Archive for the ‘Michael Goldfarb’s Web Pages’ Category

Moral Hazard? The Critics of G20 Bank Bail-Out were Right!

Monday, March 31st, 2014

G20 Anniversary:

Five years ago: Do you remember? The old world’s economies were crashing. Jobs were haemorraghing everywhere (except China). Six months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the global banking system was still cratering.

A one-day summit of the G-20 economies was called in London to put a floor under the collapsing structure, re-float the economy, and re-regulate the financial institutions that caused the mess in the first place.

On the way to the Excel Centre to cover the meeting, I stopped off at Canary Wharf. The idea was to talk to the people who would be most affected by the new regulations being discussed.

Canary Wharf was Sunday morning empty. Anticipating anarchist action, most people had been told to work from home. (The anarchists had not reacted nicely to being kettled down by the Bank of England the previous day. There was fear the black balaclavas might turn up at the Wharf instead).

I found myself talking to two men by a Starbuck’s kiosk at Cabot Square. I asked them what they thought about the new regulations.

Have you seen the Daily Mash today? one of them asked. It has a piece that says ”Bankers are smarter than politicians, they can find their way around any regulations they put on in place.”

That’s the truth, he added. “It doesn’t matter what they do. We’re smarter than they are. We’ll figure a way around it.”

It was a quotably arrogant statement. I scribbled it down and asked the guy’s name. His courage didn’t run that far. As a reporter I’m used to this: tough talk, bully talk from people without the guts to put their names to a repulsive statement. I’ve recorded this kind of anonymous boasting on the Shankill and in the Republica Srpska and road houses in the American South. It’s trash talk from people who know the game is lost and they won’t pay a price for having been on the losing team.

The pair were an example of something critics of the bank bailout were talking about: moral hazard. If you bailout the banks without imposing strict regulations at the same time, what is to stop men like this from wrecking the system all over again?

At summit’s end, Gordon Brown came out – alone – to meet the press. The first detail he mentioned was a reform of financial industry regulations. Hedge funds would be regulated for the first time and the shadow banking system exposed to sunlight. Credit rating agencies would be regulated as well.

He mentioned the reforms first because the French and German governments had made it clear they wouldn’t contribute to a stimulus package without serious reform of the banking industry. Moral hazard. If you bail them out without conditions, they’ll only do it again.

But the big headlines were about the 1.1 trillion dollar stimulus package for the world economy to be administered via the IMF.

It wasn’t just the size of the bail-out that drew journalists’ focus. It was the lack of specifics about regulations. Brown did not offer a time frame for drafting them nor say which body would be empowered to implement them. Regulatory reform became a secondary factor almost as soon as Brown finished speaking.

Looking back it is easy to understand why regulations were put to the side. In the US and UK jobs were haemorraghing at an alarming rate. In an exercise of pre-emptive downsizing of unparalleled viciousness, 2.6 million people had been thrown out of work in the US in the six months after Lehman’s went bust.

Unemployment was shooting up in most of the established economies. When the G-20 leaders met, stemming these job losses was the paramount concern, not moral hazard.

The extra funding made available to the IMF, made possible by contributions from individual nations and the sale of its own gold was going to stem the job losses.

Over the next few years, occasionally, the EU made an effort to cap bankers’ bonuses and put some form of regulation in place. But each attempt ended in failure and when it did, I found myself thinking about the two bully boys at Cabot Square.

Then they and the thousands in the City who think like them, had a nice run of luck.

The immediate fear of losing one’s job replaced the pressure for banking reform from the public.

In Britain, the Conservatives took power with the help of an extremely weak coalition partner and blocked every meaningful effort domestically and internationally to regulate the City.

Then came the most important piece of luck: The crash set in motion a causal chain that led the most over-leveraged eurozone countries to the brink of default.

The still unregulated City speculators drove the frenzy that pushed bond yields to extraordinary heights in the at risk countries.

The focus of policy makers shifted from regulating the financial industry to saving the single currency by imposing draconian austerity measures on Ireland, Greece and Spain. More people lost their jobs.

But not in financial services. Throughout the autumn of 2011, betting on fractional movements of sovereign bond yields became the latest game in the casino.

The conversation shifted in the Anglo-phone world. The real threat to the global economy wasn’t the unregulated speculation centered in London and New York that the G-20 promised to deal with, it was now the euro that was the cause of all economic hell and prolonged recession.

That put the regulatory fire out for the City. Meanwhile in the US, the one meaningful attempt at regulation: the Dodd-Frank bill was passed in 2010 but implementation has been delayed repeatedly. It is still not fully operational.

Today, in London, the economy is pretty much where it was just before the crash. Bonuses are at pre-crash levels, scandals in the city like fixing the Libor rate unfold regularly. Unable to generate growth, the government orchestrates an insane housing market bubble. The Shard stands empty – the perfect symbol of our era.

Moral hazard is priced in. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon got a 74 percent pay rise in January – a package worth $20 million – despite the fact that his bank paid $18.6 billion in fines in 2013 plus a further billion in legal fees.

Unthinkable levels of unemployment are priced in as well. 20 million American workers who want a full time job can’t find one and now, it is clear, never will. These aren’t just factory workers. They include the more than 50% of university instructors in the US who work on part-time contracts and millions of people like me, one-man band entrepreneurs of the professional classes.

We are the new self-employed, living on a combination of a few bits and pieces of freelance work and a judicious drawing down of retirement savings.

Britain’s ONS doesn’t keep a similar statistic on how many want full time employment and cant find it but that doesn’t matter, the Anglo-American economies have so much in common it is a reasonable guess that a similar percentage of the British work force is fruitlessly searching for that increasingly elusive full-time gig. (5)

And nothing will change.

Strip the City away from the UK economy and you remove most of the good economic news of the last year. 80 percent of new private sector jobs in the UK since 2010 have been created in the capital. What politician would dare mess with that?

Five years after that great gathering of leaders at the Excel Centre I find myself thinking once again of those two men who didn’t have the courage to put their names to their words. It enrages me to think they were right. (more…)

AND WOULD IT HAVE BEEN WORTH IT, AFTER ALL

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

On this day (May 1) ten years ago President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and gave perhaps the largest hostage to fortune ever handed over by an American politician. Beneath a huge sign that read “Mission Accomplished,” Bush announced that, “In the Battle of Iraq the United States and its allies have prevailed.”

Hmm, no, the US and its’ allies hadn’t prevailed. The War to Overthrow Saddam had succeeded, but the Battle of Iraq hadn’t really begun.

Of all the ten year anniversaries associated with the first phase of the Iraq War, this is the one on which to consider whether, with less arrogance and better planning, the war might have succeeded.

As Syria disintegrates and North Korea adds an unneeded level of nuclear fear to east Asian life the questions of intervention are still with us. The reluctance to answer them and then act is wholly down to an inability to answer them honestly – including the most critical question: if you intervene – how do you prepare for the day after victory?

Here’s a small insight from ten years ago.

On April 11, 2003, Saddam’s regime collapsed in the northern city of Mosul without a fight. In the night it effectively disappeared. Baghdad had fallen several days earlier. In Mosul, the army evaporated. Soldiers literally walked out of their uniforms. Weeks later you could still see boots and military kit along the side of the road.

In the city there was looting, particularly at a UN food depot and the Iraqi National Bank. The historic record of the day, in images and the sounds I recorded, make that looting seem like the dominant response to Mosul’s self-liberation.

