Mix and Match

I recently moved to a more rural area, but for most of my life lived in suburbia. Suburbia has many charms, but everyone knows that community almost never happens in such areas. Of my 40 years of suburban living, I surmise that I had only a semblance of a relationship with perhaps 6-7 families. I guess this is fairly typical.

I remember some years ago voicing an idea to my wife: What if on a corner house, someone was allowed to set up a small bar or cafe? Maybe even one for each street? My mind raced to the possibilities of front yards set up as family friendly areas with a few games and such. I thought that this could work, and communal bonds form. People generally want to get to know others, but nothing in the suburbs helps foster this in any way. In fact, everything more or less works against it.

Of course even if my idea would work in principle, it would fall afoul of zoning laws. As Jane Jacobs points out in her Dark Age Ahead, “purity” formed one of the key principles of zoning laws in the 20th century. Thou shalt not mix commercial and residential areas. One of Jacobs’ tasks in this, her final book, was to question this and other sacred cows.

In his A History of Needs (1978) Ivan Illich heavily criticized various aspects of the modern world on both the right and the left. Broadly speaking, we could group his attacks under the banner of his intolerance for what he termed “hygienic industrial ‘progess.'” Basically, whatever “made sense” in terms of measurement, neatness, and uniformity we counted as “good.” Illich thought most often the opposite would result.

Jacobs has a few main lines of attack, though she wished that readers would take Dark Age Ahead as a hopeful book in the end. I see her as essentially an heir of Illich, one who urges us to abandon our fixation with “purity” and stratification in order to achieve something more real.*

Zoning laws come under particular fire from Jacobs, though she is hardly a free-market libertarian. She writes,

Only in 1916 did zoning take appreciable hold in North American culture. The three ideas that shaped zoning were these:

  1. High ground coverages are bad.
  2. High densities are bad
  3. The mingling of commercial or other work uses with residences is bad.

All three assumptions are rejections of cities and city life, devised by utopians and reformers who tried to overcome public health problems and “disorder” with these abstract, dysfunctional solutions.

Jacobs continues to argue that people object not to these particular things, but poor versions of their implementation. In theory at least, we should have the ability to legislate proper boundaries for all of the above. Jacobs hints at the real issue governments shy away from fruitful messiness–the lack of ability for them to effectively control outcomes. Organic “messiness” resists the neatness governments require, for governments these days govern mainly through data, which requires order to collect.

Jacobs sees that our “Dark Age” cometh because we rely on abstractions and theories, and refuse to properly observe. We might say that proper observation means noticing proper mixing. One of her touchstone examples involved the Chicago heat wave in the summer of 1995, where hundreds of elderly people died. One could easily observe the cascading effects, as overloaded power grids shut down, children opened hydrants, which meant no AC and no water for some poorer neighborhoods.

The CDC came in to study the problem, and Jacobs spares them not a whit. The study, conducted by nearly 100 intelligent people, found that people died because they remained in their rooms and faced heat stroke and dehydration. The study discovered what any 3rd rate medical examiner might–the medical cause of death. Congratulations.

Thankfully, another researcher named Eric Klinenberg came in and performed a far more useful task. He noticed that in some neighborhoods, the death rate was 10x that of other locales. The difference lay not in the temperature or even the direct access to AC and water, but in neighborhoods. In some boroughs, the at-risk elderly had people to check on them and give direct aid. This happened because different groups of people knew each other, and the elderly trusted those that came to check because they had seen them around. The CDC study pointed out that many who died did not follow the well publicized advice to leave apartments and go walk in the neighborhoods, go to a store with AC, etc. Klinenberg pointed out that neighborhoods with exorbitant fatalities had no place for people to walk to, no businesses to enjoy AC in, etc., because of zoning laws that do not mix the residential and commercial.

For Jacobs, such limited thinking by one of our top scientific institutions, combined with neighborhoods that do not allow for real life to take place, risks conjuring up a new Dark Age. The “high” of our institutions cannot properly assess the “low” of everyday life and appreciate what actually makes civilization possible.**

As Jane Jacobs wrote Dark Age Ahead (2005) we experienced the erosion of the situation in Iraq, and some might say, the end of American hegemony. In 2019 the Rand Corporation published a study entitled The Battle for Baghdad: Lessons Learned–and Still to be Learned. I feared that the book would have a know-it-all tone and paint everyone as idiots who should have known better. I found it fair and sympathetic to most everyone, while at the same time avoiding explaining everything away.

