Friday, November 2, 2007

Fighting Words

In October 1929, at a meeting of the New York State Parks Council, Robert Moses, chairman of the state parks commission, was no doubt being his usual overbearing and obnoxious self . At one point in the meeting, one of the commissioners, a Long Island gentleman named Raymond H. Torrey, goaded by Moses, told him, “you big noisy kike, you can’t speak to me like that.”

At this point Moses (a big man, over 6 feet tall), assaulted Torrey, trying to strangle him, and according to Robert Caro in The Power Broker, another person in the meeting had to pry Moses’s fingers off Torrey’s neck (described by Caro as a “pudgy little man), at which point Moses tried to throw a heavy iron ashtray/spittoon in Torrey’s direction.

Caro, as he invariably does in The Power Broker, takes the side of whomever is against Moses, berating Moses for his uncontrolled temper and occasional penchant for physical violence, and calls him a coward and bully to boot, saying Moses never picked on anyone his own size, and never had fist fights “with a man to whom he had a chance of losing.” As for Mr. Torrey, he was mild-mannered and scholarly, a builder of lean-tos in the Adirondacks, a bird watcher and a hiker. Caro even throws in the old chestnut that some of “his closest friends were Jewish.”

I don’t know. It seems to me if you call someone a kike in a public meeting, you get what you deserve. The incident caused a minor stir, and Caro doesn’t quote Moses’s defense, as it appeared in the Times (the article didn’t use the k-word .) He said Torrey “used an epithet which has never been addressed to me in all my life and I think he deserved much more of a thrashing than he got, and I guess pretty nearly any one would agree with me as to this.” Indeed.

Moses lived at a time one word could still cut through all the polite assumptions about the place of Jews in society. Torrey’s comment raised the essential problem with all strategies of assimilation. If effect, he was saying, I don’t care how powerful you are or think you are, strip away the veneer, and you’re nothing but a dirty little Jew (or black, or woman) how dare you speak to your betters like that! One of the biggest problems in integrating the Armed Forces in WWII was that some generals thought there would be full scale race riots if a black sergeant during basic training barked orders at a white man. And it certainly isn’t silly to think that much of the anti-Hillary sentiment is still premised on the belief that a woman’s place shouldn’t be high as commander in chief, ordering around the still primarily male armed forces.

Robert Moses spent his life rejecting any public identification with Judaism, which is possibly one reason the anti-Semitic epithet stung as much as it did. Now we tend to favor more aggressive assertion of ethnic, racial, or group identity as a possible antidote to hostility. I suppose it is more effective, but nothing really prepares you for the moment when you cease being seen for your position and accomplishments, and start being judged by your religious, ethnic, racial or sexual background. I have never been called kike, and I can't imagine resorting to fisticuffs to defend my religious heritage. (I'm proud of my innate Jewish pusillanimity. ) Nonetheless, looking back at the events of 1929, I think it is fair to say that Moses overreacted, but if you ask me, Moses should have beaten Torrey’s gentile WASP ass to a pulp


Rob Snyder said...

There's no excusing Torrey's slur of Moses, but I think it worthwhile to point out that Torrey had at least one redeeming trait: as a journalist and hiker, he helped to found the Appalachian Trail and the extraordinary network of trails found in Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park.

A New Englander by birth, Torrey went to New York City to work as a journalist. Eventually, he wrote a hiking column for the Evening Post, predecessor of today's New York Post, called "The Long Brown Path." Through "The Long Brown Path," Torrey organized and energized the hiking community in the New York metropolitan area. He also blazed trails that are still in use today.

Torrey died in 1938; he is commemorated with a memorial cut into the rock of the summit of Long Mountain, a peak with great views.

Torrey's vile name calling is painful to recall. It should not be ignored or minimized, but set alongside the good work he did to create hiking paths enjoyed by people of all faiths today.

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