But the overwhelming truth – something no camera or sound recordist could capture – is that most people were not capable of looting. They were walking around in a state of shock. Everywhere you looked were somnambulants wandering in parks and up on the grassed over walls of ancient Nineveh. A whole city awoken from a collective, decades’ long nightmare into bright, spring sunshine.

When you come out of a nightmare, reality often seems a continuation of the dream. There is a pervasive sense of disbelief. You have to shake your head very hard to make sure that yes, you are in fact awake, and the world around you is real.

On one residential street, a small crowd gathered around my friend, Ahmad Shawkat, a dissident who had been living in internal exile in Erbil, in the Kurdish safe area, an hour’s drive away. Even his presence, after years of exile, couldn’t completely re-assure the men, his former neighbors, that the regime was gone. These old friends, many of them university professors, simply couldn’t believe it. Saddam was too clever, this was all a trick. He would be back. The implication was: those who celebrated will be dragged away by the Mukhabarat, the secret police.

Ahmad turned to me and said, “This is the infection of ‘dictatorism.’” But as the hours passed and the looting and somnambulism continued, Ahmad said, “I had no idea my people would behave so strangely.”

In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Fear of the state security apparatus had become a fundamental part of Iraqi’s lives over 30 years. As the next hours and days unfolded, the immediate reality of liberation worked its way around the city along with a new fear: the absence of security.

I’m not talking about the sense of security that the police will come if your house is burgled and that should the criminal be arrested there is a reasonable chance he will be tried and convicted of the crime. I’m talking about something much deeper, a going about daily life without having to even think about the most basic existential questions.

If nothing else, totalitarian states deliver this. The regime provides absolute parameters on what is permissible. It becomes a cocoon. People exist within that framework. If they question it, they disappear.

What the Bush Administration’s overthrow of Saddam did was take those existential certainties away overnight and put nothing in their place.

That President Bush and his advisers’ planning for the post-war period was negligible was known beforehand. In an article in the New York Times a week before the war began, columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who was very pro-war, wrote about the President, “He and his team are the only people who would ever have conceived this project, but they may be the worst people to implement it. The only place they’ve been bold is in their military preparations “

But even if the Administration had deployed enough troops to provide the mundane kind of security necessary to prevent anarchy in the post-war period, it could never have got to grips with this more abstract notion of being secure, not just in your person, but in your soul. The bureaucratic kingpins who planned the war were not capable of that kind of thinking.

They never thought to ask, Why did totalitarianism’s collapse in the Soviet Union not lead to people embracing modern democracy but instead lead to kleptocracy and then a re-embrace of nationalist authoritarianism? Why did the end of the Soviet Empire bring about Yugoslavia’s violent break-up over 19th century concepts of national identity accompanied by a series of civil wars fought with medieval savagery augmented by 20th century weapons?

Why would the disappearance of the Saddam regime not have a similar negative effect on those who had been forced to live under it? Then they should have asked the obvious question: How do we prevent a similar bad outcome?

It is hard to imagine unless you have lived under totalitarianism or been present when it collapsed but freedom means fear. Many people in a society making the transition from dictatorship would prefer the old certainty, even if it means not being “free.” Those, like my friend Ahmad, who argue that it is worth taking the risk to live with freedom’s uncertainty face violence. He was murdered five months after the regime collapsed.

Yet I am certain that in those months between the regime’s collapse and my friend’s death there was the possibility of success in Iraq. The people wanted order in the street, but they also wanted unthinking security in their souls. If the US had delivered the latter, there would have been a better outcome. But giving Iraqis a feeling of inner security required more than troops and bureaucratic thinking, it required planning based on an understanding of the psychology of societies that endure totalitarianism – or prolonged periods of violent instability.

This is an important lesson to learn. In the coming years there are many societies that will be jostled out of their nightmares – suddenly or after years of violence. The Ba’ath regime of Basher Assad will fall in Syria, even North Korea will someday emerge from the shadow of the Kims.

When these things happen, the US and the whole of the international community, need to have thought through how best to ease people past the inevitable fear that comes from waking up from the nightmare of certainty to the uncertain reality of freedom.

IF YOU HAVE READ THIS FAR AND HAVE AN INTEREST IN READING THE HISTORY OF IRAQ, THE WAR AND ITS MEANING – AND LEARNING ABOUT THE TRUE PRICE OF FREEDOM TO ONE MAN THEN READ THIS BOOK.

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Part 6, History in the Time of Forgetting, Being Free and Being Censored

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

More than two decades ago, in the heady days of glasnost, Soviet writers and artists and western arts journalists rushed into each other’s arms. It was a wholly mutual embrace.
We – the arts journos – constantly need to find something new to write about, and the culture in the late ’80′s, as Reaganism and Thatcherism were winding down, was pretty abysmal. They – the Soviet writers and artists – were desperate to get their names known in the West. When the crackdown after the thaw came, they hoped a bit of profile outside the Soviet Union might help them avoid a trip to the Gulag.
There was a great flowering of expression. From the false bottoms of desk drawers came manuscripts written years before: poetry, prose and plays that had no hope of being produced so long as Communist Party censorship continued. Now this writing was being published and it was a revelation. It offered a particular window on people born after the war. Their lives had been lived in post-Stalinist stagnation. The old order was effectively dead but nothing was ready to replace it. The older generation at least had their heroic memories of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis to bring some joy to their lives. This new generation did not have that. The Gulag was not the threat it once was, but bureaucratic inertia meant that new work was stifled.
Then Gorbachev and Glasnost and suddenly a generation of writers and artists entering middle age could now express themselves. My particular journalistic interest at this time was theatre and Moscow and Leningrad (as it was still called) became the hottest places to go. Amazing new work was magicked out of nowhere. I became a hanger-on for a couple of fantastic theatre companies, writing articles about their work, and accepting free trips to Russia to watch them rehearse.
I wrote about a play called Cerceau performed by the theatre company of Anatoly Vasiliev, a mad monk of a genius. His actors reached the perfection of the techniques I had learned studying acting with Stella Adler, although not without suffering regular browbeatings from Vasiliev.
Cerceau was a play about a group of friends born just after World War II, one of whom inherits a ruined dacha. The friends go out to the dacha to fix it up. They drink, argue, flirt, fall in love, fall out of love. That’s the whole story. Very Russian. It was a picture of their despair at being trapped in the aspic of the system, with not even the heroism of defeating the Nazis to warm them as they grew older.
I spoke with Cerceau’s author, Victor Slavkin, and remember asking him how he had written the play so quickly – Glasnost hadn’t been in effect for very long – and he let me in on a secret. He had written Cerceau ten years previously, shown it to a couple of friends and then put it away. The play would never get past the censors, they told him, Slavkin would call unwanted attention to himself for even showing it to them. Cerceau existed, that would have to be enough.
“There were many plays, written for desk drawers,” he laughed. The explosion of new work I was seeing, well, the work wasn’t so new.
I was filled with admiration for Slavkin’s courage. A lot of writing begins as compulsion. Authors often feel they have no choice but to start writing a particular story or poem or essay. Those moments of beginning are the closest we come to perfect freedom. But finishing a work is not so easy, especially when there is no hope of publication or production, and prison is not out of the question if your manuscript is discovered.
Although by this time in Soviet history the Gulag was less likely to be your punishment than withdrawal of membership in the union of writers or theater workers. If that happened you would have no job. You would exist in reality but not officially. That was another thing I admired about Soviet theatrical life. The state paid for it. The director Vasiliev could take a year or two working on a production and he and his actors and design team would get paid regardless of whether the piece was ever performed.
That oddly circumscribed freedom to work at a piece with no commercial pressure was a powerful reason to write for the desk drawer. Slavkin and other writers and artists made their bargain: unlike their counterparts in the west they did not have to have commercial success to earn a living as authors, they were in the union and would be paid regardless. They had to turn out officially approved dross but, so what? They could write for their desk drawers and show the work to friends. What was the alternative? What happened to Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia? He wrote and produced stuff that challenged the censors and they forced him to be a janitor.
Freedom is not just about the choices you make but the choices available to you. The writers who came of age in the suffocating era of Brezhnev had a limited number of choices about how to live their lives – but within that set of choices they were free to fight the system or work around it – and write for their desk drawers.

