Friday, February 01, 2013

Nobody Asked Me, But...

Ed Koch, the quintessential NYC political hack, has died after suffering a decades-long illness whose beginnings afflicted the entire city with his third term.

Edward I. Koch, the master showman of City Hall, who parlayed shrewd political instincts and plenty of chutzpah into three tumultuous terms as mayor of New York with all the tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams, died Friday morning at age 88.

Mr. Koch’s spokesman, George Arzt, said the former mayor died at 2 a.m. from congestive heart failure. He was being treated at New York-Presbyterian Columbia Hospital.

Mr. Koch had experienced coronary and other medical problems since leaving office in 1989. But he had been in relatively good health despite — or perhaps because of — his whirlwind life as a television judge, radio talk-show host, author, law partner, newspaper columnist, movie reviewer, professor, commercial pitchman and political gadfly.

Congressman Koch, as I prefer to remember him, was a feisty liberal in an era and district where liberalism was heralded as the new best way to govern. It's hard to think of him as a man who championed the little guy and the underdog, who fought for racial equality and human rights both here and abroad.

Hard to believe for a man who later in his life hated racial quotas and integration, believing that a separation of the races would achieve racial harmony. Idiot.

Personally, I think his heart had given way long before he let on. He's the first person I've ever known to become dumber as he got older.

Ed Koch was my Congressman while I was growing up. I recall an assembly at my junior high school he spoke at, and when he opened the floor to questions (this would have been about 1973,) yours truly piped up: "So when you running for mayor, Mistah Koch?"

My political instincts were honed at a very young age, you see. Five years later saw him taking the oath of office for Mayor.

Koch made the mistake of serving three terms as mayor. Three term mayors end up tarnishing whatever legacy they had and replacing it with one of brutishness and evil. For Koch, who is generally acknowledged to have saved the city from bankruptcy -- he didn't. We can truly credit his predecessor Abe Beame and Felix Royhaton, who held the city's purse strings -- his legacy became embroiled in racial hatred and unrest, culminating in the suicide of corrupt Queens politico and Koch ally Donald Manes ahead of a Parking Violations Bureau scam that saw people lining up, hands out.

And the final death blows to Koch's legacy were the deaths of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, and Yussuf Hawkins, all black. All killed by white men. Too, Koch's failure to even nominally address either the crack cocaine epidemic or the outbreak of homelessness on city streets indicated a man mired in deep racial hatred, something he would return to time and again as he swung farther and farther to the right.

I had lunch with Hizzoner a few years ago, accidentally. We happened to be in the same restaurant and Koch would talk an ear off if you let him. So I did. He was too old and too infirm for me to let my anger out, but I did ask him what changed him, why did he go from an idealistic young progressive to (altho I didn't term it this way, he took my meaning I'm sure) an embittered old fool.

Altho he claims it was the attempts by John Lindsay to build a housing project smack dab in a middle class neighborhood of Queens, that was in 1973, long before he ran for mayor. I know that's not the truth. The truth is, he moved deliberately and purposefully because he knew he could not win the mayoralty as a liberal from Manhattan -- worse, a gay liberal -- since he'd need Queens and Staten Island and Brooklyn.

So his "turn" came in 1978 when he tossed his hat into the ring.

The problem is, he was successful at it, and started believing his own press.

Which is what makes him the quintessential NYC political hack.

I miss Congressman Koch.

Mayor Koch? Eh. Not so much!


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Art For Art's Sake

(image courtesy)
I mean that title literally.
There's an interesting thread over at WhiskeyFire dealing with a rightwing pundit, Michael Moynihan, who posits that political correctness is destroying art of all stripes.
In other words, because art should not be politicized, and if it's controversial, should be viewed through an artistic lens rather than a political one, we get crappy art.
Bullshit. As Thers points out at WF, long legal and political battles have been fought over "art for art's sake," from the Bovary trial, all the way down to our own Serrano and Mapplethorpe controversies.
For me, art is an exaggerated reality that provides the artist's perspective on what he sees (or imagines).
Take that Hopper .jpg at the top of this post. It's a fairly mundane scene: a couple, a single man, all sitting at a coffee shop counter while the counter guy tries to engage anyone in conversation. For me, there's a sense of tension and mystery in the picture. For instance, the man with his back facing us: what's he up to? He seems lost in thought. It's late. The place is empty. What happened to him? The couple. Lovers? Is she a hooker? She's dressed kind of trampy and looks bored. Married?

