Friday, September 28, 2007

Sulzer's Ghost

Juan Cole argues today in “Informed Comment” that the recent disclosure of conversations between President Bush and (conservative) Spanish Prime Minister Aznar before the invasion of Iraq--in which Bush declared that if the UN Security Council went against him he would invade Iraq anyway, and nixed Anzar's suggestion that Saddam Hussein be allowed to escape from Iraq with a billion dollars and confidential military documents--constitute an impeachable offense .

Whether or not these are impeachable offenses, it has long been clear that Bush will not be impeached. The votes are not there and we would have endure an endless debate on whether Bush has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” (as opposed to ordinary, garden variety war crimes) and worry about what to do with Cheney. The Democrats have long made clear that the prospects of success are nil, while the prospects of impeachment raising a shitstorm that would poltically besmear the Democrats are great. This is obviously a pity, since Bush will avoid the removal from office he so richly deserves.

Impeachment, as the history of the practice in New York State shows, is a blunderbuss, a cumbersome and prolonged process rarely invoked, and rarely successful.

New York State, like all the states, has some provision for impeachment, and I believe that impeachment in New York State works like the federal process, with impeachment in the lower house and trial in the upper.

Someone shared with me recently the following list of New York State officials who have been impeached in New York State since statehood in 1777. It’s not a particularly long or imposing list:

1) John C. Mather, State Canal Commissioner, 1853.
2) George Washington Smith, Judge, 1866.
3) Robert C. Dorn, State Canal Commissioner, 1868.
4) George G. Barnard, State Supreme Court Justice 1872.
5) George Milton Curtis, Marine Court Justice, 1874.
6) Horace G. Prindle, Sup. Ct. Justice, 1874.
7) William Sulzer, 1913, Governor

Other than a flurry in the 1860s and 1870s, perhaps in emulation of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, it has been a rarely used political weapon in New York State, and most of those who have been impeached were obscure figures. Corruption in the building and running of the Erie Canal was a frequent problem, particularly in the period, through the 1880s, when the canal was in effect a government run transportation system, collecting tolls and fees from shippers. And I have no idea why these various judges were impeached, though between the Tweed Ring and light-fingered members of the Grant Administration, it was the time, as Mark Twain said, of the “Great Barbeque.”

This leaves the last and most famous New York State impeachment, when William Sulzer, an otherwise obscure German-American lawyer from Greenwich Village, who had been made by governor by Tammany, and who broke with Tammany (with support from upstate anti-Tammany Democrats, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and then in turn was broken by Tammany, impeached and convicted of violations in campaign financing (of which he was probably guilty) and then returned to the obscurity from whence he came.

All of this underscores the difficulty with impeachment. It really is only effective when someone (President Johnson, Governor Sulzer) has lost the support of his own party. Otherwise, the supermajoritarian hurdles generally prove too high to vault. (Unless your only concern, as with Bill Clinton’s fellation follies, is to embarrass and not remove your object of impeachment.) And the divided control of the state legislature, with the Dems in the assembly and the GOPs in the senate, assure that impeachment will be an unused weapon for the forseeable future. There are other procedures for the removal of politicians accused of crimes (primarily, as with Alan Hevesi, resignation and/or indictment), while political sins (which should be the real target of impeachment) go unpunished. In New York State, as in the federal government, impeachment is a check and balance than neither checks nor balances. Perhaps a sign of the return of genuine democracy to New York State would be some discussion on the revival of impeachment power.

Learning from Newark 1967

According to an urban legend, when Newark, NJ erupted in civil disorders in July 1967 you could stand on the west side of Manhattan and see flames on the horizon. The hard facts of geography make that unlikely, but the story suggests how Newark cast a shadow over the metropolitan area. Now those events are the subject of a strong exhibit, What's Going On? Newark and the Legacy of the Sixties at the New Jersey Historical Society.

The exhibit, mounted at the Society's building in Newark, puts the fortieth anniversary of Newark's disorders in a broad historical context. The show illuminates both Newark's descent into violence and its struggles for recovery.

The show takes the shape of an elongated horseshoe. You enter at a digital timeline, complete with visuals and audio, that sketches out the story of Newark from the 1920s to 2006. Illuminating everything from Pearl Harbor to Cory Booker's election, the timeline can seem fast and busy. Nevertheless, it gives you a basic orientation to what you are about to see.

You move counterclockwise through the exhibit. The opening section addresses Black migration to Newark, neighborhood life, and work.

The show gains depth and momentum as it introduces the voices of Newarkers, which you hear through headphones, relating their experiences in the city. More information setting these people in context--their pictures, their biographies--would have helped. Still, their words invigorate the exhibit.

The racial discrimination, deindustrialization, political corruption, ill-conceived urban renewal schemes, and police brutality that ravaged Newark are all covered in detail. So is the activism that tried to right these wrongs. In this exhibit Newark was, in the words of a Life Magazine headline, a "predictable insurrection."

The 26 deaths of that summer, as I noticed at a memorial service in July, are still deeply felt in Newark. Another audio-visual wall, this one mounted more than halfway through the show, identifies the slain, where they were killed, and situates their deaths in the flow of the upheaval.

What's Going On? tells a story with strong resonance for African Americans, but the exhibit includes other perspectives as well.

For me, the most moving section of the show was a display with three elements: a flag that covered the coffin of Newark Police Detective Frederick Toto, who was shot to death with a .22 round during the disorders; bullets and casings found in a ninth floor apartment of the Hayes Homes projects that strongly suggest the presence of a sniper there; and a painting of Eloise Spellman, who lived in the Hayes Homes one floor above the apartment where the bullets were found. Mrs. Spellman, who was shot in the neck while inside her home, bled to death while waiting for an ambulance.

Acknowledging these two deaths in this way doesn't necessarily heal the pain of the survivors, but it does enable us to contemplate, in one frame, their griefs and losses. In a segregated and polarized country, in a city where the decision to call 1967 a riot or a rebellion still sparks debate, that's progress.

"What's Going On" concludes with Newark's struggles to recover. While there are grounds for optimism, there is still much work to be done. One portion of the exhibit charts Newark's changing unemployment rate in the civilian workforce: in 1960, 8.2%; in 1970, 6.5%; and in 2004, 13.9--22.7%.

At the opening that I attended Wednesday, buttons were available that identified the exhibit and suggested something to do to build a better future, such as "Act," "Share," "Listen," and "Hope." I chose one that said "Educate." That's what this show does.

Last July, at a Newark 1967 memorial march, I asked Mayor Cory Booker why it was important to recover this history. He answered that Newarkers need to grasp that their city was devastated not by random acts, but by real forces of racism, deindustrialization, corruption, and police brutality. Armed with that understanding he said, people can summon up the knowledge and energy to reclaim their city.

For me, that's a good answer.

And if you want to understand the place of 1967 in Newark's history, What's Going On? is a very good place to start. The show is scheduled to be open at least until December 2008.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

West Side Story, Fifty Years On

Fifty years ago this week, the musical West Side Story opened on Broadway. Marya Mannes, an American journalist writing for the BBC’s Listener, opened a piece on the play with the comment that “the people of this great city are turning dark while the buildings are turning light—a complete reversal of values from the days when I was a child and New York was a town of white faces and brown buildings.” Then, as now, racial and ethnic differences and conflicts are central to the fascination of the play. But it hasn't always been easy to recognize that or talk about it.

When West Side Story opened, some Puerto Ricans complained that play stereotyped them as criminals and mocked them in songs like "America." At the same time, New York critics recognized the animosities of the Jets and the Sharks but tended to see them as "juvenile delinquents"--teenage hoodlums who represented a deviant youth culture, not shock troops of ethnic conflict in a changing city.

There was plenty of racial and ethnic conflict in New York City during the summer of 1957, but people didn't always find it easy to identify it.

Indeed, in the summer just before West Side Story opened, a white youth from Washington Heights, Michael Farmer, was killed by a mostly Black and Hispanic gang. The nub of the matter was that a mostly Irish gang, the Jesters, saw it as their job to keep mostly Black and Hispanic gangs, the Dragons and Egyptian Kings, out of the pool. The conflict culminated in the slaying of Farmer, who may or may not have been a Jester.

But coverage of the story in the metropolitan press, courtroom procedures in the trial that followed, and a deliberately low-key response by Democratic Mayor Robert Wagner muted discussions of racial and ethnic conflict in the city. People emphasized the "crazy kids," and not the larger structures of power and prejudice that motivated them.

In this climate, West Side Story raised subjects--ethnic conflict, juvenile delinquency, and murder--that New Yorkers preferred to avoid: they clashed with the image of a liberal city that could solve all its problems. Still, the play is imperfect. The accents in "America" still make me cringe, and the paucity of well-rounded depictions of Puerto Ricans in the popular culture of the Fifties made the Sharks loom large in unfair and distorting ways. Nevertheless, as Frances Negron-Muntaner noted in her book Boricua Pop, the play still draws people in--Puerto Ricans included.

