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Let me say some obvious things about streets.
A street has direction. It leads from one place to another. It leads from the same place today as it did yesterday, and to the same place today as yesterday. Where our streets are built—where they start and where they lead—reflect our community’s historical priorities, which we have inherited, regarding which places are important for people to be able to easily travel, and which are not.
If a street isn’t maintained, it will fall into disrepair. If the disrepair isn’t remedied, it will get worse, not better. A city that won’t maintain its streets will eventually become a city incapable of creating or receiving the value of transportation. So: we maintain our streets, if we’re wise. And so, simply by observing the conditions of our streets, we can make determinations about our community’s current priorities; not just which places are important for people to be able to access, but which places are more important.
And, which are less important.
If we want to make the street longer, we can extend it, but it will still lead out further in the same direction. If we were to decide that where the street led wasn’t a useful destination any longer, or if we realized the destination was harmful, or if for some other reason we wanted it to no longer lead to the destination it did, but to some other place, we’d need to greatly modify the street we had, to the point that it would begin to seem like a different street entirely.
If we wanted to allow easy access to some new location that had as yet been afforded no street, we’d need to build an entirely new street. A casual observer would easily be able to detect the new priority within our community. A place that had not previously been important to access has now become important. There is a new airport on the outskirts. A road has been built to the airport. The airport is important. If no road were built to the airport, the airport would be a boondoggle.
If we no longer cared about a location that we previously deemed important, we might stop maintaining the street, and allow it to fall into disrepair. A casual observer would easily be able to detect the underlying truth about priority; about a place the community once valued, which it values no longer—and, if there are people still living on that street, about those people, too.
And the people living there would also understand, of course. They, too, would understand at a glance what message was being delivered through their neglected and decaying street.
You might say that our streets are a tool—one of many—whereby a community delivers its priorities—its real priorities. The ones that can’t be denied, because they are what’s being done.
|Photo credit: Tamar Charney|
And, if we were to chart the full history of changes to our streets—of enhancement; creation, modifications, construction; and also of neglect, removal, and demolition, too—we could conceivably create a map of our community’s historical and ongoing priorities regarding human access.
So, our streets are configurations of our community. They, like all human systems, are changeable. Configurable. They will deliver the more core and underlying priorities of the part of the community that has power to decide on priorities. That’s the human part of the system.
Let me say some obvious things about configuration to human systems, once again using streets as illustration.
If we wish to maintain our streets, or extend them, or modify them, or build new ones to serve new needs, we would have to … do it.
But some time before we do it, we’ll have to realize that there’s a need to do it.
And some time after that, but still before we do it, we’ll have to accept that doing it is our collective responsibility.
And some time after that, but still before we do it, we’ll have to determine to actually do it, and make the necessary plans.
And some time after that, but still before we do it, we’ll have to agree to pay what it costs.
And some time after that, the cost will actually have to be paid.
And only once all those steps have taken place will the street actually be changed or maintained.
If these steps don’t take place, then the change won’t happen. The street will remain as it is.
Streets are configurable. People made them. People can change them.
We can set them upon a foundation that is even, or uneven.
We can use materials that are sturdy, or shoddy.
If they’re uneven or shoddy, we can make them better.
Or … we can make them worse.
We can configure them to generate opportunity and value and health equally for all. Or we can configure them to steal opportunity and value and health from some and give to ourselves.
This configuration will reflect our community’s priorities—the real priorities.
And the natural qualities of a natural human system mean that the theft and harm will be delivered to those it victimizes in the same way that the opportunity and health is delivered to those it favors: in a way that is shared, invisible, foundational, generative, automatic and inextricable.
That's the natural part of the system.
As I said: obvious.
I think these are very plain and obvious things to say. I’ve learned that this is an age in which it has become useful and necessary, even powerful, to state plain and obvious things.
Let me say some obvious things about human priorities: They tend to have a momentum. They act upon reality, and create effects. Those effects bend reality toward that priority, making reality more aligned with that priority, making it easier for that priority to further bend reality toward itself. They lead from one place to another. And so, like the streets, human priorities, too, have direction.
