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Something About New York

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I think most people know exactly what New York values are…. I promise you, in the state of South Carolina, they do.

– Senator Ted Cruz

No question, Ted Cruz is right. His South Carolina audience laughed and clapped when he said this at the GOP debate the other night. It was the assent of people who have been making policy in that benighted state for decades, the false-populist knee slaps of the mostly well-connected, mostly white Republicans whose forebears might well have been Democrats, all schooled in the politics of skin.

The politics of skin is something South Carolina knows well, too well, and something just about every politician who campaigns there, Republican or Democrat, eventually gets around to playing. Some play it more overtly than others, some with a paternalistic moo to dead black heroes or old black culture and little else; either way, color is the currency. It’s the politics that for as long as anyone can remember have kept the poor whites poor, the poor blacks poorer, the former a hair better off than the latter, while a few in both groups get a pass to the sunny side of the street, just to keep up the illusion of fair play and golden opportunity that America peddles like Powerball tickets.

Cruz knew exactly what he was doing there, just as he knew exactly what he was doing in Georgia in December when he said about immigration: “I oppose legalization … today, tomorrow, forever!” That night the white crowd in Kennesaw roared with approval. Probably none would have copped to endorsing the echo of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s famous (and more euphonious) 1960s rallying cry, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” It is even possible, given the abysmal lack of historical knowledge in this country, that not many assembled that night made the association. But Cruz knew. Cruz, the Ivy-educated student of politics, certainly knew, because every serious student of US politics knows that speech. Someone would make the association; Cruz was banking on it. It would be retrieved and repeated, lodging in the crevices of white power consciousness, the booby prize the ruling class hands out to those it has never had any intention of entrusting with real power.

That night in Kennesaw, having come from Washington, Cruz bellowed to the keening crowd, “It is great to be back in America!” He chose those words carefully. Politicians always do, even the jokes. It would surely be said by right-wing pundits that he meant ‘Washington’ as a figure of speech, shorthand for the despised government, not Washington the city, a place with mostly black people and the beat of real-life joys and sorrows, just as those pundits now say he meant ‘New York’ as a figure of speech, shorthand for a New Yorker cover, an attitude of smug self-centeredness.

In the debate, Cruz himself equated “New York values” with social liberalism, abortion, gay marriage, media and money. He might as easily have picked Austin to represent the first three; as for media and money, they are his values – necessities, really, to which he has mortgaged his very person – and there isn’t a common man or woman who doesn’t know it. So ‘New York’ was shorthand for nothing so genteel as liberalism and marriage or even The New Yorker’s signature dandy, Eustace Tilley; ‘commies, niggers and queers’ is the old tagline for the city’s character to which Cruz winked, and to which may be added the pejorative for whatever other minority or immigrant group that finds a berth in this most polyglot city in the world.

It is worth sketching just how polyglot because even social liberals in Austin etc. may tend to equate New York with Wall Street, whiteness and the Times:

* with about 8.5 million people, New York is home to 1 in every 38 people living in the US;

* it has the largest American Indian population of any city in the country;

* it has the largest Chinese population of any city outside Asia, the largest West Indian population outside the West Indies, the largest Dominican population outside Santo Domingo, the largest Jewish population outside Israel;

* more Puerto Ricans live here than in any city in the world;

* more black people live here than in any city in the country, and, as the Department of Planning, the source for most of these figures, jauntily notes, if New York’s 2 million nonhispanic blacks were a city to themselves that city would rank number 5 in the country;

* if the 2.4 million-plus hispanics were a city, that city would rank number 4;

* more than 3 million New Yorkers are foreign born, so I guess their city-to-itself would rank number 3 nationally;

* half the city speaks a language other than English at home, half;

* there are more women here than men, more blacks, hispanics and immigrants than native-born whites;

* nearly 2 million New Yorkers are under 18, so the statistical City of Children would be the fifth largest city, too;

* although the census doesn’t count queers, a Gallup survey analysis estimates that 4 percent of the city, or 340,000 people, identify as lgbt, a far larger number, though lower percentage, than, indeed, Austin’s 5.3 percent;

* some 200 languages are spoken here;

* and, of course, we have more show tunes than anyplace on the planet.

None of this makes the city’s politics less toxic, its police less brutal, its major institutions less white, its ruling class more noble, its men less violent, its structures less racist. It did, after all, make Donald Trump. But beyond the tiny, immensely powerful and grotesque moneyed culture that Alex Cockburn called Trumpismo in the early 1990s, its overall culture is looser, more quirky, more anonymous, hence, more open to possibility or at least surprise than anyplace in the US. To disdain New York is to disdain America and the world. At some elemental level – imagine a weekday, 9 am, pressed on the subway breasts to back, crotch to buttocks, arms, legs, skin to skin – to despise New York is to despise the flesh, to reject humanity itself.

