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The Politics of Delusion

from the magazine

The Politics of Delusion

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s radical dreams are leading straight to chaos. Summer 2015
Politics and law

However we may yearn for a politician whose worldview springs straight from his reason, his grasp of history and human nature, and his sense that politics is the art of the possible, not the ideal, what we usually get is a mix of half-baked ideology, hungry ambition, weaselly opportunism, and some inner wound that only the roar of a crowd or the cooing of sycophants can soothe. Even for a politician, though, New York mayor Bill de Blasio is a rare specimen: a self-contrived person spouting an ideology unmoored in reality but inseparable from the man’s brittle sense of himself.

This strange amalgam would be only of local interest were de Blasio not hell-bent on making himself the spokesman for the Democratic Party’s left fringe with a new manifesto: the Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality. Unveiled to raves from the Left on the U.S. Capitol steps in mid-May, the agenda amplifies such familiar far-left tropes as President Barack Obama’s assertion that inequality is “a defining issue of our time”—especially racial inequality, which ex–attorney general Eric Holder devoted his tenure to rooting out, in a quest to uncover racism concealed in every cranny of American life and the American soul, as exposed by the “disparate impact” on blacks of policies not intended to discriminate. How much influence de Blasio and his War on Inequality will have, only time will tell, but multimillionaire presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, that reliably sensitive indicator of which way the Democratic hot air is blowing, now talks the inequality talk. Here in New York, of course, where de Blasio’s approval numbers have hit a new low and crime has spiked not just in ghetto neighborhoods but also on Central Park’s verdant lawns and in Fifth Avenue’s glittering shops, nothing in the mayor’s inequality crusade bodes well.

To call de Blasio a self-made man would be a charitable way of putting it. More accurately, he is a made-up man. Born Warren Wilhelm, Jr., he painfully watched his Loomis- and Yale-educated war-hero father decline into anger, depression, and drunkenness after he lost his federal budget-analyst job in the wake of a congressional probe into his and his wife’s left-wing politics. Sparked by ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers, who’d known the couple as fellow Time magazine staffers before the war, the investigation cleared both Wilhelms of being Communists but noted their “sympathetic interest in Communism,” which cost de Blasio’s father his security clearance, even though he had shown ample proof of patriotism by giving part of his leg for his country at the Battle of Okinawa, for which he won the Bronze Star. So, despite going on to prestigious posts as a Texaco economist and an Arthur D. Little management consultant, he couldn’t let go of the grievance of being a target of McCarthyism. He destroyed his marriage when his son was only seven, ultimately got fired, and put a bullet through his heart in 1979.

“I have a real respect, and a real anger and sadness at the same time,” said de Blasio, trying to describe his feelings about his father to the New York Times. “I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do the math on exactly what it all means.” So wounded was he by the triple abandonment of alcoholic stupor, divorce, and then suicide that he junked his father’s name and took his Smith-graduate mother’s maiden name. Returning as a Sandinista-booster from a Nicaraguan trip after NYU and then Columbia graduate school, de Blasio brought his angry radicalism with him when he joined the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, whose placidly feckless Leftism might have seemed tamer than his 33-year-old aide had hoped. But de Blasio found all the fire he wanted in diminutive fellow staffer Chirlane McCray, a black lesbian just as angrily radical.

In America, F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us, we are all free to become our own Platonic conceptions of ourselves (or at least to try), but one senses a messier, less self-assured process at work in the self-invention of de Blasio and McCray. Reader, she married him, despite her years of relationships with women, and she joined her racial grievance—nursed as the only black in a New England high school, and then at Wellesley, where she also felt she “didn’t belong”—to his political grievance as innocent collateral damage of a right-wing witch hunt. They became each other’s completing counterparts—“she’s my most important adviser and the person I’m closest to in the world,” de Blasio has said of McCray—and together they stoked a shared anger against injustices that belonged to an earlier, and largely vanished, America. Nor can de Blasio always keep that anger from boiling over, as witness his extraordinary, impolitic June 30 outburst against Andrew Cuomo.

