Michelle Obama's 'news-free zone'
The first lady's remark about avoiding the news at home is an unfortunate example of suburban escapism.
Opinion March 22, 2010|Gregory Rodriguez
When Michelle Obama told Mike Huckabee a few weeks ago in an interview on Fox News Channel that her home was a "news-free zone," she wasn't just reflecting a desire to filter and ignore news we don't want to hear. Her statement, to my ear, also represented the culmination of the suburbanization of the American mind. And that's bad news for our future.
I'm not about to launch into a righteous diatribe against the intellectual shallowness or soullessness of suburbia. I won't play the role of sophisticated urbanite, not least because I couldn't pull it off. I'm a proud product of suburbia. I know its charms and its demons, and all in all, I'm pleased to have spent my childhood there.
What I'm not so fond of is the suburban dream. I know that part of the reason my parents raised me and my brothers in a leafy foothill Southern California community is that they wanted to spare us the indignities and rough edges of the city and farm, the places where they were raised. I'm grateful for that. But implicit in the suburban ideal is the notion that families must be at odds with the realities of the big bad world.
The suburban ideal is associated with a particular vision of family life: Members of the single family unit are their only allies, best suited to look after each other's physical and emotional needs.
That vision also assumes that family members prefer to be around each other more than anyone else. This explains the conspicuous absence of public places in so many suburbs. Gone are the plazas, the central parks, the gathering places for strangers. As Brandeis University sociologist Laura J. Miller has written: "The geography of suburbia makes it relatively difficult, during non-work hours, to associate with people who are not members of one's household." If that weren't enough, suburban architecture -- the detached single-family home -- draws a sharp line between family and public space. Trademark lawns serve as modern-day moats.
So what does this have to do with Michelle Obama's news-free zone? Well, the suburban ideal includes the notion that the temptations of the world lure people away from familial togetherness. It stresses the need to guard against the world of nonfamily members. And isn't that what Obama is implying? Her husband sought the most powerful office on Earth, yet like a suburban mother warning her children of the city, she speaks as if the world were an unwanted intrusion. She told Huckabee that she stays away from news because she wants to formulate her own opinions based on her experiences. That's comforting. When it comes to news, the first lady just says no.
Any city begins with some one's or some group's vision of the good community. As with all human endeavors, the passage of time reveals the costs of the vision. Some great things come forth, but so do unanticipated problems - even evils. So people try something else, and the pattern repeats.
Rodriguez presents the strange idea that we just should stay in the cities, embrace their flaws and not try to build other ways of life - at least not the suburban kind. Crime, crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded schools, overwhelmed hospitals and the like should be experienced because they "make us real." Families that try to give their kids something different aren't visionaries or community builders: they're just "dreamers" who don't want to "interact with the world."
To romanticize or idealize any one kind of community, or cast any other as the pit of hell, is manifestly "unreal." Every community has its blessings and its curses.
I lived most of my life in L.A., and there are things I miss. The Mark Taper Forum, Dodger Stadium and USC football at the Coliseum come right to mind - I've still not "adopted" a regional sports team, college or pro, here on the Plains. But Sioux Falls (still a city, albeit much smaller) has given my family many blessings that, on balance, are the better choice for us today. And who knows where my wife and I might go as empty-nesters, and after that as retirees? The pluses and minuses of different communities are relative. Our preferences, politics or problems are not over-arching human realities.
Because Christ has come, the kingdom of Heaven is growing in all communities; and all communities are resisting it for their own short-sighted idols. 'Tis the human condition.