Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Progress*

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3:15PM. Saturday. 57th Street and Broadway. Light rain, stepped over a sleeping homeless man, less than forty feet from the hole in the ground that’s soon to be Robert Stern’s contribution to Billionaire’s Row, a super-tall super-luxury affordable to perhaps sixty people in the world. Thirty more feet, stepped over another homeless man. Another homeless man another thirty feet later, outside the subway entrance. Two more inside before seeing a uniformed policeman, protecting two bank men in body armor emptying a Metrocard vending machine of its cash reserves.

The nation has just had a heady day, watching Obama sing Amazing Grace at a funeral and laud the Supreme Court verdict on Gay Marriage back-to-back; emotional and surprisingly emotive moments from our president to hang atop our collective consciousness while we continue on our daily toils, though not without inevitable backlash. Obama himself remarked, with little rancor but with deep candor,

“I know change for many of our LGBT brothers and sisters must have seemed so slow for so long, but compared to so many other issues, America’s shift has been so quick.”

A subtle reminder of recent events, highlighting the endlessly re-opened scar tissue of the American fabric, yet still not immune to base punditry, where some ask “what must the African Methodist Episcopal preachers behind Obama during his eulogy have thought about the confirmation of Gay Marriage?” (Quick answer: They are too busy reeling from a Good Ole’ Boy’s salvo towards the last generation’s cultural war – or is it? – to concern themselves with this one.) But such issues can’t help but feel muted in the face of what still needs to be done.

3:30PM, standing on the Uptown IND platform at Columbus Circle, coming home from work installing the equipment of some sixty peons who have been relocated from Connecticut as the vanguard of some six hundred more, holdouts moved against their will to balance some department spreadsheet. Working under a foreman whose wages were cut more than half in the past year, lost his mortgage and stands to lose his job altogether – though even at half his wages he’s still making more than I am. Working above perma-temps who know not to work too fast because these are all the hours they’re going to get, working because any of them would not hesitate to leap and grab my job, even as they remark pityingly about how tenuous and underpaid it appears to be. The corporation posted an 80% boost in profits last year. The corporation also laid off half my department. They’re going to keep waiting. Can I come in early on Monday? Of course I can.

It’s a new experience, to say the least. I’ve been under bosses who would attempt to move heaven and earth so as not to cut staff. “Oh, can you forego raises this year? Oh, can you take a 10% wage cut? Oh, can we have a Friday furlough? Please, I’m trying.” I’ve been under bosses who would rationalize and justify, if to nobody but themselves, the necessity of layoffs. “Oh, she had a bad attitude anyway. Oh, she really didn’t fit in here. Oh, she didn’t act like she really wanted the job.” I’m now under bosses for whom there is no emotive reaction to impending layoffs. They are cheerful coming in, they are cheerful coming out, they do not need excuses, they do not offer any.

In order to feel empathy for other people, first you must recognize them as people. There is a pure, raw, untempered amorality at play here, one which the armies of lowly peons find it hard to adjust to. A tall, lanky young man in a bowtie, a rare white elevator operator, asks me on Friday about my hair. He asks if I ever cut it. I don’t. He admires being able to hold that stance; toying with his bowtie uncomfortably, remarks that he’s sick of the uniform he’s made to wear, admires my freedom. That same day, a security guard remarks that he used to have a mohawk until he interviewed for this job. He can be dismissed at any moment, and many often are, but that hair doesn’t come back so quick.

These are the first overt remarks made about my hair since I started working here, but everybody on all floors recognizes me by sight – the one with the hair. It is, indeed, not de rigueur in the corporate sector, and it has been noted. I am not wearing the uniform. No matter; I’m just as disposable as the rest. Hell, my boss’s boss is the only true non-contractor in our section, and he’s as desperately trying to prove his relevancy as anybody else.

The security guard asks me what I’m doing this weekend. Drinking, I reply. That’s what he does every weekend. A chuckle. There is no future, few talk of the past. There is the grindstone and we put our noses to it; the cultural wars raging on seem so pi in the sky. A place where nobody has careers, we all just have jobs. “You’ll know when my plans come to fruition because I just won’t come in anymore,” explains the field boss, repeatedly. In the meanwhile, the holding pattern.