***

During this time I went back to America to visit family, and do some work, and I had to get from downtown Manhattan to La Guardia airport. I jumped into a cab and from the driver’s accent I knew immediately he was Russian. I had taken some Russian lessons to help me out in Moscow and Leningrad and tried out some of my stuff on the driver. My vocabulary was quickly exhausted and we switched to English when he asked me how I learned my Russian. I told him about my recent trips and how interesting glasnost was.
He was quick to disabuse me about my starry-eyed view of the reforming moment in the Soviet Union. It is still a prison, he assured me. We were cruising along the Grand Central Parkway and as we approached the Bulova Building he began punching the roof of the cab and shouted, “But this is also prison!!”
Furious cascades of heavily accented English followed to the effect that all he did was work, never enough money, in Russia at least you have fucking job and fucking salary and fucking flat and you don’t have to drive fucking taxi 12 hours a day seven days a week to feed your fucking family. “There is no fucking freedom anywhere!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” the cabbie screamed. By now there was a dent in the ceiling of the cab.
The cab was soaked in the man’s despair. He was Jewish. Part of that small wave of people who had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union … and no doubt he thought American freedom would be as sweet as Soviet tyranny had been bitter. But now he was trapped in the reality of having to work as he never had at a job that he was probably not suited for and this work would go on forever and it would never be enough to provide the things he wanted for his family.
The Russian cabby’s monologue put a pair of impertinent questions in my head. Who was more free, the Soviet writer or the Western writer? Which political/economic system had greater censorship: the soviet state with its dull censors or free market capitalism with its bottom line criteria for who and what gets published?
At the time, they were just fleeting questions. Whatever my own or my friends’ struggles to get our work published or performed we never had the threat of torture or a decade in Kolyma curtailing our freedom to write what we thought. But in the abstract, if you look just at writing, both systems had a very effective built in censorship mechanism. Much good, possibly great, work goes unpublished and unperformed in the free market system. The difference – at least in the late 1980′s – was that in the West an author whose work failed to impress the gatekeepers of the market was forced to do something else to pay rent and bring up a family. In the Soviet Union, the author was paid by the state to be something like a writer.

***

The questions never really went away. I went to war – as a correspondent – and in every conflict zone met people who wrote for the desk drawer, who published and were tortured for their trouble. I came to realize that freedom of speech is not something guaranteed by a constitution. It is innate. We only require courage to use it.
But censorship is built into all political and economic systems.
In Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2003 I met a man my age who had written and spoken his mind for years in his hometown of Mosul. He had been arrested, tortured and the only reason he had lived long enough for us to meet was that Saddam’s regime loved money more than death. His wife’s family had cash and ransomed his broken body back from the torture chambers several times.
I hired him as my translator and we became friends. By chance, via our connection he met senior Americans running the occupation of Mosul. They gave him money to start a weekly political journal. He wrote in perfect freedom for a few months before he was shot in the back by someone who didn’t like what he was saying.
Anarchy is a political and economic system also, and its form of censorship is assassination.
I wrote the story of his life. It was the least I could do to honor his memory. Twenty publishers turned it down. The one who brought it out was on shaky financial ground. The book was named a New York Times Notable Book. But there was no money to promote the book or take ads to tell the world it existed. A year later the publisher went out of business. Eventually the rights reverted to me. Despite the book’s critical kudos, no publisher has ever re-issued it. It was never published at all in Britain, where I live and have some profile. Why? Because Iraq books don’t sell.
My friend’s greatest fear was that he would die without the world knowing his struggle. I told his story. But the censorship of the free-market has kept his story away from readers as surely and dogmatically as a Soviet bureaucrat might keep a play from finding an audience.
And the power of business to control what is published grows exponentially. I wrote another book. Again, a critical success. Again underpromoted, it failed to earn back its advance. Many of the rejection notices for my next proposal alluded to the fact that my first two books had not made money.
That is the censorship of the market.
I continue to write – for what else can I do? I am a free man so long as I have the courage to put words down.
But I am angry and bitter, not just for myself but for the memory of my friend, whose name, Ahmad Shawkat, should not be forgotten.
In my bitterness, I think of the Russians. I remember the Russian cab driver who first put the questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of censorship in my head.
I read Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, if it is not the greatest novel of the 20th Century, it is close. I remember how the Soviet censors told him it would be 200 years before it would be allowed to be published, if then – and how it was smuggled to the West on microfilm, a decade after the author’s death.
I recall the poem written by Osip Mandelstam in his first exile from Moscow before Stalin ultimately disappeared him into the Gulag. It is four lines that sum up everything about what it means to be a writer and to be free.

You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

(more…)

History in the Time of Forgetting: A New Civil War

Monday, April 11th, 2011

To mark the 150th anniversary of the bombing of Fort Sumter, generally regarded as the first battle of the American Civil War, I am publishing this prologue to a novella I am working on. Let me know if you think it is worth continuing.

Prologue

Sunlight like a knife, long-shadows at noon. It is mid-winter. The sun does not travel high into the sky. Brown earth underfoot on the parade ground of the new border park, leafless trees at its edges.
At every great event, an inauguration, a convocation there is a moment where anticipation presses down on those in attendance at the same time, creating silence except for the occasional shutter click and other mechanical sounds of a press photographer’s camera.
On this day at noon such a silence descends on the ten-thousand invited guests surrounding the parade ground, there to witness the birth of a nation. The last dignitary has taken his place on the reviewing stand. All eyes look to the President of the old country and the President of the new. Their officials have had them rehearse this moment several times but as it is unprecedented there are no traditional protocols to follow. The two men look at each other, shake hands, and then sit down and gaze out solemnly at the crowd.
Earlier in the morning the wind had been gusty but now it too has gone. Nothing disturbs the silence. No country has ever been born without some bloodshed and the country being founded on this day, the Christian States of America, is no different. But a full scale Civil War had been avoided. The politicians on the reviewing stand and many in the crowd give thanks for that blessing.
The C.S.A. is a new nation with an old history and the regimental banners recall the standards flown at Gettysburg and Shiloh, in the Wilderness and at Chickamauga.
The military part of the ceremony has been rehearsed more thoroughly. Marching towards each other, one set of footsteps precisely mirroring the other, the respective honor guards meet in front of the Presidents. The sergeant-majors call out, “Halt!” at exactly the same moment, and shout in unison, “Honor flags!”
The standards of each side incline at perfect 45 degree angles to each other. A gesture of mutual respect.
From the citizens of the new nation there is a ripple of appreciative applause, like a pulse of drizzle ripping across a pond. Then silence again until the drill sergeant’s incomprehensible cry and the honor guard of the new republic set off south, inside the borders of their new/old country.
Then, as rehearsed, the president and cabinet of the new country form a less precise rank behind their soldiers and march southward to home.