To Cruz’s statement, Trump threw the 9/11 card, and for once the evocation wasn’t bombastic or vengeful or even particularly triumphalist. “The smell of death” did indeed penetrate the city, but Trump left out its most striking effect, as by class and temperament and position on that stage he was bound to. You see, death concentrates the mind on life, and what happened in New York after the towers fell, and not elsewhere in the country, not in places where the air smelled of salt water or cut grass or ploughed land or even gasoline, was a live, passionate and, most important, public dialogue on how to think about what happened and how to act in the world as human beings.

True, there was talk elsewhere; we all know words blared from radio and television and newspaper, and were exchanged in barrooms and living rooms and workplaces across the country. And, true, New York was not immune to the madness born of fear and ignorance and the peculiar diet of American violence. A New Yorker cover cartoon of a Sikh taxi driver hunched in a cab festooned with the Stars and Stripes was not played for laughs. But the flowering of dialogue in the original sense of the word – of people listening to one another, and listening in on strangers’ conversations at a restaurant, a street corner, joining in, scratching together for meaning and sense, arguing and teaching and groping to understand something true and necessary and humane day after day in public places – this was particular to New York amidst the smell of death.

Union Square became a Speaker’s Corner not by design but default. On the edge of what was called the frozen zone immediately after the catastrophe, it was part shrine to the dead, vain notice board for the missing, stage for oratory and discussion – some profound, some deranged, much of it common, meaning democratic, messy, ridiculous, serious, hopeful, exhilarating. War was not the main theme, nor grieving, and especially not certainty.

This was its special grace: in its motley messages, its motley, movable feast of speakers and listeners, it said that life is uncertain but politics might be forged out of a collective striving to come to clarity, to make some decisions based on that clarity. For a couple of months, as the young chalked the peace sign on the pedestal of George Washington’s statue, as “LOVE” had become as familiar as the flag, as people who’d never been political came for a break from the national blather because they had developed an allergy amidst that smell of death to the notion of visiting it on anyone else, the square symbolized the might-have-been.

What might have been if a president had not urged the country to go shopping, if shopping had not long since become a substitute for therapy, if everywhere people had stopped, shocked by death and the instant obliteration of everything they’d taken as normal, to recognize that the empire of shopping depended on the empire of war and arms or the threat of war.

The mini-republic of speakers and listeners and sanity did not last. The police cleared it out one autumn morning, and the city got down to the business of fitting in, the business of rebuilding, the business of breast-beating and permanent memorials and militarism. Trump as the exemplar of real estate values would valorize the rebuilding, naturally, but he is wrong, as is everyone who does so, because that particular rebuilding meant running backwards, running for cover. It meant erecting a new tower to the sky and institutionalizing weeping by the footprints of the old. It made New York City into something previously unfathomable: ground zero for a nation of victims.

And bullies.

The day after the debate the Daily News ran one of those covers that justifies the paper’s existence. “Drop Dead, Ted”, blared big block letters next to an image of the Statue of Liberty giving the finger. Then in smaller type, “Hey, Cruz: You don’t like N.Y. values? Go back to Canada!”

The cover was fabulous and shocking: fabulous in audacity; shocking because it was so Trump. On fabulousity’s side it bore the accent and history of the city – Emma Lazarus, the still-surviving spark of eccentricity and the memory of the gritty, wide-out 1970s, when New York faced bankruptcy, President Ford vowed to veto a bailout and the News printed what might be its most memorable cover: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. Ford complained then that the cover was unfair, and later said it helped sink him in 1976. Bang, that’s power. This time around, Cruz and his partisans say it just proves what they said about New York. But the cover’s humor also had the cruel edge of these days – the glower of Lady Liberty, the finger, the whiff of old taunts, old violence, hardhats vs. hippies, “Go back to ______”… Russia or Cuba, anywhere but the US of A.

Trump’s defense of New York as the city of victims and rebuilders forced even Cruz to put on the stolid face of national purpose and applaud that night in South Carolina. And then one by one the city’s mayor, the governor, Hillary Clinton, all said that “this one time” they stood with Trump. No one on the political stage challenged the racist subtext of Cruz’s attack (or the larger worldview, the Wallace worldview, linking darkness with sexual degeneracy with liberalism, communism, all manner of un-Americanism). They too seemed content to regard New York as but a symbol of America Under Attack. And so the man who on all other occasions promises to put a stake through the heart of what New York most truly represents need only pull out the hanky for 9/11 to gain respect. In this round of the contest for who is more adept at manipulating the politics of skin 2.0, victory Trump.

JoAnn Wypijewski is co-editor of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American ViolenceShe can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net.

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