3:40PM, a D train rolls in, a petite young Muslim motorwoman at the helm, swaddled in a hijab in official MTA blue. The new blue collar working class, coming into a previously black jobs enclave, thanks to the EEOC, the city’s civil service exams and racism in the private sector. The next generation. Progress. Visible progress. As one issue gets addressed, another comes, and another; the admixture being what we call society.

Our illustrious mayor is reduced to applying palliative care with our ongoing job prospects and housing problems thanks to the callous indifference of the governor and the inability for the president to intervene in any meaningful way, but we all yet try to make do, and there is movement here and there, around the edges. Last month Muslim holidays got put on public calendars. Last week Chinese holidays got the same. Two days ago the Supreme Court confirmed the Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, Gay Marriage. I go home to shower and change and prepare for the night’s drinking. I drink to commiserate. I drink to celebrate. I drink.

Diversity and Gentrification

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You can’t swing a dead cat around without hitting an article about the ills of Gentrification, but they seem to lack a state of understanding as to what is desirable in its stead; once done, explaining why it is hurtful would be much easier. The real question of Gentrification is what a neighborhood should look like, for which the easy answer is that a neighborhood should be diverse. That, however, is split into “what do you mean by diversity,” and “why is diversity important?” The latter should explain the former:

I’ve sported throughout my life what would probably ungraciously be termed a jewfro. When I was a nerdy child growing up in the “hood,” far up in upper Manhattan, despite being in what was, at first glance, a hyper-macho conservative Catholic neighborhood, I was “shorty with a Jheri curl,” by older hoods who hung out on my block. I was simply a “faggot” out in semi-suburban, ostensibly multi-ethnic northern Queens, by crew-cut white kids tooling around in their mother’s sedan. In the suburbs beyond the city, I was beaten up regularly. The message was the same: “You’re different,” but the conclusion was different: “You’re different, but that’s entertaining,” “you’re different, and that makes you a target,” “you’re different, and we’re going to do something about that right now.”

I started studying City Planning because I noticed that the most tolerant and inviting places tended to be the places where different peoples were situated cheek to jowl with one another; where they were forced to interact on a daily basis. In this environment, I observed, it was difficult to broad-stroke characterize otherness because it would not only be proven verifiably false fairly regularly, but it would also incur the direct ire of those characterized. From the city to the ‘burbs, it seemed that the more people could be segregated – willingly or unwillingly – from one another, the more bigoted their purview.

The general gist of what I wanted to accomplish under City Planning was to figure out how the most accommodating of such circumstances could be writ large; turned into a stamp and stamped all across the nation and beyond. It’s no surprise that cities tend to be far more liberal than their suburban and rural surroundings, nor is it a coincidence. But what it means is fostering, through policy and economic guidelines, an environment that maximizes exposure to otherness.

That otherness may be ethnic, economic or philosophical, and generally speaking it should be all three, but the more exposure to it the more rounded each individual becomes and the more tolerant the society becomes as a whole. As all politics are local, it matters a great deal that on the street level this mixing does occur. When it doesn’t through the choices of its citizens, it becomes a gated community, which hurts everybody: Those within the community lose their purview of the world, those without the community lose insight into that community. In their stead comes resentment. One can see this with both Riverdale bluebloods and Borough Park Hasidim. When it doesn’t despite the choices of its citizens, it becomes a ghetto, which hurts everybody: Those within the community are left with a legitimate grievance to fester, and those without the community are left with a distorted view of events.

It’s in the latter of these communities that what we refer to as Gentrification is occurring, and it’s turning them into the former of these communities. But to describe the issue requires describing how Gentrification is not like other urban changes. To do so we can look at Bed-Stuy, originally a middle-class bedroom community of German, Italian and Irish small homeowners benefiting from new subway lines and cheap construction until the Great Depression, when aging housing stock and real estate steering brought in an influx of upwardly mobile southern Black families as well as those from Harlem into the neighborhood. A racially segregationist policy of redlining, a disinvestment in city services due to a fiscal crisis as well as unequal subsidies for homeowning in newly-built suburbs in Long Island contributed to a general White Flight, turning the neighborhood not only into the single largest Black community in the United States but also a massive ghetto.

