Monday, October 29, 2007

The Social Contract

“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” So reads the famous opening of Rousseau’s The Social Contract. I’ve been reading a lot of the classics of political philosophy lately, Rousseau, Plato, and Hobbes, pondering the fate of American democracy. What is sovereignty? And why have humans so frequently designated one person to be the holder and wielder of executive power? Why do we create autocracies with one hand, and denounce them as tyrannies with the other? And why is American democracy so fucked-up? And why are our troops still in Iraq? Why do we seem unable to change the course of the war, despite a strong majority opinion that wants to do so? And why are we everywhere in chains?

These reflections are prompted by Rob’s post on the rather unimpressive turnout, in New York City and elsewhere, on the 5th anniversary of the authorization for war for by congress, a vote that will live in infamy along with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse! Thou shouldst be living at this hour; The US hath need of thee; she is a fen of stagnant waters.)

Why is the Iraq anti-war movement so unimpressive, particularly in comparison to the Vietnam anti-war movement, when, five years on, it had forced a sitting president, elected in the greatest landslide in American history, to not seek another term, when it could turn out hundreds of thousands for marches and “mobilizations”

One difference is that LBJ faced a revolt in his own party. Bush, contrary to (for what it is worth) my predictions and expectations, has not. Many hoped it would be the Republicans, under the countervailing pressures of supporting the president and supporting a bitterly unpopular war, would split, and weaken Republican control of congress. This hasn’t happened, and the Republicans have clung to each other for dear life, fully aware of the consequences of any weakness in the ranks. The Democrats haven’t split either, but a stalemate (which is the usual state in Congress, especially with the new requirement, which somehow has been added to the Constitution in the last quarter-century that all important legislation has to receive 60 votes to pass the Senate.) In this state of habitual inaction, all power flows to the presidency. Perhaps on some domestic issues, like social security, popular outrage is enough to scuttle the president, or perhaps it is simply is more difficult for the president to simply rule by fiat domestically.

But on foreign policy, our only real voice is one lever depressed every four years, and sometimes, as in 2000, it really doesn't matter anyway. The Democratic presidential candidates are being as bland and as noncommittal as they can be about Iraq and the looming crisis in Iran, and why not, they want to be elected. As usual all the important decisions will be made after next November, after Americans press the lever or touch the screen, and complete the ritual of legitimating the victor.

The Democrats were scared of a new anti-war movement over Iraq, fearful that, as happened with the Vietnam counter-culture, the war protests would become more unpopular than an unpopular war, and somehow Nixon was elected and re-elected during the midst of the largest mass political protests in the nation’s history.

The Democrats got their wish, the anti-Iraq movement has been small and insignificant. But the movement and the party, if necessarily in tension, at best can work together symbiotically to change the political climate, with the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside work of the abolitionists and the Republican Party being perhaps the most impressive example of this. In any event we have a weak anti-war movement, a stalemate in Congress, and a surprisingly strong president, who five years into this awful war, continues to have an utterly free hand to do whatever he wishes.

In terms of those political theorists mentioned above, I am afraid that Hobbes is the most relevant. Fear is the era’s primal and basic political emotion, we watch fear and talk fear and sleep fear. As Hobbes shows, fear creates executive power, and near absolute fear, as has reigned in this country since 9/11, has taken us far down the path to absolute power. I wish I had a prescription or a plan for change, but I don’t. But if the abolitionists have any message, it is, stay firm and resolute, and if the cause is right and just, the political system will eventually bend to your will. And sometimes, elections do matter.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

How to Tell Good Zoning from a Hole in the Ground

A guest post by cartographer extraordinaire Marc Korpus, and it can be seen as a commentary on Rob's recent post on Jane Jacobs, concerning the fate of neighborhood activism in an era when houses in Sheepshead Bay run $600,000 and up. If Marc permits me a prefatory comment: one thing that has always been true of affordable housing in New York City is that because of its inherent expense, it has always been built by Goliaths (whether public or private) for Davids.
--Peter Eisenstadt

An "About New York" column in the Times grants local hero status to a doctor who defeated a plan to put up a six-story condominium building at the corner of East 16th Street and Avenue S, Brooklyn, a few doors away from his home. The builder got as far as excavating, but didn’t manage to complete the foundation before more restrictive zoning kicked in. A large hole in the ground is already there but no condo building will now rise upon it. This is scored as a victory for neighborhood activism against an evil developer, probably allied with dark forces of the city Buildings Department. David, we are to understand, has picked up a stone from the rubble of the excavation and felled Goliath.

That’s all well and good, but: if a six-story apartment building can’t be built at East 16th Street and Avenue S, where can it be built? This part of Sheepshead Bay is where I grew up. I went to the schools across the street. It’s not a uniform neighborhood of private homes. Because of the nearby subway stations seven-story apartment buildings line many of the streets, some dating from the 1920s, some from a later building boom in the early 1960s. With good public transportation, half-empty schools and probably a population density lower than when I was growing up there (owing to smaller families), this is a prime place to add to the city’s housing stock.

That would come with a few negatives for some current homeowners. The presence of a six-story condo at the corner would add a little traffic, block some sunlight, maybe put some pressure on parking and worst of all (I suspect) lower the tone. You see, properties on the block are now probably in the $600,000 - 800,000 range (see these local real estate listings). Moreover, construction that dilutes the scarcity of existing homes could actually cause those inflated values to fall a little – terrible thought. It goes without saying that the builder’s property interests, unlike the homeowners’, count for nothing.

But this is not about motives, it’s about policy, it’s about balancing legitimate interests, which is what a responsible government should do. There are people in say the $100,000 household income range who can’t afford a house near a subway line but might be able to manage $300,000 or so for a condo. Their interests might be better aligned with Goliath’s than with the neighborhood activists who defeated him. The issue goes beyond this particular case. To zone multistory residential construction out of that block and others like it is to freeze the housing pattern just as it was in about 1970, no allowance made for the need of the city to grow upwards and relieve the scarcity of housing. No need to belabor the obvious point: instead the city is digging itself a hole.

Marching in the Rain

One year ago, Democratic victories in congressional races delivered a strong rebuke to President Bush, boosted the confidence of the anti-war movement, and raised hopes of change in Iraq. But yesterday, as a rain-soaked march wound through the streets of lower Manhattan, it was hard to find the sense of rising energy that animated people last year. As much as the organizers of the demonstration might point to the weather as the explanation for the small turnout, I am more inclined to blame a mood of despair wrought by Bush's intransigence and the the movement's inability to do anything about it. There were, however, some heartening signs.

The anti-war movement stubbornly persists; our march in Manhattan was one with counterparts all around the nation. The range of old and young demonstrators that I saw in New York testified to an activist culture that will always be there to oppose the Bush policies. I was impressed by the energy of students from Hamilton College and moved by the presence of the venerable Jewish fraternal organization, the Workmen's Circle. When Peter Yarrow sang "Down By the Riverside" at the start of the march, I happily joined in.

