Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Updike, Stimuli (non-erotic), and Bad Banks

Okay, this is a shameless attempt to combine several distinct topics in a single post. First, John Updike. Certainly one of the most versatile figures in American literary history, prolific in all genres; stories, novels, poetry (mostly light, often bawdy), and criticism, scads of criticism, on literature, on art, on politics. There is no one like him today (though perhaps Joyce Carol Oates comes close), and its hard to think of anyone approaching his talents as a generalist, and he is up there with any of the great literary generalists, from Pushkin and Goethe to Henry James. And like Haydn’s 104 symphonies, what was impressive about Updike’s work was not just its quantity, but its quality, with a limpid and precise prose style that always made me think of Nabokov. I wasn’t a particularly avid reader of his fiction—I suppose I read about 8 to 10 of his novels—but I loved his criticism, and his abundant powers of critical sympathy with writers who were very different from himself; I can’t tell you how many books I placed on my “let’s try to read this one” list after reading a review. He has been a part of my intellectual life for as long as I can remember, and he will be greatly missed. James Wollcott’s hilarious and trenchant review of Updike’s latest Eastwick novel in a recent issue of the London Review of Books is worth retrieving on-line.

Topic two: One of the most striking aspects of Updike’s career is that, as far as I know, he never held a university position. He was just a writer, free and unattached. And one of the things that troubles me about the new bailout package, through the House with nary a GOP vote, for all of Obama’s bipartisanizings, is how much of the money is going to support institutional education, $150 billion of the $850 billion packages. Don’t get me wrong, schools, from K to 12, and from 13 to Ph.D seminars, are all great things, and all worthy of being supported. But what was so striking about the analogous New Deal programs is the extent to which they both supported existing institutions while at the same time creating new ones, like the WPA projects for writers and artists. I would love to see new kinds of support for scholars outside of the academy—employing historians to create new on-line state encyclopedias, a national gazetteer, an oral history corps. Given the dangerous situation journalism is facing, a national reporter’s project would be a wonderful idea, giving journalists a place to research and write important stories outside of the context of the shrinking resources of the great metropolitan dailies. As with the New Deal, we have a chance to rethink our cultural institutions, and I would hate to see all the money simply gobbled up by the insatiable financial appetites and perpetually open maws of our bigger colleges and universities.

This leads somewhat indirectly to topic three, another admonition on the creeping Obaian pusillanimity. Please, no “bad bank!” Certainly no bad bank where 1) the government overpays for assets, and 2) the banks are then freed to give their executives bonuses and eschew lending, under the unwatchful eye of federal regulators. Geithner needs to recognize he no longer works for the New York Fed. I can only hope the stories that the Treasury Department will avoid nationalization are not true. What needs to happen is that 1) the government buys the toxic assets for what they are worth, which is next to nothing 2) the banks fail, 3) the government takes them over, and manages them as prudently as possible, until, either a) the banks are recapitalized as private companies, or b) the First National Bank remains the First Nationalized Bank, or c) some combination therein. (This is what we did during the S & L crisis.) Taking over the banking system will be cheaper than the $3 to $4 trillion some observers are predicting it would take to keep the private banking system a going concern, and I see no reason to doubt that a government run banking would be at least as efficient (or at least no less inefficient) that our current crop of crappy capitalists. And if there is anyone who should have been around to capture and anatomize this current mood of middle class angst and foreboding, damn it, it should have been John Updike.

New Thinking for New Times

In the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Congress with words that bear repeating in our current economic crisis.
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Failures to do this are all around us, most recently on the front page of today's amNewYork, with the headline: "Bonus Blues: How the Wall Street pay bus is going to pinch your wallet." The article asserts that in our city, in tight times, "cash-cow bonuses are harder to vilify." Bologna.

As a recent state comptroller's report points out, Wall Street bonuses fell by 44% in 2008. This certainly means that a lot of workers whose jobs depend on the largess of Wall Street executives are going to suffer.

But instead of pining for the days when bankers' bonuses fuelled service workers' paychecks, we ought to be thinking about building a new economy in New York City that isn't so deeply dependent on Wall Street.

The days of billions in bonuses are not something we want to get back to. We need to look to the future and build an economy in New York City that directly serves the vast majority of New Yorkers, not a handful of billionaires.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New York Follies

So I go away for a few days, and New York State politics decides to go through a version of primal scream therapy. I don’t know. Where to begin? I was all ready to post on our new senator Caroline Kennedy, and while I had initially opposed her nomination, primarily because I wanted an upstater, I had come to like her, especially her press conference inarticulately studded with uhms and “you knows.” Just the way I would talk if were nervous, not used to speaking before a large media circus. And she would have made a fine senator, I think. Instead, we get the upstater I wanted, in the form of Kirsten Gillibrand, whom I knew very little about, the first significant New York Kirsten, I think, since the redoubtable Kirsten Flagstad, the greatest opera singer of the 20th century, donned her horned helmet on the stage of the Old Met.


But I digress. Much of the controversy around Ms. Gillibrand concerns her perfect NRA voting record, which is sort of a ridiculous thing for a Democratic congressperson from New York State to have. But she is from the most rural district in the state, which tends to vote very conservatively, and if you have to vote against cities being able to adequately register handguns to placate some hunters who somehow think urban gun regulations will prey their shotguns from their stubby fingers, I guess that’s what you have to do to get elected. All I can say is that if she continues to have a perfect NRA voting record as senator, she’s going to be drilled full of political buckshot ere long.
And if Caroline Kennedy had the artless grace of the amateur, Gillibrand has the artful gracelessness of the political professional, of whom, the best that could be said about her is that she is a great fundraiser, and how very sad that this is the standard whereby we now judge our politicians. And when Gillibrand said that “we in upstate like to shoot our turkeys for Thanksgiving” I thought—“hey, Kirsten, its stupid, ignorant city folks who think upstate is populated by hicks and taxidermists, please do not give credence to this stereotype. “ Upstate, Kirsten, is not a place at all, and all it has it common is that it is not NYC or its environs. Those of us in Rochester have no more connection to you than do the folks on the South Fork of the Island. And most of us in Rochester and its suburbs, purchase our Thanksgiving turkeys in Wegmans, selecting from a mound of nicely wrapped Butterballs. Upstate, which does include true rural areas like the central Adirondacks, as well as cities, suburbs, slums, exurbs, and every other type of conurbation, is more diverse in its populations than NYC itself. Don’t forget this, Kirsten.
But enough Gillibrand bashing. I am sure she will make a good senator, in the hard charging Chuck Schumer mold, who evidently wanted an upstate alpha female to balance his downstate alpha male. The person who came out looking pretty poorly was David Paterson. Even Rod Blagoevich managed to pick a US senator with less controversy (not counting the controversy over his unorthodox method of selection.) Paterson definitely looked maladroit, and managed to stir up more bad feelings than Joe Torre’s new book about his Yankee years, but he was given an impossible job, the judgment of Paris, awarding the golden apple to Helen of Troy, or for that matter to Kirsten of Troy, Glens Falls, and Lake Placid. I think that this is the sort of thing that politicians and those who follow politics closely care much about, but it doesn’t have much impact on the voters at large, and there are enough big issues ahead that Paterson will be able to change the topic fairly easily. But getting the Kennedys, the Cuomos, and the Clintons united in their pissitude toward you is no inconsiderable task.
And for the topping of the weekend’s news, amid all of this noise, Joe Bruno was indicted on Friday for taking at least $3 million in bribes from numerous contractors. This was hinted at last year, and is one possible reason for his surprising decision to step down as senate majority leader last summer. This is the final proof of the corruption of the state Republicans, whose venal hold on the state senate, the place where, for the past four decades, all good bills go to die, is finally at an end. I am sure Bruno claim he did nothing wrong, and this was just business as usual. Probably this was true, and more’s the pity.
It might be my bias, but I long felt that the Democrats were marginally less corrupt than the Republicans, and now they have the chance to prove it. But Joe Bruno, Joe Bruno of Troy (that is actually where he is from), will not be soon forgotten, from the Joe Bruno Amtrak Station (which is lovely), to the Joe Bruno baseball stadium (which is also very nice), to the Joe Bruno era of state politics, to which his indictment is a fitting coda. Next time I go away for a weekend, New York politicians, try not to be quite so eventful.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Content of Our Character

