The image of long, tall Big Bill de Blasio in front of New York’s City Hall last week, lined up with his somewhat surprising family on his very first day in office, was striking.
I’m not speaking only of how the four members of the nuclear family — father Bill, mother Chirlane, children Dante and Chiara — appear on the surface. More important, far more interesting, is what de Blasio’s mayoralty represents for urban liberalism — often pilloried as simplistic and naive.
In this new mayor, that at-a-crossroads stereotype either will be reaffirmed or will be decisively bucked.
When a dog is infected with rabies and loses its mind, the approaching owner is bitten first. That’s a metaphor for the foaming mouth in our politics. It’s a constant interplay of action and reaction, from people on one fringe and then the other. We witness the reverberations of wounds from unfairness, deception and injustice — intended and accidental.
That’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to start fresh without seeming to be a reaction to what came immediately before. Or truly took place long ago.
We have a long history of being sold out by those who, like de Blasio, call themselves “progressives.” That word is a successor of the label “liberal,” which itself, thanks in no small part to Ronald Reagan, was used as an insult for many years. Those who called themselves the L-word were supposed to loose leeches on the public, sucking taxpayers dry.
Reagan was, of course, not correct; Bill Clinton was a far more responsible steward of the public purse than his Republican predecessors. But that does not mean that left-wing populism is the answer to all of our nation’s problems. It still is infected with plenty of viruses of its own.
Chief among them: the easy and unfair way it seeks to turn often well-intentioned opponents into racists, sexists, classists, xenophobes — you name it.
In “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” the great history by C. Vann Woodward, we learn that populism began with a broad and detailed interest in both black and white workers, an American sense of democratic life that transcended the distinctions of color, religion, national origin and erroneous genetic differences.
It didn’t stay that way.
Populism wanted to organize at high speed, so, in the South at least, it sold out quickly. By 1937, “Black Legion,” a Warner Brothers melodrama starring Humphrey Bogart, effectively revealed its potential vileness. White workers, jealous of immigrant success, are exploited and misused. They are determined to pout, get drunk and follow the orders given by a thuggish group that leads them to beat, abuse and even murder their competitors.
Having seen so many occasions when accusations of racism, sexism, police brutality and the like are wielded cynically by hustlers on the left, it is impossible to be seduced too easily by the promise of de Blasio.
That said, he seems shrewd enough to sidestep the cliched visions of lock step Democrats. He has left-wing beliefs, yes, but there’s ample reason to hope he also has a political tactician’s appreciation of on-the-ground reality.
Let’s hope he understands what are, as he put it in his inaugural speech, “a city government’s first responsibilities”: public safety, clean streets, decent transportation. Let’s hope he knows that easy liberal rhetoric and repeating the word “progressive” are no substitute, in the end, for making real change in real lives — especially the lives of young people who are, by the thousands, still being denied decent educations.
In this city and in this country, we are constantly learning how things actually work and for whom they work. Keep the faith, but be sure it is not blind. One might see the three speakers allowed by the new mayor to the podium as no more than examples of a new minstrelsy in which all talk about a plantation has nothing to do with New York history but a lot to do with empty histrionics. That is all inaugural listeners heard from the Rev. Fred Lucas Jr., Letitia James and Ramya Ramana, a chaplain, a public advocate and a supposed poet. Well, the black community has been hustled, disgraced and disappointed enough to believe accurate statement of troubles need not be made. Just the pretense of anger will do; it never does.
Even so, I am almost positive Bill de Blasio is aware of how much he can do for this city. I am almost certain he is prepared to be a leader and not an easy, empty populist. The shape of policy is very different from rhetorical hot air. One can be seen; the other cannot.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.