Friday, November 14, 2003

New York Low Life

Luc Sante has an evocative essay -- the afterword to a new edition of his book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York -- about living in New York City in the late 70's and early 80's, which happens to be just about the same time that I moved here myself (in 1976).

The New York I lived in ... was rapidly regressing. It was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli. This did not distress me—quite the contrary. I was enthralled by decay and eager for more: ailanthus trees growing through cracks in the asphalt, ponds and streams forming in leveled blocks and slowly making their way to the shoreline, wild animals returning from centuries of exile. Such a scenario did not seem so far-fetched then. ...


For those of us who had been in the city for a while, squalor was not an issue. Most of the city was squalid. If this troubled you, you left, and if you were taken by the romance of it, a long regimen of squalor in everyday life would eventually scrub your illusions gray. At this remove I'm sometimes retrospectively amazed by what I took for granted. Large fires a few blocks away every night for a couple of years would seem conducive to a perpetually troubled state of mind, but they just became weather.


In those days the police, when not altogether invisible, were nearly benign, or at least showed no interest in the likes of us, being occupied with actual violent crime. Almost everybody had a story about walking down the street smoking a joint and suddenly realizing they had just passed a uniformed patrolman, who could not possibly have failed to detect the odor but resolutely looked the other way. Casual illegality was unremarkable and quotidian, a matter of drug use and theft of goods and services, petty things. We slid by in weasel jobs, in part because we were preoccupied with our avocations and in part because a certain lassitude had come over us, a brand of the era.

The revolution was deferred indefinitely, then, because we were too comfortable. Not, mind you, that we didn't live in dumps where the floors slanted and the walls were held together with duct tape and the window frames had last been caulked in 1912 and the heat regularly went off for a week at a time in the depths of winter. The landlords were the primary villains and the most visible manifestations of authority. ... At the same time, you could let the rent go for a while and not face eviction, because the eviction process itself would cost the landlord some kale, besides which it might be hard to find anyone else to take up the lease, so that a tenant who only paid every other month was better than nothing. We were comfortable because we could live on very little, satisfying most requirements in a fiercely minimal style for which we had developed a defining and mitigating aesthetic. It was lucky if not entirely coincidental that the threadbare overcoat you could obtain for a reasonable three dollars just happened to be the height of fashion.

I had things a little easier than Sante did, and thus never was a part of the demimonde existence he describes, because I was lucky enough to run into a friend from high school on the train the day I went looking for an apartment. That led to a job as a stage manager for an off-off-Broadway theatre, which led to a permanent job at the theatre, which led to a Broadway show and then to a national tour, all of which meant that I was gainfully employed for my first 4 or 5 years in the city. Still, my first apartment in 1976 was on 3rd Street between Avenues B & C, in Alphabet City, and my second on 6th between 1st and 2nd in the East Village, so while I never had to live in exactly the kind of squalor Sante describes, the accidental aesthetic of it was all around me.

But the city was like that at the time, doling out rewards and perks seemingly at random. If I hadn't met my friend on the train, I probably would have lived exactly the way Sante did -- and maybe I would have learned some valuable lessons about how to survive in the city that I've really never mastered in my 27 years in Manhattan.

Suspicion in the hinterlands of New York City's moral fiber and quality of life, rampant since the early nineteenth century, reached new heights during the 1970s. Hadn't the President himself urged the city to drop dead? If you told people almost anywhere in the country then that you lived in New York, they tended to look at you as if you had boasted of dining on wormwood and gall. Images of the city on big or small screens, fictional or ostensibly journalistic, were a blur of violence, drugs, and squalor. ... Aside from [that], there was the fact that in the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, very few born-again Christians who had not been sent there on a mission, no golf courses, no subdivisions.

Downtown we were proud of this, naturally. We thought of the place as a free city, like one of those pre-war nests of intrigue and licentiousness where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter in a tangle of improbable juxtapositions. I had never gotten around to changing my nationality from the one assigned me at birth, but I would have declared myself a citizen of New York City had such a stateless state existed, its flag a solid black.

