Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occupy Wall Street holds on

A major principle followed by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is that it is non-hierarchical, that is to say, there are no identifiable leaders.

At first the media tried to ignore OWS; then they ridiculed it. Now, though, late-night television is witnessing a scramble to find eminentoes who will explain the phenomenon to the clueless (a group that is all too often represented by the TV host him or herself).

Some of these interpreters are well chosen, while others are not. A good example of the appropriate type is Amy Goodman, who created and sustains the incisive news program called Democracy Now! While she clearly sympathizes with the movement, Goodman conducts herself as a reporter, seeking to identify, clarify, and spread factual knowledge.

In my view, a prominent example of the opposite kind is the egregious grandstander Michael Moore, whose counter-charisma is much admired in some circles.

Yet is Moore one of the 99% or the 1%? The latter appears to be closer to the truth.

Until recently, MM has openly flaunted his worldly success. "I'm a millionaire, I'm a multi-millionaire. I'm filthy rich. You know why I'm a multi-millionaire? 'Cause multi-millions like what I do. That's pretty good, isn't it?"

He dwells in a million-dollar apartment, and boasts of that as well. "I walk among them. I live on the island of Manhattan, a three-mile-wide strip of land that is luxury home and corporate suite to America's elite..... Those who run your life live in my neighborhood. I walk in the streets with them each day" (Michael Moore, "Stupid White Men," p. 51). For vacations he maintains another million-dollar property, a beachfront house in Michigan.

"You would think that he's the ultimate common man. But he's money-obsessed," noted one associate.

He sends his child to a private school--no sense hanging out with the working class-- and has some trouble associating with them himself. The New York Post has reported a tantrum he threw in London. "Then, on his second-to-last night, [Michael Moore] raged against everyone connected with the Roundhouse and complained that he was being paid a measly $750 a night. 'He completely lost the plot,' a member of the stage crew told the London Evening Standard. 'He stormed around all day screaming at everyone, even the 5 pound-an-hour bar staff, telling them how we were all con men and useless. Then he went on stage and did it in public.' At his last appearance, staffers refused to work or even open the theater's doors." (New York Post, January 8, 2003).

Not content with the handsome box-office returns from his movies, Moore supplements his "meager income" with speaking tours. During his 2004 pre-election tour he charged Utah Valley State College $40,000, Xavier $25,000, and the University of New Mexico $35,000. Not inaptly, he has been termed the ultimate Limousine Leftist. Some on the left, it appears, are appalled by Moore's antics; if so they have failed to make their voices heard.

Another Limousine Leftist (discussed in the previous posting) is Gore Vidal. He is now confined to a wheel chair, where he is assisted by his own private version of Justin Bieber, a long--haired French youth. One can expect the pair soon to appear in Zuccotti Square.

And there are broader issues. The enormous salaries achieved by Wall Streeters attract scorn, and rightly so. But how about the huge incomes generated by Hollywood performers and celebrities, as well as by some sports figures? What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.

Well, now that I have finished venting about the hypocrisy I perceive, let me turn to a serious internal problem at OWS. That is this. Before long the OWS folk may have trouble maintaining their non-hierarchical stance. In fact as I remember from personal experience, we have been here before. I refer to procedural issues that arose in the protest movements of the 1970s.

First, horizontal organizations of this type find that obtaining consensus is a protracted process in which everyone must patiently wait for all the voices to be heard. On some occasions it is those who have the stamina to wait it out who prevail. Their views may not be the best ones to adopt, but they gain the advantage by default.

Moreover, some subgroups--cliques if you will--perceive an advantage in this weakness. They organize privately to become a kind of power structure that operates clandestinely behind the scenes. In this way the organization becomes covertly hierarchical, a situation that is arguably worse than the open type. At least with blatant hierarchies, one knows who to go to.

In short the main problem faced by OWS may not be the invasion of grandstanders like Michael Moore (not to mention several opportunistic politicians who have shown up there), but internal structural problems, stemming from the commitment to non-hierarchy. Admirable in itself, this democratic commitment may contain the seeds of serious problems as the movement matures.

PS. For a different view, see


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Anticapitalist rhetoric

Quite a few years ago, together with several other people, I went to dinner in Los Angeles, with Gore Vidal. After a number of other ex cathedra pronouncements that brooked no dissent, Vidal declared that no American corporations paid any taxes--none at all. No one rose to challenge him on this unlikely claim. One can certainly argue--and should argue--that US corporations benefit from many unjustified loopholes and exemptions, especially those secured by lobbyists based on K Street in DC. But they do pay s o m e taxes.