Relations between police and demonstrators were better than they have been in the past. Although I was troubled by the surveillance tower and rooftop observers at Foley Square because they might deter timid souls from marching, there were few of the interlocking metal "French barriers" along the march route that have sometimes made demonstrations in New York City feel like a caged experience.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly watched the march from the corner of Houston Street and Broadway beneath an umbrella held by an aide. I asked him his opinion of the demonstrators' behavior, and he said, "They're adhering to their permit, and as far as the police department is concerned it's going well." With the exception of one young man who delighted in cursing at the rooftop observers, all the interactions between police and demonstrators that I witnessed were polite or even friendly.

But for all the seriousness among the marchers--about both Iraq and the prospect of war against Iran--I did not see the signs of a growing movement. Most of the marchers looked like exactly the sort of people that I have been marching with at peace demonstrations since the Vietnam War.

A marshal that I spoke with estimated the crowd at 35-40,000 and called it a good crowd for a rainy day. Maybe, but we started off at 1:10 pm from the northern end of Union Square and the entire march was over by 2:25 pm at Foley Square. To me, that didn't feel like a big march. (It is difficult to get alternate estimates because coverage of the demonstration was scant to nonexistent in the New York Times, Daily News and New York Post.)

I contrast that with the feeling around the campaign of Congressman Patrick Murphy (Democrat-Pennsylvania), where I was a volunteer last fall. We attracted not only the usual crowd of Democratic activists, but also former Republicans and veterans. Together, we defeated an incumbent Republican and elected a Democrat who has been strong critic of Bush policies on Iraq. I'm sorry to say it, but yesterday's march lacked the same mix and energy.

Aside from a few people in Obama or Kucinich t-shirts, a few Ron Paul supporters, and one man trashing Hillary Clinton, demonstrators showed little overt engagement with the presidential race. Nevertheless, the election will do more than anything to determine how soon we leave Iraq. Opponents of the war ignore electoral politics at their own peril. As Todd Gitlin has observed, the Democrats and the movement need each other. Unfortunately, right now, both seem to be floundering together.

Towards the end of the day, I met up with my cousin Barbara O'Connor, an activist with Military Families Speak Out in North Jersey. Her son, my cousin Tim, did an extended tour in Iraq. Barbara has long been a regular at anti-war vigils at the National Guard armory in Teaneck, NJ.

As we walked together toward the dwindling crowd in Foley Square around 3:30 pm, she observed that the police officers in their bright blue jackets were more visible than the demonstrators. I asked her what she made of the turnout and she offered some thoughts that are the product of her activism.

People are afraid to come out against the war because they think it is disloyal to the troops.

Hostility to anti-war demonstrators sometimes comes out of a time warp. One of the epithets thrown that has been thrown at her group is "communist."

Loading down opposition to the Iraq War with side issues dilutes the base of the anti-war movement. Opponents of Iraq should concentrate on what they have in common and leave other causes for another day. Also counterproductive, she believes, are the theatrics of "Code Pink." They're alienating, she says, and you've got to get people to like the movement.

As for those who think that anti-war demonstrations are disloyal to the troops, she believes that the best way to keep faith with the troops is to bring them home. I agree.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hillary and Rudy

From 1868, when the Democrats chose ex-New York State governor Horatio Seymour as their presidential candidate, until 1948, when the Republicans did the same for the then current governor, Thomas E. Dewey, there was only one presidential election in an 80-year period in which when a New Yorker was not a major party candidate for national office. (The election of 1896 was the year without New Yorkers.)

Since 1948, the pickings have been slim, just three unsuccessful vice-presidential candidates from the Empire State; Republican William E. Miller in 1964, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and Republican Jack Kemp in 1996. (Since 1948, three Texans and two Californians have been elected president, which shows how the balance of power has shifted in this country.)

Things may change, and there is a good chance that in 2008 two New Yorkers, New York’s US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani will be, respectively, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. (This is not unprecedented, by the way, twice during the Pax Eboraca from 1868 to 1948, two New Yorkers did battle; 1904 when Theodore Roosevelt defeated Alton B. Parker of Cortland, New York—surely the most obscure major party candidate for president in the 20th century—and 1944, when FDR defeated Thomas E. Dewey.)

Giuliani is of course a native New Yorker, and though there have been (depending on how you count), seven or eight New York State residents elected president, only Teddy Roosevelt, sort of, is really identified with New York City. (And when you look over the presidents of the past century, very few are distinctly urban, and perhaps only JFK, with his Boston accent, and who not coincidently is the only non-Protestant of the lot, is strongly identified as an urbanite. I believe the last president to be mayor of a city was Grover Cleveland, who was mayor of Buffalo.)

But Giuliani has become a caricature of a caricature of a New Yorker, loud, opinionated, aggressive, given to flights of rhetorical asskickery and windbaggery, a taker of vast quantities of umbrage, a man who sees the problems of the world those of the Washington Heights and the South Bronx (c.1990) writ large, and for whom pissing off people with darker skins is seen as proof of one’s moral courage and clarity. One would have thought that even Republicans would be tired of politicians whose foreign policy consists entirely of threats and table thumping, but apparently not.

Hillary on the other hand is a non-native, though hardly the first person who moved to New York to seek career advancement. The president she is most like is Richard Nixon, who after eight years a subordinate role in the White House and a few msadventures, moved to New York City to plot his assent to the top of the greasy pole. There are also analogies to the well-remembered career of Chester Alan Arthur, a Vermont adventurer who achieved fame and fortune as a Manhattan lawyer, and Thomas E. Dewey, who came to New York City in his twenties to seek his fame as an opera singer, but ended up going to law school.

But if Giuliani is aggressive, Hillary’s dominant characteristic is acute intelligence in pursuit of blandness. But this has become one of the main distinctions between the parties on the highest levels, angry and furious Republicans and bland Democrats bursting with equanimity. This is not to say there are not scads of angry Democrats, but the party has been, at least since the beginning of the Iraq War, trying to restrain the anger with a levee of reasonableness, forever afraid that the party's "base" will go Katrina.

The reasons for this are simple; Republican anger reaps rewards, however irrational (Islamofascism, illegal immigrants, you name it), but when Democrats have little fits of pique (e. g. General Betray-Us) it ends up getting condemned by congress. Like lab rats, most Democrats have learned that anger is not an effective strategy, and no one has learned this lesson better than Ms. “vast right wing conspiracy” herself.

So why, after more than half a century, has the nation turned its lonely eyes to New York State for presidential candidates? Why are we looking for blustering, out of control men and competent and careful women? Perhaps because Hillary and Rudy each represent one half of a deep psychological archetype that Americans are trying desperately to find in their leaders, a combination of competence and anger, and there is no better place to search for both than in New York.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Jane Jacobs for Yesterday and Today

In a time when globalization and inequality threaten New York City, the exhibit "Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York" at the Municipal Art Society recalls the great author and urbanist. The show makes a good case that New York is in a critical moment that cries out for citizen activism, but too often its recapitulation of Jacobs' life and ideas borders on the worshipful. There's plenty to admire in her life and writing, but we would be better served by a more critical appraisal of her ideas.

You enter the show through a video archway that displays images of the skyline, the streets, and people talking with concern about changes in the city. Talk of over development and pricing out is in the air.