Editor's note: Steve Zurier of Columbia, Maryland contributes this first-hand account of the inauguration in Washington, D.C.

My wife and I took our two teenage sons to the inauguration in Washington, D.C. yesterday and we can proudly say that we were there when Barack Obama brought America together. While this is most certainly a high point in African-American and civil rights history, it is also a great American moment. In the crowd, people didn't care if you were black or white, rich or poor, polished academic or work-a-day construction worker. What mattered was that you had made the trip to celebrate Barack Obama's special victory. What mattered more was the content of your character. Each person, by their mere presence, was making a powerful statement.

The general feeling among the crowd was that of tolerance. And that's tolerance for one another and tolerance for the enormity of what everyone was collectively experiencing. Many people walked up to 10 miles to navigate around D.C. today. The streets were packed and too often at various entry points in the mall the flow of the crowd stopped and people simply had to be patient. But there were few major mishaps. Yes, I saw one man step off a curb and fall and another man passed out from the strain of walking several miles around the city to the mall. Yet, each time someone fell, there were at least two or three people there to pick the person up or attend to the incident. If this is where American is headed count me in. Hopefully the Darwinian era of Republican politics will be replaced by a truly kinder and gentler America. We can only hope.

This most public of ceremonies was also very personal for me. I went to Clifton High School, in nearby North Jersey. When I graduated in 1973, the only black student at the high school was the star running back for the football team. I went from that environment to the melting pot of Livingston College at Rutgers University. Years later, in the 1990s and 2000s, I raised my family in Columbia, Md., the planned city that prides itself on its racial tolerance and diversity.

It is astounding when I think about how far the country has come and how my personal journey reflects this long march toward racial progress and understanding. As a middle and high school student, I knew no black children. But one of my son Ben's teammates on his basketball team was named Kenyatta, after the great Kenyan leader; and at my son Solomon's bar mitzvah a few years ago at least half of the friends he invited were African-American.

The truth is that even the modest social changes my family experienced living in Columbia are far from the norm in our country, but let today's event be a new beginning. For more than 30 years conservatives have held sway in Washington and America is worse off for it. I really believe our new president is just getting started at honing his community organizing skills. Turning around American will take years, not months or days. But I can promise you that the millions who came to celebrate Obama's inauguration can all be counted on to do their share.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope and History

Barack Obama's inaugural address was animated by the same sense of history that elevated his presidential campaign. With it, he acknowledged the crimes and limitations of our national past, recognized that we are at a grave turning point, and invoked our great strengths--freedom, labor and sacrifice for the common good--to point us to a better future. It was indeed a day, to use Seamus Heaney's phrase, when hope and history rhymed.

All the talk I heard on the television tonight about whether Obama's call to "responsibility" is fundamentally conservative (and I don't think it is) misses the real point: Obama's election marks the end of conservative dominance and division that dates to the 1960s. As E.J. Dionne observed years ago, Republicans have prospered at the expense of the nation since the Sixties by exploiting and distorting the divisions of that decade.

In fact, Americans of the 1960s confronted fundamental racial inequalities, the role of the federal government as a source of social and economic justice, and the place of American power in the world. Conservatives may have won the immediate battles of the decade, but in the long run the majority of Americans are closer to Democrats on these issues than Republicans.

Obama's genius as a candidate was his ability to craft an electoral majority that preserves the best progressive gains of the Sixties but moves us into a new future. It is the Republicans, with their politics of wedge issues and inequality, that are now the party of the past.

It is time, as President Obama put it so well, "to choose our better history."


Heil sei dem Tag!!

I cried during large parts of the inauguration ceremony, though Obama’s address left me rather cold. I thought Joseph Lowery and Aretha Franklin were the standout performers. Rick Warren was okay. The poem left me uninspired. Obama was pretty good, though it sounded more like a campaign speech than the an inaugural address. Conservative commentators who think that Obama’s call for an age of responsibility means a repudiation of “rights-based” discourse misunderstood his message. We all need a better sense of our responsibilities, especially our leaders and business executives, he was saying. Anyway didn’t Kennedy in his “ask not” say much the same thing? Anyway the hoo-ha about inaugural addresses is much exaggerated; only three addresses are remembered; Lincoln’s 2nd, FDR’s 1st, and Kennedy’s, and I don’t think this on that level, but its too early to tell. But the significance of the day, freighted with symbolism, was more important than anything anyone said or did.


I liked the classical interlude, though when you write a setting of “Simple Gifts” its going to sound a lot like Aaron Copland, which it did. I liked the marching band music, the Holst and the Sousa. But it was unheard music that I heard even more insistently. Pardon a few free associations. The music that I kept on hearing goes like this:

Heil sei dem Tag! Heil Sei der Stunde! Heil! Heil ! Heil!
When I think of music of celebration, of utter rapture and joy, the first music that always comes to mind is the opening of the last scene of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio. The hero has just been rescued from prison, by the heroine, Leonora, and all the other prisoners (all unjustly imprisoned; they had been political prisoners) sing and rejoice on their liberation. “Hail to the day!,” they sing. “Hail to the hour! Hail, Hail, Hail!” It seems unfair but unavoidable that the German word “Heil” has forever been hijacked by the Nazis. But when Beethoven wrote Fidelio, his great hymn to human freedom around 1814, the Nazis were far in the future, and it seems cruel that Beethoven’s work on the power of freedom and the possibility of overcoming evil tyrannies has to be seen through the lens of the filthy murderers who turned Europe into a prison. So, a new era of freedom dawns; Heil, Heil, Heil!!!

