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Mayor Bloomberg is featured on the cover of the February 7 New Yorker. The watercolor, entitled “Bloom in Love,” depicts our mayor smitten with his own image. It’s Valentine’s Day (or perhaps, it’s implied, every day for Bloomy is Valentine’s Day), and he’s celebrating the occasion with self-addressed chocolates, some bubbly, and some Bloom-time in front of the mirror. Outside, the city is barely visible, and from what we can gather it doesn’t figure prominently, if at all, in Bloom’s self-referential revelries.
The artist Barry Blitt is obviously having a cheap laugh at the mayor’s expense. The joke seems to be either that Bloomberg is clueless about the state of the city (he’s too busy looking at himself to turn around and look out his penthouse window) or that he’s gotten into the habit of putting himself first. Either way, he doesn’t have the public interest at heart.
To my eye, though, the cover looks tired and clichéd, and the collective indignation the artist wishes to elicit strikes me as second-rate muckraking at best. In his rendering, Blitt is not above playing on a shared sense of cynicism, not beyond flirting with the idea that our political leaders are nothing more than narcissists, and not opposed to voicing the beloved’s oft-heard complaint that his basic needs are going unmet. After all, didn’t Bloomberg show his indifference to the fate of New Yorkers when he failed to mobilize the Sanitation Department forces before the December 26 blizzard dropped over 18 inches on our fair city? And wasn’t his initial reaction epitomized in the business-as-usual remarks he made the day after? “The world,” he told the press, “has not come to an end.” In fact, “This city is going on. It’s a day like every other day.” Fine words these!
Still, something’s missing in this picture, something that should give us pause. Over a month after the Blizzard of 2010, the New Yorker is still satirizing Bloomberg, New Yorkers are still noticeably irritable, and snow is still on the ground. But why all the bluster? My hunch is it stems from our desire for soft benevolent paternalism as well as our discernible lack of civic engagement. Here in the land of Bloombergia everything’s all right, except when it’s not.
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In “Who Owns the Snow: From the Bloomberg Diaries,” the Shouts and Murmurs piece that appeared in the January 17, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, the humorist John Kenney joins in the fun. In this case, Bloomberg is depicted, variously, as an incompetent administrator and as an out-of-touch elitist.
Just how incompetent, you ask. “Who knew,” Kenney has Bloomberg write, “there were four other boroughs? Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the other one…” The fictionalized Bloomberg later learns that “Someplace called the Bronks (sp.?) remains snowbound,” but his aides assure him that “Snow melts.” Skill in the world of business, we’re led to infer, may not translate into sound political judgment, practical background knowledge, or a modicum of human empathy.
Kenney is more interested, though, in painting Bloomberg as an out-of-touch elitist. The mayor, spoiled by excessive wealth and the power that such wealth confers, is “covered in a metaphorical nonstick Teflon.” And his attempt to portray himself as a man of the people only reinforces his overt class prejudice. “Ramón,” he asks the man driving the snowplow, “where do you stay when you’re in the Hamptons?” Ah, the verbal irony.
Let’s add up all the charges, shall we? Bloomington, we’ve discovered, is a narcissist who doesn’t care for his needy children (that’s 1-nill), a manager who runs the city like a tenderfooted seaman (2-nill), and a reigning board member of the power elite (3-nill). Yet if, in making a powerful figure appear small and ridiculous, this revenge fantasy feels satisfying, it should also feel vaguely unsettling. For perhaps the mayor is all these things (I wouldn’t rule that out from the start), but then who are we in this revenge fantasy? Certainly not political agents committed to the common good.
Spoof Bloomberg as a political leader who doesn’t love us, but then don’t overlook our role as wounded lovers. Ride Bloomberg as a fatuous do-nothing, but in your calculations don’t leave out our collective paralysis. Call him an elitist, but then tell me where I might find genuine leftist populism. Yes, the shit snows on his face but also on ours.
* * *
Blitt’s watercolor and Kenney’s parody are telling, but not for the reasons you might think. The narcissism, the indignation, the hand wringing, the facile explanations, these all seem to hint at the shrinking of our political imagination. The terms of this discussion, I think, are signs of our impoverished political life, our obsession with Bloombergia finally revealed as a collective fantasy that the monarch take care of things (a state of exception! a third term!) and, in so doing, that he take care of us so that we can go on with the business of living.
But when this implicit social contract between executive power and docile citizenship is broken as it was during the Blizzard of 2010, then we’re faced with a pressing decision: to indulge our dissatisfaction with anger and humor, or to begin thinking seriously about the common good. The right answer is not the first one.
ANDREW TAGGART is a writer and philosophical counselor based in New York. His essays are archived at his website.