Sunday, December 06, 2015

The problem is you

This NYT Mag meditation on "Resilience"  got passed around a bunch last week when the Mayor signed the "Resilience pledge" It's worth looking at again. I think this paragraph explains the particular genius of its appeal in modern-day American civic space.  It captures our current nightmare cognitive dissonance that welds the worst of our libertarian and authoritarian impulses.
But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character. ‘‘It’s pretty much the same message that’s drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-­century chant invented to make children do their homework: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ ’’ the social scientist Alfie Kohn argued in an op-ed article in The Washington Post. ‘‘The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-­discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.’’
I have conversations with people about this who tell me.. or at least seem to imply to me.. that there's something, I dunno, juvenile or unnecessary about examining the professional verbiage too closely. And I get it. I also think mission statements are empty propaganda. But it's worth at least grappling with what they are trying to communicate and why.

"Resilience" is a popular buzzword because it functions as a tacit disclaimer for powers that be who include it in the mission statement. It lowers expectations. The unstated message is, "Don't expect us to do our job. Expect to be 'resilient' when we fail you."

It's great marketing. It turns disaster, incompetence, and indifference into triumph. It's a proactive unironic "Heckuva job, Brownie." In the process, it also diverts resources to the permanent professional business of manufactured "resilience" planning. In this regard it is also an institutionalized form of Shock Doctrine.

It also speaks to a resigned tired pessimism. Things will always be bad. Have faith only in your ability to endure it. The fact that such a message connects should tell you something about where we are psychologically right now.

We're on the cusp of abandoning democracy. Part of the process of that is abandoning hope that collective action means anything. A "resilience strategy" tells us to expect less of our institutions, retreat into more "sustainable" self-reliant individualism, and above all, brace for impact. Again and again.

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