Still, if this makes you uncomfortable, another piece of music comes to mind, the greatest piece of music, IMHO, ever written for the sort of event we celebrate today, the peaceful change of the head of state. I am thinking the second of George Frederick Handel’s coronation anthems, written in 1727 for the coronation of King George II, “Zadok the Priest.” I believe it has been played at every coronation of a British monarch ever since, and no one has ever written music of triumphal magnificence better than Handel (not even, Bruce Springsteen, Rob.) The words aren’t much: “Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet/Annointed Solomon King/And all the people rejoic’d, and said/God save the King, long live the King/May the King live forever!/Amen, Alleluja!” but you have to hear the music, just flowing and bursting with majesty.

But via Matt Yglesias, let me give the last word to someone else, George Henry White, the last of the black Reconstruction members of Congress, who managed to hold onto his seat until the election of 1900. In his farewell speech, on January 21, 1901, he said:

This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people. . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.

Amen. Alleluja!

Expiration Day

Just one more post on this, pardon my self-indulgence (though that is of course the birthright of any self-respecting blogger.) I cannot believe, as I write this, that the Bush presidency (and Cheney vice-presidency) has a little less than three hours to go. I know it doesn’t speak well of me, and exposes me for the petty, vindictive person that I am, but as excited as I am about Obama becoming president, I am twice as excited that Bush is leaving.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I earn my keep as a historian of the African American experience. Later this week I will be going down to Morehouse College for a few days, where I am sure the joint will still be jumpin.’ I listened this morning to a collection of freedom songs from the Civil Rights era and some spirituals by Marian Anderson, thinking of her 1939 concert on the Washington Mall, and what she would think today, and what every man, woman, and child who bore the lash of slavery, who suffered through Jim Crow and its de facto northern equivalent, and every person of every color, creed, and religion, who was ever marginalized and devalued by the powerful white men of British extraction who have run this country from the beginning, would think today. Harriet Tubman, Crazy Horse, Sidney Hillman, Susan B. Anthony, Howard Thurman, Mother Jones, Denmark Vesey, Jose Marti, Joseph Brant, Paul O’Dwyer, and my dad, Joseph Eisenstadt, who died ten years ago to the day, this is for you.

But tomorrow Obama starts to disappoint people, and tomorrow Obama’s racial background ceases to matter. His ethnic background will not have any impact on how we judge what he decides to do about the TARP money, the aftermath of Israel’s brutal war against Gaza, the stimulus package, getting out of Iraq and Guantanamo, and the myriad of other issues he is faced with. Today is his last day as a symbol.

So with that in mind, I can only think that whatever the Obama turns out to be, and we start today full of hopes--with the knowledge that for the first time in 16 years (the first two years of the Clinton presidency), no make that 33 years (the opening years of the Carter presidency), no make that 45 years (the first two years of the Johnson presidency), really, for the first time in our adult lifetimes, the Democrats control both houses of Congress, the White House, and the national agenda--I am glad, above all, that George W. Bush’s eight plus years of mendacious, meretricious, malevolent rule is about to end. Starting with his lying over the Florida recount, to his distortions over 9/11, to the horrors of the unnecessary war in Iraq, to the tortures, invasions of privacy, malfeasance over Katrina, and maladministration of the economy, the Bush administration has been a disaster from beginning to end. We have been governed by a bunch of small, petty men (and women, too, Condoleeza), who have ruled by smirks and innuendo, by clich√©, and by an utterly unearned hauteur and sense of superiority.
Okay, I’m really excited about Obama, too, and hope my heart isn’t broken too badly in the years to come. And if it is, I’ll always have today. But every inauguration day is also an expiration day, I for one will be incredibly glad that the moment Barack Hussein Obama takes the oath of office, George W. Bush becomes, as we historians like to say, history.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inaugural Poem

And from Oahu and Chicago
One will come to lead us
After his predecessor
Came only to bleed us


Pity our poor country
Pummeled, on the ropes
But our new champion comes
(a brown bomber, perhaps)
Audaciously, giving hopes

For we have sinned grievously
Bratty with misbehavior
Spank us and pardon us
Our newly elected savior

Oh we don’t expect miracles
Just a little walking on water
More respect for the rule of law
And a little less disorder

From our long national nightmare
Rouse us, please let us awaken
Our prince charming, perhaps?
I hope we’re not mistaken

Your problems will be many
Brutal wars and a great depression
(But to look on the bright side
At least there's no secession)

All that we want
Is that no tragedies your tenure mar
And that you always talk like Lincoln
And learn to act like FDR

You’re our kansaskenyan
Our national blend
Our tall cup of black coffee
Our national friend

We are sorely troubled
Keening, bent over with grief
But hail to us, for voting for you
And hail to you, chief.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Skiing at Minnewaska


When there is snow on the ground, the trails at Minnewaska State Park Preserve near New Paltz provide some of the best cross-country skiing in the northeast. Yesterday, with fresh snow and clear, cold weather, the trails and mountain views were in good form. Get there and ski while you can.


Cutbacks have reduced services at the park, so some trails are closed. Nevertheless, my two favorites were open: the route from Lake Minnewaska out the Upper Awosting Carriageway (green blaze) past Lake Awosting and Castle Point, and back to Minnewaska on the blue-blazed Castle Point Carriageway.

The big vistas and solitude of Minnewaska were rewarding as always, from the views over Lake Awosting to the forests and cliffs of the return route. Altogether, the trip of about 7.5 miles took me four hours, with a half hour stop for lunch near Castle Point.

The Upper Awosting Carriageway is a smooth and gradual ascent; the hardest stretch on it is the short ski down from the parking lot, which is within the grasp of any beginner with a good snowplow. The Castle Point trail, however, skirts near the edges of cliffs in ways that might make some beginners queasy. If in doubt, just head back on the Awosting Carriageway that you came in on.

For more information, check the official park website or the Lake Minnewaska page that gives you access to trail maps and more.

Friends, Government and FDR

A small exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, "A New President Takes Command: FDR's First Hundred Days," explores the opening of Roosevelt's presidency. Amid the photographs, recordings, films, letters and artifacts assembled, two phrases stick out: "my friends" and "your government." Each helps us understand some of the greatness of Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The phrase "my friends," which Roosevelt used with great effect, conveys his talent for speaking with Americans as one of them. He didn't talk down to them and he didn't pander to them.

