Commentary Magazine

Fun City

To the Editor:

In his review of my recent book on New York, Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis [Books in Review, May], Jules Cohn asserts that I uncritically adopt the outlook of those who claim to be reformers, ignoring the problems with such “reforms” as Mayor Lindsay’s plan to decentralize the city’s school system. This misrepresents the argument of my book. One of its central themes, to the contrary, is that the views of self-styled reformers cannot be taken at face value. The phrases Mr. Cohn quotes to make his case are drawn from my description of the way various reformers regard themselves; they do not reflect my own understanding of them. In the case of Lindsay and his supporters, for example, I explicitly state that “the goals and values of the Lindsay administration should not be treated as givens” and go on to observe that their conception of the city “had such blind spots that one must ask how anyone could have found it plausible.”

I argue that Mayor Lindsay and his allies developed their distorted view of the city—one which ignored the interests of the city’s Jewish and Catholic middle class—because it justified their efforts to seize control of the agencies and resources of municipal government. I note, for example, that they claimed school decentralization would improve the education of poor black children, but cite David K. Cohen’s devastating contemporary critique in COMMENTARY [“The Price of Community Control,” July 1969] of the arguments for community control. I go on to observe that “Members of the Lindsay coalition doubtless found the case for decentralization persuasive—despite clear lacunae in the arguments made on its behalf and glaring weaknesses in the evidence cited to support these arguments—because it would transfer control of the schools into their own hands.”

Mr. Cohn also misrepresents what I say about the “advocacy professionals” of the 1960′s and the “policy analysts” of the 1980′s, as well as what I say about Mayor Koch. This will be evident to any reader of Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis who recognizes that describing the views of political figures implies neither agreement nor disagreement with them.

Martin Shefter
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York



Jules Cohn writes:

Martin Shefter asserts that he takes issue in his book with the reformers’ views, but in fact he takes them more at face value than he claims in his letter.

Of course he mentions a few of John Lindsay’s many malefactions. But he treats them as mere tactical miscalculations, furthermore insisting, and thereby practicing apologetics rather than analysis, that “there is no reason to doubt the sincerity” of the Fun City mayor’s “commitment to the causes he crusaded for.” In his categorical approach to the complexities of New York politics, “business interests” are pitted against the “ardor” of “expenditure-demanding” forces driven by the “democratic impulse.”

The same sympathy is evident in his account of the policy analysts, a small band of quantifiers who annually come forward with elixirs for the city’s ills, an account which leans toward advocacy and ends in circumlocution. Instead of treating them simply as a lobbying group, as he does “business interests,” and assessing them plainly, he anoints (“vanguards of reform”), flatters (their wares are “most impressive”), and prophesies a noble future for them (they could “provide the intellectual leadership” of a “neoreformist movement”). Then he adds: “By their own lights, they seek to use their skills to help the municipal government function. . . .”

Even some of Mr. Shefter’s sensible observations, such as those about Mayor Koch, are oblique, to say the least (“there is a high degree of fluidity associated with the politics of personalism”), or accompanied by innuendo, as when he invokes “indirect evidence suggesting” that the mayor is tied to real-estate interests without ever spelling out the charge.

But the periphrasis reaches its peak when he reports without critical comment that the controversial activities of that salaried caboodle of social activists, here known as the advocacy professionals, were in effect to be “carefully evaluated” by some of the advocates themselves at the very “intellectual center” (Columbia’s School of Social Work) where their doctrines of agitation were hatched.

The doubletalk bubbles up only now and then throughout the book, but despite Mr. Shefter’s objection, readers (especially students) without a sure-footed guide or first-hand knowledge of the terrain being described will not be able to recognize how the material is being rendered, notwithstanding that laudatory citation from COMMENTARY, along with others from the New Yorker, the Village Voice, and the Board of Directors of the Municipal Assistance Corporation.



About the Author