Friday, February 29, 2008

Welcoming the One-Party State!

The news that a Democrat has captured a seat in the New York State senate this week in a special election in the Watertown area, becoming the first Democrat to win in the area for a century is the big news in Albany this week. With a 32-30 majority in the senate, the effective lead of the Republicans is down to one, one change and the lieutenant governor will be able to break the tie, and reorganize the senate for the Dems. The disgusting gerrymander of the senate that has prevailed for three decades, and with the population trends in the state being what they are, will be ending sooner or later, and probably sooner.

As a Democratic partisan, I think this would be a good thing, but I think it would be even better for the state as a whole, regardless of party affiliation—the thirty years of ossification of Republican control of the Senate and Democratic control of the assembly has basically killed representative government in the state, and reduced politics to backroom negotiations between cliques. A Democratic senate would be such an electrifying change that its consequences would be hard to predict, but it no doubt be salutary. Rather than having their own little fiefdoms, Democrats in the assembly, and Republicans in the senate, the two parties would have to actually negotiate and try to convince fellow members of the correctness of their positions, rather than just blocking the efforts of the other branch. I suspect the power of the Speaker and Senate majority leader would be lessened, and minority rights would have to be broadened. The two parties would have to increase their geographic scope—upstate interests would no longer be automatically protected by voting for Republicans, as state senators have been trying to convince upstate voters for decades, and raise the fear of NYC dominance. And Democrats, to create a lasting majority will have to go beyond the identification of their party with downstate. The geographic identity of the two parties, which have been locked in place for decades, can finally be seriously challenged. Perhaps the two branches of the legislature will finally learn to work together, and establish a genuine committee structure.

Who knows? Would I be so happy if the Republicans were about the capture control of both branches of the legislature? Probably not, but Republicans are never going to win the assembly, and I think ending the division of the legislature would be a positive development however it worked out. But it will be Democrats that will soon control of the governor's mansion, and the legislature. All of this is probably wildly overoptimistic, but I for one relish the prospects and possibilities of living in a one-party state. May its day be hastened.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, who was honored tonight in a film broadcast on Channel Thirteen, is a heroic folksinger and activist. He is also a New Yorker. Indeed, it is impossible to understand his life without appreciating how his work has long been woven into our city and state.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, an American Masters documentary produced by Norman Lear and Seeger's wife Toshi, recognizes both the Greenwich Village Old Left scene that surrounded Seeger's work with the Almanac Singers and his more recent role in cleaning up the Hudson River with the sloop Clearwater.

Th film is honest about the place of the Communist Party in Seeger's life, although it ignores the Almanacs' opposition to US intervention in World War II during the days of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It also depicts the ugly blacklisting that surrounded his career long after he left the Party in 1949.

In footage of Pete and Toshi visiting the Village, viewers get to see the house where Pete lived in his days with the Almanacs. We also learn that Pete proposed to Toshi while they walked along Washington Square and, more importantly, that his lifelong activism would have been impossible without the enormous work she did keeping home and family together.

Scenes filmed at the log home that Seeger built overlooking the Hudson in Beacon lead into a long section on the sloop Clearwater and Seeger's environmental activism. And a brief appearance by George Pataki endorsing Seeger's work is a well-deserved tribute and a great example of the Old Left's ability to work with mainstream political leaders to achieve valuable goals like cleaning up the Hudson.

In interviews for the film, Seeger persuasively comes off as radical deeply in the American grain. He cites Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and persuasively displays the deep patriotism of a man who loves his country but wants to put it right. In one particularly moving segment, Seeger-who visited North Vietnam in 1972--describes meeting a veteran after a concert. The vet was so angry at Seeger that he wanted to kill him. Instead, they talked and wound up singing together.

The film has plenty of interviews with people such as Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen. But for me, the best material is old footage of Seeger singing "We Shall Overcome" at a civil rights demonstration and more recent footage of Seeger living in the country by the banks of the Hudson.

