A lot of people are alarmed by the language Donald Trump, with its emphasis on “taking back our country” and “making America great again.” They evoke the phrases used by ugly, repressive movements throughout history: They have taken over our land and ruined it. We must defeat them and take it back.
Brian Lehrer recently had a great interview with Mark Lilla, a Columbia humanist who’s just written a book on reactionary thinking. Lilla observed that reactionary movements thrive on words like “once” and “again,” evoking past golden ages that were often entirely fictional (Lilla gives the example of Hungarian fascists who imagine a time when their boundaries contained no Jews or Roma) and promising to make them reality in the future.
As I was writing this, I was struck by the realization that these reactionary movements never succeed in bringing about the golden ages they promise. Instead, at best they establish an isolated decline, and at worst they unleash horrific mass murders.
Anyone who knows Trump’s history of racial provocation has not been surprised that his comments appeal to reaction as well. But I’ve been just as disturbed by the rhetoric used by some around recent migrations and developments in cities.
When Andrew Cuomo created a nonprofit organization called “The Committee to Save New York” back in 2011 to provide superficially independent advocacy for his initiatives, it struck me as the messianic delusions of an egomaniac with real power. But Jeremiah Moss’s “SaveNYC” campaign - an outgrowth of his “Vanishing New York” blog, feels like a totally different kind of threat. It feels reactionary.
In his blog Moss bemoans, in inflammatory terms, the loss of small businesses, institutions and landmarks, and the opening of chain stores and trendy spots. If you read it regularly - or if, like Moss, you read the news and walk the streets with an eye for these events - the cumulative weight of all those closings definitely brings a feeling of impending doom. How long before Manhattan looks like the Westchester Galleria?
I have no reason to doubt the individual facts that Moss cites: businesses closing, buildings demolished, chain stores expanding and yes, corruption and inequality. But as with Trump or the other cases Lilla cites, it’s not at all clear that the past was any better, or that the reactions championed by Moss will make the future like the past, or any better at all.
Anyone who knows the history of New York - or human history for that matter - knows that businesses have been closing and buildings being demolished since forever. Many of the beloved businesses bemoaned by Moss and his fans were once the crass new businesses and buildings, taking the place of earlier beloved authentic community businesses and historic buildings, and maybe even longterm residents.
Even chain stores have been in New York for longer than any of the businesses mentioned by Moss. Sure, the chains keep expanding - until they stop. Queens is full of buildings that used to hold Child’ses and Woolworths. They didn’t ruin the city, and neither did Chock Full O’Nuts or Horn and Hardart. Remember when it seemed like Krispy Kreme and Blimpie were going to take over the city?
I’ve never seen any quantitative data to show that the numbers of quirky independent storefronts, soulless corporate chain stores, venerable community institutions, ridiculous hipster playplaces, or beloved family businesses have changed significantly over the years. I also haven’t seen data on the rates at which businesses are opening and closing, and buildings are being demolished.
I suspect that if we had any, it would show that the relative numbers of various kinds of businesses have remained relatively constant over the years, with individual businesses simply moving from despised new invader to community institution over time. I would also guess that the rates of change have been roughly cyclical, without a dramatic increase in turnover in the long term. In other words, what we see here looks less like a response to actual trends and more like the recency effect in action.
Moss also concentrates exclusively on businesses that he sees as providing some unique value. In the Vanishing New York there are no corrupt restaurants, discriminatory boutiques, derivative bodegas or ugly buildings. Nobody goes out of business because they mismanage their finances, provide bad service or sell crappy stuff. Everything must be saved. Nothing must go.
So far this is a simple difference of facts and policy. I think that Moss and his followers are misguided and disagree with their vision of New York. They reciprocate. We each try to convince people to go with our side.
What I find disturbing is when the rhetoric goes beyond factual disagreements into the inflammatory. If we take Moss’s claim that “the soul of New York City is getting murdered” at all seriously, it can only be seen as a call to action. These are drastic times, he is telling us. And drastic times require what?
Similarly, reasonable people can disagree about whether the “Small Business Jobs Survival Act” would actually help any small businesses and their jobs survive (and whether that would actually lead to better lives for people overall). But when the rhetoric goes beyond policy recommendations into scapegoating, that’s not just disturbing but alarming.
Moss has ratcheted up the rhetoric: the hashtag for his SBJSA campaign is #takebackNYC. Who do they want to #takebackNYC from? The claim is that it’s the corrupt real estate developers. I’m not dismissing the undemocratic influence of these business people, but even if there is too much turnover in retail Moss has not made a convincing case that the real estate developers are behind it, or that this bill would do anything to improve the situation.
I’m not really worried for the developers; they can take care of themselves. I’m worried that the idea of “taking back NYC” will spread beyond them. I’ve already covered how the term “gentrification” in general, and Moss’s movement in particular, turn migrants (who often themselves have been displaced by rising rents in other neighborhoods) into the Other, and scapegoat them as the agents of displacement.
One thing I’ve noticed about angry people in political movements is that if they get blocked by opponents who are more powerful, they will often turn their anger on targets that they have a chance of defeating. Thus bus advocates will attack train advocates before they try to defeat road advocates. Pedestrians will attack cyclists instead of drivers. And similarly, I fear that the “take back NYC” crowd will find themselves unable to defeat the corrupt developers and will turn first on the non-corrupt developers, and then on people moving in to the developments.
Think about that the next time you read one of Moss’s jeremiads. When the people he stirs up find themselves unable to Save NYC, or Take Back NYC, what are they going to do? Who are they going to try to take back NYC from?