Xenophobia. Unfunded entitlements. Anti-immigrant zeal. More retirees than workers. Crumbling infrastructure. Failing schools. Threats to burn books.
Taken together, our national ailments have shaken my belief in a Country of Cities. I have argued on these pages that density and infrastructure, and the diverse ecology they engender, can lead us out of this recession to a greener, leaner nation. Yet how can we ask the nation to emulate our model of life in New York if we abandon inclusiveness, the most fundamental ecological strength that binds us together as a city? If the majority of New Yorkers oppose religious freedom and private property rights, as the recent New York Times poll regarding the proposed downtown Islamic cultural center startlingly uncovered, how can I dare propose that our way of life lead the nation out of this malaise?
None of the ailments above describe the aspirations of post-war New York. Having avoided the tribalism that had twice set Europe ablaze, we were looked to by most of the world as the model that had created unrivaled opportunities to become middle class, the model that sought freedom of speech and civil rights, and the model that had paved an open path for striving immigrants. Mad Men Manhattan was by no means perfect, but it aspired towards a brave new world of meritocracy. By contrast, India — the country my parents left in 1968 with $32, two graduate degrees, and two toddlers — was defined by searing religious strife and protectionist economic policies that impoverished millions for decades, only to emerge today as a secular democracy that in many ways mirrors imperfect post-war America in its tolerance, entrepreneurialism and ambition.
What a difference a half century makes. While sea levels are surely rising, the Atlantic seems to simultaneously be shrinking as our society perilously closes the gap between the United States and the most venal tendencies of 1930s Europe.
Never in this country could I imagine the outright racism now being directed at Muslims. For those who claim the issue of the cultural center is one of sensitivity, not racism, I offer the following question: If a radical “pro-lifer” blew up an abortion clinic, crazily killing innocents in the name of a Christian god, would there be protests if years later a Christian community center was proposed nearby? To the contrary, it would be seen as an act of healing. The religious intolerance at the root of this double standard is clear, and is made all the more so as mosques and Muslims nationwide are attacked regardless of their proximity to ground zero. Also clear is the Republican double standard, in which private property rights and local control are held sacrosanct until the local, private decision offends the tyranny of their own majority.
Never in this country could I imagine the new Arizona immigration law. In 1968 my family moved from Calcutta to Tucson, where my father taught chemistry and conducted cataract research. We didn’t carry our passports. My beautiful brown children, however, will not visit the Grand Canyon, will not see the ramshackle house their grandparents were welcomed to by their neighbors, will not experience the open sky of that American west, because my children too will not travel in their own country while carrying passports.
Never in this country could I imagine the decline of the educational system — the very system for which my parents remained in the US — to the point that half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 can’t find New York on an unlabeled world map. And as the Times poll on the cultural center also revealed, opposition to the center increased as education levels decreased. When Democrats in the NY Legislature block charter school seats desperately sought after by parents in Harlem, when seniority beats meritocracy in the union ranks, when bad teachers are shuffled around like fallen priests, is there any wonder as to the roots of our educational decline?
Never in this country could I imagine the comparative disadvantage of our infrastructure to the point where China has the world’s fastest passenger train, New Delhi runs all of its buses and taxis on compressed natural gas, Hong Kong connects its airport to its downtown via express train, and Brazil is the world’s leading biofuel producer. How can we better understand our cultural differences if we continually privilege the cultural isolation of cars and single-family homes over the infrastructure that binds us as one society? Yet with every last discretionary tax dollar propping up either wasteful entitlements or wasteful defense spending, can we hope to muster the support for retiring all of the Bush tax cuts in 2012 as Peter Orszag, Obama’s former Budget Director, has rightly proposed? Even the most liberal-minded must question whether the unaffordable tax cuts — which virtually every economist agrees do not pay for themselves — could be repealed when we know in our guts that the increased government revenue in the hands of our Congress would not fund deficit reduction nor would it fund the hundreds of billions needed for investments in clean infrastructure and green energy. To be sure, the President should be applauded for his recent proposal, backed by Governors Schwarzenegger and Rendell as well as Mayor Bloomberg, for a $50 billion National Infrastructure Bank. But with national high speed rail alone projected to cost multiples of this, it is disappointing that this much-touted campaign proposal was withheld from the original $787 billion stimulus package. Instead, the “stimulus” crafted by Congressional Democrats essentially propped up bloated local budgets rather than creating good jobs for today and smart infrastructure for tomorrow.
Aspiration was the centerpiece of the tumultuous America my parents envisioned as they boarded their flight in 1968. Separated by money, culture and age from the largely comfortable angst of baby boomer protests, my parents nonetheless understood that the liberal values of tolerance and equity were convergent with the conservative values of entrepreneurialism and investment. For all immigrants regardless of race or religion, these combined values equated to opportunity, to the chance, but not the promise, that their children may just lead better lives.
As a city and a country, to what do we aspire now? Perhaps New York, rallied by Michael Bloomberg, the only leader in America who has spoken clearly and righteously on these issues, can still lead our nation towards our own stated values. After all, the Times poll also indicated that support for the cultural center increased with density, perhaps proof that proximity leads to understanding.
Other than Native Americans, our families all came to this country, in large measure through the harbor of New York City, to escape the oppressions of their homelands, whether it was religious persecution or taxation without representation. Whatever ailments plagued their countries of origin — whether it was England or Italy, India or Iran — they carried with them the aspiration that those problems would never darken our shores. Now, as these ailments attempt to redefine who we are as a nation, we must declare, we must demand, never in this country.