Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Class Act

As a surpassingly ideological woman, Margaret Thatcher would probably recoil at how the new film The Iron Lady depicts her in distinctly personal terms as an aging, widowed, out-of-power politician struggling with dementia. But in at least one way the film reflects a political sea change that Thatcher helped set in motion: the decline of the idea that class is a relationship that structures both inequality and solidarity.

In The Iron Lady, class is a form of social distinction, a kind of snobbery that Thatcher overcomes in her own Conservative Party (along with sexism) to become prime minister. In this view, her rise is a triumph for pluck and meritocracy. The Labor Party politicians that she battles and the demonstrators arrayed against her are cardboard figures, either simpletons or hooligans.

Thatcher triumphed as a politician, the film suggests, because she remained true to herself in the face of all opposition. The content of her policies, and their impact, receive comparatively little attention. Yet this is the woman who did as much as anyone to popularize the neoliberal world we live in today, where society is a fiction, greed and gain are the engines of progress, and the most modest forms of social democracy are decried as nothing more than socialist dictatorship.

Some of this is unavoidable in a feature film organized around one central character. But I can't shake the feeling that some viewers will come away from The Iron Lady seeing Thatcher's career as a triumph for diversity (grocer's daughter overcomes the snobs) while never thinking that her vision of politics and government, which denied inequalities of class and exalted individualism at the expense of solidarity, brought us to the atomized, insecure, and massively unequal world that we inhabit today.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Everybody’s writing about Christopher Hitchens, so I thought I would add my two cents. I never met him, never exchanged apercus over aperitifs, and was never the recipient of his kindnesses or intellectual benefactions. Like other readers of the Nation over the past three decades, I just read him regularly, agreed with him sometimes, disagreed with him other times. Of course, he wrote brilliantly and facilely on any topic of his choosing, and generally asked the big questions, those worth asking. But he was basically a provocateur, a distiller of outrage, generally (except in his marvelous literary essays),a disdainer and avoider of nuance.

His politics were basically limited to foreign policy.(In this he is unlike his great model, George Orwell, most of whose best work was on the class structure in England.) His basic instincts were always right, insisting on the importance of asking about God’s existence, of the need to maximize human freedom, for eliminating the barriers against liberty. But figuring out to achieve this in an unfree world, with plenty of bad guys, and no unalloyed good guys, is always the rub.

I basically agreed with him on Serbia and Bosnia, which I think was his great turning point in his world-view, with his acquiescence in the use of western power to liberate peoples from tyrannical dictatorship. And I understand, and sympathized with his anger at Clinton in not doing enough in the Balkans, and doing what he did tardily and clumsily to advance this goal.

But I simply don’t understand how he went from blasting Clinton for his bombing of a purported munitions factory in 1998,to, three years later, starring in the Amen corner of cheerleaders for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. It seems so unnecessary— there were plenty of leftists and liberals who managed to combine a detestation for Saddam Hussein with opposition to the war, but he was defeated by his basic inability to see nuance in any situation, and this was a war, with horrible people on both sides, that needed nuance slavered into every crevice. And when the war became a fiasco, he had ample opportunity to admit that he had been wrong, but I guess his vaunted courage deserted him.

Anyway his legacy is obscure. His politics for the last decade of his life, a hodge-podge of ultraleftist remnants and his newfound conservative human rights realpolitik, simply did not make much sense. He left no useful political legacy except as a cautionary reminder if how difficult it is to make one’s way through the mine field of our post-post Cold War world.

If he resembles anyone, its a funnier hipper less sententious version of Whittaker Chambers for our time (with Sidney Blumenthal a stand-in for Alger Hiss.) . He will be remembered, and pardoned by many, for writing extraordinarily well. I don’t think he would have thought that was enough.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Journalists Under Arrest

According to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and spokesmen for the Bloomberg administration, the reporters arrested at the breakup of Occupied Wall Street and ensuing protests in lower Manhattan were arrested for their own safety. Or because they were trespassing on private property. Or because they had no right to be at the scene of an ongoing police operation. Hogwash. Reporters have been visiting crime scenes and accompanying police officers on dangerous and not so dangerous operations since the nineteenth century. The only conclusion I can come to is that the NYPD preferred to do its work in the dark, without independent observers. And that speaks badly for the NYPD.

The press passes that reporters carry--which are issued by the police department--clearly state that they permit the bearer to cross police lines in pursuit of a story. The idea behind the practice dates to 1836, when the newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald was admitted to a downtown brothel that was the scene of the murder of one Helen Jewett. As Bennett was admitted to the premises while others were kept outside, the story goes, a guard explained, "He is an editor--he is on public duty."

The notion of journalists as the eyes and ears of the public is thus an old one in New York City. It's an ideal worth taking seriously because police officers, like elected officials, act in the name of the public. If we don't have a chance to observe them in action through the eyes of reporters, then we are blinded to what is being done in the name of our city. And a blind democracy is not a healthy democracy.

Zuccotti Park may be spic and span, but something smells when the NYPD insists on arresting journalists who want to watch cops make arrests.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Order Reigns on Wall Street

I arrived at Zuccotti Park today around 1 pm, too late to have seen the eviction in the early morning hours. I did, however, see plenty of examples of how NYPD policing strategies raise tension and curb dissent. I also got a chance to think about how the Occupy movement can grow from this latest turn of events.

Along Broadway at the eastern edge of the park, around 1 pm today, the police had demonstrators and pedestrians squeezed between metal police barriers on the park side and a double line of police officers on the Broadway side. On the sidewalk, that made passing by the park crowded and at times tense.

For me, it was one more example of a problem that dates back to the Giuliani years: the practice of treating public assembly as a problem to be controlled. In the end, that makes for demonstrations hemmed into holding pens patrolled by lines of grim looking cops. On both the police and demonstrators' sides, this was not a situation conceived to cool down hotheads.

I also want to note that the Times reported that reporters were barred from the park when the evictions took place. As was noted in "Police Clear Zuccotti Park..."

Reporters in the park were forced to leave. Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said it was for their safety. But many journalists said that they had been prevented from seeing the police take action in the park, and that they had been roughly handled by officers. Mr. Browne said television camera trucks on Church Street, along the park’s western border, were able to capture images.

That's more proof, if you need any, that the fate of honest and independent journalism is inextricably linked to other freedoms like the right to protest. The First Amendment, as my late friend Jim Carey liked to point out, is more than a guarantee of freedom for journalists: it is an exhortation to gather and speak freely in a democratic way of life.

In the long run, I've always thought that the Occupy movement should value a continued presence in the park over holding turf for 24 hours around the clock. Equally important, it has to make some demands or make itself the street protest division of a movement that raises coherent demands of its own to get us out of this economic crisis.

In the long run, OWS lost to the cops last night and the right to demonstrate took another beating. In the long run, however, this can become a chance to regroup and come back fighting for a more just future.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Paddling the Bronx River

The wealth of outdoor adventures to be found within the borders of New York City always astounds me, from bouldering in Central Park to mountain biking in Highbridge Park to beach combing at Jamaica Bay. But nothing matches the autumn canoe trip that I took last week under sunny skies and luminous fall foliage on the Bronx River.

