Negative Exceptionalism and Fake Self-Criticism

Yesterday, Sandy Johnston brought up a point he had made in his thesis from 2016: riders on the Long Island Rail Road consider their system to be unusually poorly-run (PDF-pp. 19-20), and have done so for generations.

The 100,000 commuters on Long Island—the brave souls who try to combine a job in New York City with a home among the trees—represent all shades of opinion on politics, religion, and baseball. But they are firmly agreed on one thing—they believe that the Long Island Rail Road, which constitutes their frail and precarious life line between home and office, is positively the worst railroad in the world. This belief is probably ill considered, because no one has ever made a scientific survey, and it is quite possible that there are certain short haul lines in the less populous parts of Mongolia or the Belgian Congo where the service is just as bad if not worse. But no Long Islander, after years of being trampled in the crowded aisles and arriving consistently late to both job and dinner, would ever admit this.

(Life, 1948, p. 19)

The quoted Life article goes over real problems that plagued the LIRR even then, such as absent management and line worker incompetence stranding passengers for hours. This kind of “we are the worst” criticism can be easily mistaken for reform pressure and interest in learning from others who, by the critic’s own belief, are better. But it’s not. It’s fake self-criticism; the “we are the worst” line is weaponized in the exact opposite direction – toward entrenchment and mistrust of any outside ideas, in which reformers are attacked as out of touch far more than the dispatcher who sends a train to the wrong track.

Negative exceptionalism

The best way to view this kind of fake self-criticism is, I think, through the lens of negative exceptionalism. Negative exceptionalism takes the usual exceptionalism and exactly inverts it: we have the most corrupt government, we have the worst social problems, we are the most ungovernable people. The more left-wing version also adds, we have the worst racism/sexism. In all cases, this is weaponized against the concept of learning from elsewhere – how can we learn from countries where I spent three days on vacation and didn’t feel viscerally disgusted by their poor people?

For example, take the political party Feminist Initiative, which teetered on the edge of the electoral threshold in the 2014 election in Sweden and won a few seats in municipal elections and one in the European Parliament. It defined itself in favor of feminism and against racism, and talked about how the widespread notion that Sweden is a feminist society is a racist myth designed to browbeat immigrants, and in reality Sweden is a deeply sexist place (more recently, Greta Thunberg would use the same negative exceptionalism about environmentalism, to the point of saying Sweden is the most environmentally destructive country). The party also advocated enforcing the Nordic model of criminalization of sex work on the rest of the EU; the insight that Sweden is a sexist society does not extend to the notion that perhaps it should not tell the Netherlands what to do.

Sweden is an unusually exceptionalist society by European standards. The more conventional Sweden-is-the-best exceptionalism is more common, but doesn’t seem to produce any different prescriptions regarding anything Sweden is notable for – transit-oriented development, criminalizing sex work, taking in large numbers of refugees, deliberately infecting the population with corona, building good digital governance. This mentality passes effortlessly between conventional and negative exceptionalism, and at no point would anyone in Sweden stop and say “maybe we have something to learn from Southern Europe” (the literature I’ve consulted for the soon-to-be-released Sweden case of the Transit Costs Project is full of intra-Nordic comparisons, and sometimes also comparisons with the UK and the Netherlands, but never anything from low-cost Southern Europe).

And of course, the United States matches or even outdoes Sweden. The same effortless change between we’re-the-best and we’re-the-worst is notable. Americans will sometimes in the same thread crow about how their poorest states are richer than France and say that poor people in whichever country they’ve visited last are better-behaved than the American poor (read: American tourists can’t understand what they’re saying) and that’s why those countries do better. They will in the same thread say the United States is uniquely racist and also uniquely anti-racist and in either case has nothing to learn from other places. The most outrage I’ve gotten from left-wing American activists was when I told them my impression of racism levels in the United States is that they are overall similar to levels in Western Europe; the US is allowed to be uniquely racist or uniquely anti-racist, but not somewhere in the middle.

