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The Three Satanic Propositions of Extreme Home Makeover

Or, why what is good for one deserving family is bad for the rest of us.

I have followed this week’s neighborhood improvement pageant fairly closely. I was skeptical from the outset, though this has morphed into a deeper hostility that I want to try and articulate. I would argue that we need to bring the criticisms of Extreme Home Makeover as part of a neoliberal ideological machine into a closer critique of the supposed pragmatic or incrementalist benefit to the West Side community. Theory and positivism should not be separated in a critical analysis of EHM. I propose that if we read this show in the contemporary context of American urban policy, we find a conjoined ideology-praxis that is both insidious and destructive. This can be done without abstracting into a pure superstructural analysis. I want to engage this beast on the level of daily urban political life, with all of its implications for belief and material being. EHM may have benefited a family—or even an entire West Side community—but it ideologically and materially impoverishes the rest of us by way of the following three propositions that are immanent to the show’s vision of governmentality. (Disclosure—I write this as a disillusioned three year veteran of nonprofit housing organizations.)

1. Fuck the undeserving. The trope of the “deserving family,” to use the show’s own language—racially diverse, generally heteronormative with children, and trapped in adverse circumstances not of their own making—necessarily posits the realm of the undeserving family. Proceeding on (my very unscientific and overlapping) spectrum of relative social normativity, those disqualified from EHM’s moral lottery system progressively become mirrors of those excluded in the post-Reagan city: singles, seniors, LGBT people, families on welfare, homeless, substance addicts, ex-convicts, sex offenders. As one becomes more “at-fault,” so does one become more undeserving of a cool new house, to say nothing of basic social services.

2. The public-private partnership is the perfected form of urban governance and development. EHM presents the incontrovertible image of a successful urban transformation in Buffalo—underwritten by Disney dollars in conjunction with nonprofits that utilize hybrid streams of public-private dollars and, finally, taxpayer-funded Americorps labor. This Third Way of kinder, gentler anti-statism assumes the privatization of benefits and the socialization of risks. If the enrichment of one family, or even an entire West Side neighborhood (as I understand was the case), causes internecine resentment at a broader scale (say the next block over from the improvement zone), makes the family a target for crime, etc., suffice to say, these problems will not be addressed to the attention of Ty Pennington and the Walt Disney Company.

3. What do you want us to do? We did something! The material benefits to the neighborhood and to its citizens are also incontrovertible—yard cleanups, new roofs, paint jobs, park construction, etc. These effects may provide “hope” but they do nothing to address the tired litany of urban structural poverty issues. And thus we come full circle to the question of who will bear the costs of social reproduction. EHM, the Buffalo nonprofit community, gaggles of volunteers, and Americorps all doing their part for a week (or a month or 10 years) do not urban justice make. That the same week witnessed the proposed closing of the East Side’s two public health clinics (at the height of the H1N1 outbreak and two weeks before Thanksgiving—what television-ready panache!) suggests that state retrenchment in Buffalo—as in most other American cities—will likely proceed apace. Perhaps the indigent sick can grovel before a spiky-haired celebrity doctor for antibiotics and receive the life-changing benefit of a million dollars in plastic surgery instead.

I would add that my implicit critique of nonprofit organizations is not meant to detract from their work, especially in the case of such on-point, politically engaged groups as PUSH Buffalo, who have and will continue to do important and unheralded work in the West Side long after the cast and crew of EHM pull out. It’s simply that the weight of urban social needs far outweighs the capacities of these organizations. I would argue for a bland, untelevised, and entirely non-innovative statist solution of wealth redistribution at local, state, and national scales: high taxes on the rich and labor laws that strongly support, not undermine, unionization.

Jon Markle, Master’s student in the History Department at the University at Buffalo

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