To dedicate the Thain Family Forest, a rare old-growth forest that has been given new pathways and environmentally educational signage, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx held a festival with walks, poetry, music and more.

For me and my wife, the best part of the festival was a short canoe trip on the Bronx River run by the Bronx River Alliance. The Alliance has done great work to clean up the river and make it a setting for hikes, canoe trips, and communing with nature. Last Sunday, they brought canoes to the river and we had a great time paddling New York City's only true freshwater river. (The Hudson is a salt water estuary and the East River is a tidal strait.)

Afloat on the Bronx River, all we could see were forests, the shoreline and sun-dappled waters. The distant hum of traffic and stray soda cans occasionally reminded us of the city around us, but most of the trip was a great escape from concrete and traffic.

Thanks to the good work of the Bronx River Alliance, there are all sorts of ways to enjoy the river. We'll be back.

The festival continues for the weekend of November 12-13. If you want to paddle, get there early. On the day of our visit, there were lots of eager canoeists waiting to get out on the water.

Photo by Clara Hemphill.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupied Wall Street Journal

Last night I visited Occupied Wall Street on my way home from work. I strolled around the encampment, took in the sights, and came home with the best example I have yet found of the depth, complexity and reach of this movement: a copy of the encampment's newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal.

The front-page stories by Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges were nothing that you couldn't read in The Nation (not that there's anything wrong with that fine publication.) But the inside pages, with pieces on the "The Progress of Revolutions" and an international timeline on this year in dissent, and back pages featuring union endorsements of the occupation, and articles on the principles and practices of the occupation, give a sense of the movement's range and principles.

My Spanish-language edition of Occupied contained the most interesting thing I've seen on the encampment: a map of the site. As it shows, walking from the northeast corner of Zuccotti Park to the southwest you'll go from the library to the general assembly to the info desk to the kitchen to the sleeping area to the medical service.

There are plenty of flaky types participating in the occupation, but the people I met running the kitchen, library and information desk were all smart, hard-working, welcoming and organized. Their organizational capacities, which seem to hold the whole operation together, are the embodiment of new forms of politics and participation.

As Alexander Hamilton might have told you when he founded the New York Post to support the Federalist Party, newspapers are a great way to build and maintain a movement. Even in the age of Web, the local and global dimensions of The Occupied Wall Street Journal give the occupation a kind of gravity that should be taken seriously.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Lost in the Headlines

In the Daily News and the New York Post, the peaceful nature of last night's protest at Zuccotti Park, which brought 10-20,000 people to downtown Manhattan, was lost in headlines that emphasized a confrontation between police and maybe 200 of the protesters that took place late in the evening.

The front page of the News trumpeted "Brawl St.," complete with a cop blasting pepper spray at a protester. Inside, a news story provided a much more accurate depiction of the evening's events and stressed how clashes broke out only after nightfall. And a column by Jimmy Breslin grasped the importance of the rally and its union presence.

The Post gave over its front page to the death of Steve Jobs and ran "It's Brawl Street" on page 7. The Post acknowledged that the protest was peaceful before it turned violent late in the evening but emphasized the confrontation, thus allowing the last act in the drama to define the story about the rest of it.

The New York Times ran "Seeking Energy, Unions Join Wall Street Protest" on the front page above the fold beneath a four-column photograph of the demonstrators. This piece, clearly the product of lots of reporting on the unions and the occupy Wall Street movement, relegated the post-demonstration violence to one paragraph. But what the piece ignored in breaking news was compensated for with strong analysis and a great map of Zuccotti Park that helps explain the organizational depth of the protesters who set up camp in the park.

As we saw in the Sixties, a peaceful protest was defined by disproportionate coverage of a trouble-seeking minority of protesters. As is so often the case, it was the photos and headlines that were most misleading. Photographs are great for capturing action and anger, but they just can't carry the nuances best conveyed by words.

Journalists can and should do better. At the same time, the protesters who ended the night by looking for a confrontation on Wall Street, which was beyond the site of the rally, made their own mistake. Their actions made it easier for headline writers and photographers to misrepresent their movement. At the next protest, we need to see wiser heads prevail.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Marching on Wall Street

A few days ago, I walked through Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to check out the occupation of Wall Street and found a ragtag mix of earnest protesters, young people, and homeless-looking folk. Tonight, I returned with thousands of marchers who trekked down Broadway to protest the our country's unjust and inadequate responses to the economic crisis. I marched with union members, teachers, musicians, white collar workers, peace activists, and environmentalists. This is a real movement for economic justice and the Democrats ignore it at their peril

The breadth, spirit and order of tonight's march were impressive. These were the left end of the people who elected President Obama--from radicals to liberal Democrats--and they are the foundation for any consequential movement for progressive change in the United States. They are also people who understandably feel ignored by the current administration.

Old faces from other protests, union members from Local 100 of the Transport Workers' Union and the Communications Workers, and smiling onlookers brought a great sense of energy, steadiness and purpose to the procession. The best piece of sloganeering I saw was a sticker that many people wore on their lapel, simply reading "99%." It was a great reminder that the marchers were part of the majority in the country and that the economy ought to serve us and not the other way around.

Up to now, reporting on the Wall Street occupation has depicted the protesters as everything form Sixties holdovers to nut cases. Gina Bellafante's piece in the Times was an example of this kind of journalism, managing to be snide and shallow at the same time. She focused on the weirdest people in the park, dismissed the rest of them as unrealistic, and then left. Tonight's demonstration is an answer to her. So was the occupants' committees organized to deal with cleanup, security, and arts and cultures. Some of those folks may be anarchists, but that doesn't mean that they don't know how to govern themselves.

After months and years of being kicked around by the Great Recession, tonight thousands of New Yorkers kicked back. It felt great.

If we find a just way out of this crisis, it will be because people in power--starting with the White House--hear the voices in Zuccotti Park.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Searching for VJ Day

On my way to work this morning, I passed the World Trade Center site. There were lots of camera crews, lots of commuters and lots of cops. Everybody seemed to be taking pictures, but there was no obvious focal point to the scene--no waving flag, no inspiring orator, no sailor giving a nurse a passionate kiss as in Times Square at the end of World War II. I was glad that Osama bin Laden met his just end, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this was not a clear-cut ending, the way VJ Day was for World War II. I rode to work anticipating revenge attacks and an interminable war in Afghanistan. Then Peter, in one of our many conversations conducted by cell phone as I stride through Newark, gave me a new way of looking at the situation.

With bin Laden dead, the US can begin redefining its fight against Al Qaeda and its allies. That means enduring vigilance, but hopefully a giant step away from the wars like Iraq and Afghanistan that have done so much to tarnish our democracy and stain our reputation in the Muslim world.

John Kerry got it right in 2004: the United States' war against Al Qaeda and its allies should be conducted with the long-term goal of reducing it to something like our national fight against organized crime: something we do with complete seriousness, but not something that eternally defines us and our nation.

Kerry knows something about war, unlike George Bush and Dick Cheney, but that didn't stop the GOP from ridiculing him as an ineffectual, defeatist Democrat. Hardly.

For some time, we've needed a win in the fight against Al Qaeda that would restore our sense of strength, reduce our fears, and give us the confidence to wage this struggle in ways that are consistent with our best selves.