Once inside the exhibit, you learn Jacobs' "four key qualities" of vigorous, healthy cities: "mixed uses, frequent streets, varied buildings, concentration." These insights are then illustrated in the context of city neighborhoods, her life and work, and their meaning for the present.

Jacobs observations are sound and her activism and writing are still inspiring.

Still, some of her arguments and stances aren't always convincing.

Her critique of "tower in the park" housing, while valid, ignored the role of social and economic factors in undermining the health of life in high-rise projects. By her logic, the union-sponsored Penn South development in the Chelsea section of Manhattan should have become a slum. It didn't because its inhabitants were mostly employed or retired working people. Jacobs' condemnation of multi-story dwellings has always struck me as a form of architectural determinism.

I've always appreciated her rendering of the ballet of Hudson Street, but her depiction of life there ignores how it could be tight and nasty. My cousin grew up in the West Village in the Forties and Fifties, when it was still a working class waterfront neighborhood. One of her most vivid early memories was seeing a fellow slammed up against a stoop with a knife at his throat. Why? Because Village guys wanted to show him what happens to Chelsea guys (from ten blocks away) come downtown to date Village girls.

The West Village, with its "mixed uses, frequent streets, varied buildings, concentration" was also a neighborhood where locals could harass interracial couples. The sense of community that Jacobs extolled could also have a mean and exclusive side.

Finally, in New York Jacobs always was at her best in opposition. But New York today needs more low and middle income housing. How can we do that without destroying the fabric of neighborhoods that Jacobs taught us to value? (On this point, I would like to see a stronger dialogue between this exhibit and a recent one at the Museum of the City of New York on Robert Moses.)

If "Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York" doesn't deal with these sticky points, it is still a worthwhile show. And its accompanying lecture and walking should prompt the kind of thinking that could revise Jacobs' weaker ideas and extend her best. And that's just what we need to do in these times.

The show is up through January 5, 2008.

Overwrite this text with the rest of your post

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Riverside Art

Views of the Hudson River reward the bicyclist who pedals beside the West Side Highway, but from West 95th Street to West 135th streets there are now artistic attractions as well: driftwood sculptures.

I've seen them from the window of a car racing down the highway, but they are best enjoyed with close and quiet contemplation. And that happens only for walkers, runner and cyclists who take the paved riverside pathway that is one of the recreational glories of Manhattan.

I saw similar sculptures alongside San Francisco Bay more than thirty years ago, but noticed the Hudson's equivalent only recently. Our sculptures--cobbled together mostly with driftwood and twine--are a creative recycling of our river's offerings. In a few places, people have also arranged rocks in artful patterns.

The riverside sculptures are not equally memorable. I would like to forget the stick with styrofoam jammed on its tip and the driftwood wrapped in ribbons of foam insulation.

But the best pieces--which beautifully catch the light of the setting sun--marry nature and culture in ways that bring out the best in both. Even if you're not a walker, runner or cyclist, the sight of these driftwood creations will make your excursion to the banks of the Hudson well worth the trip.

If you're reading this and you happen to be the creator of these works, of if you simply know something about them, drop me a line. I'd love to learn more about them.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Bronx is Earning

What to say about the firing of Joe Torre? Of all the great managers of the Yankees, Miler Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Billy Martin, he was the only native New Yorker among them, and during his 12 years with the Yankees he helped make the Yankees really feel like the “New York” Yankees, rather than the a collection of ball players who happen to play in the city. He was a reminder that calmness and sober reflection, as well as excitability and hot-headedness, are also traits of the native New Yorker.

Given the difficulty of maintaining players nowadays, and the greater competition, Torre would get my vote as the greatest of all Yankees managers, with 4 World Series victories, and 12 post-season appearances. But somehow the Yankees have never seemed to recover from losing the post 9/11 Series in 2001, in the 9th inning of the 7th game, certainly one of the best series ever, or from the crushing defeat they received at the hands of their eternal enemies in 2004, and the lack of 21st World Series triumphs spelled the end of the Torre era.

In any event, I wish Torre all the best, but the next loss to mourn for Yankee fans will be Yankee Stadium itself, slated to be dismantled next year to make way for a parking lot, its architectural and historical magnificence a victim of its lack of luxury boxes. This is a heinous act of cultural vandalism (which is unfair to the Vandals, who sacked Rome without destroying the Coliseum.) Old Yankee Stadium was stalwart in enduring the decades of the Bronx’s decline, but was unable to survive the borough’s new-found prosperity.

Inherit the Wind

For over half a century James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule has been one of the most famous scientists in the world. And before I trash him, which is the purpose of this post, let me tell one of my favorite stories. Watson and his colleague, Francis Crick in 1953, after cracking the structure of DNA saunter into a pub near Cambridge University and announce, “a round for everyone, we’ve just discovered the secret of life.”

Anyway, I have never been much of a fan of James Watson, and found his tell-all account of the 1953 discovery, The Double Helix, snarky and mean-spirited, and my estimation of him sank further when I have read in recent years how Watson and Francis Crick, at the very least, failed to give a fellow researcher, Rosalind Franklin, credit in their work for her invaluable contribution to unraveling the mystery of DNA. (Brenda Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, detailing all the sexism she faced as a female scientists in her tragically brief career, is one of the greatest and most moving of all scientific biographies.)

Anyway, Watson has been director of the Cold Spring Harbor research laboratory on the North Shore of Long Island for many decades now. This story appeared in the paper today:

In an interview published Sunday in The Times of London, Dr. Watson is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”

“All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

This is a reminder of Cold Spring Harbor’s inglorious history as, from its founding in 1910 until about 1940, as the center of American eugenics research. One could add, to the other distinctions of New York City and State in the first third of the 20th century that it probably was the world-wide center for the study in eugenics. (In 1933, we passed the baton to Berlin, whose race scientists always acknowledged what they learned from New York’s race improvers.) Cold Spring Harbor tirelessly advocated for eugenic education and legislation, such as Virginia’s mandatory sterilization bill upheld by the US Supreme Court in their infamous 1927 Buck v Bell decision. Cold Spring Harbor’s efforts to weed out the breeding stock were supported by New York City Madison Grant, a leading advocate of immigration restriction, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, the site in 1921 of an international conference on eugenics. And so on.

Other than the fact that Watson is a dick (and he has been suspended by the administration at Cold Spring Harbor) I am not sure what this proves other than the fact that Watson is a stupid old man. I think it is a reminder however, that genetics has been put to noxious uses in the past, and likely will be so used again. The possibility of arguments from genetic determinism has only increased with the explosion of genetic knowledge in recent years. Neo-Darwinian explanations of every type of human behavior abounds. We probably (I hope) will not make the same crude genetic errors the eugenicists did in the early decades in the early 20th century. But we likely make equally wrongheaded leaps from science to social policy. If nothing else, Watson’s gaffe is a reminder for us to be ever-vigilant against the misuse of science.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beauty Under Foot

Sharp-eyed walkers on the streets of New York are often rewarded with a glimpse of skyline, but the paintings of Mark Nilsen remind us that beauty is also found under foot. Since 2002 he has done relief paintings of New York City's manhole covers, which he sells weekends on Fifth Avenue just south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Working on the sidewalks (with occasional forays into the street for larger pieces), Nilsen creates relief paintings that are first cousins of the rubbings made of headstones or medieval brasses. His method is fast and simple, and it doesn't even mess up the manhole.

