Empire State of Mind

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.

–Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

It started with a baseball team, but it came to mean much more than that. New York has always held a special allure for me, a certainty that the universe revolved loosely around a constellation of stars somewhere between the World Trade Center and Times Square and Central Park and a ballpark at 161st Street in the Bronx. For my entire adult life, I have read a New York newspaper daily and a New York magazine weekly; the tales of some of the figures most dear to me, from Gatsby all the way down to my own scribbled notes, try to find their way through it. New York is a cultural touchstone with an infinite ability to attract the best and bring out the fullest, often flawed but always possessed of an undying allure.

Labor Day weekend of 2021 is a curious time to visit New York. I arrive amid an ongoing pandemic that has ravaged this city harder than most. As I take the train in from the Newark airport, floodwaters from the freak remains of Hurricane Ida loiter on New Jersey roads, the planes and trains that fuel the beast cut off until the day before my arrival. A somber mood lingers at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers, and in the immediate aftermath of the end(?) of the 9/11 Era’s misbegotten wars. When I pop out of Penn Station, the streets seem almost sedate. Where’s that frenetic, addicting pace I remember from the past?

And yet this is the perfect time to head to the center of the American imperium. I’ve kept up an aggressive travel pace over this past year and a half, but these journeys have been solitary, or at least involved trips with other people into natural solitude. I am hungry for a trip in and among people, raring to once again sample the full range of humanity, to stride down famed streets and pay homage at some of its shrines. My host and I will fill every moment of my 70 hours in New York, put on double-digit miles in less-than-ideal shoes, drink it all in as I know we can.

That host is Andrew, my Georgetown friend and Minneapolis roommate currently wrapping up a one-year stint as a New Yorker. He has temporary lodging in Carroll Gardens, which sits a few neighborhoods south of the Brooklyn Bridge. This is my first time exploring Brooklyn, an urbanist’s feverish fantasy made real. It is a step below Manhattan overload, with dense, historic homes, many carved up into smaller units that nonetheless still feel like familiar neighborhoods. Shops and restaurants sprout up on corners, all within walking distance, and narrow streets dotted with new outdoor seating and bike lanes calm the traffic and make it easy to cycle or scoot around the borough. Here are some Caribbean neighborhoods, there historically black Bedford-Stuyvesant, Russians down on the south end, the liberal elite doing their things in Park Slope, Italians living out that New York stereotype from a different area; no matter the business, Latin music is probably pumping out of it, because the Hispanics are everywhere too. Free-range children make the streets their own, and give it an urban life that one cannot find in adult playground cities like San Francisco. After time in New York, several friends observe, the streets anywhere else feel dead.

Andrew and I take on New York in full: bagels for breakfast and pizza for one dinner, staying out later than our 30-year-old bodies would normally allow. The first night takes us to a Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant, where the molé and the accompanying mezcal flight brings about a bliss powerful enough to overcome the stench of the Gowanus Canal. On the second, after the pizza, we head out on the town in Williamsburg: a lucky seat at the Four Horsemen and a sample from its famed for its natural wine list, and a nightcap at a German beer hall. We are old by Billyburg standards, but we can still make our way among the cool kids. On our final night we traverse the borough by foot, from Carroll Gardens straight over to our final stops in Bed-Stuy, with Park Slope and Prospect Park to distract us on the way. This is the only way to travel, no moment wasted, no chance to observe left unused.

As my credit card bill from the weekend can attest, New York is a city of extremes, and nowhere in America is insane wealth more ubiquitous. On a first day stroll up to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and into Dumbo, I ask about the helicopters shooting up and down the East River. Upon learning that they are mostly rich people shuttling back and forth between the city and their places in the Hamptons, I suddenly understand why people here vote for Bernie Sanders. Prior to the Yankee game, we take a Labor Day walk up a quiet Wall Street. Twenty years after terrorists targeted it, downtown Manhattan remains the financial capital of the world. The only real damage to American supremacy has been self-inflicted.

