Saturday, June 28, 2008

Future Prospects at South Street

General Growth Management, which became the owner of the retail spaces at South Street Seaport when it bought the Rouse Corporation in 2004, has a new plan for rejuvenating the Seaport with a high-rise building, stores, and other amenities. Like Rouse before it, General Growth uses the rhetoric of community and history to sell its flawed vision. The new plan, we're told by the company's Web site, will reconnect the neighborhood with the city. But on whose terms? And for what purpose?

Decades ago, a major selling point of Rouse's "festival marketplace" at South Street was that it would create a secure financial base for the South Street Seaport Museum. Instead, the presence of the marketplace overwhelmed the museum. Then the museum shrunk to a fraction of its old self. And now the festival marketplace is revealed as a failed mall.

Already, the new plan has been criticized as a private enclave that throws a few crumbs of access to the public. That objection is a good starting point. But we need an even stronger vision of the neighborhood and of the South Street Seaport Museum, which has emerged as something of a weak orphan in discussions of the Seaport so far.

I've worked at the Museum as a consultant, and it angers and saddens me that the biggest attraction down there is the "Bodies" exhibit, which has nothing to do with the city or the seaport and its history. For all of New York's history as a port, it deserves better.

As New Yorkers contemplate the future of South Street, they should remember that the neighborhood was deemed worth saving as the home of a museum and a historic district--not as a site for a mall or 42-story apartment and hotel tower.

Any plan for South Street should keep public access, history, and the Museum in the foreground.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More on Carlin

George Carlin grew up on West 121 Street in Manhattan during the Forties and early Fifties, with Columbia University to the south and Harlem to the north. He described his neighborhood as a polyglot place where he learned to hang out with different kinds of kids. Out of that experience, I suspect, came his penchant for crossing boundaries and making wisecracks that eventually got him kicked out of Cardinal Hayes High School. But not everyone lived that way in northern Manhattan in those days.

Blocks and streets had a strong racial or ethnic charater. The most interesting of them were home to a mix of people. But too often, on either side of the mixed blocks, were streets defined by the majority that lived there--white, Black or Hispanic.

By the Fifties, the Black and Puerto Rican population in northern Manhattan was growing. The Irish, who tended to live in walking distance of Roman Catholic parish churches, were either leaving for the suburbs or moving north to parts of Washington Heights or Inwood with distinctly Irish communities.

There was a nasty edge to all of this that came out in gang fights over turf. But out of this tumult also came blocks where Black, Hispanic and Irish guys played ball together and learned to get along. Guys who thrived in this sort of situation--like an Irishman I know who played football for pub teams, went out with a Puerto Rican girl, and dug Mongo Santamaria--weren't necessary the norm. But they were special--just like George Carlin.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Carlin and Bruno

So much New York State news to opine upon. First, let us note with sadness the passing of George Carlin. Much has been said in the past day or so about his role as the comedian of the counterculture, and one of the first stand up comedians to have a real political edge to his work. Not enough has been said about Carlin as a New Yorker. Rob could say more than I could about Carlin as a product of the post-war Irish culture of upper Manhattan, its passions, and above all, its rages. I would say this, there are no anti-clericals like ex-Catholic anti-clericals, and Carlin’s rage against organized religion was at the core of his worldview. Carlin was one of a long line of Irish rebels against suffocating conformity, starting with religion and extending to every facet of society. He will be missed.

And what about the decision on Joe Bruno to step down? It some ways it is even more important a change than the replacement of Pataki with a Democrat (first, Spitzer, now Paterson.) No one has been more powerful in New York State politics in the past decade. Governors come and go, sway in the tempests of public opinion. Majority leaders of the two houses are made of solider stuff. They don’t care what the public thinks, since they know they will be re-elected regardless of whatever they do, legislative stonewalls that will stand their ground against any odds. Bruno has had the longest tenure of any Senate majority leader in the history of the legislature (I think.) Certainly he has been a remarkably powerful politician, and the tandem of Bruno and Silver have been the two foci of state government for over a decade.