This sense of New York City as foreign to the rest of the country has diminished somewhat in the meantime (evidenced by the malling of Time Square and Soho and the increasing number of blockbuster stores on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea) but it still hasn't disappeared entirely (and I fancy I can see vestiges of it in the ritualized Yankees-hatred that we're inflicted with every baseball post-season). You could even see it in the somewhat detached way many Americans reacted to the 9-11 attacks: after all, it happened there in that foreign city New York (and in D.C., the seat of the hated gummint), not here in America.

Now, more than a decade after I finally finished my book Low Life, the city has changed in ways I could not have pictured. The tenements are mostly still standing, but I could not afford to live in any of my former apartments, including the ones I found desperately shabby when I was much more inured to shabbiness. Downtown, even the places that used to seem permanently beyond the pale have been colonized by prosperity. Instead of disappearing, local history has been preserved as a seasoning, most visibly in names of bars. The economy has gone bad, but money shows no signs of loosening its grip. New York is neither the Wonder City nor a half-populated ruin but a vulnerable, overcrowded, anxious, half-deluded, all-too-human town, shaken by a cataclysm nobody could have foreseen. I don't live there anymore, and I have trouble going there and walking around because the streets are too haunted by the ghosts of my own history. I wasn't born in New York, and I may never live there again, and just thinking about it makes me melancholy, but I was changed forever by it, and my imagination is manacled to it, and I wear its mark the way you wear a scar. Whatever happens, whether I like it or not, New York City is fated always to remain my home.

I'm still here, and I'm likely to stay here for the forseeable future, and my only trouble walking the streets isn't the ghosts of my past, it's all the tourists in Times Square, who make it practically impossible to get to and from the Biltmore Theatre without dodging and weaving past gawkers strolling three abreast. Tourism is supposed to be down, but you couldn't prove it by me, but whether that means the city is on the way back or just pacing time before it goes down again, I dunno -- it may ultimately depend on whether the Democrats take back the White House in 2004.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/14/2003 04:37:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


United States of Alone

Josh Marshall sums up our current isolation due to Bush's Iraq policies:

In this whole unfortunate business, the White House took our preeminence and mistook it for omnipotence or something near to it. And by treating our preeminence as omnipotence they’ve put our preeminence into question.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/14/2003 04:06:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Which Bush is Bush?

It's difficult, really, to determine how much George W. Bush is aware of and responsible for the policies that are implemented in his name, and how much he's a clueless smirking-chimp figurehead manipulated by the Cheneys, Roves and Rumsfeld in his administration. (Of course, being the de facto President, despite the illegitimacy of his taking office, he's morally responsible in full for everything his administration does, but that's not the same things as saying that he's responsible in the sense of being actively involved in the creation and implementation of policy.) We had a similar problem with Ronald Reagan, leading to that memorable Saturday Night Live sketch where Phil Hartman portrayed Reagan as alternating between a clueless and amiable fellow for public consumption and a hard-driving take-charge leader when no one was around to see.

Perhaps this quote from master paleo-conservative William F. Buckley Jr., pertaining to the Reagan problem, might also come in handy in thinking about how to sort out Bush the smirking chimp from Bush the radical ideologue:

People say he is a simpleton, which isn't right, and when they realize he isn't they're apt to go to the other end of the spectrum and compare him to Socrates, which doesn't work either.

It appears now that Reagan at least had the excuse of the early stages of Alzheimer's to explain some of his disconnection from reality. What excuse does Bush have? Abuse of alcohol and drugs? Laziness? Lack of interest?

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/13/2003 01:29:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Time and history

In honor of Veteran's Day, AMC is showing a marathon of war films. Since I happen to have just finished Gordon Pranges' At Dawn We Slept and am in the middle of his Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, I watched a bit of Tora! Tora! Tora! and perused the user comments about the film on IMDB.

One comment made the striking observation that the film, which dates from 1970 and which portrays both the American and Japanese viewpoints equally and rather fairly, was made just 29 years after the attack itself. From the vantage point of 2003, it's inconceivable to me that in 2030 a similar film showing both viewpoints could be made about the al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- but perhaps it would be just as inconceivable to many Americans in 1941 that a film like "Tora! Tora! Tora!" could be made so relatively soon, a mere generation later.

