Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Remembering; Not Forgetting in Chinatown

We have loved quoting New York Times city columnist Clyde Haberman in a number of posts we’ve recently written and are now thrilled by the opportunity to quote him, once again, as a roundabout way of quoting ourselves. It may be a case of great minds think alike, or as it is the current vogue to say it may be a case of a “meme” getting around in the “cultural sociosphere.” Or maybe just as we are avidly reading Haberman, perhaps he picked up an idea from what we wrote.

As we will get around to in a moment, this piece is also about what will be remembered.

Haberman’s Term Limits Columns

The big subject is term limits. Mr. Haberman has been faithfully generating a series of commentaries featuring the woeful tale of our faithless politicians, Bloomberg, Quinn and the majority of the City Council who voted to extend terms limits so as to provide Bloomberg with the billionaire’s exception that will allow him a third term.

Haberman’s columns recent term limits columns are:

The Bloomberg Test of the Democratic Process, October 2, 2008

Bloomberg’’s Gift to the People: Moi, October 6, 2008

What’s the Matter at City Hall: Democracy, the Voice of the People and All That, October 16, 2008

Back When the Mayor Loved Term Limits, October 20, 2008

Bloomberg Got What He Wanted, but at What Price? October 23, 2008

Money and Power Revised Term Limits, and It Won’t Be Forgotten, October 27, 2008

With a Pen Stroke, Bloomberg Signs a Term Limits Bill and Gains a Moniker, November 4, 2008

Haberman’s pieces offer a great opportunity to read about Bloomberg’s infatuation with himself: Haberman compares him to Snow White’s wicked queen looking in the mirror. Haberman observes with stark clarity that even those (Noticing New York included) who fault term limits are nonetheless opposed to Bloomberg’s override of the public’s two referendums because “the core issue is not whether but how the law should be changed.” Haberman points out, “It is about who in a democracy gets to alter the rules on so fundamental a matter.” Haberman torpedoes the Bloombergian hypocrisy on term limits (a 180-degree turnaround), expressing skepticism about Bloomberg’s last-minute invoking of the financial crisis as a reason to “cling” to office. He notes that, “Given Wall Street’s meltdown, this may not be the best time to argue spiritedly about how the moneyed class is a repository of wisdom.” Looking askance at freight train hearings ramming Bloomberg’s bidding through the City Council, he refers to Speaker Christine Quinn as Bloomberg’s “handmaiden” and “chief enabler.” He describes the Bloomberg paid minions in attendance (who refused to explain themselves to reporters), saying “Everything about them screamed rent-a-crowd.” Haberman deconstructs fallacious populist arguments ginned up as Bloomberg eyewash and promotion, reminding us that only 18 percent of all registered city voters voted for Mr. Bloomberg when he won office in 2001. He skewers the way that Bloomberg negotiated a personal-unto-himself-third-term exception to the term limits law, saying that “The arrangement understandably fueled a perception among many New Yorkers that this entire debate was a wholly owned subsidiary of the city’s oligarchy.”

By the time you read through the pieces, Haberman has compared Bloomberg to a despotic king, a South American dictator, and, as we will get back to in a minute, Noah Cross, the ruthlessly lethal tycoon-villain of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Those comparisons may seem brutal but Mr. Haberman figures that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Bloomberg expect the public’s memory for treachery to be short and that the two of them are “betting that by the next municipal elections in 2009, people will have either forgotten about this controversy or will weigh it as but one factor among many in deciding who they want in charge.”

In Chinatown You Are Supposed to Forget about it

The penultimate of Haberman’s columns, Money and Power Revised Term Limits, and It Won’t Be Forgotten, the one which compares Bloomberg to Noah Cross of Chinatown, starts out by coming back to the subject of memory with a quote from Chinatown. Some may remember we had a Noticing New York piece that thematically interwove a series of quotes from Chinatown, and in it we used the same quote to much the same effect: Wednesday, September 3, 2008 “Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass.” (Inartful Clues to New York City Government?)