Typically, he spots a worthy manhole during the day and returns to paint it at 1 or 2 in the morning.

He lays a 1 mil piece of plastic over a manhole, then places his canvas on top of that. He dips a roller into acrylic paint, then rolls it over the canvas. The paint picks up the raised pattern of the manhole, but glides over the recessions. Then, if he wants a two-color image (which is prettier and has more depth) he rolls on a second color.

His paintings, which average 3 feet by 3 feet, record the varieties of manhole covers, which are anything but uniform. Their patterns and inscriptions vary in ways that I never realized until I looked at one of Nilsen's paintings. His best sellers are from Brooklyn: "People have that Brooklyn pride," he says.

The idea to do manhole paintings came to Nilsen, a musician, in 2002. He was coming out of rehab, as he describes it, and opening up to new forms of art. He has since done a commission for the Department of Environmental Protection and is planning a project for John Jay College.

Police and security guards have hassled him while he is at work, but through it all he remains a strong supporter of freedom of expression and the First Amendment.

His works sell for $30 for a single color painting and $40-$50 for multiple colors. When he's not on Fifth Avenue selling paintings and chatting enthusiastically about his work, he can be found online at

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"God Bless America" as Anti-war Song

God Bless America” has become a second national anthem. I think the funerals in New York City after 9/11 played a major role in establishing this. Why not? It has a better tune than the “Star-Spangled Banner” and it mentions God, de rigeur in these days when the separation of church and state is seen as a Stalinist intrusion into Our Christian Constitution. At almost every baseball game played in the United States, “God Bless America” has become a post 9/11 addition to the seventh-inning stretch, just before “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Often, as in home games for the Rochester Red Wings this season, it is played as images of soldiers in uniforms are displayed on the scoreboard, a battle hymn for an enlarged republic. There’s only problem with this, the “Star Spangled Banner” is basically a war song; “God Bless America” is basically an anti-war song.

I recently heard a recording of the verse of “God Bless America” the introductory part of the song that is usually omitted, and got me thinking about this. This is not really new information, but let me share it anyway. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” in 1918. Its original words, for a military review, were quite martial

God Bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
To the right with a light from above
Make her victorious on land and foam
God Bless America, my home sweet home.

For various reason, Berlin did not use the song in 1918, though he revived it in 1938. He changed the words to the familiar version we know, and as he wrote in 1954, “In 1938 I didn’t want it to be war song, I wanted it to be a song of peace.” This is clear from the usually omitted verse, which he wrote in the late 1930s:

While the storm clouds gather
Far across the sea
Let us swear allegiance
To a land that’s free;
Let us be grateful
For a land so fair
As we raise our voices
In a solemn prayer

In Europe they settle their differences with armies; we don’t need to do that in the United States. Our freedoms are not based on military might. America is not an idea or based on an imperial design; America is a land with very specific borders, ending right at the foamy oceans and extending no further. “God Bless America” is an isolationist hymn.

I hope one thing that can come out our awful adventure in Iraq is a renewed sense of the price of American military action overseas. Isolationism was never about ignoring the world, it was about not invading the world. Isolationism is sometimes thought of as a species of Midwest xenophobia with an anti-Semitic tinge. That was certainly part of it, but there much else as well. Probably no city in the United States was as much a center of pacifist and anti-war sentiments as New York, and the deep conviction to stay out of another war was widely shared across all ethnic, racial, and political lines.

There were of course eventually good reasons for the US to get involved in World War II. (However, the best reason, to save the Jews of Europe, had nothing to do with the US decision to go to war against Germany.) In any event, we have never returned to the status quo ante bellum. Since Dec 7, 1941, we have always been an overseas military power, and it is difficult to get back to the cultural milieu in which “God Bless America” could have introduced as a song of peace, and not a song calling for support and victory for US forces overseas. At the very least, the next time you hear “God Bless America” performed, pay special attention to the verse.

Monday, October 15, 2007


I’ve just read that Roy Rosenzweig, professor of history at George Mason University and director of that university’s influential new media center, has passed away from cancer, at a tragically young age. How sad. I knew Roy, but not too well, and most of our contact was over a quarter century ago, when we were both members of the “editorial collective” of the Radical History Review.

Roy has left a presence in any number of historical fields. Of his work as a social historian, his history of Central Park, with Betsy Blackmar, The Park and the People, is of special interest to this blog. He was also a key figure in the growth of public history as a special field, and his volume with David Thelen, The Presence of the Past is perhaps the most interesting and creative volume ever written on how Americans understand and use the past, and how individual memories of things past or things told can blend into a broader notion of “history.”

In recent decades he has been a pioneer and tireless advocate for digital history. As someone who is not an “early adapter” and has been content to ride the technology wave from the rear, he has been an inspiration. There is always a great deal of hype surrounding any new technology, a tendency to say, as all the idiot savants said after 9/11 that “everything has changed,” while in practice of course, some things change and some things don’t.

There was great resistance to digital history in some quarters of the history profession. I remember Roy’s cogent article defending the web as a source of information—sure, he wrote, there is crap out there, but it is simply a matter of learning to read carefully and critically, which is the same skills you needed anyway when, for instance, schoolchildren were captive to the World Book Encyclopedia and the Britannica for their reports. And he was a strong defender of the wikipedia, which has proven to be a remarkably successful, accurate, and universal research tool. (And as always there was a leftist, populist strain to his work—historians who complain about the lack of good resources on the web, he once noted, all too often work in major institutions which keep the best proprietary data bases locked up and unavailable to the hoi polloi trolling the web.)

Digital history has and has not transformed history. Monographs are still written, published in book form, and read on laps, not on lap-tops. But I continue to be amazed by the keyword search data bases such as ProQuest, which enable research that would have taken months to be completed in minutes, and has facilitated a new type of quantitative history. (The post I had on this blog several weeks ago on the frequency of the appearance of the Mets and the Yankees in the Times is an example of this.) And history blogs such as Greater New York are a new phenomena, a way of discussing history somewhere between private correspondence between friends and finished and polished papers at conferences. This sort of communication simply didn’t exist before the internet, and how it is and will change the nature of historical discourse is something we will watch unfold in the years to come.

It is a pity and a tragedy that Roy won’t be around to watch it, and the other ways in which digital technology will change the ancient calling of historian. He will be missed, by those inside and outside his huge circles of friends.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In New York City, Photographs From the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War--whose heroism, destruction and wrenching political disputes were documented by some of the best photography of the twentieth century--still sparks strong feelings in New York City. Now, a fine quartet of exhibits at the International Center of Photography recalls photographers who figured prominently in the war (Gerda Taro and Robert Capa), visual media in the Republic, and the execution of Republican civilians. If you thought the war was part of the past, you will be awakened by works like the photo at left of an execution bullet, dug up from a mass grave of Spanish Republicans. (Francesc Torres, Dark is the Room Where We Sleep, 2007, copyright Francesc Torres.)