The situation in New York

New York’s exceptionalism levels are extreme even by American standards. This, again, includes both positive and negative exceptionalism. New Yorkers hold their city to be uniquely diverse (and not, say, very diverse but at levels broadly comparable with Toronto, Singapore, Gush Dan, or Dubai), but look down on the same diversity – “they don’t have the social problems we do” is a common refrain about any non-US comparison. Markers of socioeconomic class are local, regional, or national, but not global, so a New Yorker who visits Berlin will not notice either the markers of poverty that irk the German middle class or general antisocial German behavior. For example, in Berlin, rail riders are a lot worse at letting passengers get off the train before getting on than in New York, where subway riders behave more appropriately; but New York fears of crime are such that “Germans are better-behaved than New Yorkers” is a common trope in discussion of proof of payment and driver-only trains.

This use of negative exceptionalism as fake criticism with which to browbeat actual criticism extends to the lede from Life in 1948. Sandy’s thesis spends several more pages on the same article, which brings up the informal social camaraderie among riders on those trains, where the schedules were (and still are) bespoke and commuters would take the same trains every day and sit at the same location with the same group of co-commuters, all of the same social class of upper middle-class white men. These people may hold themselves as critics of management, but in practice what they demanded was to make the LIRR’s operating practices even worse: more oriented around their specific 9-to-5 use case, and certainly not service akin to the subway, which they looked down, as did the planners.

Fake criticism as distraction from reform

The connection between negative exceptionalism and bad practices is that negative exceptionalism always tells the reformer: “we’re ungovernable, this can’t possibly work here.” The case of proof-of-payment is one example of this: New York is the greatest city in the world but it’s also the most criminal and therefore New Yorkers, always held to be different from (i.e. poorer than) the speaker who after all is a New Yorker too, must be disciplined publicly and harshly. Knowledge of how POP works in Germany is irrelevant to New York because Germans are rulebound and New Yorkers are ungovernable. Knowledge of how street allocation works in the Netherlands is irrelevant to the United States because the United States is either uniquely racist (and thus planners are also uniquely racist) or uniquely antiracist (and thus its current way of doing things is better than foreign ways). Knowledge of integrated timetable and infrastructure planning in Switzerland or Japan is irrelevant because New York has a uniquely underfunded infrastructure system (and not, say, a $50 billion five-year MTA capital plan).

More broadly, it dovetails into New Right fake criticism of things that annoy the local notables. The annoyance is real, but because those local notables are local, they reject any solution that is not taken directly from their personal prejudices; they lack the worldliness to learn and implement best practices and they know it, and so their status depends on the continuation of bad practices. (Feminist Initiative is not a New Right party, or any kind of right, but its best national result was 3%; decline-of-the-West parties more rooted in the New Right do a lot better.)

The good news for New York at least is that the LIRR and Metro-North are genuinely bad. This means that even a program of social and physical bulldozing of the suburban forces that keep those systems the way they are generates real physical value in reliability and convenience to compensate some (not all) for the loss of status. The complaints will continue because the sort of person who announces with perfect confidence that their commute is the worst in the world always finds things to complain about, but the point is not to defuse complaints, it’s to provide good service, and those people will adjust.

But that’s specific to one case. The system of kvetching that empowers middle-class rider camaraderie, or for that matter the camaraderie of an overstaffed, overpaid workforce with a seniority system, imposes real costs in making change politically hard. Only when things are so bad are the benefits of breaking the tradition so large that it becomes politically advantageous to push for the necessary reforms. Two people may do the job of one and the negative exceptionalists would rail while resisting any improvement, but when five people do the job of one, there is a large enough pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.


  1. Tiercelet

    I’d like to know more about Netherlands street allocation practices & how that might interplay with US racism.

    I don’t consider the US today to be uniquely racist–Lord knows there’s plenty of racism in e.g. Europe and Australia–but I’m wondering if there are specific elements of European development/transit-design history that are parallel to the documented racism of the development of the US interstate highway system. (I guess you could say like, Haussmann, but I’m thinking more since the 1950s.)

    Put another way, do you consider it “exceptionalism” to point to specific recent instances of racist urban planning in the US as a motivation for wanting checks on urban planners which might not be present/necessary in e.g. the Netherlands or Europe more broadly? Like, is it exceptionalist to say “hey we’ve had a problem with this thing specifically”? Or have planners in the European context also done similarly oppressive things (maybe along class rather than racial lines), but more recent good behavior & the value of a strong and empowered planning organ outweighs that recent history?

