Welcome to the 1970s! In New York, anyway, one of the decades Tom Wolfe denominated “purple” has made a stunning comeback. Consider crime. After a precipitous decline that began under the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani and continued under Michael Bloomberg, violent crime has soared in the city. From May 2014 to the end of May this year, shootings increased almost 10 per cent while murders jumped a stunning 19.5 per cent during the same period. Meanwhile, Central Park has once again become a haven for thieves and muggers. “Police are investigating another mugging in Central Park,” begins a May 20 story in the New York Post, “the latest in a string of robberies that has residents on edge.”
Ah, the good old days! It used to be that when you drove into New York, you would find yourself besieged after crossing the tunnels or bridges into the city by a phalanx of “squeegee men”, mostly unemployed, mostly black chaps who assail motorists with a spray bottle and window squeegee. You’re stopped at a light and they pounce: squirt, squirt: a soapy film dribbles across your windscreen accompanied by a minatory demand for payment to skim it off. “Squeegee men are back terrorizing NYC streets,” screamed one headline. Over at National Review, Kevin Williamson noted this dubious renaissance and reported on a novel variation:
Squeegee Man is making a comeback, both in his traditional form … and in a new, mutant form: Sunday Hijacker. Sunday Hijacker is cleverer and more cynical than his predecessor, and his modus operandi is to make a scene inside a church during worship until somebody pays him to go away. Screaming, knocking over furnishings, and threatening violence are his shtick.
Wot larks! If you visited New York in the 1970s or 1980s, you’ll remember the hordes of homeless people congregated in doorways and over subway grates? They’re back! In the 1970s, we owed their presence partly to the courtesy of President Carter, who decided, like the new-age psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, that mental illness was a “myth” and that these folks were better off on the city’s streets than burdening the state’s hospital budget. Rudy Giuliani thought differently, and his “broken windows” policing policies help rid New York’s streets of these unfortunate people, just as those policies made quick work of the three-card-monte hucksters, the panhandlers on street corners and subways, the tramps, hustlers, thieves and aspirant muggers that made New York one of the dirtiest and most dangerous cities in America.
What is “broken windows policing”? We owe the phrase to the late James Q. Wilson and George Kelling who wrote a now-classic article for the Atlantic on the subject back in the 1980s. Take care of the small stuff, they argued, fix the broken windows, enforce loitering laws, encourage mannerly behaviour and you will also make a big dent in the big stuff: muggings, rape, burglary and murder. It worked. Over the course of just a few years, Giuliani’s embrace of this approach to civic order transformed life in New York. Police nabbed the menacing turnstile jumpers in subways: guess what? Those folks stopped jumping turnstiles. Police issued citations to the thugs who defaced public buildings with graffiti: mirabile visu, the incidence of such visual pollution plummeted. It was the same with the card-sharpers looking for a mark, the squeegee men, the prowlers in Central Park and elsewhere. Exerting the softer hand of the law not only made calling upon its more coercive resources a less frequent necessity, it also made city life much pleasanter all around.
Warren Wilhelm, Jr, has worked hard to changed all that and bring us back to the 1970s. Who is Mr Wilhelm? You might know him under his assumed name, Bill de Blasio, the socialist mayor of New York. He first changed his name to “Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm”, prefixing his mother’s maiden name to his given surname. In 2002 he dropped Warren and adopted “Bill”. This was a couple of years after he ran Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Possibly he garnered ideas for New York from his fervent support for the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, his tour of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, or from Castro’s Cuba, where he honeymooned with his Black lesbian activist wife Chirlane McCray in 1994.
The centrepiece of Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign in 2013 was a promise to end one of the most effective weapons against violent crime: “stop and frisk”, the practice by the police of stopping, questioning and, in some cases, frisking suspicious characters. De Blasio wanted to end the practice because the overwhelming majority of those stopped and frisked were Black. The reason for this was that the overwhelming majority of suspicious characters that the police encountered were Black, but that reality did not prevent de Blasio from pretending that the practice was inexcusably racist. Former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly warned that “people would suffer” if the prophylactic practice was abandoned. No matter. It was too good an opportunity for a left-wing demagogue to ignore.
One of the first things de Blasio did on assuming office was end “stop and frisk”. Result: an almost instant rise in crime, especially in those neighbourhoods that de Blasio pretends to be most concerned about: poor, predominantly Black neighbourhoods where police presence and activity had made the streets safer. In May, four people were shot and killed in just a few hours one weekend.
The astonishing rise in violent crime and unmannerly behaviour is not the only way in which New York (and not only New York) seems to have regressed to the 1970s. There is also the flirtation with radical left-wing politics and diatribes against the evils of capitalism, “inequality” and the rest. Bill de Blasio is a poster child for that phenomenon, too.