Gerda Taro, often remembered as Robert Capa's partner in love and business, here emerges as a photographer in her own right. Born Gerta Pohorylle in Germany, where she was a leftist activist, she fled to Paris to escape Nazi persecution. There, she became the business agent of a young Hungarian photographer and developed her own photography. Eventually, they took the names under which they would be better known: Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. The two went to Spain together.

The exhibit presents more than eighty of Taro's photographs, along with magazines that give visitors a valuable sense of how her pictures appeared in European publications. In this show, the first major exhibit of Taro's work, we get a good sense of the range of her work.

If her photos emphasizing the clenched-fist salute of the Popular Front look like cliches of socialist realism, the bulk of her work is more impressive. Her photographs of a war orphan eating soup, a man and woman of the Republican militia relaxing together, and a blood-stained stretcher memorably depict the interior emotions of the war. The intimacy of her best work, seventy years on, is still impressive. So is her courage. In July 1937, covering Republicans' retreat from Brunete, she jumped onto the running board of a car. She was killed when the car was sideswiped by a tank. In Paris, tens of thousand mourned her.

If the Taro exhibit introduces an under-appreciated photographer, Other Weapons: Photography and Print Culture During the Spanish Civil War explores the media culture of Republican Spain in wartime. Displaying posters, photographs and magazines, Other Weapons is a valuable integration of media history, political history and art history.

Equally strong is This is War! Robert Capa at Work, which takes Taro's partner through Spain, his work from China, and his coverage of United States forces in Europe during World War II. The exhibit devotes special attention to some of Capa's most famous works: the Falling Soldier of the Spanish Civil War, the D-day invasion, and the deaths of G.I.s in combat during the final days of the war in Germany.

Just as Other Weapons situates visual media in the larger context of the war, This is War shows how Capa's photos were reproduced in major magazines, such as LIFE. The result is an exhibit that lifts Capa's work out of the narrow realms of art--in which his photographs are presented simply on their own--and presents them in the context of the media and culture of their time.

If these three exhibits use images to recover the world of the Thirties and Forties, Dark is the Room Where We Sleep: A Project by Francesc Torres, introduces to Americans the grim echoes of the civil war in the Spanish present. In this installation, Torres, a Barcelona artist, depicts the excavation of an unmarked mass grave of 46 civilian supporters of the Republic killed by Franco's forces. The grave, outside the village of Villamayor de los Montes in northern Spain, is one of many that date from the war. It is one of the few, however, that has been uncovered and documented.

The photographs depict everything from the grave to surviving relatives to volunteers in the excavation. But perhaps most moving is the centerpiece of the final room in the show: an illuminated pedestal that displays a battered watch that belonged to one of the victims of the shooting. Its hands are missing, so it records no particular moment in time----and thereby it reminds us of how the crimes of the past echo into the present.

The exhibits will be up through January 6, 2008.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Of Whores and Their Children, and Immigrants and Their Licenses

In 1772 Justus Möser, a German official and fairly well-known historian, wrote an essay entitled, “On the Diminished Disgrace of Whores and their Children in Our Day.” Möser argued that back in the old days, when people took their societal obligations seriously, the children of out of wedlock births were simply shunned and lived their out their pitiful lives in disgrace—bastards, after all, are bastards.

But in his day, with the rise of orphanages and foundling hospitals, there was a new attitude afoot; some argued that the children of whores and other low class and caste products of short-term liaisons had done nothing wrong themselves, and did not inherit their parent’s guilt. For Möser this attitude was unacceptable. The reason the children of out of wedlock births should inherit a stigma was to discourage unacceptable behavior. If illegitimate children are treated as legitimate, as the bleeding-hearts wanted, he argued, prostitution will flourish and copulation will thrive.

This is a classic conservative attitude (I became acquainted with the essay in Jerry Z. Muller’s excellent historical anthology of conservative thinking, simply entitled Conservatism.) For Möser bad and unwanted behavior can be controlled only by stiff penalties for those that engage in it. Unless there is real suffering, there is no impulse to reform. It is not really individual guilt or responsibility that is at issue; it is need for collective shaming for an unwanted class of persons, including their minor dependants, and others involved with them. It is not the rights of an individual that is at stake; it is the prerogatives of society and social order.

I thought of Möser’s essay reading Rob’s excellent post on the controversy on whether illegal and undocumented immigrants should have the right to obtain New York State driver’s licenses. Oh, there’s a lot of back and forth on terrorism, like all issues of the day, but it is largely irrelevant to the emotional heart of the issue (and to the facts of the case.) For some, if you come into this country outside of the regular processes, you ought to be shunned, basically to discourage others. The other side argues that, once an immigrant is here, what is most important is trying to help them to have useful and productive roles in American society. The analogy to bastardy is really not that far fetched; much of the debate about immigration, now, and dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, was over what might be called “legitimate” and illegitimate” Americans; what’s most important is not who you are as an individual, or what you are doing in this country, but how you arrived here.

We have a long history of second-class citizenship in this country. In many ways the great task of American democracy, from the founding of the country through the 1960s was to make all people born in this country, in the truest sense of the word, citizens. In his best known work, Jesus and the Disinherited, the African-American theologian Howard Thurman makes a contrast between the religion of Jesus and the religion of Paul. Paul was a Roman citizen, born in Tarsus in Asia Minor; Jesus a non-citizen born in the Galilee, who lived his life under the thumb of Roman power, and for Thurman, this made all the difference in their understanding of religion and approaches to life. Thurman, born in the Jim Crow south in 1899, based much of his religious thought on an exploration of the spiritual implications of citizenship, and his conviction that second-class citizenship for blacks was not, in any substantial way, citizenship at all.

As we made progress in this country towards solving the problems second-class citizenship in the 1960s, only to find that we had created a new class of “second-class non-citizens,” illegal or undocumented immigrants. We are still trying to deal with the implications of this. The solution will likely not be in ending this class of American altogether, either by removing them from this country, or granting them all “first-class non-citizenship.” They are too numerous, too important in our society, and too much a part of the way that modern economies and population transfers work. And probably we can’t simply have totally open borders, either.

But one thing that I know is that the approach of latter-day Justus Möser’s, who think that by ratcheting up civil and civic disabilities on illegal immigrants, like denying them driving licenses, that they will somehow make the problem go away are barking up the wrong tree and likely to be disappointed. The debate we need on the economic, political, philosophical, and even religious implications of the new class of immigrant, and their role in American society, needs to be as searching as the one that ended Jim Crow.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A New India at the Newark Museum

Two teenage boys pass the night picking through the trash. A mother and son peer through a barred door after religious rioting. An artist fascinated by the collision between past and present photographs himself at the center of a 360 degree panoramic photo of a taxi stand. All of these are images from today's India, and all are part of a strong new exhibit at the Newark Museum, India: Public Places/Private Spaces--Contemporary Photography and Video Art.