After many years in the wilderness, this kind of anticapitalist rhetoric has resurfaced in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, which I basically support. It is, to be sure, a diverse movement.

Such exaggerations, it seems to me, are not doing the cause any good.

Let us continue a bit more with Gore Vidal, who elicits a degree of sustained enthusiasm from the US Left that does not cease to baffle me.

There is the matter of the Gorester's wierd infatuation with the mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, whom Vidal terms a "sane" and "noble" man. (I derive the following comments from an interview published on October 7, 2009 in a British newspaper, The Independent, by Johann Hari, who is generally sympathetic to the American magus.)

Here is the background, On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh planted a massive truck bomb outside a government building in Oklahoma City. In the explosion some 168 people died, including a kindergarten full of children. After he was apprehended, McVeigh wrote to Vidal, saying he had been inspired, in part, by studying the writer's work.

He held that the US Constitution had been usurped by a National Security State that had to be opposed by force. Vidal wrote back and they became pen pals. Increasingly drawn into the scam, Vidal began to mount passionate defenses of the bomber, maintaining that he was not crazy, but "too sane for his place and time."

"He was a dedicated student of the American way, of the Constitution itself," he asserted. "You should read his writings--they're very good. Particularly on the Posse Comitatus Act of 1876, which forbids the Federal government ever to use its troops against the American people – but which they proceeded to do at Waco [a compound used by a religious cult that was attacked by federal troops in 1993]. They killed more people than he managed to kill when he blew up that building in Oklahoma City. He was a noble boy."

At this point Hari, the interviewer, balked. How could one describe as noble the man who consorted with far-right militia groups, and proceeded to blow up all those children? Vidal scowled, almost hissing: "He didn't kill them deliberately! But the American government killed all those people at Waco, men, women and children deliberately! It was his gesture against the government he loathed. You know, he swore to me he had no idea there were children there. He said 'How would I know? I walked by the place once and I knew that there was some kind of dining room, families might be there, or they might not be there. . . He was trying to deliver a message to the government: "look, you have done this arbitrarily, contrary to the Posse Comitatus Act, contrary to American law, you've killed American citizens.' Remember, he was an army boy, and he loved it, and he was longing to get back in the army and the army was longing to get him back; he was the best sharpshooter they'd seen in years. But it was not meant to be."

Hari protested: he must have known he would kill scores of innocent people. Didn't that show a callous disregard for human life? "So did Patton, so did Eisenhower!" Vidal riposted angrily. "Everybody's rather careless about it once you start getting involved in wars. He saw this as a war to preserve the Constitution! You know what he said? But you don't, so I'm going to tell you. The judge [at his trial] quite liked him, and he was intrigued by the fact that this rather talkative kid who wrote tons of pieces for the press had not defended himself. So he said – Mr McVeigh, could we hear more from you? [McVeigh] said, 'Well, your honor, I will base my case on Justice Brandeis, one of our most brilliant jurists, in his opinion in Olmstead. There, he writes that when government ceases to lead by example and actually provides a bad example, anything can happen. Government is the last teacher. Everything I did, I learned from my government.'"

Vidal's position is patently monstrous. Apart from the overall wrongheadedness, there is also a characteristic error. The Waco assault killed 76 people--bad enough, but certainly not more than the 168 who are known to have died in Oklahoma City.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

News item

This just in.

Now that both shows have appeared back to back on Logo, it has been revealed that the cast members of the A-List: New York and the A-List: Dallas will join the OWS demonstrators in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Among other things, they will protest their inadequate remuneration for the TV shows.

As the Occupiers generally decry any attempt at take-over by outsiders, some displeasure was expressed. However, the newcomers will be bringing discarded high-fashion items, together with tips on appropriate dress at the site. They are also seeking to join the media committee.

At the outset an unfortunate incident was narrowly avoided, as Austin had to be restrained from hitting another demonstrator.

Whatever you may think of this development, it shows that OWS is truly for everybody!

[This is a spoof, of course.]


Saturday, October 15, 2011

People who "vote wrong"

A recent post on the Internet asked why so many people of modest background and income are voting Republican. Don't they understand that this is against their own interest? Such voting, the assumption seems to go, is a form of self-damaging behavior (itself a rather murky concept).

