What about the whataboutism?

When I first wrote for public consumption—which was when I was in high school in the late 60s and I wrote rock reviews for the Distant Drummer, Philadelphia’s underground newspaper—my editor would not let me respond to critical letters to the editor. He said that I had my forum, my reviews, and that I should leave the readers alone.

Following that advice, I don’t usually comment on responses I receive to my posts. I’m going to make an exception, though, to respond to comments opposing the views I expressed in my post about the planning history of Historic Belmar Park. For two reasons: one, because most of the comments I received illustrate a rhetorical phenomenon, known as “whataboutism,” that’s become more common in an era where people argue past each other, and two, because most of the “what about” comments were attacks on the Early Childhood Lab School (ECLS) that the City of Santa Monica and Santa Monica College (SMC) are building just north of the new park.

Entrance on Fourth Street to the ECLS, slated to open later this year.

I’m interested in whataboutism, and the ECLS deserves to be defended.

“Whataboutism” is an old rhetorical device, but it became better known in January, when Republican members of Congress responded to the January 6 insurrection by asking, “but what about [fill in the blank]?” Don’t panic, I’m not equating the situation with the sports field and the ECLS with what happened in Washington (nor the sports field boosters with the Proud Boys), but the form of argument is the same. You see, after I published my post, few of the critical comments I received (which you may not have seen because they were on a Facebook page about Santa Monica politics) disputed the history I laid out. (However, if you want a clear statement of how the sports field boosters see that history, you can find it here.) Instead, the critics said that my criticisms of the sports field didn’t count because the ECLS was worse.

The front of the ECLS from across Fourth Street; the classroom buildings are behind this.

The ECLS is a joint venture between the City of Santa Monica, SMC, and the RAND Corporation. It will provide infant and toddler care, and a preschool, for up to 110 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and serve as an instructional facility for SMC’s teacher training program. The daycare and preschool will be operated by The Growing Place, which currently operates facilities on public land in two places in Santa Monica: at Marine Park and on part of the old Washington Elementary School site in Ocean Park. I don’t know how financial aid will be determined, but a minimum of 15 percent of the children will be from low-income households. (Disclosure that I’m not sure is necessary, but why not: in the early 90s my wife and I sent our son to preschool at the Growing Place. That was a long time ago, but it might be more grist for the oppositional mill, since one critic described the Growing Place as “daycare provider to the City’s power elite.”)

The whataboutism came in because the critics said I was hypocritical because I did not, when I criticized the field for being fenced off, “apply the exact same criticism to the ECLS,” which was described as a “private, walled fortress,” providing elite “private day care for City, SMC, and Rand staff.”

A Facebook comment about the ECLS, chiding me for criticizing the limited access to the sports field, but not criticizing the ECLS.

I don’t recall writing about the ECLS, neither in my Lookout columns nor in this blog. It wasn’t controversial enough to warrant a column. However, when I participated on the Civic Working Group (CWG), the task force that the City formed to devise a strategy to save the Civic Auditorium, and the CWG started to hold workshops, I began to hear vitriol about the ECLS coming from sport field boosters (not from all of them, but from the loudest). In turn, they attracted support from the faction in Santa Monica who oppose anything that the City (or anyone else) wants to build.

The ECLS has always been part of planning for the Civic Center. If you still have your Voter Information Pamphlet from the 1994 referendum on the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan (you don’t?), turn to page 30, where, referring to “Parcel D, Public Building Site” (exactly where the ECLS is today), the plan says, “[a] child care facility shall be provided within this parcel to serve the needs of the Civic Center area. The precise size will be based upon projected resident and employee needs. The facility will be funded through contributions from the City, County, and private development within the Civic Center.”

From the 1994 Voter Information Pamphlet.

In fact, the plan to include childcare in the Civic Center goes back to the task force that the City formed in the late 80s to plan the future of the Civic Center. The sports field boosters complain that they have had to wait 15 years since City Council approved the concept of the field to get it built, but the childcare community has had to wait twice that long, and their center was included in a plan that the voters approved on a 60-40 vote. The sports field wasn’t.

The 1993 plan envisioned a park on the site, and a 55,000 square foot cultural center. A lot of people wanted SMC to build a theater there, but SMC built the Madison site theater (now known as the Broad Stage) instead, and the cultural center idea was later dropped (creating room for the sports field). Here’s a detail from the 1993 plan. (Apparently it was thought that tennis courts could go on top of the cultural center.)

From the 1993 plan Urban Design Concept (p. 15 in the voter pamphlet). The building with the tennis courts on the roof is the cultural center. The building just to the west is the childcare center.

The ECLS, at approximately 18,000 square feet on approximately 60,000 square feet of land, is much smaller than the total development on the site that the voters approved, but the sports field boosters are bothered by the size of the ECLS. They say it’s been “super-sized” with, among other things, “its own giant fire lane.” (Maybe a code requires that?) It’s true that the predicted size of the ECLS has gone up and down over the years (from 10,000 square feet in 1993, to a low of 6,500 in a later iteration, and then to its final 18,000 once the educational program was completed), but it hardly seems outlandish for a facility with room for 110 children of varying ages. Its size obviously did not interfere with building the sports field.

One of the playgrounds at the ECLS.

The sports field boosters say that if I criticize the field for being fenced off from the public, then I should criticize the ECLS for being a “private, walled fortress.” In response, all I can say is, are you kidding? What childcare facility or school is open for the public to walk in and out of?

However, in fairness to the original boosters of the field, they did not intend for it to be fenced off. Twenty years ago, before synthetic fields took over, sports fields were open, as parks. It’s been pointed out to me (by a field booster who I hope still considers me a friend) that back in 2003 I wrote a column supporting the sports field. True, I did, but in that column I supported the field because I thought one would attract people to the Civic Center on weekends. Here’s how the field was depicted in a 2005 version of the Civic Center plan.

