Saturday, September 28, 2019

Too much Story-telling: When the Tree hides the Forest

Earlier in the week there was a heart-warming story of corporate munificence and upward mobility.

Alas, this is exactly how corporate PR wants us to understand the story.

Let's reconsider it. As we do so, let's just stipulate that this recipient truly needs a car, let's not question the recipient and their particular needs and situation at all. Their story is always more complex than we can know.

But there are other, more general things to question.
  • The headline disparages walking, as if walking, or taking the bus, or anything other than driving a car is second-class and inferior. This story participates in our system of compulsory autoism, shaming those without a car.
  • It sounds like easy access to affordable childcare might be an issue. This is a structural way we make it difficult for families and especially for single parents. This problem also lurks in the background of Councilor Cook's recent resignation. We don't support parents who want a career and a fulfilling intellectual, public, and economic life. We make finding childcare, affording it, and time-management a challenge, a test, instead of something parents can take for granted.
  • The whole sector of fast food underpays employees, and then asks government to fill in the gaps for those workers with supplemental aid - or special one-off corporate gifts. It's a way of extracting a hidden subsidy from the government.
  • Housing too is a factor. Affordable housing is not always available near places of employment, childcare, or frequent service bus lines.
You might have observed other factors. Though this masquerades as a sweet antidote to our difficult politics, it is much richer and more ambiguous than that. It's profoundly enmeshed in politics and policy.

All in all, the story positions a new car as the solution, but a car is too often just a bad work-around for a whole constellation of other problems. It's janky, and we should say so.

Crashed into bus shelter and tree
We do this in crash reporting, too. This week a person crashed into a bus shelter at Walmart on south Commercial near Baxter. There's cut-out for the bus, and the driver still crashed into the bus shelter and hurt an older person waiting for the bus. Police later talked about a probable "medical event," placing the crash in the category of "accident," an unfortunate story about an individual.

The crash site at Walmart on south Commercial at Baxter
But at 20mph a medical event is less harmful than at 40mph. The wide street is implicated here, and it's not just an individual story and "accident." Despite some kinds of engineered "forgiveness" for drivers when things go wrong, for most other road users the system is engineered to make things worse in those errors or catastrophe.

The crash site is at the now-abandoned proposal
for the South Salem Transit Center
Focusing on the individual story is a way to obfuscate the structural problems that contribute to - perhaps even wholly create - an individual's need for a car.

"Storytelling" is in vogue right now, and narrative will always have its place, but focusing on individual stories often obscures larger structural problems, and serves the status quo as it offers anodyne hope and a fictive salve.

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