The issue of why the large sectors of the proletariat have not rallied to "progressive" parties, where ostensibly their true interests lie, was discussed in extenso by Marxist theorist in the 1930s, under the rubric of "false consciousness." If the workers had a true consciousness of their situation they would not behave in this way. But they are beguiled by the media and other instruments of capitalist propaganda to desert their true interests. If this cloud of misinformation could be lifted then they would start voting as they should.

Marxists have sometimes framed the issue in terms of commodity fetishism. In my view this latter dubious concept is not helpful, so I will not explore it further here.

One reason why people vote "against" their (present) interest, is that they have hopes of economic mobility. That is to say, they expect that they will be able to move from their present lowly state to a more prosperous one. Putting into place the restrictions and taxation on this sector that progressives seem to want would harm their long-term interest.

Interpretations of upward mobility are contradictory. However, it is sufficient to note that many people b e l i e v e that they have this capacity.

Another fallacy is that interests are solely economic. Many people believe that "values," however defined, may trump pure economic motives. Thus those who decry false consciousness are imposing an inappropriate monistic model of the economic man,
which is not universally valid.

Finally, most of this handwringing about people voting "against their own interest" is performed by outsiders, by intellectuals who do not share the experiences of the voters in question. It would be more useful to hear from the people themselves who are allegedly voting wrong.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Frank Kameny

The gay activist Frank Kameny died at his home in Washington DC on October 11, 2011; he was 86, The passing of Frank Kameny, whom I knew for some 30 years, has elicited copious tributes, many richly deserved.

As I am about to make some critical remarks, let me first state a few facts. A native New Yorker, Frank Kameny early developed an ambition to become an astronomer. Yet his academic progress at Queens College was interrupted by his being drafted.. He served in World War II in the Netherlands and Germany, returning to complete his education with a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard University (1956).

He then secured employment in the Army Map Service in Washington DC. Only a few months after starting this job he was arrested after a public sexual encounter and labeled a “sexual pervert.” He was then fired by the federal government (1957). At the time, under an executive order signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953,“sexual perversion” was grounds for dismissal from government employment. Frank Kameny contested his firing through level after level of legal appeal, until the US Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 1961.

He was never again to hold a regular job in his field. As with some other early gay activists, he spent most of his life in poverty. Finally, two years ago, he received a formal apology--but no back pay--from the United States Office of Personnel Management, which formally apologized for his dismissal.

With some others, in 1961 he started the Mattachine Society of Washington, an offshoot of the major California gay-rights organization that Harry Hay had founded in 1950. He thus came to a movement that already existed, though it remained relatively small until the Stonewall events of June 1969.

In a 1999 book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America.” Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney summed up his personality in this fashion:
“Franklin Kameny had the confidence of an intellectual autocrat, the manner of a snapping turtle, a voice like a foghorn, and the habit of expressing himself in thunderous bursts of precise and formal language,” the authors wrote. “He talked in italics and exclamation points and he cultivated the self-righteous arrogance of a visionary who knew his cause was just when no one else did.”

Here is a pithy statement from Frank himself: “If I disagree with someone,” he said, “I give them a chance to convince me they are right. And if they fail, then I am right and they are wrong and I will just have to fight them until they change.” In the course of many exchanges, though, I found that (like many people) he was very reluctant to admit that he was wrong, when he clearly was. At times he seemed even to merit the derisory label of the Pope of the Potomac.

After his loss and his subsequent dedication to the cause of gay rights, Frank Kameny recognized that the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a sickness posed a serious obstacle to the advance of the movement. He was among those who lobbied for the reversal of this stigmatizing provision. Finally, in December 1973, the association’s board of trustees approved a resolution declaring that homosexuality, “by itself, does not necessarily constitute a psychiatric disorder.”

I turn now to some critical remarks that address more directly some of the exaggerations that have begun to circulate since Kameny's death. Regrettably, some of these fibs stem from Frank’s irrepressible yearning for self-publicity.

He was not in fact one of the Founders of the modern American gay movement. That honor belongs to a small, courageous group of residents of Southern California, headed by Harry Hay who started the Mattachine Society in 1950. Other prominent individuals in this first cohort in Los Angeles included Lisa Ben, Dorr Legg, and Don Slater. When eleven years later, Kameny and Jack Nichols started their own Mattachine group in Washington, DC, they were echoing what Hay had done.

As he saw it, Kameny’s first priority in the gay cause developed when he sought to counsel federal employees who had lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Even though he was not legally qualified, Kameny requested substantial payments for this representation. As far as I know, none of the discharged employees got their jobs back by this intervention. Naturally, some bitterness ensued.

