Autumn in New York

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, December 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Autumn in New York


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


'Don't hold your mail so close to your face," my neighbor warned me sharply in the elevator. I assured her no anonymous anthraxer could have any interest in me. "Well, sure," she agreed, rather readily I must say, "but it could be cross-contaminated." Right. Planes and people are falling out of the sky, the World Trade Center is sixteen acres of smoldering rubble and twisted girders, a hospital worker living quietly in the Bronx dies mysteriously of inhalation anthrax for which every possible origin seems to be ruled out, the air downtown has a smell no one wants to give a name to. This crispest, clearest, most beautiful New York City autumn ever is a paranoid's dream come true.

"Unbelievable" was the entire text of the first e-mail to cross my screen on the morning the city woke to find it had elected the bumptious billionaire Michael Bloomberg Mayor by a narrow 30,000 votes. By midday, the incredible had become the inevitable: In retrospect, it seems, nothing was more obvious than that Mark Green would slide to humiliating defeat from a double-digit lead a mere two weeks before Election Day. Suddenly, it turned out to matter that Bloomberg, who refused to participate in the campaign finance system, spent a rumored $60 million of his own immense fortune on the race, although his free spending on everything from ads and mailings to hats and high-placed academics was widely mocked as a textbook demonstration of what happens to a fool and his money. Suddenly, too, personality turned out to count: Green was arrogant, obnoxious, cold and full of hubris. Against an ordinary opponent his missteps might not have mattered, but Bloomberg's millions bought him an echo chamber in which they could resonate endlessly, while his own considerable vanity--not to mention accusations of sexual harassment--went unexplored by a preoccupied press.

Mostly, though, postelection analyses focused on race. I still don't understand why it was racist for Green supporters to make hay--in fliers the Green campaign denied any connection with--out of the fact that the Rev. Al Sharpton endorsed Freddy Ferrer, Green's chief opponent in the Democratic Party primary, or for Green to produce ads quoting the New York Times calling Ferrer "borderline irresponsible" in his approach to fiscal policy post-9/11, with the tagline "We can't afford to take a chance." Sharpton's an opportunistic if sometimes entertaining scoundrel who has had prominent roles in several notorious episodes--the Tawana Brawley hoax, the picketing of Korean grocers, the lethal violence at Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem in 1995. Why was it out of bounds to publicize Ferrer's alliance with Sharpton, any more than it is anti-Christian, or anti-Southern white for progressives to attack George W. Bush for accepting the support of the anti-Semitic lunatic Pat Robertson?

Resentful Green supporters spin their man's defeat as the overwhelming of class politics (good) by identity politics (bad). "The American left has been beating itself up about race since the 1960s," Craig Kaplan, prominent lawyer about town and passionate Green supporter, told me by phone. "To me, that's narrow nationalistic claptrap. …

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