I'm occasionally brought up short by the temporal juxtaposition of events which, considered separately, seem to belong to completely different eras. For instance, a mere 50 years, less than the time between today and the end of World War II, lies between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I -- and yet the Civil War seems like an "historical" event (i.e. one that occurred well before modern times), while World War I seems to me to be a modern event, one of the precursors of the modern era. (In fact, a strong case can be made that WWI was the major precipitatory event creating the geo-political conditions which lead to WW2, the Cold War and the situation in the Mid-East, including the Israel-Palestine conflict and mess in Iraq.

One seem foreign, because so old, while the other seems real and current, and yet they lie relatively close together on an objective timeline.

Update: My Friend Roger comments:

Don't forget, however, that the Civil War is generally considered to have been the first MODERN war. See Ken Burns' series for more on that (based, I'm sure, on probably dozens or hundreds of books making the same point).

Since my Mom knew a couple of Civil War veterans when she was young, it perhaps seems a tad less "historical" to me than to you (though we're almost exactly the same age). Yet at the same time, WWI seems virtually as remote to me ... even though my Grand Uncle, who I loved dearly, fought in its trenches. It is WWII, not WWI, that seems "modern" to me by every terrifying standard.

Maybe it has something to do with the quality of the film that existed during the latter war, but not yet during the former. WWI moving images still have the herky-jerky feel that I associate only with images of people long dead, while WWII color news footage exists that in some respects looks hardly a bit different from Vietnam. And then there are the popular films, too. There is no modern film I'm aware of about WWI that looks like 'The Great Escape" or "The Longest Day" or, more recently, "Saving Private Ryan." There's "Gallipoli" -- that's about the only one I can think of, and it is thoroughly steeped with a historical set-piece quality you don't find in the others.

These are good points, some of which I actually intended to make at the time of posting, but neglected to (at 5am).

Another thing which brings me up short is seeing film (real or re-created) of World War II in which horses and other pack animals are in use for hauling equipment and transporting supplies. Because WW2 feels so "modern" to me, and many of its elements (Blitzkrieg, mechanized divisions, tank warfare, the air war, etc.) are those of the modern technological world, I'm momentarily shocked to see something that I associate with the Civil War on the screen -- then I remember that there was only a very short period between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/11/2003 05:07:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE



Some letters to the editor from the New York Times Magazine. This first, from October 19th, is in response to a September 14th article by Paul Krugman entitled "The Tax-Cut Con":

I suspect that even those who scoff at government services take for granted that their food and water are safe to consume; that their medicines do more good than harm; that the airplanes they travel in are safely designed, maintained and operated; that they will be warned of the next hurricane or blizzard; and even, whether they admit it or not, that they and their loved ones will not starve in the streets if they are laid low by natural disaster, financial calamity or catastrophic illness or injury. We know from bitter experience that individuals and corporations cannot or will not perform these and many other essential functions.

Roger Tobin
Belmont, Mass.

The next letter responds to "Notion Building" an October 12th article by Matt Bai, about John Podesta's new think tank, the Center for American Progress, the major task of which is to find new ideas to fuel the Democratic Party, or to re-package old liberal ideas in new ways:

Democrats do not need new ideas any more than Christians need a new Ten Commandments. What they need is a charismatic leader who can articulate traditional Democratic ideals in a way that will attract a winning constituency and then govern effectively. To me, Democrats have always stood for safeguarding civil liberties, maintaining human health and welfare, stimulating job growth, protecting the environment and acting responsibly in the world theater. And, therefore, I offer these four ideas: Equal rights. Full-employment economy. Universal safety net. Safer world.

Don Ryan
Westborough, Mass.

Finally, in the same issue, a letter from Jessamyn West of Rutland, Vermont gives the address to this site, with "Five 'Technically' Legal Signs for Your Library", a way to "end-run the gag order" associated with the Patriot Act "by allowing [a] library to provide the perfectly legal information that the F.B.I. has not been there...yet."

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/11/2003 12:25:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Monday, November 10, 2003

Blueprint for a mess

In the New York Times Magazine a week or so ago, David Rieff had a good summary of how the situation in Iraq turned into such a mess:

Historically, it is rare that a warm welcome is extended to an occupying military force for very long, unless, that is, the postwar goes very smoothly. And in Iraq, the postwar occupation has not gone smoothly.