Kameny did not organize the first public gay picket, as he maintained; that was done by New York activist Randy Wicker when on September 18, 1964 he organized a picket of the army induction center (Whitehall) in New York City.

Kameny claims to have coined the expression “gay is good” in 1968. My recollection is that the phrase was in common use before Kameny adopted it. At all events, it is based on Stokely Carmichael’s “black is beautiful." One reason that the claim seems improbable--though not impossible--is that in 1968 Frank (like many others) preferred "homosexual" or "homophile," not "gay," then regarded as a slang term.

His most sweeping claim is that he rescued the gay movement from the doldrums in the 1960s by introducing a more assertive style, one that demanded radical innovation. This assertion is unlikely on a number of grounds. First, no one could have been more radical than Harry Hay who started the movement in 1950. A number of courageous individuals rallied to the cause in those days, but Kameny was not among them. It took a later arrest, and his meditation on the results, to bring him out of his shell.

Kameny's actions in the 1960s were relatively tame, in keeping with the generally conformist nature of the times. For example, at the July 4 Reminder Day observances that he organized with Barbara Gittings in Philadelphia, he insisted that men wear jackets and ties and women dresses. The idea of the Reminder had originated with Craig Rodwell, not with Frank.

It was the Stonewall Rebellion that ushered in a new phase of radicalism. By his own account Kameny was not at that life-changing event in Greenwich Village in 1969. Yet he improbably sought to claim responsibility for it because of some flyers that had been distributed for his Reminder Day gathering. As I have noted, that observance had a very different character, much more subdued and conformist.

The truth was that in those days, and in fact ever since, Frank Kameny was an assimilationist. That is, he believed that gay rights could be attained by adjusting American customs and conventions, not by overthrowing them. There is nothing wrong with this position per se, but it sorts ill with his claim to have been a radical firebrand.

In short, Frank Kameny told some tall tales, most of them it seems about himself.

After posting some of these remarks on another site, a friend admonished me that I should not say such things at the time of a person's death. Perhaps so, but in many emails to Frank himself I offered the same criticisms. In my view, his responses were inadequate.

APPENDIX. As these incisive comments from Stephanie Donald (from her site) may be a little hard to find, I take the liberty of reproducing them here.

"The Death of a Gay American Icon: Frank Kameny 1925-2011"

Even when Frank Kameny was still alive his actual place in history was much debated and I even participated in the controversy.

Was Frank a pioneer in gay rights or was he an assimilationist?

I’m sure that future generations will debate these issues and more but for now the fact of the matter is that I lost a friend yesterday on National Coming Out Day. How ironic could that possibly be?

Frank was a World War II veteran who, once discharged from the military, went back to school and earned his PhD and went to work for the Army corps of Engineers as an astronomer.

However, in 1957, Frank was arrested in Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. for “immoral acts”, photographed and released. At first it didn’t seem that anything would come of the incident and for many weeks things seemed pretty much normal.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end. A member of the civil service commission came around to ask Kameny about his arrest and Frank didn’t lie.

Perhaps when history reflects upon Dr. Franklin Kameny they will place him upon the mantle with George Washington and the story of the cherry tree because Frank couldn’t tell a lie and he paid dearly for it through the years.

For those of you who take it for granted now, back in the 1950s, the government declared that homosexuals couldn’t hold security clearances because (wait for this ridiculous reason) because if foreign agents found out they could blackmail the person into revealing secrets because of their homosexuality.

Frank was fired instantly and spent the next 20 years trying to get that rule changed. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order declaring that homosexuals may hold even the highest level security clearance with no prejudice.

Frank stood next to Jimmy Carter when the order was signed.

In those years between 1957 in the McCarthy era when homosexuals were actually considered lower than communists, unless of course you happened to be communist and homosexual like my friend David McReynolds, Frank met up my other good friend, Jack Nichols, and the two embarked on the greatest adventure two friends could hope for. The started the Washington D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961.

In those years Frank met many civil servants who were terrified of losing their jobs because of their “dirty little secret” and during those years the police often didn’t even arrest people in gay bars but just photographed them and released them. The next morning those pictures and their names would appear in the Washington Post and the Evening Star newspapers for the entire world to see.

Frank became a . . . paralegal expert and confidant, friend and morale expert to dozens of people at the meetings of the Mattachine.