This School of Foreign Service graduate has stopped and started three blog posts on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the twenty years of war that have now come to an ignominious close. Everything about it strikes me as a tale of hubris and decline, and the 2000s now look like a disastrous diversion that may shift the center of the world away from this great city and toward some rather less friendly place. But yet here is New York, still marching along, its power for good or ill only consolidated since terrorists tried to stab at its heart in 2001. The same can be said for its pandemic resilience: yes, there have been losses, some of them great, but the data already belie any tale of collapse. I also find New York’s Covid era policies, with regular vaccine card requirements for entry but mask mandates only in crowded indoor spaces, the best-adjusted to reality of any I’ve encountered in my travels. New Yorkers are in the game to crush the virus and get back to living as they prefer, not to lurch along in fear or accommodation of it.

For those of us for whom private helicopters are not an option, a series of ferries offer one of the more fun ways to drink in that New York life. They cruise up and down the East and Hudson Rivers at a surprising speed, with added routes around to the south side of Brooklyn and one even striking out boldly toward the promised land of Staten Island. Ferry passengers get new perspectives up at iconic bridges and across at skylines, an ongoing immersion that is hard to find when reliant on the subway. When my dad and I visited here on a college tour, he likened that experience to that of a gopher popping in and out of holes. A few rickety rides between these old tiled platforms quickly form strong opinions: the F is painfully slow, the 6 regularly ghosts, and the 4 is speedy but an eternal mystery over where it will actually stop. New York both exacerbates the wealth gap and then flattens it, subjects all but a select few to the same crowded platforms and scheduled maintenance delays.

The pandemic and the floods shed new light on a city fraying some at the edges, duct taped together in an effort to keep century-old infrastructure running, threatening to lurch toward a new status quo where nothing is fixable or ever on time. Except on rare occasions, the difference between third- and first-world cities is not so much in any immediately visible levels of chaos, but instead in the belief in the systems behind it all. If resignation reigns, if people expect that everything will run poorly and nothing will get better, well, they are probably right. New York teeters on the edge at times, but most people still nurse higher expectations against all odds. Things may yet get better, the eternal promise of the liberal, progress-oriented mind. And when they do go awry, New Yorkers have a talent for handling these situations in a way that we Minnesotans will not: just yell loudly.

This attitude is on display at Yankee Stadium on Labor Day. The Bronx Bombers, fighting to maintain a playoff spot, blunder their way through an anemic and error-filled performance, while the pitching serves up four home runs in an 8-0 loss to Toronto. Even in a game with nothing to cheer, spontaneous chants erupt all around our section at least once an inning. This is no Target Field picnic in Minneapolis: everyone is engaged, knows the players and their flaws. They offer up goofy random remarks and the continued graphic serenades of Houston Astro José Altúve that have been a staple of every game since his one and only visit this season back in May, that scumbag cheater. (Forgive me if my biases are showing.) After a scrub pitcher gives up a grand slam in the ninth and makes the game a laugher, the crowd fully turns, the boobirds out in full force. Ah well; at least it was a beautiful day for a ballgame.

The Yankees may look moribund, but they will be back thanks to New York’s saving grace: an eternal hope for reinvention. I find one such sign in Moynihan Train Hall, a sparkling new Beaux-Arts facility that combines a grand new atrium with an old post office to hearken back to the late, great original Penn Station, an inspiring reminder that iconic public infrastructure really is still possible. A second comes on Little Island, New York’s newest burst of civic fascination, an art installation as a public park that invites senseless serendipitous wandering, both casual and immersive, depending on one’s mood. Its nearby forerunner is the High Line, a repurposed promenade along an elevated train line that is now thick with plant life growing up out of the concrete. These living parks blend New York’s brutal monumentality with a resurgence of nature, a sense of what a rebirth from ruin can be. Progress, however, comes in fits and starts: at the end of the High Line is Hudson Yards, a new, gleaming, soulless and inconvenient behemoth for rich corporations and luxury shopping. I would call it a billionaires’ playground, but if this is how billionaires have fun, the status may not be worth the hype.

