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The Politics of Affliction

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The Politics of Affliction

New York City’s progressive leaders apparently believe that it is their mission to disrupt the comfort of their constituents. December 17, 2020
New York
Politics and law
Public safety

There was no shortage of suffering in New York in 2020. With the Covid-19 pandemic, economic hardship, rioting, and street violence, there’s been plenty of misery to go around. But according to some prominent elected officials and bureaucrats, the fun’s only getting started. They seem to see it as part of their job—really, their duty—to make sure that New Yorkers feel the pain.

At a Brooklyn rally in early June, commemorating the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams gave an impassioned speech. Before a crowd of thousands of mourners—who gathered en masse despite the risk of exposure to Covid and the city’s state of emergency forbidding public assembly—Williams denounced critics of the protesters. “The people who have been affected the most have been uncomfortable for 500 years!” he thundered. “If one person is comfortable, we all should be comfortable. But if one person isn’t, we all shouldn’t rest.” As a prescription for society, this standard of comfort would be hard to universalize. But Williams elaborated: “We must always, always comfort the afflicted. But in order to get justice, we must afflict the comfortable.”

A similar sentiment was voiced that same week by Brooklyn councilmember Brad Lander—like Williams a steadfast political progressive and longstanding member of the Working Families Party. During a June webcast with former Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger—on the topic of “Electoral Politics and the Jewish Obligation to Advocacy”—Lander expounded at length on the difficulty in being an outspoken leader on racial justice, while recognizing one’s own white privilege. “Sometimes our liberal, Jewish social justice worlds on the Upper West Side and for sure in Park Slope have a kind of comfort about them,” Lander explained. He explained “an ideal” that he had heard articulated, “from a Christian, rather than a Jew, of ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,’ which I have made a core ideal of my social-justice activism.” In a 2015 interview, Lander called the principle a “deep, sometimes painful, but often joyous responsibility.”

In July, the city moved 700 homeless single men into hotels on the densely populated and famously tolerant Upper West Side, purportedly as a response to the pandemic. Residents were stunned to find their neighborhood turned overnight into a skid row, with nonstop open drug sales and drug use, public sex acts, and rampant street harassment of women and girls. During a contentious local community board Zoom meeting about the issue, Erin Drinkwater, a deputy commissioner of intergovernmental and legislative affairs at the Department of Social Services, spoke blandly about the need for “compassion” and implied that the concerned neighbors were racist for opposing the city’s move. Following the meeting, Drinkwater tweeted “Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable.” When asked what she meant by this, she said that it was a quotation from the Bible’s Book of James, and that it spoke to her sense of mission.

One might ask why a social-services functionary in New York City would cite the Bible in defense of public policy—except that the quotation is not even from the Bible. In fact, it is from Finley Peter Dunne, a popular Chicago columnist from the 1890s who invented a humorous character named “Mr. Dooley,” an Irish bartender who delivered his wisdom in dialect.

The original quotation, in which Mr. Dooley described the function of the newspaper: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.” Somehow, in a bizarre game of “cultural telephone,” this mock-sonorous fiddle-faddle has gathered the effulgence of holy writ for progressives, who take it as descriptive of their “joyous responsibility.”

On the one hand, it’s comical that this scrap of tabloid wit is taken so gravely by self-righteous officials. Properly speaking, isn’t it their job to make people more comfortable, not to diminish comfort? But on the other hand, it’s frightening to consider that New York is now run by progressive militants who appear to believe that their vocation is to “afflict” their constituents by disrupting their undeserved calm and comfort. Mass immiseration is not a side effect of bad policy; it is the policy.

 Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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