“Forget it, Jake”
As Mr. Haberman says at the outset of his penultimate piece:

“Forget it, Jake” has come to mean different things to different people. It can capture disillusionment, or the futility of bucking the mighty, or a realization that you may think you know what’s going on, but you don’t, not really.

Or all of the above.
In our piece we used it to refer to the frustrating inability to reliably know things when the people in power (the Bloomberg administration) assume that realty is theirs to manufacture by selective disclosure and pronouncement. In fact, we collected several Chinatown quotes, including a fuller version of the above quote to make a point:

“You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't.”

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown". . . "Go home."
The Clues Were There to Lead Further

Indeed, we did not know what we were dealing with when we put together our piece “Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass.” (Inartful Clues to New York City Government?). We thought we were just writing about “The New York City Waterfalls” as a public art piece, about the environmental damage they were causing, about a botched environmental assessment, an over-infatuation with concept art coupled with a carelessly self-satisfied obliviousness of the public. We asked, “Does it seem that too many things seem to be just a little off?”

Even though we supposed that we were looking at clues to a mystery (What if we treated this as a mystery? Are there clues embedded here that should be catching everyone’s attention now rather than later), we did not realize what we were getting into.

Just recently we wrote about the reviews of the Waterfalls written by the students at Saint Anns’s High School: Monday, October 27, 2008, Out of the Mouths of Young Observationists: Waterfalling. Those young essayists essentially picked up on the same scent of things being off that we originally did in our original consideration, identifying among the things that were off: ego and an arrogantly blithe sort of waste.

Life can be surprisingly like the movies. A nagging, noirish sense of disquiet telling you that things are not right can cause you to keep circling back to revisit clues for what they really mean. Our first Waterfalls piece specifically dealt with our uneasy sense that the Waterfalls provided clues in need of deciphering. But we had not yet gotten to the bottom of things even as we worried about walking away without comprehending the clues before us: (Or will we be walking away like Jack Nicholson’s unwitting detective Jake Gittes murmuring “Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass,” not comprehending some major clues we have been handed?). We did not yet fully comprehended what was before us even though we had seized upon the Chinatown metaphor. We had not yet gotten to the point arrived at by Mr. Haberman in his last essay, equating the billionaire Bloomberg with Mr. Noah Cross, the ruthlessly lethal tycoon-villain of the movie.

Power with No Recognized Limits

The clues began to fall into place when Mr. Bloomberg’s self-congratulatorily gave an award to the Waterfalls. It was then that we began to examine the labyrinthian, obscure and multifarious ways that Bloomberg, himself, had channeled multiple millions of dollars into the Waterfalls in the under-reported and semi-secret adoption of the project as his own. We didn’t know that, like Chinatown’s world of the powerful the Noah Cross, his insinuated tentacles of wealth would weave beyond expectation into nearly everything. Mr. Haberman compares Bloomberg to Noah Cross because Cross “was prepared to do anything to get his way.” Similarly, he identifies Bloomberg as able and “ready to bury his opposition in dollars.”

Chinatown’s Cross is not only supremely powerful by virtue of his wealth, he is a man literally and metaphorically unwilling to recognize limits upon himself: He makes sexual conquest of his own daughter, incestuously siring his own grandchild. In our second Waterfalls piece about Bloomberg’s many-hatted roles with respect to approvals and funding of the Waterfalls, we saw symptoms of Bloomberg’s own disrespect for limits. Bloomberg’s acts extend to the apparent garnering of funds for the Waterfalls from those like Forest City Ratner. The Mayor enables Forest City Ratner to collect no-bid subsidies. He promotes Ratner’s no-bid award of the right to develop the 22-acre Atlantic Yards megadevelopment proposed to be on land wrested via eminent domain abuse from private owners. Ratner contributes to the Mayor’s charities synchronously with the approvals issuing from City Hall. . . . Metaphorically, we saw this as being little different from the Mayor’s refusing to recognize that term limits established by two voter referendums should apply to him (notwithstanding that he said those limits should apply to Mayors before and after him).

