it is also important in terms of Property. These things were owned by the people in the place they operated, not as pieces of larger corporate chains. This defies the notion that they’re all the same, even if they are remarkably in many other ways, because they are more inextricably bound to the communities they are a part of, both economically and in a more personal sense.

    Besides, we’re learning here as we go. We built these driving cities for convenience without realizing how socially devastating a commuting culture could be. We didn’t understand what would be lost if we gave up local business in favor of big business. Things that were similar still had character – like people are all generally similar from one place to the next, but have different personalities and customs, well so do their businesses and communities. But when everything becomes a clone then we lose even that.Report

  9. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    Sam’s point calls to mind another element of sameness in the past, which I think is an even more interesting counterfactual. One of the things I’ve found that older Americans are often particularly sentimental about is the death of the soda fountain. In particular, though, they are often sentimental about the Woolworth’s soda fountain. Of course, Woolworth’s was not only the same everywhere, it was also a giant corporation. There is often a somewhat similar sentiment for the old Sears Roebuck catalogs. My point isn’t that there have long been giant national retailers, though, which kind of misses what we’re discussing here. Instead, my point is that there was so much sentiment for those retail giants, indicating that they were perceived as actual cultural institutions. I don’t know if many Americans feel that way about any/many modern retail giants.

    On the other hand, Sam’s bizarro Times Square anecdote reminds me of something more problematic and strange – that of cities known for having vibrant cultures (and, like it or not, NYC’s neighborhoods all have a history of vibrant cultures, though less vibrant every year) attracting tourists and then paradoxically, in order to attract tourists, adopting aspects of a monoculture to appease the wants and needs of the tourists. Mr. Massie touched on this slightly a few weeks ago in discussing the decline of the Dublin pub. More on this later, though.Report

  10. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Quick point re: Sears is that this sort of retailer once provided really, really good jobs too. Not anymore….Report

  11. Avatar Bruce Smith
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    You can do community planning and architecture with the people who live in the neighborhood to make sure you get a more satisfying result in terms of amenities and appearance. The local state has to support this. There is also at least one other thing you have to do which is to load the dice to keep the Big Boxes out and maybe the chains too. That means Green/Localist taxes that make it a lot cheaper for small businesses to set up and stay in business. It’s a fair shake of the dice because the Big Boxes get heavy subsidies.Report

  12. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    It is interesting that we are all thinking of cultural “diversity” in terms of what it is possible to buy downtown, particularly at bars and restaurants. But I wonder how modern society stacks up in terms of the family kitchen.

    I recall a time when I had never heard the word “salsa.” And I am in my 30s. But in the 80s, our local grocery started getting all this new stuff. And continues to do so. Now, my mom and da, who are in their 70s, have access to really nice fresh cilantro and other ingredients to make their own. And choose to do so quite often.

    But diversity is not really what we are interested in, is it? In a sense, we are AGAINST diversity. It angers many people that people in Buffalo choose to buy strawberries in December, and fresh seafood at all. The poor Chilean sea bass has suffered mightily at our hands!

    That is, we seem to want diversity across communities, not within them. Except, of course, for ourselves. Because we know where to draw the line. We know, somehow, when it is time to quit Ole Earl at the pool hall and turn on our laptops. It’s those cretins who get it wrong. Right?

    Right.

    I know for sure that I find it laughable when, in line at the liquor store, I encounter a smug yuppie wearing a “Buy Local” shirt… a bottle of French merlot in hand.

    I feel significantly less self-satisfied when I realize I bought my copy of the I’ll Take My Stand on Amazon.com.Report

  13. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    “my point is that there was so much sentiment for those retail giants, indicating that they were perceived as actual cultural institutions. I don’t know if many Americans feel that way about any/many modern retail giants.”

    Every semester, I have at least two or three kids tell me that in high school, they and their friends used to hang out at… WalMart.

    Seriously. It’s warm. Nobody kicks you out. It’s a centralized location that other kids will know. You can buy a soda before loading a case of beer in your car. Etc.Report

  14. Avatar Kevin Carson
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    says:

    Thanks a lot for the mention.

