When My Congressman Came to Visit by Danielle Poe

Poe, Danielle (Univ. of Dayton). “When My Congressman Came to Visit: Reflections on a Collapse.” CPP Newsletter Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2004).

My credentials as a thoughtful, articulate, and intelligent person are impeccable. From the time I was a part of the speech and debate team in high school to becoming a professional philosopher and presenting papers at conferences, I have answered and asked probing questions that challenge institutional racism, classism, and sexism. Nevertheless, I collapsed when confronted with institutional power. Of course, I didn’t literally collapse, but I was completely unable to speak when I met Rep. Michael Turner and Rep. Michael G. Oxley, Chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services. My inarticulateness would not surprise me as much if I had been caught off guard and didn’t know that I would meet them that day, but I had been prepared. I was not, however, prepared to engage in a discourse that thrives on appearances and evades depth.

On December 15, 2003, Rep. Turner was named chair of a new working group on Saving America’s Cities. As part of this group, Turner took Oxley on a tour of Dayton, and one of their scheduled stops was my parents’ home. My parents live in a home that was built as a part of “Rehabarama.” The city of Dayton, during Turner’s first term as Dayton’s Mayor, began “Rehabarama” to revive neighborhoods by restoring historic homes and building new homes in Dayton’s historic neighborhoods. From one perspective, this program has been wildly successful because it keeps people, like my parents, in the city. My parents are comfortably middle-class and in most cities they would probably choose to live in the suburbs, but because they want to live close to me and found a new house in Dayton with fantastic financing and tax incentives, they live in the city.1 My parents are good representatives of the people who have bought Rehabarama homes, and thus they were a perfect stopping point for Turner and Oxley.

The neighborhood in which my parents and I live is economically and racially diverse. Unfortunately, the economic lines tend to follow racial lines as well. Our neighborhood is home to lawyers, a surgeon, a television producer, and university faculty; we own our homes, and we are overwhelmingly white. We also have a neighborhood within our neighborhood: Cliburn Manor, a low-income housing complex. This housing complex was built in the 1970’s with over 200 housing units that replaced less than 50 single-family homes. The residents of Cliburn Manor are poor, and they are overwhelmingly African-American. At the best of times, the Cliburn Manor residents feel excluded from the neighborhood association. During the election of a new neighborhood president, however, the residents were portrayed as a problem that needed to be eliminated.

Citing police statistics, a woman running for president (who is now president) said that our neighborhood police officers were spending most of their time responding to crime in Cliburn Manor. She said that the public-housing experiments are a failure, and that she would call her friend Mike Turner to have the public housing removed, and then we could focus on trying to integrate the former residents into the community. When I heard her plans, I was outraged. How dare she propose to tear down people’s homes; how dare she propose to integrate them into the community as an afterthought! Furthermore, I was appalled at her presumptuousness; no one was present from Cliburn Manor to discuss their struggles and hopes. I was also scared that she could carry out her threat since the Republicans’ “compassionate conservatism” has much in common with the neighborhood president’s plans. First, get rid of the problem. Second, make plans to make plans for those who have been displaced and sunk into deeper poverty. The actual carrying out of any post-displacement plans seems unimportant.

Since I had the chance to argue another perspective, a perspective that demanded discussions between everyone in the neighborhood and opposed hasty action that only benefits middle-class homeowners, I was going to ambush Turner. “Poor Turner,” I thought, “Little does he know that I will be waiting at my parents’ house to ask him uncomfortable questions about gentrification and displacing the poor.” My spouse wanted to take Turner completely by surprise and organize a protest, but I insisted that Turner would be in my family’s home, and we could talk to him. We could accomplish more by starting with our agreements and leading him to agree with our positions, especially since our positions are logical and correct.

I am trained in a tradition that values what Judith Green calls “deep democracy,” democracy that fosters conversation and reflection.2 Deep democracy insists on democracy that promotes participation beyond a representative, political system in which the average person is only active when she votes. In deep democracy, individuals take responsibility for democracy by participating in various communities. Thus, interactions between elected representatives and their constituencies would involve conversations in which one could ask their representatives questions, articulate their ideals, and express concerns about implementation. Deep democracy could never accept an encounter in which a politician comes to the door with an entourage and his plans already in place such that questions and conversation cannot happen. I assumed that when I met Turner we could have a democratic encounter in which our subjectivities remained intact. I am not so naïve as to have thought that I could get a Republican representative to buck the system and champion my pacifist ideals, but I was not prepared to be rendered silent. I thought that I would at least have the opportunity to have a conversation with my representative.

Part of my misguided belief about sitting down and talking with Turner came from my previous encounters with him. I have met Turner on two other occasions at a neighbors’ Christmas parties. On these occasions, I have really liked him, not least of all because his daughter was kind to my daughter, Tess. In fact, my entryway into the conversation with Turner was going to be to reintroduce Tess, as the little girl with whom his daughter shared her walkman. I had Tess, who is three, primed for her part. I told her that she would be seeing her friend’s daddy. Before he got there, she was running through the downstairs, checking the door at every sound, and talking a mile-a-minute about “Mike Turner.”

For my part, I was also primed. I walked home from school that day and thought about a promise from our neighborhood president: she will call her friend, Mike Turner, and ask him to tear down Cliburn Manor, the low-income housing in our neighborhood. My statement for Turner was simple: “You won’t tear down Cliburn Manor until you have integrated those families into the rest of the neighborhood.” Further, I planned how I would get him to agree that his commitments to community revitalization, both when he was mayor and now that he is a congressman, required him to economically integrate communities before he dismantled the system already in place.

