20040928mattjohn.jpgMLJ: It seems like your dissertation relies heavily on remarkable circumstances that you couldn’t have planned. How much did fate factor in to your paper, and how did it affect the final product?

JNC: Well, this sort of gets to that whole change in academia that I mentioned before. At one time, there was a sense in the social sciences that the only appropriate way to study human behavior is the same way we study physics or chemistry. You start with a thesis, try to control for variables, and use your observations to test the thesis. Unfortunately, humans do not behave in predictable, orderly, rational, or reproducible ways. People are complex. Life is complex. There are too many variables.

So there has been this whole movement towards what is called qualitative research. Basically the idea is that you go “into the field” because it seems there are interesting things happening there. And by finding out what people are doing, what they think is going on, why they make the decisions they do, and the way things play out we might actually find out how life works. And this was basically my approach. I started out just wanting to help with the whole “Save the Ballard Bowl” project. But once involved, I realized that what was happening in Seattle had a lot to do with my interests in public space and politics and culture. So the real answer to your question is that I started looking at this precisely because skaters asking for public space is a remarkable thing. And I figured that observing the political system and the rest of the city try to cope with this claim would tell me some interesting things about how decisions get made in a place like Seattle. The fact that skateparks became so politically loaded, and so many unpredictable things happened really spoke to how disruptive it is to say “we are going to officially acknowledge and accommodate this culture.” It also spoke to just how intensely people feel about their public spaces, even if they don’t consciously think about them a lot.

MLJ: It seems like you make a concerted effort to say that the factors that contribute to the skater’s experience in Seattle skatepark advocacy are not unique to Seattle. Is this just an effort to make your work seem more relevant or are we really not as special as we think we are?

JNC: Certainly Seattle is “special” in both really great ways and pretty crappy ways. At the same time, a lot of what has been key to Seattle’s experience is also common to a lot of places. Real estate values are shooting upward in most cities. It is getting harder for families and especially middle-class families to live in major metropolitan areas. People are deeply attached to their public spaces wherever they are. Parks are subject to a ton of different competing demands wherever you go. So while Seattle has, for instance, a particularly intensive, slow and frustrating public input process, it is not entirely unique this way. Rather, it provides more opportunity to see the same types of dynamics that likely play out whenever a new and potentially frightening new use of public space is proposed. For example, while Portland has not had the same sort of experience with skateparks that Seattle has, my guess is that similar political dynamics occur around different types of public space issues there.

MLJ: One of the more interesting findings you come up with is that skateboarders become “discursive proxies” for a community’s fears, no matter what they are. Can you explain this a bit?

JNC: The idea that I am trying to capture with that term is that we have certain populations in our culture who are synonymous with very strong cultural values – either positive or negative or both – and who are practically excluded from engaging in the political system for one reason or another. Because we have such strong associations with these populations, a variety of political actors can invoke their identities as a sort of political short-hand for much more complex ideas and arguments. And because they can’t really challenge the way their identities are being used, this is a safe move for these political actors. Typical examples would include “our troops” or “the welfare mother” or “illegal immigrants” or “the unborn fetus.” Because these populations really do not have a substantial voice in the political system, it is easy for politicians and interest groups to claim to represent them “by proxy.” At the same time, their identities are used in politics as a “proxy” for a host of other arguments and projects. We say “support our troops” when we are really arguing in favor or against the current presidential administration and its foreign policy. We invoke the “welfare mother” when we are really arguing that the government shouldn’t provide assistance to the poor. In the case of skateparks, people brought all sorts of perspectives and agendas to the table, but they were almost always stated as “a skatepark in my neighborhood is bad because skaters are trouble” or “we need a skatepark because kids are underserved by the city and need this activity to stay out of trouble.” So, questions about where skaters’ belong are turned into questions about who they are.

MLJ: Hmm…so why do you think it’s OK for people to say things about skateboarders that they can’t say about other groups of people? What makes racism less politically correct than accusing skateboarders of being criminals?

JNC: I think that the nature of our political system and contemporary media has two tendencies that encourage this tendency towards playing identity politics. First, there is almost no room in the media or politics to really honestly discuss and weigh the complexities of government decision making and policies. If you are on a news program, or political debate dealing with the situation in Iraq, you get maybe 15-30 seconds to summarize an immensely complex situation. Secondly, the way our society works is that powerful, wealthy, well-connected people have almost all of the political influence. I am not saying that all wealthy people have the same beliefs and goals. Rather, it takes money and social connections to make things happen in politics. At the same time, we pride ourselves on being a democracy where we are all “created equal” and all have an equal vote and, supposedly, an equal say in how things are done. Well, it is impossible to work for the government or be an elected official and both give everybody an equal say and still curry the political favor from powerful individuals and groups that is necessary to get things done and get reelected.

So, these kinds of rhetorical machinations are essential for government to put a neutral, democratic explanation on its decisions to provide one group or project with more resources than another. Instead of saying “neighborhood A has the clout to reject a skatepark and neighborhood B doesn’t,” a governmental decision maker can simply say “well, because skaters act in a certain way, their choices make them incompatible with neighborhood A, but they are a good fit for neighborhood B.” That said, I think the same rhetorical move has actually been used historically to “code” racism. It has been well documented that the whole “get tough on crime” rhetoric that is now so common was initially used by politicians in the South to imply “get tough on blacks” policies. And that’s the problem with this sort of move. Not only is it often disingenuous, but it tends to cloak underlying motives – whether honorable or terrible.

MLJ: How do you think economics plays into this? Do you think communities with a higher per-capita income have more or less tolerance for integrated neighborhood skateboarding? Why?

JNC: I don’t know if I can make that correlation. I do think that we are pretty intolerant of difference as a society, and increasingly money allows you to insulate yourself from people who are not quite like you by moving into a gated community or other wealthy enclave. And once you are used to a more homogenous neighborhood, difference becomes even more scary because it is a matter of fear of the unknown. I think there were a lot of people who came out against individual skatepark sites in Seattle who were very concerned that, having spent a lot of money to live in a “good” neighborhood, they might be confronted with people who were different than themselves in terms of age, race, or socio-economic background if a skatepark were build near them. I don’t think being wealthy makes you more intolerant. I do think wealth allows you to voice and advance your intolerance more effectively, as well as nurture it by isolating yourself. And Seattle is a pretty good example of that. We dig your diversity so long as you mow your lawn, wear Dockers, and speak with a college educated accent.

MLJ: You went to all the same meetings I did and I came out of it with nothing more than a crushed spirit, yet you emerged with a PHD. What makes you so special?

JNC: The real question is what makes you so un-special? In all honesty, I was able to do that because skatepark advocacy, writing the dissertation, and teaching constituted my full time jobs and what I did for fun. I think what sets apart an “academic” from a regular Joe or Josephine is not that the academic is any smarter. It’s just that when you are a grad-student or professor your full time job is to think about, research, write about, and talk about the kind of stuff that most of us are lucky to have 30 seconds to consider about as we flip through the morning newspaper between changing the baby’s diaper and running off to catch the bus. So…that and the fact that I have a sixth finger growing out of the palm of each of my hands that allows me to type at superhuman speeds.

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One Response to “Exclusive interview with John Carr: Part 2”
  1. Peter Whitley says:

    Great work John and Matt! My head hurts trying to channel this great insight into practical, grassroots strategy. What do you suppose an understanding of this kind of political proxying of skateboarding culture can help the average skater pushing for a skatepark in their community?

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