It’s that neighborhood that is currently undergoing Gentrification, which is itself a confluence of economic circumstances: As the outlying suburbs of New York City have essentially been in a building freeze commensurate to the population for decades, and due to the housing crisis the city has been in since the Second World War, neighborhoods of decent housing stock and ready infrastructure access have been sought after again, despite decades of neglect. The only problem is that the people who have been living in those neighborhoods have two claims to them: One, they’re already there and have built a community in spite of everything, and two, they’re there for the same reason they’ve always been there – they have nowhere else to go. While racial segregation is de jure gone, it de facto remains due to economic segregation, which said Gentrification stands to turn into a crisis.

All of the afore-mentioned are results of proactive policy decision manifesting into economic realities: White families moved into this neighborhood because of a city investment in infrastructure and pro-development policy through multiple political consolidations. Black families moved in to this neighborhood because they were barred from most others. This neighborhood was affordable to them due to an economic downturn making it difficult for the existing families to maintain their housing stock coupled with a federal subsidy for them to move elsewhere. The ghettoification was due to a city that explicitly disinvested in the neighborhood in order to save more “desirable” neighborhoods closer to the urban core, as well as the institutionalized policies of racism. Gentrification is occurring due to the general region-wide disinvestment in infrastructure turning the remaining areas that still have such – even in a depreciated state – more economically desirable. However, the poor don’t just disappear.

The defense for Gentrification usually hinges on the fact that, for all the problems of Gentrification, the neighborhoods currently being Gentrified were already problematic. Indeed, Bed-Stuy was known for being a high-crime area on top of being a ghetto, and ghettos are pretty much the opposite of diverse neighborhoods. Having been a teacher for a few years in a public school in Brooklyn, I can see that it weighed on children when they saw zero role models that looked like them or came from their hood; stuck as they were in veritable deserts surrounded by the land of opportunity, mere blocks away from everything but worlds apart. But that Gentrification is not helping them: In this case, a rising tide does not life all boats.

The reasons are multifarious: Most working-class people in a neighborhood pay rent, and as such are quickly displaced when rents go up. Business that would cater to the needs of working-class residents would either change their stock to accommodate the new, richer clientele or die, leading to an exacerbated dearth of goods for the poor. Likewise, the new transplants, utilizing greater political power (due to more money, more free time, and a greater knowledge of bureaucratic protocol) often do not share the same desires for city services, and as such tend to defund or cut services they find “undesirable,” including social services, shelters, halfway homes, SROs, clinics or, indeed, anything else they don’t themselves use, in favor of services they use but may otherwise have an entry cost too dear for working-class residents. Instead of living side by side, one group supplants the other. The pendulum just swings between extremes.

This is distressing because in those brief moments between the extremes, we have had the greatest social vitality this city, country and world has ever seen. If this country’s claim to be a true melting pot, a grant social experiment, an exception amidst the world’s craven tribalism, is to have ever had any meaning, it is here and it is real. This city has led the nation in the purest form of civic- and public-minded pluralism yet seen and it is because we are all here together, working it out street by street. But this is a delicate balance, a sweet spot, and it cannot abide by extremes.

It all comes down to a zero-sum game: There’s only so much housing available, and so it’s going to go to those with the most means. The current policies in effect or discussed are mere patches on this reality: Rent regulation, which saves affordability for 45% of New Yorkers, is not a solution but a means to stave off mass-eviction until a solution may be found, and the current tax abatements for those who build a mere 20% of “affordable” housing among their market-rate apartments – in which “affordable” includes households making close to double the national average, leaving many working-class families out in the lurch – granting a mere trickle of housing units while losing billions in potential tax revenue, leading to laughably horrifying situations where 100,000 applicants vie for 100 units of new construction.