When US forces killed Osama bin Laden, they gave us a just and useful victory. Let the president make the most of it, even if it isn't the equivalent of VJ Day.

Mission Accomplished; New Mission Starting

The death of Osama bin Laden is a moment for genuine national pride, a rough but necessary form of justice meted out to an evil, evil man, who was responsible for the death of thousands of innocent people. President Obama and all those involved in the operation deserve the gratitude of the nation. But the real question is, where do we go from here? Since 9/11 the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been seen by most Americans in an intensely personal way. Now that we have accomplished this, there is no better time to examine the two wars we have waging, with the ostensive purpose of destroying al-Queda, in Iraq and Afghanistan, though both wars long ago sprawled away from any such simple objective. It is time to, accurately this time, declare mission accomplished, and end American involvement in the wars. And while we’re at it, we can reexamine the security and surveillance state that has burgeoned since 9/11. There’s no restoring the World Trade Center, or the thousands of lives that were lost in its destruction, or going back to a pre-9/11 world, but perhaps now we can move forward, beyond the world 9/11 created. For the first time since September 11, 2001, a president of the United States has the moral and political standing to really explore how this country has changed, since 9/11, often in ways not for the better. I was reading the other day how by 1944, literally hundreds and books and studies had been produced on the questions raised by the "post-war world." It is time Americans started thinking a little about what the world would be like when the war on terror, or whatever the Obama administration calls it, is over. It is time to start contemplating a new post war world. I hope that President Obama makes the most of this unique opportunity to reorient America, and make it, and the world it so crucially shapes, better places to live, with brighter futures.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Black Watch in Brooklyn

The war in Iraq, and military life in general, are so far from the experiences of most Americans that it takes a determined effort to understand them from the inside out. But if you seek to understand them, you should definitely see Black Watch, a brilliant play at Saint Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn about soldiers in the famed Scottish regiment deployed to Iraq.

Grounded in interviews with Black Watch veterans, the play takes the form of encounters between a writer and soldiers in a Scottish poolroom that flash back and forth between the deep past, the present, and the war in Iraq. The play has already won many awards in Britain, and has returned to Brooklyn after an enthusiastic reception at Saint Anne's in 2007. Better than anything I have seen, it captures the complex mix of pride, courage, cynicism, anger, obscenity and solidarity that sustain soldiers in combat.

If you're looking for a critique of the history of the Black Watch in the British Empire, or an examination of British soldiers' relations with Iraqis, you'll have to keep looking. Neither gets much time in the play.

Where Black Watch excels, however, is in its exploration of the ideas, actions and emotions of soldiers. With monologues and dialogues, exquisitely choreographed scenes of combat and barracks brawls, pipe band music and Scottish folk songs, Black Watch takes viewers to a world that few of them will know first-hand. The final scene of the play, which blends an assault and close order drill, conveys the suffering and solidarity of the soldier's life in ways that are extremely moving.

Gregory Burke, author of the play, suggests in a program note that the sense of unity in the Black Watch can be traced to "the male psyche's yearning for a strong identity." He adds that "The army does not recruit well in London or any other big city; fighting units tend to be more at home with homogeneity than with metropolitanism or multiculturalism."

He's on to something, but his play does better than his writer's note at explaining the complex mix of motives and feelings that sustain soldiers. What carries the men in the Black Watch, despite all the pain and contradictions that surround them, is the knowledge that every one of them would risk his life for the other. As a university professor who can find it hard to get people to attend a meeting at 10 am, I know how that sense of solidarity is a rarity in the modern working world. And working class lads aren't the only people looking for a strong identity: the Princeton alumni who gather annually to sing the praises of Old Nassau are perhaps more besotted with their alma mater than these soldiers are with their regiment.

In the end, the veterans of the Black Watch are buoyed by stories: the stories of their predecessors on far-off battlefields and their own stories of Iraq. They guard them closely, but we are fortunate to have them shared with us in this play. If you have any curiosity about these lives and their world, don't miss Black Watch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Angry Men

With the passing of Sidney Lumet, we have lost one of the most gifted directors of the past half century, and one of the most gifted directors of films about New York City ever, to whom we owe Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, Prince of the City, and many others. But for me, and I guess, for many others as well, his most memorable NYC film was his first, one that only shows the city in glimpses, 12 Angry Men, the ultimate jury room film.

Made in 1957, the film is often seen as a high water mark of post-war liberalism, in which prejudice, seen as a distorting filter that blinds people to their own less than rational motivations, is eventually exorcized through exposure to the honest discourse of unbiased seekers of truth. Of course, if they were making the film today, it would end with Lee J. Cobb making his day, Clint Eastwood-like, with a sniveling Henry Fonda, tearfully admitting on his knees that his Harvard elitism blinded him to the reality that a punk is a punk is a punk, and that he almost let a dangerous murderer back on the street.

The dominant metaphor of the film is the jury as democracy, in which people from different classes and backgrounds struggle to transcend their differences in their difficult search for a common ground. This doesn’t have too much to do with the reality of the jury system, with its origins lost in the Anglo-Saxon mists of the witenagenot and whatever, and the consensus the jury reached in 12 Angry Men with the notable lack of women and blacks, was not in the end truly representative of the country as a whole. Still it’s a powerful metaphor, one perhaps behind much of Obama’s efforts to convince Americans that what they share in common is more important than their differences. But if that's what he doing, he going about in the wrong way.

What the jurors in the film shared were not their attitudes or beliefs, but a common task, a common purpose. They were partners, equal partners, and everyone was of equal importance. Once they understood this, they were able to reach a common decision. This is what America so badly lacks today, and I'm not sure how Obama should go about trying to realize this, but you don’t start by stating how much you agree with those opposed to you.

Perhaps you start by finding a common enemy. Another Lumet film that perhaps speaks more to the spirit of our times, is one of his least characteristic films, Murder on the Orient Express, sort of the reverse of 12 Angry Men, in which—-spoiler alert—-twelve or so people of very different backgrounds and stations in life come together for the express purpose of killing someone they mutually loathe. If we really hated the recession as much as the travelers on the Orient Express hated the kidnapper-murderer they offed, as much as FDR hated the depression, we might begin to discover again what he had in common.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler

Donald Trump is embarrassing himself (as if that was really possible) in his new campaign to demonstrate that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. But the more interesting question is what has been behind the birther movement, which has shown a remarkable strength despite the absence of the tiniest scintilla of evidence for its cause.

One answer can be found in an infamous little book written in 1850, one of the greatest composers of all time (he would definitely be in my top five), and one of the worst persons of all time (its hard to compare someone who was actually not responsible for the deaths of anyone with the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, but he would definitely make the top 25, I think.)

Anyway in this little screed he argues that composers of Jewish origin (he focuses on Felix Mendelssohn and the French opera composer, born in Germany, Giacomo Meyerbeer) can never really be German or European. Both of these gentlemen had converted to Christianity, but it wasn’t enough for Wagner, indeed it made things far worse. Because of their racial background, the most they could do was outwardly ape the forms of European civilizations, and appear to be German, while they really weren’t.

Wagner was at the beginning of a new, and as we know, horribly virulent phase in the history of anti-semitism. For centuries, Jews had been the “other” the non-Christian minority. They dressed different, they talked different, they lived among themselves, and prayed to a strange God.

