The Philadelphia ghetto, the CIA, and the Soviet city

It’s not a very constructive argument. The neighbours scream that your new fence encroaches on their garden; you shout that their extension bears a doubtful relationship to the building regulations. So we should take with a pinch of salt any comments that might come from Russian officials about the US Senate’s exposure of CIA torture.


Such comments would be part of a pattern. During the Cold War, an American President would make a speech about the absence of freedom on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and a Communist General Secretary would reply: but what about the unemployed vagrants sleeping under your bridges?

At times, such comparisons are entirely disreputable. But a journey across time and space from the ghetto in 6th Street, Philadelphia, to almost any Soviet city invites rewarding hypotheses about both Soviet life and Western values.

Alice Goffman, a young white anthropologist, lived for an extended time in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in Philadelphia. Her book on the subject must be one of the most compelling reads of 2014. She describes how police tactics, official surveillance, and an overbearing prison system combine to trap young Black men into a destructive relationship with the state, leading to a spiral of lethal violence, family breakdown and economic waste. The recent killings by white policemen of Black men in Ferguson and New York City only reinforce her point.

On the runUniversity of Chicago Press, 2014

Late Soviet cities were different. Recent research has pointed to incidents of crime and homelessness, zones of poverty, and streets which might be fancy at one end and shabby at the other. But Soviet cities lacked ghettos that were marked by racial or social deprivation. In the later Soviet period, the police would hassle ‘social parasites’, but patterns of employment and education made it impossible for entire neighbourhoods to be characterized by the catastrophic blight of the American ghetto. Soviet cities were relatively poor, but they can be imagined as urban arenas designed around a post-Stalinist concept of social rights (to welfare, jobs, education).

We are often taught that rights are indivisible: that human rights come in a cohesive bundle, that compromising one right compromises all of them, that denying rights to one person denies rights to everyone. Perhaps this is true in theory. Generally, however, there seems to be something wrong with it in practice. After 1953, Soviet citizens lacked many rights but possessed some others. It seems equally obvious that the inhabitants of 6th Street, Philadelphia, lack some of the rights that are enjoyed by many other Americans. Meanwhile, we learn about the CIA’s programme of torture. True, you can’t create a historical argument out of mischievous comparisons. But you might learn some humility.

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