Gentrification is occurring because building is what we have not been doing, and as such it cannot be killed except through building or through eliminating the economic conditions that our lack of building has created. As such, the city has two basic options when it comes to policy decisions for our immediate future: Stay at the current population and impose price controls on everything, thereby preserving what diversity yet remains but killing the natural growth the city, or prompt an infrastructure and housing boom so large that the physical environment of the city is greatly transformed from its current state as to be almost unrecognizable, thereby preserving the human diversity by reinstating an economic equilibrium.

But ghettos and gated communities are the current obstacles to the latter option: The people of the gated communities cry that such building would disrupt the amenable lives they have created for themselves. The people of the ghettos cry that such would hasten their displacement for which they still have nowhere to go. The city can, through strong leadership, override these concerns for the greater good, for if it doesn’t, then the decision for the former option will be made for it by default, resulting in the eventual death of everything this city has stood for, diversity and all its benefits foremost among them.

Cuomo’s Political Ambitions

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to be working overtime to push a more liberal agenda of late, what with his advocacy of a higher minimum wage and his excoriation of the ‘culture’ of conservatives, seemingly in reaction to the cooling of his relationship with progressives prior to his re-election campaign and the anemic voter turnout for the election itself over his callousness towards fracking, gun control and other issues, but nothing quite came out of left field as Cuomo’s declaration of a proposed LaGuardia Airport AirTrain.

Simply put, the plan sucks.

While it did exist as one of the many shelved plans for connecting our domestic airport by rail, it was perhaps the most unfeasible: Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic points out that it doesn’t actually save New Yorkers any time and Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas asks, if the governor has money for this, why can’t he fund the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway? This is most damning, especially since Cuomo just about laughed in the face of the MTA during their last budget proposal.

Indeed, it provides no benefits over the M60 SBS bus from Harlem and Astoria nor the Q70 LTD bus from Jackson Heights, both which cross many more subway lines, take far less time and cost less. Furthermore, unlike the JFK AirTrain, which connects to the Jamaica hub of the LIRR – ensuring quick and prompt service, as almost every line stops there on the way to termini in Brooklyn and Manhattan – as well as multiple express subway lines, Cuomo’s proposed LaG AirTrain would only connect with the Port Washington LIRR line, a remote spur that only receives quick service on days the Mets play, and the 7 line, which is currently at capacity, meaning airport commuters would be fighting for limited space with Flushing commuters.

Why, then, did he propose it? The most obvious answer is because, of all the routes possible, it is by far the most politically expedient, as nobody actually lives anywhere near the right-of-way and thus nobody would be likely to complain. After all, what killed the 1992 plan to extend the N train to LaGuardia were two blocks’ worth of NIMBYs who ended up galvanizing Queens councilmen across the borough to rally against the project. It may also be the cheapest, representing a mere 1.5 miles of track, though with the albatrosses looming above both the MTA’s and the Port Authority’s current capital projects, cost overruns are practically inevitable.

Cheap and easy, however, don’t make good plans. So what’s the real reason? As with Cuomo’s attempt to thread the needle with de Blasio’s plan to tax the rich to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, where he presented a rather cynical counter-proposal that effectively robbed Peter to pay Paul insofar as it would pay for one city initiative by defunding another, this appears to be a means to generate a paper legacy – however ill-conceived – to secure higher office. Indeed, provided you don’t look at the issue too closely, this sort of project would indeed be a feather in Cuomo’s cap that properly funding existing initiatives wouldn’t, as those would likely be credited elsewhere. Such appears to be the world of political gamesmanship.

Not that it’s particularly difficult to find other headlining but otherwise pointless efforts by Cuomo – his posturing over the Ebola scare foremost among them – nor of similar antics by another man vying for higher office: That of neighboring governor Chris Christie. The two have indeed collaborated together on a number of fruitless endeavors that have made headlines of late, including a similar ill-conceived AirTrain to Newark International Airport and paying lip service to reform the flagging Port Authority but reneging at the last second.

What is most distressing about Cuomo’s bad plan, however, is how much it gets in the way of better projects. Cuomo hinted that funding for his AirTrain would come from recent settlements New York concluded in suits against the malfeasance of foreign banks. If so, why not put that money to more deserving rail projects, like funding the MTA’s overhaul process post-Hurricane Sandy? There are many things that money could be spent on: Funding the next Second Avenue Subway phase, funding a desperately-needed tunnel under the Hudson River to Penn Station before the current ones run past their life expectancy – a problem Cuomo had very pointedly ignored thus far – or simply fixing some of the old decrepit stations left over from our legacy of deferred maintenance.