FDR used this style brilliantly in his first fireside chat, delivered over the radio on 12 March 1933, which you can listen to at the exhibit. In familiar yet confident tones, Roosevelt explains the collapse of the banking system, the bank holiday called to set it right, and his plans for future policies. He is utterly serious and acknowledges vast problems, but he explains the situation with great faith in his listeners' intelligence. We need more such presidential addresses.

Equally important, he talks about "your government." Unlike Republicans, who have demonized goverment for decades, FDR describes government as the possession and instrument of the people, a force for healing a damaged nation.

Roosevelt is often acclaimed for his "first class temperament," but the exhibit is a reminder that behind his style lay an appreciation of the capacities of ordinary people to understand and solve the problems of their time. Equally prominent in Roosevelt, of course, is his understanding of government as a force for social justice. Our next president will need both traits.

"A New President Takes Command" is open through 3 May 2009. The show is jointly presented with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum at Hyde Park, where the larger "Action and Action Now: FDR's First Hundred Days," will be up until fall 2009.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gays, Jews, and Music

Keeping up with a musical thread on the blog as of late, I note that tonight the New York City Opera (NYCO) will put on a concert performance of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Thereby hangs several tales; an opera company, going through the worst year in its history, putting on a performance of what is the greatest disaster in the history of opera in NYC. The City Opera, founded by Mayor La Guardia as the people’s opera, has been floundering as of late, and for various reasons, is not putting on a regular season of performances this year. A much touted European impresario who was to be the company’s savior bowed out this past November. A new director was named only this week, but whether the NYCO stays on the boards seems a chancy proposition at best.

But their one performance this year will be of “Antony and Cleopatra.” This was the opera that was chosen to open the New Met at Lincoln Center in 1966. Barber was one of the most distinguished American composers of his generation, and his previous opera, Vanessa, was a considerable success. Expectations were high, no doubt too high, which the opera didn’t live up to, and it was roundly panned. The Met has never revived it, and its failure essentially marked the end of Barber’s career though he lived another fifteen years. It has appeared in new editions, eliminating some of the distractions from the original version, and it’s a nice opera, better than its reputation, but one that, I am afraid, is destined to be something of an operatic stepchild.

The NYCO production of “Antony and Cleopatra” coincides, fortuitously enough for me, with my reading of what is one of the most fascinating books ever written about classical music in New York (or anywhere else), Michael Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Music: An Imagined Conspiracy, which has as its last chapter, an extended study of the “Antony and Cleopatra” fiasco. Here’s the thing—at mid-century, it began to dawn on people that most of the great American classical composers of the era, such as Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Menotti, were gay, and they particularly dominated mainstream music, the sort of classical music that most people actually wanted to listen to, as opposed to hard modernism. And if gay love was still the sort of love that dare not speak its name, one major exception to this were psychiatrists, who had no problem spinning all sorts of ludicrous theories, arguing that gay men (and this debate largely focused on gay men), were by nature emotionally underdeveloped and incapable of mature love interests, and were somehow not quite whole, and had failed to assume the mantle of heterosexuality because they were not capable or emotionally strong enough, and were condemned to their pathetic lives, the fit object not of hate, but pity and sympathy. Stuff like that. And gay composers were incapable of writing truly “strong” music, but concerned themselves with mere prettiness, a sort of faggoty embroidery around the main themes of western classical music, and they could not, when they wrote operas, really understand the love of men for women, because it was just beyond their ken. And so American classical music was somehow feminized and ball-less, and dominated by gays because there was a gay conspiracy that kept poor heterosexual composers from positions of dominance. Most of this discourse in classical music was at the level of innuendo, rather than overt argument, but as Sherry shows, when “Antony and Cleopatra” flopped, all of these arguments were trotted out to make the claim that somehow the opera’s failure was foreordained by the composer’s sexual orientation. (Let me just say I am simplifying here what is a much subtler and more complex argument on Sherry’s part.)

Anyway, to turn to the other main subject of the blog recently, I was surprised that Sherry’s erudite study did not make the comparison between the mid-20th century discourse on gays and the mid-19th century discourse on Jews, especially to the most notorious essay in the history of classical music, Richard Wagner’s evil screed, Judaism in Music, wherein he argues that Jews conspire to keep deserving gentiles from getting their just deserts, and because they are outsiders to western culture, the best they can achieve is imitation or copying, and therefore will always be a little weak or flaccid, without the titanic creative passions of a great gentile composer, like me, and nertz to you, Felix Mendelssohn.

It is interesting how many of the people Sherry writes about, whether gay composers or crackpotty psychiatrists, were Jewish, and one wonders how these two discourses of outsiderness, the gay one and the Jewish one, overlapped and reinforced one another in mid-20th century New York City. Sherry speculates interestingly about “West Side Story,” all the creators of which were both gay and Jewish. If mid-century New York liberalism, of which “West Side Story” is such a prime example of, is primarily a saga of inclusion, it is perhaps because it was primarily a culture of outsiders, who were at once proud of who they were and yearned to shed the stigma of difference.

The Jew as Pariah

First, the good news. If the Bush administration really started with the horrific plane crashes of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan, it is ending with the miraculous story of a huge commercial airliner landing safely in the Hudson River. Perhaps, just perhaps, God will once again shed his or her grace on America, from sea to shining sea.

However, that’s it for the good news. God’s grace is unfortunately a zero-sum commodity, and the more the US gets, the less than is available for spots in the world that really need it, like Israel and Palestine. In recent days I have been reading the invaluable collection of Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Writings, recently reissued in paperback. Hannah Arendt has an article, which became a section of her classic Origins of Totalitarianism on “The Jew as Pariah,” on the Jews as the perpetual and stigmatized outsider in Christian Europe, and how Jewish
emancipation in the early 19th century , the presumed solution to the problem of Jewish pariah-hood, only made the problem worse. Now that Jews were no longer identifiable by their looks or language, this only fostered conspiracy theories of hidden Jews secretly infiltrating and manipulating gentile society. Jews were not wanted as outsiders, and they were not wanted as insiders. They were not wanted at all. The only future for the Jews was to go somewhere else, where they wouldn’t have to try to adjust to the whims of the majority, only to discover that the game was fixed, the rules were always changing, and they could never satisfy the demands of the referees. Zionism was born.

But Hannah Arendt was also a notably caustic observer of Zionism, and by the 1950s, and certainly by the time of Eichmann in Jerusalem, she had great doubts about the future of the Zionist experiment. In Israel’s effort to be “just like the other nations” it was creating a situation in which Israel would once again be singled out and isolated. Israel, and by extension those for whom Israel claims the moral authority to speak for (namely, all Jews everywhere) is creating a new pariahness.

