Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Virtues and Limits of Smallness

We have been hearing a great deal about smallness lately. The need for smallness in government, the call to reduce the size of banks and other businesses, the advantages of smaller, more intimate schools, the advisability of keeping our meal portions modest, the value of maintaining smaller, more adaptive organizational teams, and perennially, the need for smallness when it comes to practicing democracy as a way of life. I am a big fan of smallness, particularly when it comes to schools and democracy (more about that later), and I am hardly alone in becoming increasingly impatient with this notion, still widely promoted, that we need banks and investment firms that are too big to fail. Smallness as one of the bases for changing how our society works seems to be everywhere, but it is hardly a new idea. As I have said, I am attracted to smallness, but at the same time, I am aware, even painfully so, of its limitations. As with other recent posts, then, I want to use this space to explore why smallness is such a galvanizing idea, especially now, and why it should also be approached and advocated for with caution.

If you consult a dictionary on smallness, you might be surprised by the variety of both denotations and connotations associated with it. It denotes, of course, less than average size, but also lack of importance or significance, limited influence or scope, and even narrowness in outlook or purpose. It also implies modesty or humility and simplicity and even agility or flexibility, as in a craft that can be easily driven or directed. A small boat, for instance, can easily be turned around, whereas a large one may require a very elaborate and complicated maneuver. Smallness also suggests a decentralized situation in which a relatively few number of people are able to interact with one another, often in a face-to-face manner. Bigness, by contrast, is impersonal and often alienating for people. One of the big problems with large organizations is that when something goes wrong, it is difficult to determine who is responsible. It often can't be discerned who gave the order that led to disaster. In small organizations, on the other hand, there appears to be greater accountability, more oversight, and greater satisfaction in being able to put a name and a position to an action taken. People seem to know where they stand with small enterprises. Very large ones are disorienting and not particularly efficient.

One of the historical figures who has been mentioned a lot lately who was a great foe of bigness in both business and government was the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. As Jeffrey Rosen notes in a recent book review, Brandeis, unlike other liberals, opposed bigness, not just in business, but in government as well. He saw bigness as a "curse," and he recognized discerningly that bigness in both business and government often leads to a kind of interlocking directorate between the two, something like what Eisenhower later called "the military-industrial complex," that is not only a waste of resources, but more harmfully, a promoter of "greed, recklessness, and oligarchy." Such bigness, Brandeis contended, leads to imprudence, fraud and self-centered practices that are simply not in the public interest.

Rosen also mentions that Brandeis was committed to judicial restraint and states' rights, but never says anything about how this philosophy might have played out during the Civil Rights Movement where judicial activism and big government were absolutely essential. Here we see one particularly outstanding example of the need for bigness to resist the forces of racism or of regional prejudices. Bigness is often a problem, but it is not always so, and it does seem, for instance, that once again a very large bureaucracy and an activist government are critical if we are to have the kind of environmental reforms needed to address global warming.

Another interesting case of the virtues and limitations of smallness relates to educational reform. A lot of good has been done, for instance, in New York City breaking up very large schools into much smaller ones, or creating small, self-governing units within existing educational behemoths that sometimes enroll as many as 5000 students. These smaller schools report, on the whole, better attendance, higher achievement, and a much stronger connection to parents and to the surrounding community. Of course, smallness does not accomplish these things by itself, but it is a facilitating influence, and many of these changes would be nearly impossible without these reductions in size. At the same time, the Obama administration has been almost universally praised for its efforts to provide federal incentives for educational reform within the states. Many people believe that without these measures and without the accompanying efforts to create national educational standards, change would not happen. This seems to be another case where bigness is necessary to deal with a system that for too long has been mismanaged.