Moreover, it gets in the way of better plans to reach LaGuardia, such as blogger dZine’s proposal to double-back the N line to the Grand Central Parkway, thus avoiding any NIMBY issues while retaining the one-seat ride from Midtown, or a slight modification to simply create a spur at the Astoria Blvd station to do the same, utilizing the Astoria line’s heretofore unused express track for added capacity.

It would be a great moment in New York history to see a subway train fly over Grand Central Parkway, undoing Robert Moses’ ugly legacy with Long Island right-of-ways, and following the lead of Chicago’s Els as well as our very own JFK AirTrain over the Van Wyck Expressway. It doesn’t matter who gets it done or who gets credit for it, but it needs to be done right, and by no means should we simply settle for right now.

Casual Labor

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Colin Tooze of Uber defended his e-hail system’s price gouging plan today as “beneficial to consumers.” He argued that without a cost incentive, demand would simply flood supply and result in a service quality reduction. It is this reasoning, he surmised, that explained why a single taxi ride costing half the average New York City rent was not only warranted, but necessary.

Leave it to a millionaire to devise a service where money is no object. However, it fails the basic sniff test of supply and demand. The way Uber’s e-hail app works currently can only end in one of two ways; each of which is dependent on how the taxi system of the city is laid out, and neither of which makes sense:

In the first method, anybody with a driver’s license and signed up to Uber can accept e-hails. This then hews to demand by allowing the supply of liveries available at any one point to be completely malleable: When demand goes up, people who would otherwise not be cabbies get in their cars and accept e-hails. When demand goes down, those people apparently do something else to make their daily bread. This is how Uber expects every city except New York City to run.

In the second method, you need a Taxi & Limousine Commission license to run a livery, and Uber then supplements your dispatches and/or street hails with an e-hail system. This then hews to demand by allowing the supply of liveries available at any one point to auction to the highest bidder: When demand goes up, the price of the ride goes up. When demand goes down, the price of the ride goes down.

Either system disrupts existing taxi dispatches heavily without major long-term benefit to anybody but Uber’s shareholders. In the first system, the professional class of cabbies turns into casual day labor. Full-time hacks have complained about the interloper’s lack of regulatory compliance as well as the increased competition from non-professionals driving potential wages below subsistence.

In the second system, consumers lose out as the entire regulatory system is compromised: In New York City, a standardized fare system keeps cabbies from undercutting one another for fares, as well as keep the consumer from losing out due to unethical price gouging. Street hail guidelines explicitly forbid a cabbie from “shopping” for the right customer, and most importantly of all, the chance of successfully hailing a cab is roughly equalized for all customers. This maintains a consistent standard of service.

The humor is, both Uber solutions fail Economics 101. If supply were so malleable as to match demand by flooding the system with non-professional cabbies, then the prices need never rise. If the supply of professional cabbies were relatively non-malleable, then price gouging has little effect and service is by definition not improved overall: Profits are, but only for Uber.

These are, of course, only a few of the unintended consequences of such “disruptors” from Silicon Valley. The latest spat, for instance, between Uber and NYC’s TLC involved their reticence from handing over electronic trip records, which show where cabbies are picking up their charges. The TLC collects these records largely to enforce tax law compliance but also to regulate traffic flow so as not to foster gridlock. Indeed, the entire point of the medallion system was to limit the number of taxis in the city so as to limit the potential for gridlock.

Such was an imperfect system – the eventual cost of yellow cab medallions rose to the point where cruising only the most congested areas were deemed profitable, having the exact opposite of the intended effect – but Bloomberg’s Boro Taxi system was a rather elegant and popular solution to such. Uber’s e-hail app – working as it is as a backdoor street hail medallion – serves to undermine this by potentially allowing a great many more taxis than there are medallions to pick up hails in a very limited space.

