Troy, Mich. isn’t the kind of place that usually makes headlines. A suburb of 80,000 people five miles up Interstate 75 from Detroit, it claims the title of Michigan’s safest city. Troy has major malls and corporate headquarters, and the city’s government tends to be pretty low-key. When your residents are solidly upper middle class, after all, there’s not that much more to do other than make sure the schools and other services run smoothly. Within the city itself, at least, there isn’t the same vexing questions of inequality and distributive justice that plague the nation as a whole.
Well, so much for low-key governance. After declining property values nearly shuttered the Troy Public Library, and residents passed a new property tax millage to keep it open this summer, a slate of three Tea Party candidates rode the backlash to victory in last month’s City Council election. One of them was Mayor Janice Daniels. A week ago today, a local blogger noted that Daniels had written a Facebook post in June stating, “I think I am going to throw away my I Love New York carrying bag now that queers can get married there.”
As you’d expect, that slur ricocheted around the Internet. Public comment about the post at the Troy City Council meeting Monday, what someone called “the most monumental meeting in Troy history,” lasted more than four hours.
Watching a live streaming of the meeting over Troy Patch (originally to see what became of a proposed new train station opposed by Daniels), I found myself glued to the proceedings as citizen after citizen advanced to the microphone — most to condemn her words and request an apology. A number of them were Troy high school students. In more than a few ways, the group represented American democracy at its finest.
Yes, there were a few people saying, “We need to get off this political correctness nonsense right away!” But lecturing the mayor on respect, there were also Asian 20-somethings recounting how tough it had been for them to come out, Muslims identifying anti-gay hate speech with their own experience of being called terrorists, Catholics talking about how finding out friends were gay had made them reconsider previous prejudices and Italians quoting Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on how “we must always take sides.”
The scene made for a kind of liberal pluralist fantasy: a community made up of all sorts of people, of diverse heritages and beliefs, all transcending their differences to come together, mostly, behind a shared moral vision for respect and love. This is what we’re supposed to be able to do: acknowledge but also get beyond our particular herds and tribes to forge a broader community, in what sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, in his lecture here last Friday, called “metastatic multiculturalism.”
Beyond the fact of who was talking, though, it felt good to see an affluent American community expressing sincere moral outrage about something, given all the cruelty that goes down these days and the scarcity of meaningful open discussion about our responsibilities. Some University community members may feel there’s all too much talk, and not nearly enough meaningful action, but I’d say that reflects how these discussions have been relegated from an increasingly segmented public sphere into more sanitized realms like the college classroom. The kind of society we live in doesn’t usually ask us to believe in much, other than the virtues of consumption and the certainty of continued opportunities for self-enrichment.
Of course, moral outrage at anti-gay bigotry can often come relatively cheap. It’s a lot harder for those of us in the upper brackets to start talking about injustice when the stakes include our own current and potential wealth, not just whether someone else can get married. But our country’s sense of common purpose and civic virtue is so depleted, especially in local governance, that you have to hope this can lead to greater and more enduring change. The Troy of legend fell. With a new commitment to our own communities, maybe we can avoid that fate.
Joel Batterman can be reached at email@example.com.