But by Wagner's time Jews were no longer the other. Jews were us, apparently indistinguishable from good Germans. But of course Jews were still the other. But they had gone from despised outsiders to despised insiders, which meant they went from being despised for their powerlessness to being despised for their supposed powerfulnesss. Without putting all the sins of Hitler on Wagner’s head, a direct line leads from Judaism in Music to the death camps.

Barack Obama’s is Donald Trump’s Felix Mendelssohn, the outsider who has become the super-insider who is still an outsider, though they can find no rational basis for his outsiderhood, except his racial affinity to many genuine outsiders, immigrants and poor blacks.

Where does this leave us? Donald Trump is no Hitler, and the Tea Partyers not black shirts. But the most dangerous fury is not the hatred of the other, but the hatred of the almost like us.

Obama tries, but for people like Trump he can’t really be an American, because deep down, in his essence, he isn’t one. And this is where we are in America today, and this passion is bitterly and hatefully destructive, and will lead to no good.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Triangle Fire Legacies

One hundred years ago Rosie Grasso, 16, lived at 174 Thompson Street, my old street in Greenwich Village. Although we lived decades apart, our workdays began the same way: a walk to the top of Thompson, then a right turn at Washington Square. I walked east to take the Lexington Avenue subway to Newsday. Rosie walked to the east side of the Square, where she worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There she became one of 146 people to die in the infamous Triangle fire. When the centennial of the fire came on March 25, activists chalked her name on the sidewalk in front of her old building. I set down my thoughts on the fire, and its significance, in an op-ed published in The Record.

The one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire will be a day of tragedy and irony. The tragedy lies in the deaths of 146 workers, most of them young Italian and Jewish immigrant women, who died because the laws of their time allowed them to work in a firetrap. The irony is that the labor movement, and the demand for strong government action on workers’ behalf galvanized by Triangle, are today under attack as never before.

After the fire, tens of thousands of workers marched through the rainy streets of Manhattan in a procession that mixed mourning and protest. Rabbi Stephen Wise blamed the fire on greed and inadequate industrial standards. Labor activist Rose Schneiderman, a veteran of bitter garment workers’ strikes in 1909, concluded : “Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Wise and Schneiderman lived in a time when ideas of reform and radicalism were part of everyday politics, and questions of corporate power, political corruption, and the tension between political democracy and economic inequality were widely debated. Socialism was not yet a scare word. Socialists could be found in city halls, state legislatures, and unions.

The young women who died in the Triangle fire were part of a generation that tested the boundaries of life and work in ways that shocked parents and employers. They went to amusement parks without chaperones, found jobs of their own, bravely walked union picket lines in the face of thugs and strikebreakers, and fought for the right to vote. If they were Yiddish-speaking Jews they read newspapers like the socialist Forverts, or Forward, published on the Lower East Side. If they were Italian anarcho-syndicalists they might have read L’Era Nuova, or The New Age, published in Patterson, NJ and Manhattan.

Such militancy made New York’s response to the Triangle fire less than revolutionary but still transforming. Reformers, and Tammany Hall politicians acting out of humanity and political self-interest, created new laws to regulate working conditions. Prominent among the activists were Al Smith, a Tammany man from the Lower East Side, and Frances Perkins, an economist and social worker who had watched in horror as Triangle workers leaped to their deaths.

When Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York State was elected President of the United States in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, he brought to Washington ideas and people from New York. With help and pressure from radicals, union members and liberals, Roosevelt crafted the New Deal—a mix of programs to end the Depression that committed the federal government to protecting Americans against economic inequality. It also put the Federal government behind workers’ right to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Years later Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and the first woman to sit in a presidential cabinet, said that the New Deal began with the Triangle fire.

The New Deal order wasn’t perfect. Initially, it often discriminated against African Americans and women. Its political base included racist Southern Democrats and unions that did not always welcome Blacks and Latinos. But over time, New Deal reforms became more inclusive and improved the lives of the vast majority of Americans. When veterans of the Triangle era gathered to observe the 50th anniversary of the fire in 1961, in the middle of an extended era of prosperity, some 30 percent American workers were in unions.

Now, the very notion of collective bargaining is under assault. In Wisconsin and in New Jersey, public sector unions are attacked. In private industry, unions have been ground down by hostile laws, conservative opposition, and industrialists’ ability to move factories to countries where unions are weak and wages are low.

Today, only 11.9 percent of American wage and salary workers are union members. Labor unions, along with the kind of strong social benefits set in place by the New Deal, are increasingly viewed as illegitimate obstacles to economic health.

Not all the signs are bad. Anti-sweatshop campaigns, polls that show support for the bargaining rights of Wisconsin pubic sector workers, and demonstrations on behalf of immigrant workers all suggest that labor still matters in America. It just doesn’t matter the way that it did in the days of the Triangle fire. To change that, more Americans will have to remember not just how the Triangle workers died, but how they lived.

Reprinted from The Record, 25 March 2011,

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Peak Experience in the Adirondacks

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs and living in Manhattan, I've lived with an inconvenient ambition: to climb a mountain in classic alpine style--roped up, with ice axe and crampons, surrounded by ice and rock and snow. But even though I've done a lot of hiking, including a trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I never realized my ambitions for mountaineering until a recent trip to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks.

Saint Patrick's Day of 2011 was the date. Goal: the summit of Mount Colden.

The weather was bright, conditions were great, and my guide--Chad Kennedy of Adirondack Rock and River--was tops. Around 7:30 am we left the Adirondack Loj parking lot on skis, carrying climbing harnesses, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. (Chad carried our rope, carabiners and other climbing gear.) We skied to Avalanche Camp, stashed our skis, then trekked over the pass to Avalanche Lake and the foot of the Trap Dyke. The Dyke is essentially a steep gully that forms the first part of the ascent of Mount Colden.

There was lots of snow in the Dyke, but it was fairly firm underfoot and there was no need for crampons and roping up until we reached the first of two ice faces. The first went by quickly; the second took a little more work to climb. (My ice axe was an absolute necessity by this point.) Soon we were up on the slab, an open rock face covered with ice and snow.

We ascended the slab at a steady pace. I paid little attention to the scenery; most of the time I was looking for the best way to plant my crampons in Chad's footsteps.

My alpine form is far from perfect, and at moments I wished I'd put in a few more weeks of running stairs before making the climb. But I kept on plodding as Chad set a good course and a good pace. We reached the summit by around 1 pm and I whooped with joy: ice, snow, and spectacular Adirondack scenery, all under a glorious blue and sunlit sky.

We descended the mountain on snowshoes, put on our skis again at Avalanche Camp, and skied out to the Adirondack Loj. On this stage of the trip, gravity was our friend: we glided through the last few miles of the trek and finished around 6 pm. I was pleasantly tired, very happy, and glad to have taken my passion for mountains and hiking to a new level.