From the 2005 urban design concept showing the field as then planned to be part of a park. Note also the (unlabeled) childcare center between the field and the courthouse, and the large parking lot where most of the ECLS is now located.

Notice how much smaller the field is than what was built, and how it was to be part of a park open to the public. But synthetic fields have changed everything. The fields save maintenance costs and can be used year-round, but the public has to be kept out to save the expensive fields from sticky drinks and messy snacks. When the new field is played “crosswise” on smaller fields, there isn’t even sideline space for parents to stand and scream at the referee. It’s not a park that will connect with the neighborhood or attract strollers to the Civic Center.

The sports field boosters often say that they support childcare, but that this location was the wrong place. I get this argument; after all, I support sports fields in general even if I no longer support one at the Civic Center. But they’re wrong. Childcare has been part of the plan from the beginning because it makes sense to put childcare and preschools near where people work. Boosters also made an argument that SMC owns lots of land and could have built the ECLS elsewhere; but haven’t (some of) SMC’s Sunset Park neighbors said for years that they don’t want SMC to expand its campus? And haven’t SMC’s satellite campuses been a good thing? The ECLS is another one.

Another attack on the ECLS is that while it will serve the “elite,” it has been built with public funds and sits on public land. This argument, which reminds me of the arguments that come from people who say that we only need to plan for affordable housing, seems to conflate a big social issue, namely childcare for working people of all classes, with a reverse classism whereby people who are not poor (namely, the kind of people in an affluent town like Santa Monica who play or whose kids play soccer, lacrosse and rugby) say that families who can afford to pay for childcare shouldn’t get it, or shouldn’t have it subsidized, because they are “elites.”

Yes, absolutely, in a better America government would provide free preschool and childcare, as it provides free K-12. In the meantime, that’s not what we have. Just as college graduates who make too much money to qualify for affordable housing still need places to live and raise their families, those families need places to have childcare and preschool, however expensive the fees are. Families with young children, even if the parents are “young professionals,” need help. We applaud private employers who help provide childcare for their employees; shouldn’t we applaud the City and SMC for building childcare facilities and allowing public land to be used for childcare? Government should set an example. (I should also mention that RAND contributed $500,000 to the cost of building the ECLS, and additional funds that are going into scholarships.)

And . . . dare I say, that as an “elite” former Growing Place parent whose son went on to play many years of AYSO soccer, it’s a little rich for the boosters of AYSO soccer, lacrosse and rugby to complain about elites. Attend a weekend tournament for any of these sports and you’ll see parking lots full of shiny SUVs. (Or you can see them now as parents try to drop kids off on Fourth Street at the one entrance to the new field.) These kids in daycare today will be playing sports tomorrow. I suppose then they will no longer be the “lucky offspring of City, Rand, and SMC employees,” as one field booster described them, but the rising proletariat of young soccer, lacrosse and rugby players.

Another irony comes from the fact that the ECLS critics accuse me and presumably the rest of the CWG for supporting private development on the site, alleging that we wanted a “boutique hotel” or other “commercial buildings,” that would turn public land over to profit-seeking developers. For the record, the CWG didn’t recommend anything; it laid out the possibilities and analyzed the financial implications of those possibilities but left it to potential re-developers of the Civic Auditorium to propose what they thought could work. Yet, while decrying the possibility of commercial development, the sports field boosters vociferously object to the ECLS, which is the antithesis of a profit-making entity.

Which gets down to the reality, which is opposition to change. Some people genuinely believe in the power of team sports to foster paradise, and I respect them. The political onslaught for the field and against any plan to save the Civic Auditorium came, however, from people who oppose building anything, whether it’s private or public, profitable or charitable, commercial or residential. If I could get my wish, the rest of the land around the Civic Auditorium, as well as the auditorium itself (save the beautiful lobby), will be included in the City’s inventory for housing sites and ultimately turned over to an affordable housing provider to build housing for low- and moderate-income families and workers, and for the homeless. I wonder how many of the sports field boosters would support that.

Now that the field and the ECLS have been built, there were a couple of comments from sports field boosters saying that okay, now it’s time to “cool it.” This is the final irony, because the sports field boosters were the only participants in the process that weren’t cool. The historic preservation community certainly rolled over. Childcare supporters generally supported the sports field and certainly didn’t oppose it. The attacks on the ECLS were ugly and gratuitous. It was never “either/or” between the field and the ECLS. Maybe the ferocity of the advocacy for the field intimidated any opposition, but for whatever reason all the heat came from one side.  

No, before asking everyone to cool it, the sports field boosters should apologize to the childcare community for the years of insults.

What about it?

Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “What about the whataboutism?

  1. As someone else pointed out to me, the park design “LITERALLY marginalizes the Black community by putting their history on the MARGIN of a soccer/lacrosse field.”

  2. Excellent response to Frank’s rambling ( here, there, everywhere ) is Ann Bowman’s succinct response on SM Govt. and Politics page.

  3. Excellent article. And their vitriol seems to know no bounds. It has spread into other venues of public dialogue, always resisting change that benefits anyone but themselves.

  4. Excellent.  And their vitriol and resistance to change that benefits anyone but them has spread into other areas such as the School Board.  And City Council priority setting.Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

  5. Thanks for writing!!  

    Rev. Jim Conn230 Pacific St #108Santa Monica, CA 90405310/392-5056 Associations: CLUE – A Founding Member:  www.cluejustice.org  Climate Action Santa Monica -Advisory Board Asset Based Community Development:  www.abcdinstitute.org/ United Methodist Minister -Retired:  www.calpacUMC.org Former Council Member and Mayor ofSanta Monica  

Leave a Reply to leslielambert92 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.