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What We Talk About When We Talk About Change

2010 October 22
by Andi Greco

“Change isn’t good or bad,” Don Draper told a coworker at the outset of Mad Men’s third season. “It just is.”

He was talking about the demolition of the old New York Penn Station, a pink granite Beaux-Arts masterpiece that was razed (in real life as well as on the show) in 1963. Few New Yorkers today can picture it from memory. We can glimpse its grandeur in photographs, but the camera seems as helpless before its scale as it would be pointed at the ocean.

In the episode, Draper’s ad agency has been tasked with counteracting some of the terrible press that is plaguing Madison Square Garden, which will take the old station’s place above its remaining rail platforms. Architects and activists are fired up, and public opinion about the project is roiling. Draper’s argument in favor of the stadium is blunt, and perhaps cold, but effective: Change is inevitable, especially in a city as dynamic as New York. One can either accept and adapt, or resist and be left behind.

In individual cases, like the circumstances surrounding the demolition of the old Penn, it was and is possible for the powers that be to heed the call of activists and keep certain places sacred. (On a larger scale, the selling of NYC’s architectural soul has proved somewhat inevitable. For every bodega replaced by a Chase Bank branch, an angel loses its wings and gets diaper rash.) You’d be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker who would disagree, then or now, that Penn should have been saved. The fact is, however, that a decision was made, forces were set in motion, and people had to live with it. Recently I got to thinking about the quotable Mr. Draper and how his survivalist philosophy might apply to more contentious, contemporary social shifts: the slow acceptance of new cultures, religions, and sexualities into the big American picture.

If you think it’s racist or callous to compare the acceptance of human beings to the acceptance of new buildings, hear me out a moment. I don’t suggest a moral equivalency between the two scenarios. When we lost Penn Station, we lost a great work of public art. The things we lose, or fear losing, when our cultural fabric changes are less defensible: a sense of security, a feeling of superiority, the ability to exclude rather than be excluded. To feel uncomfortable, or at least a little lonely, when everyone around you is speaking a language you don’t understand — this is a pretty universal human reaction.

To clarify: I understand that immigration must be limited, in terms of sheer numbers; if everyone who wanted to move here suddenly could, our economic infrastructure and our public services would not survive the onslaught. What troubles me is trying to control what kind of people can come here.

There are similarities to the conversations that surround these developments. When our cultural landscape changes, we feel compelled to reevaluate ourselves. On October 30, 1963, the day after the demolition of Penn began, a mournful New York Times editorial articulated this sort of self-assessment: “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” An individual who sees his community evolving may take himself to task in a similar way: Who am I now? How can I allow someone to change my world without my permission? What value does “my” culture have if I don’t fight for it? If I hear Spanish when I walk down Main Street, have I lost the town where I grew up? If my children learn that it’s acceptable to be gay, will they become people I don’t recognize, people to whom I can’t relate?

These narrow-minded and perfectly human questions are the seeds of prejudice. They happen in the moment before things turn ugly. It’s a vulnerable moment, which is why people are inclined to speed past it.  Cry about the loss of your childhood, and you won’t want to get out of bed; shout that the interlopers need to get outta your backyard, and you’ll work up enough adrenaline to carry you well into the afternoon. At this moment, you’re faced with two options: consider how best to live with a change that’s beyond your control, or head out into the street with a picket sign.

A couple of months ago, when the frenzy about the Park51 community center was hitting a fever pitch, Ross Douthat wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times that drew a lot of (deserved) ire. He suggested, in so many words, that there is a “wisdom” to “threat[ening] discrimination” in order to force cultural unity. He even dared to write that many Americans harbor “the darker suspicion that Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.” That statement is correct — many Americans do feel that way — even though the sentiment is nonsensical.

Douthat missed one plain but critical truth: Muslims are not inherently worse than any other group. This is the mistake all racists make: they forget, or refuse to see, that there is no inherent “virtue gap” between any two groups of people. Individuals vary (hello, Fred Phelps and Terry Jones); politics, economics, and geography all play a role in “cultural behavior;” but a statement like “Christians > Muslims” is never going to make sense. “Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale,” he writes. Try asking your average citizen whether he considers the Westboro Baptist Church (to which I will not link) within the pale.

Yes, hatred is illogical, but beneath it lies the fear that change will take something away from us. Prejudiced people lack the sense of history to know that society is constantly changing and has been since it began; they lack the personal security to realize that accepting a change of worldview does not mean the whole world is about to come crashing down. The cure for narrow-mindedness is, of course, breadth, as in wide-angle exposure: not just living among people different from oneself, but interacting with them and getting to know them a little. Travel is one means of getting this exposure. Another excellent way is to get an education and involve oneself in intellectual debate that includes people to whom one wouldn’t ordinarily talk. The easiest, cheapest way, however, is just to open one’s eyes. Difference is already all around, even in small towns; especially there. All one accomplishes by resisting it is dehumanizing those who are different.

Unlike the New York City skyline, the human mosaic cannot aim to be a static piece of art, an entity dedicated to form. Instead, we must pledge allegiance our dynamic, messy, present self. We are mortal animals; our past is dead. That which “just is,” is alive.


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