Mount Colden in winter is a good introduction to winter mountaineering. You need basic skills with ice axe and crampons and you need to be in shape. With a good guide--and Chad, like other guides at Rock and River, is first rate--Mount Colden can be a great trip. It certainly was for me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Halting March of Labor

I always learn from my students at Rutgers-Newark, especially when their experiences and understandings differ from my own. Yesterday, I asked a class of 30--the majority of them journalism majors--how many felt reasonably well-informed about the struggles over unions, public sector workers, and state government in Wisconsin. Only one student raised her hand. This is striking in a school with many immigrant working-class students. Mind you, my students are fully plugged into social media. And at the start of the semester they were fascinated by events in Egypt. But labor struggles don't have any great interest for them.

This more or less accords with my experiences last Saturday, when I attended a demonstration at city hall in New York City. The crowd was not large, and the median age was about 50. Our numbers swelled when we joined forces with a somewhat younger crowd demonstrating for women's reproductive rights at Foley Square. But never did we assemble a large crowd. And both demonstrations--corralled by the police and carefully monitored--conveyed the impression that public assembly in New York City has gone from being a fundamental part of democracy to a nuisance in the eyes of city hall that must be tolerated at best and always controlled.

As the Egyptian revolution unfolded, some of my students interpreted the events in Cairo as proof of the power of social media. That's a partial truth. In Egypt, the uprising can be understood only as the product of social media, varied forms of labor organizing, civic dissent, the Muslim Brotherhood, and satellite television. All of these combined in fascinating ways.

In the USA, we have an abundant and growing world of social media. We also have massive inequalities and a labor movement under fire from many directions. Yet social media alone did not bring out crowds to support the Wisconsin strikers, nor did it reach my students with the Wisconsin workers' plight.

New media forms gain impact in part through their interaction with existing forms of consciousness. Among the young today in the USA, as networked as they are, workers' rights and the value of unions are just not a big part of their political vocabulary. I hope for a change in this, but I can't say that I'm optimistic in the short run.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Good News for Rochdale Village

Peter is too modest to crow about this in Greater New York, but I'm happy to report that his book Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 families, and New York City's Great Experiment in Integrated Housing, has just been awarded the New York Society Library's prize for best work of history on the city published in 2010.

Rochdale Village
is a meticulously researched and beautifully written history of the cooperative where Peter spent part of his youth. In his analysis of the making and unmaking of integration in Rochdale, he tells us a great deal about race, politics and culture in postwar New York. Significantly, he takes on three big themes.

With regard to the 1968 Teachers’ Strike, he challenges the conventional understanding of the strike as a confrontation between liberal integrationists and radical nationalists. In fact, for all of the importance of black nationalism in 1968, he argues that the strike is best understood as an ideologically complex struggle over the meanings and possibilities of integration.

On housing, particularly high rise superblock housing, he shows that Jane Jacobs’ arguments--which lead you to believe that such housing inevitably produces blight and anomie--are much in need of revision. He also makes you appreciate the mixture of principles and pragmatism, in the persons of cooperative housing developer Abraham Kazan and power broker Robert Moses, that produced Rochdale. In a time when high housing costs are making life ever harder for low and middle income New Yorkers, that history is worth recovering.

Finally, in his honest but affectionate memories of Rochdale, which recognize both its strengths and its weaknesses, Peter resurrects the forgotten possibilities of integration. In an age when racial separation is the norm when it comes to residential living, Peter shows how radical, challenging and rewarding it was for the black and white residents of Rochdale to live together.

In winning this prize Peter deservedly joins some distinguished company, ranging from my sister Ellen Snyder-Grenier (who won the award for her book on Brooklyn) to my friend and coauthor Rebecca Zurier (who won the award for her book on the Ashcan Artists) to Josh Freeman, (who won the award for Working Class New York ) to Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows (who won for the first volume of Gotham.)

Rochdale Village is a great book for anyone who cares about New York, its best possibilities, and its enduring struggles for justice. This award is richly deserved.

Friday, February 11, 2011


When I first learned about the demonstrations in Egypt, I was skeptical about whether they should be accompanied by "The Internationale." I'm still not sure about the place of "The Internationale" in Cairo, but Mubarak's departure from power is clearly a victory for the people of Egypt. Moreover, their demands for democracy and a just economy that supports a decent standard of living are the kind of demands that the left, whatever its incarnation, can meet better than totalitarians and free-market fundamentalists.

The demonstrators, at least those that we saw in Tahrir Square, were determined, brave, and admirably inclusive. They have won a great victory.

Of course, Mubarak's handing over power to the military raises legitimate fears that this will become a defeat for Mubarak and a victory for rule by generals. That's something to be wary of, but I'm not sure that it will happen. The Egyptian military may prove to be just the force that provides the stability that will give Egyptians the breathing space to build a democratic government. If that happens, American aid to the Egyptian military will finally have produced something useful.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tea Party for Two II

I just read that Dick Cheney was hissed and called a war criminal by some Ron Paul supporters at the current CPAC convention. I think that’s splendid, and I guess its way I’m not nearly as frightened by the tea party as are most progressives. I certainly find much to admire (and much that I disdain) in the hard libertarian core represented by Ron Paul, people who take the idea of smallness seriously enough to hate the big wars that America has been waging in recent years. I don’t know where the political enthusiasm for the bracing, radical change America so desperately needs will come from. One thing that is clear, is that it won’t come from progressives, and Obama’s presidency has been an opiate, utterly stultifying the chances for a revived liberalism.

This brings me to Bill Kauffman’s recent book, By Bye Miss American Empire, a call for separation and division of the fifty states, into many more, smaller entities, and looks with favor on secession of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico (though he seems to be a bit on the fence about a separate South.) Kauffman is a genial reactionary anarchist, living nearby in Batavia, New York, and has written many books on the need for a revived localism and a foreign policy to match, and has written an interesting history of the America First movement before WWII. His books are all witty, generally well researched, and convey a sense of optimism about whatever hopeless cause he is writing about at the moment, which in this case are the efforts of upstate New Yorkers to separate from the big, bad city far away, and similar movements. I knew something about NY efforts, but knew next to nothing about similar movement in western Kansas, far northern California, and the upper peninsula of Michigan and elsewhere. And I had never considered before how the statehoods of Alaska and Hawaii were really chapters in a broader Cold War policy to expand, wherever possible, the effective limits of American influence, in which the wishes of local residents were almost as unimportant to American policy makers as were, say , the Guatemalans or Iranians of the time.
Me, I like New York State just as it is, stretching from Montauk to the Niagara River, and I am not convinced of the necessary virtues of smallness in political units. For every more or less peaceful breakup of a Soviet Union, there’s a Yuogoslavia; give me the relative centuries long peace of the Ottomans, to the Sykes-Picoted-Balfoured Middle East of the past century. But as a thought experiment, or as Kauffman refers to it more than once, an eidolon, it is worth thinking about dividing America into itty-bitty pieces. I think I am atmy political core an anarchist, though of a very different version than Kauffman. Still, Kauffman’s work is imbued with a sense of populist possibility which is heartening and infectious. He makes several paeans to the Tea Party in the course of his book, and if there were more Kauffmans and fewer Palins and Bachmanns, the Tea Party would get a whole lot more interesting.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Digital Success Story?

Last night, on Channel 13, the usually admirable Frontline aired a documentary that lauded IS 339 in the Bronx as a school that rose from chaos to excellence by embracing laptops and digital media. The only problem is that the school's recent history doesn't bear out this rosy story.