    • Alon Levy

      Basically all of this is a historical rewrite; the replacement of urban planning with community activism in the United States was not primarily done by anti-racists but by white middle-class people like Jane Jacobs, who often thought of themselves as anti-racist but centered themselves and their own petty desires. And even that replacement is not a uniquely American misfeature – critical urbanism exists here too and is causing plenty of damage. The New Right is not a uniquely American phenomenon and neither are left-wing-by-identity manifestations of it (like the worship of small business owners even by people who consider themselves left-wing). Over here critical urbanism is if anything weaponized by white flighters who are trying to convince themselves that they suburbanize because the city lost its soul or is gentrifying and not because they’re uncomfortable with a 20% nonwhite city.

      The Dutch issue is mostly that starting in the 1970s, cities started prioritizing bikes, over the objections of motorists who mocked the idea as trying to make the country more like Italy and sent politicians death threats. There’s no real connection with racism; that part was me subtweeting Barr Foundation board member and general malefactor Lisa Jacobson, who visited for a few days, was told “here we don’t have pedestrians,” and because she’s culturally ignorant assumed it meant Dutch planning is hostile to pedestrians where what they meant was that because everyone is a pedestrian at some point they don’t divide the population into pedestrians and non-peds the way they might into cyclists and non-cyclists.

      You’re absolutely right that there’s been inegalitarian planning here too. It’s partly about class, but that’s mostly not about urbanism – the biggest motivation for the New Right has been opposition to school integration (in the US by race, here by class). A good global example of this inegalitarian planning in transport is the love of airport connectors, and the most premium and express, the better; these are built at higher cost per rider than other transit and sometimes are designed not to be integrated with the rest of the system, to guarantee rich people freedom from having to see non-rich people.

      • Tiercelet

        Thanks for the response! That does make a lot more sense.

        Let me be clear that I’m not going to cape for Jane Jacobs. 🙂 I do think there are legitimately antiracist activists working in, say, the freeway replacement movement now–but here I think you’re touching on an important issue: identifying instances of racist oppression and doing good urbanism (or other interventions) in response are separate skill sets, and doing one without the other is certain to reproduce various forms of injustice.

      • Oreg

        Even if the Dutch don’t think their “planning is hostile to pedestrians”, many visitors beg to differ. If you’re not used to bikes hurtling towards you from all directions you will feel threatened. But that might just be a cultural problem. Once you get used to paying attention to the cycling infrastructure you will be able to anticipate where bikes are going and avoid them. However, they have indeed built that infrastructure partially at the expense of pedestrian space, reducing pedestrian comfort. And then again, if every place had Dutch-style cycling infrastructure the world would be a much better place.

  2. Matthew Hutton

    It seems broadly fair that Europe and America are about as racist as each other. That said to be fair we in Europe are a little more subtle about it.

    • Sarapen

      Well, more subtle in some ways but not in others (see, for example, bananas being thrown on the soccer pitch when a player from the opposing team is black).

    • Eric2

      I think it’s just that American culture is so dominant worldwide that “racism” is understood everywhere to be white versus black, and any other form of racism (such as are more common in Europe, e.g. regarding the Roma and various immigrant communities) is not really understood to be “real” racism on the US model.

      • Alon Levy

        Yeah, the part where a pro-choice activist in the US with pretty conventionally liberal views told me that anti-hijab laws are not racism because Islam is not a race was pretty lolzy. It wasn’t even some kind of New Atheist Islamophobia (which was normal in 2005, but this is a flamewar from this year), it was just casual wrongness about other countries. I constantly see this and similar sentiments, which is sad, because American concepts like BIPOC genuinely are applicable here with modifications (i.e. Muslims would be in the BIPOC class here even though they’re neither black nor indigenous).

  3. Eric2

    This reads from beginning to end as speculative pop psychology. As such, to the extent that the post has any actionable practical recommendations, they are of questionable value.

    • Alon Levy

      The big actionable recommendation is not to mistake kvetching for reform sentiment. Same way the sort of people who make up corporate conspiracies like “you will eat the bugs” are not who you want in a room where the topic is how to fight inequality.

