Look at the Facts, Not Rumors
A few words about imputing motives to city leaders. From The Alexandria Times, October 5, 2023
A major joy of writing a monthly newspaper column is the wealth of learning experiences for the columnist. Moments of enlightenment come from people saying, “Hey, why don’t you write about ____ ?” and from less direct conversations.
Not long ago, a long-time city activist enlivened our discussion by revealing the city leadership has an unspoken—but widely shared—plan to increase Alexandria’s population to 250,000 people by 2050. According to the Alexandria Demographics and Statistics Dashboard the city’s current population is 158,309, so there is a distance to go. The dashboard can be seen
Other knowledgeable Alexandrians, including former city officials, have confidently described an intentional plan: essentially a conspiracy of developers, lawyers and city officials to overdevelop the city. Their concern and suspicion is that developer-lawyer-politico relationships of mutual interest will prevail until the city—already the densest in Virginia—becomes so crowded that none of us can move.
Conspiratorial thinking has a long history in American public affairs. An early work on the subject, historian Richard Hofstader’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” has been followed by numerous analyses of how conspiracy thinking develops.
The problem with conspiracies is that they are a lot of work. A conspiracy does not require committee meetings with formal procedural rules and minutes, but the organization and management of a successful conspiracy involves extensive planning, communication, coordination and work. History may see the presidency of Donald Trump as a series of failed conspiracies, the last of which culminated in the traumatic events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Many Alexandrians become frustrated about the ways the city deals with development, transportation, flooding, parking, education or other issues. The frustration leads to the assumption that its source is an intentional, even malicious, plan or design by city authorities and other malefactors. The exasperation is certainly understandable.
As a public mental health service to provide a new way forward, About Alexandria offers Hanlon’s razor and Grey’s law. Hanlon’s razor, which dates from the 18th century, states, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” A philosophical razor suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations of human behavior.
Grey’s law is a corollary of Hanlon’s razor. It holds, “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”
Hanlon’s razor and Grey’s law appear at first to be cute aphorisms. However, they give others the benefit of the doubt, something that helps improve relationships and makes us less judgmental and more understanding. These maxims are an antidote to the proposition, or suspicion, that someone is out to get us and that the effort is grounded in malice and intent. They provide a useful default thinking mode that counters paranoia.
Hanlon’s razor and Grey’s law also help us deal with the unexpected twists and turns of decisions and their consequences. For example, density in Alexandria is a hot button issue and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Concerns about density underlie much of the debate about the Planning & Zoning Department’s multi-part proposals to reform the city’s zoning ordinance.
In major respects, zoning involves assessments about adjacency: whether structures in proximity are reasonably harmonious. Most people do not object to Southern Towers at its current site, but few residents would want similar structures on their blocks. Zoning codes are, in essence, efforts to organize our subjective impressions about what the city should be.
However, a look back at Alexandria’s development history over the last 40 years shows that some of the most unfortunate land use decisions were made to limit density and preserve what was perceived to be the city’s essential character. An example: the city might look very different if the development had been denser around the city’s Metro stations and more controlled elsewhere.
For those who wish to maintain their suspicions about how the city operates, here is an aphorism from Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His newsletter is free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.
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