Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Beyond the Mob Aesthetic: The Practical Virtues of Machine Politics

Reform in New York, like reform before it, has favored greater mass participation, but in terms of many unconnected individuals, each having no power of any importance. "Participation," either as taking part in insurgency or having an institutionalized share of authoritative decision making, may thus be a mechanism for reducing autonomy as easily as one for engendering it. Reform movements have frequently "liberated" the poor from machines, leaving them with less power than before. —THOMAS BLAU, THE END OF COMMUNITY ACTION
It's lucky that I was deeply and completely understood by another human being early in life; the experience, I am sure, saved me from years of ill-conceived romantic entanglements and confessional Twittering. If you are wondering who he was and what he understood, it was my friend David at the moment he said, "So, basically, your political beliefs are determined by which faction you think has better music." Take this as my way of confessing that my abiding love for urban machine politics is in part attributable to an aesthetic affinity for brawlers, bad asses, and boot-strappers.

But only in part. I am preparing to give my copy of Patrick Moynihan's Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding to a fellow urbanist—merry Christmas, Noah—and, in the course of copying down underlined passages into the Bookbag Binder, I found the following:
What more conclusive evidence of evil could be adduced against a local political leader during the 1950's, the more so if he were Italian, say, and had taken to wearing expensive clothes, than to charge that he was a "Boss"—that is, that he had power!

. . . In the summer of 1968, the City of New York, with the assistance of a Yale summer intern and the fullest cooperation, as it were, of the New York Times, launched a monster registration campaign in the poorer areas of the City. Had a Tammany Mayor undertaken to spend public funds for such a purpose the Times might have seen the matter differently.
And especially:
It may be that the poor are never "ready" to assume power in an advanced society: the exercise of power in an effective manner is an ability acquired through apprenticeship and seasoning. Thrust on an individual or group, the results are often painful to observe, and when what in fact is conveyed is not power, but a kind of playacting at power, the results can be absurd.
Term limits, goo-gooism, and other reform-minded follies destroy the political capital of the poor in the guise of trying to save it, as the above Blau quote points out. I may be upset with machine dismantlers for canceling a good soap opera mid-season, but there are real reasons to regard their efforts with suspicion. It is tempting to think of government—especially at the local level—as a matter of administration, not politics, but this fallacy is a luxury that only the middle class can afford. For everything else, there's TammanyCard.

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