Fifty years old, West Side Story gives us glorious dance and song--and more. Drawing on the Thirties tradition of socially conscious plays, alive to the issues of the Fifties, and committed to the musical as an art form that was both brilliant and popular, Leonard Bernstein and his collaborators created a work of enduring power.

Partly that's because the play recognizes an issue that is still part of of our time: ethnic conflict. More important, it looks at ethnic conflict in a spirit that we still need: a belief that a great work of theater can help us understand the tragedy of hate and move us toward making a better world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Still More on Ahmadinejad

So now the controversy has shifted to whether Columbia president Lee Bollinger’s combative introduction/attack on Ahmadinejad went beyond the bounds of courtesy. It probably did, but I don’t think that is the major point. The campaign against Ahmadinejad, which I have no doubt on some level is being managed by the White House was to limit any possible propaganda victories by his visit to New York City by demonizing him, to make him into a tyrant without few equals in the recent history of governmental villainy, and to turn him into the sort of devil that can only be cast out by a concerted American military exorcism.

His appearance at Columbia has been treated as a debate over free speech, and so it is, but does anyone think that Bollinger would have introduced Ahmadinejad so roughly if had not been for the myriad of voices calling for his excommunication from civilized humanity? Liberals, as too often is the case these days, are far too eager to give away half the store; defend liberal principles as formal rules, while trying to placate their conservative critics that they have the requisite “moral clarity” as the phrase goes, to divide the world with broad Manichean distinctions between good guys and bad guys.

This is not about Ahmadinejad and his authoritarian rule, or his denial of the Holocaust, his obsfuscatory rhetoric about Israel, or his homophobia, all of which is richly deserving of excoriation. It is about an administration considering going to war against Iran, and was no doubt heartened to see that it remains easy to roll the American people into denouncing potential military opponents as evil incarnate.

Liberals did not exactly distinguish themselves in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, with their divided minds, reservations, and tortured and tender consciences. (I too was guilty.) The conservative war machine in this country remains utterly ruthless, without a glint of doubt or introspection, and ready to destroy anyone, anytime, who stands in their way. If in comes to that, let's hope liberals do better in the run up to the next war.

Private Equity; Public Losses

Two stories, one message. Over the weekend, the big story in Rochester (other than the pathetic football of the Buffalo Bills) was the finalization of the deal whereby Bausch & Lomb, one of Rochester’s ever shrinking “big three” industrial employers, was going to be taken private by Warburg Pincus, LLP, one of the most aggressive private equity firms around. More evidence of their busyness appeared in the Times on Sunday, with an expose of nursing homes in Florida (expose and nursing homes goes together like salt and pepper or bread and butter) that had been taken private by the same Warburg Pincus, resulting in catastrophically reduced service, with an interlocking ownership designed to be complex enough to fend off lawsuits.

Private equity are the financial phenomena of our time, secretive, open only to large investors, and largely unregulated. Since about 1850 or so, the story of American business has basically been that large companies would be publicly owned by investors, with a related amount of public disclosure. (The New York Stock Exchange has required annual reports of listed companies since about 1870.) The theory has been that companies sell shares, people buy shares, either directly or through mutual funds, and wealth trickles down, virtually and vicariously. Private equity firms subvert this conception of the stock market, where nowadays only the late Leona Helmsley’s “little people” invest.

Typically private equity firms purchase a company whose stock was selling at, say, $10 a share for a premium (say $13 a share), gain control, take it private, where the amount of public disclosure is greatly diminished, do a few things, typically selling or closing off parts of the company, as they are expected to do with B & L, or by directly firing workers as they did with the nursing homes, creating the phenomena of nursing homes without nurses.

Then after a few years out of the public eye, the private equity firm bring the company public again, with the IPO pegged at $25-$30 a share, which the lemmings purchase, but the real gains have been made not by investors in the market, but the private equity firm.

This has been terrible for the American economy and society on many levels. Private equity firms are not long term stewards, and their only interest is squeezing every last penny they can out of the firms they purchase, before foisting them off on new purchasers. Absolutely no one benefits from this process except for the well-heeled investors in the equity firms, and typically, lots of people in the purchased companies loose their jobs. And private companies they are much less regulated than regular public companies; the assumption that bigness carries with its obligations, either to employees, customers, or the public at large, in terms of either business practices or disclosure, is being systematically subverted.

Of course private equity firms have flourished under Bush, but they are essentially non-political, attaching themselves to the gullible or the avaricious of either party. I have never been a huge fan of capitalism, but since it seems to be the only game in town, there are, it seems to me, two bedrock desiderata for it operating with a modicum of fairness abd equity. One, strong labor unions (lets go UAW), and two, a strong and effective Securities and Exchange Commission, regulating capital markets with vigor. We desperately need private equity firms to be more carefully and stringently regulated. Big companies and big reservoirs of capital, whether publicly or privately owned, required the same degree of scrutiny.

And while it would be nice to see the convulsive expansion of private equity firms in the American economy become a campaign issue of some importance (any takers, Democrats?) don’t hold your breath. Increasingly, the United States is a free market economy without free and open capital markets, and you don’t have to be an old Marxist to think this contradiction will come back to haunt us.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Press, Ahmadinejad, and Freedom of Speech

In the New York City press, editorial reactions to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University were mixed. To the Post, the entire exercise was a "Lesson in Absurdity" with no big First Amendment implications. To the Daily News, Columbia was "damnably wrong." And while the Sun thought President Lee Bollinger of Columbia did "pretty darned well" in his confrontation with Ahmadinejad, it still held that "it may have been a mistake" to invite the president of Iran to the campus.

Only the Times and Newsday defended Columbia on the grounds of freedom of speech and the right of universities to conduct inquiry, dialogue and debate as they see fit. By my count, that makes the city's press a shaky bulwark of support for the First Amendment.

But take heart. A Daily News Web poll asked, "Should Columbia University have invited Ahmadinejad to speak on campus?" Look at the answers.

Yes: 1,191 (57%)
No: 912 (43%)

Web polls are notoriously unscientific and should always be taken with a grain of salt.

But this one suggests that the people who answer such polls are better guardians of the First Amendment than many of the men and women who inhabit the editorial boards of the New York City press.

Monday, September 24, 2007

E Pluribus Unum

There was an article in the Times on Sunday on how Belgium is once again on the verge of splitting up. This is not news; the French and the Flemish halves of Belgium richly detest each another; they have different languages, cultures, and economies. (Flanders is hot; French Belgium is not.) Perhaps Belgium will split into its constituent parts. People interviewed in the article expressed the conviction that within their lifetimes a unified Belgium will be no more. Perhaps. Certainly, in Europe, in the past two decades alone, Yugoslavia has split (with horrendous violence), as had the Soviet Union (more peaceful than not) and Czechoslovakia (with nary a peep.)

Anyway in the local Rochester paper today, there were two op-eds calling for the pricking of that annual blister, the separation of New York State into separate upstate and downstate states. This sort of talk has been going on since the Constitutional Ratification debates at Poughkeepsie in 1788, and has been frequently heard since. One author, interestingly, called for a state that would be comprised of only central and western NY, leaving Albany and New York City together. (Perhaps the new states could be called Hudsonia and Iroquoia. ) The other called for a more conventional upstate/downstate division. Neither had particularly good reasons for calling for a split, other than the usual NYC-bashing, and the assumption that an independent upstate would somehow have lower taxes, though of course the NYC region has been carrying upstate’s sorry economic ass for a quarter century now.

One thing that is absolutely clear is that nothing of this sort will happen. Unlike Europe, the borders and boundaries of the American states are utterly ossified. The last time the borders of a state underwent significant change, when West Virginia split from Virginia, required the catalyst of a civil war. Absent that, the borders of New York (and every other state) will not be changing.

I’m not completely sure why this is so, but one reason is surely the anomalies of the most ridiculously apportioned elective body in the world, the United States Senate. One of the advantages of an independent upstate, as the op-eds in the Rochester paper indicated, would be the gaining of two additional senators. Upstaters are not the first people to figure that splitting a state doubles the senators with the same number of people. Every few years, one reads about some Texans who are threatening the divide that home of presidents into four or five states, primarily to increase Republican representation in the Senate. But of course if a state ever split, every state would want to follow suit, and there would be an irresistible race to the bottom. There is no advantage in having any more people than the least populous state, and the US would soon disunite into about 600 Wyoming sized(in population) states of about half a million persons each, thus finally providing equal and democratic representation in the senate. To prevent this avalanche I suspect New York State (and every other state) will remain in tact more or less in perpetuity.

