Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Dispatches from Detroit

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Dispatches from Detroit

Article excerpt



Want to understand Americans? Well, here's what makes us who we are. First, we are--all of us in this country--not from Detroit. Second, we are variously and irrationally angry because of that fact. The first point is easy to grasp, since practically everybody in the United States has--literally--chosen not to be from Detroit; 700,000 people or fewer do still live here, for now; (3) the vast majority, some 316 million and more, are from someplace else. As for those who continue to call the City home, half say they want to be "not-from-Detroiters" too and would leave if they could. (4) No ambiguity there, when it comes to national single-mindedness and our collectively choosing not to be from Detroit.

The second point--about Americans being angry because they are not and cannot be from Detroit--is more complicated, but also consequential. Most non-Detroiters would probably say just the reverse is true: that they're grateful for not being from here, that they take pride in reminding themselves, periodically, how good a thing it is not being from Detroit, and that they would be upset only if they did have to call this City home. No matter how bad things might be wherever you are, at least there's still one certainty to rely on: "We're not Detroit." That's the punch line from a YouTube send-up of our sister-city, Cleveland. (5) The video offers a speed-talker's catalog of local failure and hopelessness in Cleveland until arriving at the concluding, existential escape clause, "We're not Detroit." But it's no easy matter, not being from Detroit, whether you're actually still here, longing to take your leave, or whether you're from someplace else--Cleveland, for instance. Regardless of how welcome, the not-from-Detroit sense of absentee well-being is born of an unresolved struggle inherent to our national character, which depends not so much on things we recall together, but on things we choose individually to forget how to remember, and the powerful feelings that result. Now, I know that sounds a little complicated, so let me provide an illustration.

There is the case of Charlie Sheen, "the abusive ex-star of a CBS sitcom," as the Washington Post identified him. (6) Mr. Sheen chose Detroit--shrewdly, he doubtless thought--to kick off his national comeback tour, "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option." The story was big news once, of a certain kind--the kind that lands Detroit, fortuitously, in the headlines for a day or two before vanishing from notice, to be replaced by equally important items clamoring for notice, with our national attention span being roughly equivalent to the shelf life of 2% milk. Which is my point about Americans being who we are not by virtue of memory but because of what we forget to remember, which gets me back to Charlie Sheen.

The incident in question involves a public feud Sheen was conducting with his bosses at CBS, a couple of years back, and the media self-immolation he perpetrated, often painfully, in the days that followed his being fired from the hit TV show, Two and a Half Men. (7) There's a happy ending of sorts, with Mr. Sheen garnering all kinds of publicity, and ultimately getting himself a new sitcom on another network--aptly titled Anger Management--with the series having been extended for a new set of episodes. (8) Old news, as I said. My reason for recollecting it now is that there's a nice little parable to be discovered here about Detroit--and America--but as with a lot of potential intelligence, the point has largely gone missing.

Here's what happened. Detroit is where Charlie decided to kick off the series of stage-show appearances that were meant to reanimate his career, (9) beginning in April of 2011, when he opened the Violent Torpedo of Truth tour in Detroit. …

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