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.