What is most remarkable about Bruno's career is that he has managed to maintain, through gerrymandering, a Republican majority in a body that has, looking at voting and demographic patterns, no business having a Republican majority . The Republican majority is down to one seat, and perhaps his retirement will finally loosen the Republicans hold on the Senate, and perhaps, we might actually, at some time in the near future, a modicum of real democracy in this state. He will not be missed.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Some Enchanted Evening

Some enchanted evening, let us hope, on November 4, 2008 to be precise, an exotic charmer from the South Sea isles will complete his long planned seduction of the American people, and sweep at least 270 electors off their collective feet, and . . . let’s end this metaphor here, though let me point out that “yes we can” is perhaps not all that different from “yes I said yes I will yes.”

This comparison of Barack Obama to Ezio Pinza was prompted “When Love Meets Racism” an op-ed in the Washington Post by Harold Meyerson, who is not only one of the finest political journalists in the business, but a connoisseur of what they call the “Great American Songbook,” and is the co-author of an excellent biography of leftist and lyricist Yip Harburg. Anyway , Meyerson argues that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” currently enjoyed a much Tony-ied revival on Broadway, is the musical equivalent of the Obama campaign, a tuneful call to Americans to rediscover the better angels of their natures. Its heroine, Nelly Forbush “as corny as Kansas in August” is a “cockeyed optimist” who comes to believe, by the final curtain, that if racial prejudice could be learned, it could be unlearned and overcome. (Nelly does not, like Obama’s mom, another corny girl from Kansas, marry someone of another race, but does becomes the stepmother of interracial European and Polynesian children.)

Oscar Hammerstein II was America’s poet laureate of the stupidity and evil of racial prejudice, from “Showboat” and “The King and I” to his last works, such as “Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music,” and nowhere more than in “South Pacific.” Meyerson argues that what Hammerstein and Obama share is a cockeyed optimism that America’s social problems can be solved. This is a major change from recent campaigns, in which Democrats of the Clintonian vein speak of, at best, of ameliorating and not eliminating serious problems, and Republicans tend to deny that problems exist, or that great progress has been made towards solving them or that if left alone the problems will sorta kinda solve themselves.

In some ways, Obama's campaign is a return to the optimistic racial liberalism of the 1940s and the post war era. It is a quality that has been missing from Democratic politics since the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. The harsh racial realities of the 1960s made Hammerstein’s musicals seem as outdated and sentimental. During that decade, we both overturned Jim Crow, and decided that other racial problems, such as tacit segregation in housing and education, were essentially insoluble. And this has been the racial stalemate we have lived with ever since; widely touted “progress” in some areas, that now has culminated in an African American major party candidate for president, and widely ignored lack of progress in other areas, which, when attention is paid, usually ends up blaming the victim.

Let us hope that Obama succeeds, and his optimism will bring more positive fruit than that of our last optimist in chief, Ronald Reagan. I guess I supported Hillary this year—there is, after all, nothing like a dame--because I am skeptical of the pomposity and grandiosity of optimism, which all too often proves to be nothing more than rhetoric. All I wanted was a president who was better than Bush, and a chance to wash that man right outta my hair. But I am not sorry to see Obama the candidate. In the end, without a sense of real and powerful optimism that positive change on a major scale is possible, nothing will be accomplished. This is the promise of Obama, and if he comes close to fulfulling his expectations, I will be chirping like a lark that is learning to pray.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Painful Visit

I've been on tours at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum before, but this one broke my heart. Perhaps it was the size of the coffin of the girl being mourned after her death from malnutrition in 1869: it was so small that it looked like a large shoebox.

The deceased was Agnes Moore, aged ten months. Her death is the centerpiece of a moving yet carefully researched exhibit on her Irish Catholic family in a time when public health conditions were so awful, and the Irish so poor, that they suffered an infant mortality rate of 25%.

The Moores: An Irish Family in America, a new exhibit, takes place in a 325-square-foot tenement apartment restored to the condition of 1869, when the family actually lived at 97 Orchard. The father, Joseph, left Dublin in 1865 at 20. His wife, Bridget, arrived in New York in 1863 at 17. Joseph worked as a waiter and bartender. Bridget took care of the children, and the couple had three by 1869--Jane, Mary and Agnes.