To frame his Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality, de Blasio held high-level Gracie Mansion powwows with such leftist luminaries as Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel; his Acorn-alumna intergovernmental-affairs aide, Emma Wolfe (who infused much of that defunct and corrupt outfit’s radical program into the new manifesto); Senator Sherrod Brown, whom President Obama flew back on a special plane from his mother’s funeral to cast the deciding vote for the 2009 stimulus package (which created 1.5 jobs per every $1 million of its $840 billion price tag); tax-loving Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy; and ex-Obama green-jobs czar Van Jones, a supporter of cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, forced out of his job for signing a petition charging that the Bush administration “may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen” and for publicly declaring (to use, he says, a “technical, political kind of term”) that Republicans are “assholes.” Also influencing the Progressive Agenda, The Atlantic reports, was a recent paper by Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who chaired both President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and the Socialist International’s Commission on Global Financial Issues and who has argued that “unfettered markets often not only do not lead to social justice, but do not even produce efficient outcomes,” so that the “real debate today is about finding the right balance between the market and government.” I assumed that the manifesto that emerged would be a real advance on the Tale of Two Cities stump speech that de Blasio first delivered as his State of the City address last February and, indulging presidential dreams, delivered again in presidential primary states this spring. But no: same old, same old.

That speech is truly awful, and no amount of editorial smoothing can make it coherent— trust me, I have tried. Let me lay its meager parts out on the autopsy table for inspection. Point One is that after the Great Recession that began in 2007, Wall Street recovered smartly, while the rest of New York floundered. If de Blasio means that the stock market, thanks to unorthodox Federal Reserve monetary policy that made most other investment options unrewarding, performed better than the Obama administration’s antigrowth fiscal policy allowed the real economy to perform, that’s true. But if he means that employment and pay in New York’s financial industry for all but a few top CEOs bounced back unscathed, it’s hogwash. Though Gotham added more jobs in the last five years than in any similar period over the last half-century, the New York Times reports, Wall Street accounted for a wan 1 percent of them, by contrast with 10 percent in the 1990s boom. Suddenly, postindustrial New York is developing a diversified economy, with strong employment growth in everything from hotels to Google and Facebook, and with 5,000 new tech jobs added just this March.

De Blasio’s implication that Wall Street is living as high on the hog as it did pre-2007, while everyone else is stuck, is simply false, as is his fantasy that the Great Recession is our era’s Great Depression. “That’s just a fact,” he insisted recently to an adulatory Rolling Stone reporter. “The difference is, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel now.” Therefore, he must do “what Mayor LaGuardia did—making the New Deal come alive in New York City.” Look around at our city-run housing projects, hospitals, subways, and buses, and ask yourself how much you want a repeat of the accomplishments of the “midget Mussolini,” as LaGuardia’s enemies dubbed him. New York has had 75 years to pay many times over in worker wages and benefits for its New Deal nationalizations, while watching the services themselves decay.

Nevertheless, the city—and the country, too, as de Blasio’s Progressive Agenda declares—must mandate a $15 minimum hourly wage (which the New York State legislature has rejected and which would push more jobs into the underground economy), paid sick leave and family leave for all workers, and universal pre-K education (a tax-financed babysitting service whose educational benefits, where they exist, have been shown to vanish by third grade), along with multiple hefty tax hikes on “the rich” (which, in New York, includes much of the middle class), more union-friendly labor laws, and “comprehensive” immigration reform. In New York, de Blasio also seeks more “affordable” housing, and more STEM courses at the City University, with an array of science and tech high school courses in between, plus training and apprenticeship programs for high school graduates and the unemployed. It doesn’t take a roomful of left-wing activists to come up with such platitudes.

Because of the Great Recession, de Blasio claims, America’s opportunity engine has broken down. Today’s workers have lost “the assurance that hard work could pull them from modest means into a growing middle class.” The “sense of economic justice is gone,” the mayor says, though, of course, what he means is not justice (of which history has but little to show) but rather the miracle of opportunity that American liberty—and his own city’s concentration of wealth, which provides the employment that has made New York the Opportunity City—has wrought. It’s worth remembering that this opportunity rests on the fact that America leaves every man free to pursue his own vision of happiness in his own way, so that, as James Madison put it at the nation’s founding, because people’s dreams and talents differ widely, of course our bedrock liberty will yield unequal outcomes. But de Blasio aide Richard Buery, who rose to deputy mayor from a crime-ridden East New York housing project, knows better than such an unenlightened figure from the past. The “mythical” belief “that where you end up bears no relation to where you began,” he asserts, “never reflected reality in any meaningful or sustainable way.” Whether the upward-mobility machine be mythical or merely out of gas, the mayor’s agenda means to get it humming.