*

The president of the old country stands at attention, his face stricken, as the long parade passes the stand. When the last CSA dignitary has gone he turns, eyes glistening, to his chief of staff. Before he can say a word the Chief stops him, leans in intimately and reminds his commander in chief that the right decision has been made.
“Lincoln was right. A house divided against itself cannot endure. But he was wrong in seeking to preserve that house in its original form, Mr. President.” Then he reminds the President of his own words at the cabinet meeting when the fateful decision had been made, “You said, ‘There are two houses on this continent, always have been, always will be. Lincoln thought they could remain together. They cannot.’
The chief pointed towards the last of the southerners heading through the ceremonial gates. “Look at them, Mr. President. Remember what you said? The only quote of Thomas Jefferson they know is the one about refreshing the tree of liberty with blood.”
“‘All men are created equal?’ They have never acknowledged it. They have a three-year old’s understanding of the phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ For them it means I can do whatever I want to do and you can’t stop me, nyah, nyah, nyah. And it has been like this since the founding of the nation. And there is no compromising with them … ever. It was tried at the beginning and what you ended up with was slavery in half the country and the grotesquery of the three-fifths compromise.”
“Yes, I know,” said the President, his eyes brimming with bitterness and exhaustion. “But even so, I didn’t want this.”

(c) 2011 MIchael Goldfarb. Please feel free to link but do not quote without permission.

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Part 4, History in the Time of Forgetting: The Death of Solidarity

Monday, March 14th, 2011

When the new epoch began with such savageness almost four years ago, it was not possible to see what was unique about it. Clearly, the bursting of the real estate bubble and collapse of the banks was more than just your garden variety economic contraction.
Facing constant deadlines, pundits and policy-makers – who are now expected to find a solution to any problem in the same short period of time – all looked back to the Great Depression.
There was a retro-feel to the thinking.
Remember all the talk about WPA style infrastructure programs? No one gave any consideration to the fact that in contemporary America’s service based economy most of those losing their jobs – men and women – had never done a day’s manual work in their lives and so were unlikely to have the skills required to be re-riveting bridges over the Mississippi or building a new Hoover Dam.
Everybody has images burned into their memory of the Depression. But photo-journalists were not bringing back pictures framed in multi-hued black and white that recalled Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, When soup lines failed to materialize, and Wall Street traders didn’t jump out of windows, and thousands of hobo’s didn’t start riding the rails, the press decided things really weren’t so bad.
But you can’t fast forward reality, and now we can begin to see the singularities of this historical moment and figure out the questions that must be answered to understand what has happened.

1. What name can we give to this period of American history? This is not the Great Depression, although in some parts of America it is, and among those under 25, enduring record levels of youth unemployment, it certainly is. “Recession” isn’t a unique enough word because over the last four decades recessions have become the norm in our raw Boom-Bust style of capitalism. If a person says, I lost my job in the recession. A reasonable response would be, which one?
The Downturn,” always capitalized and with the definite article seems the best appellation for this event.

2. As a result of globalization New York, my birth place, and London, my home, have more in common with each other than with their national hinterlands. In turn these cities have more in common with Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. People in the global cities gulped in 2008, then realized that for them things would be ok. So long as their financial exchange colleague in the other cities were ok there was no need to worry too much about their fellow countrymen, those to whom The Downturn is happening.

3. We can’t see the unique nature of the current situation because the statistical models for understanding the economy – especially the world of work – are clearly outdated.
Headline employment measures do not seem to take into account the ways in which American wage earners who have been laid off, like myself, continue to work full-time for what is a part-time wage. Nor do they measure how much household income was the product of two salaries now reduced to one or two part-time incomes. For decades, many families have required two incomes to make ends meet. What percentage of the work force lived in this kind of household, how devastating is it when one of the family wage earners is rendered unemployed?
Yet each month the government publishes information on claimant count and job creation and the like. Those of us who are several years into the existential hell of unemployment, who keep scrabbling at our professions for half what we used to earn, can only shake our heads in despair at a statistical picture in which our lives are not represented.

4. Other statistics that we should know but don’t: Who does what in America? How many people work in profit-making enterprises like manufacturing, retail, construction etc? How many work in non-profit making activities like teaching, government, the voluntary sector? How many people in each category lost their jobs, in The Downturn, how likely is it they will remain without work?
I’m sure the Bureau of Labor Statistics has some of the answers, and I imagine there are a few academics who are working with the data and plan to publish peer-reviewed studies in the next few years but ordinary folks can’t seem to find the answers in sources of general information like newspapers. This is probably because the fully-functioning newsmedia are now super-concentrated in the global cities. Reporters don’t see the problem on their doorsteps every day so most are not concerned about it.

5. Without these numbers it is impossible to answer the greatest question thrown up by The Downturn: When it comes to creating jobs has the Anglo-American model of raw, free-market capitalism run out of road? Factor out the housing boom created by the mortgage ponzi scheme and can the American economy create enough work to employ people?

The above are mostly economic points, what follows are thoughts on the singularities of the social fall-out from The Downturn:

6. The death of solidarity. I’m not talking about the kind of solidarity sung about in old union songs or shouted for in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty or the kind of solidarity we saw recently in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s good there is some of it still around.
I’m talking about something different: the kind of human solidarity on display in catastrophic episodes in history – and The Downturn is a catastrophe – where one person risks their own personal security to help another. No society survives a catastrophe without a show of this human solidarity.
It is something I heard about as a reporter covering conflicts: like the story of the Bosnian Serb peasant who went against her own community and sheltered her Muslim neighbors from thugs, and then helped the neighbors escape to safety in Sarajevo.
It is something I have heard about as a Jew: like the story of a woman at Auschwitz who worked in the kitchens and gave extra rations of food to another woman who was very ill. This woman was severely punished for giving away that extra nourishment. Decades later at a Holocaust survivors’ event in Israel this brave woman heard her name being called out in the crowd. The woman she had fed had survived also.
There is the solidarity I heard about in my own family. During the Great Depression, my grandfather was a dentist with a modest practice in the Bronx. His sister’s husband could not find a job. Her sons were his own sons’ age. On Fridays, when he gave my father and uncle their allowance, he gave his nephews an allowance as well, and always more than my father got. “Why?” my father asked once. “Because they have nothing,” was my grandfather’s response. My grandfather eventually fronted his sister’s family the money to start over again in California where they were able to build a life.
How much of that reaching out beyond charity is there in America today? Oh there is plenty of concern – concern is the curse of liberalism. Concern is plentiful in America but how much solidarity? Especially when it comes to helping people find work.
Thousands of individual acts of solidarity grow into a social norm. The terrible rent in our social fabric caused by The Downturn can not be repaired without it.