The blue walls and knickknacks on the mantle make the apartment look more habitable then you might expect. But the tour and audiovisual presentations show that conditions the family endured were bad, even in a mostly German neighborhood with a reputation for relatively good living. Trash piled up as high as four feet in the streets.

And while the backyard of 97 Orchard had running water and privies that could be flushed out every two weeks or so, standards of sanitation and public health were poor. Particularly noxious was the "swill milk" that led to the malnourishment of so many children: unpasteurized, extracted from cows fed an unwholesome diet of distillery byproducts, and frequently dosed with chalk to make it look white.

As with other Tenement Museum exhibits, much of this information is conveyed by a tour guide working in a restored apartment stocked with antique furnishings from the period under discussion. Some amount of informed conjecture is unavoidable in this format, but it is responsibly identified as such.

The Moores
adds to this formula, however, with artful use of recorded sound and projected images. Early in the tour, visitors listen to nineteenth century Irish songs, splendidly performed by my friends Dan Milner and Mick Moloney, which convey the immigrant experience. At the same time, pictures are projected on an interior window.

Later, when you enter the front room where Agnes' coffin is laid out, you are confronted by the sound of heart-rending keening in Gaelic for a dead child. Some pipes and whiskey are laid out for the men who will visit. A rosary is laid on top of the coffin.

The tour concludes with a visit to an adjacent apartment, the home of the Katz family in the 1930s, when housing reforms, education and sanitary measures had raised public health. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, the infant mortality rate for New York dropped to eight percent. And unlike the mid-nineteenth century, when immigrant children died at a rate ten times that of native children, the 1920 census showed immigrants' children dying at a lower rate than the children of the native-born.

All of this came too late for the Moore family. They moved away from Orchard Street in 1870 and eventually had eight children in all. Bridget died at 36. Joseph lived into his seventies. But of their eight children, only four reached adulthood.

Only one of the four surviving Moore children married. Her descendants today include police officers and firefighters in New York City.

The Moores
is accompanied by What Might Have Been: An Irish Family at 97 Orchard Street, a historical novella grounded in detailed research, by the Irish writer Joseph O'Connor. It evokes the Moores' lives in beautiful, aching prose.

What Might Have Been, and The Moores: An Irish Family in America, powerfully relate an Irish immigrant experience marked by suffering, exploitation and courage. The exhibit and novella also have lessons for the present.

Today, the immigrant poor still suffer from a lack of good health care. Yet the world that the Moores inhabited--a world without government policies to enforce public health standards, mandate decent housing, and provide medical care--is just the social order that free market fundamentalists like to extol.

If you know some, take them to the Tenement Museum to call on the Moore family. It just might change their minds.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum can be reached on the Web at


For those of us of a certain age, the “early morning hours of June 17th” will always mean one thing and one thing only, those glorious pre dawn hours in 1972, when five bungling burglars were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex, in Washington, D.C., setting into motion the complex series of events, that, two years later, would force the resignation of President Richard Nixon. There may come a time, when a political scandal is not labeled with the obligatory suffix of “-gate”--Obama’s unfortunate comment about the “bitter” white working class was labeled “bittergate”—but it has not yet happened.

But now, the early morning hours of June 17th has a new meaning. For it was in at 3:14 AM, on June 17th after the conclusion of a game when the New York Mets were playing in Los Angeles, that the general manager of the Mets issued a press release announcing that the Mets’ manager, Willie Randolph, had been fired. This will, unfortunately, probably not lead to the resignation of another president, but it has caused quite a stir in sport circles in New York City. The burden of the argument has concerned not the fact of his firing---Randolph presided over the catastrophic collapse of the Mets last September, and the Mets have been a very mediocre club the first 60 games of this season---but how it was done, at the beginning of a road trip, after Randolph had just flown out to California, by press release, like a thief in the night, has been roundly criticized.

Well, I have always liked Willie Randolph, though I am basically a Yankee fan, and Randolph’s pedigree as a former stalwart Yankee player and coach Randolph was one reason he was always seen by some Mets fan as an interloper and carpetbagger (and his race would become an issue as well, but that is another story.) While I think Randolph was shabbily treated, I do have some sympathy with management as well. It is never easy to fire people. You fire people too early and you didn’t give them enough time to work out; you fire them too late and everyone asks, “what took you so long?” There’s no such thing as a “right time.”

