Argument: New York City getting little sympathy from the rest of the country

Dahlia Lithwick compares the responses to New York City after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the spread of COVID-19 in the city:

In the hours and days after planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the twin towers, America recalled with a ferocious tenderness how desperately it loved New York. America loved the gritty, multicultural melting pot that was New York; it loved the way New Yorkers pulled together, demonstrating heroic selflessness and service. America loved its burly firefighters and cops and rescue workers. And America loved that New York bustled on, that New York pledged to rebuild. The city and the twin towers became the national locus of grieving, sometimes in ways that elbowed out the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the other scenes of 9/11 attacks…

Fast forward to the pandemic of 2020, which has, in its earliest days at least, walloped New York harder than anyplace else in the country. As of this writing, New York City has seen more than 1,500 people dead and more than 57,000 cases diagnosed. But this time, New York City has not received an outpouring of national love and support. Instead, it has been shunned and shamed…

It was always a fairy tale, but it was surely a nice one. Columbine’s tragedy was America’s tragedy. Las Vegas happened to all of us. Parkland, Florida, was everyone’s worst national nightmare. Regional differences were downplayed so we could grieve together. But Donald Trump came along to remind us that Puerto Rico is not really America, and Detroit is not really America, and California is definitively not America. It was an easy myth to puncture, and he has deftly and rapidly ensured that no city or state will ever be America’s battered sweetheart again. We are all on our own.

New York almost makes it too easy. The city has long been associated with unbounded greed and wealth, cultural elitism, and ethnic diversity. That encompasses Ted Cruz’s sneering dog whistle about “New York values” in 2016, and Trump’s newfound loathing of the city he called home for his entire life—a city he was maligning long before the coronavirus came along. Despite the country’s love affair with New York in the wake of 9/11 or even Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it’s also always been the case that the city coexists uncomfortably with the fantasy of rugged cowboys, wide-open spaces, and manly white men dominating nature, an American story Trump and his acolytes seem to love above all things.

I would add to this in a few ways:

  1. This hints at America’s complicated relationships with big cities from the beginning of the nation. Should the United States be a rural, agrarian society or a urban, cosmopolitan one? Our “compromise” is that slightly over half of the population lives in suburbs, places that can hint at both open spaces and nature alongside easy access to urban centers and amenities. Across a range of urban crises, mobilizing American sentiment for cities and the issues facing them can be a tough sell.
  2. As noted by Lithwick, New York City, out of all the cities, is a unique case. It is the leading city in the United States in terms of population and influence. It is regularly recognized as the leading global city of the world. It is an economic, entertainment, and cultural center. Yet, it is not the capital (which gives Washington, D.C. a particular status). It is not necessarily the place many Americans would aspire to live in. It is anchored in one part of the country and associated with particular values. Across the full city (and not just focusing on lower and midtown Manhattan which tend to get an outsized amount of attention), it may be a great microcosm of the United States but there are numerous alternative visions.
  3. Lithwick highlights differences in the two cases and there are plenty to tease out. One I would say more about involves the threat – terrorism versus a pandemic – affects a relatively small number of locations versus potentially affecting everyone, respectively. In 9/11, a majority of attention could go to New York and the scale of tragedy there. With COVID-19, all American cities (and surrounding regions) are at risk. Is it possibly to rally around one city, even the leading city, when everyone is nervous and defensive? Creating enduring solidarity in this case may look less like pulling for other places and bonding around the common issue all locations face (even as this differs in magnitude).

Sociologist on the effect of skylines on cities

Camilo Jose Vergara is a sociologist and photographer who in a recent piece showing multiple angles of the World Trade Center tower over the decades also remarks about the power of a city skyline:

“The skyline is often how people relate to cities,” Vergara told The Huffington Post. “If a city has a skyline, it enters into a different category. It’s a grand city, a great city.”

Two points are notable:

  1. Cities are complex so an iconic image – the skyline – can be an important shorthand for the large city and metropolitan region.
  2. Important cities have notable skylines. Of course, many cities have taller buildings that can be seen from a distance. But, only certain cities have large collections of tall buildings and these skylines can have buildings that becomes iconic in themselves.

In other words, it is hard to imagine major American cities without recognizable skylines. Yet, European cities don’t have the same obsession with skyscrapers and tend to feature older structures like churches. And I wouldn’t be able to immediately pick out a skyline for Tokyo or Berlin or Moscow or New Delhi.

New York’s skyline and buildings on 9/11 and today

This set of photos compares New York’s skyline and buildings on September 11, 2001 to its current state. As you might expect, there is still quite a bit of construction going on. But, after a flurry of conversation in the years after 9/11 about how New York would rebuild, I have heard little in recent years about how this all might transform these spaces in New York City. The new One World Trade Center Place – the Freedom Tower – is interesting but how will it fit in with the surrounding neighborhood, fit in with New York’s skyline, and change New York’s identity?