You can get a sense of how much magical thinking has gone into de Blasio’s program when you consider two key measures he has instituted as mayor: he has handed out municipal identification cards to “the almost half-million undocumented New Yorkers,” so that they will not have “to live their lives in the shadows,” he says; and he is ending “the wrongs spurred by a broken policing policy,” especially “the overuse of stop-and-frisk,” thus assuring “New Yorkers of every background that we will respect equal protection under the law.” Taken together, these two measures unintentionally reveal who the poor in de Blasio’s inequality fairy tale really are, and why they are poor—which has nothing to do with why the rich are rich. They are the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who do the low-wage jobs that New Yorkers won’t do, along with the New Yorkers who won’t do them—a largely nonwhite, welfare-dependent, disproportionally lawless underclass. Hence de Blasio lumps racial and economic inequality together in his mind, as if the one caused the other. If de Blasio’s proposals were to succeed and get these underclass New Yorkers into jobs, what would happen to the illegals, with their little municipal IDs?

But don’t worry: they won’t work. The indigenous underclass, for all de Blasio’s efforts, will not troop into the industrious working or middle class. Much more likely, as Victor Davis Hanson, Heather Mac Donald, and Steven Malanga have shown in these pages, is the reverse: many of the illegals and their U.S.-born (and therefore legal) children will get sucked into the underclass, through school dropout, early unwed childbearing, and gang membership leading to crime.

That an intergenerational, nonworking underclass should exist in the Opportunity City—where, by de Blasio’s own showing, so many illegal immigrants have found gainful, mostly unskilled employment—requires explanation. Since the one that I suggested two decades ago in The Dream and the Nightmare seems borne out by time, let me recap it briefly, especially since de Blasio–style ideologues deny many lessons that 20 years of successful urban experimentation have taught.

Tectonic shifts in elite culture in the 1960s, I argued—a normalization of sexual experimentation, a devaluation of marriage (especially as the key to successful child rearing) and a destigmatization of illegitimacy, a fad for drugs and for dropping out of the workaday world, a disdain for authority, a belief that black criminality was a natural rebellion against racism and exclusion, and that, in reparation for 300 years of racial injustice, welfare payments ought to be raised and handed out freely, without any hint of disapproval—all these changes in morals, manners, and beliefs quickly filtered down to the inner-city poor and produced an explosion in drug use, crime, nonwork, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy. The housing projects teemed with families headed by teenage mothers, whose own meager education, multiple (and often abusive) boyfriends, drug use (crack, in those days), and chaotic households ensured that their children would miss out on cognitive and moral nurture, along with the sense of security and love, that promotes success in school and in later life. So the basic reality that perpetuated the underclass was culture: it wasn’t the welfare system, unemployment, deindustrialization, racism, job mismatch, or genetic inferiority.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (left) swears in Bill de Blasio (right) as mayor in Brooklyn. Between them are (left to right) de Blasio’s children, Chiara and Dante, and his wife, Chirlane McCray.

The middle class soon came to its senses, and—while it more sedately continued its adventures with sex and drugs, and its 1960s attitudes about race turned into what George W. Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and others called “political correctness”—it once again got married and stayed married, nurtured its children for success at soccer and Stanford with born-again ferocity, and developed a work ethic that can wear you out to watch. Not so the black underclass (and a growing white underclass). The crack epidemic abated, and the single mothers tended to start families in their twenties instead of in their teens, even as the illegitimacy rate in underclass neighborhoods soared north of 80 percent; but what had been a self-defeating culture derived from elite attitudes hardened into a self-subsisting, dysfunctional ghetto culture of grievance, entitlement, obscene misogyny, and contempt for education and authority, personified by teachers and cops (and, I’m guessing, by harried, quick-tempered single mothers, the genesis of the “bitches” of gangsta rap). These deeply ingrained habits of seeing and feeling made underclass young men (generally speaking) not only unemployable but also incapable of being husbands or fathers, in any but the biological sense. Ten minutes listening to gangsta rap will demonstrate what I mean, as will two minutes watching clips of April’s Baltimore riots.