And baseball owners, as in the case of Mr. Fred Wilpon, the owner of the Mets, are getting increasingly eccentric and capricious, interfering with baseball operations, and exercising arbitrary power because they can. Wilpon’s passive/aggressive campaign against Randolph makes one yearn for the open confrontations of a George Steinbrenner. At the same time, there is something, what can one say, refreshing about the ease with which the Mets fired Randolph, a press release in the middle of the night, and you’re gone. Compare this to the struggle it took to get Richard Nixon to vacate his ill-gotten office.

Perhaps there is something politics can learn from baseball. What about a system in which we do not elect a president, but every four years elect a “national owner” or a “supervisor.” The supervisor would not be able to directly exercise executive power, but has the power to hire and fire the president and the cabinet. Everyone would serve at the pleasure of the supervisor. (This would essentially be our current system with an appointed rather than an elected president.) The point is, a president would never fire himself or herself. The supervisor would have real power, and there would be laid back supervisors, and those who more resemble George Steinbrenner . But the main job would be evaluate how good a job the president was doing, and if the supervisor didn’t like the result, he or she could change presidents every six months, or keep one person in office for the duration of his or her term .

Okay, Montsequieu this is not, and maybe this is getting a bit far away from the Mets. But I’d like to think that if George W. Bush ever managed a baseball team the way he has managed this country, he would have been fired a long time ago, along with the rest of his coaching staff. If Willie Randolph had been president of the United States, he never would have invaded Iraq.

Monday, June 16, 2008

In the Heights

In the Heights won Tony Awards yesterday for Best Musical and Best Music and Lyrics. For Broadway, this means recognition for a play that makes the sounds, stories and rhythms of the city central to musical theater. For the Heights, this means striving immigrants can finally take the stage as symbols of a great neighborhood.

The rapping, break dancing, and Latin music that animate In the Heights restore the vernacular music of New York City to the Broadway stage. (The show also won Tony Awards for choreography and orchestration.) Once, there was no clear division between popular music and Broadway show tunes. But in recent times, revivals and imported productions have made Broadway tunes less and less part of the sound of the city. It's nice to hear New York singing to itself again on Broadway.

And it is good to hear the Latino voices of Washington Heights, a sometimes-forgotten neighborhood in northern Manhattan, on the Broadway stage. Dominicans are the largest immigrant group to settle in New York City in recent decades, and along with Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Ecuadorians they have made the Heights the home of one of the great Hispanic neighborhoods of New York.

The Heights, where my parents lived in the mid-Fifties when it was more of an Irish and Jewish neighborhood, has always been my barometer for measuring whether New York can provide safe, healthy homes for working families and immigrants. It hasn’t always been easy to do that. (That’s why I’m writing a book about the neighborhood since the Fifties.)

In Washington Heights, a dearth of good working-class jobs, overcrowded schools, wrenching cultural conflicts, and the murderous presence of drug dealers in the Eighties and Nineties made for hard times. But the neighborhood has come through all that---not without problems, particularly poverty--but in a stronger and steadier fashion than anyone would have predicted 15 years ago. Today, the biggest threat is gentrification. As a local newspaper put it, the people of northern Manhattan didn’t outlast thugs and drug dealers to lose their homes to realtors.

In the Heights captures the pride, energy and unease of the neighborhood. It approaches themes of home and family through the idioms of northern Manhattan. While the play emphasizes Hispanic experiences in a neighborhood that also has Jewish, Irish, and African American residents, its messages are universal. Just as you didn’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the themes of gender, change and tradition that animated Fiddler on the Roof, you don’t have to be Latino to grasp the tensions between family, ambition, roots and community that invigorate In the Heights.

As good as this musical is for what happens on stage, In the Heights also generates a special bond with its audience. Each time I see the play I have been struck by the fact the people sitting around me go beyond the usual Broadway crowd of rich folks and tourists. In whoops of recognition and knowing laughter, the people I sat with made clear that this story is their story, too.

