NPR Podcast: Historian Kevin Boyle On The Dangers Of Seeing Detroit As A Metaphor

August 06, 2013, 9:56 AM

"On The Media," National Public Radio's weekly show, took on the way journalists and other commentators have used Detroit's bankruptcy to draw a larger picture of what is wrong with the country -- often with an ideological bent that suits their own purposes.  

"Pundits and pontificators have seized on the moment to lay blame on their favorite targets and reductively declare that what ails Detroit is a microcosm of what ails America," said co-host Bob Garfield, who interviewed Northwestern University history professor Kevin Boyle on the most recent show.

Boyle, who grew up on Detroit's East Side and attended the University of Detroit and received his master's degree and Ph.D from the University of Michigan, is the author of "Arc of Justice," the award-winning 2004 book about the Ossian Sweet case and Detroit in the 1920s, when, as he wrote, Detroit experienced explosive growth and the whole city seemed to function as one, huge, automobile-producing machine. 

Garfield noted that, when discussing Detroit, Rush Limbaugh blamed Democrats and unions, John Stossell blamed a corrupt mayor protected by political correctness and, from the left, Melissa Harris-Perry blamed the perils of small government.

Is Detroit a perfect metaphor for America's industrial decline? Garfield asked Boyle.

Boyle responded:

"It's not a perfect metaphor for all industrial America, but it does capture a piece of industrial America, maybe the most dramatic, the piece of industrial America's rise and fall. The way to think about Detroit in the early 20th Century is as one of the great booms towns of the world, the center of the world's most innovative industry. It was the Silicon Valley of the 1910s, 1920s.

"And because its growth was so concentrated, and so focused on a single industry, its fall has been very similar in its speed and in its depth."

What is Detroit's bankruptcy about? Garfield asked 

"It's about de-industrialization on a really unprecedented scale," Boyle said. "It's about the complexities of race and racial tensions. It's about white flight on a massive scale. It's about economic flight; the loss of a middle class, black and white. And it's all of those things interacting with each other to create in some ways a sort of a perfect storm for the city.

"What then happens is people in the media put on that story particular spins that shift the analysis away from those long-term structural problems and it becomes a vehicle for talking about something else."

From his reading, watching and listening to the media since Detroit filed for Chapter 9, Boyle said he notices commentators have refrained generally from blaming Detroit's decline on African Americans, but he is struck by the extent to which the welfare state is blamed, especially greedy municipal unions.

Boyle agreed with Garfield that  the media has a "very hard time" dealing with slow-moving, global questions such as intense poverty. But the bankruptcy case gives reporters a chance to delve into big issues that rarely receive attention in the mainstream media, such as the intersection of the needs of city and the nation's values.

"How do you rebuild a city that has reached this point of crisis?" Boyle asked.

Click on the "On the Media" link to hear the podcast.

Read more:  On the Media

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