Why do we hate the suburbs? I guess using the word “we” might be a bit misleading. A less opaque question might be “Why does the mass media hate the suburbs?” I ask the first rather than the second because I assume that in some distorted and perverse way, the mass media simply reflects back to us twisted up versions of our collective hates, fears, loves, worries, passions, and appetites.
When I suggest that the mass media hates the suburbs, I cite as evidence mainly the television shows that depict suburban life on the four major television networks. Shows like “Suburgatory,” “Desperate Housewives,” “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” and others are all obsessed with showing that just beneath the happy veneer of the American suburbs lies a malevolent spiritual abyss — dysfunction reigns, deceit is the norm, despair is irrevocable, hypocrisy is rewarded, and the sum of all these things leaves suburban people to quiet lives of seething self-hatred and helplessness. But why?
Disclaimer: I assume that the ideological investments of the creators and producers of these programs lies solidly on the left side of the political spectrum. And it is for that reason that the disdain for the suburbs seems (at first) like a paradox. After all, the left is steadfast in its celebration of the “people,” by which I think most leftists mean “everyday, normal individuals like you could meet anyplace.” That’s who lives in the suburbs, right? The people who are neither exceptionally poor nor exceptionally rich? Yes and no.
Historically speaking, the “people” that were celebrated by the left were the poor, the disenfranchised. This wasn’t because of some irrational love of the underdog — it was because the poor WERE the everyday people. In other words, in the (19th century European) societies that gave birth to the political philosophies of the 21st century left, poverty WAS the norm. And this was important, because it genuinely indicated the fundamental injustices of those societies.
However, America did something that those societies had been (to that point) unable to accomplish: it produced an extremely vast, stable middle class. In America, the “everyday person” ceased to be poor factory worker struggling to feed his children and became someone much different. The American norm was someone who owned a modest home, an automobile, took an occasional non-exotic vacation, someone who could afford relatively simply luxuries (a television, a telephone, a set of golf clubs). And this new everyday person did not feel “victimized” by a fundamentally unjust social order; on the contrary, he endorsed it — he had embraced its values and reaped the rewards of that choice.
And this is why the suburbs are held up as an object of disdain: it does not reflect a true American hatred, but rather reflects the resentment of the left that the “everyday person” has become “everyday” in the wrong way. The vastness of the American middle class not only reflects that capitalism isn’t the hideous beast that its enemies need for it to be, but also that most Americans don’t have a need or a desire for the controlled, regimented, risk and reward-free society that the left wishes to impose. It is not the suburban life that is the object of their hatred, but the efficiency, happiness, and satisfaction of suburban people that is intolerable. And thus, we are told again and again that this happiness is merely an illusion, that it is fundamentally (and worse, secretly and self-knowingly) corrupt, vapid, and unjustified. Put differently, the old leftist myth re-invents itself — the everyday people need our intervention more now than ever, if only because they believe they don’t need our help. There. I’m going to go mow my lawn.