7. In early 2009 I went to Hamburg Germany to report on the recession. The docks, the main business of the city, were empty. Global trade had come to a screeching halt in 2008 and it wasn’t clear when the great container ships would move again. Yet the worst of the downturn was mitigated because people were kept at work. Businesses, banks, local government and unions worked together to find a way to keep people employed, even when there was no real work to be done. Jobs were shared, loans were available to keep enterprises open.
To achieve this, bankers and managers were willing to miss quarterly profit targets and forego their bonuses. The politicians in charge of local governments were willing to risk the wrath of the electorate by taking on debt. Union members accepted fewer hours of work. The society, how can I say this without irony, was “United.”
When the global economy began to rebound, Germany was ready to take advantage of it. Its work force was in place and motivated.
In that same period of time what happened in America? We entered a phase of pre-emptive downsizing. When the banks tottered, and the press filled up with “the world is coming to an end” stories, people began to be laid off even from profitable enterprises. Managers had to meet quarterly profit targets and if the only way to do so was throw people out of work, tough.
Another measure of employment we don’t know – how does the precariousness of American work life effect employees’ motivation? Where no loyalty is offered how much loyalty does a worker give back?

8. America remains a phenomenally rich country. It must be if it can afford to squander the experience of millions of workers over 50 and frustrate the potential of those just entering the world of work.
This brings me to the most frightening singularity of The Downturn. A whole section of American society has been cast adrift, like one of those massive chunks of Antarctica that are breaking off with increasing frequency. A significant minority of people under 25 and over 55 have been removed for the foreseeable future from the world of full-time paid employment. Pretty soon the entire economy will be powered by people between the ages of 30 and 50, while the rest of us struggle at the margins.
Yet stockmarkets and bonuses continue to rise. GDP is expanding. The Recession is over … but The Downturn isn’t.

(c) 2011 MIchael Goldfarb. Please feel free to link but do not quote without permission.

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Part 3, History in the Time of Forgetting: Words Shape Us

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

The first time I was called a “Jew” with malicious intent was September 1958 in the playground of Belmont Hills Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It came as a surprise. I was eight years old and up until that time had been living in New York City where everyone I encountered was Jewish. Well, almost everyone. Those boys in blazers I had to walk past outside Loyola School on Park Avenue were far too badly behaved to be Jewish, although I could not have told you what it was they were exactly. Anyway, the word Jew until that moment in the playground had simply been one of the words and phrases, like “Mike,” “son,” and “114 East 90th Street,” whose meanings were slowly building up into a sense of who I was.
Whoever called me a “Jew” didn’t accompany the word with a shove or a punch, but the way the word was bitten off and barked contained enough implicit violence to make it clear that it was a bad thing. I simply didn’t know how to respond. I was the new kid in the class, bewildered by the provincial environment, overweight, incorrectly dressed for the new suburban life and therefore struggling on a wide range of fronts to avoid being singled out for ridicule. After a few months I had managed to blend in so the next time someone barked “Jew” at me I was still surprised. It was not like I wore a yarmulke or any other outward manifestation of Jewishness. I had just been typed and there was no getting away from that. Before too long I learned I was a “mockey” and a “kike” as well as a “Jew.” And with the help of the adults in my world I learned the boys calling me names were “Wops” and “Dagos” and “Micks.”
*

By American measures the Second World War is ancient history so it is easy to forget that, in addition to its horrors, the War liberated a generation of immigrants who had grown up in the Depression with little or no prospects for a better life. The conflict did more to break down class barriers and shake the society up than any of the New Deal’s economic plans. World War II was a tontine and the winners were the second-generation immigrants raised in ghettoized city neighborhoods who didn’t get killed. In the service they had a chance to meet people from other strata of society, make connections and build the social capital that made it possible to find the means to open businesses; the G.I. bill educated them and created the opportunity to achieve professional qualifications. They quickly began to acquire wealth, and by the 1950′s new suburbs were being thrown up to give them a chance to get out of the city and breathe clean country air.
Regardless of ethnic background when people did move to the suburbs they stuck to their own kind recreating the security in numbers feeling of the old neighborhood. In Philadelphia, the most successful Jews moved to new developments in Bala-Cynwyd and Penn Valley, barely over the city line and just adjacent to Belmont Hills a working class neighborhood strewn up and down a steep ridge carved out by the Schuylkill River. Belmont Hills was similar to hundreds of mill towns throughout the northeast in topography, architecture and ethnic structure: mostly Italian and Irish with a few Germans and one or two French Canadians who had drifted south; all staunchly Catholic. Their lives were based around employment in the small factories that still lined the Schuylkill in the 1950′s.
And because of the way the Lower Merion School District boundary lines were drawn the children of the new middle-class Jews and the working class Catholics were thrown together. It was like 18th century Europe from Alsace to Galicia without the money-lending. There was mutual suspicion and occasional exploration between the two groups and a childlike acceptance that “they” were different. But a couple of times a year the tension in that difference boiled over in the schoolyard or an unsupervised moment in the classroom.
“Jew!”
“Wop!”
“Mockey!”
“Dago!”
“Kike!”
“Guinea”
Then shoving and ten-year old fisticuffs until a teacher intervened..
*
Anti-Semitism is a complex phenomenon. It wasn’t simply Jew hatred being expressed in these occasional outbursts but envy and fear of any people who were different – and wealthier. Whatever the reason, being regularly called a Jew and the threat of violence that hovered in the air with it continued to add to my sense of who I was. I was a very diligent student at Hebrew school but not very religious. My sense of being Jewish came as much from the nasty way in which I was periodically reminded of my difference from the Catholic kids of Belmont Hills as it did from rituals of religion.
There were other ways, of course.
In spring I walked the mile or so to Penn Valley through the Hill. Occasionally I would be accompanied by guys from that neighborhood to the boundary of my own. We would talk about the things eleven and twelve year old boys talk about: toughness, strength, whose father was meaner. For forty years a fragment of a conversation with Joey Fital and Joe Roscioli has been stuck to the inside of my skull like a barnacle. We were bragging on who got the worst whippings, comparing our respective old man’s belt preferences, how many smacks we got and for what offences. I tried to uphold the honor of the Jews in this conversation, exaggerating the number of times I got the strap and the offenses that led to punishment but when Joey Fital asked whether my old man used the buckle like his did I had to remain silent. My father was a reluctant flogger at best and I couldn’t exaggerate more than I already had.
Until that conversation I had known Joey mostly as one of the leaders of the anti-Semitic chorus, now we had a different understanding of each other. It didn’t end his occasional ugly use of the J-word but that conversation, and others like it, put it in a different context. If at the age of eleven I had know the word recidivist I would have used it to describe the occasional name calling when balanced against the more intimate conversations about fathers and other guy stuff walking in the spring warmth.
My younger brothers have less happy memories. One day they wandered into some woods near our house and crossed paths with two older kids from the Hill.
“Didn’t you see the sign?” one of the older boys asked.
“What sign?’
“No Jews Allowed.”
Then one of the Hill kids held a knife to one of my brother’s throat and said the Jews killed Christ and they would kill him, unless my other brother promised to renounce Judaism and apologize.