I guess one of the things I didn’t like about what Frank did was to charge these people for filing their civil service appeals because there was virtually no chance for those appeals to be successful and he never told those he helped (and charged them the equivalent of what attorneys of the day were charging to represent their clients) that he had never won a single case. He gave them hope when there was literally none for them and there are some people I’ve run into through the years who held a grudge against him for the money they spent in futility.

But I suppose that when one looks at all those years that Frank spent in selfless service to the gay rights movement that he deserved to get at least a little back from our community.

And selflessly he did give and fought through many of the hardest years that homosexuals existed in the United States.

While he, Jack Nichols, Lige Clarke, Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen, Randy Wicker and so many others marched and asked for others to march with them the thousands of other homosexuals who huddled in dark bars, gathered in the bushes of Lafayette Square and led double lives to hide their sexuality ran and hid while a few brave souls like Frank stood in the light and with a warm smile said, “Gay is good!”

It took people like Frank to show that if you stood up and admitted that you were gay to the world that your life wouldn’t come to an end. He was a leader in every sense of the word and an icon to everyone who knew him even to the end.

In 1977 his struggle to end the witch hunt against gay and lesbian civil servants ended with an executive order from President Jimmy Carter even if he didn’t get a formal apology until June 24, 2009 when John Berry, also an openly gay man, serving as the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, formerly apologized to him for his firing from civil service.

I remember having a telephone conversation with Frank one time about what might have happened if he hadn’t been fired from his job in 1957. It was one of those wistful, “What if’s?” ramblings about how things might have turned out.

“I wanted to be part of NASA,” he said with straightforward tone. “I would have pushed to be one of the first people to land on the moon!”

I’ve never been one who believed that planting the American flag on the moon was a good idea. I always thought that it implied ownership even though the United States had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union and other nations stating that just because we got there first it didn’t mean or imply any ownership of the moon but still, it seemed like a nightmare of nationalism and I mentioned to Frank during the course of our conversation. He agreed off-hand but didn’t say anything else.

“What would you have taken to moon, Frank?” I asked coyly.

“I would have taken a copy of the Bill of Rights and a copy of Donald Webster Cory’s “Homosexuality in America!”

By Stephanie Donald

UPDATE (October 20): The CNN website published a eulogy of Kameny by David Carter, said to have been working for five years on a biography of him. This is how the piece begins: "America has lost her greatest leader in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality: Franklin E. Kameny," That is opinion, not fact. Very much to the contrary, Harry Hay was our greatest leader. In addition, when did Kameny ever stand up for transgender equality? That claim is anachronistic. Saying things like that comes from unreflecting acceptance of current rhetoric, retrojecting it back into the past.

The piece goes on to make other hyperbolic assertions.

If Carter has been working on the book for five years, and this piffle is the best he can come up with, then we might as well forget about it. He will never finish.

For many years the standard narrative of the homophile era (1950-69) was that there was an early radical phase under the guidance of several daring leaders, most of whom were or had been members of the Communist Party USA. Then in 1953 a counterrevolution occurred and an era of retrenchment and social acquiescence set in, a development only reversed by Stonewall in June of 1969. There are a number of difficulties with this received view, among them the discovery that 1953 was not as much of a watershed as has been thought. A good deal of the early radicalism persisted.

In order to promote the radicalism of his hero, Carter erases the genuine radicalism of the founding years. He also tries to make Kameny more innovative than he was. After all, he came into the picture during the period of supposed homophile acquiescence, an acquiescence well symbolized by the dress codes of Reminder Day. As Stephanie and I have pointed out he was an assimilationist, and such he remained.

Not only was Kameny less innovative than is claimed, he had a propensity for purloining the ideas of others and passing them off as his own. Reminder Day was the brainchild of Craig Rodwell.

Kameny was certainly not as courageous as Harry Hay, Chuck Rowland, Dorr Legg, Don Slater and many others who preceded him. They were the ones who smoothed the path for our "greatest leader."

To be sure, Kameny "fought poverty," fighting it by pretending that he was poor when he wasn't, sending his minions out on a quest for money. That cannot be said of Don Slater, Jack Nichols, JIm Kepner and many others who endured poverty without complaining.

And by the way, how did Kameny come to own a large house in an upscale district of Washington DC? I don't own a house, and I would wager that most of the people who are involved in this discussion do not. But the saintly Franklin owned a house.


Let us see if we can summarize the key points at issue. These are, I remark parenthetically, ones that should be central to David Carter's biography. Whether they will turn out to be such is anyone's guess.