I've been singing along with Pete Seeger for almost forty years. For a long time, his ability to combine optimism about the American future with a tough commitment to social change has made me proud to be an American. As the film reminded me, Seeger's life's work, so intimately bound up with our city and state, can also make us proud of him as a New Yorker.

De Mortuis nil nisi bonum

There are a lot of myths that surround William F. Buckley Jr., and they will no doubt be out in force in the next several days. The first is that is that there were no conservatives or no conservative movement in this country before he started the National Review in 1955. Conservatives, in the person of Robert Taft, nearly captured the 1952 Republican nomination, still dominated the solid Democratic South, Joe McCarthy was doing his thing, and conservatives generally had generally given liberals fits since the beginning of the New Deal. Buckley’s obituary in the Times quotes the famous statement by Lionel Trilling, that c. 1950 that there was no conservative tradition in this country. This represent’s Trilling’s myopia, and a Saul Steinbergesque view of the United States, but is not an accurate assessment of the strength of conservatism at mid-century.

The second myth is that Buckley was the most important figure in the growth of a conservative movement in this country. He had his role, but conservative apologists love to point to the elegant, witty, and charming Buckley as the key figure in the conservative revival, to the neglect of the person who really was the key person, George Wallace, who showed in 1964 and 1968 that a link between a mildly post-Jim Crow South and conservative northern populism was a potent political combination, and it is populism, and not Buckley’s pseudo-aristocratic elitism that became the basis of the modern conservative movement. Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes are the political descendants of George Wallace, and not William F. Buckley. If Buckley accomplished anything, it was in making this coalition, the famous southern strategy, intellectually respectable in circles where this mattered, but part of the success of modern conservatism was its indifference or hostility to the sort of respectability a cultural mandarin like Lionel Trilling could bestow in the first place.

Buckley did fight a few good fights, certainly against anti-Semitism on the right, and the addled conspiracy theorists of the John Birch society, but I suspect his greatest political achievement was in the destruction of the Old “isolationist” Right, that had been suspicious of US entry into WWII, and was, in the early 1950s, in the person of people like Murray Rothbard, suspicious of the excesses of the Cold War as well. This opposition by the Old Right to all overseas ventures by the US at least had the virtue of consistency. But Buckley effectively marginalized these voices on the right, and set up what has been the essential contradiction of modern conservatism ever since; a commitment to small government and low taxes, along side an expansive and expensive view of the role of the US military in defeating communism, terrorism, or whatever the latest enemy is deemed to be. This contradiction is central to the Bush administration, and indeed to modern conservatism as a whole, and Buckley was a key figure in creating this muddle, which has bogged us down in needless wars time and again.

Oh, he may have been witty and charming, and genuinely enjoyed serious intellectual give and take in a way that is rare in the world today. I miss “The Firing Line,” and he evidently harbored serious doubts about war in Iraq. I wish he had invited me to sail on his yacht. But if I had to find one phrase to sum up the career of William F. Buckley, it would probably be “war-monger.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's In a Turban?

When I approached my regular newsstand at 86th Street and Lexington this morning, there was so much red and white on the front pages of the local tabloids that I thought they were running stories on Santa Claus. A closer look at the Post and the News revealed photographs of Barak Obama depicted in Somali dress, complete with turban.

Both papers covered themselves against the charge of pandering to anti-Muslim prejudices--the Post with "Bum Wrap" and the News with "Smear We Go"-- by covering Matt Drudge's allegation that the Clinton campaign distributed the photo to malign Obama.

Call me paranoid, but I suspect that the appeal of this story to Drudge is that it's a twofer: in on stroke, he gets to attack Clinton as mean-spirited while furthering the attacks on Obama that depict him as a Muslim--as if that was a bad thing in and of itself.

