Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Most Provincial Town in the United States

by Bernie Quigley – for The Free Market News Network, 11/12/06

There is a political cartoon in today’s New York Times which gives a complete picture of what is dragging the Democratic Party into the sea of historical oblivion, even though it is showing signs of a new vitality in the November election.

Good luck with that. Old School is just waiting to pounce, to dominate, to territorialize and to control the young bloods coming into Congress, with Hillary waving the charge and that old Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love, First Person Bill, first on the float, whenever he’s not touring with the Rolling Stones. The problem is this: New York.

Bette Midler once said, “When it is 3 am in LA it is still 1938 in London.” To paraphrase The Divine Miss M, it is still 1964 in New York City.

The New York Times political cartoon is by Jules Feiffer. It is a comic homage to Barrack Obama, the new darling of the Democratic Party. There is nothing really that qualifies him to be President, President being a management thing, but he is a good-looking, well-educated and charming black man, and in a political climate that has been reduced over recent years to vaguest sensory impressions and the freest associations, it is good to look like someone you might remember from a movie or from The Ed Sullivan Show. And as Bill Clinton kind of looks like Elvis, Obama sort of looks like Xixo who played N!xau in the funny movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. If you are a certain age and of a certain culture, it bubbles imperceptivity to mind.

Remember N!xau? No? Remember Jules Feiffer?

There was a time in this country when the pulse was strongest and the life force of the Western world burned its very brightest at Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue, or at Harlem’s Apollo Theater or at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station and in the narrow streets and inexpensive bars and restaurants that converged Chinatown, Little Italy and The Bowery. You can see the last traces of that intelligence, integrity and almost boundless, spontaneous creatively in the terrific movie Pollock, set in the 1940s and ‘50s.

In Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood, political radicals left and right brought the greatest influence in post-war U.S., some of whom even today have the strongest influence on official Washington policy. Anyone who found their way to work and play in that environment with its Irish political drinkers and beautiful, young, Jewish intellectuals in pony tail, dark glasses and toreador pants was blessed. Pete Hamill captured the common essence of it when he wrote that boys (like him) returning home from the celibate Irish bars would pass the Flatbush apartments of Jewish girls above with lights still burning into the night studying Dostoyevsky. To be involved with one would be “to be involved in history.” Bob Dylan, coming in with the chilly wind of the border lands from Hibbing, Minnesota, wrote home to say he had come to “in the center of the world.”

In its last days, Norman Mailer and Dan Wolf founded The Village Voice and Jules Feiffer wrote a weekly cultural cartoon for it – droll and ironic, in the political fashion of the day, exactly like the one this morning in The New York Times.

But the Angel passed, as She always does. The last hurrah might have come in a bar called The Lion’s Head, just off Christopher Street, which was used as campaign headquarters when Mailer and Brooklyn-Irish journalist Jimmy Breslin ran for Mayor’s office with the campaign slogan, “No more bullshit.”

I think it was Jimmy Carter. In my experience as northern-born and reared, he was the first Southern white person that we ever liked and thought of as one of us, after Watergate heroes Sam Irvin of North Carolina and Howard Baker of Tennessee opened the gate.

In this most creative period the best New York editors were, strangely enough, Southerners; Willie Morris at Harpers, Harold T.P. Hayes at Esquire, Wayne King at the helm at The New York Times and Howell Raines. But after a rash of critical books from a New York state of mind, Mailer said he came to understand that New Yorkers like himself and his friends would no longer have any real influence on the country. The heartland had awakened.

The best and most influential sensed the change and moved on. Morris moved home to Mississippi. Hayes moved to California. The neocons moved to Washington, D.C. and began visiting places like Texas. (When I worked in North Carolina later my Jewish New York friends used to call and ask, “Is it safe for Jews?”) Mailer found a charming North Carolina artist wife and even attempted to write a translation of the New Testament for his father-in-law’s Baptist church. Dylan moved on to Big Pink, Nashville and points west.

If you don’t recall Jules Feiffer you are probably not from New York and didn’t read The Village Voice back in the Sixties. If you do, you are probably around 60 years old. Most editors in New York today are one or both of these things.

The demographic is troubling. Less than a year ago, The New York Times Magazine had a cover story about Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, referring to him as “the anti-Hillary.” In this state of mind – a New York state of mind – there is no Democratic Party that is not synonymous with the Clintons. All is prelude to Hillary. And the things that are not Hillary are “the anti-Hillary.” Now that Warner has dropped out of the race Feiffer has nominated Obama as “not Hillary.” The only other big question to this crowd is can Bill legally become Vice President? In my little mountain paper here in the hinterland of New Hampshire (whose editors are all from New York, I think, and all around 60) this pensive issue made front-page news last week.

Not long ago The New York Times did a brief interview with Marcos Moulitsas of The Daily Kos, calling him a rising star, but with that patronizing tone that New York editors and journalists conjure when speaking to someone not of the realm – Foreign Devils - a realm that has become as narrow and provincial as the Saul Steinberg cartoon that shows New York City as an island in itself and makes no distinction between outlanders beyond the Hudson River, be they from Indiana, Indonesia or China. Why does the world need blogs and the new independent on-line journals like this one, the reporter wanted to know? What’s wrong with The Village Voice?

I think Marcos (most of whose four million weekly readers are way under 60 and don’t like or read The New York Times) responded: Ha Ha.

Before I moved to New York to work, I grew up in a segregated little town by the ocean in Rhode Island. I did not ever see a black person until I was about eight years old. Yet we loved black people, but kind of as an idea or an abstraction rather than as actual physical human beings like ourselves. In high school in Newport, we had one black boy in our class. We made him captain of the football team and president of the class. Indeed, we gave him every possible position we could think of.

That satisfied us and unfortunately, it satisfied him. Here is the key to this: We did not like Southern white people and as we were taught to love black people or at least the idea of black people instead of their actual selves, we were also taught at every turn that we were morally superior to Southern white people as they were slavers. And although slavery was most elementary to the ports of Newport and Rhode Island economy (as it was to the building and organization of New York City), we did not see ourselves involved or culpable because of it.

Our black student was “our favorite Negro” as black scholars came to call this condition. It was he upon whom we projected our pieties and our vision of ourselves as liberators and enlightened avatars: He, the black man, being the victim of some other kind of white people – people we opposed and did not like.

That was in 1964. And to there the Democrats in New York and the Northeast have returned again as Obama allows himself to be exploited again as the Democrat’s Favorite Negro.

From then to now, most anyone who has been to college might have read John Hope Franklin or W. J. Cash and learned something about race and the South. If we are to be a true federation of regions as Jefferson and some enlightened Libertarians propose, it would seem instrumental to know about these things to go forward without polarization.

Such a course of study might start with William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee, about the fate of the white planter class in Louisiana after the Civil War and into the 20th century. You see as well his condition among the old high-church in Virginia and everywhere in the South, of those who lost their role in the South’s caste system when they were left them behind with little to do.

This old and irrelevant class developed and even evangelized a romanticized vision of Negroes as natural and joyful in song, true in prayer and organic and loving as help in the household; particularly during birthing and child-care tasks. And parallel to that the old planter class developed a hatred of the Southern whites on the smaller farms – the “white trash” and “crackers” whose rise in post-Civil War economy now threatened their livelihood and their authority.

Full economy came to the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We in New York and New England developed precisely those same attitudes when the Angel passed us by and we become irrelevant.

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