America's most progressive city has overlooked its own degradation
April is the cruellest month — or at least it is in San Francisco. The city is already well known for its chronic problems with homelessness, drug abuse and crime, but the negative headlines are now piling up.
In the last two weeks alone, a tech entrepreneur was left to die in the street after being stabbed; the city’s former fire commissioner was battered with a crowbar; a homeless woman gave birth on a sidewalk; a council meeting to discuss policing was cancelled due to vandalism; and, under siege from shoplifters, the city centre branch of Whole Foods has closed its doors.
That last one might seem the most trivial, but it is also the most iconic. Whole Foods is the ultimate rich liberal brand — an upmarket grocer overflowing with fresh produce. If you can’t get organic quinoa in San Francisco, then what’s the point?
Nor is this the only retailer to retreat in the face of unchecked criminality. For instance, Walgreens — a pharmacy chain — has had to shut branches across the city. Elon Musk, who is among other things a local business leader, tweeted: “Downtown SF looks like a zombie apocalypse. People who’ve not been there have no idea.”
But what about the people who live there? They do know what’s going on, so why aren’t they angrier? Why haven’t the architects of this disaster — San Francisco’s progressive politicians — been voted out of office? A few of them, like Chesa Boudin, the ultra-liberal former DA, have been given the boot; but the city’s Democratic establishment is still firmly in control. In the 1990s, New York — another deep-blue city — voted in a Republican mayor to restore order, but there seems little chance of anything like that happening in San Francisco.
Instead, we see victim-blaming, with retailers facing criticism just for trying protect their businesses. According to CNN, business leaders are reluctant to see their security problems become politicised.
But how could this not be political? Upholding the law is the first duty of government to the governed — and when politicians fail in this regard, they deserve to lose power. The trouble is that voting them out of office would require the city’s residents to admit that they were wrong, too: that they didn’t just choose the wrong leaders, but also the wrong ideals.
San Francisco brings to mind Omelas, a fictional city in the famous short story by Ursula Le Guin. Omelas appears to be a utopia: a place of prosperity, liberty and culture. However, its success hinges on a horrible secret: the misery of a single child, forced to live alone in wretched conditions. Why this is so is never explained — and it doesn’t need to be, because the child is an allegory — but it serves as a symbol for all the things we’re willing to ignore to maintain our way of life.
Politically, Le Guin is very much a progressive writer — it’s therefore an irony to see the Omelasian mentality so obviously at work in America’s most progressive city. San Francisco clings to its illusions while overlooking its own degradation.
But as in Omelas, not everyone can live with the truth. Hence the closure of businesses and the steady stream of residents leaving San Francisco, Los Angeles and the rest of California. Unwilling or unable to bring about change, they just walk away.