India is co-curated by Gayatri Sinha, an independent curator and art critic in India, and Paul Sternberger, an associate professor of art history at Rutgers-Newark. I'm a friend and colleague of Paul, so I can't claim complete impartiality on this show. But I can tell you that it is well worth seeing.

Featuring street photography, photojournalism, video art and more, India presents over 100 works by 28 photographers and video artists. The show skillfully navigates the relationships between past and present, public and private, peace and violence, male and female, India and its diaspora.

India is an excellent introduction to a country that Americans once mistakenly saw as an unchanging nation of ancient customs. With the growth of the Indian economy, globalization, and Indian immigration to the U.S., that outdated image can no longer hold. The changes that are transforming the inner and outer worlds of Indians are important, revealing and artfully depicted in this show.

India begins on the ground floor of the museum and jumps to the third for its conclusion. The show is strongly grounded in photojournalism and documentary photography, but goes well beyond these genres. "Rather than using their cameras simply to record the world as they find it," the exhibit states, "these artists construct narratives, play roles and perform for the camera." While these works raise familiar themes in contemporary culture--gender, identity, family history--they are always treated in an Indian context that makes you think anew about the subcontinent.

While exhibit labels identify the artists and their relationship to the works on display, some photographs left me yearning to learn more about the people depicted. Why did the inhabitants of a village in Karela, photographed by Vivek Vilasini, give their children names such as Gramsci, Lenin, Stalin and Soviet Breeze? An identification with marxism and communism, obviously. But how did these set down roots in southern India?

Similarly, I am haunted by the image of a mother and son after religious rioting. But explaining their situation by saying that "the Gujarat riots in Ahmedabad are the gory aftermath of the Godhra train incident" will leave some visitors from the United States confused--and, I hope, curious.

At the same time, the religious and ethnic strife recalled in the exhibit remind us that life and art in India have much to teach us about the challenges of living in a multi-religious democracy. If you want to understand the conflicts, innovations and accommodations that define modern life, India is a good place to start.

India will be at the Newark Museum until January 6, 2008.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Out of the Shadows

As immigrants once again redefine what it means to be a New Yorker, we should avoid any policy that drives newcomers--legal or illegal--into legal and economic shadows beyond the reach of the law. That's why Governor Eliot Spitzer's policy of making illegal immigrants eligible for drivers' licenses makes good sense.

Despite the claims of critics that the new license policy will undermine security, the safeguards built into his plan should be enough to maintain our safety. At the same time, they'll expand the pool of insured drivers on our roads.

Most important, licensing drivers is a healthy effort to end the social isolation of illegal immigrants. As the New York City police recognized long ago, they need the help of immigrants--legal and illegal--to keep order. They won't get tips from people who are worried about someone uncovering the state of their immigration status. The logic of that observation led the police to encourage even illegal immigrants to become as much a part of our legal mainstream as possible. The same holds true on drivers' licenses.

Given the Bush Administration's failure to enact any kind of reasonable immigration policy, and concerns about terrorism, the licensing issue is ripe for fearmongers.

But labor unions and the state's Catholic bishops support the plan. It is also likely to gain support from the growing number of immigrant voters, who see attacks on illegals as part of a politics of hostility toward all immigrants.

Finally, Spitzer seems to relish a fight on this one for all the right reasons. Here's hoping that he wins.

The Mother of All Battles

What was the largest military campaign ever fought in New York State? In terms of casualties, surely it was the Battle of Cumorah, in 385 CE, near what is now Palmyra, NY, when the Nephite nation made their last stand against the Lamanites, who annihilated the Nephite forces, slaying all but 24 of the Nephite 230,000 men in arms. The Lamanites slowly rounded up the remaining Nephites, except for the commander in chief of the Nephites, Moroni, who spent many years on the run, until in 421 CE, he returned to a hill on the battlefield of Cumorah, where he buried a history of his people on gold tablets.

There they remained until their discovery in the late 1820s, by Joseph Smith, who translated the tablets from their original “reformed Egyptian” and published the results in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.

There are, however, two problems to the Battle of Cumorah assuming its rightful place in New York military history. First, you have to accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon, something that few persons do who aren’t members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. (Let’s be honest, there is absolutely no one outside of the Mormon church who accepts it as factual.)

And then there’s the other problem, Mormons who do accept the Book of Mormon as a factual record generally do not locate the Battle of Cumorah in New York State in New York State, but somewhere in Central America. This is because by unanimous archeological consensus, New York in the Middle Woodland period around the 5thh century CE had nothing of the advanced economy and complex urban structures described in the Book of Mormon and the only somewhat plausible place to locate the events of the Book of Mormon in the Americas and without discarding the chronology would be in the world of the Olmecs and the early Maya.

But this creates the additional problem of explaining of how the tablets made their way from Guatemala to western New York, as well as the difficulty, that, as far as I understand the history of this, Joseph Smith and the early members of the Mormon church believed that Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, NY, where Smith claimed to find the gold tablets, was the site of the climactic battle between the Lamanites and the Nephites. I don’t know, it seems to me inventing two Hill Cumorahs to get out of this archeological difficulty sort of strains credulity.

These reflections are prompted by reading Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, an excellent biography of Joseph Smith, who is a person whose life story is, I must confess, of unending fascination to me. While it is generally the policy of the Greater New York blog to avoid commenting on sectarian religious matters, I think locating the events of the Book of Mormon in Central America is a mistake. First, a Central American setting is no more convincing than one in New York, and despite a century of assiduous Mesoamerican archeological digging, they Mormons have been unable to turn up any archeological evidence that early Mormon history unfolded there, and they might as well stop trying. They will not convince anyone not already an LDS member.

And second, this neglects what is most valuable about the Book of Mormon (at least to a gentile like myself) that the book is a sacred myth of early American and early New York history. The Book of Mormon is a violent book, its pages filled with warfare and combat, apostasy and assassination, revolution and murder, the persecution of the righteous, errands to the wilderness gone bad. This is the history of the early United States and New York, of a homeland carved out of fights with the Indians and the British. As the model for the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew Bible, showed, the creation of a new nation is a messy business, the displacement of one people and the travails of their supplanters. When Smith wrote the Book of Mormon in the late 1820s, there had three wars fought in New York the previous 75 years (the French and Indian War, the War for Independence, the War of 1812.) There had been, in western New York, mass expulsions of the Indians, and the exodus of the loyalists. This is the world of the Book of Mormon, with a dark vision of America perhaps similar in some ways to the other great New York State writer of the period, James Fennimore Cooper. Like Cooper, the Book of Mormon doesn’t so much critique its subject as exhibit in all of its contradictions. Nation building, as we have learned again in recent years, is complicated and nasty, and the divine will and the course of history is not always easy to discern.

Whenever I visit a famous military site, like Gettysburg or the Plains of Abraham, I am always struck by the incongruity between their pastoral peacefulness and the reason for their historical significance. When Joseph Smith looked at Palmyra, Rochester and other places in western New York in the 1820s, he did not see placid farmland and canal towns. He saw a battlefield.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Bye-Bye, Cameralism!