    Re “sameness,” I vaguely recall a poem by Chum Frink (a character in Babbitt) about how heartening it was for a lonely travelling salesman to feel “at home” in a hotel or restaurant absolutely indistinguishable from those in his home town (as well as from those in every other town he’d ever visited).Report

  15. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Kevin,

    True a lot of people enjoy the familiarity of Village Inn or Motel 8 or any other number of indistinct businesses that are just like the other. I wonder if that’s more symptomatic of where we’ve gotten as a culture than inherently what people are most comfortable with. I suppose I just enjoy the uniqueness of local establishments better, and perhaps on that level it’s a matter of preference. On the level of property distribution and ownership, though, there are other problems with this model. But I do very much understand the good that it can bring as well.Report

  16. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    But if it is simply a question of preference, that raises huge questions about the use of “regulations” to prefer small businesses over large chains. True, the playing field might be skewed towards the latter as things stand. SO maybe we ought to even it out. But I am not sure a lot of people will be satisfied with that.

    Because of this: I think there is a distinct possibility that a whole slew of people, maybe even a substantial majority, prefer McDonald’s to Joe’s Old Tyme Culture Burger. And that all things being equal, most people would prefer to shop at WalMart than at Ye Olde Mom and Pop’s Hardware. And people really do seem to prefer 7,500 square-foot McMansions with BACK patios, and driving to work in their Hummers.

    Maybe I am wrong. But I don’t think that’s obvious. So sure, we can have a grand social experiment in which we try to make people pay the full costs of their decisions. But what if they keep making what we consider bad decisions?

    What if people from Buffalo keep eating strawberries in December?

    You either accept it, or you start using coercion (taxation, regulation, zoning, etc) to keep people in line.

    But if we are the watchmen, who watches us? And what happens when a hard charger takes over and tells me I can’t blog anymore because I have to go to the church social and eat locally crafted jello molds with seasonal fruits and berries?

    That is, I think it’s pretty easy to wrestle with these lifestyle questions on a personal level. But I really fear what happens of a substantial number of people start to take me seriously.Report

  17. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    No, coercion is not the answer. The fact is, Sam, massive corporations are dealt a much better hand than small businesses. They are given a lot more help from the government, subsidies, etc. What needs to happen is essentially a reverse on this. Local communities and government agencies on every level need to stop giving the big corporations these perks. And local communities should invest in their own home-grown businesses. You paint a rather ugly picture of local businesses, but it’s hardly true. I don’t see a fast food restaurant like MacDonalds being a better alternative to the many local restaurants in my town which are often healthier, more interesting, tastier etc. And I think tons of people hate shopping at Wal*Mart but there are frankly not many alternatives left. I’m sorry, but choice and competition are vital elements of healthy trade, and as Wal*Mart and Target have virtually dominated the general retail market they’ve really drowned out much of our choice. Yes, they’ve driven down prices but they haven’t provided much else for the communities they’re a part of – like living wages. So the question is not to force one’s preference on others, it is to examine how the wealth being generated is also being distributed. Is a Wal*Mart sucking money out of a community in too great a proportion than the wealth it generates within that community? Is there validity to the argument that towns deserve to be able to preserve their natural aesthetic – and that big box stores and strip malls are detrimental to that aesthetic? etc. etc. etc.Report

  18. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    I agree with your asthetic assessment, and I prefer “interesting” to “standardized.” But again, I suspect that a whole bunch of people don’t. I would even venture to say “most.” And not just evil, vile people. I mean, my wife, for instance.

    Seriously. at this very moment, she is sending me out the door to get sandwiches for lunch. I live in Pittsburgh, so there are a lot of old-school, local joints around. One of the most famous is right down the street. Great stuff.

    My wife would rather kill herself than eat soemthing from there. She is making me go to the place next door. Subway.

    The same holds when we travel. We pas diner after diner and eat at Arbys after Arbys. Even when Arbys costs more and is harder to get to.

    She hates “character.” In fact, she hates “place.” She likes corporate eateries, corporate shopping, corporate hotels. She would never, under any circumstances, buy a chicken from a local butcher. If I brought one homw, she would throw it away. She wants Tyson or Purdue. She does not like local music. When we were dating, I had to drag her to my favorite dive bars. she would rather drink–DRINK!–at TGIFridays.

    And guess what: I think the worlkd has more people like her than me and you.

    Even if the playing field is level and we remove all the rent-seeking, she goes to Arby’s and the local joint dies.