I was reminded of this reading the latest issue of the Nation, where Naomi Klein has a column advocating a BDS strategy “Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS) such as played an important role in toppling apartheid in South Africa. She argues that Israel is sufficiently apartheid-like, a reality only adumbrated by the war in Gaza, to warrant the full South Africa treatment of ostracization, anathemazation, and isolation. What can one say? All analogies are imperfect, and I won’t try to defend Israel, and the similarities are striking, especially that a settler colony divided into one side that has the power and the army, and the other side that possesses only the fury of the powerless and dispossesed.
I can understand the rationale behind a proposed boycott, but count me as strongly opposed. First, it will not work, and will lead to all sorts of loyalty tests where one be required to denounce Israel and all of its works, will inevitably be applied not just to Israel, or Israelis, but all Jews, and that includes you Naomi Klein. Righteous anti-Israeli attitudes will be increasingly difficult to separate from old-fashioned (or new-fashioned) anti-Semitism. And one can also speak of double standards—if there is one country, on the basis of its criminal behavior in recent years, and its reckless indifference to human life, richly deserves boycotts, divestiture, and sanctions, it is the United States, followed close on by Russia and China.
But I think something needs to be done—cutting off all US military aid to Israel unless there is real progress towards a genuine peace seems like a necessary first step—and if Israel continues on policies that led to Gaza (and there is no reason to think that they won’t.) And the calls for some sort of BDS strategy will only grow more insistent and irresistible. Israel for decades has complained the rest of the world is biased against it, that the opinion of other nations is irrelevant, etc. If you look like a pariah, and you quack like a pariah, you’re a pariah.
Perhaps the ultimate irony of the past century of Jewish history is that the post-war years will be seen as a trough of Jewish pariahhood in between two crests. Arendt would have appreciated history’s cruel irony. A century after the birth of Zionism, with unimaginable changes to the nature and demography of the Jewish people, the same question has returned with ever-more insistent force; “are the Jews condemned to be a pariah people, an outcast nation, forever hated, feared, and shunned?”

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

George W. Bush and the Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

In recent weeks, as my bedtime reading, I have been reading a Sherlock Holmes story or two. Like anything else with an extended canon, there are good and not so-good Sherlock Holmes stories and the other night I read one of the worst, “the Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”. Here’s the set-up. Holmes is hired by a lady who is being blackmailed by an extortionist, the Charles Augustus Milverton of the title, who is threatening to break up her engagement, a proper young woman who was the author of several indiscreet letters to a man who was not her fianc√© . What makes it a pretty lousy story is that there is none of brilliant deducing that makes the Sherlock Holmes stories fun to read, none of these episodes of Holmes taking one look at a footprint in the mud and determines it was made by a 33rd degree Mason who is an astigmatic pigeon fancier. Holmes is more direct, and less fun.
Holmes hates Milverton, and indeed calls him the “worst man in London,” more evil than a murderer for his occupation of blackmailer, specializing in ruining the reputations of marriageable upper class woman.

So this is what Holmes does. First he romances Milverton’s maid, and after a few days of wooing, proposes marriage, which is accepted, all to get some information about Milverton’s house and whereabouts. Then he and Watson, rather than trying to solve the crime, decide to burgle Milverton’s house to purloin the incriminating letters, and while they are there, a wronged woman, posing as a fence with more naughty letters, comes to a pre-arranged meeting with Milverton, and rather than hand over more blackmail material, pulls a pistol fires a few shots, and dispatches Milverton. Holmes does nothing to stop the lady from shooting him, and then does not report the crime to the police, and then do what he can to ensure that the crime will not be solved.
First Holmes lies to Milverton’s maid (and though he seems very concerned about the blackmailer breaking up upper class marriages, he evidently doesn’t care one whit about the feelings of the woman he romances and then unceremoniously discards.) And then he commits two felonies, one of commission—breaking and entering, and one omission, failure to report a murder. Holmes evidently thinks that Milverton’s got what he deserved, a measure of poetic or literary justice, but he of course knows that blackmail was hardly a hanging office in late Victorian Britain. Holmes is cruelly deceptive towards the maid, and blithely indifferent to the various laws he breaks. His behavior is simply disgraceful. This , surely, was Sherlock Holmes’s moral nadir.
What has happened to Holmes? Why does no longer trust his intelligence, in both senses of the word, to solve the crime, and reveal the criminal? What has happened to his profound respect for the law, and its plodding but necessary procedures? Clearly he is a man on a mission, convinced that some sort of higher law—the incorrigible evil of extortionists, I suppose—is sufficient justification for his deception and law breaking. He has traduced his former principles, a traitor to his better angels. He is worthy only of our contempt.
I will let the reader draw any relevant analogies between Sherlock Holmes and the administration that soon to make its way over history’s Reichenbach falls. But if you behave like Professor Moriarty to capture Professor Moriarty then you become Professor Moriarty. When it comes to civil liberties, we must always be vigilant, and ready to bark, with as threatening a growl as if we all had the footprints of a gigantic hound. But all too often, over the past eight, long, horrible years, civil liberties has been the curious incident of the dog in the night-time who was silent.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jazz Lessons

Last night I finally got around to checking out the music at the the Lenox Lounge in Harlem at 288 Lenox Avenue. I found great music, good food, and a memorable lesson in showmanship from the Benny Powell Group.

My wife Clara and me are no longer night owls, so we reserved seats for the early set at 8:30 pm. We arrived around eight, saw only one person in the back room with the band, and settled down to drinks at the bar. A half hour later, when we moved into the back room, the crowd hadn't grown.

But that didn't make a difference to the Benny Powell Group. In what amounted to a private concert, they delivered a beautiful hour of originals and standards for the two of us. Powell, a trombonist who played with Count Basie, among others, was a gracious host. He welcomed us and genially led his band through a memorable set. Powell teaches at the New School; his students are lucky.

Powell was accompanied last night by TK Blue on alto and soprano sax and flute, Sayuri Goto on piano, Essiet O. Essiet on bass, and McClenty Hunter on drums. The same personnel, with the substitution of Billy Hart on drums, have a new album out: "Nextep," for Origin Records. Check it out--it is very good.

No only was the music great, but the food was tasty and the setting memorable. The Lenox Lounge, at Lenox and 125th Street, is a restored art deco beauty with tile floors, light-toned wood walls ornamented with mirrors and metal, and leather banquette seating. The Zebra Room in back is decorated, as you might expect, with zebra hide patterns and photos of jazz greats.

After the set, we had a short conversation with Powell. I asked him what the shift to conservatory training has meant for jazz. "It hasn't done much for the spontaneity," he replied. In jazz, and in society around it, he sees much more technology and self-absorption and less personal communication. He likens it to the difference between making a phone call and just sending an e-mail.

He's onto something. At the same time, the human touch still matters very much to Powell. You could feel it in the welcome that he extended to his audience of two and in the playing of his quintet. And as we left, the Zebra Room was filling up with people who had come to hear the Benny Powell Group's second set.