Another line from Chinatown:

Jake Gittes: He's rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything.
Money in the Protected Shroud of Mystery Connecting Directly to Term Limit Elimination

Metaphor graduated to the reality of a direct relationship of the Mayor’s actual pursuit of term limits when Susan Freedman, the president of the Public Art Fund (the Bloomberg-assisted organization in charge of and conduit for the funding of the Waterfalls) turned up in the City Council to testify that the Mayor should be specially exempt from term limits so he can be allowed to stay in office. We were there to watch. Like Chinatown’s detective, Jake Gittes, we were astounded to see everything all connect, though Ms. Freedman never mentioned how many million of dollars she was receiving from Mr. Bloomberg. Even now the Public Art Fund, the Mayor and Bloomberg, LP are unwilling to disclose that information.

We are not going to suggest inappropriate sexual conquests to equate the Mayor with Noah Cross. Still, the Mayor’s use of “charities” to keep overlaying his power is sufficiently disconcerting in itself, especially since the Mayor contributes the financial DNA of his influencing contributions promiscuously and since, as with the funding of the Waterfalls, there is an incestuous overlapping when he directs too many sources of funding in too many ways. We are talking about private personal philanthropy + funds controlled through Office of the Mayor + contributions solicited from those with whom the City of New York and Mayor’s Office does business.

Quid Pro Quo Money

The mix of funds is not just an unseemly mix. There is persuasive evidence of quid pro quos for charitable donations. Noticing New York was forced to ask the question whether money the Ratner organization paid to Bloomberg charities in exchange for Atlantic Yards approvals were in the end funding the self-perpetuating term limits extension campaign the Mayor sprang upon the public. (See: Wednesday, October 22, 2008, Are the Atlantic Yards Land Grab and City Official Fraud Being Used to Finance Bloomberg’s Bid for Billionaire Term Limit Exceptionalism?) The suspicious circumstances and timing of one such apparent quid pro quo reported donation of between $450,000 and $1 million should convincingly persuade us to extreme concern. (See: Forest City Ratner Gives to Coney Island Carousel, Other Bloombergian Public Projects, by Matthew Schuerman, April 1, 2007).

(Let’s, BTW, acknowledge the appropriateness of the Atlantic Yards land grab being part of this Chinatown-noir mix: Those who remember the plot of Chinatown will remember that it also concerned a land grab.)

What further points convincingly to a Bloombergian quid pro quo for the Atlantic Yards end run around public process is the Mayor’s dogmatic perpetual pursuit of Atlantic Yards (an acknowledged mistake) at the expense of the public. He does so despite changing facts and a bouquet of good new reasons to abandon the folly. (See: Friday, October 24, 2008, Dog-Mat- -Icky?) At the same time that he is so suspiciously dogmatic, the Mayor has counseled that people should not be “dogmatic” with respect to term limits and that they should concentrate on the “pragmatic” rather than “ideals.”

Where do we go in a world without ideals where we allow the rich to “pragmatically” rule? We might wonder.

Those who are wealthy enough to be able to claim unrestricted power and don’t have to answer to society have special problems. Noah Cross explains, again in Chinatown:

See, Mr. Gitts, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of... anything!
No Accident, Overwhelming Power Isn’t Escaped

Mr. Haberman carefully notes that he is NOT saying “that the mayor would kill, as Cross did” but the pressure Speaker Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg exerted as they played political hardball to twist arms was extreme and unprincipled. Quinn reportedly used City Council Chairmanship designations to manipulate Council member voting. Other tactics resulted in one City Council member, Darlene Mealy, vomiting twice at City Hall before announcing her decision to switch and vote for Bloomberg’s bidding (See the NY Post’s, Really Sickening Vote: Pressured Term Pol Puked Before She Cast Lot with Mike, by Sally Goldenberg and David Seifman, October 25, 2008). . . . We are getting pretty physical here. . .

