Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

Much Ado About Untimely Deaths

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One of the more remarkable trends that I have noticed in my generation is that the more time an issue spends in the public eye, the less problematic that issue becomes: Media reports of cases seem to have an inverse relationship to the actual number of cases. For instance, while media reports of violent crime have steadily increased over the last few decades, violent crime itself currently hovers at historic lows. Similarly, According to a study published last week by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, New York City is one of the safest cities in America for bicyclists and pedestrians, despite our oft-reported public debate on the threat of our vehicular traffic.

This is, after all, a city that has caught on to the distressing fact that more New Yorkers die in traffic accidents than by firearms, though the numbers for both have dropped dramatically over the last ten years. For instance, in 2012, NYC saw 237 homicides by firearms, lower than the 274 killed in vehicular collisions, of which 155 were pedestrians or bicyclists. In an American city of 8.3 million, this is quite low. To put that into perspective, that year the city saw 84 deaths due to being hit by subway trains; a relatively rare and unique way to die. Meanwhile, drug overdose, a somewhat less-reported statistic, has triple the death rate of any one type of untimely, violent demise.

Of course, it can be argued that the lower instance of the afore-mentioned methods of dying are due to the widespread coverage and subsequent policy initiatives taken by the city: Gun deaths are down because of a police crackdown that has spanned three mayors; all of whom ran on a law-and-order ticket. Despite current criticisms, the last mayor did a great deal to making the city’s streets safer and encouraging mixed modes of transit – between the miles of bike lanes and the CitiBike deal, the landscape has changed a great deal for not a lot of monetary investment. But increased coverage can also possibly suggest less remunerative solutions.

Indeed, a recurring request is to retrofit city subways with safety gates so as to cut down on people falling onto the tracks. The coverage comes at a steady drumbeat after statistics have been publicized for the previous year, and comparisons are often made with subway systems around the world that do have them. The idea itself tends to grip the public conscience, from the harrowing tales of affected motormen to distressing videos of potential victims.

(Luckily, this man survived with minor injuries)

The only problem is, such a retrofit would cost well over a billion dollars to implement on the subway’s 468 stations – the most of any system in the world, with many double-platforms due to the unique express/local nature of the system – and would have issues lining up with the heterogenous rolling stock. By contrast, the systems that have them are relatively newly constructed, and have the privilege of greater public subsidy and government investment.

The question then boils down to “how much is a New Yorker’s life worth?” The price tag that particular project answers is $12 million; an egregiously costly endeavor. Treatment for drug addicts, by comparison, has a far more amenable cost/benefit ratio. New York is yet still one of the best states in terms of preventing death from drug overdose, yet more focus on that matter will likely provide greater dividends. Admittedly, it’s a morbid calculus to determine how best to spend money to prevent the deaths of the citizenry, but being that there’s a correlation of media attention and policy attention, it may behoove us to steer the discussion to ends which may have the largest impact: After all, it’s worked so well in the past.

In Defense of Irony

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Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll have taken aim at today’s Millenial counter-culture in what they feel to be “lazy cynicism” and a “recursive irony:” Co-opted by corporate forces and wallowing in their own ennui, today’s disaffected youth, they argue, are directionless and mere driftwood upon their artistic betters in the postmodern world. Irony is fucking up culture. It’s true: We certainly rely a lot on snark and satire, from the interminable pages of the Onion to the comforting glow of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When, they posit, will we snap out of it and start producing something substantively, honestly real instead of just cracking wise?

These men lack perspective. They quote David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon’s prophecies of cultural vapidity and sneer at Tao Lin’s hipster self-critique Shoplifting From American Apparel with “New Tao Lins publish every day, feeding the culture’s desire to watch its own destruction,” but their criticism on the over-abundance of the Millenials’ directionless languor bears strong resemblance to that which the Boomers heaped on Generation X’s punks. Ashby and Carroll laud the inevitable counter-counter culture, in the form of ‘earnest’ postmodern art, but that path has been walked before: Though it came from the UK, Trainspotting is a good example of a stark reaction to presumed punk counter-culture malaise. Likewise, how else could William Wimsatt’s Bomb The Suburbs have been written, if not to highlight suburban ‘wiggers’ and the tragedy of those youth? But these, like Tao Lin, could not exist in any earnest way without acknowledging exactly why the aimless disaffection exists in the first place and why the first impulse is to deflect and mock.

