Consonant with the start of a new national administration and (by purists’ reckonings) the dawn of a new millennium, the keynote of this issue of City Journal is optimism. It’s an optimism more of the skeptical than the Panglossian “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” variety, of course; and it rests on the proven truth that we are not the passive playthings of vast forces beyond our control but rather the active shapers of our destiny.
It’s a fact of nature, pundits said, that American cities are ungovernable—until Rudy Giuliani and other smart mayors began to govern them. We have to live in careful balance with the Soviet Union, foreign-policy pundits said—until Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. Demographic changes mean that crime will explode, criminologists predicted—until enlightened policing cut crime dramatically. Elite culture is lost in political correctness, we conservatives lament—except that, as Heather Mac Donald elegantly shows in “The Met’s Triumphant Democratic Elitism,” Philippe de Montebello, through sheer determination (and talent), has preserved the Metropolitan Museum as a temple of high culture and high scholarship—and New York’s Number One tourist attraction. Human will is crucial, both in public matters and in individ- ual lives.
Understanding this truth is half the battle, as Fred Siegel and Van Smith make clear in their absorbing report from Baltimore. For years, the mantra of Baltimore politics was: “Can’t be done, don’t even try.” Little wonder that epidemic crime and economic decline ensued, driving some 16 percent of the population out of town during the nineties. The most important of new mayor Martin O’Malley’s governing principles is that he can change things for the better, and in that spirit he has already started pushing Baltimore in the right direction.
You would think such an understanding is a no-brainer. But a meeting of would-be education reformers with two leading experts on public schools some years ago made clear why it is not. To one suggestion after another, the experts replied: “Oh no, can’t be done. The union won’t stand for it. . . . The State Legislature won’t permit it. . . . We tried to do it 15 years back, and the governor stopped us.” The result of all their considerable expertise and intelligence was passivity and paralysis—which they took to be political savvy and hard-nosed realism.
So you have to think boldly and then just do it. That’s the message of our new contributing editor Steven Malanga’s gripping saga of how New York City began to succeed in pushing the mob out of town. For years, prosecutors and pols had assumed that the mob was a given of city life, like pigeons. D.A. Morgenthau, prosecutor (later Mayor) Giuliani, and Governor Pataki had a different view, and today’s cleaned-up garment district, garbage-carting industry, and Javits Convention Center show that once you decide to accomplish something, sooner or later, if you keep trying, you will figure out a way to get it done.
This optimistic idea is, as Norman Podhoretz explains in “America the Beautiful,” fundamental to the American spirit, which licenses everyone to pursue his own definition of happiness in his own way—a way that, in practice, will normally turn out to be the pursuit of material advancement. For that reason, Podhoretz says, elite intellectuals, contemptuous of materialism and mistakenly convinced of its inevitable opposition to the spiritual, can’t see that the American idea has created one of the world’s greatest civilizations. A similar can-do spirit today pervades whole segments of the population, as Kay S. Hymowitz shows in “Ecstatic Capitalism’s Brave New Work Ethic,” and it has become a dynamo of creativity and prosperity—though, as Hymowitz cautions, the new economy’s workamania comes with an inevitable set of costs, too.
The one place in the nation where that optimism is missing, as new contributing editor John H. McWhorter demonstrates in his profound “What’s Holding Blacks Back?” is among African-Americans. To be sure, McWhorter observes, blacks have made great strides—greater than they themselves admit; but what bars them from even more dramatic progress isn’t racism but their own attitudes about American society and their proper identity within it. Educational excellence? Shapers of our own destiny? Can’t be done, don’t even try, is the orthodox African-American response. But all it would take is some optimism and effort, McWhorter rightly says, and the whole world would change.
—Brian C. Anderson