I have made two trips to Iraq since the end of the war and interviewed dozens of sources in Iraq and in the United States who were involved in the planning and execution of the war and its aftermath. It is becoming painfully clear that the American plan (if it can even be dignified with the name) for dealing with postwar Iraq was flawed in its conception and ineptly carried out. At the very least, the bulk of the evidence suggests that what was probably bound to be a difficult aftermath to the war was made far more difficult by blinkered vision and overoptimistic assumptions on the part of the war's greatest partisans within the Bush administration. The lack of security and order on the ground in Iraq today is in large measure a result of decisions made and not made in Washington before the war started, and of the specific approaches toward coping with postwar Iraq undertaken by American civilian officials and military commanders in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Despite administration claims, it is simply not true that no one could have predicted the chaos that ensued after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In fact, many officials in the United States, both military and civilian, as well as many Iraqi exiles, predicted quite accurately the perilous state of things that exists in Iraq today. There was ample warning, both on the basis of the specifics of Iraq and the precedent of other postwar deployments -- in Panama, Kosovo and elsewhere -- that the situation in postwar Iraq was going to be difficult and might become unmanageable. What went wrong was not that no one could know or that no one spoke out. What went wrong is that the voices of Iraq experts, of the State Department almost in its entirety and, indeed, of important segments of the uniformed military were ignored. As much as the invasion of Iraq and the rout of Saddam Hussein and his army was a triumph of planning and implementation, the mess that is postwar Iraq is a failure of planning and implementation.

Rieff then presents some of the major blunders:

  1. Getting in too deep with Ahmad Chalabi
  2. Shutting out the State Department
  3. Too little planning, too late
  4. The troops: too few, too constricted
  5. Neglect by the military of the civilian authority delegated to run the post-war effort (OHRA)
  6. Ignoring the Shiites (or taking their gateful participation for granted)

Rieff then concludes:

In Iraq today, there is a steadily increasing disconnect between what the architects of the occupation think they are accomplishing and how Iraqis on the street evaluate postwar progress. And as the security situation fails to improve, these perceptions continue to darken.

The Bush administration fiercely denies that this ''alarmist'' view accurately reflects Iraqi reality. It insists that the positive account it has been putting forward is the real truth and that the largely downbeat account in much of the press is both inaccurate and unduly despairing. The corner has been turned, administration officials repeat.

Whether the United States is eventually successful in Iraq (and saying the mission ''has to succeed,'' as so many people do in Washington, is not a policy but an expression of faith), even supporters of the current approach of the Coalition Provisional Authority concede that the United States is playing catch-up in Iraq. This is largely, though obviously not entirely, because of the lack of postwar planning during the run-up to the war and the mistakes of the first 60 days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. And the more time passes, the clearer it becomes that what happened in the immediate aftermath of what the administration calls Operation Iraqi Freedom was a self-inflicted wound, a morass of our own making.

Call it liberation or occupation, a dominating American presence in Iraq was probably destined to be more difficult, and more costly in money and in blood, than administration officials claimed in the months leading up to the war. But it need not have been this difficult. Had the military been as meticulous in planning its strategy and tactics for the postwar as it was in planning its actions on the battlefield, the looting of Baghdad, with all its disastrous material and institutional and psychological consequences, might have been stopped before it got out of control. Had the collective knowledge embedded in the Future of Iraq Project been seized upon, rather than repudiated by, the Pentagon after it gained effective control of the war and postwar planning a few months before the war began, a genuine collaboration between the American authorities and Iraqis, both within the country and from the exiles, might have evolved. And had the lessons of nation-building -- its practice but also its inevitability in the wars of the 21st century -- been embraced by the Bush administration, rather than dismissed out of hand, then the opportunities that did exist in postwar Iraq would not have been squandered as, in fact, they were.

The real lesson of the postwar mess is that while occupying and reconstructing Iraq was bound to be difficult, the fact that it may be turning into a quagmire is not a result of fate, but rather (as quagmires usually are) a result of poor planning and wishful thinking. Both have been in evidence to a troubling degree in American policy almost from the moment the decision was made to overthrow Saddam Hussein's bestial dictatorship.

Well worth a read.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/10/2003 11:49:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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search websearch unfutz

Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
2005 koufax awards


Carpetbagger Report
*Crooks and Liars*
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2004 koufax winners
2003 koufax award
"best blog" nominees
the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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