Using plagiarism detection software to examine anti-Muslim bias in post-9/11 news coverage

A new sociological study suggests mainstream media sources tended to rely on the rhetoric of certain anti-Muslim groups after 9/11:

“The vast majority of organisations competing to shape public discourse about Islam after the September 11 attacks delivered pro-Muslim messages, yet my study shows that journalists were so captivated by a small group of fringe organisations that they came to be perceived as mainstream,” the paper’s author, University of North Carolina assistant professor of sociology Christopher Bail, told Wired.co.uk…

Bail and his team used plagiarism detection software to compare 1,084 press releases produced by 120 different organisations with more than 50,000 television transcripts and newspaper articles produced between 2001 and 2008. The software picked up damning similarities between the releases and stories from news outlets including the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Times, CBS News, CNN and Fox News Channel.

“We learned the American media almost completely ignored public condemnations of terrorist events by prominent Muslim organisations in the United States,” Bail told Wired.co.uk. “Inattention to these condemnations, combined with the emotional warnings of anti-fringe organisations, has created a very distorted representation of the community of advocacy organisations, think tanks, and religious groups competing to shape the representation of Islam in the American public sphere.”…

Bail’s paper, published in the American Sociological Review, is part of a wider study which will investigate how the influence of these fringe groups has spread beyond media and in to the real world, where doors have been opened to elite conservative social circles and conservative think tanks — the first steps to influencing public policy and national opinion. Bail touched upon this in the current study after analysing publicly available information on the organisations’ membership, which revealed troubling crossovers between fringe and mainstream organisations.

Four quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like there could be some importance influence of social networks. These fringe groups may be on the edges of public discourse but they have connections or means to which to reach more mainstream media sources. How much of this reporting is built on previous personal connections?

2. This sounds like a clever use of plagiarism software. Such software is intended to catch students in using published material incorrectly but it can also be used to track common quotes, phrases, and narratives.

3. In general, how much does the media today rely on press releases and reports from mainstream or fringe groups without interviews, fact-checking, and sorting through all the information?

4. Would a similar study involving elite liberal social circles and think tanks find similar things?

Pictures of 9/11 Ground Zero memorial

Here is an interesting set of pictures of what the 9/11 Ground Zero memorial is going to look like. The architect talks about his own experiences in putting this together here. See the official website here.

I assume there will be a lot of discussion about the memorial once it is fully open to the public. Does it adequately sum up American feelings and experiences regarding 9/11? Memorials not only invoke the past but also reflect our current understanding of past events and people. Such spaces can both provoke and inspire collective memories, meaning they can reinforce already existing narratives or ask people to develop their own (like the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial).

The effect of terrorism on New York City: more security measures

There is little doubt that what happened on September 11, 2001 was consequential for the United States. But it is also necessary to think about how this event (and other terrorist acts) have affected the American way of life.  The AP looks into what it means for the daily lives of New Yorkers – here are a few snapshots of an altered city:

Visitors to the Statue of Liberty must go through two separate, airport-style security checkpoints. Taking pictures of the PATH trains that run under the Hudson is illegal. Even the city’s architecture is changing: closed “sky lobbies” are replacing ground-level public spaces; vehicle barriers are de rigueur.

At Rockefeller Plaza, concrete barriers emblazoned with “NYPD” blocked part of the streets running through the promenade, which draws thousands of visitors to see its Christmas tree and ice skating rink.

In the subways, train conductors tell passengers, “If you see something, say something.” So do posters and ticket machines. Police conduct occasional spot checks, setting up a table in stations and searching travelers’ bags at random.

Times Square — now partly transformed into a pedestrian mall — sports wider sidewalks aimed at creating buffer zones around high-profile buildings. Nearly every lamppost now has at least two domed cameras and an antenna for beaming live images to police.

“Cameras, cameras and more cameras,” said Robert Jacobs, 30, a visitor from Chicago. “Makes you wonder who’s got time to watch it all.”

The overwhelming theme in this story is security: a greater separation of pedestrians or workers from potential harm while at the same time increasing vigilance through cameras, checkpoints, and the active participation of residents.

But what does this mean for the average resident? A little more inconvenience and time to travel? Some visual reminders that terrorism is a consistent threat? What I would want to know: has terrorism significantly altered people’s mindsets (perhaps stress levels about possible attacks) and behaviors? Do people or businesses not move to New York City because of the possible threats? This article suggests terrorism hasn’t altered much beside raising the general level of anxiety by some amount.

h/t The Infrastructurist

Teaching 9/11 in schools

Now that we are nine years removed from September 11, 2001, this is something I’ve wondered: how do schools teach about this day? According to the Christian Science Monitor, there seems to be a variety of approaches.

Another place to look would be school textbooks. With evidence that textbooks either just plain get it wrong or present biased perspectives, how younger generations learn about 9/11 will be something to watch.