I recover from any lingering annoyance at ugly developments with a stroll up Central Park East to the Met. The art museum first captured my imagination as a kid when I read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but this is the first time I’ve set foot in America’s largest art museum. Alas, I fear hiding away in the Met is now much harder than it was when the book was published in the 60s, which is a shame, because I would gladly do so and spend a few nights here. Two and a half hours with no agenda lead me to wander from Greek and Roman art to Middle Eastern carpets, from French impressionists to halls of sculptures, through European period rooms past arms and armor to the Temple of Dendur (closed for construction) and some of the Egyptian rooms. I’ve only scratched the surface of this collection, that New York centralizing force at its absolute finest.

New York’s greatest works of art, however, may come in its human tapestry, and I am here to wrap myself in that urban fabric I have missed so dearly. Dozens of Instagrammers on the same street in Dumbo, rows of families grilling along the Brooklyn Heights waterfront, an urban motorcycle gang by Prospect Park, and the J’Ouvert festival of Caribbean pride livening up the streets of Crown Heights. A reality show casting event in Hudson Yards (a fitting locale); old Upper East Side dames with their marvelous accents and gaudy glasses and batty clothes. Kids attack the streets narrow of Brooklyn on bikes and skateboards with more confidence than I could muster on an empty six-lane highway. An earnestly cool young couple buried in some newspaper tarred in leftist slogans, a man straight out of hipster central casting reading a DIY book, the guy at the next table at the wine bar rattling on about his tasting journeys. A lone young artist on a bench in the Met, the outside world tuned out, deep in a sketch of a Roman statue. A towering Black man in drag getting handsy with his travel companion, a rowdy extended family of grumbling Yankee fans, the lady behind the bar whose small talk gives a single boy a little flutter. “She’s holding an ice cream cone!” a four-year-old proclaims upon his first viewing of the Statue of Liberty from the airplane window. Here, perhaps, is a true symbol of freedom.

After a rush of New York experiences on the first two nights, my final one is all about people: college-era friends who have settled into very different lives in the American capital to drink it up. First, Andrew and I do a vegan dinner with Eileen in Crown Heights, and later we get drinks with my old roommate Phil in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he and Jess, another fellow Hoya, have just bought a brownstone and begun to nest. We catch up and get takes on pandemic life in New York, on Brooklyn neighborhoods, on how to get around the city, on the life stages we’ve entered now that we’re nearly ten years out of college. All the pieces are back in place, and maybe nothing has changed since we went out in Georgetown and wandered the cobblestones and stumbled back to the house on R Street, fully in the thralls of our fortunate lives.

Time, however, does not let us stay in these nostalgia trips, and in all of us I detect a new level of self-assurance, a deeper knowledge of who we are. My friends all live out some version of that New York pursuit. Eileen navigates life changes with an aplomb I could not muster, while Phil and Jess start to put down roots; Andrew, for his part, is very ready to say Goodbye to All That. I am sympathetic to his exhaustion with the uglier side of New York, and eager to visit him as he moves back to our old haunts in DC. There are a thousand eminently rational reasons for why New York is not my path, and I do not regret that life has not led me to pursue a Manhattan apartment or a Brooklyn brownstone or weekend choices between Nantucket or the Hamptons.

And yet the pull is just as strong as it was since I came here as a 16-year-old, just as fresh and intoxicating as it looked to teenage eyes, spared Joan Didion’s cynical and discerning eye because that distant ideal is probably all it will ever be. It is still the imperial capital, the height of the civilization I live in, and emblematic of all its glories and its horrors, humanity’s promise and belief in new beginnings tied up in its troubles and threats and the unavoidable insularity that comes when like-minded people cluster together in one place. I do not live in it, but I need it to set the standard I use to measure everything else. Ever upward.