But not only did the middle class change its behavior, appalled at the consequences of its 1960s excesses. So did government, spurred by voters fed up with those consequences as they appeared in the underclass. In New York, Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani, elected because even Gotham Democrats grew to hate the crime and disorder killing their city, charged Police Commissioner William Bratton with implementing a strategy of quality-of-life policing, computerized crime-mapping, and stop-and-frisk, that would not just respond to crimes after they occurred but would reduce criminality—and not only in ritzy neighborhoods but in the ghetto, too. Crime plummeted almost overnight; and after 20 years of activist policing, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly steadfastly retained and refined, murders fell from one every four hours in 1991 to fewer than one a day last year, with crime in minority neighborhoods (where it had been highest) falling most dramatically—and with the most improvement in residents’ lives.

In addition, Republican congressman Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America proposed a sweeping reform of welfare that President Bill Clinton vetoed twice before signing at last, in 1996. Its key point was that the dole would be a short-term boost, not a way of life, and that recipients would work for their benefits, to accustom them to employment and its disciplines. In New York, Giuliani embraced that reform, setting up an ingenious work-experience program, as he called it, and ensuring that welfare offices, renamed “job centers,” steered dole-seekers toward the job market before they could get hooked on dependency. He also required tough eligibility checks to end widespread fraud. Mayor Bloomberg continued and fine-tuned the program, so that the welfare caseload didn’t budge during the Great Recession. From 1.1 million New Yorkers on welfare—more than one in seven—two decades ago, public-assistance rolls have shrunk to 350,000, while the population grew and the poverty rate fell dramatically. Postrecession child poverty remains 10 percentage points lower than in the pre-Giuliani era.

In the 1980s, I believed that many who espoused the conventional racism or lack-of-opportunity explanations for the growing underclass were sincere, if misguided. But after New York conducted the most successful urban-policy experiment in my lifetime over the last two decades, we know for sure that there are jobs for people of all colors; that even menial work is respectable and can be a step on the ladder of upward mobility, as opposed to the demoralization of perpetual dependency; and that there is no excuse for crime, which harms not just its individual victims but also the whole city, while good policing can make the city bloom again.

So what to say about those who still spout the old racial excuses? Some—not just race hustlers like Al Sharpton but a wide swath of professional pols and activists who need a victim class, even if imported or imaginary, to promise voters and donors they will rescue—are cynical to varying degrees. Hillary Clinton is a case in point. Others—and here, I would class the Obamas and, to a greater extent, the de Blasios—have their identities bound up with their ideology. Sincere but deluded, they would come apart psychologically without their grievance and victimology. What kind of thinking, after all, could allow de Blasio to bluster that the 2013 mayoral contest was “an election that I won with 73 percent of the vote. I think the jury is in”? Yes, he won 73 percent of the 24 percent of eligible voters who bothered to show up—mostly government workers or dependents—the lowest turnout in history. So the truth is that he won with 17 percent of the vote, hardly a ringing endorsement.

As born-again New York draws in fresh cohorts of ambitious newcomers, fewer of us are around who remember the bad old pre-Giuliani days, when 1 million mostly prosperous and well-educated residents fled an increasingly dangerous and squalid city over 15 years, as did most of Manhattan’s big corporate headquarters. So the understandable impulse of recently arrived New Yorkers to help whatever distress they see around them, along with the “racist-America” orthodoxy that so many newcomers bring with them straight from PC University, makes them susceptible to the Marxoid inequality rant that de Blasio and other Democrats spout, with the mainstream media swelling the chorus. They might not recognize the risible falsehood of Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley’s assertion that “we haven’t had an agenda for America’s cities probably since Jimmy Carter,” despite the fact that not only did Giuliani devise one but also that 20 years’ experience proved its spectacular efficacy. The newcomers don’t know that we have tried de Blasio’s ideas—already old-fashioned when Rudyard Kipling jeered at “Social Progress” as the policy of “robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul,” thus ensuring that “all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins”—and the results have been failure.