A priority, unchecked, increases its effects. Left entirely unchecked, it will eventually reach a state in which the priority’s intention is indivisible from reality itself. So, a priority based upon a desire for a sustainable system will allow itself to be checked toward sustainability, while a priority based upon an unsustainable lie will eventually check itself toward unsustainability; will inevitably destroy that system itself in favor of itself.
You might think of a priority based on a lie as a virus. A thing that exists only to promote itself, which has no place whatsoever within a healthy system, which will eventually consume that system if left unchecked.
Imagine the most extreme example: a system so unfair that every bit of value my street generates—every wage, every increase to property, every bit of food, permission to drive on the street or walk on the sidewalk, permission to access the homes for living or storage—goes only to me, and to me alone. The only result can be that eventually my neighbors are crushed, leaving me alone, receiving only the value I can deliver to myself, for however long that lasts.
In time, I would become a bizarre and unsustainable curiosity. Having cut every other human out of my natural human system, I have made an unnatural human system; a system that no longer generates the value that a community of humans naturally makes. Eventually I, too, will fail—not despite the fact that I have all the wealth, but because.
If I live in a system that eats my neighbors, I live in a system that will eat me in the end—even if I'm the one the system feeds.
An unjust system is an unnatural system.
An unnatural system is an unsustainable system.
And the defining quality of an unsustainable system is, it doesn’t sustain.
Think of a recent picture I’ve provided. Think of the rain, a natural occurrence, necessary for life, which my house receives invisibly, automatically.
Imagine something: Imagine a city where a few people decided to capture the rain. Imagine they built a series of gutters and downspouts and barrels and cisterns, so that when the rain fell on all the houses, they could divert most of it away from some of the people and bestow it to a select few others. Imagine a city comprised of islands of perfect lush green, swimming in a vast sea of blasted and parched and unnatural desert. Imagine a city that manufactured drought during a rainy season, then horded water, unused, in times of drought.
Or, less metaphorically: imagine a city that recognized the intrinsic value that a collection of people naturally generates—inextricable, automatic, inherited, shared, invisible—and decided to configure it to capture all that value for themselves.
Imagine, if you can, a society founded on a series of unjust lies—a series of propositions which, like a virus, have no place in a healthy society; which, like a cancer, grow out of systems that would otherwise be necessary for health; and which, like both virus and cancer, exist only to propagate themselves at the expense of health until those systems were consumed.
Suppose the founders of this society had learned that they could maximize the foundational, generative value that is the natural output of human society, by stealing all value away from millions of other humans, and giving it all to themselves. Suppose they did this by utilizing the idea that it was not only possible but desirable, not only desirable but righteous, for human beings to own other human beings as possessions. Suppose they founded their society on the proposition that the Owners should be the only people within the society allowed to partake in the collective will of the natural human system they’d built, and to control all the value delivered, and to parcel value out to the Owned only to the exact extent to which such an allowance would profit the Owner.
I would suppose that such a society would begin to believe, at the very core, that some people have value and others do not.
I would suppose that such a society would conclude that a person’s value is a matter of power and wealth, and to lack power and wealth is to lack any value.
I would suppose that such a society would conclude that for those who lack value, life must be earned by providing profit.
I would suppose that such a society would conclude that for a valueless person to receive some value beyond the profit they could provide would be a grotesque and offensive theft; that a person who could not be used for profit had not earned life, represented theft, and had therefore earned death.
I would suppose that such a society would believe violence to be an acceptable way to redeem such a debt against such a valueless thief.
|Photo credit: Jim Vondruska|
If my theories are correct, such a malicious idea would do what unjust lies always do: it would collapse the system. It would make institutions that in a healthy system would be vital to continued health into something grotesque and malicious; would make these institutions susceptible to practices, ideas, and intentions that have no place in healthy society. Eventually these foundational injustices, built on foundational lies, would devolve into unrest and internal war until either they captured the system entirely, or else they were defeated.