We're all familiar with the concept of interpretation. We can all look at the same event, the same real event, and based on the sum total of our experiences and knowledge, view it through our own particular lens.

The really good artists are the ones who get us to see their perspective and realize things we missed. That's art, and it doesn't matter if the artist is five or Edward Hopper. What makes Hopper Hopper is his art affect us on an emotional level enough that someone wants to buy it.

But there's a larger point I'm missing, and that is for the culture at large. As JohnR in comments put it:

I've used a simple definition of "art" for most of my life, reinforced by a recent visit to our local MoA with the wife: Art is anything that someone thinks is art. Do something; think it's art? Then it's art. It helps if you can convince somebody else that it's art, which can be surprisingly easy, but that's optional.

It occurs to me that art is a communication, as I pointed out above, but like all communications, it is subject to individual accents and understandings. A rock is a communication to someone, somewhere.

And I mean before it's even thrown at your head. It provides information, for one thing: there are likely other rocks nearby, which could mean there's a large rock either under the ground or up on a hillside.

Or it could mean that there's a riot nearby and you'd better duck.
I have thousands of photos I've taken over the course of my life and I've discarded thousands more. All of them mean something to me, so all of them are art for me. They remind me of times and places and faces. I have an emotional reaction to each photo, even if that reaction is so subtle that it cannot be measured easily.
But for the rest of the argument...
Politics is emotional. It has to be. Laws are created in order to govern behavior under agreed-upon standards. Politics establishes those standards of behavior. Behavior is emotionally-driven.
All of us have emotional impulses, most good, some evil. After all, who among us hasn't at least glimmered on the feeling of punching someone in the nose? This is what determines our humanity: can we feel?
Most of us can feel anger, which is really just fear incorporating itself into our psyche. Most of us can feel happiness, which is really just love incorporating itself into our psyche. We can feel compassion, guilt, greed, envy, shame...the list is pretty extensive, but I think they all boil down to components of either love or fear in various compositions.
Art is emotional. It has to be. The combinations of colours or sounds, actions or words, shapes or people, all conspire to draw an emotional reaction from us. We all interpret them differently, distinctly. Effective artists, and here's where my viewpoint has altered slightly from the discussion at WhiskeyFire, make the emotional reaction so compelling that we want to live it, over and over again. We want to live with it and let it beat within our breasts.
What determines our society is how many of us act upon those impulses and how. Which brings us full circle to politics.
Politics is emotional. Art is emotional. Art is politics. It's impossible not to polticize art.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Scout's Honor

(image courtesy)
I was a Scout. Of course, back then it was called Boy Scouts, but Scouts, nonetheless.
Growing up in Manhattan, it was easy to be bored with the world around you. The change of seasons was hardly noticeable...a few more clothes, a little snow...and with all the paranoia -- some of it warranted, as careful readers of my blog know -- about this pervert and that hoodlum, it was easy to fall into a routine where you had few goals and fewer structures to support your behavior and character.
Enter the Scouts. I joined the Cub Scouts early on and progressed into the Boy Scouts where, I am proud to say, I earned the Life Scout badge.
I would have made Eagle, but college beckoned at 16, and I had to choose between scouting and making pocket money. In addition, I was selected for the prestigious Order of the Arrow society, which was de rigeur for any Scout who wanted to be an Eagle.
The Scouts were a grand old time: we backpacked the Adirondacks, camped out in New Jersey, ran one of the nation's first paper and metal recycling facilities (I was most proud of that) and generally came together the way boys of that pre-teen, pre-pubescent age can. We played games. We chose up teams. We roughoused. We bonded over bugs and campfires, latrines and lanterns.
We performed community service (you know, the "good deed for the day"?) and I'm pleased to count the Scouts as a major influence towards my liberal thinking.
Homosexuality never came into it, not because gays were forbidden (indeed, my first Senior Patrol Leader came out as an adult, and several of my charges when I was SPL are also out now) but because none of the kids understood what sex meant, much less loving another man was.
If the adults met and discussed it, we never knew. Or cared. None of the kids had any whisper campaigns about little Johnny or Mark. If we teased anyone...remember, it was a different was goodnaturedly. I was teased, you were teased, he was teased, we were all teased. It wasn't any different, or anymore wrong or right, than calling Phillip or Michael "fat."
It was disillusioning, also disheartening then, when I was an adult to read the BSA had not only banned gay Scoutmasters, but gay Boy Scouts themselves. Somethingsomething pedophilia, somethingsomething victims, somethingsomething morals clause.
Now, it's true, the Boy Scout oath says something about "keeping myself morally straight," but somehow, in adolescence, "straight" takes on a different meaning: I won't lie, I won't cheat, I won't steal. I'll treat people honestly and fairly.
So it seemed to me that the only way to be honest with people is to let me have the opportunity to interact with them honestly. Hiding someone away because they're different is dishonesty, and the Scouts really ought to be ashamed of themselves for that.
No matter. I was ashamed for them. I wrote my local Council and asked to be removed from the roster of the OofA, because (as I had learned by my 30s) the man who inducted me in was never welcome, therefore I had not earned my place in the society.
Mind you, the NY Council disagreed vehemently with the national's decision, which is why I never surrendered my sash or insignia. I was willing to support them in their fight, but not willing to accept an elite honor from an organization that was willing to abnegate around ten percent of my friends who were also members.
We did what we could. It's taken twenty years...more like forty if you go back to the original proclamations of the national board, but I was too young to notice then...but we may finally prevail. And while the new proposal is more like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" than an outright affirmation of the rights of gays to serve and be served in the Scouts, it's better than we had, and better than I would have hoped for.
But here's the tragic part, for my point of view:

About 50 local United Way groups and several corporations and charities have concluded that the ban violates their non-discrimination requirements and have ceased providing financial aid to the Boy Scouts. An official of The Human Rights Campaign, an advocate for gay rights, said HRC planned to downgrade its non-discrimination ratings for corporations that continue to give the BSA financial support.

“It’s an extremely complex issue,” said one Boy Scouts of America official, who explained that other organizations have threatened to withdraw their financial support if the BSA drops the ban.

So, like the Komen controversy, it wasn't until it hit the pocketbook that things got clear.

So much for "morally straight."


Monday, January 28, 2013

When DAs Attack

An interesting little legal factoid came out over the weekend: a grand jury that sat in 1999 in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder had handed up an indictment against the parents, but the DA refused to pursue the case:

On a brilliantly clear autumn day more than 13 years ago, Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter stepped to the podium before an anxious media horde to announce that the grand jury investigation into the death of JonBenet Ramsey had come to an end.

"I and my prosecution task force believe we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant a filing of charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time," Hunter told the reporters assembled outside the Boulder County Justice Center on Oct. 13, 1999.

Yet multiple sources, including members of the grand jury, have now confirmed to the Daily Camera what Hunter did not say that day: The grand jury voted to indict both John and Patsy Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting

The Daily Camera has confirmed that the grand jury investigating the death of JonBenet Ramsey voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting in death but then-District Attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign the indictment and prosecute the case, believing he could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
This story has been confirmed by others in the DA's office from that era.
It's a conundrum. The typical way a prosecutor will handle a situation like this is to file the indictment with the court, then asked the charges be dismissed, but I'm not sure Hunter's way in this particular case was not the better one.
As has been famously asserted elsewhere, a good prosecutor can get a ham sandwich indicted. The grand jury process is about leading a group of people down a primrose path and then asking whether they agree with the evidence as presented. And it only takes a majority vote. The trouble is, in popular canon a grand jury indictment is -- like an arrest -- an automatic presumption that the now-defendant must have done something wrong, else why would he or she be on trial?
True, conviction still requires a jury trial (or one in front of a judge), but so many people assume that anyone who makes it that far who is found innocent, barring another indictment or confession, somehow got off.
It's a warped society we live in where the law states innocent until proven guilty, but society says "Nope. Guilty."
As it turns out, subsequent DNA analysis more than a decade after the murder suggests that no one in the Ramsey family had any direct involvement in Jon Benet's death. In other words, handing up the indictment to the court would have essentially convicted, in society's mind, people who had no direct evidence linking them to the crime and indeed, were exonerated by later evidence (altho there's some question about even that evidence.)
Too, the charges the jury handed up were kind of "catch-all" in that they charged the Ramseys with basically fatally endangering the welfare of a child, which in practice could cover anything from actually participating in her murder to having knowledge of it but not stopping it.
Had Hunter taken it to a judge and then dismissed it, several possible bad outcomes occur to me, from vigilantes trying to "take out" the Ramseys to their fleeing the country to new evidence being found that would implicate them, but a defense of double jeopardy could be raised.
Hunter may have been smart to let them walk at that time, in the hopes they'd slip up later.
Which they apparently haven't.
Sadly, I doubt this is the last we'll hear of this case.