Contrary to the story told in "Digital_Nation," the school is still very shaky. As reported on the website Inside Schools, founded by my wife,
the segment spotlighted the school's embrace of technology, including the extensive use of SmartBoards by teachers and laptop computers by students. It also reported the school's math scores for 2009, a year in which 62% of students scored at or above grade level in math. In 2010, after the tests were made more difficult to pass, only 19% of the middle school students scored at or above grade level.

Digital technology can be a great aid to learning, but it is no panacea. It needs to be used carefully, deliberately and with serious regards for its strengths and limits. By itself, it can't be credited with turning around a school in the Bronx. Frontline should know better,

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Fate of a Nation

The courage and tenacity of the Egyptian protesters are deeply impressive. But equally important for understanding the rebellion in Egypt is an old idea that has sometimes been dismissed in our age of globalization: nationalism. Both the protesters and the defenders of the Mubarak regime claim to be fighting for the fate of their nation.

Exactly what they mean by "Egypt" is up for grabs. The thugs who beat up protesters and journalists seem to be angry at protesters because they make Egypt look like a less than orderly and well-governed place. The protesters themselves are famously varied in their views; they seem to range from Islamists to secular democrats. But all of the people battling in Cairo and Alexandria, whether they fight for change or the status quo, seem to be motivated by a desire to shape the politics and government of the nation of Egypt. In this sense, the emergent issue in Egypt is not a simple, uniform nationalism but the appearance different nationalisms.

American concerns about Islamist radicalism have blinded us to secular forms of nationalism in the Middle East. Equally misleading is the babble that we often hear about "the end of the nation state" in a a time of global movements of people, money and images

Yet even in an age of globalization, people are willing to fight and die to define what their country might become. That's an old pattern in history, but a remarkably persistent one. We ignore it at our peril.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tea for Two: Part I

The political phenomena of the past two years, alas, has not been the triumphant agenda of President Obama, sweeping all before it as sugar plums of a renewed liberalism danced in the heads of his progressive followers, but the noisy emergence of the Tea Party, which is shaping the national debate to an extent that seems almost inconceivable to those who of us who watched, with incandescent anticipation, Obama and his family on election night in 2008 in Grant Park, in what seems to be an eternity or two ago.

I don’t know what I can do about this other than my usual response to crises in the Republic, which is to read books about them, which is what I have done. Let me comment briefly on two of them. One that has received a good deal of attention is Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Lepore, an award winning historian at Harvard and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, has become one of the best-known historians in the country, and her short book, like everything she writes, is deftly argued, written, and researched, and she provides a history of the actual 1773 tea party, its subsequent historiography, and the connection between what actually happened and what people have thought happened to the rise of the new tea partiers.
The book has many virtues, but I found it a bit snarky, or to same thing in historiographicalese, a bit too Hofstaederian for my tastes, too intent on reducing the tea party to the latest version of the enduring paranoid style in American history, making fun of the tea partiers and the republic for which they stand. For Lepore they reduce the constitution to a version of fundamentalist originalism that relates to history the same relation to real science as astrology does to astronomy.
Now, I would be the last person to defend originalism as a theory of constitutional interpretation, but to attack it as anti-intellectual seems besides the point, and whatever one thinks of Antonin Scalia, as he would be the first to tell you, he ain’t stupid. Lepore blames the Tea Partiers for having a narrow one-dimensional view of the founding era, and blames academic historians for not writing enough multi-dimensional works of popular history to rouse the average American from their dogmatic slumbers, and then blames, somewhat bizarrely leftist historians in the 1970s, who tried to put a leftist tinge on the bicentennial, as the original presentist politicizers of the revolution. But this strikes me as being besides the point. But there is a difference between popular memory and history and the best history will never displace popular memory. What’s wrong with originalism, and what’s wrong with the tea party view of American history, is not that it’s illegitimate, but that’s its wrong. Originalism, states' rights, a heavy reliance on the 10th amendment, execration of the overuse of the commerce clause, all have a long history in this country dating back to 1790 or so. There are some crazy arguments, and some frothing conspiracy theorists (like Glenn Beck), but the core of what the tea party is calling for, smaller budgets, more localized governments, elimination of liberalism and all of its works, seems fully within the
field of acceptable discourse. I think those who disagree with the resurgent right need to try to listen to what they are saying, engage them, and not dismiss them a priori. I was going to comment on another tea party book, but this post is long enough, so stay tuned for my follow-up.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Vinson Court

Outside of Egypt, probably the most interesting story this week has been the Florida judge striking down the entirety of the Obama health care bill, in a decision that was a very original piece of originalism, a sort of abstract originalism, ignoring prior precedent with a free-hand Jackson Pollock- like splatter.

What is surprising about the ruling is that while all progressive pundits now expect a close 5-4 decision among the Supremes, a year ago they all predicted that the bill would not really face a stiff constitutional challenge. What has changed is not the standard interpretation of the commerce clause, but the united opposition of Republicans to the bill, and of course judges follow the election returns, and it never is difficult to come up with constitutional arguments for or against any position.
This is unfortunate, but I suppose not too surprising. And every piece of major legislation typically faces a similar trial by constitution, back to John Marshall and the Indians, Roger Taney voiding the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Dred Scott, the Lochner case, and the Schechter Poultry case, which ruled the NRA (National Recovery Act) unconstitutional in 1935. Politics then goes on to decide who, in the end, gets to win. Its interesting that in his decision to void the Obama bill, Judge Vinson cited Schechter Poultry several times, and the Health Care act is a similar type of fowl to the NRA, a close and very complex regulation of private business for a public purpose. And as we know, though the New Deal went onto triumphs after the Schechter Poultry decision, the NRA itself was never revived, and the New Deal thereafter either created programs that directed aided citizens (like Social Security), or regulated aspects of a business (the Wagner Act, the Wages and Hours Act), and not the purpose of business itself. Perhaps we will stand at a similar crossroads with health care. If the health care law is declared unconstitutional because of its myriad corporatist compromises, the lessons for progressives should be clear. A single payer law, a bill of unquestioned (I would think) constitutionality, is the way forward, as it always should have been in the first place.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fighting in the Streets

On Monday, when my students at Rutgers-Newark discussed the uprising in Egypt, some were inclined to think of it as a "media revolution." But with access to the Web and cellphones shut down, the protests in Cairo have taken on the oldest form of revolutionary struggle: fighting in the streets,
The discipline and orderliness of Egyptian protesters has been impressive. The violence of Mubarak supporters, riding into crowds on horseback to whip people, has been surpassingly ugly. And this from a man who has been bankrolled by the USA for decades.

If it is too early to know where the Egyptian revolt will lead, this much is clear: in Hosni Mubarak, the USA has been supporting a very nasty dictator. I deeply hope that the revolt does not descend into more and more violence. But if it does, we have the depressing knowledge that the biggest impediment to democratic change in Egypt is a man who we have helped to say in power.

Monday, January 31, 2011

"The Internationale"?

That was the title to an e-mail that came to me a few days ago, from someone who thrills as I do to the overthrow of an undemocratic regime. But the course of rebellion and revolution since the 1970s makes me doubt that what will emerge from the ashes of the Mubarak regime is anything like democratic socialism.And that says a lot about the agonies of the left in the 21st century.