A society founded on many such lies would likely face a series of such collapses.
|An Alabama State Trooper swings his baton at the head of the then-25-year-old Congressman John Lewis on March 7, 1965. ( Everett Collection Historical, Alamy Stock Photo)|
For example: such a society might find itself into an observable historical cycle, whereby all resources and power would become unnaturally allocated with fewer and fewer people, until most people struggled to find what they needed to survive even though plenty existed all around, and found themselves with less and less recourse to effect any change, while a very few ruthless people managed to capture for themselves more resources than they could ever possibly use, which they would credit to themselves as proof of their right to own it.
|Ku Klux Klan parade in DC in 1927 (GETTY IMAGES)|
If such a society managed, through some combination of luck or effort to push back these unsustainable scenarios, it would be necessary for them to engage in the same practices any survivor of cancer or virus finds it necessary to engage in, if they were aligned with ongoing health. There would need to be a diagnosis— acknowledgement that the unjust lies and their unjust practices existed; then there would need to be a short-term change—radical, targeted, painful—to eliminate the threat; then a long-term remedy—a permanent, holistic, watchful, strategic, systemic restructuring—to monitor for and prevent recurrence.
But if they refused?
If they did that … then, if my theories are correct, you would inevitably see the healthy systems compromised and captured by the same old foundational lies, until everywhere you looked you would see the terrible old assumptions: that some people have value but most do not, that wealth is the measure of value, that the valueless must earn life through profit, that being unprofitable earns death, and that violence redeems.
|A woodcut from the abolitionist Anti-Slavery Almanac (1839) depicts the capture of a fugitive slave by a slave patrol.|
And such a system would inevitably begin to collapse.
Can you imagine it?
As a novelist, I might be able to manage such a thought experiment.
Let’s see … what would it look like?
Imagine a fictional city. Let’s call it something random, like, oh … Randopolis, in the land of Galtopia.
Let’s say Randopolis was the sort of place built on the sort of foundational lies I’ve just described.
Imagine they believed the lie, that some people had value and some didn’t.
Imagine they believed the lie, which attributed worth to wealth.
Imagine they believed the lie, that for anyone without wealth to receive any value equaled theft.
Imagine they believed the lie, that violence redeems.
And imagine that these people believed these lies to such an entrenched state that when they founded their city they owned other human beings as property.
Imagine a city like Randopolis, that had captured the natural human systems of society; had harnessed the mechanisms by which humans provide value to one another, and subverted it to unnatural ends, to instead deliver harm and theft to many for the enrichment of themselves.
To assist our world-building efforts, we might give this subversion a name, like injustice.
Imagine the more powerful members of Randopolis decided to optimize for injustice—to purposefully engineer the mechanisms by which cities decide things, so that when the city decided things, certain types of people were much more likely to be included in making those decisions, and all others were much less likely, so that the concept “the city decides” inevitably meant, in ways both visible and invisible, only a select type of people. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the favored people resembled the historical Owners: mostly older, mostly whiter, mostly wealthy, mostly male. Imagine that this happened to such an extent that it became an assumed thing, to the point that whiteness and wealth and age and maleness became the default assumption for decision-making in Randopolis, even an automatic and invisible assumption, a comforting thing, and anything breaking this mold was seen as a break from precedent, a special case, a risk—identity politics. In fact, for the first let’s-say 150 years of Randopolis’ let’s-say 250 year history, this restriction was not just an assumed preference, but codified as law.
Imagine the underlying configuration of such a foundation.
Imagine the ongoing inheritance of such a configuration.
Imagine now that because Randopolis had decided, over the course of generations, to route the value that a collection of people naturally generates, so that some received most of it while others received less, it so happened that no matter what sorts of remedies they put in place to configure against these unjust effects, the effects would inevitably come through, because the deeper intentions of Randopolis had never changed—the deeper intentions, the ones that matter, because they reflect what actually happens. These intentions came through because human intentions have a certain momentum. The effects of Randopolis’ founding lies always told the tale, not because those making the decisions always consciously believed those who the system robbed deserved to receive less (though they often did believe that), or because those making the decisions always consciously decided they’d rather keep more for themselves (though often they did so decide) but because the deepest intentions of Randopolis had become inseparable from reality in ways that were invisible and inextricable.