I also want to put in a good word for smallness when it comes to any kind of direct democracy, where each person in a group has an equal claim to voicing her or his view and to having an opportunity to influence the final decision or outcome. By direct democracy here I don't mean a system of government so much as a way of life found in families, schools, interest groups, religious congregations, or community organizations. In such settings, democracy is practiced by people who believe in mutual persuasion as a way to reach decisions. They also believe that dialogue and well thought out arguments, combined with close, respectful listening, and a commitment to understanding other points of view are all essential. People who believe in small-scale democracy strive to hear as much as speak, to understand as much as be understood, to learn from a variety of perspectives at least as much as propose a solution. This process of reciprocal enlightenment is often as important as the product of wise, judicious decisions.

Yet, even as I revere such small-scale democracies, I also know that at the national level there are many times when discussion must come to an end and that it even becomes counter-productive to prolong it, when decisions must be made, often without taking into account every point of view. Such processes must be handled with care, but as I mentioned in an earlier post crisis demands action, and our decision makers at the national level have too often taken too long to achieve resolution about jobs, the environment, and energy that have become self-evident to many of our most rational and well informed citizens. Bigness and activism once again have a highly valued role. Perhaps, by the way, health care reform is our most recent example of the need for a very ambitious, thoroughgoing, and activist set of changes at the federal level. There simply is no way to pull it off without affirming that bigness has its virtues, too.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Eyes Have It

Lately, while riding on the Staten Island Ferry, I have gotten into the habit of using my cell phone camera to snap close-up pictures of one of my eyes. In fact, one of these pictures currently serves as my phone's screen saver. Why have I started doing this? Well, for one thing, this camera takes surprisingly clear and crisp pictures. Even extreme close-ups come out well. But, of course, this comment neatly evades the more pressing issue of what in the world would possess me to occupy my time in such a bizarre way. I'm not sure I know, but I thought I would use this post to try to figure that out.

Like many people, I enjoy experimenting with the camera that comes with my cell phone. I'm always looking for unusual and arresting images. One day I turned this camera on myself and was absolutely appalled by the result. It was one of those pictures taken from just below my jawline, almost looking up into my nose. But the really disgusting aspects were the creases in my chin that appeared so prominently as I bowed my head to look into the camera, and the flat, almost blank expression that appeared on my face. It looked like me sadly enough, but it was a version of myself that skewed toward extreme unattractiveness.

Somehow, this terrible outcome led me to more attempts, including a series of close-ups of my face. There was something about my eyes in those initial close-ups that surprised me, prompting me to pull the camera even closer to myself, so that a number of the pictures that resulted were dominated by one of my eyes, either looking up, to the side, or straight into the camera. Despite what I assume is a low quality camera, these eye pictures were sharp and very blue (my eyes are blue) and rather haunting, quite different really from pictures one usually sees.

By isolating my eyes in this way, I seemed to be peering more deeply into myself, or at least viewing a side of myself that doesn't come across as clearly as when my entire face is in the frame. What I saw was altogether too serious, too intense, too penetrating, and, in a way, too frightened. All of this especially came across as I viewed and reviewed an extended series of these pictures. It was almost as if my eye was a window to my soul and what I was seeing was disconcerting, a person on the edge, unsettled, uncertain, but also alert to new possibilities, and eager to experiment. But it was the tentativeness of that eye, that not-quite-sure-what's-going-to-happen-next aspect that threw me a bit, even as I was intrigued by it.

Eyes are fascinating in this way. I have long been a fan of self-portraits of all kinds and of those painted by Rembrandt, in particular. Rembrandt began painting himself when he was a young man and a prospering artist and continued to do so periodically for the rest of his life, even as his mastery of his art reached new heights while his economic fortunes took a nose dive. These works, more than 40 in all (and this omits the many etchings and sketches), are among the most powerful and haunting in the history of art, not least because of his skill in capturing his own aging eyes. His eyes as a young man are confident, self-assured, even a bit arrogant. As an old man, they are undeniably sad, but also knowing, fully lived-in eyes that reflect both the weariness of a long, often difficult life and the wisdom that comes from successfully withstanding adversity. They are the eyes of a fully realized human being who despite great success and accomplishment, tends to accentuate the disappointments and the regrets, and who portrays himself, anyway, as more exhausted than exhilarated, more worn down than looking up or ahead. Yet, somehow, these portraits, as a whole, are also a study in persistence and of a person who, though battered, remains true to himself and to his art.

