CityLit: Screed Is Good

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Any fan of genre literature–true crime, romance, Westerns–knows that there are certain conventions the form must follow. Heroes and villains are easily recognizable; plot twists are rarely worthy of the name; complexity and nuance are nowhere to be found. In recent years, the right-wing attack screed has joined these staples of the drugstore literature rack by offering the same level of predictability and simplicity. The New New Left, by Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute, might lack the raw fury of other right-wing communiqués, but otherwise follows these rules to a T.

Perhaps the nice thing about genre writing is that the author need not spell out, much less defend, his or her core assumptions. Thus Malanga’s certitudes–corporations are good, labor unions are bad, academics are dishonest and vaguely fruity–go entirely unexamined. The result is a loudmouth’s catalog of grudges, long on anecdote and argument but painfully short on quantitative research or serious consideration of the issues.

Malanga’s central premise is that the political paradigm of left versus right is being supplanted by a struggle between “tax eaters” and “taxpayers.” It takes Malanga all of three sentences to sound his alarm: “The vast expansion of the public sector is finally reaching a tipping point, giving tax eaters”–mostly public sector unions and social service agencies–”the upper hand.” This formulation doesn’t seem so much to supplant the left/right worldview as inform it with the Manichean sensibility of right-wing direct-mail efforts. The ensuing demonization of union leaders, community activists, and chroniclers of poverty like Barbara Ehrenreich and David Shipler does little to diminish the effect.

Though his rhetoric occasionally overheats, Malanga isn’t as far gone as some of his compatriots on the right–he never seems on the verge of involuntarily letting out a Coulter-esque bellow of Arbeit Macht Frei! And not all of his critiques are entirely baseless: Union heads like UFT’s Randi Weingarten who fail to balance obligations to their membership with responsibility to the public that pays their salaries deserve a raspberry, as do partisan economists whose research on behalf of Living Wage legislation Malanga skewers as dishonest, inept, or both.

But The New New Left ultimately delivers frustration rather than analysis or even advocacy. Why is it, Malanga seems to wonder, that while the country moves steadily to the right big cities like New York remain proudly liberal? Why is it that even when cities elect nominal Republicans like Mike Bloomberg (whom Malanga transparently loathes), redistributive economic policies, however mild and indirect, persist?

In the hands of a writer with less of an agenda, these questions could yield a fascinating study: Though unions and social service agencies may exert outsized influence on local politics and policymaking, the common insecurities workers face as their real wages stagnate while corporate profits skyrocket could help explain the staying power of big-city liberalism. And the fact that unions and other factions within the progressive coalition are organizing, strategizing and spending to influence elections and policy–just as their longtime business and political rivals have done for decades–might represent a positive step in local politics rather than a grimy thumb on the electoral scales. But such balanced thinking breaks the rules of the genre. Evidently uninterested in these complexities, Malanga tells a disingenuously simple story of “pro-market” white hats battling the bad guys of “warmed-over socialism,” struggling to preserve and expand the wondrous accomplishments of right-wing economic dogma. •

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Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market
By Immanuel Ness; Temple University Press, $19.95
Brooklyn College professor Ness carefully analyzes the path of New York’s new immigrants as they organize for better work conditions and opportunities. Focused on five case studies, including the Lower East Side greengrocer campaign, Ness lifts some his subjects out of the shadows. Most interesting of all, he neatly fits the story into a debate central to the American labor movement: how and when to organize small-scale employees like those at corner stores, rather that just those at large national employers.

The Charter School Dust Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement
By Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard
Rothstein; Economic Policy Institute/ Teachers College Press, $19.95

Few debates around education have been as raucous as those focused on charter schools, the less-regulated classrooms that reformers boost for offering parents a choice. If you’re looking for a guide to the discussion, this comprehensive analysis of studies in 12 states could be of help. Though the authors come down on the side of charter schools’ opponents, arguing that the schools actually hinder student achievement, they give due time to the schools’ proponents too. Though not particularly revelatory, the book manages to avoid education jargon, and clearly offers possible alternatives for improving American education.

Building Gotham: Civic Culture & Public Policy in New York City, 1898-1938
By Keith D. Revell; The Johns Hopkins University Press, $26.95
In this book, winner of a North American Urban History Prize, academic historian Keith Revell takes us to a fledgling New York that was still shaping an identity as a world-renowned city. From the initial stages of combining five adjacent cities into one with five boroughs, Revell charts Gotham’s rise to a major metropolis. As he argues that the city’s ascension was fueled by a vision of expert-led public institutions, Revell makes a compelling–if somewhat dry–case for embracing government’s capacity to solve social problems.

The Great American Job Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation
By Jeff Leroy; Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $24.95
Jeff Leroy, a founder and director of Good Jobs First–a national corporate watchdog group–offers the inside scoop on how companies avoid taxes and other government mandates. With a style as punchy as its title, Job Scam offers 11 ways to change the rules. Though nothing surprising emerges–Leroy’s primary suggestions are to create community benefits agreements and statewide job quality standards–it’s a well-reported text with solid recommendations.

Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side
Edited by Clayton Patterson; Seven Stories Press, $26.95
Told mostly firsthand and through interviews, this story of independent film rebellion reads like an intimate memoir. From filming Allen Ginsberg’s “September on Jessore Road” in one take to the fight to save an original tape documenting the 1988 Tompkins Square police riot, this 568-page tome chronicles the remembrances of activists and artists in one of New York’s most mythic bohemian enclaves. Part political activism, part sexual and gender transgression, each chapter lays out a gritty, underground history of New York City from behind the eye of the camera. •