The trooper scandal in Albany drags on and on, with the state senate determined to wrest every conceivable publicity advantage out of this. In some ways it is difficult to take sides on this. Clearly, what Gov. Spitzer did was wrong, and it was wrong because it is bad to use government officials on what amounted to a personal vendetta. Its in Spitzer's blood. Targeting individuals to be subject of governmental investigations is part of what being an attorney general is all about, and perhaps it’s a good reason not to elect former prosecutors to high executive office, as the impulse to make examples of enemies takes precedence over other political possibilities. (Its reason #537 not to elect Giuliani president.)

But the bigger problem with what Spitzer did was that it personalized and criminalized what is really a much bigger issue; the abuse of personal transportation services by high NYS officials. Some of this came out with the Alan Hevesi investigations, and what is disturbing about this is, to quote I think Michael Kinsley, is not what is illegal, but what is legal about the way state officials are chauffered around the state at government expense, fitting in their private business along the way.

But the other side of this is that Joe Bruno and the State Senate represents all that is worst in New York State, the entrenched and conservative core of our do-nothing legislature, and Spitzer’s foolish actions made them look like martyrs.

There are many things wrong with the New York State Senate, some of which I hope to address in future posts, but let me take up the most fundamental question first: why do we need a state senate in the first place?

Following from the US constitution, every state (except for Nebraska), in lockstep, created bi-cameral legislatures, in which legislation has to pass both houses before being enacted into law. Bicameralism is a legacy of the founding fathers belief that checks and balances were needed in a functioning democracy, and that a strong upper house was needed to restrain the overly populist tendencies of the lower house. The original motivation for this has long ceased to have any political purpose, but the institutions created to maintain this linger on, through political inertia.

What happens in practice is that checks and balances ends up giving power to the checkers and the balancers. The lack of democracy in New York State, the decision making in the state congealed to the so-called “three men in a room” comes about because of the nature of our government—with the assembly permanently in the hands of the Democrats, and the senate permanently in the hands of Republicans, and the governor either one or the other, nothing can be done in the state without backroom deals, and this is only to be expected when the “people” are forced to participate in a bi-cameral system that guarantees that their “voice” will be expressed in antithetical ways.

Bicameralism is an idea that has come and gone. Most countries have unicameral legislatures without any diminution of their effectiveness. We get nothing in New York State from a two house legislature except its expense and ineffectiveness. The US Senate is perhaps the least fairly apportioned elective body in the world, but at least US Senators represent something real, the states. Since the “one person, one vote” requirements went into effect the 1960s the state senators represent nothing but districts, the same as the assembly. (The state senate used to represent counties, but this, in New York and almost every other state, tended to over-represent rural areas at the expense of cities, and was eliminated.)

We are stuck with the US Senate forever I am afraid, but a state constitutional convention is far easier to arrange. We need a unicameral legislature. I don’t want seem to be picking on the senate at the expense of the assembly, which I don’t really like either, but the senate is the smaller body and I would rather have as broad a representation as possible. If people choose, we could call the new unicameral legislature by a new name, signaling a new start. (The NYS Parliament, Knesset, or Chamber of Deputies or whatever) But it would be a body that Democrats and Republicans would fight to control, and as a result could and would periodically change hands. And it would much more directly, and without needless intermediation, represent the citizenry of New York State

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Changing Tides in Long Island City

Look out to sea and you behold a timeless vista. Turn around and look at where the sea meets the shore, as the historian John Stilgoe reminds us, and you'll often see a deeply historic scene. This principle holds not just for the ocean, but for the tidal strait that is the New York City's East River--especially in that part of Queens called Long Island City.

Once an industrial neighborhood sandwiched between Astoria to the north and Greenpoint, Brooklyn to the south, in the last ten years Long Island City-particularly the Hunters Point area--has become the site of new, high-rise developments on the east bank of the East River. New buildings, and the parks opened with them, have transformed the shoreline in a kind of microcosm of recent changes all around New York's waterfront. The results are mixed.

On one hand, the new, green shoreline of Long Island City--with public parks and excellent views of Manhattan--has reclaimed the riverbank for public uses. Affluent newcomers to the neighborhood have brought economic development and a range of stores, cafes, bars and restaurants unimaginable seventeen years ago, when I discovered Long Island City as the home of the excellent Italian restaurant, Manducati's.

In 1980, Long Island City was still a working-class, industrial neighborhood. It had a patchwork quality to it, with simple row houses and small apartments adjoining machine shops and factories. The new shoreline high rises, which lie at the western edge of the old neighborhood, aren't really integrated with the old community. To walk from the subway stop at Vernon and Jackson is to start in the world of working class New York and wind up in an enclave of affluence.

I talked to one woman from the neighborhood, who grew up there and now plans to go to Italy to attend graduate school. She recognizes the pluses and minuses of the recent past, but laments that the population growth brought by the new buildings has made her old neighborhood a more anonymous place. "I don't want my neighbors to be strangers," she said.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Advertising Makes a Subway Car Surreal

On a recent trip aboard the subway shuttle between Grand Central Station and Times Square, I was transported to an alien environment of larger-than-life television stars and outer-space imagery inspired by the NBC series "Heroes." Blame it on the advertising strategies of the MTA.

The interior of the car--walls and ceilings--was decked out entirely to make me think of the show, which depicts our world in the aftermath of a solar eclipse that leaves ordinary people with extraordinary powers. On the ceiling was fiery outer space imagery. On the walls were a dark, handsome fellow with wavy hair and stubble on is chin; a blonde woman in sparking earings; and two intense-looking Asian men. Everywhwere slogans exhorted me to tune in: "New purpose." "New adventure." "New quest."

The all-ad car that I rode in is part of the "brand car" strategy adopted by the MTA and advertisers. Although the concept goes back to at least around 2001, according to the New York Sun, I'd never seen anything so all-encompassing on the Lexington Avenue line, which I ride regularly to work. There, the typical ads tout subway security, the virtues of education and English lessons.

Balancing the demands of big, lucrative clients and less-wealthy small businesses in subway advertising is an old dilemma. In a article published in 1997, the Times described how the MTA was then backtracking from a big-money ad strategy to seek ads from smaller businesses.

Out of such strategies came subway cars with a range of ads--some of them for businesses, some for public institutions. A trip on the IRT brought you face to face with Roach Motel, personal injury lawyers and the City University. These ads weren't always elegant, but their juxtaposition on the walls of a subway car always reminded me of the splendid cacaphony of New York. At the very least, they were good for a laugh. And the best of them--the short poems of the Poetry in Motion series, the biographical blurbs of City University students and faculty, and the AIDS awareness telenovela of Julio y Marisol--were interesting, even inspiring..

I don't pine for the days of subway graffiti, which I always saw as vandalism no better than scribbling in a library book.

But I do like to see my subway cars, like my fellow passengers, reflecting the diversity and energy of the city.

Getting off the shuttle, I checked to see if the car next to mine extolled "Heroes." Instead, it was devoted to the show "Journeyman;" The slogan inside the car read, "Time changes everything." Indeed.

