Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2004/ 6 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
Radical chic and the hip hustle
NEW YORK CITY New York City showers big bucks on John Kerry. Stephen Sondheim, the composer of brilliant musicals, posted a $5,000 cover charge on his fund-raiser for the Democratic nominee. He used an apartment - by coincidence, surely - once owned by Leonard Bernstein, another brilliant music man whose infamous '60s fund-raiser for the Black Panthers exposed the acute naivete that inspired the term "radical chic."
What is it about showbiz people who have artistic savvy in abundance but who can't think straight about politics? Maybe it's because New York is about arts and entertainment and the artists and entertainers try to overcompensate when they realize that they're outsiders who don't know beans about how politics is practiced in the nation's capital.
They have no understanding of strategy nor sensitivity for tactics, and their politics is about self-aggrandizing. Show business creates celebrity conformists who take their cues from liberals who have been out of the power game for most of the past three decades.
The New York City they inhabit buzzes with prosperity and creativity, but all they do is whine and complain about how awful things are in America. As if they would know. And it isn't as if they aspire to spread their own wealth. They rarely get out of their celebrity covens, where aides and lackeys jump to assuage every wish to see how other people live.
The president has been true to the words he spoke when he stood on the smoldering rubble at Ground Zero and promised to punish the terrorists who destroyed thousands of lives. Three days after 9/11, he took a bullhorn in his hand, draped his arm around the shoulder of a fireman and told the crowd that "the nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey." The crowd that responded with chants of "USA, USA, USA," spoke for all of us.
But the spirit of that remarkable day has vanished. Bush-bashing is back with a vengeance. The men and women a visitor meets in Manhattan assume that everyone agrees with them, and that red states are populated only by bumpkins. They can't understand how the polls can possibly tilt toward the president. Young men and women who talk as if they know better buy their fashionable clothes in shops stocked with goods made in foreign countries by cheap labor, and rail against the "outsourcing" that makes such bargains possible.
The hottest of the hot buttons on the body politic of the New York liberal is George W.'s faith. Ron Suskind, writing in the New York Times Sunday magazine, leads with a quotation comparing the president's mainstream Methodist faith with that of the Islamist fundamentalists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center. A disenchanted Republican was found to make the thematic point that "traditional Republicans" are scared out of their minds that the president thinks he's Moses, ready to separate the Red Sea and drown the terrorist enemy.
"This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about al-Qaida and the fundamentalist enemy," says Bruce Bartlett, a refugee from the first Bush presidency who describes himself as a libertarian Republican. "He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded because they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them because he's just like them."
The skeptics who complain about the president's faith are people of faith, too - but usually faith in real estate, from the snazzy lofts in SoHo to the gentrified Upper West Side condos with monthly fees that could dent the federal deficit. But there's another New York made up of immigrants, especially Latinos and Asians, who exude energy and hustle (and often faith much like the president's).
When a young man I know bought a television set at 7 on Saturday night, he asked if it could be delivered immediately. He lived 10 blocks away, but up five floors in a building without an elevator. If he could pay cash, the clerk knew two enterprising Latinos who would pick up and deliver for $60. When the young man arrived at his apartment a half-hour later, the young men were waiting at the door with the TV set.
Two grocery stores on the street below are owned by Koreans, open around the clock, with fresh vegetables, flowers and nearly everything else. They're friendly and chatty as though they've taken a course at a reputable charm school. Indians across the street serve kosher and vegan, and don't see anything weird in faith, by a president or anyone else. What a city. What a country.
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