*

From within and without the J-word has a unique ability shape a person’s sense of themselves in large part because it has carried different meanings down the millennia.
At the beginning of the story, Jews weren’t called Jews at all. In the Torah, Jews are usually called the children of Israel, but in the book of Exodus they are called Hebrews. The precise origin of the word Hebrew is lost somewhere in the time before writing. In the language spoken by Abraham, “eber” means the other side of the river. It is possible that the word Hebrew comes from that root. The other side of the river is a perfect metaphor for where the monotheistic tribe descended from Abraham stood in relation to the polytheistic idol worshippers around the Middle East. More prosaically it might just be a name whose origins are unknowable. There is a tribe called the “Habiru” mentioned in ancient cuneiform texts who apparently did battle in Canaan.
By and large, the word Jew is notable by its absence in the Old Testament. The New Testament on the other hand makes plentiful use of the J-word and defined it as a term of abuse for the best part of eighteen-hundred years.
A polite fightback by community leaders began in France during the early days of the French Revolution. The status of the Jewish community, particularly, the ghettoized Ashkenazic Jews of eastern France was a great concern to all the factions – left, center and right – in the constitution writing National Assembly that began meeting within weeks of the fall of the Bastille. The fate of France’s Jews became the ultimate test of the Revolution’s principals. To paraphrase the question: If we say all men are brothers and they have equal rights including the right to worship as they please, are we including the Jews, as well?
In the last months of 1789 the subject came up for debate often. The word “Jew” was used both to designate the people whose rights were being secured and as an epithet to remind legislators that Jews were a “nation within the nation,” a people apart, incapable of being French.
In an essay, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, Berr Isaac Berr noted that Jew was a term of abuse and asked that in future, officials should use the word ‘Israelite ‘ or ‘Hebrew ‘ when referring to his group. Berr reasoned the etymology of the word “juif” or Jew was traced back to the Kingdom of Judah in Biblical times and the use of the word Jew implied that Judah was their homeland. But as France was now the home of the Jews it would be better to use a word like Israelite when referring to the community. Israelite had not acquired the pejorative connotation of Jew. Israel, after all, was the honorific bestowed by God on Jacob after their all night wrestling match.
In one of its last acts before dissolving itself, the Constitutional National Assembly voted to give full rights to Jews. When Napoleon emerged from the rubble of the Revolution to embark on his campaign of conquest, wherever he went he extended these rights to Europe’s Jewish communities. In some places French soldiers literally tore down the doors of the ghetto. A new era in the life of the community in Europe began, the era of Emancipation. Throughout the nineteenth century, “Israelite” or “Hebrew” or “follower of Moses” supplanted Jew as the way outsiders and members referred to the community if they wanted to be polite and correct. It was a process analogous to the way “black” and then “African-American” or “person of color” replaced Negro in polite discourse after the Civil Rights era.
Jew increasingly became a pejorative term. In German, the word morphed into slang. Judentums is the German for Judaism. Judentums in the 1830′s became argot for business. What does he do for a living? someone might ask. “He does Judaism,” would be the answer and everyone would understand the person being discussed was an entrepreneur, regardless of his religion.
Not every Jewish person went along with these semantic games. In 1832, a magazine appeared in Germany that left no doubt who it was for and what it was about . It was called Der Jude: The Jew. The editor and pretty much sole reporter was Gabriel Riesser, a lawyer by training but prohibited from practicing his profession because he was Jewish. Many members of the community had converted to Christianity to get around the restriction. Processing past the baptismal font had become a common charade for ambitious, talented Jewish men. But Riesser simply would not play that game.
By calling his journal, The Jew, he was waving a red flag to his own rapidly assimilating community. That community, not even two decades out of the ghetto felt “Jew” was only used by Judeophobes and self-haters, never in polite society.
Riesser asked readers of Der Jude if they thought by changing the name Jew to something more acceptable to society they would avoid injustice and hatred. “Vain hope! Believe me, hatred will find its man, just like the Angel of Death. It shall recognize him through a thousand favorable names.”

*

“Jew!”
The contents of the pint glass were already airborne as we turned towards the shout. The beer hit my friend Douglas directly in the face, soaking his glasses and forming a little drip from the end of his long, classically Semitic nose. He removed his spectacles and tried to find a dry spot on his shirt to wipe them. I looked back towards the shout and saw the backs of three youths, wearing tight, white t-shirts, the flesh on their wiry arms chapped raw by the chill July afternoon. Their bony shoulders shook with laughter as they disappeared into the throng sluicing down into the center of Durham, a cathedral town in the northeast of England where the annual Miner’s Gala was in full swing.
Douglas and I turned away and trudged wordlessly up the hill towards St. Aidan’s College. It was the summer of 1967, the summer of love, and we had been in England less than 24 hours. This time being called Jew hurt for all the reasons you can imagine plus one other, that glass of beer damped down what had been a very wonderful and giddy few weeks of Jewish pride.
The spring of 1967 two things happened in our Jewish section of Philadelphia’s suburbs. First, came the Six-Day War which we followed on transistor radios as we went from class to class. “The canal … They’re almost at the Suez Canal,” someone would say as we went from English to Algebra II. High fives had yet to be invented but the vibe was there.
The second was we invented The Game, which we later re-named Maul Ball. The game combined elements of all the hard contact sports so few of us played. It took place on a lacrosse field and used a football and was basically a form of rugby with a goalie. The idea was to put the football into the lacrosse net. There were no forward passes allowed. The team with the ball kept it until someone was tackled so hard they coughed it up. There was no limit to the number of people on a team. However many showed up to play were divided in half. We played five a side and twenty a side.
Maul Ball became an obsession. I played lacrosse for the high school team but very few of the other guys had participated in any organized sport and so did not know the hormone flooded pleasure of non-stop running, hard contact and the adrenaline surge when you see your own blood sluicing out of a gashed knee or trickling warm into your eyes out of your forehead. Aspects of personalities previously hidden by good Jewish boy manners boiled up in the mayhem. Whether this sudden outburst of physical recklessness was encouraged by the desire to emulate the courage of Israeli soldiers is a matter for psychoanalytic speculation but it was a remarkable change of activity in a group whose previous expressions of aggression and gamesmanship had been confined to Friday night poker games at Jeff Frank or Hal Pastner’s house.
We spoke about the game non-stop and as the new school year started someone must have been talking about it in the vicinity of one of the guys from Belmont Hills because we were challenged by them to a game of full contact football. The Hill had a team that was part of an unofficial sandlot league. It was our senior year and we were already well on our separate ways: us to college, most of them to Vietnam. The Jews against the Wops: one last showdown.
The Sunday of the showdown was just before Thanksgiving. The rules were the basic rules of football with a stipulation that no protective equipment could be worn. No cleats, just sneakers, although a couple of guys from both teams turned up with spikes and were allowed to play in them.
Game day was cold, the kind of cold that turns a football into a rock that can break your fingertips; so cold that a warm up stretch is as likely to snap a hamstring as loosen it up. The Hill players took the right approach. They sat in cars that quickly filled with Marlboro fumes and just before the appointed kickoff time they emerged. We recognized most of the guys but, inevitably, a ringer had been included.
“Who’s that?” someone asked one of the Hill guys.
“Butchie …”
“Butchie?
“DiCicco.”
Butchie DiCicco, ohmygod, Butchie DiCicco. The Butchie DiCicco. We were more than six degrees of separation from him but we all knew his legend: a badass of the first rank, thrown out of more Catholic schools than there were holy orders to staff them. Here he was, not overly tall but slab-like in the torso, stalking across the rock hard grass towards us.
We lost the toss and on the first play, DiCicco took a hand-off and slanted off tackle. He stormed through the line untouched, it wasn’t the blocking that created the space it was his aura. Just as he was about to pick up real speed, Dougie, half his size by width and height stepped into his way. Butchie bore down on him trying to run him over. At the last minute, Doug stepped to one side leaving only his toe out. DiCicco tripped and went down hard on his face into the frozen grass. He popped up almost immediately, both fists clenched. Doug backed away at speed laughing, “Sorry man, I couldn’t think of anything else.” DiCicco took a few more steps then started to laugh as well. The riot potential in the game ended there and then.
Beyond that the memories of the contest are fragments laid out on a screen, mostly of Jeff Frank’s back as he stormed downfield on a couple of cracking runs. The feel of cold, unprotected bodies colliding or the thud of hitting the ground is gone from my memory. As is the final score. The Wops won the game by 3 to 1 or maybe 4 to 1 but the Jews gained the moral victory. The next day we all managed to make it to school, a couple of their players didn’t and, as an added sign of respect, Jeff was invited to be the Hill team’s ringer at their next game.
And that was it, we went our separate ways, although a week before graduation one of the kids from the Hill managed to hiss a last “dirty Jew” at me. It was not for old time’s sake and it was as threatening as ever.
*
The last time I was called a Jew with malicious intent was in Prague in the heady days after the fall of communism. It was well past 1 a.m. and I was walking home from a rave in the basement of an old communist monument. The teen-age boys who shouted at me could not have seen many Jews in their lives. How they could tell I was one, moving in and out of the expressionist shadows thrown by the street lights, was beyond me. It made me wonder whether a millennium of Jew-hatred had become genetically encoded.
A few years later I saw the word “Jude” written in an ugly graffiti underneath a picture of a gibbet with a stick figure hung from it. That was along a railroad siding in Cracow. I was passing through the city on my way to Auschwitz to cover the ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp. Seeing the word written out was no different than having it shouted at me. This time I felt neither confusion nor bemusement. I felt rather proud. That’s right, Jew, and we’re still here.

