Years ago, I asked Fred Siegel to join me at a small academic conference out west. At the conference, an older, genial midwestern historian could not contain his excitement about Fred’s presence. “He’s a real New York intellectual,” the academic said.
The term “New York intellectual” has become something of a cliché as the last of its practitioners pass on, but the term fit Fred perfectly. With one foot in academia and one foot in the public world of policy journalism and politics, Fred read broadly. He had a deep interest in culture, literature, politics, and foreign policy. Every conversation with him would include the usual question: “What are you reading, kid?” Books and ideas were everything. In his last few years, for fun Fred immersed himself in reading back issues of the Cold War cultural magazine Encounter.
Few people know that Fred’s first book was worlds away from New York politics. He had written his dissertation on tobacco farming in rural Virginia—the kind of micro-study that was all the academic rage in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But Fred knew that the increasingly narrow life of the professional historian was not for him. It was too limiting and parochial. He could have confined his efforts to an academic career, but lucky for us and for New York, he took another path.
Fred’s intellectual history is well known. He moved away from the social-democratic Left during his days writing for Dissent, then shifted rightward. He never completely gave up on the old ideal of the New Deal social-democratic state, once writing that New Deal liberalism was the “bastard offspring of a love affair between a practicing capitalist father and a sentimentally socialist mother.” Alarmed by cultural and political changes of the 1960s and 1970s, Fred would soon become an informal advisor to Rudy Giuliani and provided, along with others at the Manhattan Institute, the intellectual framework for the New York renaissance that began in the 1990s.
Early in our friendship, Fred and I participated in a debate entitled “Was John Lindsay the Worst Mayor in New York History?” Our debate opponents were two veteran Lindsay aides. Facing us was an audience of about 100 irate ex-Lindsay staffers itching for a fight and ready to defend their hero. As a young, newly minted Ph.D., I found it an uncomfortable evening, but not Fred—he loved every minute of it. He poked and provoked the Lindsay crowd, and the angrier they got, the more he poked. He had a blast.
Years later, Fred reminisced about how, when leaving the debate venue that night, he had seen a line of limousines waiting to whisk the former Lindsayites away. It was a scene that, for him, summed up the state of modern liberalism. Fred saw early on that the cast of liberal-progressivism was moving toward a top-down model driven by the demands of a credentialed elite of affluent upper middle-class liberals. This wasn’t the old social-democratic liberalism of the New Deal. It was a different version of liberalism, both paternalistic toward the poor and deeply condescending and dismissive of the working and middle classes. As Fred wrote of these increasingly hubristic liberals in The Future Once Happened Here, “their sense of moral superiority was so suffocating as to make it impossible for them to either adapt to new conditions or learn from their critics.” Years later, Fred made the case even more forcefully in The Revolt Against the Masses that this revulsion against the middle class and bourgeois norms had long been a part of intellectual progressivism.
As an urbanist, Fred understood that for the city to function well, it had to respect the interests of the upwardly mobile immigrant, the middle-class homeowner in the outer boroughs, and the family with young children. Public order needed to be preserved, disorder and crime contained. Good schools and a strong economy were the engines that helped create and sustain an urban middle class. Cities could not solely be the preserve of cultural outlaws, nor could they be governed solely in the interests of wealthy or liberal elites. For that reason, Fred was sometimes as hard on Michael Bloomberg as he was on Bill de Blasio. Bloomberg’s idea of New York as a “luxury city” held no appeal for Fred.
Today, New York is scuffling, its blue state/city model proving unworkable, its middle-class residents increasingly fleeing. With New York City facing an uncertain future, Fred’s ideas remain highly relevant.
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