. . . The movie Chinatown ends with a car crash, the female driver of the car slumped over the wheel after making an unsuccessful attempt to flee the overarching power of Noah Cross. The saga of the City Council’s vote also ended with a car crash: Councilwoman Mealy was injured, breaking her collarbone in a crash just hours after the Council vote. One might suppose that she was under extreme stress after having voted against the interests of the constituency that she represented. The Post reported that some council members said Mealy “was threatened.”

Irony of Reported Threat to Darlene Mealy

There is irony with respect to the reported nature of the threat against Mealy. Reportedly, Mealy was told she would face trouble for having once sought to allocate a $25,000 grant from her council discretionary funds for a Brooklyn block association run by her sister (the Fulton-Atlantic-Ralph-Rochester Community Association). (She never did send money to her sister’s organization because the request for that allocation was reportedly “mysteriously” pulled.) The irony is that if it was threatened that she would get in trouble for this, then she was threatened for attempting to do much the same thing that the Mayor apparently routinely succeeds in doing when he mixes publicly controlled funds into projects like the Waterfalls in which he has taken an elaborate private and personal interest.

We are not saying the potential grant of discretionary City Council district money to Mealy’s sister’s organization doesn’t present significant difficult concerns, even if both Mealy and her sister were actively involved in their community. It is precisely because we do not dismiss such concerns that we see the Mayor’s activities multiplied by many magnitudes as far more sinister.

Forgetting and Remembering in Chinatown

It is after the car crashes that Chinatown’s detective Jake Gittes is told to forget about everything and go home. The woman trying to escape in the crashed car is dead. It is quite clear that Noah Cross has not only won, but is more in control and able to exercise his ill-influence on the world than he ever was. Metaphorically, he owns the future. Jake is told to leave it there.

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown". . . "Go home."
Politics is often about the public forgetting about things. It has been speculated (see the Times) that Speaker Christine Quinn’s eagerness to support the Mayor’s bid for a third term likely came from her hope that with the elapse of another four years the public would be less likely to remember the trouble she recently got herself into setting up illegal slush funds to dispense money discretionarily without authorization or supervision. (It is not just Darlene Mealy and Michael Bloomberg who raise questions when they move money around.) Like Mr. Bloomberg, Quinn was moving money around with political effect using questionable charities, . . except in this case the charities were truly non-existent.

Quinn and Bloomberg and certainly a cohort among the City Council members are apparently expecting that fading memories will limit the reputational price they have to pay for their conduct. They may think the price a minor inconvenience. Haberman puts it this way:

Mr. Bloomberg knows that his reputation has taken hard blows in the fight over term limits. But he is apparently betting that the passage of time will restore whatever he may have lost in respectability.
Haberman astutely notes that Bloomberg expects that heavy expenditures that he uniquely can manage will help his recovery. (What about Quinn?) Staring with a quote from the Mayor:
“It’s expensive to get your message out,” he said on Friday with a straight face. So much for appeals from the likes of Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., a former corporation counsel, who has urged the mayor to play by the same spending rules as other candidates to make “a fair fight” of it.
Haberman finds another choice quote from Chinatown to bolster the Mayor’s notion that he will succeed in consigning the public’s memories and anger to the dust heap. He says that Noah Cross would have counseled the Mayor to hang in for the elections with his words:

“Politicians, ugly buildings and whores, all get respectable if they last long enough.”
Political Kabuki Dance to Induce Forgetting

The choreographed dance to induce forgetfulness has already begun. The Times just reported that Speaker Quinn is standing up for the City Council against the Mayor. Does this make it sound as if Ms. Quinn is shedding her “handmaiden” and “chief enabler” role? If it does, then maybe that was a good reason for people to be telling the press that she “shouted” at mayoral aides, telling the Mayor to “back off” a plan for program changes that “infuriated several council members.” (See: In After Term Limits Vote, Tensions Rise at City Hall, by Michael Barbaro and David W. Chen, October 30, 2008.) The theme of the story was that Quinn was standing up for the Council in various ways because the Council was “still reeling from the term limits vote.” Of course, for many (not all, not the arm-twisted Mealy) the vote was a self-servingly collaborative one with cover provided by the Mayor. The article speaks in different terms about an upset Council fighting valiantly because “if we don’t fight this, the Council will be the emperor with no clothes.”