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(c) 2011 MIchael Goldfarb. Do not quote without permission

Part 2: History in the Time of Forgetting: New York As It Was

Friday, January 14th, 2011

In the time of forgetting, every event seems new.

By chance, I was in New York this past election day working on a radio documentary. There is still a quiet shock that ripples around the city when national election results come in demonstrating once again how right-wing America is.
For New Yorkers it doesn’t bear thinking about too closely. Because the only inference they can draw from it is that their sense of importance in shaping the national debate is in terminal decline. The New York Times really doesn’t shape the national discussion any more, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News do that.
Another truth New Yorkers don’t want to face is that their own city isn’t all that liberal either and hasn’t been in a very long time.
This past election day while I was working in New York I was also quietly celebrating an anniversary. It was exactly 25 years ago that I had left the city and moved to London. Every minute of the last days I lived in Manhattan, the place where I was born, stays with me. Let me tell you a story from that time:

“Is God Punishing Us?” That was the question roiling New York’s news media 25 years ago this month. AIDS deaths were up by more than 20 percent – Rock Hudson had just died of the disease – an earthquake had recently killed 10,000 people in Mexico. 20,000 had been buried in a volcanic eruption in Colombia. Hurricane Gloria, the biggest in two decades, had just blown through town. “Coincidence?” WNBC wanted to know, or “Is God Punishing Us?”
I watched the report sitting in my wife’s soon to be former apartment at the corner of 1st Avenue and Second Street, amid suitcases and the detritus of departure – I was emigrating to London – my ruptured ankle ligaments encased in a plaster cast, a souvenir of jogging into a pothole along the East River promenade.
When you prepare to move on from the city of your birth, the place where you have made your adult life, every moment is filled with doubt. Emigration is an act of despair as much as hope. You spend your time cutting for sign, making sure the new track you are about to set out on is the right one.
“Is God Punishing Us?” confirmed for me that I was doing the right thing. In the New York where I had begun my adult life that was not a story you would have seen on the news.
But my New York had changed. It was exactly ten years since I had moved to east 12th Street between Second and Third Avenues to start a wildly unsuccessful career as an actor. A few months earlier Martin Scorsese had filmed Taxi Driver on the block. The pimp with long-hair who inspired the Harvey Keitel character in the film still oversaw business from a little stoop across the street from my building. The streetwalkers still turned tricks in an abandoned Citroen 2CV in a rubble strewn lot adjacent to my place.
It was a street where you could get a graduate degree in life studies and still be able to walk to mid-town for auditions or cross-town to Dover Garage and shape up for a taxi-driving shift.
Twelfth Street in 1975 was a place where all assumptions about your life and the lives of others were challenged. It was that rarest thing in America’s physical and social geography: a place where different classes, ethnicities and ages lived in an approximate sense of economic equality. Old, young, Puerto Rican, Irish, Jewish, Black, Italian, from the suburbs, or whatever our place of origin we were all roughly in the same economic boat at that moment: broke or nearly there.
From wherever you came, on Twelfth Street your primary identity was the block. Parents, class you were brought up in, none of it mattered. Only rarely in American history is there time and place for this kind of social interchange: the armed forces in the Second World War was a place where social structures were broken down (except for black soldiers). The middle of the ’70′s – that often maligned decade in New York – was another.
My block was a place to be honorably poor. Manhattan intellectual life still had space for that concept. People understood the risks of the artistic life. You could be possessed of greatness and still die penniless and unknown. There was respect given for choosing the harder path.
By 1985, Twelfth Street had long been closed to me. Gentrification. The whores had been moved on, the 2CV carted away and NYU built a dorm on the vacant lot. Over the years, I moved further and further east, eventually landing on Seventh Street between C & D.
I wouldn’t see urban destruction on the scale I saw every morning walking out my front door until my first reporting trip to Sarajevo. To the west to the north to the south, blocks of abandoned buildings hovered over rubble filled lots where arson had done its worst. To the East was a housing project called Saigon by the cops. The nights were frequently punctuated by gunfire from its gloomy precincts. No one knew, and except for maybe the Village Voice, no one in the media cared. It certainly didn’t trouble New York’s Democratic mayor Ed Koch too much.
What had once been a liquor store on the northwest corner of 7th and C had been vandalized, the remains of refrigeration units and display cases had been strewn into the intersection, where they lay like guts on a slaughter house floor. They cluttered the intersection for almost a year before the city got around to carting them away.
“Is God Punishing Us?” The better question biblically would have been, “Is God Abandoning Us?” Loisaida had surely been abandoned by the city and the banks to junkies and then arsonists. And yet, and yet, the community remained. People squatted the abandoned buildings, most of them were not crazy, just resourceful. Some homesteaded – my roommates had put sweat equity into saving a city-owned building and had earned a stake in its ownership. The street was alive. Halfway to Tompkins Square, the sheriff of 7th Street kept eternal watch on the block seated on a folding bridge chair outside his church, a Spanish pentecostal congregation. We nodded to each other, made pleasant conversation, exchanged gossip about crime.
Weird things happened. One summer the short, round bottle people turned up. By day they roamed the city collecting bottles for their deposit value. By night they set up a little encampment, grilled their dinner, slept on the pavement. Next they began dragging back sheets of corrugated tin and began building a favela … the anthroplogy department of NYU should have come over to document what was going on. When the favela got too big the police arrived and the short, round bottle people disappeared.
I don’t tell these stories out of nostalgia. I tell them because Alphabet City in 1984 was where I could afford to live and in that incredibly mixed neighborhood whose only homogeneous feature was everyone’s lack of money I learned a great deal about the way people not of my class or color lived and thought. It informed my work as an actor, and later on, when I became a foreign correspondent, gave me the experience to reach deeper into cultures completely alien to mine and report back on what I learned.
By 1985 things were changing rapidly. Money, some of it dirty, some of it just overflow from the first bout of Wall Street “overexuberance” began to filter into the neighborhood. Suddenly some artists were getting rich. “Fame, I Want to Live Forever” was the motto of the newer kids coming to the city to make culture. Pursuing a lonely vision in honorable poverty was for chumps.
Julian Schnabel opening a restaurant on Tompkins Square that I couldn’t afford to eat in was one sign of Alphabet City’s impending gentrification. Trucks delivering sheetrock outside rundown tenements on Seventh Street was another.
Those of us who had lived through the worst, swapped horror stories of landlords evicting people, running down services so that tenants simply gave up. We laughed when we heard of hastily installed new bathrooms in “luxury apartments” collapsing into apartments beneath. Hollow laughter.
One day the sheriff of Seventh Street was not there and the next day a sign in Spanish telling folks he had passed away was placed on his bridge chair along with a small bunch of flowers. Other floral tributes were soon added. No one took his place.
My New York was disappearing by the hour.
Now that money was involved, the news media began to pay attention to the neighborhood. WNBC ran a longish item on gentrification in the East Village. At the center of it was an interview with the Ukrainian tailor who had a little shop on Seventh between First and A. He had hemmed some skirts and trousers for my wife. We knew his story. He had lost his family to the Nazis, then after the war been deported East by the Soviets, escaped, made his way to America in the early 50′s and set up his little shop. He had stayed in the East Village when it had been abandoned to its fate: drugs then arson. Now he was crying into the camera, holding a piece of paper. A letter informing him his lease was at an end and his rent was going up by thousands of dollars a month. He couldn’t possibly pay it. He had nothing to live for but his work and now it was being taken from him. The man had survived Hitler, Stalin, junkies and firebugs but could not survive the force of gentrification.
The camera lingered on him to close the piece. When it switched back to the studio, Chuck Scarborough and his co-anchor, Pat Harper, ad libbed a bit along the lines of “whenever there is progress some people get hurt.” Yeah, the people who did not abandon the neighborhood when it went downhill and who fought to keep families and community together.
This was “liberal” New York 25 years ago. I knew it was time to go. I didn’t think the city would miss me. New York is a real place but it is also an idea. Immigrants and colonists who come to New York shape the reality to fit their ideal. Others would come and re-make the city into their ideal image of it but for me it was over.
I watched “Is God Punishing Us?” those final nights I made my home in New York. My memory tells me Rev. Jerry Falwell was one of the “experts” weighing in. Jimmy Swaggart may have been another noted theologian involved – his show was popular in New York and he had yet to be found consorting with a hooker in New Orleans.
By the way if you want to know the answer to the question “Is God Punishing Us?” The answer was, “Maybe” and the series won an Emmy.

