01/17/20

What City Journal Wrought

What City Journal Wrought

An editor looks back

Autumn 2015

 

The “Lights Out Club” used to meet for monthly lunches in the early 1990s, my late friend Lorian Marlantes, then chief of Rockefeller Center, told me. Why the name? Because Marlantes’s fellow members—the CEOs of Consolidated Edison, a couple of big Gotham banks, and a few other firms whose core business chained them to New York—thought that soon one of them would be the man who’d turn the lights out forever on a city that was dying before their eyes, killing their companies along with it.

In those days, you didn’t need to be Nostradamus to make such a dire prediction. The evidence was everywhere—on the graffiti-scrawled buildings and mailboxes, the potholed streets, the squalor of the panhandlers, the dustbowl that had been Olmsted and Vaux’s sublime Central Park, and the pervasive stench of urine, thanks to the bums who were turning the capital of the twentieth century into a giant pissoir, with the carriage drive of Grand Central Station the urinal of the universe.

In 1983, the Mobil Oil Corporation, to show Mayor Edward Koch why it was contemplating leaving New York, videotaped the sordidness around its 42nd Street headquarters, near Grand Central. The camera caught the rotting trash, the pee-filled potholes, the degradation of the homeless hordes—some crazy and some shiftless—through which Mobil employees had to pick their way into the then-shabby, billboard-plastered station to catch trains home to their orderly suburbs, fragrant with new-mown grass. After shots of corporate headquarters located in similarly bucolic suburbs, the wordless video closed with the written question: “What do we tell our employees?”

Mobil’s answer, in 1987, was to move to Fairfax, Virginia. More than 100 of some 140 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Gotham in the 1950s asked the same question and reached the same conclusion, pulling out their tax dollars and leading their well-paid workers into greener pastures in those pre–Rudolph Giuliani decades. They were among the million New Yorkers, many of them the elderly rich and the well-educated young, who fled Gotham in the 1970s and 1980s.

The squalor was only one problem. Another was crime. Of course, much of the disorder—the open dope-dealing, the public drinking, the streetwalkers serving every almost-unthinkable taste, the three-card-monte cardsharpers and their pickpocket confederates preying on the crowds they drew, the window-rattling boombox radios—was itself against the law. But these minor crimes deepened as a coastal shelf into burglary, car theft, armed robbery, assault, rape, and murder—one killing every four hours every day of the annus horribilis 1990.

Those New Yorkers who could afford it tried to insulate themselves with doormen and limo services, as in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 bestseller The Bonfire of the Vanities; those who couldn’t, like the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s 1970 Mr. Sammler’s Planet, envied the guarded doors, the trustworthy drivers, the hushed private clubs—islands of civility in a sea of chaos—as they held on to the strap of the lurching, graffiti-fouled bus, watching the pickpocket ply his craft, or walked down their own dark streets, adrenaline rushing at the sound of every footfall.

Just as the crack of a jungle twig cocks every ear, tenses every muscle, and sends birds screaming indignantly into the sky, apprehension was as characteristic a New York feeling as was ambition in those days. If we didn’t quite live in “continuall feare, and danger of violent death,” as in Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, “where every man is Enemy to every man,” we were sufficiently on edge. And no wonder. One friend, robbed at gunpoint on Broadway of his wallet, which the thief searched for his address, was then marched to his apartment, forced to unlock it, and tied up, while the gunman coolly stuffed everything of value into my friend’s bedsheets and carted it off. For the sheer thrill, a gang of teen girls swarming up from Morningside Park stomped the girlfriend of a fellow graduate student unconscious and blood-drenched in front of the Columbia University president’s mansion one afternoon. A neighbor, pushed into his lobby as he unlocked his building’s unattended front door after a very long day’s work—the typical thief’s M.O. in that era—was not only robbed but also killed. Another friend, raped at knifepoint on a filthy hallway floor in a neighborhood where she had gone for a purpose she never mentioned, had her satisfied assailant ask her for another “date,” a proposal she declined. But in a way, on the street, in the subway, in the parks, we all felt continually violated and continually asked to go through it again. That people were leaving town all around us came as no surprise.

What to do? A Manhattan Institute seminar on Gotham school reform I attended in the late 1980s, as Koch’s 12-year mayoralty drew to a sadly sordid close, caught the temper of the times. Its chairmen were wily national teachers’ union chief Albert Shanker and New York Board of Education president Robert F. Wagner III, a long-valued friend. Maybe we could try X, a panelist suggested. No: union work rules forbade. How about Y? No: the state legislature . . . the budget. . . . And so on for two hours. The profoundly depressing expert consensus: the more you knew about New York, the more you knew that there was nothing nothing nothing we could do to fix a calamitous mess. After all, wasn’t this the “ungovernable city”? Continue reading

01/6/20

The Last Victorian Sage


Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1922–2019
Myron Magnet
January 2, 2020

Gertrude Himmelfarb, our foremost historian of ideas and one of the nation’s greatest historians of any stamp, died Monday at 97. Though a Washingtonian for the last decades of her long and productive life, the Brooklyn-born Himmelfarb was among the last of a storied band of New York Jewish intellectuals—the “Family,” they called themselves—who joined scholarly erudition to wide-ranging social, political, cultural, and ethical concerns far transcending the merely academic. They wrote for an educated general audience eager for the acuity with which they brought the wisdom and experience of the past to bear on the problems of present-day life. Through much reflection and debate, they’d mostly thought their way through the Trotskyist political correctness that prevailed in their student days to arrive at a liberal Americanism that, in time, metamorphosed into their own brand of conservativism. Now, with wonks and pundits, pedants and ideologues, taking their places, and with the “educated general reader” going extinct, today’s intellectuals seem shallow and dull by contrast.

