A piece today on newyorker.com neatly captures the current postmodern progressive spiritus mundi. Turns out it’s a strange creature indeed. The story, called “Trump’s Potty Obsession, and the Streets of San Francisco,” ostensibly is about homelessness in the city by the bay. As anyone dwelling above ground knows by now, west coast cities from Seattle to San Diego are in the midst of a homeless crisis that’s verging on full-scale social meltdown. The daily fact of public defecation has become a synecdoche for a situation that grows worse by the day.
The New Yorker story, by Dana Goodyear (whom we’ve met and found delightful), starts with a profile of an intrepid Frisco software developer named Sean Miller who created an app called Snapcrap (of course) that allows users to report human and animal excrement on the city’s streets and sidewalks. Ms. Goodyear asks the twenty-four year old entrepreneur for his “theory of the fecal Zeitgeist.” You can’t make this stuff up. Mr. Miller intones, “It’s the dichotomy between the über-wealthy people in the tech industry living, you know, next to people who essentially have nothing. Which is, like, pretty insane, when you think about it.”
There are more than a quarter million homeless Californians, with millions more experiencing housing insecurity. Perversely, the problem has accelerated even as the overall economy is producing some of its best years in decades. While labor participation numbers are cause for some concern, unemployment is at or near historic lows for every cohort. For those who want a job there are plenty to apply for, which makes the west coast’s homeless situation all the more confounding. To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, who are these guys?
Ms. Goodyear has the answer: These legions of glassy-eyed walking dead are victims of progressives’ über-bogeyman, capitalism. She declares, “unaffordable housing and the lack of a social safety net…stem from raw capitalism.” Good thing we solved that. Only, she’s writing about San Francisco, the most progressive city in the country and arguably the world. It’s the Utopia of $15 minimum wages, rent control, high sales taxes and fees on businesses, robust mass transit, rigorous development laws, strong tenant protections, stringent environmental laws, expansive social services, government bureaucracies for every imaginable human activity, and most every other chit on the liberal list of dreams. If it’s raw capitalism you’re looking for, Frisco’s the wrong place to start. Yes, the Bay Area is home to rampantly avaricious tech companies that have contributed to the country’s worst economic inequality, but the people who own and work at those companies are themselves overwhelmingly liberal and committed to expanding progressivism – sometimes via decidedly uncapitalistic ways. Blaming capitalism for San Francisco’s problems is like blaming the rain for your leaky roof.
Without warning or segue, midway through the essay Ms. Goodyear pivots to Donald Trump. One of the more amazing aspects of the media’s Trump obsession is how he has infiltrated every single subject they cover. Whatever you may think of him Donald Trump has about as much to do with poop on the streets of Frisco as you or me. The closest connection is a Tweet directed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to clean up the streets of her home district. That 180-character missive is all the catalyst Ms. Goodyear requires to rehash a litany of Trump’s scatological references over the years. She even throws in a reference to French psychoanalytic theory (who knew?) and how Trump’s supposed poop obsession explains his fondness for gold gilding.
Not that any of the President’s statements is defensible. The point is, Trump’s poop jokes have nothing whatsoever to do with the situation in San Francisco. The connection only exists in Ms. Goodyear’s mind, where Donald Trump seems to have taken up semi-permanent residence. He even gets top billing in the headline, though he doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the story.
Having exorcised her daily Trump demons Ms. Goodyear returns to the question at hand. In trying to explain why the country’s most progressive, high-tech city can’t address the problem, she consults one Guy Geltner, an urban historian at the University of Amsterdam (apparently all the urban historians at SF State, Berkeley, Stanford, and Santa Clara were tied up). Prof. Geltner eruditely explains thusly:
“We look at poop, and it embodies something greater than a disease. It’s something about the human body and human body politic that we’re afraid of watching as we commute to work. Public defecation is associated with mental illness. It’s a loss of control. Who in their right mind, with the most minimal resources, would choose to squat between two parked cars. Who? To us, it’s this painful illustration of something gone unimaginably wrong. That’s more powerful than the actual biological dangers that these smelly piles pose.”
A more relevant question: Who in their right mind, when confronted with someone defecating in public, watches? For whom, other than a professor of urban studies at the University of Amsterdam, does poop “embody” anything? Maybe the French psychotherapists can explain.
The quote perfectly captures the postmodernness of modern progressivism, in which everything symbolizes something. Public defecation isn’t just a public health hazard, not to mention a crime, it’s a phenomenon to be explored and analyzed for what it illustrates and associates. The juxtaposition with the approach of aa capitalist (though he apparently doesn’t know he’s one) like Mr. Miller is stark: He actually did something to address the problem. He saw a market opportunity in helping people avoid stepping in excrement. Hey, no one ever said capitalism was pretty.
The essay ends by comparing modern U.S. cities unfavorably to those in medieval Europe. This has become a disconcertingly common refrain among progressives, the notion that the distant past is superior to the present. According to Ms. Goodyear, “epidemiologically, the largest medieval city in Western Europe —Paris, which had a population of two hundred thousand people before the Black Death—was biologically far safer than contemporary San Francisco or Los Angeles.”
Re-read that sentence. A city in which a third of the population was wiped out by plague, a city that for centuries was notorious for its noxious stench, routine disease outbreaks, and rampant dumping of refuse in the Seine River, including dead animals and, yes, tons of poop – somehow was biologically safer than today’s L.A. Far safer, in fact. There isn’t nearly space here to go into how factually wrong that assertion is, so here’s an excellent essay about the history of sanitation in Paris (we recommend against reading it while you’re eating).
Ultimately Ms. Goodyear’s essay tells us less about homelessness and poop in San Francisco than about the modern progressive worldview. It’s a view that reduces complex social and economic questions to a rudimentary didactic: Everything bad is capitalism’s fault (or Donald Trump’s, or America’s) and the only good in this baleful country is progressivism. It ultimately is reducible to a form of self-loathing, lashing out at the country and system that have been so good and generous with people like Ms. Goodyear. It’s a modern incarnation of the medieval Christian practice of self-flagellation.
Meanwhile, the good professor does have one point: Something has gone unimaginably wrong in San Francisco, and all along the west coast. Suffice it to say, the solutions won’t be found in French psychotherapy, at Dutch universities, or in the pages of the New Yorker.