    Now throw in REAL advantages. Walmart enjoys economies of scale. It is open longer hours. These things are true whether or not the local governments give them handouts.Report

  19. Avatar Bruce Smith
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    If “developed” countries have become “market” states rather than “nation” states with all the “capture” and corruption and skewed trading conditions engendered by big business who can tell what our environments would look like without this going on! What if there was actually some grassroots democracy happening through community planning and design consultation. Would our towns and cities look a lot different? Why do we worship the idea of ownership of property and equity always having to trump democracy? If America was founded by the seekers of Gold and God isn’t it time in the light of recent events that the pendulum swung back to seekers of fairness and justice? People who actually believe more in communities than tax havens!Report

  20. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    I might add that my wife is not the only one. My corporate sins include a real preference for tasteless corporate macro-brews. And I feel like I even have a defense: I feel like all this concern about hops and barley is so much… fussing. Just drink your beer, dude. When i ge together with friends at the bar, I don’t want to spend countless hours critiquing what’s in the mugs in front of us. Gimme a Miller Lite.

    Which is the same argumennt that my wife makes for corporate eateries. Hotels. Etc. So we are all “guilty” to some extent.Report

  21. Avatar Kevin Carson
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    says:

    Sam: What E.D. says.

    It’s not necessary to use coercion to prevent people shopping at Wal-Mart. The very existence of large corporations serving the national market, their supply-push marketing, and their “warehouses on wheels” distribution chains, depends on a heavily subsidized, high-volume national transportation system.

    Fund the Interstates entirely with weight-based tolls on trucks (which cause virtually all the roadbed damage), eliminate all external subsidies to civil aviation, and eliminate eminent domain as an option for building new highways and airports and expanding existing ones, and the enormously increased costs of distribution will take care of consumer preferences.

    Supply and distribution chains will be shortened and the manufacturing ecconomy will be relocalized. Manufacturing will probably be a lot closer to the Emilia-Romagna model, rather than the Sloan mass-production model: integrating small-scale, general purpose machinery into craft production, with frequent switches between small production runs in response to orders. The distribution chains from manufacturers to retailers will be local and regional–hence no Wal-Mart.

    When the full cost of long-distance shipping and large-scale irrigation of giant agribusiness plantations is fully reflected in their supermarkt price rather than in your tax bill, out of season strawberries will be an occasional luxury grown in greenhouses.

    BTW, we should bear in mind that the prevailing tastes for mass-market chain culture didn’t “just grow,” like Topsy. It was itself the product of a deliberate and concerted top-down social engineering effort, after WWI, to rebuild society on mass consumption and consumer credit . The mass advertising and PR industries were founded by Lasswell et al, the same people who had founded the science of propganda to manipulate the public into supporting St. Woodrow’s crusade. Public school Home Ec classes and corporate mass advertisers, in a propaganda campaign that foreshadowed Nestle’s genocidal marketing of infant formula in the Third World as “modern” and “Western,” systematically stigmatized home-baked bread and homemade anything as “backward” and “old-fashioned.” The thing is, they HAD to reengineer the culture, because the central problem facing industry (in Ralph Borsodi’s words) was to find a way to market profitably what it could produce running at full capacity. If people were left alone to replace their clothes when they wore out, eat when they were hungry , and follow their existing preferences without regard to brand names, people would have cut back to 20- or 30-hour workweeks as productivity increased, and half of industrial capacity would have turned to rust in the face of a glutted market. As the World-Controller’s hypnopaedic socialization put it, “The more stitches, the less riches; ending is better than mending.”Report

  22. Avatar Nathan P. Origer
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    says:

    I do want to add that I don’t think that certain forms of “coercion” are necessarily bad. To one of E.D’s past posts, I responded in part by bringing up Bellocian differential taxes and Georgist land taxes. Both of these, I think, are taxes that contribute to the community’s well-being without necessarily creating hardship.

    The former, save when applied retroactively (which, I concede, may be necessary for successful implementation), rather than punishing, merely prevents: It compels a successful businessman to decided between expanding and facing increased taxation (A few stores in the chain may not incur problematic penalty, but ten, or twenty, or four thousand are taxed to the point of being financially stupid.)

    The latter simply makes taxation and property distribution fairer and more equitable God/mother nature/the Big Bang/whatever created the land; we didn’t. While we have a(t least a Lockean) right to the wealth we create by mixing our labor with the land, we have little claim to the value of the land itself, which we did not give really good (or bad) soil or access to water. Nor do we alone generate increased property values because we happen to be in a popular location. The (LOCAL) government, as manifestation of our sovereignty, and the local community, as generator of the wealth, ought to benefit from the value that we did not create, rather than letting us have our money for nothing (and our chicks, presumably, for free).

    I don’t provided this to counter, but to add to, Mr Carson’s prescriptions.Report

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