Our big moment arrived when I looked out the window and saw Turner, Oxley, two staff, and two journalists coming toward the door. Tess immediately froze when six people walked in the door instead of one. She stood back in the room to watch what was happening. Turner’s friend, who had been waiting for him with us and who had arranged the visit, brought Tess over to Turner and told him that she remembers his daughter. Turner knelt down to Tess’ level, told her that his daughter was on a train between New York and Washington, and that she would see her again at Christmas. Tess nodded in terror; this was not like talking to the daddy of a friend. In her other encounters with daddies, children were the center of attention, but here Turner was the center of attention. He wasn’t chasing his daughter; instead, another congressman, an aide, and three reporters were chasing Turner.

I was as speechless as my daughter. Turner was no longer a man like any other man. He seemed taller, his eyes seemed bluer (I’m not even sure that he has blue eyes), and his teeth seemed whiter. Everything about his presence was highlighted because he was the center of a great deal of frenetic activity. He had a team of people waiting for him in advance: a realtor to present neighborhood information, and a politician to survey the group. He led a team into and through the house: a fellow Republican, who seemed awed by Turner’s accomplishments; three reporters, recording each word; and an aide, who created distance between my family and Turner by loudly proclaiming that the visit was over and they were moving to the next location.

Turner commanded attention as he orchestrated his visit. He had the perfect, short phrases for the journalists to jot down, and he stayed just long enough to show Oxley what he had accomplished and could continue to accomplish. I had no idea how to break into the presentation. If Turner and Oxley had been having a conversation at a Christmas party, I absolutely would have interrupted, but I have no experience with an orchestrated media tour, and I became a mere audience member. Turner’s entourage made him the spectacle that the rest of us watched, and he knew how to play up every moment.

In that moment, I realized why women and minorities have not cracked the glass ceiling of politics. The presence that commands attention and renders intellectual discussion useless comes from an attractive, tall, white man. When these features come in other packages, the effect is quite different. Tall, non-white men scare us, tall women make us snicker, and short people are infantilized. Clearly, these are stereotypes, but impressions are instantaneous, and the entire encounter happens in a matter of minutes; stereotypes convey information that takes too long to convey otherwise.3

As a white, woman, I played into Turner’s glorification. Republican politicians count on the support of the white, middle-class, and in the visit from my congressman that is all that I was. In one sense, my whiteness served as a privilege because Turner wanted to showcase prosperous, middleclass citizens living in the city. The residents of Cliburn Manor were completely invisible in the visit. The congressmen spent no time visiting low-income housing; after all, Turner wanted to show Oxley something unexpected, and low-income housing in the city certainly isn’t surprising.

In another sense, I was still invisible because I did not fit into the script as a speaking member of the tour. It served Turner’s purpose to talk to Tess; a powerful politician reaching out to a small child makes the congressman look friendly, and a small child cannot offer any resistance to his plans. Someone who can resist that script was systematically excluded because Turner’s attention was focused on his entourage, and they on him; my family, my daughter, and I were lovely backdrops.

In those moments, I experienced what Luce Irigaray refers to as the appropriation of all subjectivity by the “masculine.” that is, my subjectivity (and my daughter’s) was appropriated by masculine power, embodied in Turner.4 For Irigaray, subjectivity has always been appropriated by the masculine in the discourse of Western philosophy, but this analysis also applies politically. Tess and I became props for Turner’s display of masculine power. His masculine power was exercised over the men and the women present; my father and my spouse were no more able to speak to Turner than Tess and I were. Not only was my parents’ house on display, but we were on display. Turner presented a picture of his vision of “saving America’s cities,” we were the happy, white, middleclass family living in the city, and his audience was Congressman Oxley. In the presentation, Tess lost her status as an excited child, an articulate three year old, and a person eager to talk to a friend’s father. I lost my status as an intellectual, a scholar, and a powerful woman.

Philosophy trained me well to discover racism and classism, to ask questions about the links between gentrification and displacement of the poor, and to have a logical discussion in which good intentions lead to ethical actions. Yet, I have to look elsewhere to discover how to insert these concerns into a political framework that thrives on soundbites for journalists and appearances for fellow congressmen.

As philosophy becomes more and more specialized and we concern ourselves with fine distinctions in philosophical categories, we have forgotten how to be public intellectuals. We certainly cannot afford to become lazy in our academic rigor since that helps us to be suspicious and insightful critics of contemporary culture’s exploitation. On the other hand, academic rigor does not excuse our reluctance and inability to challenge discourse that tends to be shallow, flashy, and oppressive. When we meet politicians, journalists, and opinion-makers, we have one, at most two, windows of opportunity to voice concerns about racism, classism, and sexism. Even if they resist listening to what we have to say, we have to learn how to make our positions heard. Ultimately, philosophy is not a pure discipline that needs to be guarded against the shallowness of democracy. If we have to taint our purity by speaking as if we were shallow, we may be able, finally, to deepen democracy. Maybe, we can, and should, revel in this “impurity” if it will allow us to be public, philosophers of peace.

Notes

1 People who buy Rehabarama homes are eligible for loans at a point below prime and a ten-year tax abatement.

2 Green, Judith. 1999. Deep Democracy. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

3 The use of stereotypes to convey information about people is in full force with the rise of reality television. In order to get people to identify with characters for a brief period (one hour to one season) these shows rely on stereotypes. For a full discussion of the use of stereotypes see Sander L. Gilman, 1985 Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP.

4 Irigaray, Luce. 1985. “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine,’” Speculum of the Other Woman. Gillian C. Gill, trans. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP.

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