Once upon a time, when some people assumed that history had a clear direction and an obvious endpoint, it was safe (if not entirely discerning) to assume that the end point of human progress would be socialism. Those days are over. And the disappointing trajectories of Central and Eastern European Societies since the toppling of communism, the Iranian revolution, and China since Tiananmen are forceful reminders that rising up does not always lead to a better future.

In their calls for democracy and economic justice, the demonstrators in Cairo are demanding the kinds of things that one expects from the left. Whether something like a "left" will emerge out of this is not clear. I hope so, but the recent course of history doesn't make me optimistic.

Mubarak's regime rests on sand, and the policy makers in the USA and Israel who put their faith in Mubarak were sorely mistaken. Change is a constant, even if the direction of change is hard to predict and even harder to control.

Here's hoping that the people of Egypt get justice, democracy, peace and prosperity.

The Master Switch

We purchased our first I-pod about a week ago, basically in order to start the Herculean task of downloading my many, many CDs into a little box, thereby obviating the need to hold onto the physical discs, and thereby obviating one of the most frequent issues of domestic discord between me and my always beautiful wife, Jane. As I was doing the downloading, I found myself reading Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Knopf, 2010), a history and meditation on communications history and policy in the United States since the rise (and fall, and rise, and fall, and rise) of AT&T, and the incestuous relationships between our phones, our radios and TVS, our computers, the companies they created, and the regulators who love them. I can’t think of a book I have read recently from which I have learned more .

Wu is basically, as far as I can figure out, something of a left-libertarian, whose hero is Thurman Arnold, the New Deal trust buster, and who believes that while regulation is necessary for the communications industry, to combat its inherent tendency to monopolization, it needs to be done lightly, and most communications regulation has always been a disaster, accentuating monopolization rather than curbing it, , and points to the 1996 Telecommunications Act as perhaps the worst offender, obviating most of the gains from competitiveness achieved in the initial break-up of AT&T.
Reading Wu, I think I understand for the first time how the packaging of information, so central to the internal, is inherently decentralizing of any communications network. And because no one created or owns the internet the way AT &T owned the long distance lines that were at the heart of its monopoly, this had led, rather than one huge monopoly largely controlling not only the communication network itself, but almost all the R &D associated with it, while the internet has spawned a million communication industry start ups. There surely is no industry that had been more stifled by regulation than communications. Wu is a defender of “net neutrality” and the larger point I came away with from Wu’s essential book is that, as the revival of ATT shows, that despite the inherently decentralized nature of the internet, without new Thurman Arnolds, new monopolies, that benefit only its owners, rather than the public as a whole, will proliferate as much as new technologies.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

First Thoughts on the Egyptian Crisis

First thoughts on the events sweeping the Arab world, which seem to be to the most significant events since the fall of the shah. The fragility of power, when it is suddenly exposed, is always breathtaking. This will fundamentally challenge the preconceptions of America’s role in the Middle East since the Carter administration, propping up sclerotic, increasingly unpopular regimes in the interest of an increasingly elusive “stability,” a stability that was fatally undermined at home, in the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, and the dots can be easily connected from the fall of Lehman Brothers to the impending fall of Hosni Mubarak. May the Egyptians and Tunisians take this opportunity to reshape their countries in a truly democratic fashion, and we have to trust moderate Islamism to find its own way. In any event, the end of the Nasserist experiment in Egypt is long overdue.

If I may be parochial for a moment, what impact might this have on Israel and its endless impasse with its neighbors? I suppose everyone will see this through their own preconceptions. Those who are not really interested in negotiations with the Palestinians will see this as additional proof that the instability of the region makes enduring peace impossible. Those who feel differently will see argue that the ending of the wobbly pax America in the middle east will and must finally light a fire under Israel and force it to stop haggling over settlements it never should built in the first place, and strike a deal similar to the one outlined in the Al-Jazeera releases this past week. (That deal is looking better and better.) I guess one of the big uncertainties is the impact of all this unexpected democracy on the shaky, western-backed PA. In the end this will either, in a way that all the worlds’ jawboning never could, compel Israel to seek real peace with the Palestinians. Or not.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How Did He Do?

In 1994, I think I was, I had the great misfortune to spend about six months working with Jonathan Soffer. The problem, I should hasten to add, was not with Jonathan. We had been hired by two crazy people, married to each other, to update a very prominent one-volume encyclopedia, and we were sort of stuck in a room together, somewhere in midtown, surrounded by hundreds of reference works, writing about everything from sand slugs and berkelium, to Pure Land Buddhism and feminism. It was sort of fun writing about everything, but the people we worked for were impossible, and Jonathan and I spent the day talking, and plotting our escapes, and we both eventually did, and we both went onto our respective careers. (This was, BTW, the last time I was ever gainfully employed in the city of New York.)

Jonathan has just published the first scholarly biography of Ed Koch, entitled Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. Koch cooperated with Jonathan on the biography, and knowing that Jonathan’s politics were somewhat to the left of mine (no mean feat), I have wondered for several years would he would have to say about hizzoner. Its an excellent book, respectful and thoughtful, offering an overview of the city as a whole during the three terms of Koch’s administration, from 1977 to 1989. Jonathan shows that in many ways Koch was the last white liberal mayor of the city, though his liberalism became increasingly attenuated as his tenure progressed. He gives Koch credit where it is due, especially in his housing program, and demerits when they are called for, and in all it’s a nuanced accounts of his ups and downs, highs and lows.
The most salient fact about the Koch administration is that New York City was widely seen as falling about in every possible way in the late 1970s, and by the time he left office, the city was firmly on the way to its 1990s rehabilitation. Koch did this by encouraging reinvestment and redevelopment, helping to make gentrification an (expensive) household word. Did Koch have an alternative? Probably not. Manhattan is not an island, outside of the more general forces of capitalism, and all the winds in the 1980s were blowing towards a free market. Would more or less the same thing have happened if someone else had been mayor? Probably, but the whole point of writing and reading historical biographies is get a reminder of the role that individuals play in history. Perhaps New York City had special advantages that explain the difference of its trajectory from, say, Rochester or Buffalo, but certainly Koch had a major role in what went right (and wrong) in the post-fiscal crisis city. The best thing that can be said about Koch is that he generally did the best he could under the tight constraints of a bad and illiberal time. And this is the best that can be said about any Democratic politician, with any real measure of power, on the local, state, or national level, in the two decades since Koch left the public stage. And compared to the very checkered records of the two post-Koch democratic presidents, Koch doesn't look all that bad.