Or, perhaps they could consider the Silent Generation’s criticism of the Boomers’ hippies, with Bob Dylan’s ironic co-option of folk music inflection as an explicit means to be seen as more authentic, much as a lot of today’s indie bands seek ‘amateur’-sounding recording sessions and emphasize acoustic instruments. Or we could go back to the iconic Rebel Without A Cause and discuss the inherent shortsightedness contemporary sociologists called the wave of Angry Young Men at that time. Consider Kerouac’s Beat epic On The Road, to which Truman Capote flippantly panned, “that’s not writing, that’s typing,” and the subsequent backbiting amongst critics on who was the bigger poseur, or the wise-cracking yet futureless delinquents Sondheim lovingly lampooned in West Side Story.

This is to say, it’s a generational thing, and today’s self-consciously ironic Millenials are no different in how they have chosen to deal with the world. Tao Lin’s apathetic pallor may differ stylistically from Chuck Palahniuk’s or Trent Reznor’s simmering rage, but it’s all equally masturbatory, or rather it’s all equally a coming-of-age thrashing about to come to terms with what is, at heart, a fucked-up culture to begin with. That’s why counter-culture exists, and the art simply reflects that. To demand that artists deal with it differently is a foolish request, for what that is asking is to pave snark over with smarm; a culture so obsessed with authenticity ought to know better. Indeed, that is Ashby’s and Carroll’s central premise:

“Dishonesty is the biggest obstacle to making original, great art. Dishonesty undermines a work’s internal integrity — the only standard by which a work can succeed… Irony alone has no principles and no inherent purpose beyond mockery and destruction. The best examples of irony artfully expose lies, yet irony in itself has no aspiration to honesty, or anything else for that matter.”

What, then, does that make Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller? How is Jonathan Lethem ‘worse?’ American culture has a long tradition of sarcastic, sardonic, detached self-reflection. What was Hunter S Thompson pointing out if not the fact that that earnestness was also by nature self-destructive? We have, are, and will continue to muddle on. Today it’s hipster irony, which, as a means for a generation stuck in the Second Gilded Age while about to double-dip back into the Great Recession to vent their spleen, is a far cry better than the bullets and bombs they could very well pick up instead.

Ideological versus Social Liberalism

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It has more or less been assumed that Black and Latino communities generally harbor a fiscal liberalism but social conservatism, owing in large part to a higher preponderance of religious affiliation, and that their reluctance to vote on moral grounds has been due to the overt hostility displayed against them by the Republican Party rather than an ideological contrast. This has manifested itself in New York, an effectively all-Democrat city, in the form of a cultural division between white middle-class ‘libertines’ and minority strivers: The latter are far less likely to self-identify as gay, when simple biology dictates that statistics should be colorblind in that matter, and it can be conjectured that such is due to community hostility to such.

Indeed, it was in Harlem that a transgender woman was recently beaten to death in what is clearly a hate crime, and it was in Harlem that a Christian minister has been blaming Obama – who has a fair amount of ‘nerd’ chic with white liberals buttressed in no small part by his ‘evolved’ stance on gay marriage – for turning Black men gay. The topic has found itself to be far more taboo than just a few dozen blocks further downtown.

That said, it would appear that such a division is not immutable, and over the last few years a sea change may have occurred. Uptown has seen something of a new Renaissance when it comes to what can be considered an urbane tolerance for all. Six years ago saw the (re-)opening of El Morocco in “Hamilton Heights,” that somewhat awkward distinction of a mixed border area between Washington Heights and Harlem. At first glance it can be interpreted as an extension of the general trend of gentrification on the northern climes of Manhattan, but the clientele says otherwise: More than just a Dominican nightclub, El Morocco has boasted a strong LGBT lineup that has been favored by a majority Black and Latino crowd – and a hangout for Black drag queens, reminiscent of the Elks Lodge and other venues in Harlem in the 60s – though it often offers a fully mixed crowd not only in ethnicity but sexuality.

Six years ago also saw the opening of No Parking, the first fully gay bar in Washington Heights. Along with the Monkey Room nearby and new outposts like the Castro in Inwood, way up on the upper tip of the island, there appears now to be an acceptance of overt displays of alternative sexuality where there simply wasn’t before, in spite of religious doctrine. Indeed, nobody was more surprised than conservatives themselves during the 2012 election, when they expected the socially conservative Black population of Prince George’s County in Maryland to halt progress on gay marriage. Instead, a number of local pastors spoke in favor of tolerance and the youth vote carried the election.

