Monday, November 12, 2007

RATNER, ATLANTIC YARDS, AND THE POLITICS OF HOPE

The politics of fear have worked well for Forest City up to a point. Much has been made recently about the politics of fear nationally. Fear of FCRC is based in Ratner’s immensely clever capacity to martial the appearance of a solid financial base. That alone has made the Atlantic Yards Project (AY) seem inevitable to many, especially politicians who do not want to be on the losing side.

I don’t mind that Mr. Ratner is a clever developer and politically fast on his feet. This is New York City where you have to be an operator to get things done. What I do mind is that he has no sense of common purpose, much less of the common good. He wants to impose his ideas, and those of Frank Gehry, on the citizens of Brooklyn from above.

Ironically, Frank Gehry’s firm of architects is being sued by MIT for construction faults in a new 300 million dollar building. It is not his first dispute and he seems to take the suit in stride as a natural cost of doing business. Of course it is not his house that is leaking and falling apart. As Steve Goodman once said, “It ain’t hard to live with somebody else’s troubles.”

Gehry described the MIT building’s design as a group of drunken robots that have come together to celebrate. Miss Brooklyn -- the centerpiece of the AY which Gehry describes as a sort of bride image -- looks as if she leaned far too long on the open bar at her own wedding reception. Mr. Gehry shows a penchant for excess in his designs.

Whether AY will prove as excessive as most of us think, remains to be seen. The evidence seems clear that financially, culturally, socially, and practically the complex would create huge and permanently damaging burdens on Brooklyn and the State of New York. AY has been sensibly and forcefully opposed by those who subscribe to that view.

The politics of fear try hard to prevent that. They call for sudden ill-considered action or cringing acquiescence. That makes opponents look na├»ve and shortsighted. If not that, they are described as ‘nimby’ creatures of narrow self-interest. None of the opponents of AY have fallen for that. However, there is one part of the politics of fear we have fallen for in my view. We fight Ratner on his own turf. That is the problem with fear. It sets the rules of the game by being the source of the fear. But shared fear does not have to be that simple. Nor does it need to be that controlling.

Jonathan Alter’s biographical history of Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office is called “The Defining Moment.” Mr. Alter is neither a historian, nor even much of a writer, but FDR’s words survive that effortlessly. The centerpiece of the book is FDR’s first inaugural where the words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” They are the theme of the first paragraph. Quoted in isolation, the sentence sounds sort of silly but FDR surrounded his thought with his clear determination to face the difficult truths of 1932 and the Depression and act accordingly. Only irrational fear, he said, could defeat that.

He made clear that Americans had real things to fear and those need to be separated from the ones that are based in hysteria or narrow self-interest. He asserted that reason and honesty would allow the nation to rise from the Depression.

Most importantly, FDR conveyed a sense of common purpose between the government and citizens in facing the future. He said so with the added commitment that he intended to speak the truth, no matter how painful, to the people he represented as president. That is the politics of hope. Democracy cannot function without hope. A government that is indifferent to the people’s will destroys hope even as it instills fear.

FDR was a politician, and he knew when to shave the truth as well as how to maneuver around his political enemies. He won some fights, and he lost some. He was a clever political operator but no one could deny that throughout his political life, he held the common good of the American people as his uppermost aim. He was not interested in ideology beyond its practical use, and he basically fought the Depression by trying anything and everything as much because it would instill hope as reap a specific reward.

Those of us who oppose Ratner’s AY cannot lose sight of the fact that we are struggling for the common good of the people of Brooklyn. The AY as currently planned will seriously undermine that. We should add that the nation faces an uncertain economic future as a whole. We do not oppose Ratner’s AY as reactionaries, or even as preservationists. Who in his right mind would want to preserve a hole in the ground? We are doing this to achieve a balance of order and reason to the process of Brooklyn’s development.

Brooklyn is changing and development is not inherently wrong or misguided. However, the needs of the existing community are at least as important as the new one that is being proposed. That may slow things down, but that can often be a good thing. If not, as one can see all over Manhattan, the existing community will simply be destroyed. The replacement is often a social agglomeration of financial self-interest with little coherence and no sense of common good.

That is why the aspirations of developers must be tempered along the Gowanus Inlet; the height and design of buildings in Carroll Gardens need to be harmonious with existing structures, and the Atlantic Yards Project needs to be brought under reasonable public control to preserve the common good. That way we can move forward through the politics of hope.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The New World Order Unfolds

There are two points we must face as the Bush administration slinks toward Bethlehem in an effort to be born again through their legacy. The first is that our senior Senator, Charles Shumer, was not equal to the question, “Do you support torture?” That is because he affirmed the nomination of Mr. Mukasey as Attorney General. Mr. Mukasey is unable to decide what is torture unless the President tells him it is or not. It is a curiously painful choice on his part given the behavior of the last AG under Bush. In other words, the senior Senator from NYS lacks the moral substance to go to war over basic human rights. If NYS is not up to that challenge in this republic, who is?

The second is that the President seems very comfortable with suspending constitutions. Pakistan is the latest example. The problem is not so much that he is untroubled by this behavior as that he has no lucid explanation for his own decisions. Why does that matter? If one constitution can be suspended, why not another? That is particularly worth considering when you realize that he rarely, if ever, has any logical explanation for his choices. You should ask yourself which constitution he might be willing to suspend next, and you should not ask yourself, “Why would he do that?” He does not require a justification. He only needs the impulse.

As for torture, what constitutes torture? Who knows? Who cares?