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Achieving Our City

by Mark Peres

April 7,2008

Every morning in this town someone is meeting someone new at a coffee shop. We enter the café, survey the scene, look for a nod or a wave from someone looking for us, and after a quick stand-in-line for a mocha latte (or apple cider in my case), we pull up a chair. The conversation begins: a proposition, a deal, a concern, a request, an opportunity. Next steps are noted. Calendars are checked. And we walk out the door re-envisioning the future.

Invariably, during the coffee tete-a-tete, someone asks: “So how long have you lived in Charlotte?” I tell them I arrived in 1999 to pursue a business venture, having never thought of Charlotte before. I arrived in a U-Haul with my wife, one-year old daughter, two dogs and two cats (what a trip that was), not knowing anything about the region. Within two weeks, we knew we would plant roots here for the long run, that the city would be our home.

We know all the reasons why Charlotte is attractive – from its weather to its just-right size to its beauty and prosperity. But the quality that drew me instantly was the narrative of the city – how it defined itself – as can-do and ambitious, willing to solve problems and eager to improve. Charlotte, more so than any other city that I had known, was quintessentially American: abundant in optimism and pragmatism.

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the publication of Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, by Richard Rorty, one of the great American philosophers of our age. In his book, Rorty differentiated between what he saw as the two sides of the Left, a critical Left and a progressive Left. The critical or “spectator” Left is generally made up of intellectuals who are insightful about the ills of society, but who provide no alternatives (while disdainful of power and action). On the other hand, the progressive Left is “participatory” – working in the world to “achieve our country” – laboring for the realization of the nation’s ideals.

Rorty made a case for national pride, arguing that it makes for energetic and effective debate; that emotional involvement – hope, if you will – “is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive.” He wrote, “The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists our nation remains unachieved.”

The irony – or perhaps genius – of Charlotte is that it is conservative culturally, right of center in social values and fiscal restraint, but very much in the progressive leftist tradition in its constant quest to perfect itself. In this regard, Charlotte is emblematic of “postmodern pragmatism.” Charlotteans do not wrestle with existential issues – the meaning of art is a pointless discussion; rather, as Giuseppe Zaffaroni notes in his essay American Optimism from the Past to the Present, what is “true” and “real” is that which is “useful.” What is useful is that which creates “a better future.” A “better future” is that which allows us to adapt and thrive. (This kind of pragmatic-Darwinian thinking is what drives our European friends nuts).

Columnist Gary Younge recently noted in The Guardian that American optimism – our confidence in possibility “unfettered by history…or empirical evidence” is at the root of so much of what makes us innovative and great, but our unfettered optimism is also what makes us slightly delusional (and terrifying to the rest of the world). It is the American dream of reinvention that matters to us. Americans are not grounded in European realism, because what is “real” is not the historical or material, but what we can imagine and project.

There’s the rub with our city. What makes Charlotte energizing is its constant re-envisioning of the future. But if we progress simply to progress, busily being “useful” while not giving any thought to art, purpose or meaning, we risk becoming the Town of Zenith in Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt; a town whose chief virtues are conformity and boosterism. In Zenith, citizens participate in town life with only a vague sense of self-awareness, producing little and consuming much, happily vacuous in their own imagined exceptionalism.

Charlotte remains unachieved. Our opportunity is to change the narrative of our city – one coffee cup at a time.

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