Dead Greek People V: Living in the Shadow of Empire

I kicked off this detour into Dead Greek People after attending a Peace and Justice Series talk at the College of St. Scholastica, so it’s only fitting that I wrap it up (for now, anyway) after another talk. Last night, Duluth was treated to Andrew Bacevich, a scholar noted for his attacks on “American exceptionalism” and U.S. military policy in recent decades. He trashed U.S. military strategy from Vietnam to Iraq, and quoted Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech with approval—the one in which Carter committed political suicide by telling Americans to stop using so much energy and be less materialistic and instead turn down their heat.

So Bacevich must be a flaming lefty, right? Well, no: he self-identifies as a conservative. (To understand why, I highly recommend this article.) Obviously, he isn’t the sort of conservative who would’ve been very popular among other self-identified conservatives in the Bush Administration, and one could argue that, if “conservatism” is something both Bacevich and Ayn Rand lovers would claim, the word has been stripped of all meaning. To get away from this confusing word, we might say that Bacevich’s platform has a whiff of Aristotle about it. (Indeed, he’s a Catholic, and a lot of intellectual Catholics are closet Aristotelians, thanks to the work of Thomas Aquinas.)

The problem is that it’s well-near impossible to apply Aristotle to a modern country, because his ideas—on the definition of freedom, on citizenship, on economics, on the importance of virtue—just don’t compute for most of us moderns. Just look at the comments from the readers on the Bacevich article, some of which are quite intelligent: some people try to cram contemporary politicians into his worldview; some are inclined to agree with some or even most of his ideas, but have one or two disputes that make them skeptical; and some are all on board but have no hope for actually seeing these ideas come to fruition in modern American politics. It is something foreign; something weird. To understand this, and to find the way out of the problem, let’s go back to Athens.

When we last left our Dead Greek People, things weren’t looking terribly good for Athens. The Spartans had won the Peloponnesian War around 400 B.C., leaving Athens seriously weakened. Sparta was the leading power for the next few decades, though Thebes eventually knocked them off, and after that no one really ran the place. Even so, Athens thrived despite its lack of military power. Plato and Aristotle founded their schools, the democracy largely remained intact, and Athens was still the cultural capital of the world.

By the 330s B.C., all this intrigue among Greek city-states wouldn’t matter all that much, either. Alexander the Great came down from Macedon, gathered all his Greek brethren, and set off on a campaign across Asia. The age of city-states was over, and the age of empires had begun. But even when Alexander’s empire fragmented after his death, the Greek influence endured. Athenian thought caught on from far western Europe to India, most importantly in Alexandria, Egypt, where they built a pretty big library to preserve all those ideas. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages after the Romans collapsed, Africa and the Middle East picked up the burden, and Greek philosophy was eventually re-introduced into Europe by conquering Muslims. If it weren’t for Alexander’s imperial ambitions, we probably wouldn’t know the first thing about Plato or Aristotle today.

Even if Alexander was good for the preservation of Greek thought in the long run, he was rather a problem at the time. Up until that point, political philosophy hadn’t thought much about empires, quite rationally pointing out that they were far too big to control. Some of the Tragedies, and historians like Thucydides, made this all too clear. Plato’s Republic imagines the perfect city, not the perfect empire; similarly, Aristotle’s political philosophy takes the community as its base unit, and his entire understanding of human nature comes out of human interaction within those communities. Neither are of much use in explaining life under the new imperial order; what’s worse, Aristotle actively helped bring about the demise of the old world by teaching and encouraging Alexander, and realized his mistake a bit too late. (There are claims that he became involved in a plot to kill Alexander so as to end the madness, though they are unsubstantiated.)

Aristotle

Aristotle teaches Alexander

Massive land empires, you see, are far too large to function as happy little communities in which everyone plays a role. They’re run by powerful people in some distant capital, and while it might be possible to work one’s way into power, the odds aren’t very good. A few groups within the empire will likely take up arms or use other means to protect their more particular identities, but this can be exhausting, and might incur the wrath of the imperial armed forces. Instead, most people become resigned to the fact that they lived in a system beyond their control, and try to carve out the happiest existence they can manage. This brings us to our last Dead Greek Person, Epicurus, who came of age just as Alexander died.