When I saw In the Heights with my wife on June 4, I spoke with a group of young actors from Brooklyn. They produced an improvisational play with dance and music, From the Stoops of Sunset, about the beauties and struggles of their community. They worked with the Life Lines Community Arts Project of the Center for Family Life. In the Heights was their reward for work done well.

The young people I spoke with called In the Heights “awesome.” They observed that some of their own material was getting good enough to bear comparison with Broadway. And they recognized that the themes of working class and immigrant life that they explored in Sunset Park resonated with the dilemmas of In the Heights.

Any musical that can build a bridge between Washington Heights and Sunset Park is doing good work and important work. In the Heights, for all this and its Tony Awards, is doing very well indeed.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More on Tim Russert

I agree with everything Rob says about the late Tim Russert in his post, but in the spirit of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, let me try to say something nice. Yes, he could flog the conventional wisdom unmercifully, was awfully full of himself, and often descended to trivialities and bullying, and his behavior in the Valarie Plame case was dishonorable. But though he laid it on rather thickly, with those pseudo working class airs, many in western New York liked his frequent mentions of his dying home city of Buffalo, as a means of keeping faith with those, like himself, who left, and those who had no choice but to stay. (He had a typical diaspora mentality, never forgetting one’s sadly traduced place of birth, no matter how far or how high you travel.)

And while “gotcha” journalism, of which Russert was the leading exponent, could be very annoying, in many ways it was preferable to the insipidity that passed for most television news interviewing that Russert supplanted. Hard questions were really sort of an innovation, and he certainly exposed his share of hypocrites in his time.

I guess these thoughts were prompted by reading a transcript of Russert at his best, querying Dick Cheney in September 2002 on the administrations march to war. He asked Cheney lots of tough questions; on the lack of concrete evidence for weapons of mass destruction, the diffidence of allies to the prospective war, and the seeming lack of planning for post-war Iraq. Reading the transcript one wonders why there weren’t more interviews like that. Part of the reason was in Cheney’s answer, in which he referred to an article that appeared in the Times that very day, one of Judith Miller’s infamous “reports” that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction, and part of the problem was simply that the Democrats were far too divided on this issue to serve as an effective opposition. It was less that tough questions weren’t asked, but that misleading answers were not effectively rebutted by people in positions of influence. Russert has his share of responsibility for this, but so does the New York Times and other media outlets, and the Democratic Party as a whole. In the end—and I am paraphrasing something Rob has told me many times---if our politicians are not courageous, it is foolish to think that the press can or will act in their stead. I hope the best of what Tim Russert represented, his sometime speaking truth to power, will live on, and his successors learn to speak more powerfully, and with greater truthfulness.

Big Brown Blues

I have found myself, several times over the past week, after Big Brown’s puzzling and disappointing run in the Belmont Stakes, watching on You Tube the 1973 run of Secretariat in the Belmont. There is nothing quite like it in all of sports; the best of all possible performances and the best of all possible times. Horses have only one chance to win the triple crown, and Secretariat’s performance was so dominating, so breathtaking, that it leaves one humbled. As you listen to the call of the race, you hear the track announcer, utterly awestruck, saying that “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine” as he starts to pull away. One of the great attractions of sports is that is a great simplifier, with unambiguous criteria for success and failure. One cannot write a perfect work of history, but one can bowl or pitch a perfect game. And Secretariat’s run in the Belmont is the most perfect thing I know in all of sports, perfection condensed to two minutes and twenty-four seconds. When I watch Secretariat cross the finish line, 31 lengths in front of the nearest competitor, in full gallop, it brings tears to my eyes.

So why is horse racing so dull? Why has is it dying? Why have newspapers stopped printing racing results? What has happened to the handicappers that used to dominate the sports pages. When I was lad, one of the first things I ever read were the handicappers in the New York Post. (I know I learned the word “consensus” from a column in which the Post summarized the picks from its five handicappers.) In the early 1950s, Jamaica Race Track (soon to make way for cooperative housing) was the most popular sporting venue in New York City, with 2 million fans, more than any of the city’s three baseball teams. But times have changed. If there are, quite literally, a hundred books about baseball in New York City in the 1950s, there is not a single book on the history of horse racing in New York City.