Recently arrived New Yorkers aren’t horrified by the determination of de Blasio and his welfare commissioner, Steven Banks, a former radical homeless advocate and an ex–Legal Aid Society chief lawyer, to undo New York’s workfare program—exactly the wrong way to carry out Banks’s declared intention to have his agency “fight inequality and poverty every day.” Come-and-get-it welfare will trap families in dependency for generations, as it has done for 50 years. Nor are newcomers dismayed by the mayor’s relaxation of school discipline, certain to make inner-city public schools once again so disorderly and frightening that only prodigies of determination can get an education there, much less dare to go to the bathroom. And they’re not bothered by de Blasio’s opposition to charter schools—stymied for now—which have so successfully provided poor kids whose parents want them to succeed with a good enough education to help them do so, in the time-honored New York way. De Blasio’s rage to reduce inequality, it seems, would be perfectly satisfied with equal lack of opportunity for all.

Unlike longtime residents, some newcomers to Gotham, and not just the Occupy Wall Street fringe, vaguely approve of the city council’s push, partly endorsed by New York State’s chief judge, to stop arresting people for such low-level quality-of-life crimes against public order as subway farebeating, public urination, or drinking on the street that in recent memory made the trendy neighborhoods where they now live with a sense of perfect safety—the Lower East Side or Williamsburg, for instance—anarchic, crumbling, and scary. They don’t know that such Broken Windows policing was central to Gotham’s crime drop, allowing the police to take back control of the streets, parks, and subways by arresting the drinkers and brawlers, who regularly proved, upon investigation, to be carrying guns and to be wanted for serious crimes. When evildoers know the cops are watching them, crime goes down, setting off a virtuous circle, so that arrests and imprisonment have also fallen far below their pre-Giuliani levels. Policy and culture, it turns out, have a dialectical relationship: each affects the other.

With the shocking deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and a panicked rookie cop’s accidental killing of an unarmed man in a Brooklyn housing-project stairwell last November fresh in their minds, some new New Yorkers also don’t know that, despite the odd sadist or bully who will always turn up in any group of people armed by society with the authority (and firearms) to keep it safe, the world-class NYPD, the best police force in the nation and nearly as racially diverse as the city it serves, is the opposite of the instrument of racist oppression that the left-wing war on the police has branded it. Trained to defuse potentially explosive situations without violence, it had to use force in fewer than 2 percent of 2014’s Broken Windows arrests. Many newcomers also don’t know that it isn’t racism but wildly disproportionate rates of lawbreaking that explain the high numbers of minorities arrested or stopped and frisked: in 2013, to take one example, 92 percent of the city’s murder suspects (and 83 percent of its murder victims) but only 53 percent of its population were black or Hispanic.

A poll this May found that 57 percent of all New Yorkers favor Broken Windows policing, compared with 38 percent opposed to it, with 50 percent of blacks supporting it, versus 46 percent opposed. Kudos to Mayor de Blasio for backing—however ambivalently—NYPD commissioner Bratton’s determination to continue so successful a policing tactic, critical to the health of the city. All New Yorkers must hope that the Bratton-supporting de Blasio will win out over the de Blasio who, not long ago, had the insulting idea of sitting down with a glum-faced Bratton on one side and a gloating Sharpton on the other, as if the two were morally equivalent. Bratton has asserted that vigorous quality-of-life policing—even with fewer but more precisely targeted stop-and-frisks—can keep New York’s crime rate on its downward path. “But if you lose those powers to arrest,” Bratton warns, “that’s where Pandora’s box is opened and the 1970s, the 1980s have the potential to come roaring back again.” (See “Why We Need Broken Windows Policing,” Winter 2015.)

Alas, de Blasio’s reining in of stop-and-frisk, along with his refusal to fight a lawsuit charging the NYPD with racism and the national demonization of cops in the wake of a justified police shooting of a Ferguson, Missouri, black man, has opened that Pandora’s box. Shootings in New York have risen two years in a row. In addition, murders jumped 19.5 percent in the first five months of 2015, compared with the same period last year, even as stop-and-frisks fell by over 40 percent, bringing the total drop since 2011 to nearly 95 percent.

