Community Perspective: In Defense of NIMBYism; A Philosophical-Historical Reflection

A contributed perspectives piece by E.K. Knappenberger

We’ve all seen it — an out-of-state developer wants to build a trailer park on the south end of town with a thousand “units” of housing. The billion-dollar equity company with cookie-cutter website and shiny photographic handouts promises quick relief from “the housing crisis” which was created in no small part by over-development in the nearest metropoli. A parade of well-intentioned and overworked social workers prattle on about their caseload and the pitiable lack of affordable housing. A homeless man with a cane begs the city council for a place to live.  The slippery developer talks in circles for hours with a thin smile about how great his trailer park will be, how it will do everything for everybody, solve every problem, of course! and if the city council have any doubts, our good, kind salesman will personally hold their hand — all the way to the bank if necessary.

A small group of concerned citizens — retirees and people who grew up nearby — raise thoughtful questions about the practicality, the livability and the aesthetics of the proposal — but not the need for more housing. Incensed liberals, hipster twenty-somethings led by a cadre of Executive Directors of Nonprofits who have spent a decade agitating for pet projects, angrily accuse the opposition of being anti-homeless, or worse, “NIMBY.”

NIMBY is a fairly recent label used mostly by the left, and it came into being in the late 20th century over major environmental concerns about nuclear energy, industrial sprawl and racial rehousing. There is a certain air of elitism that goes with its use: calling someone NIMBY implies that they, unlike the enlightened labeller, are more than a little self-concerned, if not downright greedy, hypocritical, small-minded, afraid of change, and uncaring about others. Those who use the term often include the latest New York commentary machine: Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones, Slate, Salon, or, for the lowbrow lefty, the Huffington Post — all regular denigrators of NIMBYs everywhere.

 On the right wing, the crazy conspiracy machine which dominates the media, FOX News, has little use for the term NIMBY or its antecedent concept. When the Murdoch Empire want to slander someone, there are much more effective terms that are not acronymic, and can be easily understood in the loudest nursing home. Overall there can be little doubt that it is the left and not the right who decided that it is a bad thing to not want bad things in one’s backyard. How did this come to be? More importantly, what is lost by mocking those opposed to the potential impacts of a particular proposal at the local level?

In this brief essay, I will show that the liberal American ideal was first and best served by a focus on locality in the political consciousness of rural folk. I will argue that such focus on place should be appreciated both in the leftist tradition as well as in the postmodern; finally I will argue that NIMBYism as a paradigm for political action offers startling possibilities where traditional liberal modernity has failed. Perhaps when all is said and done, NIMBY can become a mark of pride, or a term of endearment.

A Brief History of the Rural Liberal

The liberal mind has evolved significantly over the last two hundred years. Digging deeper into the political history of Anti-federalism, Whigism, Firebreathers, Free-Soilers, Locofocos and Know-Nothings, patterns become apparent. For example, in a letter published in the 1850’s in a small liberal Virginia newspaper, an anonymous writer, one Rusticus, outlines a fascinating history of Whigism and its struggle — that of the American Revolutionaries and the Anti-Jacksonites who followed them. The letter is notable for its succinctness as well as its acumen. Rusticus hopes to

“…Give something of the history of the mis-called, self-inflating piebald Democratic party which is in these days being thrust upon the unreflecting for the true principles on which our government was founded.” (iAmerican Union, 21 Mar. 1857.)

Rusitcus goes on to show that it was Whigs who drove the American Revolution, authored the constitution, and opposed the blatant cronyism and racial policy of Andrew Jackson. Whigism, to the writer, is about local engagement and confederated, negotiated national policy. In short, it is the quintessentially American politic. Here, the remarkable thing about liberal politics was their basis in locality. 

Whereas the truism “all politics is local” was coined in the 20th century, It is harder to describe the political mind of the rural, 18th and 19th century American liberal without immediately being struck by an awareness of just how incredibly focused on place it was. The word “section” — meaning region — was a favorite in Whig newspapers. The idea and importance of locale to the Whig has roots in the Jeffersonian ideal of citizen-farmers, the taproot of all early, liberal democracy.

The forerunners of modern liberals, Whigs were never the majority in rural areas on any scale. They were often hardscrabble farmers, printers, and self-educated teachers, surrounded by well-to-do conservative lawyers, judges and merchants — usually Tories or Democrats. The Whigs were pragmatic idealists: they took anti-oligarchy, agrarian reform positions, and many of them were against slavery, even while some of them owned slaves themselves. (This was seen as a necessary evil by some, as a moral stain by others.) But perhaps because they were not usually in a majority, or maybe due to actual persecution and public slander, Whigs developed an intense focus on the communities in which they found themselves. Unable to effect the changes they dreamed of at the national level, facing reactionary ire at every turn, the rural Whigs doubled down on the utopian projects of their day: education, temperance, and religious revival.

