The Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Museum is running an exhibit until February called “By The People: Designing a Better
America.” It’s the third in a series of using the re-design of the built environment to make lives better, and this one focuses on poverty in the United States.
These initiatives are local/regional in scope and involve face-to-face engagements, one brick, one story, one narrative thread at a time.
These projects not only design places, the process of designing the places also designs the people, establishing the values of coĆ¶peration and closeness that many Americans say
they cherish and miss the presence of but which they somehow lost hold of in the spasm of the last election.
Linked but not hierarchical, open source rather than copyrighted, anchored in the local rather than atomized in the national, these projects
are the antidote to Trumpism’s meanness, barbarian Ć©litism and roughshod irrationality. Not that the people heading these projects can totally dismiss the regime, and not
that the execution of the projects preĆ«mpts building a nation-wide resistance movement, but they are the way forward past the exhaustion of national politics, which has clearly
run out of ideals, verve, sanity and safety.
Focusing on this kind of lower-level nation-building, based in local needs and employing local brilliance, is the antidote to the whingeing and
hand-wringing going on right now among what passes for a “left” in America about what to do about Trump and Trumpism. Projects like the ones on exhibit at Cooper Hewitt
don’t so much “solve” racism or class war or xenophobia as out-flank them by reĆ«nergizing the concepts of a “commonwealth” and the public sphere and
enlarging the circle of who gets to be considered a neighbor and thus worthy of protection.
The modernist impulse has always been to value universal ideals above local allegiances because clannish loyalties have often fueled great
carnage and misery. But the truth is that the universal ideals only became manifest in local lives making local improvements to local habitations, where sweat is shared not with
abstract “human beings” but with bodies bearing names and suffering frailties. Only by building these local densities can we build the constituency that will resist
American Trumpist inclinations in a way that is shared, open source, dynamic and assured.
This approach fits an age where the last great social movement, labor, has been destroyed and where we live in a world fragmented by
neoliberalism and information fortresses (e.g., Apple, Facebook, et al) and have had our inner selves “apped” in order to promote profit through market
segmentation. Information is as abundant as is the means for sharing it, and only through horizontal networks that use data to uncover connections and patterns can we regain
agency over our lives and dissolve the legacy structures that bind us to a decaying economic system and its useless disciplines and punishments.
Dispersed yet united, local yet nationwide, resistant yet accommodating – this is clearly the road the nation needs to follow because the
election of Trump has shown us that our national narrative no longer can provide a useful guide for future action. Just listen to Obama’s farewell speech in which he
trumpets an outdated vision of American exceptionalism – his way is no longer the way forward, if it ever was.
The blessing of Trump is that he now provides us a great excuse to extinguish so many harmful mythologies about ourselves and design new spaces
for an uncertain future. Projects like the ones on display at Cooper Hewitt are the first pages in our new instruction manual.