Infantalism and Cold-War Paranoia in NIMBYism
If you’re reading this I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with the YIMBY/NIMBY debate in housing politics so I won’t go through the trouble of explaining the context of the situation here. It was mostly done on a gut feeling, but the YIMBY Arts project started as a way to try to tackle this problem from a cultural standpoint and as I get deeper with this stuff I’ve been finding more and more interesting stuff looming in the background.
My argument has always been that YIMBYs need to do a better job at understanding how NIMBYs think because after you go through all the statistics, data, and policy arguments you often find that the positions they take are purely emotional. (“Neighborhood Character”, etc.) We are talking about people, after all — there’s a tendency to dehumanize your opponent in politics but finding common ground means recognizing the humanity that exists on other side. If nothing else, a better understanding of your opponent will increase your likelihood of winning since you’ll have a better handle on the situation overall.
Best case scenario we can come to a deeper understanding of each other and perhaps some path towards resolution and compromise. That will probably come much later, though. Right now we need to focus on getting a basic understanding of historical context. Straight into the meat of the argument, here:
The Cold War Bunker
I think YIMBYs — many of whom are millennials with no memory of the Cold War — often underestimate how much this shapes the mindset of generations before them. Sprawl is incredibly inefficient and makes no sense as public policy except in one situation: as a preventive measure against nuclear weapons. The more spread out your citizens are, the less likely you’re likely to lose your best talents in one devastating attack. It’s hard to imagine now, but there were times in US history where that was something you had to actually worry about.
It’s arguable whether or not this policy makes sense or not in this day and age (you could make the case that it’s still an effective anti-terrorist measure) but it’s a thing and we should at least be able to acknowledge that it exists. Some of the “Large Corp surrounded by suburban sprawl” neighborhoods were planned deliberately in this way, and many of us have grown up in these areas, for better or worse.
What does this have to do with culture and the arts? Well, now that the deed has been done the CIA openly brags about how they secretly funded artists during the Cold War (many of whom we all know and love) so this stuff is baked into our collective psyche culturally at this point. Being a counter-narrative to the Soviet Union’s style of Socialist Realism of its time, the message of the West made itself stand in contrast to what was happening in the Easter Blocs — personal expression, freedom at all costs, and God forbid you learn how to organize effectively because what are you, some kind of commie? If housing politics feels like an infiltration of a massively protected bunker, you’re actually not too far off the mark because a lot of these folks literally spent a lot of their time down there.
With secret money and shifting alliances and rivalries floating around everywhere, who can you really trust? Government organizations and businesses often target homeowner classes because they have the money and votes but are they really telling the truth or do they just want something from them? The paranoia from that era still hasn’t quite subsided, just yet. When they see a large building go up, they’re not just seeing a building in it of itself — it’s a reminder of the manipulation of their community by government and international corporations that they’ve had to deal with their whole lives.
You might have also noticed a trend of politicians and celebrities turning into cartoonish caricatures of capitalism/individuality (our current prez, Musk, etc.) they’ve basically inherited this sentimentality and are taking it to its logical conclusion. But riding the wave of a dying ideology is a surefire way to destroy your own legacy — which will certainly be the case over the course of the next few election cycles. We’re in for a big, sudden shift in political attitude in the next few years and we should be prepared for that when it happens.
Infantilism and the Fear of their Children Growing Up
Another distinct trend that has been going on during the last decade or so — and a lot of this is reinforced by the tech products that we use today — is the infantilism strongly baked into our culture right now. When I was working as a product manager up in the Bay Area I basically saw this everywhere, and thought it was really kind of strange. But I would be part of some projects where the PM would basically treat the users as if they were complete idiots (for “maximum engagement”) which ends up with designs that look basically like toys built for infants and small children. (Even if they’re targeting the 20–30s demographic as usual.) It’s like people watch Idiocracy and tell themselves “hey let’s do that”, instead of doing something better, or something?
Being part of the YIMBY movement has been a learning experience for me and I feel like I understand how the world works a lot better now than I used to compared to even just a few years ago. I know I’m not the only one who’s gone through such growth simply by being involved with this stuff. I know a lot of lot YIMBYs feel like the arguments in housing politics remind them of arguing with their parents since sometimes NIMBYs use guilt-tripping as a tactic to get YIMBYs to do what they want.
There’s various degrees of this stuff but I think it helps for us to acknowledge that the generational part of housing issues is a very real thing. The media (especially traditional ones) really should be the one covering this stuff since they can write about these things very deeply, but in the era of fake-news and yellow journalism it’s mostly up to us to focus on the topics that really matter.
Also as an aside, some NIMBYs actually like it when millennials can’t afford their own place because it forces their kids to stay at home and keep them company. You’ll never hear this being talked about in public but it is a thing. For a lot of parents, seeing their kids grow up is extremely scary because it implies that they are no longer needed in the world. What do you do with all your time now that your kids are all grown up? Think about your life and the contributions/subtractions you made to society in general? Spooky scary stuff. (That will be my Halloween costume this year, maybe.)
Do these topics change the way we talk about housing issues in terms of policy? Probably not — policy solutions are pretty straightforward in most cases and can be resolved fairly easily if the will to do so is there. But if you have a better understanding of where NIMBYs’ motivations are coming from, it may help you to determine the tone at which these issues are talked about in public. Although it’s true that a lot of NIMBYs are benefiting financially from current housing policies for sure, it’s important to consider that there may also be other issues looming in the background as well. I’d probably go on a limb that the emotional stuff is actually what matters the most, since the Boomer generation on average tends to be more emotionally-driven at least in comparison to the generations before and after. (The Silent Generation and Gen Xers tend to be more on the practical side.)
The emotional stuff can often be the most tricky to deal with because it’s messy, tragic, and reminds us of our own fragility and mortality as human beings in general. It’s kind of a drag on all levels, honestly. But if we can talk about these things without turning away, I do think there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, for both YIMBYs and NIMBYs alike.
What with the nonsensical policy stuff in existence (redlining, stealing from public infrastructure funds, blocking homeless shelters) I understand it might be hard to muster sympathy towards NIMBYs, but they too, in a way, are victims of forces bigger than themselves as well. If we can acknowledge where these torrents are, we might be able to better redirect its flow. If we portray them as supervillians or conspiracy theorists we’re unnecessarily giving NIMBYism powers that they simply don’t possess. At the end of the day, they are also human, just like the rest of us.
Some are way too entrenched to ever hope for a conversion (unfortunately these are the folks that often show up to the meetings) but I do believe that the majority of homeowners out there are still sitting on the fence, waiting for a good vision to come along. If we can establish this in a clear and understandable way, the problem will basically take care of itself. But in order to reach that point, we do need to see how all of this fits into the bigger picture and be willing to talk about the things beyond the obvious.