I don't trust Drudge at all, and the judgement of the tabs on this story seems shaky. As much as they claim to be covering the smear, in the current cultural climate the picture of Obama in a turban says far more than anything in their headlines and stories. This is one case, I fear, where the picture trumps the words. And the picture furthers a scurrilous campaign to slander Obama on ridiculous religious grounds. If they had to run it at all, it deserved to be on the inside pages.

For what it is worth, in the Times--which came off badly in its flawed story on McCain--ignored the story on today's front page.


I’ve just gotten around to reading to reading Judith Richardson’s Posessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley (Harvard University Press, 2003) It’s a remarkable study of ghost stories in the Hudson Valley, of which the best-known are certainly the tales of Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but include many other literary and vernacular ghost stories, from colonial times to the present. Richardson’s primary explanation for the prevalence of ghost stories in the Hudson Valley is similar to the explanation of many phenomena in New York State history; complexity and multi-layeredness, ethnic heterogeneity, and centuries of fighting over contested terrain (the colonial wars and the Revolution are central to many Hudson Valley ghost stories.) Ghosts are part of a history that can only really be glimpsed in fragments. Ghost stories represent “an alternative form of history-making in which things usually forgotten, discarded, or repressed becomes foregrounded, “ a history we cannot really control, a usable past that we do not really know to use, a social history of fictions and figments.

I don’t know if there are a lot of ghost stories about New York City (Richdardson tells a few), but her history made me think of a recent guide book about New York City, Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten New York (2006). It is an audacious work, with nothing about the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, and plenty to say about historical nooks and crannies that really shouldn't still be around but somehow survived--enameled signs on subway platforms that point to streets that no longer exist, a stairway to the Polo Grounds that remains standing, a tiny stretch of Malbone Street that avoided renaming after the Malbone Street disaster in 1918. These are all ghosts, flitting uneasily between historical eras. We generally ignore the anomalies that Walsh’s fine eye uncovers, or smooth them into broader narratives. Walsh reminds that these anomalies, places out of time, can tell us much about the nature of the city and its evolution. The baseball writer Bill James says somewhere that trivia is only a fact disconnected to its context. New York City, like all cities, has a history that exists in fragments, and what makes a city a city is that all the layers of its history co-exist at the same time, in all of its glorious incoherence and inconsistency.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Clarks of Cooperstown

Nicholas Fox Weber’s The Clarks of Cooperstown (Knopf, 2007)is the first comprehensive look at the Clark family that have guided affairs in the Village of Cooperstown since the 1870s. Weber is primarily an art historian, and the book focuses on the careers of Sterling and Stephen Clark, third-generation legatees of the Clark fortune, who were major patrons of the art in the first half of the 20th century. The book is surprisingly absorbing, especially because Sterling and Stephen had a longstanding feud, and did not speak to each other for forty years after about 1920. Sterling, whose opposition to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s went beyond hissing at the Trans-Lux, and who apparently tried to organize an armed rebellion to overthrow Roosevelt and return the country to the gold standard, seems to have been a right-wing nut of the first order. His brother Stephen was more buttoned down and corporate, and was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, and perhaps most famous for firing in 1943 its famous director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

The Clarks made their initial money in sewing machines; while Isaac Singer, the eponymous inventor and founder of the Singer Company was fathering 25 children with half a dozen women, Edward Clark was the practical lawyer who owned half the company, and charted its emergence as the first true multinational corporation. But my main interest in the Clarks is how they created modern Cooperstown as a personal fiefdom and Potemkin village of rural America; building the Otesaga Hotel, one of the last standing grand hotels in the NYS, lured the NY Historical Association from Saratoga, created the Fennimore House and the Farmer’s Museum, and, despite, Stephen’s lack of interest in baseball, and the absolutely ridiculous nature of the story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, made the town the home of baseball’s Hall of Fame. There is something about the utter falsity about Cooperstown as the place where baseball was created that typifies the falseness and lack of reality of the Cooperstown project as a whole. (Although I should say that I love the Glimmerglass Opera Company.)