There are various theories as to the decline of horse racing. Its not a great television sport. It’s a bit like Groundhog’s Day, watching the same thing nine times in a row, with none of the added tension you get from a sporting event unfolding over an extended period of time. The ninth race is just the last race on the card. And bettors, rather than use an iota of intelligence and try to pick winners, would rather go to Las Vegas or some substitute and just plunk their quarters into slot machines. And its no fun watching horses like Barbaro or Eight Belles break down. If they euthanized football players after breaking an ankle there wouldn’t be much of an audience for football either.

My favorite theory of the decline of horse racing is the Tammany connection. Modern horse racing was basically created and controlled by urban political machines—John Morrisey in the 1860s sort of created both horse racing at Saratoga and the form of the NYC Democratic machine that would thrive for the next century. Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany stalwart, built the Jamaica Race Track in 1903Anti-Tammany reformers, such as Fiorello LaGuardia, were furiously opposed to gambling and all its works. And it is no accident, I think, that the decline of horse racing as a major American sport in the 1960s coincides with the breakup of Tammany.

The 1960s is also when municipalities started to spend massive amounts of municipal money to build new sports arenas, for baseball and football. Baseball became a family sport, where fathers and sons learn to bond amid to overpriced hot dogs and beers, and where they revel in the eternal rebirth of the American pastoral. The raffish, somewhat seedy ambience of racetracks, with professional gamblers, swindlers, and corrupt politicians was relegated to a forgotten chapter of the past. Horse racing doesn’t put on airs, or pretend to be something other than it is. No ten part Ken Burns series on horse racing. Jacques Barzun’s over-quoted comment about anyone wanting to know “the heart and mind of America” knowing baseball is better applied to horse racing, a sport with its roots in the 17th century, central to the institution of slavery and the development of 19th century masculine culture in the North. At its best there is nothing as exhilarating in all of sport as watching thoroughbreds galloping down the home stretch. But nowadays the smart money boys in New York City, lousy with filthy lucre, have better things to do with their time then hang out at the $2 window.

Thoughts on Tim Russert

Tim Russert's death is a tragedy for his family and friends, but the first wave of stories about his career bear all the signs of Washington insider journalism: consensual, conventional, and congratulatory. Russert deserves a tougher appraisal. However decent he may have been as a human being, I've always had very mixed feelings about him as a journalist. In many ways, he embodied some of the worst aspects of today's news culture.

To begin by giving credit where it is due: as a former political staffer, Russert realized that politicians do important work. He didn't embrace the standard view, far too common among journalists, that all politicians are sinners and all reporters are saints.

Russert also, in the late days of the recent Hillary Clinton campaign, struck a blow for truly independent journalism by pointing out that the simple fact of the race was that Clinton didn't have the delegate votes to win the nomination. He didn't stick to the "he says, she says, figure it out for yourself" formula of conventional news reporting that often obscures more than it reveals.

But beyond that, there is much that bothers me about Russert's work.

He wasn't the first political insider to become a journalist, but his career path accelerated the revolving door between politics and the news media. And that reinforces voters' perception that politics and journalism are an elite game--one that is cynical, irrelevant, and beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Russert made much of his Buffalo roots, but ultimately he was a Washington insider. His questions reflected conventional Washington assumptions about what works and what matters.

In truth, I followed the reactions to Russert's work more than I watched Russert himself. But when I did tune in to the occasional episode of "Meet the Press" or special event coverage, I wasn't always impressed. He had some good moments, but he could also be bombastic. A lot of his allegedly tough questioning amounted to hammering people who were already on the ropes before they went on his show. And he had a bad habit of asking questions soaked in a very flawed conventional wisdom.

I'll never forget one episode with John Kerry during the 2004 election when Kerry knocked Russert back onto his heels.

Russert opened the interview with an old clip of Kerry, when he was a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, criticizing the atrocities that US troops had committed in Vietnam.

Russert played the clip, turned to Kerry, and asked him if he wanted to add anything.

Lamely, Kerry joked about how much more hair he had back then.

Russert pressed forward. He asked Kerry if he didn't want to recognize that many of these old allegations about atrocities in Vietnam had been proven false.

Kerry stiffened. Then he came right back at Russert and stated the facts of the matter: atrocities were committed and subsequent investigations had revealed that they were an even bigger problem than we knew during the war.