Imagine if for decades, people who had been stolen from in this way inherited that loss. Imagine they were systemically and not-so-secretly considered, simply by their existence, to be considered not victims of theft, but to be loss of value itself, to the point that houses were perceived to lose value simply by having such a person live within it, or even in proximity to it.
Imagine if that perception became so powerful that people treated it as reality. Imagine that those who had inherited all the stolen value used the fear of loss of value to remove all their stolen wealth elsewhere, to avoid sharing it with those they perceived as representing that loss—and so more value was withdrawn. Imagine that when this withdrawal applied to certain functions that are essential to a sustainable society—like for example schools—it was framed as choice, and notice how the framing conveys an assumption about who is permitted to choose.
Imagine if the people who were perceived as loss of value had once upon a time been the slaves that had built the older foundational roads, whose value the rest all inherited. Imagine if they were allowed to be perceived as loss of value because their ancestors had once been property, and, having repatriated their selves back to themselves, had stopped being property. Imagine that by no longer being property their former owners decided their very bodies represented not freedom for the freed, but theft from the owners.
Imagine if, in Randopolis, when people talked about the manumission of enslaved people, they said things like “we freed the slaves,” as if freedom itself were a gift that had been bestowed by Owners to Owned, rather than a natural right unnaturally stolen and rightfully returned.
But let’s go back further. Let’s imagine that this example of theft of value and displacement wasn’t just a single event, but a cycle. A foundational pattern. An intrinsic cultural methodology, to be found, once one had eyes to see it, everywhere; quite literally, everywhere. Imagine if the land upon which the houses and streets of Randopolis had been built by enslaved people had been stolen from somebody else entirely, and the people who lived there previously had been send off to live elsewhere.
Imagine if that value, which had once belonged entirely to them, no longer did, and, it seems, never would again? Imagine a theft so total as that.
In Randopolis, these were assumptions so rooted in the public consciousness of those who benefitted from it, so buried beneath the soil, that they were entirely invisible to their consciences, even as they picked and ate the fruit of those unnatural roots. Imagine if all of this was, to those who never suffered the consequences of these decisions, but who mainly reaped the benefits, largely invisible, and automatic, and inextricable, and shared, and inherited.
And because injustice inevitably occurred in their society, the citizens of Randopolis began to conclude, that injustice was an inevitable reality, rather than to suspect that they were foundationally unjust.
You’d be able to see this sort of dynamic play out wherever you looked, literally anywhere—in Randopolis, remember—the fictional city I’m asking you to imagine.
Imagine if in Randopolis the city decided at some point to build its streets primarily to convey cars. Imagine the city decided to put only cursory thought into the fact that some people possess insufficient wealth to own a car. Imagine that a city did this, until Randopolis became a much more difficult and expensive place to live if you didn’t have a car than if you did. Where not being able to afford a car made it less likely you’d be able to afford one in the future, either.
Imagine if some of the people involved in making such decisions owned car companies, or companies supporting or fueling the automobile industry, or owned large interests in such companies, or were friends with people with such interests. Imagine if most of the rest received generous payments from such companies to assist them in holding their plum positions.
Imagine something more: Imagine the streets in Randopolis were built in such a way as to cut some people in the city off from easy access to the rest of the city. Imagine if streets in those parts of the city were not maintained. Imagine if the city decided to do this.
Imagine if the city decided to divert less of its investment to those cut-off streets than others, year after year, decade after decade, until one could easily perceive which streets Randopolis had deemed worthy of investment and which it did not, and, by inference, the people living on those streets.