“What you’re seeing now are the perps carrying their guns because they’re not afraid to carry them,” Sergeants Benevolent Association head Ed Mullins told the New York Daily News. “We’ve created an atmosphere where we’ve handcuffed the police.” As a Bronx cop told the paper: “The guys I talk to all feel the same way: De Blasio doesn’t want stops. The perps know what we’re doing.” Stories of depraved crimes such as New Yorkers haven’t read about for two decades are once again blazoned across the local papers: three teens living in a Brooklyn Boys Town residence, for instance, allegedly abducted a 33-year-old woman from a Chinatown Internet café, brutally beat, raped, and robbed her, leaving her dazed and blood-soaked as they used her ID and house keys to find her apartment and rob it, as well, the New York Times reports.

In response, even Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, who had recently criticized de Blasio for not acting against the cop responsible for Eric Garner’s death, has noted that rising crime in minority neighborhoods could threaten de Blasio’s reelection chances. “The mayor needs to pay attention,” Butts warned. “It could mean that people will organize against him.” Though 96 percent of black voters backed him in his 2013 “landslide” victory, only 59 percent currently think he is doing a good job. Among white voters, 54 percent of whom cast a ballot for him, his approval rating is a paltry 32 percent. Belatedly, de Blasio is flooding neighborhoods where shootings have spiked with 300 extra cops. But, in what seems a silent vote of No Confidence, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, at the request of the NYPD and U.S. prosecutor Preet Bharara, is sending in federal agents to get guns off the streets, to trace the interstate networks of gun suppliers, and to turn carrying a gun into a potential federal case, threatening ten to 15 years in federal prison. Nevertheless, miracle-worker Bratton’s beefed-up patrols cut overall crime in June to its lowest level in over two decades, so that murder is up “only” 9.3 percent for the first half of 2015, compared with 2014’s first half.

It’s critical to emphasize that good policing and welfare reform, for all their importance, only work around the edges of the real problem. They keep the depredations of the underclass in check, and they limit its ability to spread. Even an ideologue like President Obama, when he stops talking long enough to listen to someone else and to reflect honestly on his own experience instead of mythologizing it, knows what the problem is, however unwelcome the knowledge may be. “I grew up without a dad,” he recently said at Lehman College in the Bronx. “I grew up lost sometimes and adrift, not having a sense of a clear path. The only difference between me and a lot of other young men in this neighborhood . . . is that I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving.” To say the least: for Obama had a loving, if hippy-dippy, white mother, an exclusive prep school and Ivy League education, and nurturing, middle-class white grandparents who took care of him from age ten until his prep school graduation, protecting him from (among other things) the consequences of his teenage drug use. His grandmother, he once said, “loves me as much as she loves anything in this world.”

So when he reports that one of the Lehman College students he talked to, whose father had also absconded, told him that “we should talk about love,” the president could only partly understand what it means to grow up not only without a father but also without a loving mother, and an orderly, loving, nurturing family that makes it its business to help one succeed in school and beyond. “But really,” said Obama, “what this comes down to is: Do we love these kids?”

And here the ideological Obama obliterates the Obama capable of insight. We love these kids? We, the taxpayer, the school staff, the child-services caseworker? No, we can’t give them the love they need, as a much-derided Obama campaign ad showed how government by itself brought up and protected a fictional “Julia” from womb to tomb. For all the welfare money, food stamps, WIC money, and Section 8 vouchers, we can’t even ensure that the apartments they rent with our money won’t be the roach-infested, urine-reeking, cat-feces-covered hellhole of disorder, without books or a quiet place to read them in, where two baby mamas duke it out over possession of their ex-con impregnator in the living room, that Heather Mac Donald recently described in these pages. (See “Running with the Predators,” Spring 2015.)