They can and have been dismissed by the executives of the company, who by nature would view them as externalities: Issues that, while they adversely affect the cities the company does business in, do not adversely affect the company. The potential damages and injuries to consumers due to nonprofessional drivers is an externality to the company: They have taken pains not to be held responsible for the system they have fostered. This is a common element of the neoliberal politics of said “disruptive” tech firms. Our “sharing” economy is mainly for the benefit of a rich few, and a tragedy of the commons for the rest of us.

Take AirBnB: While it provides a casual market for “bed and breakfast” types who don’t want to go to expensive hotels while offering those who live in central cities a potential revenue stream, every risk is externalized either to the host or the traveler. These include the risk of having one’s place trashed (and being saddled with repair costs or voiding one’s lease) or discovering that a host is dangerous, eventualities for which AirBnB has effectively washed its hands: Its ratings system is the only guide users of the system have to assess risk.

It also circumvents zoning laws (turning residences into ersatz hotels,) taxes (by not paying hotel taxes,) and most damning, can only have a deleterious effect on both the housing supply as well as the housing costs of any urban area: Rooms and apartments that were for rent to long-term residents must now compete with far more lucrative transients, and the landlords who are willing to exploit this fact can thus raise rents on spaces in prime locations to new heights. This has the potential to destroy neighborhoods.

On the ground, it’s a tragedy of the commons: Increased costs for consumers (in terms of higher rents and cab fares) and decreased income for providers (in terms of increased competition from unregulated part-timers) are the name of the game. In the headquarters of the companies that made this system, on the other hand, they’re practically printing money. The first question anybody should ask when it comes to companies like this that undermine existing regulations and working professionals: Is this a 21st century economy or a 19th century economy?

Yankee Capitalist Pig-Dogs

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Voltaire’s “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” is certainly a prescient quote following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, insofar as the principle of free speech is necessary to run a free society. It is also a liberal conceit, insofar as the main social utility of free speech is critique of the government in service to creating better governance.

The American concept of free speech is conflated from that to everything, as American society is predicated on perhaps the most pure form of pluralism possible: A people united on the principles of ideology rather than race or creed. The grand experiment has largely been on whether such a thing can exist while inculcating so many disparate peoples, and the answer thus far has been a resounding affirmation.

It also means America is a system of strange dualities: A secular but not secularist nation, one that struggles with not only counter-cultures within its dominant society but also many parallel moieties to that society. Du Bois spoke of bridging those parallels, for instance of being both Black and American, and the difficulty of reconciling those realities to the point where society’s warring ideals are played out within each individual. In comparison, France, a unified culture and nation, is having issues coming to terms with its five million Muslim immigrants: It is feeling a cultural crisis much deeper than America, or at the very least is beginning to go through the issues America dealt with over a century ago and is further along in.

It’s this purview that makes the attack on Charlie Hebdo draw questions as to the muddy nature of such a system. To criticize the paper’s cheap and provocative lampoons of a beleaguered minority is to embolden further attacks on liberal society, but to solely criticize the attackers is to elevate such lampoons as trenchant critiques of a truly hostile otherness when it’s the very concept of otherness that’s the problem.

The closest American parallel to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists would probably be puppeteer Jeff Dunham, whose broad-strokes caricatures (which include Ahmed the Dead Terrorist and Sweet Daddy Dee, a black pimp) have been criticized as being racially insensitive to the point of modern blackface, and who in response to such charges argued that he lampoons “everybody equally.” However, his other characters such a Bubba J, an alcoholic redneck, and Walter, a bigoted grandpa, didn’t address the charges that he is, in effect, “punching down;” choosing easy, acceptable targets marked primarily by the fact that his audiences don’t look like them. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, he largely lost his soapbox, and his TV show was cancelled due to lack of viewership.

His is an “us versus them” humor, and similarly, Charlie Hebdo also fostered something of an “us versus them” attitude, despite also going after such targets as the right-wing political party Front National. Indeed, one of the primary responses to the attacks is a reinvigoration of the criticism of conservative Islam and the rejection that such is racist or bigoted. Le Pen of the FN will, ironically, be quick to benefit from the attack, as well as those of the American right in what they see as something of a clash of civilizations in the vein of Samuel Huntington’s right-wing screed. George Bush’s “crusade” remark echoes in the distance.