Local activism, education and missionary work was a survival mechanism for rural liberals as much as it was an outlet for their yearning-into-the-future and for their progressive impulses. Much of the history of rural America follows a familiar pattern for these white landowners of moderate means. Most if not all of our institutions of learning and government we owe to their work at the local level. These early moderate liberals were not “radical” in the sense of abolitionism, nor were they “liberal” in the fiscal sense. They stood for traditional values, common sense, and a pure democracy. This lasted from the revolutionary period until the 1850’s, when the Whig national apparatus died a slow death and was replaced by the more radical Log Cabin Republicans and Abe Lincoln.

Historian C. Vann Woodward in his Origins of the New South describes the devastation of Reconstruction, Redemption and Readjustment. Woodward sees a familiar face behind the 1870-1920 Southern liberalism: “Whiggery” he calls it. Here the stakes were very high: political disenfranchisement of poor whites, Jim Crow for the blacks, and northern domination of capital and legislature were irrefutable under any banner. The Conservative Party of Virginia was in fact a moderate liberal one peopled by the same marginal Germans and teachers and protestant clergy that had made up the Whig ranks before the war. These men (and they were all men back then) were, by and large, interested in education, religion, and local institution building. Some developed into journalists, school superintendents (who later founded colleges), traveling preachers, and hymnal printers. Most of them farmed bivocationally.

By the end of the First World War, the United States was waking up to a threat which would cast a pall over leftist politics for nearly a century: Soviet style communism. Socialist philosophers like Martin Buber were forced to lamely distinguish their political systems from those universal-socialisms centered in Moscow and Beijing. During the Second World War and throughout the height of the Cold War, liberalism had a provincial streak a mile wide. Though during the Nazi war, the rhetoric of “making the world safe for liberal democracy” was typical, by the advent of the postmodern, circa 1980 or so, the rhetoric of democracy had been coopted by American imperialists for use in their nation-building enterprises overseas. It was beginning to lose its luster.

It was also in this era that the lifestyle of global leftism became fashionable. You don’t want (immigrants, refugees, homeless people, nuclear energy) in your locality — well you aren’t thinking globally, man. You obviously haven’t seen (our proxy wars in central america, our economic impact on the global south, our energy footprint) or else you wouldn’t be so smug about your little problems, dude. Oh your ancestral home in the Shenandoah Valley is being bulldozed for housing? That’s just the natural consequences of globalization and empire, bro.

The liberal mindset, in 200 years, has come nearly full-circle to a place where it is acceptable, wonderful even, to pontificate at length about water quality in Nicaragua while simultaneously ignoring or denigrating those moderate locals who raise concerns about massively unpopular development schemes in their own backyards.

Philosophical Reflections

Only under a specifically late-stage capitalism could it be considered uncouth to be concerned about noxious things happening in one’s backyard. In many cultures around the world, this concern is still seen as a virtue. The same leftists who praise the indigenous tribespeople of the Amazon for resisting encroaching development definitively lambast anyone who stands up against their pet development projects. Only in the late-stage capitalist ideology, for example, can liberalism delude itself with the vision that more development will somehow (through the magic of good intentions, or the notional rationality of the free market) result in lower housing costs.

It does not take much imagination, let alone a close reading of Derrida, Lyotard, Zizek or Deleuze to see the interesting potentialities of a NIMBY-centric approach to political action. After all, to invoke a Kantian thought experiment, if everyone everywhere stood up and said “NOT IN MY BACKYARD!” then the world would quickly change in a very good way. Similarly, a tweak in the understanding of “backyard” — which is a concept unique to the suburban lifestyle — whereby the borders of what we understand that metaphorical space to be are expanded — would cultivate in people a sense of ownership of the whole planet, or at least a part of it that is bigger than their own interests. A good leftist pedagogy should engage NIMBYism as a natural vehicle for expansion of global awareness, which after all, starts in the backyard.

The slur of NIMBY as it is hurled around now can go in one of two ways: as humans crowd closer and closer together and compete more and more for increasingly scarce resources, it can continue to be the cry of the wounded liberal whose pet project has just been threatened, aimed at those who rightfully question something odious; or it can be reclaimed and self-applied as the slogan for those community-oriented protectors of the land, the people, and the democratic ideal of self-sustainment.

The next time a self-interested out-of-state mobile home salesman shows up trying to sell the community a lemon of a project or a whopper of a lie, let us all stand up together and yell NOT IN MY BACKYARD — and not in yours either! For we all live on this earth together, we are all connected, and we are all trying to carve a small piece out of the cutthroat ratrace deathgame. 

Not in my backyard, not anywhere in any of the 26,000 linear miles of my backyard! 

E.K. Knappenberger is historian and occassional philosopher living in McCauley, WV and Harrisonburg, VA. He has an MAR from Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a BA from Eastern Mennonite University, and an AAS from Whatcom Community College. 

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