What do Rembrandt's self-portraits have to do with my own efforts to capture my eyes with my cell phone? Not sure really. For one thing, my photographs are an amateurish capturing of my eyes as they really are, whereas Rembrandt brings an authentic artistic genius to his perspective on himself. His self-portraits are not merely a documentary record of his face, but a brilliant re-imagining of who he is and what he is becoming. But I think there is something about taking time to look ourselves literally in the eye to help us get a better view at who we are and what we are feeling that has some value. We often talk about self-reflection and developing a balanced sense of self-awareness, but we rarely, if ever, suggest that we look ourselves in the eye to gauge our state of mind, to take stock of who we are. I'm not sure I feel so strongly about this that I would recommend it to others, and admit it may lead to self-absorption and narcissism, but I would still say give it a try. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a glimpse, however modest, into your very own true self.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What David Brooks Didn't Say

This has been a good week for New York Times columnist David Brooks. For his July 6th op-ed, he skillfully casts doubt on the confident claims of the "Demand Siders" who insist that now is the time to spend more public money, not less. A fiscal conservative, Brooks argues convincingly this is a largely untested assertion. Also, this week he is profiled in New York Magazine as one of America's most brilliant pundits and for maintaining his popularity among both liberals and conservatives. Of course, he is hated by many in both groups, but it is surprising, as well, how much bipartisan support he continues to enjoy.

So it is with some hesitancy and trepidation that I take issue with Mr. Brooks' remarks, particularly given the dark forecast inserted into the New York Magazine piece that the U.S. is in danger of becoming Greece. In his column, Mr. Brooks concludes that while we must be fiscally cautious, it is foolish to save money, for instance, by curtailing unemployment insurance or depriving the states of much needed revenue to maintain basic services. I was glad to read that, but I don't think he goes far enough. Of course, if we're going to become Greece (and after all he has access to all these highly knowledgeable informants), then forget it, all bets are off. But, assuming reasonably enough that we are not going the way of the Hellenes, at least not any time soon, I want to make a couple of largely non-economic arguments for doing more than just extending unemployment insurance or helping the states balance their budgets with "race to the top" type competitions.

We desperately need an ambitious and comprehensive public jobs program. Bob Herbert has been talking about this for months, but I am appalled that his lone cries have been ignored. First, unemployment does terrible damage to people, to families, to communities, to individual and collective self-esteem. When the market economy is this troubled and shows so little sign of recovering any time soon, government must step in to make up the difference. God knows, there are sound economic reasons for doing this, but I think restoring the well being of people thrown out of work is the most important reason for doing something right away. It is the right thing to do and it will not only help the unemployed directly, it is very likely, too, to improve the overall economic picture as a whole.

But, here is the part that really bugs me. We could put millions back to work while also repairing our crumbling national infrastructure! All those bridges and roads and schools that are falling apart could be repaired and rebuilt by an army of government-employed workers. What a great way to use stimulus money! This is the capital formation we need. Like the WPA in the 1930s, such programs have a long-term and untold impact on the overall strength of the economy. We could put people back to work and help our long-term chances for ensuring economic growth.

