Reviews

Urban Nightmares by Steve Macek

Chris Sahl

Macek dissects with profound disappointment and regret the effects of victim blaming, repressive law enforcement policies, and scapegoating of urban residents by conservative pundits, politicians, news media, and popular culture.


Urban Nightmares

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Subtitle: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City
Author: Steve Macek
Price: $22.95
Length: 360
Formats: Trade Paperback
US publication date: 2006-05
UK publication date: 2005-07
Amazon
In any major city, minding your own business is a science. The first thing they teach women in rape prevention is to yell fire. Nobody answers to 'help.'"

-- Detective William Somerset, Seven

As somebody who grew up in the lilywhite suburbs and often ventured into the city as a teenager and college student, I've always wondered about the unreasonable anxiety I felt when walking around after dark. Why did I quicken my pace when I felt like somebody was following too closely behind me? Why did I obsessively check my wallet on the subway to make sure no one had pick-pocketed me? Was I racist? Was I merely deprived of street smarts? And why did I feel this way?

Living in cities as a young adult has let me outgrow these irrational fears, but still ponder what caused them. Steve Macek, an assistant professor of Speech Communication at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, posits the origin of my anxiety. In Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City, he outlines the conservative political rhetoric and popular cultural depictions about race and urban environments that created and fostered an irrational fear of the American city in the 1980s and '90s. Macek is an unapologetic Marxist, and his persistent (albeit reasonable and exhaustively analyzed) negative portrayal of conservative thought and ideology as manipulative and calculating is sure to put off readers who prefer an unbiased approach.

But what a refreshing change of pace. In our current political environment, the constant refrain from the Right insists that Hollywood and the media are rampant political tools of the liberal establishment. Macek turns the clock back and inverts the equation, examining the "conservative" agenda promoted by depictions of American cities in the news media, Hollywood films and advertisements of the 1980s and early '90s. Close-readings of these popular cultural forms are his greatest contribution to the rich academic bibliography of race and the city.

Macek dissects with profound disappointment and regret the effects of victim blaming, repressive law enforcement policies and scapegoating of urban residents by conservative pundits, politicians, news media and popular culture. If only "everyone but the very rich could have joined together to demand a more progressive income tax and other measures to reverse the dramatic polarization of wealth and incomes that wreaked such havoc on working-class urban neighborhoods," he laments. Instead, the increasingly distant and anxious middle class was preoccupied by the pathological behavior, violence and depravity they perceived in America's cities, "and that fixation more or less guaranteed" that no lasting social policy could ever occur and exacerbated urban poverty.

Macek notes that the poverty rate in central cities more than doubled from 1959 to 1979, leading to a suburban antipathy towards (mostly minority) urban dwellers that first manifests itself in "obsessive fear" about crime. A sense of physical and psychological distance between suburb and city emerged, intensified by alarmist and derogatory stories through the hegemonic informational source: newspapers and television. Macek fingers the news media as the critical vessel of transmission for the right-wing ideology and rhetoric about the dangers of the city, particularly television news and its embrace of the "if it bleeds, it leads" approach and the fear-mongering journalism that ensued. The perception of rampant crime and inhumanity in suburbia led to a "panic over the city" that Macek describes as "neither a simple reflex of the suburban mentality nor a realistic response to a genuine threat; rather, it was created, fueled, and organized by a right-wing discourse on the 'urban crisis' that supplied an ideological framework and a set of ideologically laden concepts for interpreting conditions in the inner city."

Racism both overt and implied formed the center of this discourse, the origin of a perceived "savage urban other." Macek points to the neoconservative "law and order" platform to tame the inner cities that rallied middle-class whites to Nixon's cause in the late 1960s as the rhetorical framework for the fretful attitudes towards urban violence and at the end of the century. After all, Macek says, liberal attitudes were still prevalent before Nixon; in the aftermath of the Watts riot and other ghetto uprisings, the leading intellectual attitudes were sympathetic to "slum" dwellers. Then Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon ran on platforms based on neocon social thoughtpromoted by disgruntled Cold War liberals and ex-socialiststhat saw causation for urban violence not in economic disadvantage or racism, but defective morals and dysfunctional family structures. Anxiety about further urban uprisings made this platform a valuable political and ideological tool readily exploited by the Right during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, earning wide public support for increased force to subjugate the urban poor.

Macek's clear scholarly passion is close readings of Hollywood films and the impact of depictions of the American city. The book's centerpiece is Macek's study of an anti-urban bias in Hollywood films of the era, which he separates into several categories. The "yuppie horror movies" like Judgment Night and Grand Canyon, where suburban whites find themselves trapped in a threatening city populated by predatory minorities. And "urban gothic" movies like Batman, The Crow, and Seven, in which the exaggerated horrors of fictional cities serve as coded symbols of the American city as dangerous and populated by evil forces. The crux of the chapter is a close reading of Seven, David Fincher's horror story about a serial killer on the loose in a hellish, unnamed city. Macek, in exhaustive depth, analyzes the effects of the city upon the film's central characters, and the city itself as a character of sorts. Seven's "pointed, excessive association of bloodshed with the big city," Macek writes, in consideration of the real-world political discourse that is "synonymous with the deviant racial 'Other,' subtly codes its violence as black."

In the discussion of film's representations of race in the urban environment, particularly with his criticism of the young black filmmakers like the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society and John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, Macek misses a critical element of popular culture in the rise of gangsta rap. The most vocal conservative critics of African American popular culture like C. Dolores Handy focused on the violence and misogyny of rap artists from the 'hood like NWA., 2 Live Crew, and Ice-T's metal band Body Count and its song "Cop Killer." Whether out of genuine interest in urban black culture or simply seeking titillation from the rampant profanity, sexual braggadocio and graphic depictions of violence (likely the latter), albums by the Geto Boys and Dr. Dre were ubiquitous in suburban white youth culture. How did these depictions of urban life affect young people's perceptions of the city? Given Macek's wide range of media represented here, the effect on America's suburban youth from their primary popular cultural consumption -- music -- is a significant omission.

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