(c) Michael Goldfarb 2011
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1. Writing History in a Time of Forgetting: 9/11

Monday, October 18th, 2010

In the journalism business we live for significant anniversaries … loads of easy to peg stories accompany something like the fifth anniversary of Katrina. Next September there will be an over abundance of such stories. Next September will mark a decade since the attack on the World Trade Center.
This blog is going to be a countdown to that anniversary. It will ask questions sometimes, declare opinions at others, debate with those who find their way to it and post responses to my comments. There will be fragments of book ideas and an irregular column called “The Corrections” in which I will act as the editor too many opinion columnists do not have.
The framework for everything you see here is this question:
Did 9/11 change America? or had American society already changed, only Americans just did not know it?
The intent is to write History in a Time of Forgetting.
To begin:
Do you remember ten years ago this month? Oct. 2000. It was a hot election season, remember? Were you a Democrat? what do you remember? Do you remember watching Al Gore in the debates and feeling like a parent watching your child at a school event, willing him to do well. Do you recall suspending your own critical judgment, like a parent watching a child, and thinking he did well, even when some part of you knows he didn’t?
When you read the debate reports in the press the next day or listened to the instant pundits on NPR and CNN did violence flash through your brain. Al Gore was prissy, Al Gore was too smart, Al Gore was everything the American people don’t like – as if TV folks actually know anything about what ordinary Americans like, think or how they live. Did you feel like hanging Maureen Dowd upside down by her ankles and then dropping her into a pile of excrement?
Did you watch the polls in disbelief as you realized how many of your fellow citizens actually thought George W. Bush would make a good president?
If you are a Republican – I hope there are one or two who find their way to these words – do you remember your feelings? Did you look at Gore and think what a fat pompous ass he is? Or were you more Christian in your assessment? Were you Christian in making your judgments about George W. Bush? Did you see in him a man of faith? Did you willingly suspend your disbelief and see a man of the Texas soil, a person just like you, rather than the son of Connecticut Yankees who was comped into Yale and Harvard Business School, who spent his summer’s in a private compound on the coast of Maine?
What do you remember?
Here’s what I have recalled.
I was just back from Bosnia. An anniversary story. Five years had passed since the civil war there had ended. I covered the end game of that conflict and was returning with my tape recorder to see how well the Dayton Accords had worked.
To me Bosnia had been a paradigm of how the United States, when it concentrated its political will towards action, could be a force for good. During my trip ten years ago this month I had stayed on a U.S. military base in the eastern part of the country. It was my first overnight with the Army, during the war I had stayed with a British unit in central Bosnia but this was altogether different.
I imagine it was just like being with the Roman Army when it was working its way through Gaul. Outside the base was chaos, inside was civilization. Camp Eagle was a bit of America transferred to the Balkan mountains. Six kinds of American cuisine in the mess hall, a gym, satellite TV relaying the soldiers’ favourite shows.
Most of the officers were reservists, men my age, seconded from their small businesses and schoolrooms to oversee the logistical part of the operation. We had plenty in common. There was no lack of conversation.
I went on patrol in Zvornik, one of the nastiest towns in the country, with the soldiers. Ethnic cleansing had been murderous here. On a hillside overlooking the Drina River was a modern hotel where Bosnian Muslim women had been taken to be literally raped to death by Serbs. The place only closed down because so many corpses were thrown into the river that the spillway in a dam just by Zvornik had become dangerously clogged.
I watched a young artillery officer develop on the job peace-keeping experience. It was not what he signed on for when he decided to make a career in the army … but it was the assignment he was given, and I thought he did it incredibly well.
Pride in the power of the U.S. to do good. That was what I came away with from my trip to Bosnia. Even though I could see that Dayton had been a short term solution that did not solve the deeper problems raised by the civil war, despite observing at first hand the grotesque corruption that a semi-permanent presence of international peace-keepers and aid agencies with big budgets brought into conflict resolution zones, I thought the U.S. had done supreme good here. I had visited the morgue of Tuzla – smelled it before I saw it – where the unidentified remains of several thousand victims of the Srebrenica were housed.
I watched a young Anglo-American couple, forensic scientists as they worked their way through brown paper bags containing bits of bone, some still with bubbles of flesh on them, laying them out on autopsy tables, cataloging them so that some day, the remains might be claimed and given a proper burial. The couple’s salaries came through a fund organized by Senator Bob Dole, yes, at its bi-partisan best, America’s big heart reaches deep into parts of the world that know pain and suffering.
Ten years ago – do you remember what you were doing – what you felt about being American? Did you think about it at all?

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