Some Thoughts on “Gang Leader for a Day”

Again cleaning out some old notes and writing, I came across some thoughts I had about the book “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets” and the subsequent discussion we had about it in book club. I started to write this, but felt I needed to do some additional research to back up some of my ideas, and shelved it. Dunno if I’ll ever get around to doing the research, but the ideas I had are interesting, at least.

We were talking about the architecture of the Robert Taylor Homes, and how it was, to some extent ill-suited to Chicago and the climate, and about the galleries being built outside, etc. and I was thinking about that and what I have skimmed from the Christopher Alexander book “A Pattern Language” about how profoundly architectural components can affect us and how we interact as a family, a neighborhood and a community, etc., and it made me wonder if they had, when they had decided to build the projects, taken an entirely different approach to building for low-income families, whether there would have been an different outcome.

For example, the way the buildings were constructed had a lot of influence on how the people interacted as a community. People were required to live in a fashion that was more intimate than other communities might have been, and it forced dependencies on people like Mrs. Bailey that wouldn’t have existed in other settings.

Architecture also had a powerful effect on how the gangs were able to seize control of the buildings and use them – controlling halls and stairwells, using empty apartments, etc. I wondered if that wasn’t part of the difficulty the gangs had with establishing other places, like Iowa. They didn’t have as much control over their members because they didn’t have as much control over their locations.

That caused me to wonder whether the architecture of the projects actually contributed to the rise of the gangs and the influence of drugs throughout the community. Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series)” talks a extensively about how the city can curb criminal activity by sculpting the streetscapes so that people can see the street from their windows and keep an eye on what is going on.

Separately from those ideas, I was thinking about how easy it is for me to judge Mrs. Bailey and JT – because I have the freedom to be an ethical person because I have enough money to be moral. When the economic system you’re trapped in gives you absolutely no incentive to be moral when being moral can get you killed, and when there are additional powerful reasons — like survival — for you to engage in unethical and immoral behavior, you’re going to do what you need to. The odds are stacked against moral behavior and right conduct.

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links for 2010-04-03

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On the nature of evil

The difficulty with evil nowadays, is that we no longer recognize it. This isn’t because evil has changed at all, but because we now have a warped understanding of what it is.
Evil isn’t, and never has been, a James Bond (or Austin Powers) villain who twirls his moustaches and threatens to cut our hero in half with a giant band saw while telling him the secret plans for world domination. Evil people in the movies and on television are proud that they’re evil, and they do what they do with malice aforethought, and they articulate their enjoyment at seeing other people in pain. In the movies, the hero never has trouble telling who the bad guy is, even if sometimes they have trouble convincing others.
Real evil people don’t want you to think they’re evil. They don’t want to think they’re evil themselves, so they come up with elaborate rationalizations for why they’re good, or why their bad behavior is someone else’s fault. Have you ever seen a criminal face his victim and apologize? They have a tendency to say things like, “I’m sorry this happened to you” instead of “I’m sorry I did that to you.” They don’t own their mistakes. They might be apologizing, but it’s the apology of an innocent bystander rather than the perpetrator of the crime.
Evil people often do good things to cover up their evil behavior.
Like the Phillip Morris commercials that talk about how the company is donating money to battered women’s shelters and children’s causes when we all know they made their money from a product that kills people. Or the Nike “Mrs. Jones” commercials that talk about supporting women athletes when Nike is under fire for using child labor to make their products.

Continue ReadingOn the nature of evil