Imagine if the city decided to send municipal forces down only some streets to enforce laws, but not others, year after year, decade after decade. Imagine they were sent down streets that were presumed theft, presumed threat, presumed poverty, to secure “safety” for streets that were presumed safeness, wholeness, wealth. Imagine that over the years these forces were more and more equipped like military, like soldiers. Now imagine that the effect of all this policing was that the people who were perceived as presumed theft were charged with far more crime than any other, and as a result they also became presumed danger.
And so, the people who had inherited the injustice of theft also inherited even the culpability for the crimes committed against them, which was used as license for further theft. In Randopolis.
Imagine if year after year, decade after decade, the people living in houses on those streets had the shared, intrinsic, inextricable, inherited value of those streets deliberately diverted away from their street, and into all the other streets.
Imagine if for decades (in Randopolis), the city decided to help certain types of people own houses, while at the same time the city decided to not help other types of people own houses, or even to make it much more difficult, or impossible. Imagine after time those who had received this assistance were able to leverage the value they’d gained from having their houses to actually be able to buy other houses, which they would then rent to those who hadn’t been given the opportunity to create such value. Imagine if the city decided that these rented houses only needed to have as much value put into them as the owners decided they wanted to put. Imagine that, in Randopolis, a system was invented by which those who sold houses all tacitly agreed not to sell property in areas that had received stolen value to certain people who everyone tacitly agreed represented loss of value.
Imagine it were easy to do so, because those who lived on streets with stolen value all just so happened to have darker skin. Strangely, even though the neighborhoods whose value had been stolen contained mostly people with darker skin, no individual person with lighter skin could remember ever discriminating against any person with darker skin. Somehow it was just something the city decided, without deciding to, with no intention. Almost as if it had happened invisibly, automatically, inextricably.
And imagine then, that those in Randopolis who had inherited the benefits of all this diverted value were able to leverage that stolen value against the lessened value of the plundered areas, to purchase those areas at a discount, as an investment, then realize fantastic profits, as the presence of the assumed value of their selves, who had inherited a deliberate disproportionate value, replaced the assumed loss of value of those who had inherited a deliberate disproportionate loss, and so the city decided to once again invest in the maintenance of the streets, to allow value to flow once again into a place that had for decades seen the natural flow of value deliberately cut off.
Imagine some of the older streets, paved new, covering over the older roads, built on land stolen by others, constructed by child labor, underpaid labor, or by slave labor, allowed to fall into disrepair, until people perceived valuable arrived to bestow their assumed value upon them.
Imagine the collective weight of all that unnaturally diverted and stolen value. Think of the centuries of theft. Think of the centuries of inheritance—because natural human systems are inherited. As with the benefit, so with the harm.
Imagine a land optimized for injustice, as it slid into complete injustice.
Imagine a land where only a few people held almost all the value and influence the society provided.
Imagine a land where they used that value and influence mostly to try to get the rest.
Imagine a land that had become an unnatural human system optimized for injustice.
Imagine a land built on a bad foundation, as it began to collapse.
|Imagine millions of people believed they could actually live by this maxim.|
A hypothetical: say we discovered that the streets were discovered to be the cause of 95% of all cases of cancer. What if the very composition of our streets was discovered to contain some substance, which over time had become radioactive. Suppose they had made our streets so radioactive that they were causing active fatal harm to the people who used them. An asbestos of transportation, let’s say. What then?
Well, then: we’d need to replace all the streets. How many? All of them. How far? To the very boundaries of the city. Or we’d have to accept that the streets would kill us.
It would be the same steps for a larger modification as for a smaller one: Realize the need. Accept our responsibility. Agree to pay. Then actually pay.
Enough of us will have to want to enact these steps, so many that the city would decide it would be done.
Or, if the city refuses to change them, we’d have to conclude that this is because our city refuses to enact one of these steps. Which means either we have refused to enact them, or else that we are no longer what is meant when we say “the city decides,” and the controls have been unnaturally stripped from us.