Anyway, if I had to redraw the state boundaries (and eliminate the US Senate in the process) I would go in the other direction; conglomeration, not disunification. Like Gov. Edmund Andros did in the 1680s, I would unite New York with New England, or with New Jersey and Pennsylvania form Midatlantica. (Or if I really had my druthers, I would leave the US behind altogether and petition for New York State to join Ontario, where a dollar is still a dollar.) And when all these dreams and fantasies of maximizing and optimizing our political representation are, in some distant day, finally realized, and New York is divided into downstate, upstate, mid state, east state, and west state, then perhaps then we can get around to giving the citizens of the District of Columbia a vote in our national legislature.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More on Ahmadinejad

Let me follow up on Rob’s excellent post on the Ahmadinejad controversy, which I urge you to read. I always think there’s something special about the fall, when the leaves start to come down, the Yankees clinch pennants, the General Assembly meets, and New York City gets its own foreign policy, which basically consists of condemning Muslim and Arab heads of state.

I suppose there are good reasons for keeping Ahmadinejad away from the WTC site . He is truly a despicable man whose only talent seems to be for publicity, mischief-making, and stirring the pot, and whose advocacy of Holocaust denial is both evil and inane. But the difference between Ahmadinejad and David Irving is that the former is head of government in a large country that many people in our government are itching to attack, and against whom we are conducting a propaganda war.

Our president made the real reason for keeping away Ahmadinajad from anything having to do with 9/11 very explicit:

My thoughts are that the local police will make the proper decision,” Mr. Bush said, “and that if they decide for him not to go — like it looks like they have — I can understand why they would not want somebody who is running a country who is a state sponsor of terror down there at the site.”

Bush’s syllogism is very simple: 9/11 was caused by Muslim radicals; Ahmadinejad is a Muslim radical, ergo Ahmadinejad had something to do with 9/11. It worked once with Saddam Hussein (whose villainies and stupidites, like Ahmadinejad’s, made him an easy target to attack and a very difficult one to defend), why not again?

And this, despite the reality that the 9/11 terrorists were of course Wahabi Sunnis who look on Shi’ism the way evangelical Christians view Mormonism. Moreover, the notion that Iran had anything to do with supporting Sunni fundamentalists is laughable. In case you haven’t noticed in Iraq, Sunnis and Shi’ites really don’t get along that well. I have no doubt that Iran is aggressively supporting its interests throughout the Middle East; but in that regard they are still a piker in comparison to the United States.

As for Ahmadinejad’s wreath laying, why do I think there would not be a similar uproar if say, Perez Musharaf, Palkistan’s military dictator, wanted to place a wreath on the WTC site? (Perhaps he has already done so.) Surely, if there is a current world leader who bears some responsibility for 9/11, it is Musharaf, whose intelligence service aided and abetted the Taliban up to the US invasion, and whose army has not been exactly vigorous in cleansing itself of Taliban/al Queda in its western provinces, whose ranks almost certainly include bin Laden himself. But Musharaf was deemed sufficiently cuddly this past spring to make an appearance on the Daily Show, where he cracked wise with Jon Stewart, while Ahmadinejad is regularly seen as the second coming of Hitler.

To me, it comes down to this. The United States has suffered a catastrophic, self-inflicted military defeat in Iraq, and Iran will eventually and inevitably be the great victor. All the president’s horses and all extraterritorial death squads like Blackwater will not be able to avoid this. And we will waste countless more lives, American and Iraqi, until we recognize this, and then beat an ignominious retreat, as we eventually did in Vietnam. But before Nixon was ready to give up in Vietnam, he had to entangle neighboring countries, like Cambodia, in a futile to get the sort of post-war settlement he wanted. And there are many in the administration who think that if we somehow weaken Iran, we can still eek out a victory of some sort in Iraq. This is a fool’s delusion, but it is the possibility, even the likelihood of a US attack on Iran that is forming the backdrop to everything that will happen when Ahmadinejad visits the Big Apple.

Friday, September 21, 2007

My Friend Mario

My current research project is part memoir and part history, and as a part of I have had occasion to contact many of my old friends, including many friends from elementary school that I haven’t spoken to in over forty years. It has been greatly rewarding for me to get in touch with my old school chums.

I lived in the Bronx until I was ten, in a heavily Italian area in the East Bronx, near Belmont and Arthur Avenues, sometimes referred to as the Bronx’s “Little Italy.” One of my friends was a boy named Mario Venturini. We spent a lot of time playing with our chemistry sets, trying to blow things up, or try to make noxious smelling concoctions to gross out our younger brothers. I moved to Queens in 1964, and haven't heard from Mario since.

One thing that I remember about Mario is that his family wasn’t Italian, precisely, but was proud of its roots in the tiny republic of San Marino, on the Italian peninsula.

So doing a google search for Mario, the most likely candidate I find is a Mario Venturini who has served several terms as one of San Marino’s “captains regent” (capitani reggenti.) A “captains regent” in San Marino is a political institution based on the old Roman Republican office of consul. Two persons, of different political parties, are elected for six months term, to share executive power. I have no idea if my old friend Mario has ascended to the heights of Sammarine politics, but if so, its rather cool.

I sort of like the idea of Roman consuls, and it seems to be the founding fathers made a mistake when, in writing the US Constitution, they moved away from shared executive power as practiced in the Roman republic to the heavier form of executive power embodied in the US presidency. I don’t know how a consular form of government would have worked in the US, though it might be interesting to try it on a state level. It seems to be if we elected annual consuls in New York State, the “two men in a room” wouldn’t all that different than the current “three men in a room.”

But if I had to revive one office from the Roman Republic, it would be that of dictator. Now admittedly, the office of dictator has received a bad press over the centuries, and I’m not an expert on Roman history, and I don’t how it worked in practice, but here was the idea—in times of emergency, the regular functioning of consular government was suspended and one man was elected dictator, with almost unlimited powers—but it was understood that this was a strictly limited term of only six months, after which the government reverted to the consuls.

I think having a clear distinction between “regular” and “emergency” government is a brilliant idea, and its absence is one of the great flaws in our current constitutional framework. Over the past century, with every crisis, the presidency has gained additional powers, but when peacetime comes, these are never disgorged, but the presidency gets more and more powerful, and more and more eager to find excuses for the exercise of his wartime powers. As a result, we now live in a country in which it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between being at at war, and being at peace. Wars are never declared, and wars never end. We live in a state of perpetual emergency. One way around this would be to what the Romans did, and have short-term bursts of emergency power, after which we would be obliged return to regular civilian rule, with all the extra wartime powers eliminated.

Oh, I know that there are many problems with this idea, and it’s not very practical. But it worked in Rome for several hundred years (until Julius Caesar declared himself “dictator for life”) and maybe something like it is worth considering. At least when you elect someone to be dictator, you know what you’re getting.

Stand Firm, Columbia

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is a loathsome man who heads a repressive regime; his nuclear efforts and ugly talk about Israel make the world a much more dangerous place. It would be a delight to see him questioned in detail about his rhetoric and polices. Yet that, according to the New York Times, is exactly what we will be denied if New York City Council President Christine Quinn has her way.

Speaker Quinn, like Senator John McCain and Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, have called on Columbia to bar Ahmadinejad from the university's upcoming World Leaders Forum.

William V. Campbell, chairman of the Columbia board of trustees, has offered exactly the right answer.
The freedom of our deans and faculty to create challenging and even controversial programs for our students is essential and sets a powerful example to the world about the strength of American universities and society.

So far, Columbia stands by its invitation.

If she likes, Quinn can hold a rally protesting Ahmadinajad's presence in the city. She'll have plenty of company, and rightly so.

But she has no business telling a university who it can and can't invite to its campus.

The intellectual autonomy of universities is a fragile thing, and never more than in times of war. You don't have to like Ahmadinejad to believe that Columbia has the right to invite him, talk with him, and question him as the university sees fit.

Quinn thinks he'll be getting a platform. I think he'll be revealed in all his ugliness.

Stand firm, Columbia.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why are principals angry?

It would be churlish to dismiss Mayor Mike Bloomberg's accomplishment in winning the Broad Prize for raising test scores in the city schools, particularly for poor black and Hispanic students. So why are parents, principals and teachers so angry when the mayor says "accountability, competition and empowerment" have brought success to the schools?

The relentless emphasis on test scores, embodied in the mayor's education reforms called Children First, is draining the joy of learning from the city's classrooms. I know a 7th grader who was so anxious about test scores she started downing antacids in August to calm her jittery stomach. A principal told me "I feel very accountable but not very empowered. It's data first, not Children First."