More than enough blame exists between civilians and the military to go around. The authors point out that some things went right–food and water distribution went according to plan. Few Iraqi’s died of starvation, malnutrition, or improper medical care. Huzzah for us, but aside from that . . . well. . .

The long list of what went wrong begins with:

  • The U.S. has a good record with humanitarian relief. It is one of our strengths. We spent tons of time and resources planning for such aid, but never had a chance to implement it effectively, because the war continued long past the conventional stage. We prepped for something that we never could implement.
  • Conversely, time and money spend prepping for humanitarian aid was not spent on preparing for the political, cultural, and asymmetrical military mess we had after we took Baghdad.
  • We expected that the Iraqi government would continue to function after top-level ministers and advisors (i.e. Saddam’s cronies) left office. Since Saddam’s regime depended on highly centralized decisions, we assumed that those ministries operated as effective state structures. If so, then the top leadership could be replaced without much fallout, and no large-scale reconstruction would be needed. Instead, we badly misread the nature of Saddam’s governance and Iraqi society.
  • The military won a brilliantly clean conventional campaign. As for what came next, as one commentator put it, “The military wanted to put a civilian face on it, while the civilians [State Department] wanted to put an Iraqi face on it, and meanwhile we had 150,000 troops on the ground, and a UN order saying that what we were doing wasn’t what we thought we were doing, which was an occupation.”
  • The question of looting confused many people on the ground at the time. One general talked of how he saw the looting as non-violent wealth redistribution. They expressed no hostility towards the army or each other. He saw the looting as a natural response to Saddam’s oppression, as a communally peaceful way to solve a problem, so why stop it? In hindsight of course, this “wealth redistribution” set the stage for lawlessness later.

We need to seek a path through such confusing events and attempt to find a central cause or problem.

I tentatively venture that the core problem involved just what Jacobs diagnosed stateside, a failure to embrace or even recognize beneficial messiness/appropriate mixing between agencies, peoples, and so forth. We can see this through a couple of different issues.

To start, a lack of cooperation between the Departments of Defense and State led to an elimination State’s meaningful role, for all intents and purposes. We always need unity of command, but not unity of perspective. This lack of cooperation hurt our available intellectual resources.

This lack of good internal mixing led to external problems. In a variety of instances, the authors cite the problems of our preference to tear down existing structures and build from scratch, rather than use what we found already in existence. This preference was surely easier on paper, but its application in a society with complex social dynamics proved most difficult.

Another example that fit this failure to mix pattern might be the “De-Ba’athification” of top level Ba’ath party officials close to Saddam. The authors acknowledge the deep complexity of the problem. Saddam governed Iraq as a mostly secular Sunni Moslem in a state where Shia’s and Kurds formed 80% of the population. Indeed, the removal of these generally corrupt party officials met with strong approval from this broad 80%. However, this move scarred and humiliated Sunni’s publicly. The authors strongly suggest that perhaps these officials needed removed, but not removed as a matter of public policy, which would bring public shame. Sunni insurgent groups very likely arose from this action. They felt threatened by the new order, and responded in kind.

The U.S. also usually sought to tear down existing structures of government and rebuild from scratch. Iraq had so much unexpected complexity, it made sense to seek more simplicity and clarity. However, this move also backfired. We failed to build an infrastructure for effective governance.

The theme I see often involves a strong avoidance of “mess.” Our democratic, Enlightenment inspired, science driven culture loves clarity, transparency, and simplicity. These values serve us well, up to a point. They fail us in situations akin to Iraq, where we need to ditch many of the qualities that form our society, and hence, our military as well. Among other things, our values lead us towards greater standardization and speed. These qualities will not promote the wisdom to recognize a good “mess” when we need to.

Jane Jacobs began her diagnosis of this problem with her groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The pristine clarity sought by developers, the separation of residential and commercial, would prevent real communities from developing like those that saved the lives of many of Chicago’s elderly in 1995. Jacobs thinks that “the people” often get betrayed, in.a sense, from on-high. Perhaps. I tend to think that democracies get the kind of culture they want, and thus, the kind they deserve. Our current cultural polarization, i.e., our failure to mix well, may not be the byproduct of the debacle in Iraq but its cause.


*For the sake of clarity, purity is not a morally bad or good thing–it is a descriptive term of something that can sometimes be good, sometimes be bad, depending.

**One can see significant similarities between the CDC’s handling of this limited incident, and their handling of COVID 25 years later.