It would appear that there is something of an unexplored or at least unspoken undercurrent in the liberal critique of Islam that is separate from the critique of Christianity or other religions, where Islam is bad not because it’s Christianity without the Enlightenment, but that Islam is bad because it’s foreign. Such prejudice rears its ugly head against secularists from Muslim countries as well as the millions of Muslims living without issue in western nations.

By contrast, New York is still likely the best example of “attracting flies with honey” with concern about such societal differences and the question of assimilation, especially when compared with Paris’ aggressive secularist policies. As far as religion goes, New York has effectively achieved the impossible: Muslims, Jews and Christians live in harmony without major issue, and while some racialist police programs have been the point of much criticism, the immigrant experience has largely been one of commonality, which has indeed fostered and promoted a general trend over the generations towards religion moderation.

This may, however, be because America can be argued as before as having a more fundamental pluralism than France’s singular nation/culture. New York is a cultural battleground; a melting pot within which great globules of otherness stew for long periods of time, slowly infusing the rest of the concoction with their unique flavor. While those bits and bobs never fully boil away, it is the boiling that defines the city and through it the country. The point, perhaps, is not full assimilation, for there is no “home culture” to assimilate to – we don’t even have a national language, on principle – and as such the act of being made welcome and lowering one’s guard – to moderate – is much easier and fluid.

There’s a joke by Irish comic Dylan Moran about the uniquely American brand of imperialism, where you have two members of the world’s oppressed underclass sitting in a bombed-out cafe devising means to destroy the Yankee capitalist pig-dogs, when ever so slowly a Starbucks gets built around them, and suddenly they’re Americans!

Are We Charlie?

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On the subway lately, I had crossed paths with folks just recently come from a sympathetic rally in support of France after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. A mother and her daughter were carrying black placards upon which the phrase “We Are Charlie” was printed in white.

Are we Charlie?

The first comparisons I suspect New Yorkers would make concerning the likes of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo (ie, “Charia Hebdo,” ie “Sharia Law”) would be our most famed satirists such as Jon Stewart, or our editorial cartoonists such as Jeff Danzinger: Indeed, the ability to lampoon those in power through humor is one of the most hallowed traditions of what we consider a free society.

That said, upon further review, the comparison felt a bit off to me. When I open gocomics.com or thedailyshow.com and the like, the targets generally tend to be politicians, members of the mainstream media, corporate flacks and general machers of state and industry. When I watch comedians tear into society they tend to go after fissures laid bare through power dynamics. To me, satire has always been inextricable from speaking truth to power: Jonathan Swift may have flacked for the Tories, but we remember him most for using his words to excoriate the ruling British.

I’m not terribly certain I can use the term “satire” for what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did. Their primary target was an entire religion. A comparison may be made to the likes of Bill Maher, who regularly mocks militant religious extremists, but his schtick was ultimately aimed at what he saw as the common problem of all religion, and to that end he directed his ire to their power structures. Jon Stewart satirized the powerful. Charlie Hebdo calumniated an entire people.

It goes without saying that nothing deserves such a craven, vicious attack as what the offices of Charlie Hebdo received, and it also goes without saying that whatever message the terrorists have tried to impart was most certainly lost through their actions, but it’s difficult for me to look at France’s colonial past and their current treatment of Muslim citizens and immigrants and not see a pattern of humiliation and deprivation that exacerbates the social rift that French pundits commonly rail against when they speak of assimilation.

Tastelessness is not illegal, of course, and if anybody can be said to embody the liberal principles of French society, it would be that of officer Ahmed Merabet, who died protecting a paper that regularly trashed his faith. However, tastelessness is tasteless, and while it is a common comedic element to use shocking and tasteless material in service of a greater point, it is another thing entirely to use shocking and tasteless material in service of shocking and tasteless points.

And indeed, while it is one thing to speak for the freedom of speech upon which our liberal societies are based, it is another to use such an attack to lionize such voices to further more calumnies. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Muslims in France before, and it’s going to get a lot harder for them after – and who exactly is to blame for that, really?

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