Alienable Rights

“I try not to have a relationship with separate communities. I try to see people as people. Maybe that is part of the problem.” – Rudy Giuliani to the Daily News’s Jonathan Capehart, March 22

It seems, for now, that things have calmed down. The cops have been arraigned; the protests at 1 Police Plaza have ended; Rudy Giuliani had his meetings with a few black leaders, even if he did emerge from the one with Manhattan borough president Virginia Fields looking as if he wanted to bite the microphones. But while the mayor may be able to ease his Diallo problem by acceding to this or that demand, the larger conflict – between Giuliani and black New York – will never go away, because it’s not simply a war of personalities. The conflict is philosophical; it’s another battle, really, in America’s ongoing culture war, less stark and recognizable than the one recently joined over the president’s privates, but one in which the competing views are every bit as intensely held.

I must have watched Giuliani at a hundred campaign stops in 1993, when he was running to unseat David Dinkins, and at virtually every one, he said a version of the following: What separates us is not nearly as important as what unites us. We derive our rights and obligations to society not from the fact of our ethnicity or race but from the fact that we are human beings, Americans, and New Yorkers, and it is in these identities that our strength reposes.

This was the philosophical bedrock of Rudyism. He invented a mantra, “one city, one standard,” to give the idea the kind of bumper-sticker immediacy things need these days, and he impressed a passel of opinion-makers left sapped by what had, by the summer of 1993, turned out to be the hollow promise of Dinkins-style rainbow politics. Indeed, Giuliani posited himself as leader of the anti-rainbow. Think back to Dinkins’s carefully chosen metaphor for the city, the “gorgeous mosaic.” A mosaic consists of separate tiles; they constitute a whole, but they (quite unlike, say, the ingredients of a melting pot) retain their singularity. To Giuliani, this talk was nonsensical if not dangerous, and rainbow politics’ celebration of diversity was really a stalking horse for ethnicity – or race, or sexual orientation – as destiny, which would lead to group entitlement and the unraveling of the threads that hold civil society together. From the Dinkins era’s multicultural excesses (Heather Has Two Mommies) to its abject failures (City Hall’s temporizing during the Crown Heights rioting), everything, to Giuliani, was nourished by the poisoned waters of identity politics.

He had a point. I’m not sure whether he knew it, but his universalist beliefs recalled the best traditions of the Enlightenment itself – the “science of freedom,” in the words of historian Peter Gay, the belief that mankind, as they called us back then, could create free and just societies only by transcending its separate cultures and agreeing that inalienable rights belonged to all. This belief had been the intellectual property of the left for the better part of 150 years – until, really, the Western left “discovered” the Third World, at which point it decided that elevation of the cultures of oppressed peoples was the path to liberation. Camus got drummed out of the French left for criticizing Algerian terrorist attacks on French-Algerians (implicitly, to the Sartrean purists, endorsing imperialism). A decade earlier, in 1945, George Orwell, reviewing Sean O’Casey and lamenting a tendency on the British left to permit the Irish their nationalistic fervors on the grounds of their oppression, had asked why it was that “the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman.” One can read this Orwell essay, substitute “New York intellectuals” for “British intellectuals” and “blacks” for “Irish,” and hear a slice of New York life in the eighties described precisely.

Domestically, we can date the triumph of this sort of thinking on the left to the late sixties, but it wasn’t until twenty years on, when the right (Dinesh D’Souza, et al.) started squawking about it, that the issue developed its serrated edges. Giuliani – McGovern Democrat turned Reagan Republican – got the message. His experience as a federal prosecutor in the eighties, he also told Capehart, led him to conclude that “I have much more in common with people who are not Italian who are not in the Mafia than I do with the ones who are Italian who are in the Mafia.”

Who can argue with that? As a Serbian-American who detests Slobodan Milosevic, I sure can’t. And yet there are sides of this argument to which Giuliani is willfully blind. True, there can be no racially or ethnically conditioned definitions of right and wrong. But at the same time, there are differences between black people and white people – differences based on experience that should be constantly borne in mind. The history of slavery is one (and if you think that’s old news, then puzzle over why, when Bill Clinton was going to apologize to Africa for America’s role in the trade, certain commentators on the right – George Will, Republican congressmen – exploded in apoplexy). How they’re dealt with by big-city police forces is another. Treating everyone the same sounds honorable on its face, but in fact, to treat everyone the same is to pretend these differences don’t exist.

When black is the color, Giuliani’s first reaction is always distrust, a distrust he showed again last week when he called critics of the police “some of the worst in society.” He’d say he’s a victim of intense black ill will because he beat Dinkins; again, he’d have a point. But a mayor can either assuage that ill will or feed it, and he’s mostly done the latter. As a candidate, he went to Washington with Latinos to petition the Department of Justice to retain racially gerrymandered districting. Putting aside the philosophical inconsistency, can anyone seriously imagine Giuliani having made that trip on behalf of blacks? Floyd Flake, a black supporter of the mayor’s, recently told the Daily News that he’d pleaded with Giuliani weeks ago to meet with black leaders, but the mayor refused for fear he’d be seen as “kowtowing” to them. One somehow doubts he’d ever fear being seen as kowtowing to Jewish or Irish or Italian leaders.

Enlightenment thought has always had its tragic inconsistencies – the country that gave us Voltaire and the philosophes proved none too keen on extending inalienable rights to the Algerians and Indochinese when the day came. Universalist ideals, in other words, are always bumping up hard against the particular realities of race and culture. Giuliani, on an admittedly less cosmic scale than the French Republic, is in exactly the same bind and living the same contradiction. A Giuliani who’d acknowledged at least some legitimacy of difference could have been a bigger man than his adversaries and left the racially divided city he inherited in 1994 much better off. But he’s not capable, and it isn’t just a matter of temper or personality. It’s what he believes.


Alienable Rights