Just before the New Year, Joseph Lhota, the departing MTA chairman, was touting Subway Time, a new app that provides to-the-minute arrival information for seven train lines. The app is a sleek and convenient innovation, but Lhota presented it in more ambitious terms. “We’re not only improving service,” he said, “we’re reducing anxiety. And anything that reduces anxiety in New York is a really good thing.”
Four days later, Lhota left his post to explore running as a Republican candidate for mayor. One can already imagine his campaign posters. JOE LHOTA—HE’LL REDUCE YOUR ANXIETY. BREATHE SLOW—VOTE FOR JOE.
It could be a winning strategy. The conventional reading of the mayoral race is that it will be a referendum on the excesses of Michael Bloomberg’s long reign—on whether it is time, at last, to forgo all that bullish paternalism and checkbook arrogance. But the race’s subtext is that his tenure has been one of relative calm, prosperity, and stability, and that one false electoral step could send us into a tailspin. In the case of Lhota, a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, this subtext has already become text. Right as Lhota was stepping down from the MTA, his old boss was stepping forward to warn of catastrophe should his candidate not prevail. What, Giuliani asks, did we have before Giuliani? We had Democrats. What else did we have? We had fiscal chaos, rampant corruption, race riots, crack, murder, mayhem.
One has come to expect some demagoguery from “America’s Mayor.” Yet it is undeniable that after eleven years of Bloomberg, many New Yorkers have become accustomed to a mayor who works, with tireless pragmatism, to mitigate the anxieties of daily life. Murder is down 35 percent. Life expectancy is up by three years. Exotic restaurants now come with reassuring letter grades from the health department. Even Bloomberg’s demeanor can be perversely soothing. Like a stern but sure-handed father, he doesn’t care if you bristle at his edicts; he only cares about what is good for you. As Bloomberg recently told a group of graduating police officers, “The essence of civilization is that you can walk down the street without having to look over your shoulder.”
But there are two ironies to this sentiment. The first is that it doesn’t—and can’t—pertain to everyone. Just as when you suppress one neurosis, another is bound to pop up, if you reduce the need for some people to glance backward in fear, you increase the need for others to do so—Occupy protesters, Muslims, young black men, the indigent. The outcry over Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy is just one demonstration that there is no such thing as the absence of anxiety; there’s only the redistribution of the sensation.
The second irony is that even striving for the absence of anxiety can lead to an existence so anodyne it’s almost as bad as anxiety itself. Anxiety is a source of acute pain, but it is also a force without which life would be static, boring, flat. This is, of course, one of the central complaints leveled at Bloomberg’s New York, and it is often met with Giulianic alarm: “Beware what came before!” But this is a false choice. There are many points between Tammany Hall and Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse. The question for voters is, What will we trade for our calmness?