A Brief Note on Neoconservatism

Roger Cohen—who is he and how did he become an op-ed columnist for the Times?—had an column yesterday wherein he lamented the fallen estate of neo-conservatism, and complained that liberal Iraq hawks are become marginalized in the current political debate.

This is perhaps a tad exaggerated, giving that, as Michael Tomasky points out, that most of the liberal hawks, with greater or lesser degrees of repentance, remain as visible as they were before the invasion of Iraq (lets say David Remnick, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, or George Packer for example) and the current inhabitant of the White House and commander-in-chief of US forces remains in thrall to neo-conservatism.

And Cohen of course has to slur the anti-neo-conservatives, all of whom shown greater political prescience than he did, as Antisemites or at least wannabe Jew haters. “Neo-con,” he writes, “has become shorthand for neo-con-Zionist conspiracy.”

But Cohen is right in one important regard. Outside of a shrinking circle of true believers, neo-conservatism is no longer considered the “wave of the future” (a term first used in reference to fascism), the inevitable destiny of all right thinking people. Neoconservatism has undergone an intellectual collapse similar to that experienced by Communism, an ideology that also once hailed itself as being in the vanguard of history. But the Iraq War has been neo-conservatism’s Purge Trial, Hitler-Stalin Pact, and 20th Party Congress all combined, and its self-destruction, at least as a serious way of viewing the world, has been spectacular.

Whittaker Chambers knew a lot about getting on and off the bandwagon of history, and about dedicating your life to a failed ideology. When I read Cohen’s column, I thought of an article on neoconservatism that appeared in the Times a few years ago, by Chamber’s biographer, Sam Tanenhaus. With the help of Proquest I located this article (September 19, 2000), and let me quote its last paragraph:

“Neoconservatism has had a trickle-down effect on the political culture, and its influence on both major parties is evident even today, Mr. [Norman] Podhoretz says, with considerable satisfaction. Or perhaps, as David Brooks puts it, “We’re all neoconservatives now.”

Or not. Just as they spoke of post-Communist Europe, I hope soon we can start the rebuilding of a post-neoconservative America.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

India and Israel

There was an interesting article in the Times yesterday on how Indian-American groups are beginning to emulate Jewish-American groups as a source of ethnic political influence, and there are dreams of an India lobby rivaling the Israel lobby in its scope and puissance. They can even call their organization AIPAC (American-Indian Political Action Committee.)

In thinking about it, there are a lot of similarities between India and Israel. They received their independence from Britain a year apart (1947 and 1948, respectively), and both nations were born through a hastily mapped partition with a Muslim country that has resulted in six decades of tension, war, and conflict with their neighbors. (However, Israel liked its partition, while India hated theirs.) They were originally democratic socialist polities that in recent decades have moved towards free market economies. (It is difficult to think of two world leaders that were more alike in their general political philosophies than Nehru and Ben-Gurion, and their tenures as prime minister, from the late 1940s into the early 1960s, roughly coincided.) And in recent decades both countries have been riven by strife between the optimistic and secular vision of their founders and a xenophobic, religious-based nationalism. (Both countries have had popular prime ministers assassinated.)

And the dominant religions of Israel and India are similar as well, despite the fact that Hinduism is basically polytheistic, and Judaism is the first important monotheistic religious, apologies to Akhenaton and Zoroaster aside. Although it was nice to read in the Times article that “Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, met with Hindu leaders in India, after which the Jewish and Hindu clerics declared common beliefs, among them that their "respective traditions teach that there is one supreme being,” I think what is most valuable about Hinduism is that it is the only genuine polytheism to survive to modern times, long after Zeus, Apollo et al. were ploughed under by Christianity. (To be sure, there are aspects of Hinduism that emphasize the unity of God, say in the Upanisads, as aspects of Judaism that see God as a plurality, most notably in Kabbalism. In every polytheism there is a monotheism striving to get out, and vice versa.)

But there are strong affinities between Hinduism and Judaism nontheless. Among the “Great Religions” Judaism and Hinduism are the oldest (and the only two whose origins can not really be dated), the only two that are essentially national cults, and the only two that do not proselytize. And although Judaism and Hinduism both have extensive ethical and metaphysical teachings, they are, at their core, the great religions of ritual purity, strewn with myriad obligations and proscriptions for the believer.

This is perhaps a bit far afield of the Times article. To return to Indian-Americans seeking political power, it seems to me that Indians lack a New York City, a large metropolitan area whose politics they can dominate. They need a power base. I’m not an expert in this, but I think the Indian-American population is probably too widely dispersed for their own political good.

And then, there is a misunderstanding of how the Israel lobby works, on the part of Indians and many others. This brings us to the subject of the new book out by Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby, which has received praise and furious condemnations. Perhaps this is a subject for a subsequent post. All that I would say is that much of the argument on the power of the Jewish lobby seems to have the relationship backwards. Israel’s unique role as an ally of the United States has come about less because of pressure by American Jews and others to have their government support Israel, but because US government has sought over the decades, for its own geo-political strategic reasons, a close relation with Israel, and then more or less went about creating an Israel lobby to serve its own interests. (By all accounts the “Israel lobby” is far more conservative on Israel and other matters than American Jewish opinion as a whole.) In many ways, the US government and neo-conservatives in high places (Jewish and non-Jewish) have manipulated Jewish-American opinion far more than the reverse.

Perhaps Indian Americans will someday gain enough political power to rival Jewish Americans, and the India lobby will equal the Israel lobby. All I can say to Indian Americans is; be careful what you wish for.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Tragedy and Inspiration

When Frank Carvill of the New Jersey National Guard was mortally wounded in an ambush in Baghdad in 2004, one of the men who tried to save him was an Iraqi interpreter attached to his unit. Today, that interpreter and his family are living safely in New Jersey. For that, you can thank the good men of the Jersey Guard---and Frank's own inspiring example.

Suhaib Abdulwahab is the interpreter's name. I met him, and his wife, at a dinner-dance last Saturday night in honor the men from the outfit (3rd Battalion, 112th Field Artillery) killed in two bloody days in Baghdad: Frank, Christopher Duffy, Humberto Timoteo, and Ryan Doltz.

Capt. Don Kennedy, who admired and commanded Frank, told me the story of the ambush and Suhaib's efforts to save Frank's life. Standing with Don, in the back of a crowded VFW hall in Saddle Brook, NJ, it wasn't easy to listen.

I had always consoled myself with the belief that Frank died instantly in an explosion. To learn that he was initially conscious, and that he told his comrades to look first to another man, was difficult to hear--and fully in character for Frank, who always put others first.

Don explained how the men from the outfit, who appreciated Suhaib's willingness to accompany them on dangerous missions, worked to bring over him and his family. (Mike Kelly told the whole story beautifully in today's Record.)

Then he told me something that I'll never forget.

Frank was a major activist in New York and New Jersey for Irish Americans and immigrant rights. And as Don worked against all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles to bring over Suhaib and his family, he thought about Frank and all the work he did for immigrants. Frank became an inspiration.

Frank's death will always be a tragedy, but the great example that he set for so many people will enrich the world for years to come.