William Zantzinger

Like many people, I am sure, I read with much interest yesterday the obituary of William Zantzinger, whose infamy was immortalized in Bob Dylan’s classic song of 1963 “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Reading the obituary, it seems that Dylan took some balladic license with some of the facts of the case (including misspelling Zantzinger as Zanzinger) but he got the gist right, and if anything, Zantzinger’s real actions seem more reprehensible than as portrayed in Dylan’s song, drunkenly caning people at a party in Maryland, including Hattie Carroll, aged 51, a poor black maid with eleven kids (not ten, as in the song), inducing a stroke, from which she died, and for which Zantzinger received a six-month sentence for manslaughter.

If “the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is not Dylan’s best song—it would probably get my vote—it is certainly (IMHO) his greatest protest song, a genre that he would abandon, more or less, not that long after writing it. His later work, as great as it is, traded the directness of “Hattie Carroll” for a certain willful poetic obscurity, and in place of the keen sense of the interaction of the personal and the public in “Hattie Carroll”, offered instead a long series of brilliant songs on Dylan’s private woes and obsessions. And unlike some of his other protest songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Masters of War,” “Hattie Carroll” is descriptive, not prescriptive, just a ballad, telling a story.
“Hattie Carroll” came out about the same time as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which added the endlessly debated phrase “the banality of evil” to our language. Whatever else you want to say about William Zantzinger, he was no Adolf Eichmann, and perhaps he better illuminates how an evil social order is more built upon myriad acts of relatively banal crimes than great horrors, and how the system of racial and class oppression that is central to the events of Dylan’s song are less the product of calculated evil, than selfishness and greediness defended through a series of endless rationalizations.
And finally it is a song about the sadness and sorrow that is at the heart of all human history, the great men and deeds which are built upon the trough of meanness and pettiness, the unfairness, and the inequalities of every social order.
All of us, have from time to time, tried to “philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,” look at the public face of evil calmly and rationally, and try to understand and deal with it. At other times, all one can do, as the song finally recommends, “Bury the rag deep in your face, For now's the time for your tears.” When my brother died last year, suddenly and tragically, it is this song, above all others, that I found myself singing to myself, again and again. I’m not sure why. It certainly was a time for my tears. And by making sure that the crimes of one relatively unimportant unsung man would be sung about forever, Dylan has rendered us all a service. Those of us who spend our lives writing about history, the lives of others, need to study, to analyze, to put things in proportion. We also need to remember, from time to time, to bury our faces in our handkerchiefs, and let the tears flow, and flow, and flow.

Friday, January 9, 2009

To BCS or not to BCS

Let me post on something I have no interest in whatsoever, the burning question of whether college football should drop the BCS system an institute a proper playoff. Almost everyone has weighed in on this, including president-elect Obama, so I suppose I should as well, though I think it has probably been well over two decades since I watched more than a few minutes of a college football game.

The arguments for a playoff are strong. The current system favors the richer conferences that dominate the BCS selections, and without a playoff system the national champion in college football is destined to remain nominal and notional.
Okay, if people want a playoff system, I won’t stand in their way. But beyond the economic arguments, which I won’t dispute, the basic argument for a playoff system seems to be: in all other sports, a champion is decided by head to head competition. Why is it in college football that there is no playoff system at all, just a series of endless bowl games at the end of the season?
There is pressure, as there always is, on the outlier and the exception to conform to the norm. Why don’t you have the sacred division between the regular season and the post season, like all other sports, where the only purpose of the regular season is to decide which teams are eligible to play in the post-season? And why don’t you recognize that the whole point of sporting competition is to crown a single champion; we need to pick 64 teams, whittle them down to a sweet 16, a final 4, and then one team to lord over them all?
Because, I guess, college football has managed to survive for well over a century without a playoff system, and survived very well. College football is a product of our remarkably decentralized system of colleges, and what has always been most important are the local rivalries, Harvard beating Yale or Michigan beating Michigan State has always stood higher in the hierarchy of importance than some sort of external national ranking. Local rivalries have always been so strong that a national competition has always been superfluous.
I have never quite understood why there is such an obsession with determining a single winner in so many aspects of our life, what has been called the winner-take-all society. Has the United States really been well served by all of its executive power vested in one single person? As we saw with the expiring Bush presidency, however much power we grant that person, he or she will never think it enough. Why does every company and organization need a single CEO? Why is power sharing or cooperation always seen as something fit only for wimps?
All American institutions move toward hegemony, and away from amphictyony, a loose collaboration of equals, which was the structure of the 12 tribes of Israel when they wanted a single king to rule over them, and Samuel told them it was a bad idea. It was . We are so afraid of the disorder of equals that we opt for the order of hierarchy almost every time.
Anyway, there is something admirable about the decentralized structure of college football, and I find it distressing that there is a general clamor that insists that college football be turned into a version of every other American institution, a giant funnel which, in the end, only one victor emerges victorious. There are already far too many playoffs, kings, and pharaohs in American life. Let our people disaggregate. Let a hundred dull bowl games bloom.

Rochester Jews on Gaza

To follow up on Rob’s last post, let me post a document that has been circulating this week among Jews in Rochester. It has about 50 signatures, and we are sending it to news media and to local politicians. I was the main drafter of the statement.

What else needs to be said? The news is just so discouraging. Israel doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do, and is torn between what the war up to this point seems to call for—the elimination of Hamas—and political calculations, domestic and foreign, that the price for this would be too high. There will, sooner rather than later, be a ceasefire, and negotiations, and the big irony will be that Hamas will have to be included in the negotiations in some fashion. I don’t know. I will be in synagogue tomorrow, and I will be praying for peace.

Rochester Jews on Gaza

As Rochesterians, as Americans, as Jews, we look with great foreboding at the escalating crisis between Israel and Gaza. We have noted with anguish the news accounts of hundreds of rockets being fired from Gaza into southern Israel, and the havoc, injuries, and fatalities they have engendered. We have also noted the reports of many Gazans killed and injured in Israeli air strikes (many members of Hamas, many not) and the gathering humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Civilians are always the real losers in war, and we mourn all the dead, lives suddenly asunder and families torn apart. And on January 3rd of a ground invasion of Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces has increased the casualties on both sides.

It is not profitable at this point in time to try to apportion blame between the two contending parties. There is blame enough to go around. Hamas has shown itself to have little or no interest in seeking peace with Israel, and its ongoing rocket attacks into Israel were a major precipitating factor in the current crisis.

Israel, with its great preponderance of military force, had other options open to it, both diplomatic and military, other than full-scale warfare with Hamas, and its blockade of Gaza over the past year was a major catalyst in the current crisis. Israel seems to have embarked upon a policy of forced regime change in Gaza, and if there is one lesson above all to be learned from the recent and still ongoing American in Iraq, it is that overthrowing a regime can make a difficult situation far worse.