I guess the Clark’s benefactions have, on the whole, been more positive than negative, and I suppose if I had a ton of money, I would buy some art as well. (I mean, what other type of culture can you really acquire? You can’t buy music or literature, really—a manuscript of a work of music or art is really just a blueprint for the finished work, and you can’t hang them on your wall anyway, and if you have the money you are welcome to purchase handwritten manuscripts of Beethoven’s 9th symphony or Joyce’s Ulysses, I will happily sit in a chair, listening to the Ode to Joy and reading about Leopold Bloom.)

But there’s a part of me than finds inherited wealth, and the ability of its inheritors to shape our culture distasteful, though I am not suggesting that the new found wealth of the parvenu is much better. There was a short-lived effort in the mid-century to create “museums for the people” but this never lived up to its promise. Art museums in particular have remained places created by the wealthy and for the wealthy, allowing average people to trudge around their galleries at their sufferance. And art museums have become, in our era of narcissism, ever more the vanity playthings of the superwealthy. The tradition started by the Clarks and their peers, in which large aspects of high culture is simply assumed to be the plaything of the monied, is stronger than ever, in Cooperstown, in New York City, and more or less anywhere art is appreciated and ever appreciating.

Friday, February 8, 2008


John McCain is a war hero, and with his emergence as the Republican nominee apparent, it seems likely that we will be hearing much about his heroism and suffering as a P.O.W. for the next seven months of McCain as a war hero. I have been thinking about heroism after reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, her harrowing study of the centrality of death in the American Civil War.

The unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War, some 660,000 soldiers alone, created unprecedented physical and metaphysical crises for those who survived the war. At the heart of the moral dilemma of the Civil War, is that in any war: large numbers of people of people die in vain, and there is inevitably a grotesque disproportion between noble war aims and the hard cruel fact of killing people in vast numbers. And many find it difficult to stare the essential meaningless of war in the face, and inevitably, there are those who argue, indeed insist, that those who died did not do so in vain. And the problem is perhaps even greater in so-called “good wars,” wars that, after its carnage is completed, seems to have accomplished some laudable objective, like the abolition of slavery or the elimination of Nazism.

Faust closes the book by discussing Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, almost killed at the Battle of Antietam, emblematic of a generation of Northern intellectuals for whom the war destroyed their “belief in beliefs.” But one belief Holmes retained was a view of the Civil War, that as Faust puts it, “hailed death as an end it itself,” wherein “the very purposelessness of sacrifice created its purpose. “ Or to quote Holmes; “In the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, that faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”

The Civil War, as I suggested, probably should be classified as a “good war.” The War in Vietnam was not, and was an obscene, unnecessary, and futile pursuit that killed somewhere like a million Vietnamese and over 58,000 American soldiers, and did untold damage to Vietnam and the United States for a generation. But bad wars can create as many heroes as good wars, and as in all wars, heroism can blot out all that it is sordid and incomprehensible in the spectacle of humans killing other humans in large numbers, and can become central to a nation’s civic religion, especially when, as Holmes’s suggests, people have a problems finding other things to believe in. (In 2004 the Democrats tried also the Vietnam war hero route, only to find that John Kerry really didn’t qualify, because he departed from Holmes’s script, and refused to blindly accept his duty and criticized the war, and therefore was not really a hero and everything else about his war service was suspect. The only heroes from Vietnam that count are those, like McCain, that imbue the essential meaningless of the war with a retrospective meaning and clarity.)

I have been thinking a lot about suicide recently, and I am struck how much Holmes’s declaration seems like a form of civic suicide, a willingness to throw one’s life away in an effort to prove you are willing to throw your life away. And when enough people are willing to commit civic suicide, nations can die, as did, for instance, the Romanov, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties from 1914 to 1918. I wouldn’t say that the War in Iraq has been an instance of civic suicide, but perhaps can be classified as an example of what experts call “parasuicidal behavior” like drinking a fifth of Scotch before getting into your car and driving along a twisty road at 80 miles an hour.