Epicurus, jaded by the political strife all about him, had a very different approach to political philosophy than his Greek predecessors. He had no vision of the ideal state like Plato, nor did he put much stock in an active citizenry living in community, as Aristotle might. He simply counseled that his followers retreat from those grandiose and often toxic affairs, and said the only things that mattered were individuals’ abilities to avoid pain and anxiety. He didn’t have much use for the gods, though if they made people feel better about themselves, good for them. He is technically a hedonist, but he took a very long view of what involves “pleasure,” and therefore wouldn’t counsel people to follow any old desire just because it made them feel good; they had to find pleasure in things they wouldn’t come to regret later on. Epicurus cautioned against falling too far in love: after all, that can cause a lot of pain. He didn’t let gender or class restrict who he welcomed into his school, which he named The Garden.

Epicurus’s ideas have been incredibly durable. His suggestion that people seek happy lives outside the political sphere would prove highly useful for many subjects of the Alexandrine and Roman Empires, and also in many of the feudal and imperial states that came afterward. John Locke, who was probably the most important philosopher for the founders of the United States, thought quite highly of him. His notions of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain were taken up by utilitarians centuries later, and might be seen as the foundation of modern economic theory. One could easily argue that most people are, and perhaps always have been, far more Epicurean than anything else: they care far more about the things that make them feel good or bad than any grandiose political affairs, and they only get whipped up into a political frenzy when someone or something threatens their comfort.

The obvious problem here is that it can be very hard to know how much pleasure or pain certain actions will cause in the long run. Even more problematic, in my opinion, is Epicureanism’s rather dismissive take on human ambition. There is a danger of it wandering over into Stoicism, which again can be a practical approach in some situations, but tries to suppress those ambitious and aspirational urges and make them go away. It can lend itself to defeatism even more than Aristotle’s acceptance of the world as it is, and when people encounter obstacles, it often tells them to simply desire less. It’s practical advice in many ways, but if it’s too puritan, it won’t work for long. Repressed urges tend to erupt in time, often in ugly ways, and shunting those impulses aside and making them taboo doesn’t quite work. They need healthy outlets. This was Aristotle’s approach: acknowledging those animal drives, and channeling them into something good. He was right to see human interaction as some form of politics, even if many people don’t like that fact.

Epicurus’s value, then, isn’t as a guide toward some utopia where we all forget about politics and live happy little lives. Instead, he grounds us, and reminds us that any ambitions we might have beyond tending our own little gardens have to remember where we all come from. Epicurus was no rebel; he simply had a much better grasp of reality than many of his politically-obsessed contemporaries. This is why Bacevich’s ideas don’t jive with our idea of modern politics: despite claiming to be prudent, they’re not something that we can bring about by electing one or two good leaders.

To his credit, Bacevich acknowledged this in his talk. He had a rather pessimistic view of modern politics, and quite rightly suggested that we tone down our expectations for it, and be glad that one or two individuals can’t change it too easily. Instead of building the ideal city or state from the top down, via a national party or some effort to change Washington, it has to start from the bottom up. (Just ask Jimmy Carter.) If we want a world that believes in a human scale instead of being forced to make do with the empires (literal or figurative) we’re stuck with, we need to start at home, and live it in our daily lives. Instead of focusing on the vagaries of politics beyond our reach, we need to change the things we have the ability to change, and closely guard things we think ought to be preserved. For all their differences, that is the enduring lesson of all the Dead Greek People: that human life is grounded in community, and everything else must follow from there. With that as our starting point, we need not be so pessimistic. In that realm, we really can make a difference.

Here’s a related post on Aristotle’s demons to round out this series.

Picture of Alexander and Aristotle from http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage.php?Dir=characters&FileName=aristotle.php. Picture of Epicurus from http://newepicurean.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Epicurus-sculpture-crop.jpg