It is our fear that this is what Israel will accomplish in Gaza. It is hard to see how this latest war can accomplish anything but making the goal of a viable two state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem more difficult to obtain and yet further out of reach.

We call upon Israel and Hamas to work out the terms for an immediate cease fire, and to lay the groundwork for a future, where, at a minimum, Israel has the security it requires and Gaza has the open borders it needs for social survival. Both the Israeli government and Hamas need to take a different approach to the Gaza situation (and the West Bank occupation). This will be a start – a start of a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians that will bring mutual trust and security – building towards a lasting peace solution for the Middle East. We recognize that achieving this will not be easy, and that the friends and allies of both parties, and the international community as a whole, will have to play an important role in accomplishing this.

As Americans, we know that the United States will have to play an important role, and we hope that the incoming Obama administration takes a far more active and constructive role in securing a long term Israeli-Palestinian peace than its predecessor. As Jews who love Israel, we hope all Jews will respect our position, as we respect the right of others to differ from us. The Jewish community needs open and frank dialogue on all of the pressing issues of the day. It will only be strengthened by airing a diversity of opinions. And as Rochesterians, as residents of a city that has so often in the past been a voice for social justice and peace, we hope our voices will be heard, and will contribute in a small way to the monumental task that confronts Israelis and Palestinians in creating a viable and stable peace
for both peoples.

Another Casualty of Gaza

Alongside the many civilians killed in Gaza lies another casualty of the fighting: press freedom in Israel. Even though the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that international reporters be permitted to cover the war, Israeli officials turn them back at the border. The officials claim to do this out or security considerations, but surely they are also motivated by a desire to limit coverage of the fighting.


As Ethan Bronner reported in the Times January 6,
Three times in recent days, a small group of foreign correspondents was told to appear at the border crossing to Gaza. The reporters were to be permitted in to cover firsthand the Israeli war on Hamas in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling against the two-month-old Israeli ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza.

Each time, they were turned back on security grounds, even as relief workers and other foreign citizens were permitted to cross the border.


I'm not an expert on Israeli law, so I don't know how the officials get to defy the Supreme Court. But I do know that Israel inherited a bundle of laws from the time of the British Mandate that permit varied forms of censorship and keeping of secrets. Despite these, the vigorous Israeli press has kept alive a robust tradition of reporting and debate. And Israel's Supreme Court, to its credit, recognizes the value of independent journalism.

By keeping international reporters out of Gaza, Israel blinds itself to what it is doing. At the same time, stories and images get out. The deaths and suffering inside Gaza are hardly a secret.

But also troubling to me is the readiness of Israeli officials to create facts on the ground, so to speak, that inhibit journalists. This is not a good sign for freedom of information and debate inside Israel.

Over the years, I have watched the costs of occupation and military unilateralism compromise the character of Israeli democracy. Keeping the news media out Gaza is an example of this.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why I Hate the New York Review of Books

No, I love the New York Review of Books, I really do. I think I have read every issue for the past thirty-five years or so. I started reading in when they were still publishing articles in favor of SDS, and giants like Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Lewis Mumford graced its pages. And I always read it cover to cover, novel reviews, long art history and music essays, the latest example of American perfidy somewhere in the world, the whole thing. But of course, it has always sort of lacked the common touch, and relies on the same stable of reviewers, all usually weighted down with scholarly honors, writing very soberly issue after issue. I can live with that; they are at the apex of the scholarly mandarinate, the world’s unacknowledged (and sometimes acknowledged) legislators, and our roles are clear; they get to write about what is important , and I get to read it.


But imagine my surprise when in July there was an article about Obama and the Black Church by the estimable Darryl Pinckney, a follow-up to the flap over the Rev. Wright. He included a few paragraphs about Howard Thurman, who probably had never been mentioned before in the NYRB. Now as one of the editors of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, I know more about Howard Thurman than just about anyone, and Pinckney had made a few small mistakes,
and one slightly bigger error. I thought that I would write an email, offering a few corrections and comments. And lo and behold, I received a reply a few days later from Robert Silvers, the
founding editor a few days later, telling me that my letter would be published. Finally, at long last, I would be a real New York Intellectual!! Of course, there was a condition attached. I had made reference to a statement that Obama made about Thurman, and I was asked to track down the source. This was for various reasons a bit more complicated than it sounded, but I did this, enlisting a few people to help me. And I was promised that the letter would be published.

That was back in July, and now its January. And in every issue that has come out since, I turned to the letter page to see if my letter was published. So far it has not appeared, and as the timeliness of my letter begins to fade, I suspect that it won’t appear. The letter column of the NYRB is as tough to crack as the body of the magazine—the current issue has letters from the former mistress of V.S.Naipaul, Orlando Figes, a leading scholar of Russian history, a contributor correcting her own essay on the incandescently hot novelist Roberto Bolano, retracting a statement that at one time he had a heroin addiction, and the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia writing about Meyer Schapiro. With this sort of competition, how could I make the cut?
So as an alternative to the NYRB, below is my letter, in all of its unpublished glory:


The religious and spiritual roots of Barack Obama’s worldview have been discussed and debated since he emerged on the political scene. Now that he has elected to the presidency, these questions have only gained in their importance. Unfortunately, much of the discussion about the Obama and the Black Church has concerned the controversy over his one-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If the Wright controversy has no other positive results, it fostered discussion of Obama’s religious heritage. One of the most lucid of these contributions was an article by Daryl Pickney in the New York Review of Books (July 17, 2008), “Obama and the Black Church, ” in the course of which he allots several paragraphs to Howard Thurman, surely one of the most distinguished 20th century American religious thinkers, black or white.
Although Pickney does not mention it in his article, Obama has acknowledged a debt to Thurman. Howard Thurman I think represents some of the best in America. In an interview with filmmaker Arleigh Prelow, “Howard Thurman: Spirit of a Movement” Obama said “I constantly refer back to the work that's been done by Dr. King, Dr. Thurman, and others who've whose shoulders really I stand on. " (The film is not finished, but excerpts from the documentary in progress can be viewed at the Freedom Theater at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco.

Although Pickney’s discussion of Thurman is illuminating, it is somewhat misleading to categorize Thurman’s best-known work, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), as “an early work of black liberation theology.” I suppose this depends on your definition of “black liberation theology” but Thurman’s work, while rooted in a consideration of racial oppression and discrimination, is far from a political tract or call for revolutionary struggle (he was a lifelong pacifist), and is rather, as Vincent Harding has described it, “a profound quest for a liberating spirituality, a way of exploring and experiencing those crucial life points where personal and societal transformation are creatively joined.”

