November 18, 2011
By Michael Tobman
Looking at the crowded calendar of well publicized panels, symposiums, discussions, breakfasts, remembrances and policy conferences that increasingly define much of New York City politics, a reasonable person could be left wondering when our elected officials are actually in their offices working on current issues. Our city is being Diversified. The Swiss Alps home of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum has spawned countless chattering imitations across the globe, and now dramatically impacts – not for the better – our urban civic life.
At the start of November, Mayor Bloomberg joined former Mayors Koch and Dinkins for a discussion, moderated by Charlie Rose, to celebrate the fortieth Anniversary of the Association for a Better New York. Predictable disagreements between Koch and Bloomberg over the causes of our fiscal difficulties made for good copy, but especially interesting – and troubling – was Bloomberg lamenting the failure to implement congestion pricing as “far and away” his greatest disappointment. This is from a Mayor with over two full years left in his term and whose administration is now grappling with controversial policies impacting child care for struggling working class families and continued housing for the recently homeless.
The New York Times, in October, hosted a discussion with Governor Cuomo, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Senator James Alesi and political consultant Bruce Gyory on New York’s recent adoption of marriage equality. Quinn is a much-discussed Mayoral candidate in 2013, Alesi a Republican supporter of the issue who switched his no vote from last year and Cuomo the Governor with easily the most claim to making this important civil rights law happen.
Breakfast series featuring news makers, lunches with thought leaders, commemorations of zoning law milestones, panels on the future of New York City, discussion of technology in government and politics – all on the calendar this October and November, hosted by newspapers, law firms and civic groups.
Leaving aside that coverage of these proliferating conclaves – all about governing, policy and seemingly intractable problems and civic difficulties – has become a stand-in for actual reporting on the same, the composition and tone these events is itself deeply disturbing.
For elected officials facing the end of their tenure, it’s about legacy shaping. Not really a problem, though for Mayor Bloomberg it’s way too early.
For policy folks, it’s about proximity to famous thought leaders and celebrity authors. This is how ideas are developed and shared.
For the hosts and panelists, it’s partly about securing coveted connections with wealthy and prominent underwriters. This is business as usual.
For everyone involved, though, it’s about defining the texture and environment of the city, its many complicated issues, and its future decisions. The proliferation and generous coverage of panel discussions and symposiums mark a segregation of New York City civic life, highlighting the fusing of society, philanthropy and celebrity with politics in a remarkably public manner. This is a serious problem.
These gatherings have become a public celebration of a binary world where everybody but the participants is a part of the problem they’ve gathered to discuss. Especially troubling is that it all feels very purposeful, as if municipal government and hyper-local politics are being relegated to something other, less glamorous, less talented, less accomplished people do – which is especially odd since the people doing this public diminishing are the very ones who should be living it every day hip and neck deep.
New York recently profiled Chrystia Freeland, the incredibly talented editor of Reuters’ newly aggressive internet news operations. During the World Economic Forum, she hosts “Davos Today with Chrystia Freeland,” presenting talks with former cabinet officials, corporate reputation gurus, prominent and popular academics, international business executives and political leaders. Back home in New York City, she is building, according to her interview, a “growing roster of marquee columnists and editors” which ideally “will attract media attention and, with it, finally, actual readers.” In the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Ms. Freeland authored a widely discussed piece entitled “The Rise of the New Global Elite” which highlighted the rise of “philanthrocapitalism” and the new increasingly public role of wealthy elites. What she describes, and glamorously embodies on the international stage, should not be a part of local government and politics.
The relationships and influence of participants may have always impacted local policy and elections, but the escalating public nature of these local conclaves, amplified by social media and near real time web-based reporting, is new and it’s troubling. Because nobody likes to be lectured, and as those who do insult their hosts are rarely invited back, there are few serious disagreements at these events and nobody questions their underlying purpose. When disagreements do happen they’re too civil.
New York City politics are supposed to be loud and messy. We’re supposed to argue about class and poverty, wealth, and development without apology. New Yorkers are supposed to debate important issues through racial and ethnic and religious lenses. We’re supposed to threaten to walk off, strike, fire, protest and picket. It’s very Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Bronx to cast the roles of good and bad in community disputes and very Harlem and Lower East Side to worry about the loss of neighborhood character. Our city’s new moveable feast of constant reasonable conversation among important people maligns authentic politics.
We’re New Yorkers – we don’t just offer questions from the audience at invitation only events, and we shouldn’t favor politics or candidates who perpetuate that environment because it’s where they do best.
The irony is, I may be invited to speak on panels as a consequence of this piece.