Overall, both specific school lessons and textbooks will help shape the American collective memory regarding the event. This collective memory can take time to develop and is likely to be controversial; just look at how long the 9/11 memorial is taking to shape up at Ground Zero.

Plainfield: From deadly tornado to suburban growth

Plainfield, Illinois has experienced much suburban growth in the last twenty years: it had 4,500 people in 1990 and it was estimated in 2007 to have more than 37,000 (with projections of 120,000 people in 2030).

But at the beginning of this growth spurt, a deadly F5 tornado ripped through the community on August 28, 1990:

The tornado touched down outside Oswego about 3:15 p.m., and the 200 mph winds inside it etched a scar 16 miles long, stretching to the southwest side of Joliet.

By 3:45, the sky was clear and the horizon lined with battered, leafless trees and ruined homes. In all, 1,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 300 people were injured and 29 were dead, victims of the most powerful tornado ever to strike the Chicago area.

As the community prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the tornado, this article provides some insights into the collective memory of the community. The memory of their darkest moment faded away as new people moved in, 1,000 new residents in the first year after the tornado. Today, Plainfield is something different than it was then.

Sociological studies of the effects of disasters or crises tend to focus on big cities. I recently heard a presentation about a new book comparing the 9/11 crisis in New York City and the Hurricane Katrina crisis in New Orleans. I wonder if the insights of that book would be able to speak to the experience of people in places like Plainfield.

Islamophobia: a complicated tale

Time magazine asks a provocative question with its August 30th cover: “Is America Islamophobic?” The story cites a number of statistics, including recent poll figures about whether Americans think President Obama is Muslim, to suggest that Americans have some qualms and/or misperceptions about Islam.

I have little doubt that there is truth in the article – the situation could certainly be improved. However, even with the generally negative tone, the story also  admits the situation is more complicated:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME–Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11. 

Islamophobia in the U.S. doesn’t approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are in a minority. But to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there’s no one in Europe of the stature of a former House Speaker who would, as Newt Gingrich did, equate Islam with Nazism.

A couple things to take out of these two paragraphs:

1. Evidence of increased violence against Muslims is limited or doesn’t exist.

2. There is some anecdotal evidence. This is not necessarily bad evidence but it isn’t systematic or tell us how widespread the issues are.

3. This is not what we might typically consider “religious persecution” – which perhaps suggests how this is defined will change.

4. These issues may be worse in other nations – there is more written about this is in the magazine version as opposed to the abridged version online. Some of the part that is missing between the two paragraphs quoted above:

Polls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else in the Western world. Two American Muslims have been elected to Congress, and this year, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim to be named Miss USA. Next month, the country’s first Muslim college will formally open in Berkeley, California…

This suggests that America is one of the better Western nations Muslims can move to. What about America has led to these feelings of safety and freedom among Muslims? We could ask another question: what about America has stopped the response to Islam from being worse, particularly considering the emotions and symbolism of 9/11?

Another quote in the article is intriguing: writer and commentator Arsalan Iftikhar says, “Islamophobia has become the accepted form of racism in America…You can always take a potshot at Muslims or Arabs and get away with it.” The part about the potshots may be true but the first part of this quote ignores a long and complicated racial history in America, particularly antipathy toward African-Americans and other groups. Americans have an infamous legacy of dislike and hatred toward newcomers or “the other” – this is not simply an issue with Muslims.

This is a complicated situation that bears watching.

Quick Review: Be Very Afraid

Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist of religion and culture and I was intrigued when I saw one of his recent books at the public library: Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. A few thoughts about the book:

1. The book examines four threats: the nuclear threat, terrorism after 9/11, global pandemics, and global warming. Each threat has a chapter where Wuthnow provides an overview of the history and then a second chapter that provides more of an analysis. Each of these subjects is interesting and the historical chapters are decent overviews of the social construction of and response to each of the problems. The historical chapters tend to focus on popular culture (movies in particular) and government responses.

2. The primary theoretical aim is to demonstrate that people are not paralyzed or immobilized by such threats (as some have suggested) but rather are spurred into action. For governments and larger organizations, this means the development and expansion of agencies and procedures to deal with threats. Average citizens go about ways of making sense of the situation and preparing themselves. Wuthnow suggests action and searching for solutions is the typical human response to such situations and analyzing these patterns of response is revealing.

3. While the cases are interesting as is the theory, I feel this work could have done more to analyze each case and provide an overarching perspective on threats at the end. I also would have liked to see more of a summary of the interview data that Wuthnow and his team collected (mentioned in the first footnote to the Introduction) – how did this personal-level data fit with the broader social history of each threat?

Overall, an interesting work that left me wanting a little more explanation. These cases suggest that when a new threat arises, both bureaucracies and individuals will respond with action. But what kind of action – is it dependent on the particular threat, the particular culture, or some other factors?