Jesus and the Disinherited was not, contrary to Pickney’s assertion, a direct response to Thurman’s trip to South Asia in 1935 and 1936, when he became the first African American to meet Mahatma Gandhi—Thurman had already outlined the core ideas of the book in articles published before he left—but the trip did had significant consequences on his thinking and subsequent career. He had been challenged, as Pickney notes, by South Asians who told him that as a black representative of an American Christianity that was profoundly racist and segregated, he was either a hypocrite or a dupe. Thurman resolved to do something about this, and in 1944 left a comfortable position as dean of chapel at Howard University to co-found in San Francisco the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, one of the first religious congregations in the United States explicitly organized on an interracial and integrated basis. Everything about his career as a religious thinker was concerned, as the title of another of his books indicated , with “The Search For Common Ground,” and if he never minimized the magnitude and difficulty of the task, he always sought a world in which racial, ethnic, and religious differences could be at once acknowledged and transcended.

As we come to know more about Barack Obama, I hope Obama’s roots in the moral philosophy of Howard Thurman will become increasingly apparent, and the work of Thurman will become better known, as he always intended, outside of the confines of the “black church tradition.”

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dangerous Numbers

If you want to understand the difficult and complex relationship between Black New Yorkers and the New York Police Department, one set of numbers stands out in Michael Powell's piece in today's Times, "Police Polish Image, but Concerns Persist."

As Powell reports, in the years of the Giuliani administration that saw transforming reductions in New York crime rates, the NYPD was frisking 80,000 young men a year. That, and police shootings, and Giuliani's indifference to Black New Yorkers' concerns, stirred angry protests.

But in 2008, under the more conciliatory and image-conscious Bloomberg mayoralty, the NYPD frisked more than 500,000 New Yorkers. Over eighty percent of them were young Hispanic or Black men. But of half a million people frisked, Powell reports, only four percent were arrested.

This is a terribly low yield for an intrusive policy.

Police Commissioner Kelly, Powell reports, points out that the race and ethnicity of the people stopped closely reflect the portion of the city's population that commits and suffers from crime.

Nevertheless, the NYPD won't be able to police the city effectively if it alienates the very people it is supposed to serve.

I am not one to disparage the role of the police in reducing crime in New York City, which is one of the most welcome changes in Gotham's recent history. But with crime low, the police department could afford to be more careful and restrained in stopping and frisking young Black and Hispanic men.

The current policy runs the real risk of deeply alienating young Black and Hispanic men from the NYPD. And that's not healthy for anyone.


Friday, January 2, 2009

The Voice Will Miss Hentoff

Although my disagreements with Nat Hentoff on abortion eroded my degree of agreement with his columns, since 9/11 he has been a heroic voice for civil liberties. Add to that his reporting on the utterly misguided strategies for policing New York City public schools, which strip power from principals and treat ordinary kids like criminals, and you have two reasons why he has been one of the best reasons to read the Village Voice. But now that's over: the Voice has laid him off.

As the Times reported on the last day of 2008, Village Voice Media (a Phoenix-based outfit that changed its name after it bought the Voice) laid off Hentoff as part of its continuing effort to shrink the staff in a time of declining ad revenues.

Time are tight everywhere in newspapers, but Hentoff was more than a living link with the old Voice, which was a vastly better paper than the one given away today. He remains a strong voice for civil liberties in an age when we need to think hard about getting the right balance between freedom, order and security. Hentoff will go one writng, but the Voice will be poorer without him.

Going Down in History

The first person whose historical reputation I knew about, though person is used somewhat advisedly in this case, was, of course, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, whose reward for sleigh-pulling above and beyond the call of duty, was, as you no doubt know, the promise and the assurance that he will “go down in history.” The song, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” was written in 1949 by Johnny Marks—who by the way, was one of the many Jewish composers who in mid-century wrote popular Christmas songs—encapsulates a fairly typical view of history, history as a reward for the doers of good and meritorious deeds. Unfortunately, history is generally sort of boring, long lists of people who did their jobs well, acknowledged in testimonials, and then, usually forgotten. There are other views of history. Historical fame is not always limited to the competent and the good-hearted. Great villains have at least as much historical fame as great heroes. Hitler has “gone down in history” as much as Churchill, Stalin as much as Roosevelt. The unknown person who is known to history as “Jack the Ripper” is vastly more famous than all of the detectives in Scotland Yard who endeavored to catch him. And this is to speak only of popular notions of fame, which is largely limited to name recognition, beyond which there is the deliberation of scholars, who weigh reputations carefully on history’s scale, revising received notions, and offering their considered judgments.

All of this is prompted by the recent flurry of articles on the Bush and his expiring administration, and on precisely where and how they will “go down in history.” Bush has passed the first test. He will surely, unlike the vast majority of us, be remembered. His fame will last more than 15 minutes, and it seems to me he will be remembered for a very consequential eight years, perhaps the most action-packed and significant presidency since that of Lyndon Johnson, or perhaps even FDR. Very important things happened during Bush’s years in office. Unfortunately, they were almost all terrible things, and Bush will be blamed for most of them. A century from now, schoolchildren will recite the deeds of the 43rd president, and they will no doubt remember as well the four disasters that will characterize his presidency: 1) 9/11 2) the invasion of Iraq, and all that entailed 3) his response to Hurricane Katrina and 4) the economic collapse of the final months of his presidency.

Nothing will change the popular impression of the Bush presidency, but revisionists will no doubt try to revise this standard view, in the usual way, by placing the blame elsewhere--Bush’s faults were really just a continuation of Clinton’s, or the fault of Alan Greenspan, or hostile, anti-Bush crazed Democrats, maenads and harpies who never got over Bush’s smashing electoral victory in Florida, or in the case of Katrina, the fault of the weather—or by trying to find ambiguities where none exists—that somehow the US “won” the war in Iraq, or that by starting wars all over the world and clamping down on civil liberties, Bush somehow prevented another 9/11, a counterfactual parading as an accomplishment.

This doesn’t interest me too much. Bush was surely one of the worst presidents in American history, with a combination of the less admirable qualities of James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and James K. Polk. But the interesting question is really not was he a good president or a bad president, but what kind of bad president was he? Was his a normal terribleness, or was it in its own way, transcendent, like the 0-16 Detroit Lions? Was he so bad that people not only rejected him, but everything he stood for, and anyone like him, his predecessors and would-be successors alike? I think so. Bush is not only a terrible president himself, but he diminishes his models as well, in particular Reagan and Daddy Bush. His rottenness will mark the end of an era of Republican ascendancy, whose supposed achievements, foreign and domestic, are now exposed as the over-inflated hollow shells they were. So let Bush go down in history as a cautionary tale, a counter-example, a black hole. He’s no Rudolph.