      • SB

        “mistake kvetching for reform sentiment”
        But why would people satisfied with the status quo demand reform?

        • Alon Levy

          That’s the thing – they’re not satisfied, but they weaponize their dissatisfaction in a status quo direction. It’s like managers who loathe the line workers but wouldn’t think to take risks and do mass layoffs.

          • adirondacker12800

            Mass layoffs gets you fired. Managers get paid big bucks to assure the line is………well managed…. or the office or sales floor or…

        • Tiercelet

          The “negative exceptionalism” in question isn’t motivation for change–it’s motivation to give up all hope of change. After all, if we’re the worst, anything we do will just mess things up further, right?

          It’s also easy to confuse pessimism-as-bonding-ritual for a genuine critique (I think this is what the Life article above is doing). This is the same category as university students complaining to each other about how busy and stressed they are–they’re commiserating, not looking for actual solutions.

  4. Patrick

    Okay, I’ll bite. What European systems have problems of the type and/or scale of WMATA?

    • Alon Levy

      First of all, plenty of systems have the approximate size of WMATA.

      And second, what problems are you thinking of? There are a bunch, with different analogs. For example, the political firestorm about the extension of the Green Line to Anacostia mostly showcases the need for fare integration, and the “we don’t like to transfer” mentality is pretty unique to systems that don’t have it. But the broader issues of how community consultations have made the system worse even when the planners were trying to be anti-racist do sometimes exist here; Brussels Metro Line 3 is having problems with NIMBY opposition to staging a cut-and-cover station in a neighborhood park in a disproportionately nonwhite working-class area, complicating the design and construction.

      The construction problems coming from the National Park Service’s demands are likewise not unique to the US. If anything, WMATA is unusual in how bureaucratic the process has been – usually in the US it’s adversarial. In Italy it’s normal for regulators to make absolute demands, and this has raised the construction costs of stations in historically sensitive areas like the Colosseum.

      • Patrick

        I meant more of some of problems rather than the system scale. In particular:

        * The COVID-related ridership crash. As of 2022, weekday rail ridership is ~1/3 what it was in 2019 and a return to 2021 (where bus ridership was higher than rail) seems possible. I’m also under the impression that these sorts of drops have only happened in the US.
        * The 7000 series derailment and slow return to service, with the long headway side effects. The time scale (10 months and counting), as well as the disinterest in frequency seems to be unique to this system.

  5. Phake Nick

    What set apart “exceptionalism” and actual concern about differences in how specific regions in the world function differently that can impact result of trying to implement different things?
    Like priority of diversity during American decision making process, prevalence of criminal organizations and corruption in Latin America, and low purchase power of developed East Asia residents.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Diversity initiatives aren’t causing issues with getting shit done. The smartest people I know in the private sector are all in on diversity initiatives and they get shitloads done.

      The public sector has three issues at least in the UK and almost certainly wider.
      * No focus on value for money. I mean that Alon can point out that French spend 20% of what Britain does 100km away to electrify a line is a good example.
      * No focus on customer service. Either the public sector caves unnecessarily or the steamroller unnecessarily. But focusing on win-wins is important to get projects over the line. That I can personally beat the whole of the HS2 team on this is a complete embarrassment for them and I think we can all accept that I’m not exactly brilliant at customer skills.
      * Being unreasonably terrified of being seen to make a mistake. Mistakes are how we learn – and good culture embraces that. If you want to build a railway line in 8 years like in the 19th century rather than 20 years you are going to need to cut out some of the bullshit. And yeah you’re going to take some risks – and perhaps build stuff in a suboptimal place. But who cares? Better to do that and waste £500m than waste £80bn with overly rigid approaches.

      • Phake Nick

        I am not talking about speed or ability to do things, but rather differences in outcome or in result of evaluation as a result of considered diversity in decision making process versus just treat everyone indiscriminately. Is one of them objectively better, or whether it is something that have local context that objectively must be taken into account for different countries around the world?