In fact, it may be the youth that is behind such a cultural shift: This generation has been speculated as being, overall, more tolerant than the last, and the root cause appears to be a greater wealth of information at hand as well as physical exposure to difference. While religion still rides the brakes on such progress, across the board all Christian faiths polled in the US have had to give ground on the matter, partly because the next generation is dropping out of religious affiliation in droves. As the population becomes more urban and urbane, and as religion holds less sway on cultural and moral affairs, liberals of all stripes appear to be getting closer together as a unit.

Colorstruck and Conservative

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There are some things I pick up practically by cultural osmosis; things that are assumed – or, rather, not assumed but simply known – that to refute or question them becomes less an exercise in free discourse and more a declaration of one’s origins. It’s not a question of understanding the other point of view: That division has long been impossible to be breached.

There is a weird debate on the second tier of periodicals as to the nature and legacy of Obama’s presidency. I say second tier in that neither source is a Paper of Record, although the importance of such in these tumultuous times is becoming less and less pertinent. On one side is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine; on the other, Jamelle Bouie of Salon.com.

Chait argues in the abstract: With Obama’s terms has come a more overt marriage of “racial conservatism” with “ideological conservatism;” this is to say, the unthinking and kneejerk hatred of all of Obama’s policies has turned into a cultural demarcation wherein, while opposition speaks of his agenda (and legitimacy) in terms of policy, color yet remains the common element in their criticism.

He then muses upon the nature of the conceit of a “post-racial” America, as we the people watch an overt backlash and governmental dysfunction not seen since, well, the Civil War. While I am heartened in a sense by the 2012 elections in that, if there is an Cold War of race, the demographic winner is foregone, Chait makes the salient point that fiscal or social conservatives are barred from voting Republican solely because of the racial barrier: He sees a future, therein, in the Republican party, insofar as the liberal Democratic dog-whistle of racism will fail to work just as soon as the GOP bridges that gap.

Obama’s policies, after all, have a neoliberal, if pre-Reagan, vibe to them: He, like most technocratic Democrats of the Clinton era, is nigh indistinguishable from the Republican ethos, except for one major facet which is color. The implications are clear, in that respect, and while that may not be Chait’s ultimate point, that remains at the heart of his argument: Were we to somehow transcend the racial “obsession,” as he puts it, of which Obama is the eye of the storm, politics would not be terribly dissimilar from where we are now.

Bouie argues in the particular: The unprecedented turnout of the Black electorate during the 2008 and 2012 elections speak to a cultural divide that is more than just an odd and unfortunate juxtaposition of “racial” and “ideological” conservatism. The partisan fights of those inside the beltway are tangential to the real issue, and the real issue is that racial and ideological conservatism are fundamentally inextricable.

Evocative of Malcolm X’s quote that “you can’t have capitalism without racism,” Bouie argues that the debate cannot be rendered into the abstract, for it is at heart one of survival. Obama’s focus as eye of the storm then becomes an illustration of just how far we as a multicultural society yet need to progress before people can lower their defenses. He embodies the reason for which that gap simply cannot be bridged, not only because he is the wrong arbiter in the eyes of the opposition, but that he, and vicariously his policies, are categorically the wrong arbiter.

It goes without saying that Chait is white and Bouie is Black.

I am inclined to side with Bouie, for in my own way I have internalized just how impossible it is at this time and age to convince the likes of the opposition as to the means by which they are continuing to oppress people: The popularity of Ron Paul and folks who use the political moniker “independent” as “free-thinker” when they actually mean “libertarian” speaks to the ingrained complacency in maintaining the current inequity. You really don’t need to explain this to people of color. If they know anything in this world it is that.

I have argued before that class and race overlap more often than not, and this is not by chance but by design. Obama’s legacy will, no matter what happens next, be a milestone in American progressivism but, please, let us not oversell our progress.

Democracy

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Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on media presence and advertising expenditure.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle, as well as a victory in a preliminary election chosen by a subset of registered voters affiliated with said political party.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle, as well as a victory in a preliminary election chosen by a subset of registered voters affiliated with said political party rooted on whether they believe said candidate would be competitive in the general contest.

Shit, I think I figured out why DC’s mayoral election sucks so much.

Deals with the Devil

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I get a fair stream of animal rights propaganda in my inbox and on social media – that platform for hashtag warriors and armchair activists – as I’m sure everybody does. It blends into the general background noise of liberal life, a form of the choir endlessly preaching to itself. Liberals are never quite so unified as all that, though, and each has their own tolerance for the wrongness around them and the steps provided to correct it.

Two news stories of late have sparked a bit of controversy in that regard, both related to New York City. The first is, of course, the ongoing fight as to whether the city should forbid any proprietors of horse-drawn carriages from plying their trade in upper Midtown and Central Park. The second is the city’s refusal to admit UniverSoul Circus in town due to the way it cages its animals. In each case, the ideal is pitted against the practical.

