Reviewed: The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman

Paradise lost.

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
Sarah Schulman
University of California Press, 192pp, £19.95

Between 1981 and 1996, over 80,000 people died of Aids in New York City in conditions of horrifying ignorance and fear. Patients were left for days to die on gurneys in hospital corridors. Politicians and public figures called for those with Aids to be tattooed with their infection status or to be quarantined on islands. At the time, the “plague”, as the lesbian novelist, playwright and activist Sarah Schulman sometimes calls it, seemed like the beginning of the end of the world. Yet somehow, as treatment improved and the death rate declined, a seeming normality has been restored.

According to conventional wisdom, that somehow was a natural process, a slow shift from prejudice towards justice and effective care. When Schulman realised that this was becoming the official history of Aids in the United States, she was appalled. A long-standing member of Act Up, a directaction group formed to end the crisis, she knew precisely what was being elided: 15 years of struggle by people who were profoundly disenfranchised – queers, drug addicts and prostitutes, many of them now dead.

This process of banalisation, this insidious forgetfulness, seemed to reflect a larger cultural trend that has taken place in the wake of Aids: the ongoing creep of gentrification, the physical reconstitution of cities such as New York from diverse and vibrant to homogenised and bland, exclusive compounds for wealthy whites. In the post-Aids world, this tendency has spread like bindweed, suffocating diversity and bringing with it conservatism, disempowerment and passivity. Are the two linked, Schulman wonders? If so, why does it matter and what can be done about it?

Gentrification is never the result of a single factor. In New York, it was facilitated by tax incentives for developers and moratoriums on city-sponsored low-income housing. The role of Aids in all this was both coincidental and expedient. Because of rent control, properties couldn’t be moved to market rate unless the leaseholder either moved out or died. Aids accelerated turnover, changing the constitution and character of neighbourhoods far more rapidly than it would otherwise have been permitted. In the East Village, where Schulman lived, “The process of replacement was so mechanical I could literally sit on my stoop and watch it unfurl.” The new residents, for the most part the clean-cut citizenry of corporate America, were almost wholly ignorant of the people they’d displaced. In short order, an entire community of “risk-taking individuals living in oppositional subcultures, creating new ideas about sexuality, art and social justice”, had almost disappeared from record.

It’s hard to imagine, for those who have not lived through it, what it might be like to lose one’s entire community, one’s social circle, one’s peers and friends and lovers. It’s harder still to gauge what it might be like to have such a loss publicly unacknowledged or erased. Schulman hauls old enemies to account, among them Ronald Reagan and the late former mayor of New York Ed Koch, who by their homophobia, indifference and indecision permitted the disease to spread. “There has been no government inquiry into the 15 years of official neglect that permitted Aids to become a worldwide disaster,” she writes. “Where is our permanent memorial? Not the Aids quilt, now locked up in storage somewhere, but the government-sponsored invitation to mourn and understand.” It’s understandable that she might feel bitter at the institutional opulence of the 9/11 memorial to “the acceptable dead”, noting in a phrase both shocking and apt: “In this way, 9/11 is the gentrification of Aids.”

A self-declared old school avant-guardian, there’s nothing homogenised about Schulman’s counter-attack. The Gentrification of the Mind is best understood as a polemic, a passionate, provocative and at times scattergun account of disappearance, forgetfulness and untimely death. To her mind, the undigested, unacknowledged trauma of Aids has brought about a kind of cultural gentrification, a return to conservatism and conformity evident in everything from the decline of small presses to the shift of focus in the gay rights movement towards marriage equality.

The sorry thing about this is that the true message of the Aids years should have been that a small group of people at the very margins of society succeeded in forcing their nation to change its treatment of them. The memory of this lost moment of accountability drives Schulman’s final, stirring call for degentrification, her dream of a time in which people realise not only that it’s healthier to live in complex, dynamic, mixed communities than uniform ones but also that happiness that depends on privilege and oppression cannot by any civilised terms be described as happiness at all.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £7.99)

Between 1981 and 1996, over 80,000 people died of Aids in New York City. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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