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Identity Politics Crashes at City Hall

eye on the news

Identity Politics Crashes at City Hall

Rachel Noerdlinger’s exit highlights the de Blasio team’s intellectual emptiness. November 18, 2014

The trouble with thinking that the personal is political, as late-1960s feminists taught American radicals to say, is that it is not merely wrong but also dangerous, as yesterday’s sad and sordid departure of Rachel Noerdlinger from her $170,000-a-year job as chief of staff to New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife demonstrates. This fundamental tenet of identity politics, a shorthand way of saying that your personal unhappiness stems from larger political forces—anything from the suffocating nuclear family, the institutionalized oppression of women, or the supposedly ineradicable racism of American society—and that only vast political change can solve your individual problems, has been the guiding principle of de Blasio’s administration. His campaign slogan was the “tale of two cities:” one poor and minority; one rich, white, and determined to oppress the other New York with a racist police force bent on harassing minority youths with stop-and-frisk tactics based on racial profiling. A de Blasio administration would end stop-and-frisk, the candidate promised. It would then uplift the poor New York by taxing the rich one to provide universal preschool, whose lack is a key reason ghetto kids don’t succeed, he contended, and to hand out welfare checks without requiring recipients to do work in return, since institutionalized racism is the reason they have no jobs in the first place.

How could anyone believe this fairy tale after 20 years of dramatic, concrete evidence to the contrary? Revolutionary policing tactics under mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg cut the murder rate to one-sixth of what it was in 1991, while reducing overall crime by two-thirds. The result was not only the renaissance of New York as a glittering world city, pulsing with opportunity, wealth, and vitality, but also the rebirth of ghetto neighborhoods where fear of crime had extinguished ordinary civic life. You can’t have a community when mothers are afraid to send their kids out for a loaf of bread, and where they put them to bed in the bathtub, to protect them from stray bullets.

De Blasio, his wife, and Noerdlinger believe the myth because, as I theorized earlier in this space, it gives them a way of dealing with their own troubled and damaging pasts. De Blasio’s prep-school and Ivy League-educated father, a war hero who lost part of a leg at Okinawa, later came under a McCarthyite investigation that cost him his government job. Though he went on to get even more prestigious posts, his sense of grievance drove him to alcoholism, divorce, and suicide. After not one but two name changes to distance himself from his failed and absent father, Warren Wilhelm, Jr. became Bill de Blasio and turned his anger and sense of abandonment first to Sandinista and Castroite radicalism and then to the racial grievance that he absorbed from his wife, Chirlane McCray, until then a lesbian, who, as the only black in her New England high school and one of but few at Wellesley, felt herself an “outsider” who “didn’t belong” and wished she could have been “cute and angry, instead of an evil, pouting mammy bitch.” Because de Blasio considers McCray “my most important adviser”—“Understand Chirlane and you’ll understand me,” the mayor once said—he decided that she needed a chief of staff, and a highly paid one at that.

Enter Noerdlinger, until then the flack for Al Sharpton, the cop-hating racial provocateur, whose nationwide trumpeting of teenager Tawana Brawley’s lie that she’d been raped and brutalized by a gang of whites, including a cop and a prosecutor, made him famous and brought hatred of the police to a boil in much of black America. Noerdlinger has her own tale of disorder and early sorrow. Adopted by a white couple with two children of their own, plus a child from the father’s first marriage and another adopted black kid, Noerdlinger “was this child of color in a family that didn’t look like me,” she said. And it must have been a troubled family, too, for the mother committed suicide, like de Blasio’s father. Perhaps to solve her identity problem by choosing what she considered “authentic” blackness, Noerdlinger moved in with a man seven years her junior, who’d been in trouble with the police ever since he got out of prison (first for killing a fellow teen and then for interstate drug dealing). One of his encounters included a traffic infraction in Noerdlinger’s Mercedes—reportedly with Noerdlinger, her teenaged son, Khari, and a bag of marijuana in the car. Now 17, Khari, a six-foot-one, 215-pound high school football player whose supposedly debilitating car-crash injuries are the reason Noerdlinger gave for getting permission to continue living in New Jersey rather than in New York, where City Hall staffers are supposed to live, got arrested over the weekend for trespassing while he was drinking with friends in the lobby of an upper Manhattan building. The publicity convinced Noerdlinger and the de Blasios that she had to go, under the face-saving rubric of an unpaid leave of absence.

To an enraged de Blasio, Noerdlinger’s forced exit results from “repulsive” personal press attacks, reminiscent, reports the New York Times, of McCarthyism—so there’s no need to wonder just what is the source of the mayor’s unquenchable anger that blazed into view at this moment. But if he is angry at the McCarthyism that began his father’s downfall, no one forced the elder Wilhelm to become a drunk and kill himself. Yes, he suffered injustice, but he made his own choices and could have made different ones. De Blasio, McCray, Noerdlinger: they all experienced painful childhoods that can only elicit sympathy. But they made their own choices about how to interpret their pasts and to live their lives, and where to place responsibility for their own fates.

But if you bring up your child with a sense of victimhood and grievance and hatred of authority—and Khari Noerdlinger, who, like his mother’s convict boyfriend, also sends out cop-hating and racist tweets, including “All white people are the devil” and “Pigs always killing people,” has surely been brought up in just this way—what kind of choices can you expect him to make? Grievance and victimhood, not the lack of preschool, are the reasons so many ghetto kids don’t succeed. If de Blasio wants to create one great city, he should start by solving that problem, not by making it worse.

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