Some of the gains are real. There are classrooms in the Bronx, bare when the mayor took power, that have books now. Patronage hires are a thing of the past. But since July, with a new organization of the school system, the mayor has shifted his focus from improving instruction -- a worthwhile goal that will result in higher test scores -- to simply improving test scores -- a feat that can be accomplished though various tricks that may not include increasing learning. For example, principals can increase test scores by instituting a sort of triage -- ignoring kids at the top, who will do well regardless, and at the bottom, who are likely to do poorly, and concentrating enormous test prep efforts on kids in the middle.

"It's not about teaching the whole child. It's about the child's test scores," a principal said.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


So a native and lifelong New York City resident, Michael Mukasey, has been nominated to be US Attorney-General. Assuming he is confirmed, he will be about the tenth New Yorker to be serve in the position. The list includes, as you might expect, a parcel of Wall Street lawyers---and among their ranks, some of the worst men ever to serve in the position.

I’m not sure what James McReynolds, a southerner who had worked on Wall Street for many years, did as AG from 1914 to 1915, but when Woodrow Wilson elevated him to the US Supreme Court, he became, by general consensus, the worst Supreme Court justice of the 20th century: a hidebound reactionary and a crude, racist antisemite who refused to speak to Brandeis in their 20 years on the bench together.

And then of course there’s the Wall Street bond salesman, John Mitchell, who under Nixon did what he could to subvert the constitution and became the first and so far only US AG convicted of a felony. He’d be a shoo-in for the title of worst US AG of all time if the competition wasn’t so stiff: the contenders include Alberto Gonzalez and another lousy appointment by Woodrow Wilson, A. Mitchell Palmer of Palmer Raid infamy. (If I had to vote, I think I’d go for Palmer.)

If there is a theme among the New Yorkers who have served in the position, it is that they have generally been apologists and often architects for the expansion of executive power. In this I would include Robert H. Jackson, an upstate lawyer from Jamestown in the Southern Tier, who served as AG under FDR in 1940-41, before his elevation to the high court. Jackson courageously dissented in the infamous Korematsu decision of 1943, but it should never be forgotten that the single greatest violation of civil liberties in American history, the internment of the west coast Japanese, took place under FDR’s watch. As Greg Robinson has shown, FDR's actions were of a piece with his expansive view of presidential powers (especially presidential powers in wartime.)

None of this bodes particularly well for Mukasey The leading legal question of our time is surely the need to keep the presidency’s burgeoning plenary powers firmly under the rule of law. One doubts, from what I have read about Mukasey, that he is the man to do anything about it.

However, one thing the federal government might think about borrowing from New York State is how we go about choosing the state attorney-general. Our state AG is elected and serves independently, not at the pleasure of the governor. I frankly would like to see all the major US cabinet positions elected popularly, but for no position would it be more important than attorney-general; so much of the controversy surrounding independent prosecutors would thereby be eliminated. (Except of course for investigations of the Justice Department itself.)

The utility of the New York system was recently demonstrated when the NY AG, Andrew Cuomo, in the controversy between Joe Bruno and Elliot Spitzer over the use of state troopers, ruled that Spitzer had indeed misused the troopers. Would an attorney-general appointed by Spitzer (or any other governor) had ruled so swiftly and definitively against his or her boss? It seems unlikely. One of the ways to rein in the power of what is called by some Bush ideologues the “unitary executive” would be to make it less unitary.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

One Dead and Thousands Gone

In August, Cpl. Juan Alcantara, a native of the Dominican Republic, was killed in action serving in Iraq. He was mourned at St. Elizabeth's Church in Washington Heights, NY, buried at Long Island National Cemetery, and on September 17 granted posthumous citizenship in a ceremony at City College, according to an Associated Press report in Newsday. He left behind a fiance and an infant daughter.

Nothing compensates for his death, but my curiosity about how to put it in context led me to a fine piece by Noam Cohen in the Times and two very interesting Web sites that cover casualties of the Iraq War.

At the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, you will find a detailed accounting of casualties by city, state, and many other tabulations.

At Statemaster, you will find painful and fascinating graphs that depict the total losses by state and the losses per capita. As you'd expect, as one of the larger states, New York has one of the larger totals of deaths: 117 (compared to 255 for California, 222 for Texas, and 122 for Pennsylvania.)

But if you calculate losses on a per capita basis, our losses are comparatively smaller: .608 per 100,000 people, or well below the weighted national average of 1.2 per 100,000. The heaviest losses were to American Samoa: 8.638 per 100,000 people.

However you count it, this is a tragedy.

The Tonawanda Band

I had planned today to visit the reservation of the Tonawanda Band of Senecas, about thirty miles west of Rochester, with my friend, the historian Larry Hauptman. But if you read my post yesterday, you know that I am currently carless in Rochester, which is roughly equivalent to being eyeless in Gaza. (I will resist the temptation for a further irrelevant political comment.) So I had to settle for dinner with Larry.

Larry is a remarkable historian, who had dedicated his extraordinarily productive scholarly career to the study of American Indians, especially the Iroquois. He told me yesterday that growing up in Bensonhurst, with an acute sense of how small ethnic groups endure and tightly hold on to their identities, was preparation for his immersion in the Iroquois. Like all good historians, Larry strives for objectivity, fairly evaluating the historical evidence, and placing no one on pedestals, but he would rightly spurn the milquetoast claim of impartiality. Larry is a passionate defender of the Iroquois. He learned long ago that merely reading about Indians in archives was not enough, and he sought out Indians as informants, colleagues, and friends

He is currently writing a history of how the Tonawanda Band, with odds very much against them, managed to regain their reservation in 1856, after losing it in the fraudulent 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek. They carefully and cleverly used outsiders further their cause. Rochester lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan, whose 1851 League of the Iroquois, generally considered the founding work of American anthropology, was primarily based on his studies of the Tonawandas. He was granted access to their rites and ceremonies with the hope that his work would aid their effort to regain their land, and it did, one of the earliest instances of native people deliberately trying to benefit from the anthropological transaction.

The crisis of the 1830s and 1840s led to a permanent split among New York State’s Senecas. The larger group, on the southern tier reservations of Alleghany and Cattaraugus, in 1848, opted to create the Seneca Nation of Indians, with an elected government. The Tonawanda band stayed apart and retained the system of hereditary chiefs. To this day their sachems are made and unmade by clan mothers.

The Tonawanda reservation is considerably smaller, in size and population, than the reservations in the Southern Tier, and is also more conservative, traditional and quieter. (It is the center of the Handsome Lake religion in New York State.) It is Seneca Nation of Indians that have built the big casinos in Niagara Falls and Buffalo. The Tonawanda Band has no gaming, and little industry or agriculture. As with people in other parts of western New York, they often go where the jobs are, which these days is generally someplace else. But of course, they endure, pass on their traditions, and look to the future.

Larry was going to introduce me to Ramona Charles, a clan mother, and for many decades the superintendent of the Tonawanda Indian Community House. He told me that when she was a young girl, she would visit her uncle’s house, now her current residence, to meet his schoolmate and teammate from the Carlisle Indian School, Jim Thorpe, and listen to them reminisce about the old days. I hope to meet her one day.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The New York Military Tradition and the Death of a Car

It was interesting to read last week that Gen David Petraeus grew up in Cornwall-on Hudson, in Orange County, adjacent to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Petraeus is of Dutch descent, through his father, a Dutch immigrant. If not of New Netherland stock, he is definitely the most political significant person of Dutch ancestry from the Hudson Valley since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It seems to me that there have been a lot of prominent New York State generals as of late. Before Petraeus there was Colin Powell, Bronx-born and raised. And if we expand our geographic scope a little, to speak of a Mid-Atlantic military tradition, there’s New Jersey-native Norman Schwarzkopf, who with Powell led US forces in the Gulf War.

This is a break from past practices. I can’t say I’ve done a comprehensive search, but as I far I can tell with the exception of the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, very few New Yorkers can be found among the famous generals of America’s major wars. (You military buffs out there correct me.) For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the leading American generals have been primarily southern or mid-western. To be sure, most of the generals attended West Point, and some lived for a while in New York State, including Robert E. Lee, one-time commander of the military post at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, or his enemy in arms U.S. Grant, who went bankrupt on Wall Street and wrote his memoirs in the Adirondacks, or Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president of Columbia University when elected president, but very few prominent generals have been “genuine” New Yorkers.

Why the recent “surge” of New York generals in prominent positions? It’s hard to say. Certainly both Powell and Petraeus are both bland and telegenic, well educated and well spoken, and do not, like, say, Patton or McArthur, come across as crazy, or likely to lead a coup against civilian authority. They try to project an image of calm, and, if I may use the term, of quiet manliness, a sense of masculine confidence and power. They are people who want us to trust them, very models of modern four-star generals.