So why aren't we doing this? I honestly believe that in addition to the usual political reasons, it stems from a lack of imagination. It is the inability to envision how much of a difference such a dramatic jobs program could make. But it does demand a leap of faith, the kind FDR became famous for. A massive jobs program is risky. It could fuel inflation and it could even make things worse long term. But the good that would be done in the short run for innocent people damaged by this terrible economy and the likelihood that in the long run great good would be accomplished, makes this our best bet for now. I urge President Obama and the Congress to take note. An ambitious jobs program targeting the faltering infrastructure will yield some immediate good, no matter what else happens. But the longer we wait to take action, the greater the damage done to everyday people. As in the darkest days of the New Deal, the same mantra applies: "We need action and we need it right now." Or, as Rahm Emanuel said during the presidential campaign, "you never want to let a national crisis go to waste." If action isn't taken soon, we will be doing just that.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Final Daily Post

This blog has now come full circle. Begun on July 4, 2009 as a site for one New York settler to share his passion for the City, today it concludes as a daily reflection on life in New York City. For those few of you interested, however, this is the not the end of this blog, only the end of a daily recounting of my New York life. Thethirdnewyork will continue with posts that occur on a roughly weekly basis, usually appearing on Sunday or Monday morning.

It has been an incredibly worthwhile experience to write these posts every day. It has given me a place to express myself, to pour out my thoughts, in the end, about a multitude of subjects, but always with New York City at least in the background, and more often than not, at center stage. The fact that his blog has covered such a wide range of subjects is fitting as New York remains, above all, the place that is most like that great Long Island and Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman: it contains multitudes. It is, as I have said quite a few times before, inexhaustible.

For this last post, I had thought of writing about Central Park or about the theater, two things that make New York so special for me, but, as important as these things are to so many New Yorkers, that didn't seem quite encompassing enough. They are key dimensions of New York but not New York itself. No, this final appreciation has to focus on New York's inexhaustibility, on the fact that it remains the world's single, greatest microcosm. There is more diversity here in almost every realm of human experience than any other place in the world. Ultimately, it is New York's sheer variety, its unbelievable mix of rich and poor, disciplined and casual, creative and conventional, sports-obsessed and sports-averse, art-oriented and art-clueless, the performative and the observational, the ever-busy and the stubbornly inactive, that makes New York such an exciting, bizarre, and endlessly interesting place.

Perhaps it is best summed up by what an elderly lady said to me the other day as we stood at a street corner, me with my trusty bicycle beside me, she with her walker that doubles as a shopping cart in front of her. We were chatting about the beauty of the morning and she noted something about a play she had dearly loved but couldn't recall the title of. I tried to help but my prompts only confused her more. Finally, she resigned herself to not remembering, but then brightened and added, "but this is New York after all. It will be back. It has to be and I will see it and enjoy it all over again."

Well, yes, of course, I thought. New York is the city of second, third, and even fourth acts, both literally and figuratively. If it has happened here, it will happen again, you can count on that. And if it has been part of human experience, however wonderful or terrible, it has probably happened here before and will again. That is New York's blessing and its curse, its source of wonder and the fact that it is shunned by so many non-New Yorkers. For me, though, all of this just makes it that much more remarkable. To the extent that any life is an education, there is no greater school than New York. I am proud and delighted to be its willing and appreciative student.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

New York's Museums

I don't know for how many people this is the case, but in a very real sense, our schedules here in New York City are shaped by museums - their openings, their closings, their special events, their members' viewings, their relatively easy accessibility. We are members of MoMA, the MET, the Guggenheim, the New York Historical Society (N-Y), the Museum of the City of New York, and the Paley Center for Media. The only one of these that never sends us a special invitation to attend their openings or special events is the MET - famously stuffy and aloof. We love it anyway, though, and go there as often as any place because there is always so much going on. MoMA, our beloved MoMA, is the other extreme. They constantly send us invitations to special viewings, to receptions celebrating openings, to so many parties and jazzy gatherings that we can't keep up and often have to turn them down. For instance, we are invited next week to a reception at MoMA for members only that welcomes the wonderful new Matisse exhibit that centers on a time of great creativity for him - his period of "radical invention" as it is referred to - from 1913-1917. Somehow, especially given Karen's love for Matisse, we had to drop everything to make sure we could be there for this unique evening.