Animal rights activists complained that putting workhorses on New York City streets amounts to unwarranted cruelty that they should not have to abide. The owners of those horses and the men who worked with them argued back that the horses were fed well, given regular checkups with veterinarians and granted lots of attention; all of which was paid for by their service as workhorses.

Of course, horses are domesticated animals, which is why we put them to work in the first place: Even should the carriages disappear, riot horses that the NYPD use will still be a common sight around Times Square and during parades. The question to ask, however, is what happens to the horses if the trade is banned? The care of hundreds of workhorses would require a great amount of space and millions of dollars annually in feed and medical care, which, divorced from an income, would be untenable.

This is, in a way, the great conundrum of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activist group that strongly advocates against negligent and cruel animal shelters and pet shops yet has been criticized for having one of the highest rates of euthanization of the animals under its care, for not only is the group’s stated mantra that “they are better off dead than abused” but, well, it’s cheaper that way. The money matter makes a difference.

It’s this money matter that makes each organization question the other’s motives. In the case of UniverSoul Circus, PETA was one of the loudest critics of their animal handling, and I personally am inclined to agree that circuses with names that don’t end in “du Soleil” are relics of a bygone era – though some organizations tend to overstate the case, as with the controversy over the ASPCA having to pay damages for falsifying evidence about animal cruelty against Ringling Bros’ Circus - but I’m also a great proponent of the work that the Wildlife Conservation Society does when it runs, among other institutions, the Bronx Zoo.

There are, however, critics of the WCS and similar institutions like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which runs out of the National Zoo in Washington, DC – foremost among them Born Free USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare – who believe that no wild animal should be enclosed, no matter the size of the enclosure, and that the zoos themselves are also cruel anachronisms in our modern age. The work of the biologists and zoologists in these institutions, they argue, are hypocrites for their work, which I found rather difficult to believe as nobody becomes a zoologist unless they deeply believe in their work.

The divide, however, boils down to money. Organizations like Born Free USA and the IFAW are outperformed by an order of magnitude when it comes to fundraising by those like the WCS, and spend close to half their budgets on overhead rather than the programs themselves. Without the draw of real exhibits, it is difficult to garner attention and solicit donations to promote habitat preservation and wildlife conservation at home and abroad, and in promoting awareness, zoos have the inside track.

Even the Safari Club, a hunting organization, has jumped on the bandwagon to show that it outperforms such charities when it comes to wildlife habitat preservation. Their argument is simple: Nothing beats an entity with a vested economic interest in a species’ preservation when it comes to ensuring that species’ preservation. Call it the Teddy Roosevelt School of Nature Conservancy: If we hunt these animals to extinction, we have nothing left to hunt.

The scary matter is, they may have a point. Ironically enough, it was the Endangered Species Act that may have endangered the Scimitar-horned Oryx, as the Act put restrictions on hunting it, and its numbers were kept up largely because it was being bred for hunting. Without the economic incentive to keep them alive, their numbers dropped like a rock as ranchers dumped their livestock liabilities.

In a sense, then, the zoos are effectively a necessary evil.

This reminded me of the overarching controversy of our most popular museums. The most visited museum in the country is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the most visited museums in New York City are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Each is a monument and a testament to imperial hegemony and colonial theft. Each is also an indispensable resource to history education and cultural awareness. The AMNH, in particular, with its statue of Teddy Roosevelt prominently displayed out front (whose opinion of Native Americans seemed to match his opinion of other large game), has more or less continually been at the head of a controversy when it comes to Native American artifacts yet is also host to a wealth of educational programs that I personally remember partaking in on a weekly basis in junior high school.

The National Museum of the American Indian, which took an act of Congress to come to fruition, also has a checkered history: It works closely with native nations across America to present a diverse, educational display that spans both ancient and modern history, but the vast majority of its original collection comes from the archives of one man, George Gustav Heye, who can generously be labeled an asshole and a grave robber, and much of that collection had to be repatriated. Yet, these displays of stolen property are by far the most popular and therefore the most influential museums in the country. Where, then, is the line drawn?

It’s a moving line, to be sure, but I remember going to the Bronx Zoo and seeing a display about the evils of poaching in a mock-up construction of a poacher’s camp, covered in blurbs about where they operated, how destructive their practices were, and what steps were being done and could be done to curtail them. I would not have seen it, however, were I not already in line to go see the Amur tigers.

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