According to the information that was given to the press (supplied by Ms. Quinn’s staff?), Ms. Quinn “warned that the mayor’s plan to push for a property tax increase as early as next week could encounter resistance, especially since council members are still reeling from the term limits vote.” Later in the article Ms. Quinn reportedly “on the offensive” for the Council, scolds a member of the Mayor’s staff “for what Ms. Quinn described as an ill-timed, politically sensitive measure, according to people briefed on the meeting.” Ms. Quinn then reportedly said the Deputy Mayor she was talking to “should at the least delay the plan.” In an interview Ms. Quinn says, “I have come to believe this is not the right time for this restructuring.” Notice the implicit theme in the above that time brings the salve of forgetfulness: “as early as . . . still reeling” “ ill-timed” “should at the least delay” “this is not the right time.” It is not that something should not be done, only that time should first intervene.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg was playing the role of champion of the people by exasperatedly scolding the Board of Elections for not being ready to handle the voting on election day when the people wanted to express their will. As if we now think Bloomberg cares about the public expressing their will in a vote! Bloomberg’s expression of exasperation was equipped with a subtext message Bloomberg probably wanted to convey, that the referendum he was fighting against would have been “oh-so-difficult.” (BTW: When it comes to theatrics, Bloomberg surely thinks he does “exasperation” well. He uses it continually. It goes along with his persona of an efficient, wealthy man who has no time for nonsense and is waiting for everyone else to keep pace. Behind the scenes, as we see from the term limit maneuvering, there are a lot of Bloombergian ruses the Mayor has no interest in people catching up with him on.)

Will a Political Price in Fact Be Paid?

Politics may be about expecting the public to forget, and it may also often be about expecting the public to succumb to powerful people refusing to relinquish power. But we are willing to predict that Quinn, Bloomberg and many members of the City Council have made mistakes they won’t recover from.

It is one thing to commit acts that can recede into history. It is another to engage in acts that transform your political persona. I think that Quinn and Bloomberg have done the latter. Their acts won’t recede into memory because every day the public will see them differently from before. These defining acts will cement Quinn’s past improprieties (along with her handmaiden catering to the Mayor) to her so that to see Quinn will be to remember them. We will see in Quinn the vision of the non-reformer, a Speaker of the Council for another year, because she made a deal for people to forget and to forget again. Bloomberg will no longer be viewed as a generous, charitable man who has no need for his job. We will instead constantly remember his venal manipulation of charities in service to a revealed lust for power for power’s sake.

Other things may change too. Once upon a time Bloomberg’s popularity could perhaps be explained by the city’s previously being awash in cash due to the bubbles in the real estate market and on Wall Street. His popularity also could change a lot by election time a year from now. And nonprofit institutions and those associated with them from whom Mr. Bloomberg once successfully bought silence with his “largess”may start to behave differently now that Bloomberg’s political maneuvering is out in the open and now that the price of silence must be paid for an additional four years.

Now that we have identified who Mr. Bloomberg is in the Chinatown metaphor, let’s end with another exchange of Chinatown quotes that ask important questions that concern us about Mr. Bloomberg and his newly revealed persona:

Jake Gittes: I just want to know what you're worth. Over ten million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes.
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gitts, the future.
Elections; Owning the Future

Who is going to own the future?

Yesterday the Mayor signed the term limits extension bill. The normally perfunctory bill signing hearing turned into a four-and-a-half hour marathon. Even though no one thought that the Mayor would not sign the bill given his political arms twisting and the political capital he had already expended to get it passed, City Hall filled up with citizens telling him the legislation was wrong. Noticing New York was amongst them. (True, the Mayor had a few of his supporters lined up as well.)

Many of those testifying, including Congressman Anthony Weiner (a candidate for Mayor), spoke about the irony that the Mayor was signing the bill on the day before election day, since the bill negates the results of two referendums voted upon by the public. Weiner pointed out how sparingly New York resorts to the use of referenda. City Council member Tish James, a leading opponent of the term limits extension and of Atlantic Yards, spoke of her recent travels in Pennsylvania and of the “palpable” feeling that elsewhere in the country we are ushering in a new era of reform, the opposite of what was being done in New York with the back-room maneuvering orchestrated by Bloomberg.