1. In the decade since its launching in Southern California, the Mattachine meme had gone viral. Its reinscription in Washington DC in 1961 must be evaluated in this context of dependency. Outside of the federal triangle, Washington DC in those days was essentially a sleepy Southern town, unsuited to the fostering of any purportedly "revolutionary" movement. In fact, the Kameny group never consisted of more than seven or eight members, quite small in comparison with the contemporary MSNY--as I remember from the early sixties when it met on West 40th Street in Manhattan.

2. The nature of Kameny's finances needs to be examined and thoroughly aired. It appears that for a number of years a substantial portion of his income was supplied by the not inconsiderable fees he charged to his "clients" with regard to employment grievances. In some cases, it seems that sexual favors were part of the payment plan. These matters raise ethical issues that cannot be readily dismissed.

3. How did Kameny come into possession of the upscale residence at 5020 Cathedral Avenue N.W.? He seems to have moved in there in 1962, when he could scarcely have afforded to purchase such an abode. How did he acquire title?

4. What is one to make of Kameny's tendency to purloin the ideas of others, with the claim that he alone originated them?

5. To what extent is Kameny appropriately described as an assimilationist?


Sunday, October 09, 2011

"Livable cities"

In an age of mobility, urbanites like myself are much concerned with which city offers the best situation for us. Either we conclude that we are already living in the city with the best fit (having oftentimes come from some place else), or we pick out some spot like Portland or Santa Fe to which we would like to move.

Recently this issue has become encapsulated in attempts to rank “livable cities.” Two examples of this endeavor are the Mercer Quality of Living Survey and The Economist's World's Most Livable Cities (which borrows some data from Mercer ). Some employers use livability rankings when they assign hardship allowances as part of job relocation. The Economist’s list of top ten for 2011 is as follows: Melbourne, Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Sydney, Helsinki, Perth, Adelaide, and Auckland.

To my mind, this is a very peculiar assemblage. Apparently, preference for the English language is a major criterion of livability, since it characterizes eight of the ten. Moreover, all the livable cities are in countries with fairly small populations. Cities in larger countries, such as Germany, Japan, and Great Britain (even though the latter is English speaking) need not apply. The characteristics posited for livability include widespread availability of goods and services, low personal risk, and an effective infrastructure. Not considered significant, curiously enough, are such factors as climate and the cost of living,

In the US Honolulu comes in first--at number 26, notwithstanding the fact that newcomers have a very hard time finding affordable housing in the Hawaiian city, where the cost of living is sky high. New York stands at 56th place.

In 2010 Monocle magazine came up with a different list of top cities. In order, they are Munich, Copenhagen, Zurich, Tokyo, Helsinki, Stockholm, Paris, Vienna, Melbourne, and Madrid.

These two very different results suggest that the criteria for making up the lists are conspicuously lacking in objectivity, They seem to be swayed by considerations of political correctness, Anglocentrism, Eurocentrism, and fashionability (as defined by the chattering classes).

While several criteria are proffered for assessing livability, the makers of the list don’t seem to be willing to consider why this concept, livability, should rule. In my view, such factors as creativity, access to cultural events, diversity, and architectural beauty are more significant. These features, and others like them, are what make certain cities exciting, inducing savvy young people to want to move to them. By contrast, “livability” seems to concentrate on things that please a dull bourgeois couple with 2.1 children. Increasingly, the old, staid nuclear family is not the norm any more. Yet the livable-cities paradigm seems to assume that it is.

Another aspect is this. The studies mentioned are snapshots based on the present; they do not reflect changes over time--the diachronic aspect. The cities change. For example, the Los Angeles of my youth in the 19450s and 50s was very different from what it is now. There was virtually no smog, the freeways hadn't been built, and there was an efficient public transportation system. Yet for a young person with ambitious cultural interests, LA seemed limited and provincial in those days, so I sought more stimulating environments.

The lesson is that cities change, and we, the citizens, change too. Deciding where to live involves a certain gamble: what will this place be like in ten or twenty years time? During the 1970s there was much pessimism about the future of New York City (where I live now), especially with regard to older people's prospects. "Fun City" was turning into "Run City." Or so the cliche went.

Now I'm glad I stayed in NYC, but once upon a time the choice seemed problematic as it seemed that crime rates could only go up and up. So the diachronic aspect bears with it an uncertainty principle. As Yogi Berra (I think) sagely remarked, predictions are hazardous, especially about the future.