This brings me to my car, our poor green Honda Civic, Greenie, which died this past weekend, Its motor and heart were still strong, but its brakes gave out. We purchased it the first day we moved up from New York City to Rochester, eleven years ago. (You can’t survive here, or at least can’t enjoy a middle class life style, without a car.) I was 40 when we bought it, the first car I ever had ever owned. You never forget your first. Oh, it was nothing fancy, unprepossessing and lovable, with manual windows, no digital read-outs, no GPS. It was a sturdy car, reliable, and ran well without problems during Rochester’s severe winters. But the contemplated repair was too expensive, and it had to be replaced.

Ever since the famous attack ad in the 1960 presidential election, “would you buy a used car from this man?,” it has been clear that there are profound affinities between the act of purchasing a car, and the functioning of democracy in America. They want to sell you something, and they will say whatever they need to, or can get away with, to make the sale. They want you to trust them, and that is the most dangerous illusion of all. As Hillary Clinton said of Petraeus’s testimony, to accept it requires “willing suspension of disbelief,” a leap of faith. For car salesmen and our presidents, because we think we have to go through the process, we leap far too often and too high.

Car salesmen have far more knowledge about their products than average consumers, and we were probably below average, leaving us to ask witless questions, easily parried with the complacent confidence that we really couldn’t tell whether or not they were telling the truth. Free markets, like political democracy supposedly requires equal distribution of information to be efficient, but they generally don’t work t because information is imperfectly distributed, and hoarded by those who would benefit by its imperfect distribution. The problem with democracy, unfortunately, is that most people are too lazy to perform their due diligence as citizens, and they get suckered every time. The same thing true for intelligent people who don’t read Consumer Reports and Motor Trend before purchasing a car.

Car dealers want us to bond with the salesmen, to like them, to want to have a beer with them, and to think that they are operating in our interests, but of course they are not. They create the artificial division between the “salesman” who must check with the “manager” about the price, and create the illusion that the salesman is on your side, and somehow independent of the person in charge, the “manager,” just as for months Bush has used Petraeus as the salesman, while Bush has been back in the office, making the real deals.

And this is why, I suspect, New Yorkers have been so prominent among recent generals. From the end of the Civil War to the 1960s, the United States had northern presidents and southern generals; now the trend is reversed. We now regularly elect as our presidents warmongers and wavers of the bloody shirt, who offer fervid rhetoric about enemies who need to be militarily destroyed. We look to our generals for sober reflection and reason, and to restrain our civilian leaders.

But I fear that the Bushes, father and son, have favored New Yorkers for their generals for a more sinister reason. Sober and reflective persons, if they chose to do so, make the best, most effective, and most believable liars
I have long thought that New Yorkers, with their no-nonsense, down to earth, matter of fact styles, poker faces and calm miens, can, if they choose, be great car salesmen, con men, or even four-star generals.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crime Took a Real Toll on the City

In the September 16 Times, in his piece "When He Was Seventeen," novelist Christopher Sorrentino looks back on the New York of 1980, when he was 17 years old. He recalls an edgy, creative city where crime didn't undermine day-to day life. I remember things differently.

Like Sorrentino, I lived in the Village. In the early Eighties I remember one friend raped and another who woke up to find a strange man inside her apartment. I remember the burglary that left my friend sleeping with bars on his windows and a bat at his bedside. I remember the night I ran my way out of a mugging on Fourteenth Street. I remember friends who had guns pulled on them riding the subway late at night.

And I remember the trial where I served as an alternate juror: the teenage defendant was accused of murdering an elderly woman in Washington Heights who hired him to run errands. It took the jury less than an hour to convict. Later, we learned that the same defendant had also murdered an elderly woman and raped his best friend's mother.

Sorrentino's dead right about the screaming levels of inequality in the city today, but wrong in his assessment of crime. People coped not because crime was no big problem, but because they learned to survive and adapt in harsh conditions. And as bad as things got in the Village, they were much worse in poor, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The problem of today's New York is that the transforming fall in crime came in the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, who had no worthwhile plan for building on the crime drop to create healthy, sustaining neighborhoods for all New Yorkers. And the Bloomberg administration, which has seen impressive crime reductions of its own, still hasn't found a way to even out the disparities between rich and poor that undermine our city.

Fear of crime once scared away the plutocrats who lately have done much to make Manhattan a less interesting place. And the fall in crime has attracted gentrifiers whose ability to pay high rents has priced many creative types out of once-affordable neighborhoods. But the troubles of gentrification, urgent as they are, should not be used retrospectively to diminish the threat of crime.

The reality of crime in New York City from the Sixties to the Nineties, especially for the poor, was truly awful. It took a terrible toll on the city.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Media Bias

I am a regular reader of Eric Alterman’s blog “Altercation,” and I generally agree with what I read there, except that he is a virulent Yankee hater, and I am a life-long Yankee fan. I do not begrudge anyone their violent animosities, but I guess I would wish he leave the Yankee-hating for the sports call-in shows where it belongs , and stick in his blog to politics and beating up on Bush. Anyway, Alterman is best known as a media critic and he has frequently made the point that the Yankees regularly get more coverage in New York City sports pages. With the obliviousness to the plight of the underdog which is a concomitant of being a Yankee fan, I was skeptical of these claims, and decided that a little quantified and empirical research might decide the matter.

Well, after looking into it, I have concluded that Alterman is indeed correct, and that the Mets have been systematically underreported (or the Yankees overreported), in the paper of record, the New York Times.

The brave new world of Proquest searches lets a researcher quickly determine the frequency of an appearance of a key word or phrase over time. The basic search I simple, between April 1962 (when the Mets played their first game), and December 2003 (when the database ends) how many articles in the New York Times contained the words of the two teams.

New York Times Articles, April 1962-December 2003
New York Yankees:47,051
New York Mets:33,391

This would seem to be conclusive, 30% more articles on the Yankees , or about, on the average, about 340 extra articles per year on the Bronx publicity hounds.

I decided to test Mets/Yankee coverage in another way, by looking at the articles on Casey Stengel, who had similar roles as a very visible and popular manager for both clubs. He was manager of the Mets from 1962-1965, and manager of the Yankees from 1949-1960. If we divide his Yankee tenure in segments of equal length to his time with the Mets, the Times once again shows a decided Yankee bias.

New York Times Articles about Casey Stengel


All that one can say for the New York Times is that the Mets/Yankees differential is not as great as that for some other teams and other papers. Doing Proquest searches available to me on other newspapers in two team towns, one finds that the Chicago Tribune, from 1903 to 2003, rather surprisingly, had twice as many articles on the White Sox than the much more popular newsworthy (I thought) Cubs; 39,510 to 17,494, and (less surprisingly) that the Boston Globe from 1903 to 1953 had ten times as many articles about the Red Sox as on the hapless Boston Braves.

The Yankees/Mets disparity is also less pronounced than frequency of reporting of the Times of the three team city that existed from 1903 to 1957.

New York Times, 1903-1957

New York Giants:53,532
New York Highlanders/Yankees: 38,245
Brooklyn Dodgers: 5,083

The Times evidently felt reporting on the Dodgers were the responsibility of the Brooklyn papers, and it is a sign I suppose that a “pre-1898 consolidation” mentality prevailed at the Times for many decades.

Those high figures for the Giants looked problematic, especially since after 1925 there was a football team of the same name, and a team name with a common word like “giants” would likely produce more "false positives" in a Proquest search than “Yankees” or “Dodgers.” However the Giants were, certainly for most of the John McGraw years from 1903 to 1934 the pre-eminent baseball team in the city. And this continued even after the Yankees got their own stadium and achieved baseball eminence.

New York Times 1923-1957

Polo Grounds: 20,367
Yankee Stadium: 14,908
Ebbets Field: 12,551

Indeed, even in that ne plus ultra year of 1927 articles in the Times about the Giants outnumbered those on the Yankees 1,410 to 1,036.

There is some evidence that some of this disparity was changing by the 1950s, if one looks at articles about “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” with the Dodger, somewhat surprisingly, in the lead

New York Times 1951–1957

Duke Snider : 1,338
Mickey Mantle: 1,217
Willie Mays: 1,024

I could go on with more elaborate and more sophisticated searches, and probably waste more time. If someone out there wants to waste time disputing or refining these hasty conclusions, they are welcome.

I am the dogged empirical researcher here, grinding out numbers, and leaving the sophisticated analysis to others—I report, you decide—but all I can is what goes around comes around, and I am sure that the Yankee fans among media analysts of the day were saying something like, “how many goddamn home runs does Babe Ruth need to hit until the Times gives the Yanks a fair shake?”