In his column on the subject today Haberman deals with the ironic day-before-election day timing (“no one in New York has done more to nullify votes than Mr. Bloomberg himself”), giving Bloomberg the new `moniker’ of “the Great Nullifier.” He quotes Tish James at the hearing:

Many speakers cautioned Mr. Bloomberg that nothing less than the public’s faith in government and his own legacy were on the line. Among them was Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn, a leading opponent of extending term limits.

“With a stroke of the pen, Mr. Mayor, you will pre-empt democracy,” she said in a voice tinged with sadness.

Soon enough, the Great Nullifier picked up his pen and used it.
Does Mr. Bloomberg own the future?

Does Mr. Bloomberg own the future? In this time of palpable political optimism elsewhere in the country, it is interesting that Mr. Bloomberg, now a theoretical Independent (after previously being a theoretical Democrat and then a theoretical Republican), endorsed no candidate in the presidential election being held today.

Mr. Bloomberg regularly endorses political candidates. In the last presidential election he endorsed George W. Bush for a second term, and suppressed public demonstration against Mr. Bush during the Republican convention. Mr. Bush is a very different fellow from Barack Obama, who has his roots in community organizing. We can understand why Bush is more to Mr. Bloomberg’s tastes. Before he came into office Mr. Bush, like Bruce Ratner of Atlantic Yards’ Forest City Ratner, was involved in the millionaire club activity of land grabs mixed up with private sports stadium/arena that are questionably financed on the backs of the public. (See: More Money for the Very Rich: An Unsporting Pursuit? March 17, 2008)

The Atlantic Yards megadevelopment may have more to do with Bloomberg’s desire to own the future than one might have thought when Bloomberg proclaimed his goal of a third term. After the public finished speaking at the bill signing hearing, Mr. Bloomberg unfolded his arms to announce that he was going to sign the bill. In his brief statement before signing, his reasons for signing the bill included the following:

You know that I have fundamentally changed my opinion in terms of how long someone should be in office. I have not changed my opinion in terms of the value of term limits. I have made a commitment that I will appoint a charter review commission* to look at the issue of whether two or three terms is appropriate and to put on the ballot the ability for the public to either reaffirm what we have today or to change. There is no easy answer and nobody is irreplaceable, but I do think that if you take a look at the real world, of how long it takes to do things; we live in a litigious society, we live in a society where we have real democracy and lots of people have the ability to INPUT their views and approve or disapprove projects. I just think that three terms makes more sense than two. . . . I feel that this time the public should have a choice and while I still am in favor of term limits it is seriously something that everyone should think long and hard about.
* (A reference to the Bloomberg’s deal with billionaire Ronald Lauder to effectively restore two-term limits after Bloomberg is out of office.)

Bloomberg put a peculiar inflection on the word “input” when he talked about people having the ability to INPUT their views and “approve or disapprove projects.” While Bloomberg may have in his mind the notion that Atlantic Yards has taken longer than expected due to litigation, the project was forced on the public by Bloomberg and people did NOT have the opportunity to approve or disapprove it. Their “input” into the process has been primarily through litigation. Might one possibly conceive that these few tortured sentences express the Mayor’s desire for a third term to surmount litigation and push through projects like Atlantic Yards, the Columbia University expansion and the Rudin /St. Vincent’s real estate deal?

Noticing New York favors a future reclaimed and owned by the public. The Mayor has unfairly gotten a jump on advancing his goals ahead of the rest of us with his signing of the term limits bill. But as the Mayor says, we can still vote come the next election.

Come the next election, we suggest:

It’s Chinatown, Jake, you gotta remember everything.

(Picture of people waiting to testify at the term limits bill signing ceremony. We note that we caught Mr. Haberman moving through the crowd. He is wearing the camel-colored jacket.)

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