Acerbic in her impatience with foolishness, Himmelfarb particularly scorned the Marxoid view that people’s beliefs and ideals have no independent reality but are just reflections of the material conditions around them. She rejected social-policy theories that give short shrift to cultural life, ignoring what goes on in people’s minds and hearts as a mere reflection of the real reality—the economic reality that should be the focus of our attention. According to this viewpoint, what people think can’t possibly alter the large forces that shape their lives. What determines individual behavior is the environment, not the content of the mind and spirit of the individual—as in, for example, the belief that crime springs from a lack of opportunity. She wasn’t much more sympathetic to social-policy thinkers who consider individuals the authors of their own actions and fates only to the extent that they choose rationally among various economic incentives—a welfare check versus a minimum-wage job, say. To her, this was just another way of saying that individuals merely respond mechanically to the environment: they don’t shape it. Continue reading

01/6/20

‘Hate Crime’ Is Only a Step Away From Thoughtcrime


Punishing people, even criminals, for ideas is inimical to the American tradition of free speech.
By
Myron Magnet
Jan. 1, 2020

Does it make sense that a person can burn an American flag with impunity but not a gay-pride flag? Earlier this month, a judge in Story County, Iowa, sentenced Adolfo Martinez to a preposterous 16 years in prison for swiping the rainbow flag from a nearby church and burning it in front of a strip club.
Mr. Martinez, 30, has a long criminal history, which partly explains the long sentence. He had two felony convictions, and Iowa law deems any three-time felon an “habitual offender,” subject to enhanced sentencing. But a jury convicted Mr. Martinez of three misdemeanors—third-degree arson, for which the maximum penalty is two years in prison, along with third-degree harassment and the reckless use of fire, each subject to a maximum one-year term.
Mr. Martinez complicated his own defense by telling a local TV station that he had torched the flag because he didn’t like gay people and had “burned down their pride, plain and simple.” In response, the judge increased the misdemeanor arson charge to a hate-crime charge—a felony, normally carrying a maximum of five years in prison. So what seemed on its face to be a minor infraction suddenly became Mr. Martinez’s strike three, inflating his five-year maximum to 15, plus an extra year for the reckless use of fire.
The absurdity of the sentence points up the larger absurdity of hate crimes as a class of criminal offense. Burning an American flag, the Supreme Court says, is free speech. The First Amendment allows you to register disapproval of the government in whatever expressive way you choose, though watch out for the arson laws. Calling the cops “pigs” or singing “F— da Police”? Also no problem, legally speaking. Unlike Canada, Europe and American colleges, the U.S. doesn’t have “hate speech” laws.
The idea that free speech means free speech is a jewel of American exceptionalism. It’s odious and moronic to deny the Holocaust, but it isn’t—and shouldn’t be—a crime. The New York Times didn’t clutch its pearls when Hillary Clinton dismissed Donald Trump’s supporters as a “deplorables” who are “irredeemable” and “not America.” Nor did the guardians of correct opinion blanch when Barack Obama disparaged a large number of Americans as troglodytes clinging to their guns and religion. Rep. Ilhan Omar is entirely at liberty to explain away support for Israel as being “all about the Benjamins, baby.” Robert De Niro is similarly free to give the finger to Mr. Trump and his supporters. All this is as American as apple pie, if less appetizing.
Designating an offense as a hate crime criminalizes not the action but the idea that supposedly impelled it. Here we are but a step away from the “thoughtcrime” George Orwell described in “1984.”
Properly, the law should ask only two questions about your state of mind. First, do you have the faculty of reason that allows you to distinguish right from wrong? Second, did you intend to do the crime you committed? Beyond that, as James Madison repeatedly insisted, you have freedom of conscience. You can believe whatever you want, however politically incorrect—especially since today’s political correctness may be deemed tyranny in retrospect. In a far-flung republic composed of various subgroups, multiple viewpoints and interests are bound to proliferate. Under such circumstances, toleration is required.
The New York area has experienced a rash of what Gov. Andrew Cuomo denounces as “hate crimes.” Swastikas have been scrawled in largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Adolescent thugs have assaulted Hasidim on the streets. In mid-December three customers and a cop were murdered in an attack on a Jersey City, N.J., kosher market. On Saturday, a madman stabbed five people at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., north of the city.
I abhor these offenses, but I don’t see what is gained by Mr. Cuomo’s apoplectic imprecations. These outrages don’t presage pogroms, and it seems a fair bet that the perpetrators don’t know what the Holocaust was. Did it matter to the victims whether their assailants attacked them to steal their money, express their hostility, or take advantage of their vulnerability? Surely the solution isn’t relabeling but rather energetic and activist policing of the kind that discouraged violent acts by ill-socialized adolescents and street-dwelling crazies in New York for 20 golden years. Proactive policing also largely rid the streets of graffiti, offensive symbols included.
Let cops vigorously enforce existing laws against assault, harassment, vandalism, arson and the like. If the harassment amounts to an organized campaign of repression rather than random acts of delinquents or lunatics, then it’s time to dust off the Reconstruction Era’s antiterrorism laws. No group, whether Klansmen or members of an antifa mob, should be allowed to threaten or brutalize people.
It’s a sad reflection on the failure of New York’s current political culture, with its recent soft-on-crime legislation and abhorrence of common-sense policing, that ordinary people must think hard about the less appealing alternative of pressing for more teeth in the Supreme Court’s Heller decision, upholding citizens’ Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.
Opinion: Rising Anti-Semitism Threatens Liberal Democracy