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The man, the myth, the mythmaker … and the “self-own”



I have to hand it to Stephen Kessler. His writing skills, mixed with his righteous outrage, can create some bedazzling opinion columns in the Sentinel.


But his passion and outrage can produce blind spots from time to time. This past week it led to a spectacular “self-own.” (Most you reading this know what a “self-own” is - but it’s kind of new to me so I included a footnote below just in case.) It can really be encapsulated by the headline of Kessler's November 20 op-ed: “Deconstructing the mixed-use mythmaker.” As pretty much everyone who has followed the Downtown Library project’s saga, we know that Kessler is the leading mythmaker when it comes to the community conversation about this project. (I actually thought, when I saw the headline on the commentary, that it was going to be ABOUT Kessler rather than BY Kessler. Dopey me!)


He starts this chapter in his epic myth by claiming that some of the things project supporters (including me) say about the project are “lies” without his providing any factual evidence – thereby promulgating something that I might call a lie if I chose to be as harsh as Kessler.


He calls out the perceived duplicity of others while he regularly “refines” his arguments about the project based on the reality that either the substance and/or wording of his earlier arguments had fallen apart under scrutiny.


He talks about the deviousness of others while saying stuff like “more units of affordable housing are proposed” for a different site downtown as though this idea is a real thing. (It’s not all that different from someone saying “I propose that each of the handful of billionaires that live in Santa Cruz County give the community $100 million to support affordable housing” and then writing about it as though it's a serious proposal we can actually expect to happen.)


Speaking of duplicity… Kessler also sets up a “straw person” (old guys like me used to call this a “straw man”) in talking about the Farmers’ Market needing to move to a specific different site (and one he assumes will be inferior) when, in fact, the new site for the Market might not be that site at all. One site under serious consideration is the land where the old library sits right now—and this would be available if the Kessler myth-making team would stop fabricating so much and move on.


Kessler accuses others of "insulting our intelligence" (or at least his intelligence) because we are talking about losing the “carbon-absorbing trees” on the current Market site for a “concrete monstrosity.” And then in the next breath, he suggests that we save the old library (undistinguished concrete building) and that we build multi-story affordable housing on other sites downtown (more concrete) and allow a bunch of less distinguished carbon-absorbing trees to be lost on those sites.


I can’t help but wonder if he hasn’t insulted his own intelligence, which is genuinely substantial.


Did I mention that he doesn’t actually know what the new Library/Housing building would look like? Thus, he can use his mythmaking powers to turn it into a “monstrosity.” This is mythmaking at its finest—using one’s imagination to make something out of nothing – and an example of why Kessler is acclaimed as an excellent writer.


And then there’s his claim of “political malpractice” solely based on his noting (accurately, in this instance) that opposition voices substantially outnumbered supporter voices at a city council meeting on this project. What is obvious to me – as a political hack with a bit of experience with city council meetings – is that the number of people speaking on one side of an issue at a council meeting often has very little to do with the overall sentiment of the entire community. He is just naïve on this reality so this is a forgivable error on Kessler’s part. Still, it is a form of political malpractice to shout “political malpractice” when there isn’t any malpractice occurring.


I could go on… because those who self-own are typically blind to their inadvertent pointing of the finger at themselves. Once they get started with their blinders on, there is almost no limit to how far they will go. Kessler has gone quite far this time. The little picture next to the definition of “self-own” in the next edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary might well be of

Stephen Kessler at his keyboard.


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The "self-own" footnote: “...people will often try to put themselves in positions where they look smarter than the person with whom they are arguing, only to have it blow up in their faces. They might, for example, inadvertently highlight evidence that contradicts their point, or simply present themselves in a way that comes off as more pathetic than the person they are trying to upstage. It is during such instances that we become witness to the glorious phenomenon of the self-own.” from Merriam Webster [the dictionary people]


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