Russert backed off and pursued another line of questioning. But if he had been a consistently tough and searching reporter, he never would have asked a question grounded in false premises in the first place.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Old Chords

The Labor Arts website presents and preserves the stories of working people's struggles. Its latest offering, "Play it Again, Sam": Lost Chords of the Progressive and Labor Movements of the 1940s, continues the good work.

Last night, "Play it Again, Sam" was celebrated with a concert at the Workmen's Circle in Manhattan. Some 250 people crowded into an auditorium to hear old and young singers, foremost among them Henry Foner, sing numbers like "Gee, But I'd Like to be a G-Man" and "Charlie and the MTA."

There was a time when the socialists of the Workmen's Circle and ex-communists like Foner were bitter adversaries. Nevertheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a shared devotion to progressive Jewish culture, and a shared hostility to much of what is wrong in America today, have brought veterans of both movements together in recent years. It's a welcome trend.

Yesterday's concert had the intimacy of a living room singalong and the passion of a political rally. Most of the participants were getting along in years, but there were enough young people there to make me think that this kind of music might have a future as something more than a historical remnant.

Foner himself is a living link to the progressive music of the Thirties and Forties, and his singing in the show and on the website is good enough to make the old tunes come alive. The next step should be a performance with a full jazz band.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

For Freedom, Against Fear

A surprise speaker at a recent historians' conference at Columbia University recovered a speech by Senator Herbert H. Lehman titled "The Strait Jacket of Fear." The senator's words bear repeating as a prophetic verdict on the Bush Administration's assaults on American liberties.

The speaker was John D. Gordan III, Lehman's great great nephew; the conference was "The World of Governor Lehman: New York City and State in Depression and War," held June 5 and 6 and sponsored by the Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History at Columbia and The New York Academy of History.

Lehman's speech, delivered at a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1953, excoriated McCarthy and McCarthyism. (It also criticized Soviet communism.)

Gordan spoke and distributed a copy of the speech. The senator's address, and Gordan's remarks, included this "Decalogue of McCarthyism."

1. They use and abuse the constitutional protections for the free exchange of ideas, but seek to deny these protections to all others.

2. They insist that they and they alone possess the power to determine what is right for everybody.

3. They appeal to fear and passion, never to reason; they do not persuade, they threaten.

4. They understand only dictation and domination, never cooperation and deliberation.

5. They are completely intolerant of opposition or deviation, identifying all opposition as heresy, which they would stamp out by threat and terror.

6. They use and justify the use of any means to achieve their particular ends...ends which they consider absolute and unchallengeable. Without scruple or compunction they ride roughshod over truth, honor, dignity and integrity.

7. They fear and distrust new or foreign people and new or foreign ideas; they believe in iron curtains and isolation.

8. They drape themselves in the cloak of patriotism, but cynically destroy the soul and spirit of the nation whose name they invoke.

9. They avow respect for religion, but stamp ruthlessly underfoot all standards of morality; they threaten to subject to their inquisitions even the clergy and the ministry.

10. They are, in short, the arrogant and the absolute, who sit in solemn judgment on the loyalty and morality of their follow citizens, all unhumbled by the sheer effrontery of such a usurpation of conscience and of God.

It has been a long time since New York State was an industrial powerhouse that inspired and invigorated the New Deal, but these words from that era are well worth recalling.

Thank you, Senator Lehman. And thank you, John Gordan III, for retrieving this speech.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sufis in the City

There is only one known photograph of Sheikh Amadou Bamba, a pacifist Sufi, or Muslim mystic, who opposed French colonial rule in Senegal. Taken in 1913, it depicts him lean and erect, wearing a white robe and a head scarf that reveals his high forehead and intense gaze. Today, that image inspires artwork in Senegal and a community of Senegalese immigrants in Harlem. Both are the subject of "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal," now on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The exhibit, which was organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, is impressive for its breadth, depth, and beauty. It presents glass paintings of Bamba working miracles, photographs of the mosque in Touba, Senegal where he is interred, African calligraphy of Arabic script, and paintings and articles of clothing created by his followers. It also provides a good introduction to Islam in Africa and to the presence of African Muslims in America, past and present.