In short, there are many criteria for choosing a city in which to live. Some involve individual propensities and habits. For example, it is difficult to operate and maintain an automobile in Manhattan where I live. Some individuals find this restriction inconvenient. To me it is a plus, because I don't need a car and can use public transportation. It depends on who you are.

Refracted through an iridescent spectrum of subjective factors, the controlling values are complex and incommensurable. Consequently any attempt to create objective rankings--ones that everyone would agree on--is vain.

ADDENDUM. A different approach stems from the work of Richard Florida, an influential American urban theorist. Florida is best known for his concept of the creative class and its implications for urban regeneration. This idea emerges in his best-selling books The Rise of the Creative Class; Cities and the Creative Class; and The Flight of the Creative Class.

Florida's theory asserts that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men, as well as a group he terms "high bohemians," exhibit a higher level of economic development than competing regions. Together, these groups constitute Florida's "creative class." As a rule, members of this group are not in search of the tranquility that livability provides, but rather gravitate to stimulating sociocultultural settings.

Richard Florida maintains that the creative class fosters an open, dynamic, personal and professional urban environment. This environment, in turn, attracts more creative people, as well as businesses and capital. He has devised his own ranking systems that rate cities according to a "Bohemian index," a "Gay index," a "diversity index" and similar criteria.

FURTHER NOTE. Perhaps the true parent of the livable-cities approach was Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), an American writer and activist whose primary interests lay in communities, urban planning, and decay. She is best known for her influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which marks its fiftieth anniversary this year. Modeling herself on her beloved Greenwich Village, Jacobs harshly critiqued the then-regnant culture of urban renewal, which was tearing so many neighborhoods apart.

She excoriated the anomie fostered by living in high-rise buildings, including the "projects" devised to warehouse the urban poor. By contrast, she idealized the mixed use prevalent in traditional, low-rise neighborhoods. Here she she neglected the fact that these spots could be, and not infrequently were, "mean streets." As often occurs, there may be a tradeoff.


Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs and our predicament

In one of the Internet sites I formerly participated in I used to be termed "Cassandra" for my inveterate pessimism. So fair warning: I am in that mode this morning.

I take my starting point from one of the commentators on the premature death of Steve Jobs. This individual said that in some places today a few people were working in a garage on the Next Big Thing in the cyberworld. Well, I don't see any evidence for this claim. The wave of creativity in Silicon Valley that lifted us all in the closing years of the last century is not being carried forward.

Instead, we have disarray in most areas of American life, as anyone knows who has gone on a plane ride recently. In most economic sectors the US doesn't make things any more--at least not things that people want to buy. For its part, Washington DC has now attained total gridlock.

There is no need to go further with this recital: it is all too familiar. My fear is that the death of Steve Jobs is the end of an era. It is the era when innovative things worked, and the idea of customer service was vibrantly alive.

The Onion headline captures the situation perfectly: "Last American Who Knew What the Fuck He Was Doing Dies."

The spoof continues with a fake quotation from President Obama:

"Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56. "We haven't just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we've literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on," a statement from President Barack Obama read in part, adding that Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas—attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen. "This is a dark time for our country, because the reality is none of the 300 million or so Americans who remain can actually get anything done or make things happen. Those days are over." Obama added that if anyone could fill the void left by Jobs it would probably be himself, but said that at this point he honestly doesn’t have the slightest notion what he’s doing anymore."


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Weakness of European institutions: another facet

Recently, the huge losses by the US Postal System have prompted alarmist predictions that the service will disappear altogether. While significant cutbacks are in store, I trust that these dire forecasts will not come to pass.

The situation may be worse abroad. The weakness of European institutions has become evident in the financial sector. What is not much discussed is the lack of a uniform continental postal system. For a long time, a national post office has been a symbol of sovereignty, long preceding, say, the national airlines.

For decades now, the Italian post office has been a laughing stock, with reports that undelivered mail was actually burned. Some friends living in Rome resorted to sending letters out from the Vatican, where the postal service was reliable.

Since I read Italian with ease, I have long been a consumer of Italian books--too much so for my own good. In recent years I have used an Italian bookseller ( that sent the orders only by FedEx or some other private delivery service, at ruinous rates. Then, about three months ago, Amazon opened an Italian branch, proposing to send the books through the mail at cheap prices.

How could they do it? First, the books are concentrated at the warehouse in Montelimar in France. Thence the items required are sent by truck to Germany, where they are dispatched cheaply and safely by Deutsche Post, which has a superb record. I have received six packages now by this circuitous but secure route.