Say we came to the point where most of us had decided to take these steps, yet those who held the controls by which the city decides still refused to take them. Either they refuse to accept the need, or they refuse to accept responsibility, or they refuse to determine to act, or they refuse the cost.
If this were our situation, then we will have to reach the conclusion that the problem of our radioactive streets is only the immediate problem, that the larger undergirding problem is that the way that our city makes decisions has been unnaturally misaligned, intentionally stolen. We’d have to conclude that such a city has decided to filter decisions on whether or not to let people live or die based on whether or not they were worthy of the effort—that it was a city aligned along matters of profit, rather than matters of life. That it was a city willing to take all the value an individual provided it, and then finally extend none back—and was a city that had learned ways of performing such an action.
But hey, listen to this: What if we only fixed some of the streets?
What if we only fixed the streets that were predominately … crazy hypothetical here, but oh, let’s say, let’s say white?
Or what if we only fixed the streets that had houses on them that were, to use a completely insane hypothetical that you’d never see in the real world, worth $1 million or more?
I think we’d have to conclude that the city had decided to let the streets kill some of us, based on our race or our wealth.
Which would suggest that each of us has a valuation, beyond which our lives are not valued.
Which would mean there exists some danger that would cause our city to abandon each of us, because—as we’ve learned—the opportunity and the health that society passes to us is automatic and inherited and invisible, but so is the injustice—the theft and the harm.
Which means that I have now learned that my community’s priorities—the real ones, the ones that are undeniable because they are what is actually happening—have bent reality toward the consumption of people to secure profit, and they have now reached a momentum that can no longer be denied.
Which means that a present danger to my neighbor means an eventual danger to me, no matter how much that danger presently favors me.
Which means that—even if I am only driven by self-interest—I would do well to watch for dangers to my neighbors.
If the way the city decides has become as broken or useless or harmful as our streets, then it is unable to solve problems—any problems. It might even start to organize itself around the principle like “government is the problem”—that solving problems of people isn’t a suitable matter for cities to engage in. If our city is organized in such a way that it is unwilling to save people from death unless they are deemed worth it, then we are vulnerable, not only to the problem of the streets, but to any danger to which our city decides our lives are disposable. If we are people who wish to live, we will have to change the way the city decides.
It's a science fiction premise. I put it forward for the same reason most science fiction premises are put forward, which is to demonstrate something true about our present reality.
Here's what my sci-fi premise demonstrates: when the city deliberately decides not to fix a problem, something needs to be fixed about the way the city decides things, because it represents a clear indication that our natural human system has been optimized for injustice, which will eventually consume everything, including ourselves. Today's threat to my neighbor is tomorrow's threat to me, because to live in a system that eats my neighbors is to live in a system that will eat me in the end—even if I'm the one the system feeds.
It is a wise society, then, that takes care of its neighbors.
How will we fix the way the city decides? The same way we change the streets. The same steps: Realize the need. Accept our responsibility. Decide to act. Agree to pay.
How much will have to change? Everything misaligned.
Which neighbors will we have to protect? All of them.
How far will the change have to reach? To the very boundaries of the city.
Because the good news is, if human systems can be configured, it cuts both ways. If we’ve configured our streets for harm and theft and injustice and collapse, we can also configure them for health and restoration and justice and sustainability.
How do we change the configuration? By changing our priorities—because priorities have a momentum that bends reality.
It starts with priorities—real ones, ones that cannot be denied, because they reflect what is actually happening.
Yes, and how do we change our priorities? The same steps we use to do anything. The same steps we use to build or change or maintain our streets.
Realize the need. Accept our responsibility. Decide to act. Agree to pay.
If we don’t do it, it has to be assumed it’s because we don’t want to.
I think these are very plain and obvious things to say. I’ve learned that this is an age in which it has become useful and necessary, even powerful, to state plain and obvious things.
|TOM WILLIAMS / CQ-ROLL CALL, INC VIA GETTY IMAGES|
A.R. Moxon is a writer. His novel The Revisionaries, is available now, with the paperback edition releasing December 1, 2020.