Bamba's teachings inspired the Muslim spiritual brotherhood of Mouridism, which is well-established in Senegal. In particular, Senegalese young people value his divine mysticism's, his post-colonial identity, his sense of responsibility, and his ideas about the dignity and sanctity of work. Bamba is equally revered by Mourides in New York City. Indeed, a majority of the 1,000 or so Senegalese immigrants living today in Central Harlem are Mourides. Their community--which supports a local radio station and television show--is a visible presence in businesses around 116th Street.

In Dakar, images of Bamba--who is frequently depicted alongside Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Bob Marley--watch over everything from homes to businesses to motor vehicles. In Manhattan, references to Touba, which holds Bamba's grave, appear in the names of stores and boutiques.

As much as this exhibit is a fine introduction to African art and Islam, it is also a lesson in the many religious paths that people follow to similar destinations. Christians who visit the exhibit will see in Bamba's story a Muslim version of the life of a saint. And Jews will recognize, in the mystical devotions of Bamba's followers, similarities to the ecstasies of Hasids and the Kabala.

"A Saint in the City," which is well worth visiting, closes June 30. The Schomburg Center is at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Rant on Taxes

Starting today, internet purchases made by New Yorkers from non-New York State retailers, such as, will be subject to state sales tax. As one who buys a fair amount of stuff online, primarily books and CDs, I can’t say that I am thrilled by the addition of 8% to each of my purchases. I suppose that it does level the metaphorical playing field somewhat, but please don’t tell me that this is a boon to local retailers. In the 12 years I have lived in Rochester, Borders and Barnes and Nobles has systematically squeezed every independent book and CD seller out of existence. All this will do is take more money from consumers.

I can understand the purpose of a sales tax if you are selling something in New York State. Presumably, as a local retailer you benefit from a host of local goods and services, and you should pay for the privilege, though of course that cost is just passed along to the consumer. But an out of state retailer gets no services from New York State, and the state does not provide any of the transportation costs for the item, which is either sent by the US post office or via a private carrier. So basically we are being taxed simply for the privilege of living in New York State, and New York State does nothing for this additional money except collect the tax.

Now I don’t want to sound too peevish. I know, someone has to pay taxes, revenue is down, because real estate values are plummeting, the stock market is not having a good year, the price of gas is way up, and New York State, like every state, is facing a budget crisis. And at least when New York State collects the money, even if its frittered away on boondoggles, it’s not a subvention for an evil and criminal war in Iraq.

But it seems to me, if we need tax revenue, let’s just raise taxes. And this is something that contemporary governments just refuse to do. They will sneakily raise your assessments, so your property tax goes up even if the tax rate stays the same, and even if, as in Rochester, house prices have been going downward. (The whole metaphysics and arbitrariness of assessments, is a subject, that if I were a conservative, would be the subject of many angry posts.) And they can raise user fees, past the point where anyone is going to use the item in question. (I am sure the new additional $1.50 tax on every pack of cigarettes, raising the price to $7.00 a pack, will in the end be revenue neutral, but there is no interest group more voiceless these days than smokers, except perhaps for pedophiles, though they say that Obama is a secret smoker and perhaps he can do something about this.)

Speaking of Obama, it seems to me that is the essential problem with small tax increases, like out of state sales taxes. If we are going to get this government back on track, end irresponsible deficits, institute national health insurance, we are going to have to raise taxes, and not in a half-assed way like New York State did, just penalizing book addicts and nicotine addicts. We will have to seriously increase the income tax, institute a national value added tax, eliminate the mortgage deduction, or something big like that. (I don’t want a flat tax, I want a sharp tax.) So little tax increases just postpone the day of reckoning, and give the illusion that we are doing something.

So to return to the sales tax on out of state internet purchases, its not the money, but the principle of the thing. Its too small to make a real difference. We have to get used to big taxes that everyone will grumble about. Obviously, the tax we should really levy at this time is a $3 a gallon tax on gasoline, to help with the transition from an internal combustion economy, and discourage excessive car use. Oh why don't we postpone the out of state sales tax until Paterson is ready to suggest a new tax that will make everyone suffer equally? That, after all, is the true meaning of democracy.