21 February 2008

The Retro Racist World Of The Village Voice

When I came to New York in April of 1967 for an antiwar march I picked up a copy of the Village Voice. It was the first time I'd ever seen the newspaper, the first time I'd ever seen anything like it. I took it back to Michigan to show people, and ended up hanging onto it for almost 40 years before I finally passed it on to Aaron Cometbus who's much more of a serious archivist when it comes to lefty literature of a bygone era.

Back then the Voice was for sale - I think it was around the price of a subway token, considerably more than the cost of a daily paper. It's been a freebie - and, some would say, worth every penny - for more years than I can remember now, and while the internet has rendered obsolete one of its prime purposes, the listings of music, theater, film and other cultural events, not to mention the once-vital apartments-for-rent listings, the Voice has continued to be a standard-bearer for the retrograde and nihilistic identity politics of the 1970s, so much so that it sometimes makes even San Francisco's raving loony Bay Guardian look like a bastion of squishy liberalism.

That's not to say that there isn't some good writing and analysis in the Voice, though you're more likely to find it on the cultural rather than the political front. Crusty old Nat Hentoff, though he's flagrantly, famously wrong at least half the time, remains a bastion of integrity; no matter how unpopular or bizarrely reasoned some of his convictions may be, you never doubt that the man operates from a position of pure principle rather than personal vendetta or expediency.

Would that the same could be said for the egregious Wayne Barrett, who's been running a one-man war on former Mayor Rudy Giuliani that hasn't even slightly slackened in the more than six years since Giuliani left office. Barrett's hatred for the mayor is two-pronged and self-contradicting: on one hand, he argues ad nauseam that Giuliani's war on crime was vicious, racist, and Ruined The City, on the other, he insists that New York's spectacular drop in crime and the ensuing urban renaissance had sbsolutely nothing to do with Giuliani and would in fact have probably been still more spectacular had the disastrous Mayor Dinkins remained in office.

It's difficult to believe that Barrett's hate campaign is anything but racial/racist in nature; he appears to come from that school of white leftism that interprets everything according to the black=good/white=bad formulation, and you don't need to scratch too deeply beneath the surface to infer that Giuliani went irredeemably into Barrett's bad books the minute he ousted New York's first African-American mayor from office (young people or others who don't have a clear idea of who Dinkins was or why he was swept out of office might refer to his modern-day counterpart, Oakland's Mayor Dellums, a similarly genial and ineffectual African-American of advancing years who dithers while the streets of his city turned into killing fields).

Barrett's vendetta aside, there's a considerable amount of sentiment at the Voice - as one finds wherever bitter lefties congregate - to the effect that today's clean, safe, prosperous New York is greatly inferior to the dangerous, decaying, bankrupt slum of the past, and that this too is something for which Giuliani and his successor Mike Bloomberg need to shoulder the blame. There is an almost romantic fascination with and longing for the days when feral gangs roamed the streets at will, preying with impunity on anyone who wasn't fast, strong or lucky enough.

The fact that a large majority of these criminals were African-American or Puerto Rican is cited as evidence that Giuliani's crackdown was fundamentally racist in nature, ignoring the equally prominent fact that African-Americans and Puerto Ricans were disproportionately the victims of New York's crime wave, and that Giuliani's successful struggle to contain crime undoubtedly saved the lives of more people of color in any given week than all of Al Sharpton's yammering and posturing did in a decade.

Nevertheless, the Voice still champions the right - almost to the point of it being a duty - of young African-American men to act like thugs - particularly if said thugs have a knack for stringing rhymes and beats together. "Cops vs. Rappers" is another of the Voice's recurring bugbears: they're convinced that the police are waging war on "the hip hop community" because they regularly insist on arresting rappers for such culturally motivated crimes as murder, weapons possession, robbery and assault.

A recent story would have us weeping great tears at the injustice of rapper Prodigy being sentenced to prison for carrying a loaded pistol. "Prodigy carries a gun. It's how he was raised," the story reads, as if we're supposed to say, "Oh, well that's all right then." It goes on to explain that while Prodigy came from "a long line of influential men - his great-great-grandfather...founded Morehouse College," he chose instead to pattern his life after his drug-addicted father who "spent much of his life in prison for weapons and robbery charges."

"Pops was a very intelligent person, but as smart as he was, this nigga had a criminal gene in his DNA," Prodigy tells us, and once again you get the impression that we're supposed to cut the guy a whole ton of slack because, well, he realizes how stupid the whole thing is, but you know, he just can't help himself. I mean, this is the same kind of crap you used to hear from racist white politicians in the Old South: "Y'all know you can't expect them Nigras to show any common sense, they just ain't got it in them."

