Jewish World Review April 22, 2004/ 1 Iyar, 5764
Defining deviancy up
Washington is a company town and politics is the industry. Washingtonians regard New Yorkers as naïve about politics, statecraft and even foreign affairs, and they usually are.
New Yorkers regard politicians as cultural rubes, living in a swamp of bloviators without style or taste, élan or éclat. They're not always wrong.
If the Washingtonian looks up at the skyscrapers and complains about the lack of sunlight, the New Yorker looks down at the Capitol and the White House and gripes about the lack of light and clarity. Unlike London, Rome and Paris, where men and women apply their talents to both creating law and nurturing culture, we separate those functions, often with a condescending sneer.
Occasionally a Renaissance man comes along, uniting the cities in one forceful personality. The Museum of the City of New York now honors such a man.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died in March 2003 at the age of 76, was a gentleman, scholar, teacher, author of 18 books, a United States senator and an ambassador for his country, approximately in that order of importance. His mind was compared to a lending library, a public intellectual and policymaker who fused passion with practicality and understood better than most the importance of bridging the gap between politics and culture. Though a loyal Democrat, he was a politician whose partisanship transcended ideology.
"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society," he said a quarter of a century ago. "The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture to save it from itself." He was a modern Diogenes who not only looked for the truth of human experience, but when he found it wanting tried to do something about it.
When he observed in 1965 that a huge percentage of black families were unstable because there were few fathers heading them, and young black men had no models for 'manliness," he was denounced as a racist by certain prominent blacks and politicians eager to pander to them. Several decades later both pols and black leaders recognized that the moral issue and the economic issue are actually one.
When he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the U.N. adopted a resolution declaring that 'Zionism is racism," he called it for what it was, an "obscenity," and predicted that historians would one day recognize how "a great evil has been loosed upon the world."
When he was ambassador to India, he was warned by security officers to dispense with the American flag that traditionally flies from the left fender of the ambassadorial limousine. He knew better. He knew who he was and whom he represented. He refused to be cowed into submission. The flag remained.
As it happened, following my visit to the Moynihan exhibition I was invited to the introductory showing of a documentary about children of prostitutes in Calcutta. The director, like Daniel Moynihan, gets straight to the heart of the matter. Zana Briski, a photographer, lived in the red-light district with the prostitutes and got to know their children.
Instead of keeping an authorial distance, the director of "Born to the Brothels" gave cameras to 21 children and taught them how to use them. We see their living circumstances with a fresh and unexpected eye. Eight of the children show a clear natural talent for photography.
Briski not only nurtured their photographic gifts but became an advocate for their education and health, accompanying them through the Indian government bureaucracy, confronting prejudices and bigotries, going with them for HIV testing, helping them obtain scholarships to boarding schools. She organized photographic exhibits so the children could experience the thrill of appreciation of their work. Some of the prints were even auctioned at Sotheby's.
The film, which won a prize for documentary this year at the prestigious Sundance Festival, demonstrates how one person can make a difference in the life of a child. The children's photographs are for sale at www.kids-with-cameras.org and all the proceeds go to an educational fund for them. Some of these children, destined for a cycle of poverty and prostitution, may escape the fate of their mothers because someone cared.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was well acquainted with the law of unintended consequences that can turn good deeds into bad. But he knew that good can occasionally emerge from the most sordid of situations.
He was raised in Hell's Kitchen without a father, and at 14 shined shoes for pennies on the streets of New York. He believed strongly that children deserve a chance to make something of themselves no matter how life batters them. He would appreciate kids with cameras.
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