Monday, January 24, 2011

No-State Solution

The revelations and document drop from the Al Jazeera on Israel-Palestinian negotiations are more substantial than the recent hoard of wikileaks documents, and we don’t have to get into a discussion of Julian Assange’s sex life. (On that, Katha Pollit is certainly correct—whatever his contributions to prying open government secretiveness might be, if he did the crime, he should do the time.) And Ben Roethlisberger too. (Go, Packers. Boo hoo, Jets. )

But the Al Jazeera documents are truly depressing, showing a Palestinian Authority abjectly offering everything Israel could possibly want—on the settlements, on Jerusalem, on Palestinian return, on demilitarization—and Israel, sensing the weakness of the PA, just wanting more and more concessions. Here’s the current situation—Israel has no interest in making peace with the Palestinians. It will involve too many difficult internal debates, and most Israelis simply think its not worth whatever compromises Israel will have to make. All Israel really wants is “legitimacy”, or to translate, to be left alone, but it knows this will never happen as long as they control the Occupied Territories, directly and indirectly, so they make a pretense of negotiating, and blame their failure on everyone else. The PA desperately want a settlement, but Israel increasingly sees it as a mere puppet of its financial supporters in the EU and the US, and too weak to carry though on any agreement. And Hamas wants its legitimacy, which they see as inclusion in negotiations, but knows that, save some super-dramatic turn of events, Israel and the US will never let this happen, so it does what it can to destabilize the possibility of talks further, which ain’t too difficult to begin with. Perhaps its always darkest before the dawn, but if you ask me, we have never been farther from a genuine peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. In a land that is lousy with Gods, its time for a deus ex machina.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Back to the Articles of Confederation!

I recently read Gilbert K. Chesterton’s first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, written in 1904, set (as it happens) in 1984, in a London which had divided into separate duchies and fiefdoms, each with its own medieval heraldry, and toll barriers. Chesterton was an opponent of progress and his contemporaries conviction that the early 20th century would lead, ineluctably, to larger and larger states, of ever greater size. In Chesterton’s utopia, everything would crumble into ever smaller granular sovereignties.

I was thinking of the Tea Party when reading Chesterton. He has long been a favorite of conservative thinkers, though he is too supple and clever to fit cleanly into any pigeon-hole and his medieval fantasy is more than simply turning back the clock, but challenges not only progressive thinkers but retrograde types who simply pine for some version of the good old days. Why, I have been thinking, does the Tea Party honor the Constitution? Don’t they know it is a counter-revolutionary document that had, as its main purpose, moving power from the states to an enhanced central government? Why wrestle with the ambiguities of the 9th and 10th amendments when what they really want to do is to go back to the Articles of Confederation?
That’s a restorationist dream I could come to enjoy. What we need are not stronger states, but to try to deal with fifty -independent republics. And without the ridiculous requirement for equal representation in the Senate, many of the states would split or reform along more meaningful lines. Liberals could institute single payer health care in their countries. Conservatives could try to give their citizens absolutely nothing until they are overthrown in a popular revolution, a la Tunisia. Let the up and coming superpowers, China, India, Brazil, deal with the problems of trying to run the world from the vantage of a massive state. Americans have spent their time trying to run the world, and we have done, at best, a mediocre job of it. Time to retire, time to relax. If the Tea Party want to turn the clock back, let us, lets do them one better, and try to turn the clock back to the Articles of Confederation, or even further, to when there were thirteen separately governed colonies, or further still, to when a series of independent native bands and groups ruled themselves without any central supervision whatsoever, and return to America’s original nomadic and overlapping sovereignties, or to when, before 12,000 years or so, animals in North America managed to live their lives without any government at all.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Where Beethoven Never Gets Rolled Over

We have had, in American culture, for some time, a rage for ordinality. Ranking things in order of importance has become a national tic, an obsession. And the end of the year is the time for end of the year lists of the top 10 in everything. I am not sure why or when this particular practice started. Did the Romans make lists of their 10 favorite gladiators? The rabbis make a list of their ten favorite biblical passages? I guess part of the fascination is trying to determine what, or who, is #1, and ersatz voting, like American Idol, often seems more genuine than real elections, which have more than their share of ersatz.
All of these comments are prompted by a fascinating series of articles by Anthony Tomassini in the Times on the top ten classical composers of all time, a subject close to my heart. Of course, it’s a useless and pointless exercise, but it does make you think about those who are truly great, and their wonderful music. I basically agree with Tomasinni’s list, which if I remember goes, Bach Beethoven Mozart Schubert Debussy Stravinsky Brahms Verdi Wagner Bartok. I would only drop Debussy and Bartok from that list, and probably add Shostakovich and Messiaen. And I would drop Bach to about sixth (making Beethoven my #1 pick (tell Tchaikovsky the news), followed by the four greatest composers of vocal music of all time--Mozart, Schubert, Verdi and Wagner-- but our sensibilities are pretty congruent, and like Tomassinni I would insist on placing opera composers on the list. (I’m not sure Bartok would make my top 20. If I had to pick a Hungarian composer, I would go for Liszt or Ligeti before Bartok, and I would pick Ravel before Debussy.)

Its a strange exercise, sort of like picking nine people for the Supreme Court—there really aren’t enough slots for representativeness, but at the same time you need some sort of mix, whites blacks women men Jews Catholics Protestants, to keep your selections from becoming too homogeneous. So you need some 20th century composers, and there is a strong case for going before Bach (Monteverdi, Josquin) to round off the list. But there is the inevitable crowding. Like Tomassini I have long marveled at the remarkable situation that one smallish city, Vienna, from about 1775 to 1830, produced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, four exceptionally strong candidates for the top ten, and like him, I mourn the passing over of Haydn in the interests of representativeness. And if you’re serious about this, and you don’t make quirky picks, you are more or less forced to end up with a short list more or less like everyone else’s.
Well if anyone wants to play this game with me, I am ready to entertain suggestions. Chopin? Purcell? Dvorak? Tchaikovsky? Schoenberg, Berg or Webern? But I am more interested in thoughts about why our culture has such a rage for ordinality, and what it says about us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Two Speeches

I don’t have a clear memory of the two speeches that we are celebrating this week, Eisenhower’s farewell and Kennedy’s inauguration. I do remember the Kennedy inauguration however, reading about in the New York Post as a precocious five year old, asking my mom what the term “president-elect” meant, and slowly beginning to understand the meaning and nature of the political world, a realm of people and things somehow connected to me but
outside of my immediate experience. Everyone said Kennedy was young, though this is hardly self-evident to a five year old, but since the one thing a five year old knows is that he is young, I thought a young president was a good thing.

There have been a number of interesting articles this week about Eisenhower’s farewell address, how it has its roots in the “merchants of death” controversy in the 1930s, and how, if we really needed reminding, that Eisenhower was not opposed to the military, or to military contractors as such, or to the expansion of the American military, which went from something like 300 nuclear warheads to about 10,000 (I think) during Ike’s eight years. But he came of age professionally in the smallish interwar army, at a time when there was a clearer distinction between the domestic and the foreign than prevailed during the Cold War, and this division, I think, is what he wanted the country to maintain.
Kennedy’s (or the late Ted Sorensen’s) injunction to ask what you can do for your country became the dominant cliché of the early 1960s, and had as its greatest legacy, perhaps, the Peace Corps, managed by the late Sergeant Shriver. Fifty years later, there is a corrosive skepticism towards all governmental actions and activities, except of course in the one area Eisenhower set out for skepticism, the role of the military in American life, and its abetters in private industry. And if there is any idealism left in this country, we are regularly told that the only way to cultivate it is to separate it from the taint and contamination of government. The sad thing about the state of the nation in January 2011, is that is it impossible to imagine Obama, or any president, delivering either of those addresses today, at least without generating loud guffaws of incredulity.