The Guggenheim, too, has provided us with rich sources of stimulation and amusement. Their "Works and Process" Series, often noted in this blog, with its sly pairing of seemingly disparate arts and sciences, and its reliably delicious concluding receptions, has never failed to provoke and satisfy us. Its really quite outlandish exhibits, too, have kept us laughing and amazed and coming back for more.

N-Y, a favorite of ours, continues its terrific lecture series of fascinating historical and contemporary topics. Its surprising celebration of musical comedy, that has wreaked havoc with our schedules since they present these events at 6:30 on weekday evenings, has continued to give us much pleasure, even if we occasionally do have to slip into our seats just before (or after) the curtain.

The Museum of the City of New York recently installed its own fascinating exhibit on the John Lindsay Years, Mayor of New York from 1965-1973, and also held a can't miss musical revue on the Broadway hits from that period. We vow to return to see much more of the excellent Lindsay exhibit, though it does mean hiking up to 5th Avenue and 103rd Street, the one museum that sometimes seems just a bit out of reach for us.

Finally, Paley is hot and cold when it comes to special events. For a while, we seemed to be going to one a week, whether celebrating Leonard Bernstein's birthday and his Young People's Concerts or premiering the film "Julie and Julia" paired with clips from the actual Julia's famed TV show or feting an aging Harry Belafonte. But lately, the pickings have been slim. Of course, Paley's great virtue is its video library and the fact that you can view any program in its large archives any time you want.

So there you have it - life by museum. It's tough to keep up with everything, but we do our best. We regard it as one of our most sacred New York responsibilities.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Everybody Walks

Everyone walks in New York City. I mean even if you drive, you walk at least some of the time, because the distance between your parking space and your destination tends to be fairly far. But in general New Yorkers are by necessity big walkers. Most of them can't just go out back to let their dogs relieve themselves. They have to find a park or a relatively deserted area for this, and in some cases you have to go quite a ways to get there. Subways are convenient, but they are often many blocks from your eventual destination, thus necessitating more walking. Of course, it is also true that because it is so difficult and expensive to own a car in the city, far fewer people rely on automobiles. This requires them to walk to work or to walk to the subway or even to walk to a corner when they can catch a taxi. There is always some walking involved. And I think for most New Yorkers, especially those in Manhattan, great pleasure is derived from walking, from seeing the city from a pedestrian's vantage point, from the slow but observant pace of those who meander and stroll. As a result, walking becomes part of the way of life in the city. People get used to it, enjoy it, and even seek out opportunities to do it. Which, in part, accounts for how congested Central Park is on weekends. People enjoy getting out and the easiest and most pleasant way to do so is on foot. This habit also results in a much lower rate of obesity and I daresay a higher quality of life. It took us a long time as a society to figure it out, but we now know that one of the best, most desirable ways to live is in a dense, compact environment where many things are within walking distance. For the elderly, for the young, and for pretty much everybody in between, when you can access most of the services you need on foot, each day brings a special sort of satisfaction that is missing for people who are shut up in cars most of the time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The People - YES!

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of New York City living is the people in all their marvelous and bewildering variety. Because there are so many of them, you really do get to witness a pretty full range of human behavior, from the man with tattoos covering every part of his body to the woman who literally carries a small kitchen sink in her handbag to the dude who brings his surfboard with him on the subway en route to the fabulous waves of Long Island Sound. Almost every day you see someone who in action, appearance, speech or vocation startles you just enough to make you look and forget about yourself for at least a few moments. All this seems very healthy to me and a reminder as well that just when you think you've seen it all, somebody comes along to upset that presumption. New Yorkers are cynical, frustrated, angry, loud, and demanding, but they seem to me to be among the least complacent people in the world. They know that something they have have never seen before is just around the corner and thus their aliveness to the unexpected gives them a kind of grounded hope that keeps them alert to each day's possibilities.