White Americans are acutely aware that slavery and Jim Crow are grotesque blots on our visionary republic, and they have now done about everything they can do to make amends and open the doors of opportunity—even to excess. Now it is up to black Americans to liberate the underclass. Whether this will take another courageous visionary like Martin Luther King to give the message, as he did, that all men are to be judged by the content of their character—for which they are responsible—I don’t know. Certainly the times are calling for such a charismatic hero loudly enough. And certainly what the underclass now needs is a transformation of soul, such as the Wesley brothers worked among the British working poor over two centuries ago, or as Bishop John Hughes worked among New York’s Irish Catholic poor half a century after that. (See “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish,” Spring 1997.) To take one example of what I mean: to make the ex-con mentioned above marry one of his baby mamas would not turn him into a father and would not create a family. He would abuse the children or abandon them or both. Something has to happen in his innermost self to turn him into that everyday miracle of civilization, a nurturing parent.

As the first black president, Obama could have been that world-historical liberator, freeing the underclass from its mind-forg’d manacles and healing race relations in America forever, as many who voted for him hoped. But character is fate, as Heraclitus said; and Obama chose the opposite, ignoble course. What is luminously clear is that everyone—and not just court-certified liars like Sharpton—now needs to stop feeding the grievance at the center of underclass culture by telling lies about a supposedly racist America supposedly victimizing blacks. No cultural transformation of the underclass can take place as long as the constant drumbeat of resentment and victimology sounds in their ears. It’s incitement, not help, to have the president turn his eulogy of a murdered black pastor in Charleston, South Carolina, into an object lesson in pervasive American racism, or to muse that, if he’d had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin, a black teen whom a Florida neighborhood-watch vigilante shot to death. Ignorant of the circumstances, Obama reflexively treated the incident as proof that it was open season on blacks in America, though a jury found the vigilante not guilty, and such occurrences are aberrations, like the murders of cops by deranged blacks—but unlike the daily grind of black-on-black killings in the nation’s ghettos.

Now that the press is starting to dub de Blasio “the Left’s new star in Washington,” the mayor has a greater responsibility than ever for the consequences of what he says. So it is especially troubling that he is willfully, almost perversely, blind to the reality in front of him, determined not to admit what has really happened in the world and in his city. New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic voters rejected his liberal boss, David Dinkins, and his “progressive” agenda, and instead for two decades elected Republican or Independent mayors whose key vision was a well-policed city with self-reliant citizens and a flourishing economy. An aberration, in de Blasio’s mind, almost a rounding error. “I was on the ’93 David Dinkins reelection campaign, so I watched the beginning of the Giuliani era the hard way. Dinkins should’ve beaten Giuliani, but we lost touch with our own base. Dinkins lost by 50,000 votes, and there were more than 50,000 votes to be had if we had handled things differently,” de Blasio told Rolling Stone. “So I never felt that Giuliani’s election was a renunciation of the core vision. I also feel the same about Bloomberg’s election in 2001. Yes, he had a huge amount of resources, but that was a winnable election. So one could argue [that] we had 20 years of Republican or Republican-independent rule that were entirely avoidable.” Except that we didn’t avoid it: the 20 Republican years were eminently real and conclusively successful, and the renunciation of the Dinkins vision was as thunderous as the New York Post headline, as murders were soaring past 2,000 a year: DAVE, DO SOMETHING.

And the historic crime reduction that the Giuliani administration quickly achieved, which resulted in New York’s miraculous rebirth almost overnight? “I don’t 100 percent buy into that theory,” de Blasio sniffs, waving away an inconvenient reality as if it never happened. “I agree that he was good at selling himself, and a lot of media over-accepted his version of the story. So, yeah, do you give him credit for figuring out a way to get more credit than he deserves? Sure, if that’s credit. We’ve proven not only was my model more electorally popular than his—by a lot [the 73 percent landslide myth, again]—but that you can manage this place much more effectively if you’re not in fact creating division through the process.”

But the greatest de Blasio self-delusion of all is his Tale of Two Cities, the rich and white New York somehow withholding opportunity from the poor and minority one, further oppressed by racist police, whom de Blasio says he tells his biracial teenage son every day to treat with extreme wariness, lest they brutalize him on the slightest pretext. Talk like that will not uplift the poor but only imprison them all the more harshly in their self-destructive resentment and prompt them to act it out by burning down their own neighborhoods, as happened this spring in Baltimore. The mayor had better open his eyes, take a hard look, and cool his rhetoric, before he lights a raging bonfire at home.

Top Photo: De Blasio imagines that liberal resentment will raise him to national prominence. (RON SACHS/CORBIS)

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