Friday, September 14, 2007

An Unexpected Yawn at the Post

New York's three major dailies have delivered editorial verdicts on President Bush's September 13 speech on Iraq, and reaction to the address in the Post, of all places, was vague and dull to the point of being lukewarm. Could it be that the Murdoch machine, which likes nothing so much as a winner, has begun to tire of a president who offers only empty platitudes without resolution to justify his war?

The Post, in its editorial "The Korea Parallel," recognized that the president offered no substantial changes in his policies. Effectively, he will dump the war on the next president---"For better or for worse," the paper concluded. Aside from expressing doubt that any of the presidential candidates can do better than Bush, the Post editorial showed neither enthusiasm for the president's speech nor optimism about Iraq's future.

That contrasts sharply with the Daily News, whose "Challenge to Congress" suggested that it is up to that body to build on what the News sees as the recent achievements of the Bush administration--5,700 troops coming home by Christmas because the combat zone has become more stable. Absent from the News editorial was any sense of the shakiness of that "stability" and evaluation of the utter lack of any long-term Bush plan for Iraq's future--outside of the U.S. staying there for many years to come. Still the News believes that a U.S. victory in Iraq--whatever that means--is still a possibility.

The Times editorial, "No Exit, No Strategy," recognized the Bush plan post-Petraeus for what it is: "Mr. Bush refuses to recognize the truth of his failure in Iraq and envisions a military commitment that has no end."

Post columnists John Podhoretz and Amir Taheri found more to praise in the president's speech---especially Taheri. And that's to be expected in a paper that has been so predictably supportive of the president. But the Post's editorial lacked the fire that you expect from a Murdoch paper. It's worth watching to see if this editorial is a one-time yawn or a sign of impatience with the president.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering 9/11 and What We Lost

Six years ago, I ran for my life from the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. My fiercest feelings of that day--anger, fear, energy, bewilderment, grief--are fading. But there is one emotion that I feel slipping away with a sense of regret, and that is the tremendous sense of solidarity that I felt on the day of the attacks and their immediate aftermath. I attribute that to the healing power of time, the fragmentation that is so much a part of American culture, and the war in Iraq.

The acts of sustaining courage and kindness were many that day. I helped a man who was stumbling along in shock, then food service workers pulled us indoors from the choking smoke. I directed a lost woman to her sister's home, she shared her eye drops with me to take the sting out of my eyes. A woman in a deli loaned me her cellphone so I could call my mother and tell her I was okay. When I stopped in a bar to get a glass of water, an old timer bought me a drink because he said I looked like I needed it.

When I got home, the first thing I wanted to tell my children was that the extraordinary courage of ordinary people had seen us through the attacks.

We were all battered or broken that day. Only by helping each other could we make each other whole enough to endure.

I still recall 9/11 with great sorrow. But the beating I took that day has been lessened by the passage of time. I'm thankful for that.

We're back to our more selfish and self-centered ways for reasons that have to do largely with our media and our economy; the fragmentation of American culture under the pressures of niche media and niche marketing destroys the social bonds that are essential to a democratic way of life. But we'd be afflicted with this without 9/11.

What does bother me is the way that 9/11 was used to justify the war in Iraq. The war is a moral and strategic disaster. It isolates us, weakens us, and puts our country in danger. It has bitterly divided our nation in ways that I could not foresee on September 11, 2001. For me, the invocation of 9/11 to justify the war in Iraq casts a divisive and dishonest shadow over a terrible day when I saw people at their best.

Historian in Hell

This time of year, around the Jewish holidays, I always try to read a few books on Jewish topics. Let me briefly mention one. Samuel D. Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive is a riveting history of the man who kept an invaluable diary of the Warsaw Ghetto, and with his collaborators in the Oyneg Shabes archive, tried to document, in interviews, surveys, and essays, the life and death of the Warsaw Ghetto. Much of what Ringelblum and his colleagues recorded, stuffed into several large milk cans, were recovered, miraculously, by some of the very few survivors of Ringelblum’s circle in 1946.

Ringelblum was a professional historian, born in Galicia in 1900. He came to Poland after World War I, where he studied history, and wrote several important books on Polish-Jewish relations. (Although, evidently, getting a history gig was as difficult in interwar Poland as in the US in the early 21st century.)

He was a Marxist, a Zionist of sorts, and one who dedicated his historical talent to telling the stories of average people, and not the elites that had usually occupied most of the pages in older Jewish histories.. These talents proved to be invaluable when he decided, after the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, to document what he soon realized would be the attempted extermination, person by person, of the entirety of Jewish Poland.

Of course, Kassow’s book is heartbreaking and harrowing. (Read a book about the Holocaust, and while you are in its grip the history of everything else seems unimportant and trivial.) But it is an inspiring story as well, as Ringeblum and his colleagues strained to capture every nuance of the unimaginable events that were destroying them.

At one point, towards the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Ringelblum had a brief quarrel with Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising. How should the meager resources left to the rebels be apportioned; more guns and hardware to fight the Nazis, or more pens and paper to document the struggle? The two men soon reached an accommodation, but their positions represented, arguably, the two most basic human needs. Starting with as babes in arms, no instinct is more basic than the need for security and self-preservation. If the situation is dire enough, as in the Warsaw Ghetto, this becomes the task of the soldier.

Our other basic need is the fight against the personal and collective oblivion that will eventually be our fate. This is a fight that befalls the historian, one that every historian must wage with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their might, perhaps, like Emanuel Ringelblum, to our last breath.

Shana Tova.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A City's Memorial to its Catastrophe

Kobe, Japan, is a striking, elegant port city of about 1.5 million people. Last year, about this time of year, I spent a few days there. The dominant recent event in the city’s history was the great earthquake of Jan 17th , 1995, striking just about dawn , magnitude 7.3 on the Richter scale, killing about 6,400 persons, and leveling large parts of the city.

Kobe has recovered, and is as busy and bustling as any of Japan’s large cities, but Kobe’s citizens have not forgotten the great earthquake of 1995. In 2002, in a striking new building, an impressive museum opened, at once an exploration of the earthquake and the reaction to it, and a memorial to those who perished.

The museum is very powerful, and opens with a gut wrenching film in an innovative presentation, that tries to capture the chaos of the earthquake; bullet trains falling from their tracks, elevated highways buckling, buildings collapsing, and, everywhere, fire and destruction. There are dioramas and reconstructions of events, artifacts from the rubble, extensive displays on the reaction to the earthquake; how the citizens of Kobe tried to come together and help one another in the days after the earthquake. There were numerous video-taped testimonies of survivors and tributes to those who were killed in the earthquake. (Translations in English were provided.) Finally there was a section on mourning and memory; and how people have tried to come to terms with the catastrophe. I left the museum sobered and impressed by how, in their moment of direst need, the people of Kobe came together.

The point of this post, of course, is to make an invidious comparison between the response of Kobe to their catastrophe, and the response of New York City to the catastrophe of September 11th. The sixth anniversary is upon us, and certainly nothing like it is open, and nothing like the Kobe museum seems to be in the works.

I do not know why this is so. Perhaps it is more difficult to deal with the memory of a military attack than a natural event (though I don’t think we will see the Katrina Museum in New Orleans anytime soon) and it has become more difficult, not easier, to view 9/11 and its immediate aftermath as an event in itself, and not as a causus bellum for a fraudulent and disastrous war. The debate on how, where, and who to commemorate has become fractious, split into factions of families of survivors, hindered by political and money squabbles, and part of the general uncertainty and delay surrounding the development of the World Trade Center site. Perhaps a Buddhist and karmic civilization like Japan, with its underlying notion of rebirth, finds it easier to commemorate the dead en masse, unlike the Judeo-Christian culture in the United States, which places great importance of the memory of each person as distinct and different.

In any event, seven years after its great catastrophe, Kobe had a place to mourn and remember, where schoolchildren too young to remember the events or foreigners like myself who knew little of the earthquake could learn its history. New York City, six years on, really has nothing comparable, and nothing likely to be built in the near future.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Clear Waters in New York Harbor

Standing at the water’s edge, ready to launch my kayak, I looked at the mottled brown, black and grey stones beneath my feet. The cold water swirling over them had the crystal clarity you associate with the coast of Maine—even though I was standing by the East River in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The cleanup of the Hudson River and New York Harbor is one of the great environmental success stories of recent times. But to fully appreciate it, you have to get close enough to the water to see it, feel it and maybe even taste it. I did that today on a kayak trip on Upper New York Bay.

I’ve canoed and kayaked on the Hudson River for decades, but I’ve done very little paddling on the Bay. Despite a long-standing desire to paddle to the Statue of Liberty, the frantic ferry and outboard traffic around the Battery that I once met circumnavigating Manhattan by canoe made me wary.

But when a Brooklyn sea kayaker of 18 years’ experience, Tanny Sasson, proposed the trip, I grabbed at the opportunity. It was already September, and I thought it might be the last trip of the fading summer.