What do we learn from this example? First, Europe has no uniform postal service, which it badly needs, Second, the existing postal services are arranged in a hierarchy, with Germany at the top, France in the middle, and Italy at the bottom.


Sunday, October 02, 2011

First-hand report on the Wall Street Occupation,

Yesterday, Saturday, I was at Zuccotti Park for the first time. I went by a circuitous route, walking alongside the construction site (still!) of the World Trade Center; at its southeastern end it is abuts Zuccotti Park--an interesting conjunction. I was literally thrilled to be in the Park--very exciting. The occupiers now have a little 4-page newspaper, telling what some of them are thinking.

For some mysterious reason I wandered to the eastern end, where I found myself in a major march! I could have exited, but I didn't want to. I was particularly glad to be near the contingent protesting the execution of Troy Davis. We made our way slowly up to City Hall Park. That Park was completely closed off, but you could see the Sol Lewitt exhibition of abstract sculptures, a confluence of advanced art and, I trust, advanced political action.

In fact one supporter, Alexandre Carvalho, states: "Many of us in the movement believe we are at the brink of a new aesthetic school. A new historical art period, that reaches beyond the nihilism and hopelessness of post-modernism to a time of agency, belief, and hope. Virginia Woolf once wrote that 'around 1910 everything changed' to announce that modernism came to make a revolution. Maybe we, in 2011, a century after, may be entering the same flux."

However that may be, back to my own experience. Having come virtually within the shadow of City Hall, I was getting tired, so I opted to drop out at that point and just watch as the group made its way towards and onto the Brooklyn Bridge--luckily for me, since I would have been arrested. Maybe I should have been, though.

At last the media, who had been obtusely trying to ignore the Occupation, are forced to pay attention.

I don't know where all this is going--but it seems tremendously worth trying.

POSTSCRIPT. Why were the 700 people arrested? The police claimed that it was only because, once the marchers were on the bridge, they left the sidewalk where they were permitted, and went onto the roadway on the bridge. According to the demonstrators, though, the police actually encouraged them to go onto roadway. Then the cops turned around and arrested them. They were well prepared with handcuffs and buses waiting to take the arrestees away. This then would appear to be a case of entrapment.

It will take some time to get this all figured out, but my guess is that in the end the finding will not reflect glory on the cops, or on Mayor Bloomberg, who seems to be behind it all.

METACOMMENT (October 3), What are the actual aims of the Occupiers? It has been said that that they are too diverse to characterize. All the same, let me take a stab at it.

Many have felt that the Tea Party has hijacked the anger that should be aimed at the powerful fat cats who are responsible for the present mess. So the Occupiers are the Counter-Tea Party. Perhaps so, but both groups share a deep distrust of politics as usual and of the mainstream media. They are, or claim to be, grassroots movements.

There seem to be two things that galvanize the Occupiers: 1) the growing and indeed obscene gap in income and power in this country between the one percent and the ninety-nine percent; 2) the bailout of the banks and the major corporations, who have not been held accountable, and are in fact thriving while 25 million people are out of work.


Saturday, October 01, 2011

Unexpected remarks from Michael Kinsley

[The following comments have been edited and revised from a column in Bloomberg News.]

Michael Moore is just too fat.

That’s not a very liberal attitude. It’s discriminatory. It’s patronizing. It’s coercive. What business is it of ours whether Moore weighs too much (and who gets to define “too much”)? Why should we even care, as long as we like his policies?

Let me save you the trouble, boys and girls. I can write that column myself: “Liberals, who embrace diversity of all other kinds -- who demand quotas for transgender kindergarten teachers in public schools -- these selfsame liberals have the unmitigated gall to encourage discrimination against a truly oppressed group: people of weight.”

There is a theory, of course, that being fat benefits Michael Moore by authenticating his portrayal of Everyman -- just a regular fella, like so many others. Being overweight establishes Moore’s bona fides as a populist.

Controlling what you eat and how much is not easy, and it’s harder for some people than for others. But it’s not as difficult as curing a chemical addiction. With a determined, disciplined effort, Michael Moore could thin down, and he should -- because the obesity epidemic is real and dangerous.

Unfortunately, the symbolism of Moore’s weight problem goes way past the issue of obesity itself. It is just a too-perfect symbol of our country at the moment, with appetites out of control and discipline near zilch.

[Full disclosure: in addition to shortening the piece, I made one little change throughout: I switched "Christie" to "Moore." What's sauce for the goose ... ]