John McCain is a genuine war hero, and one whose heroism involved great personal loss and physical and spiritual pain. But his suffering does not ennoble the cause he was fighting for in Vietnam, nor can it bring a positive meaning to the meaningless charnel house the United States created in Iraq. Brecht, in a famous line from “The Life of Galileo” wrote that “unhappy the land that needs heroes.” The United States today is a deeply unhappy land. But one thing that it definitely does not need, as its president, is a hero.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Primary Focus

As the Democratic primary season heads into the most exciting and interesting political season that I can remember, I have only one message to the two candidates and their camps: don't tear each other up so badly that the eventual nominee is too bruised to face the Republicans in the fall. And don't toss around loose quips that might turn into Republican attack ads.

In truth, both the Republican and Democratic nominees will face the challenge of winning over supporters of opponents in their own party. McCain will have to bring in evangelical conservatives; if the price of that is giving the vice president's spot to an evangelical conservative, that could undercut McCain’s appeal to moderates and independents.

With the Democrats, of course, the picture is more muddled. We'll have to work through more primaries to see who gets the nomination. The conventional wisdom has it that Clinton's supporters, as partisan Democrats, would work for an Obama candidacy. But the party loyalties of Obama's supporters are seen as shaky. As the veteran of more than one insurgent campaign, where there is a tendency to see the "establishment" candidate as deeply flawed, I can see how this logic might play out with Obama supporters.

Still, for all of McCain's vaunted appeal to moderates (based on immigration, his opposition to torture, and McCain-Feingold), his candidacy would be sharply conservative in contrast to either of the Democratic nominees. And if Obama supporters don't like Clinton because she was late in opposing the war, will they really stay at home and let the election go to McCain when he says that we could be in Iraq for another century?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Walking from Queens to Brooklyn

I do most of my hiking in the woods, but a trek from Queens to Brooklyn last week was a great reminder of the joys of urban walking. We crossed old industrial zones, saw one of four retractile bridges in the USA, and visited the cemetery plot holding the political dynasty that was the Wagner family. And that was before the trip was even half over.

Our hike leader was Craig Nunn, a retired chemist who leads trips for the Oudoors Club. Craig is a skillful and experienced guide. His enthusiasm for old industrial neighborhoods, his careful navigation with a GPS system, and his well-researched knowledge of the sites we passed made for a great outing.

I was with the group from Long Island City, Queens to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. If the Wagner grave in Calvary Cemetery satisfied my interest in political history, the retractile bridge was an introduction to a rarity in industrial architecture: Craig explained that there are only four retractile bridges in the USA. Two of them are in New York.

The retractile bridge that we saw, formally called the Borden Avenue Bridge, spans a tributary of the Newtown Creek that runs between Queens and Brooklyn. The bridge takes the form of a trapezoidal roadway resting on railroad wheels that in turn rest on railroad tracks. When a vessel needs to pass through, the roadway slides out of the way on the tracks. That happens rarely nowadays, but the bridge recalls the combination of industry and maritime trade that once supported New York's economy.

It being a Sunday, I had to leave the hike in Greenpoint to prepare my Monday morning classes. The twenty-some walkers who continued on anticipated seeing another retractile bridge and architectural gems of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Craig also leads rural hikes and a hike that includes a visit to the old industrial section of Paterson, NJ. Watch for his trips on the Outdoors Club site.

"Life During Wartime"

When my friend the historian Josh Brown began drawing his cartoon "Life During Wartime" in 2003, he conceived it as "a sort of visual political blog" that would comment critically on the war and the home front. To his surprise, after over five years and 270 drawings, he's still at it. Given the course of the war and the conduct of the Bush Administration, "Life During Wartime" hasn't lost any of the outrage that has distinguished the cartoon from the start. The show is on exhibit at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, until February 29.