We put in at Brooklyn Bridge Park on the East River, one of the new waterside parks with launching facilities that is part of the great growth of kayaking in New York City. Tanny paddled a Perception Shadow, while I borrowed his Aquaterra Sea Lion. We paddled north to the Manhattan Bridge, then turned around and headed back down the East River. Our goal: the Statue of Liberty.

Tanny explained that he finds the waters of the Bay more “interesting” than those of the Hudson. By that he meant that the combination of East River and Hudson River currents, shoals, islands, and winds make for paddling conditions more varied than you find on the Hudson. At first, I was skeptical: the three-foot swells that we met in the East River made me dubious about the prospect of bigger water in the middle of the bay. But Tanny said that up ahead the waters would be calmer. He was right, and we paddled on.

After passing Ellis, a Coast Guard boat approached to warn us of a powerboat race passing through 40 minutes. Forewarned, we paddled past the Statue of Liberty, and scooted back across to Governor’s Island. We then paddled north along Governor’s Island, rounded its tip, and then zipped down Buttermilk Channel, which runs between Governor’s and Brooklyn, to our takeout in Red Hook.

In about 2 ½ hours of paddling, we paddled three foot swells, two small whirlpools, smooth waters that coursed over shoals, choppy waters where the currents of the Hudson and East River meet, waves reflecting off the seawalls of Governor’s Island, and the fast water of the outgoing tide in Buttermilk Channel. It was indeed interesting.

We put out at the Louis J. Valentino, Jr. Park and Pier in Red Hook, named for a New York City firefighter who died searching for wounded comrades. The beach was a little murkier than at our put-in place, but the squeals of kids excited by fisherman reeling in bluefish snappers convinced me that I was still in good waters.

I’m not giving up the Hudson—I’m too in love with its hidden beaches, the views of the Palisades, and the sight of the George Washington Bridge in a setting sun at the end of a day of paddling. But I’ll be back on the Bay. The water is clean and interesting. And the old Brooklyn piers, witnesses to the history of seagoing New York, offer plenty of enticement for a return trip on another day.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

wanton schoolboys

A story: here in Monroe County, the Democrats, who outnumber the Republicans in registration, have decided (for reasons best known to themselves) not to field a candidate against Maggie Brooks, the fairly popular incumbent County Executive, which is the most powerful position in Monroe Country. Maggie Brooks, for those who aren’t familiar with her, is sort of like Mike Bloomberg to Rudy Guiliani, a less offensive Republican who succeeded a considerably more offensive Republican, and with these low expectations, people seem to like her because she is quiet and isn’t nasty.

However, she has let her advisors and handlers do her dirty business for her, and the chief dirty business doer is Stephen Minarak, the Monroe County Republican Chair. He did just a fine job as a Republican boor, saying insulting and stupid things about local Democrats that the state Republican Party, thinking they had a budding Karl Rove on their hands, promoted him to state Republican chair, where he quarreled with Joe Bruno (not hard to do) and lost all the elections in his charge (quick, who ran against Hilary last year?) and he was kicked back to Monroe County.

So to return to the story, with the fecklessness of local Democrats, the only candidate running against Brooks this fall will be a Working Families Party candidate. Brooks will cruise to an easy re-election, and there will probably be no debates or discussion of the issues. Until earlier this week a third party candidate, Andrew Stainton, who was to run as the candidate of the ad hoc Sustainability Party was also going to be in the race.

But it is very easy to get third parties off the ballot in New York State. Minarik challenged Stainton’s petitions, and the courts found enough of the requisite 1,500 signatures were somehow not in order, and he was removed from the ballot. My understanding is that ballot challenges have become somewhat more difficult to do in recent years, and the wrong color ink or the use of abbreviations in addresses (Ave for Avenue) is no longer enough to get a signature tossed. But it still is ridiculously easy for a candidate, particularly a third-party candidate without much financial support, to run afoul of New York State’s obscenely complex election laws.

Given that Brooks was hardly challenged by an obscure third party candidate, why did Minarik challenge the petitions? Because he could, and like wanton school boys killing flies, he can squash third parties for his sport. All New York politicians do.

This is the original sin of New York State politics. The two political parties control everything; independent people or third parties more or less control nothing. Every political institution exists to strengthen the parties. In the early 20th century there were two main models for Progressive reform in the US, New York’s where under Al Smith and Thomas Dewey, the goal was to make the parties more responsive and work more effectively. The other model is California, where with recalls, referenda and propositions, open primaries, the goal was to break down and challenge the two party system. Neither system is a panacea, and Peter Schrag’s fascinating book, Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future, strongly suggests that things, since Prop 13, have gone too far in undermining the effectiveness of the party system.

But New York State shows, again and again, the danger of the other extreme, an ossified political party system that exists only to protect itself, and gives little or no scope for independent citizen initiative of any kind. . This situation has become worse in recent decades, with the declining importance of the cross endorsement lines (American Labor, Liberal, Conservative) that helped keep the two major parties honest, the valiant efforts of the Working Families Party notwithstanding.

I’m not sure what the answer is; an answer could consume many posts; certainly a bit of the openness of the California system would be in order.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

More Taxis on Park Avenue

On the morning of the second day of the taxi strike, more cabs could be seen cruising up and down Park Avenue in the East Eighties. The total number of cabs might have been slightly down from normal, but doormen on Park--who spent the first morning of the strike scrambling for hard-to-find taxis--agreed that there were more cabs on the street.

On street corners, most people trying to hail a cab caught a ride within a few minutes. In the press, the striking cabbies got a mixed reaction in the pages of the city's three major dailies.

My copy of the September 6 Post is headlined, "Fare Game: Cabbies Cash in as slackers strike." The depiction of the strikers went downhill from there. The main strike story on page three, "Lucky Taxi $cabs," argued that the strike was barely noticeable and had resulted in a jackpot for strikebreaking drivers. Andrea Peyser's column described a ride in a strikebreaking taxi as a delight.

But the bottom of the Post's coverage, as so often is the case, was reached on Page Six. There, a cartoon depicts a couple sitting in the back seat of a taxi. At the wheel of the cab sits an ape. One passenger says to the other, "See, the strike fizzled and everything is back to normal."

The Post may style itself as the paper of the average New Yorker, but when it comes to economic issues it has no interest in fairly presenting the taxi workers' case. And depicting the average driver as an ape, in an age when so many of our drivers are new immigrants, is a slur that doesn't belong in print.

While the Post depicted taxi drivers as apes, the Daily News and the Times showed a bit more humanity.

Michael Daly's column depicted the strike as a doomed fight against computerized "progress," but argued that the drivers have a legitimate complaint on the issue of electronic credit card readers: the use of them generates a five percent surcharge, of which only one third kicks back to the drivers. The News' editorial, "Give Cabbies Their Due," seconded Daly's point.

In the Times, James Barron's front-page story, "Cabs Are on Strike, but Are on the Street, Too," emphasized the inconveniences of passengers but also recognized that the strike had more impact than Mayor Bloomberg allowed. On the editorial page, the Times offered a balanced assessment of the strike and the need to make the Global Positioning Systems that sparked the walkout more palatable to drivers and useful to riders. New technology, the Times concluded, "has to serve both drivers and passengers."

Una Furtiva Lagrima

The first time I ever went to the Metropolitan Opera, on March 5, 1974, I went to see Luciano Pavarotti sing Nemorino in L’esilir d’amore. I was not disappointed. He was already a star, but not the huge crossover phenomena he would become, with the Three Tenors, and those somewhat cheesy stadium concerts he tirelessly performed.

Over the next two decades I probably saw him about a dozen times, perhaps most memorably in Verdi’s Un ballo in machera and Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. He almost never disappointed. He is fated to be always be compared to Placido Domingo, beauty vs. brains, and Pavarotti could never match the Spanish tenor’s intelligence, gritty musicality, and adventurousness in repertoire. But where Domingo was admired, Pavarotti, with his burnished tone, gorgeous high notes, and all of the mannerisms of the classic Italian tenor, was loved.

Pavarotti was the most popular opera singer since Caruso, and like Caruso, New York City and the Metropolitan Opera played a crucial role in establishing him as the dominant singer of his time. For all of his successes, it is the last time I saw him at the Met, in 1995, I think, that stands most vividly in the mind.

He was nearing the end of his career, and he foolishly attempted to recreate one of his greatest early successes, Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment, which contains a famous aria with nine consecutive high Cs. He couldn’t do it, and after two attempts his voice utterly cracked, in a way I have never heard in an opera house. There were gasps, but no boos, and some applause, the sort you would give to an old boxer, knocked to the canvas in a fight everyone knew was one fight too many.