And then there is the matter of sexual extravagance, though here it is necessary to invoke one of the few witty observations made by de Blasio’s hero Karl Marx. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx alluded to Hegel’s idea that history repeats itself. “He forgot to add,” Marx wrote, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called sexual revolution proceeded under the aegis of such gurus as the Freudian-Marxist Herbert Marcuse, whose Eros and Civilization promised that utopia could be achieved by emancipating ourselves from the thrall of “procreative sexuality” and embracing the “primary narcissism” of “polymorphous perversity”.
What followed was silly enough, and far more destructive of human happiness than has been generally acknowledged, but it seems positively tame by the latest efflorescence of satyriasis. “‘Sexual liberation’,” Irving Kristol wrote in 1994, “is always near the top of a countercultural agenda—though just what form the liberation takes can and does vary, sometimes quite widely.” And how. The author of the Book of Genesis proclaimed that “male and female created He them”. But that was before the craze for transsexuality took hold. (Just how recent it has been is suggested by my word processor’s spell-check, which flags the word. Check back in a couple of years.)
President Obama made history when he spoke up for transsexuals in his State of the Union address this winter. The New York Times, always a reliable barometer of radical chic attitudes, blustered into the debate in May with a long and extraordinary editorial called “The Quest for Transgender Equality”. “Being transgender today,” the Times intoned, “remains unreasonably and unnecessarily hard. But it is far from hopeless.” For one thing, “President Obama has advanced transgender rights more than any American president.” But there is so much work to do! The military, can you believe it, “continues to ban openly transgender people from joining the military”.
Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of the pioneers of sex-change surgery back in the early 1970s. They no longer offer the “service”. Why? Because, as Dr Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins explained in First Things, so many of those who underwent the maiming procedure emerged with the same or aggravated psychological problems that prompted them to undergo the surgery in the first place. Johns Hopkins, McHugh concluded, was not helping people but was “fundamentally co-operating with a mental illness”. The Hippocratic Oath has at its centre the imperative, “First do no harm.”
Many other American hospitals followed Johns Hopkins’s lead and abandoned so-called sex-change surgery, but not all. And at many foreign hospitals, it’s Cole Porter time: anything goes. Thailand, McHugh reports, boasts several centres that do the surgery “for anyone with the money to pay for it and the means to travel to Thailand”. It’s not only exotic places like Thailand where such barbaric practices occur, McHugh notes:
Some surgeons and medical centers can be persuaded to carry out almost any kind of surgery when pressed by patients with sexual deviations, especially if those patients find a psychiatrist to vouch for them. The most astonishing example is the surgeon in England who is prepared to amputate the legs of patients who claim to find sexual excitement in gazing at and exhibiting stumps of amputated legs.
These are not things the Times mentioned in its editorial arguing that the phenomenon of transsexuality was the next great civil rights cause. (Will they ever come to the bottom of that barrel?) Dr McHugh offers a more sober, and ultimately more compassionate, analysis:
We have wasted scientific and technical resources and damaged our professional credibility by collaborating with madness rather than trying to study, cure, and ultimately prevent it.
Dr McHugh wrote his essay in 2004. His commonsense wisdom has been capsized by events. New York is home to abundant transgender hysteria. But the intoxication is widespread, especially wherever elite opinion reigns. Colleges and universities, of course, have embraced the perversity with open arms. This winter, for example, an elite liberal arts college for women called Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania disseminated this official bulletin from its Board of Trustees regarding their new “inclusive” admissions policies:
After months of study and consultation, the Board of Trustees of Bryn Mawr College voted at its Feb. 7 meeting to accept the recommendation of its board working group charged with reviewing the College’s mission with regard to transgender, non-binary and gender nonconforming applicants. Specifically, the board-accepted recommendation … more clearly articulates the eligible undergraduate applicant pool. In addition to those applicants who were assigned female at birth [!], the applicant pool will be inclusive of transwomen and of intersex individuals who live and identify as women at the time of application. Intersex individuals who do not identify as male are also eligible for admission. Those assigned female at birth who have taken medical or legal steps to identify as male are not eligible for admission.
In cases where an applicant’s gender identity is not clearly reflected in their application materials, the College may request additional information, which could include verifiable legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender. In evaluating such additional information, the College fully intends to be as flexible and inclusive as possible.
Tuition, room and board at Bryn Mawr is US$60,880, not including some incidental expenses. Such fees—wholly typical at elite American colleges these days—are themselves a species of insanity. (New York University is $66,000 per annum, Columbia University $63,440: a steal!)
As with many socialists, the redistributive impulses of the de Blasios seem to taper off sharply when it comes to their own progeny. Young Dante de Blasio will be attending Yale College next year (cost: $63,940). Doubtless he will find many professors to help him hone his Marxist credentials and cultivate his sense of personal grievance. A more appropriate response, I think, was uttered by Miranda in The Tempest: “O brave new world, / That has such people in’t!”
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of the New Criterion and Publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St Augustine’s Press). He will be contributing his New York letter to Quadrant regularly.