So why is it that this particular man shouldn't have to go to jail for carrying an illegal weapon? Is it because he is black? Or because he's a rapper? Neither seems like a particularly good reason, but in the strange and insidiously racist world of the Voice, it practically goes without saying.


David said...

Do you respect Harper's as a periodical? I would suggest tracking down an issue from this past summer that had a cover story all about Rudy Giuliani; it presented pretty concretely the argument that Mayor Dinkins did put in all the grunt work for the war on crime, and Rudy merely took the credit when they inevitably paid off in the long run. I don't remember the cited facts off the top of my head, but I would suggest trying to find it. Interesting (and possibly persuasive) stuff.

Fred said...

I wouldn't want to be on record as defending the Village Voice. I consider it as crappy a paper as you've described it. But I do disagree with your defense of Giuliani. As the other commenter pointed out, Rudy managed to get credit for a lot of improvements that weren't his doing. He also had the tremendous advantage of being mayor at a time when Wall Street was literally churning out money. Despite that, he still left the city with a significant deficit. And according to the Bloomberg administration, that deficit would have been there even without 9/11.

Giuliani was the mayor during the boom years, so the judgment on him becomes, what did he do with the extra resources. On that his record is pretty mixed at best. Lots of encouragement of private control over public space, lots of corporate development, lots of grandstanding.

But the one area where Giuliani really distinguished himself as a bad mayor was his bullying tactics. He used the power of the mayor's office, mostly through the police, to bully, both individuals and collective groups. To me it showed most dramatically anytime there was a potential for a racial flare up in the city. First thing Rudy would do would be to show up with a bucket of gasoline. Maybe he felt like he had to for political reasons, after all much of his electoral victories rested on anger and frustration from white middle class voters in the outer boroughs.

Its that arrogant bullying that really scared me in Rudy's presidential run. As President I think he would have presided over the most severe attacks against civil liberties. Luckily he was too crappy a politician to actually win. (Which, considering his two mayoral victories, is of course a testament to how screwed up the NYC Democratic party is.)

Larry Livermore said...

I don't entirely disagree with you, Fred. I think Giuliani's abortive presidential campaign, which I was initially sympathetic with, if not a full-fledged supporter, exposed a lot of his flaws as a politician and a leader.

And I think it's fair to point out that things WERE starting to turn around during the last year or two of Dinkins' mayoralty, and perhaps the reason he gets little or no credit for that is that crime was still at an all-time high when he left office.

But it's also worth noting that while crime went down in most American cities during the 90s, it didn't go down nearly as dramatically as it did in New York. More importantly, it didn't STAY down in most cities, whereas in New York it has continued to fall.

This leads me to believe that some of the drastic actions taken by Giuliani were necessary and justified, even though they stepped on some toes and even though in normal times would be considered excessive. The point being that these weren't "normal" times for New York City. The city was in a ruinous state, not just with respect to crime, but in terms of an entire civic culture where the expectation was that things - everything from pay phones to garbage collection to emergency services - could not be expected to work and probably never could be expected to work.

Nearly everybody who visited New York in those days and then returned more recently remarks in amazement on the transformation. Today New Yorkers expect things to function safely and smoothly, and to a degree that astounds residents of many other American cities, they largely do. For this alone I think Giuliani will go down in history with the likes of Fiorello LaGuardia as a mayor who made a profound and lasting difference to this city.

If Barrett and his fellows at the Voice concentrated on Giuliani's genuine transgressions and excesses, I'd have no problem with them. It's a part of history that needs to be rewritten. But their tactic seems to be to first deny that Giuliani had anything to do with the enormous improvements that have taken place in New York, and to follow that up with some version of, "Anyway, it wasn't that bad before Giuliani, in fact it might have even been better."

But in fact it WAS that bad, so bad that large parts of this city which are now healthy and desirable neighborhoods were citadels of barbarism where no sane person went unless driven by some desperate necessity. And so bad that many reasonable people questioned whether a city like New York had or should have much of a future.

In sum, I'm glad Giuliani came along when he did, and glad he left when he did. Now that many of the more grievous problems have been sorted out, we can happily exist and continue to improve under the more civil and benign leadership of a Bloomberg, though I doubt Bloomberg would have been tough or aggressive enough to make the drastic changes that were required in the 90s.

My biggest objection to Barrett et al.'s constant sniping at Giuliani is that eventually they'll contribute to a culture where it's possible for hack, machine candidate, or identity politics demagogue to get elected and return us to the bad of old days of Lindsay-Beame-Koch-Dinkins. There's always a strong undercurrent of this kind of thinking in New York City politics - look at racist and rabble-rousing City Councilman Charles Barron for one example - and if Barrett and company get their way, that's the type of thinking that will be elevated into power again. And as tough as this city is, I'm not sure it could survive another go-round of that sort.