He was probably the most popular male singer since Elvis.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

I'll Take My Stand

Adam Fairclough’s recent volume A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South, is a near-definitive treatment of the ambiguities of black teachers under Jim Crow But for some African American parents in New York City during the age of segregation, the Jim Crow schools of the South were preferable to the public schools of New York City.

"Some Negroes Here Send Their Children to Schools in South” headlined an article in the New York Times some 48 years ago, on Aug 30, 1959. The reason? “They are sending their children to segregated schools in the South because of dissatisfaction with school conditions in the city," which included overcrowding, school violence, and the reality that schools in New York City were “virtually segregated.” The numbers of black children living in New York City, going to southern schools was a matter of debate. Some said it was as many as 2,000. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP said it was all bushwa, and doubted there were as fifty children in that category.

Whatever the numbers, the phenomena evidently was real enough. One reason children were sent South was the availability of a network of southern parents, grandparents, and relatives maintained by African Americans in the city in the 1950s. Another reason, not mentioned in the article, is the likelihood that in southern schools, black pupils would have black teachers, which would generally not have been the case in NYC, where the percentage of black teachers in the late 1950s would have been under 5%, and far fewer supervisory personnel. At least in the South, segregated schools were run by blacks. In NYC, so the argument increasingly ran, segregated schools were run by indifferent whites. In any event, the fact that the phenomena of black parents sending children South for education was being discussed, and made its way into the Times in 1959 is a remarkable vote of no-confidence by African Americans in the prospects for integrated education in NYC.

Few Taxis on Park Avenue

In Manhattan on a workday morning, the stretch of Park Avenue in the East Eighties is usually busy with cabs. But this morning, the first of a strike by the Taxi Workers Alliance, doormen were scrambling to hail the few cabs to be seen on Park. On this part of the Upper East Side, the strike was definitely having an impact.

In the morning, I usually walk up Lexington Avenue from my home on East 81 Street to take the subway from Lexington and 86 Street. Today I varied my route and at around 7:30 am took Park uptown to get a small sense of the strike.

The streets seemed quieter than usual, so I asked six doormen and building workers if the number of taxis on the street was down. All six said that there were definitely fewer cabs than usual.

For doormen, that seemed to mean hustling to hail one of the few cabs on the street.

But one building worker liked the change. Gesturing to the relative quiet on Park and the blue sky, he said: "This is nice. Look at all the fresh air."

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Taxes and Taxis

In news coverage of the anticipated taxi drivers' strike, I haven't seen much attention devoted to an issue that two cabbies discussed with me Monday night: the possibility that installing GPS systems in taxis will make it harder for drivers to cheat on their taxes.

In an utterly unscientific survey, I asked the drivers who took me to and from the West Side how they felt about the GPS systems and the strike. My outbound driver had no problem with the GPS systems and opposed the strike. He claimed that drivers are angry because an automated system will accurately measure their earnings and make it harder for them to fudge their taxes.

My inbound driver disliked the GPS system and didn't like the idea of anyone monitoring where he drove. Yet he, too, said the GPS would make it harder for drivers to avoid paying taxes.

Is there anything to this belief that tax paying is at the bottom of this dispute? Please speak up--I'm not seeing anything on it in the Times, Post or News. I don't like tax cheats, but at the same time I don't like the idea of work where wages are so low that workers have to dodge taxes in order to bring home a decent amount of pay. What is going on here?

As for my own feelings on computer screens in the back of taxis, I thnk they're an annoyance. One the way home from JFK a week ago, I snagged a cab with one. The volume level split my ears. Over my children's objections, I insisted that we turn off the screen before it distracted the driver. The view out the window of a taxi is enough enertainment for me.

Glitter and Be Popular

Terry Teachout has a thoughtful piece in Commentary (which, outside of his essays would be a complete oxymoron) on the recent appointment by the New York Philharmonic of Alan Gilbert as music director a largely unknown (even to those who follow these things) 40-year old conductor.

I agree with most who have written on this; this is an excellent development , certainly preferable to the retread septuagenarians who have led the NY Phil in recent decades, ardent youth over crabbed age, and more power to the Philharmonic for making an innovative choice. But as Teachout points out, in comparison to the last American-born conductor the Philharmonic appointed, Leonard Bernstein in 1957, Gilbert has been, heretofore utterly lacking in the celebrity, charisma, and name recognition that Bernstein already enjoyed in 1957, and it is difficult to see how Gilbert will obtain it.

In his first review as music critic for the Herald Tribune in 1940 Virgil Thomson offered the famous put-down “the New York Philharmonic is not a part of New York’s intellectual life” and I suppose this has been more true than not ever since, and is true for almost all symphony orchestras, forced to play, over and over again, a basic staple of 25 or so works, with the occasional concession to the cognoscenti. The real problem is that the New York Philharmonic is no longer really a part of the cultural life of the city. And perhaps, the Philharmonic is not a part of the civic life of the city, either.

High culture can perhaps be defined as culture that doesn’t pay for itself, and this has always been the fate of symphony orchestras. The New York Philharmonic has always had the additional problem that it is in the only city in North America where it does not occupy the pinnacle of the classical music hierarchy (which in New York City is occupied by the Metropolitan Opera.)

A comparison to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is instructive. The RPO has the same middle-brow repertoire and aging patronage as the NYPO. But in terms of premier musical organizations, it is the only game in town, and it occupies an important role in the civic life of the city and the area , and its boosters keep it healthy. Civic pride, as much as any other factor, has played a key role in the promotion of live classical music in the United States. Can the NYPO continue to play this role in NYC, with such a wide choice of cultural options as New York City affords? Like Teachout I am skeptical. But lets hope Gilbert can get the job done.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Lesser New York

When you read debates in the 1890s about the potential consolidation of New York City a number of arguments were proffered, good, bad, and indifferent, but the emotional core of the argument was simple boosterism—unless New York City swallows up Brooklyn (which was at the core of the 1898 consolidation) it will soon cease to be the most populous city in the nation, ceding that honor to Chicago. It worked in 1898, but it won’t happen again, and for a number of legal or political reasons it is impossible to imagine New York City ever gaining any additional territory. As for New York State, after fighting a war with Vermont in the 18th century, and some nasty legal battles with New Jersey in the 19th, its boundaries have also been fixed for a while.

In terms of population New York State is not what it once was, and has long since ceased to be the most populous state in the union (and now has only about half the population of California.) And if New York City remains the biggest city in the US of A, its global distinctiveness in this regard is also long gone, and from a ranking several decades ago of #1 or #2, has now slipped out of the top ten altogether, to, by some accounts, the unlucky rank of #13, and presumably will continue to slide.

If New Yorkers no longer care (or at least profess not to care) about being #1, the more serious problem in New York State in recent decades has been to avoid running last, and getting lapped by other states.

The 1970s was a decade of unmitigated economic and demographic catastrophe for the state and the city—the state’s population declined by 650,000, by far the largest decline for any state over a ten year period. If New York City has since rebounded, for much of the rest of the state, the rates of population growth since 1960 have been among the slowest in the nation. Many cities, such as Rochester and Buffalo, have lost half of the mid-20th century population, and the state's population as a whole has remained largely static, increasing only from 18, 36,967 in 1970 to 18,976,457 in 2000, or about an average growth rate of only about 0.001% a year. This is only the latest and some ways the most prolonged and severe phase of what I and a friend are calling the “New York Diaspora” the four hundred year long story of people leaving New York State.

The problem has no easy answers, especially as, more than any time in the state’s history, the state’s two major regions are going in opposite directions, with unprecedented population levels in the city and the metro area, and unprecedented rates of decline upstate.

Labor, New York City, and Inequality

On Labor Day, it is worth remembering how much New York City owes to immigration and immigrant labor---and how the growth of inequality threatens to undermine the contributions of both.

The recovery of New York from the bleak Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties has been driven to an important degree by immigration. Newcomers to New York have saved us from the population loss that has drained smaller cities of their vitality, while immigrant labor has been an important force in the vigor of the New York City economy.

But in the long run, poor and working-class immigrants will revive New City only to the extent that they can settle in, make a decent living, and embark on the path to a middle class standard of living. That's why a recent report on the growth of inequality in the New York metropolitan area is so disturbing: it raises the spectre of a New York metropolitan area where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. And nowhere, the report, says, is this trend greater than in Manhattan.

Manhattan is in danger of becoming what one of my friends calls "another Monaco--an island of rich people and their servants." If that trend spreads to the rest of the city, immigrant New Yorkers who came here to work their way to a better standard of living will find themselves socially isolated, priced out of housing, and locked into a treadmill of low-wage work with no exit. In the long run, that is a disaster for them and for New York City.

The labor movement in New York City may be weak, but the city still needs to reward work with a decent standard of living and the prospect of earning your way to a better future. Anything less puts the city's future in jeopardy.