      • Borners

        This is how the “British” (English) left operates. We are an evil Neoliberal Empire, Oh woe is us, we can’t possibly make things better, its always somebody’s else’s fault because they are evil Tories, we never “invest” enough money, incompetence is not a problem only moral bloviating matters. We are not racist, but if you compare us to any country other than the US in detail we will get angry at you for making us feel like moro- I mean racists. “British exceptionalism” is terrible and we are so against it even though everything we do screams our belief in this. This “country” peaked in 1947 and we must go back because the future is a Neoliberal Tory Fascist Climate catastrope blah blah.

        UK rail sucks because the UK state is not meant to make people’s lives better unless they follow its particular form of “British” politics. England has to be pastoral-exurban unchanging territory that feeds the British system and its favored constituencies of plutocrats, old people and Celts. Good railways and public transport and the civic institutions that could build and sustain them would corrode and destroy this system. Urban England is primary target of a century British state abuse for a reason.

        • Matthew Hutton

          The British left hasn’t historically given a fuck about places outside the big cities. I mean that’s starting to change. But that’s the status quo.

          • Matthew Hutton

            And to be honest I doubt it’s different in any other countries.

          • Borners

            Okay thats at best is true of the chattering classes of the Southern English left. Policy wise its complete nonsense, Old Labour was committed to preserving the 1 industry borough lifestyle above all else. British Socialism was magic that would solve all problems including that pesky evil London.

            That’s why the 1947 Town & Country act created the anti-urban status quo (note the name). Union policy, coal policy, industrial policy, university policy etc you can find a “town” bias against the big cities everywhere. Even in the New Labour era! Go to Wakefield or Rotherham and you can literally see each Labour government in the architecture. It failed of course, these towns were and are too small, too disorganised, too committed to the past. The kind of people who’ll vote to destroy the “country” before voting for the local college to be made a university or for the local train line to be electrified with infill stations. They’d rather die than commit to change, no wonder they’ve moved to the Boomer Conservatives with the persecution complex and “Après moi, le déluge” attitude.

            Admittedly Labour didn’t try “have good transport policy so you can stay in the hometown and work in nearby big city” but most English rail nerds and Dft civil servants don’t know what good transport policy is either. All nationalisation-culture war and money demands.

            “its the same in countries” is big statement. “Relatively isolated towns reliant on dying industries and little stake in rising ones” well yeah, but closing all the public libraries and not having electric trains is a particularly bad problem in England compared to our peer countries. But England has no future, only a British one.

          • Matthew Hutton

            To be honest though improving transit for Rotherham is more politically viable than yet another London project even if the London project is substantially better on cost-benefit analysis.

            The same applies to building housing on brownfield sites rather than greenfield ones. Improving the housing in Rotherham will be more acceptable to the voters than building on green fields – even if building on green fields is cheaper.

  6. xh

    I don’t think sentiments like “we are the worst” count as “criticism” whatsoever. They are nothing but merely a politer way of cursing like “commuting by the fucking LIRR is shit”. Maybe LIRR’s operation sucks; maybe LIRR’s operation is good but infrastructure is bad; or maybe LIRR is overall good but long-distance commuting itself sucks. As you can see, such sentiments by themselves don’t deliver any actionables.

    There’s no point putting them under the frame “negative exceptionalism”. Passengers will continue to give their “fucks”, and competent rail operators will take them as for reference and only for reference. It is the thorough understanding of the status-quo, the goal and industrial know-how that actually matters, not these sensational complaints.

    Moreover, the frame of exceptionalism is not quite helpful for analyzing the real problems. Indeed exceptionalism is reguarly used as excuses (e.g. US is of exceptional low density, so we do not need any HSRs). But there’re also blind imitations without considering the actual situation. The Montreal REM project went full brain removal when they copy & paste a “standard” light metro solution where an electrified commuter rail already existed, ridiculously replacing standard 25kV AC electrification with 1500V DC electrification. Even the “alternatives to full electrification” shit stem from bad imitation: the automotive world are trying hybrid/battery cars, so why don’t we use hybrid/battery trains?

    • Phake Nick

      Problem with such negative exceptionalism is it lead to the sentiment that “It is a waste to try improving things because it will always be bad and cannot be improved due to our exceptional circumstances”

  7. Pingback: Who Learns from Who? | Pedestrian Observations

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