The Windmill Factor

I’ve written this column for nearly eight years, and while I’d like to think I’ve covered a fair amount of real estate over that time—and in the sixteen years in all that I’ve been writing about New York—the recurring theme has clearly been the condition, and prospects, of contemporary liberalism. So it seems only fitting to go out on that note.

These have not exactly been joyous years to have spent policing that beat.

In New York, liberalism’s arc has been defined mostly by (what else?) ethnicity and race. The momentum toward what we then called rainbow politics—as in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition—was getting its start just as I was. Jackson brought his presidential campaign to town in the spring of 1988. In the New York primary that April, he carried the vote in the city, which was broadly taken as a sign that a black candidate could win the mayoral election the next year. (I learned quickly what an afterthought most New Yorkers consider Washington to be.)

The rainbow held, David Dinkins became mayor, and within four years, rainbow politics was dead. It wasn’t just Crown Heights or the Korean-deli boycott that killed it. Those were symptoms of a conceptual problem at the Rainbow Coalition’s core: Revolutions always fail when they mutate from addressing past wrongs to avenging them. There was quite a lot, in 1989, for blacks and Latinos in New York to be angry about. They’d been frozen out of the system, so one could understand why, for example, the Dinkins administration moved to shift a lot of social-service contracts in Williamsburg from Hasidic groups to Latino ones. But doing something like that, or forcing out a disproportionate number of white employees of the Human Resources Administration, goes one (fatal) step beyond addressing past wrongs, and it keeps the fundamental dynamic of acrimony alive. It should be liberalism’s job to try to transcend all that.

“The foreign-policy neocons calling the shots in this administration are revolutionaries, too.”

It didn’t, and it was New York liberalism’s most serious failing of the past twenty years. Partly, to be sure, it failed because it had too many enemies and gave them too much ammunition. Experience having taught most public figures that transcending racial politics is way too hard, most of them have taken the far simpler route of playing to one side or the other. Rudy Giuliani did some wonderful things for this city, but he most definitely chose a side in that fight, and defended that side in an intentionally surly and provocative fashion—he really just enjoyed doing things like carrying on about Patrick Dorismond’s (sealed) arrest record. He, too, was an avenger. September 11 mitigated that, of course, but it’s a good bet that when he runs for governor in 2006, the September 10 Rudy will show up somewhere along the campaign trail.

And then there’s the biggest avenger of all, Al Sharpton. You can draw a straight line from the collapse of rainbow politics in the early nineties to the racial implosion of the last mayoral election. If the liberal coalition could have proved itself capable of being broader and more forgiving the first time around, the maneuvering room available to the likes of Sharpton would have been considerably narrower. But we are where we are. If racial temperatures have cooled a bit during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, it’s less because of anything he’s done or not done than simply because, after the foulness of the 2001 election, people are still a little tired of fighting that fight. But they won’t be forever. My hope for the city as I move away is that someone comes along who says what Giuliani used to say—that what unites us as New Yorkers is more important than what divides us—but who, unlike Rudy, actually has the courage to mean it, and live it, and be willing at moments of crisis to make everyone else live it, too. That person will be a great New Yorker. The political ferment doesn’t seem to be producing many of them.

As for the place I’m moving to … well, Washington is hardly a liberal paradise these days. But I’m oddly bullish, at least this week, as I leave to take the reins at The American Prospect.

The Bush administration has done virtually nothing good for the country. The tax cuts are horrendous policy; the job loss is frightening; the deficit is a shocking piece of hypocrisy; the social agenda is crudely out of step, not just with liberals but with average Middle Americans (John Ashcroft ducked a question on gay civil unions two weekends ago because the administration’s polling is clearly telling it that gay-bashing might not be quite the chart-topper it would have been a couple elections ago). The lies—naming an anti-environmental initiative “Clear Skies,” converting Iraq into an imminent threat to our shores—are scandalous. This administration has done one good thing: defeat the Taliban. But we have yet to see whether that partial success in Afghanistan will hold (the interim Karzai government is due to expire next June, and by the way, women are still wearing burkas), just as we have yet to see how this adventure in Iraq will play out. We do know at this point, even if the media aren’t yet saying it, that neither is now going remotely according to script.

To return to the theme of revolution: The foreign-policy neocons calling the shots in this administration are revolutionaries, too, and they are displaying another moral error that tends to make revolutions fail—conclusions first, facts later. But there are encouraging signs that the facts are catching up. True, the facts will have their work cut out for them (at least $200 million—trust me, it will be closer to $300 million when all is said and done—will be dispensed to obscure them, and to try to petrify people into thinking they have to vote Republican to be patriotic). And the mavens of the “liberal” media, so anxious to show that they, too, can be “patriotic,” will help in the obscuring.

I’m not naïve enough to think the truth always wins. But I do still think it has a chance, so off I go. In the underrated film Reuben, Reuben, Tom Conti, playing a lothario writer, tells an admirer, “Madam, there are no trashy writers, only trashy readers.” I’d prefer to think writers get the readers they deserve. If that’s so, you’ve reflected awfully well on me, and I hope you think likewise.

The Windmill Factor