Gotham Diary:
18 August 2014

The only surprise about taking two weeks off from writing here every weekday was the absence of qualms. I wasn’t for a moment troubled by doubts that I might be making a mistake of some kind, staying away for so long, more or less without notice.

It was certainly the right thing to do — to give, that is, my undivided attention to my daughter and her family. This isn’t to say that I was with them every minute; hardly that. But I was always as available, mentally as well as personally, as I could be. It was only the other day, on Friday, that my mind began — resumed — operating on its own, and over the weekend I found myself wanting to take a piece of Megan’s drawing paper and sketch out an idea, something that I don’t usually do. Alas, I never got round to asking for the paper — a measure of my eagerness to smooth over personal issues that weren’t imperative.

Now I have a bundle of memories, most which I shall write out elsewhere. It was an intimate visit. On the whole, my time with Will was something richer but other than mere fun. When he sealed a thoughtful observation with the glance of his big brown eyes, or dissolved into a fit of helpless giggling, he transported me to another dimension, one in which childhood is troubled not by the accidents and pretences that characterized my own as by the plain limitations of the human condition.  To put it another way, Will’s life seems natural in a way that mine never was. I am inclined to resist the impulse to write about what he is like. Generalizations of that kind seem inappropriate to a subject who is four and a half years old. I’d rather collect a few good stories  —and I’d better collect them soon, before my memory plays tricks with me.

Today, however, I’m keen to get back to work.


There is plenty to get through. On the first of the month, after writing the last entry here, I went to the Whitney Museum, to see the Jeff Koons retrospective. For the moment, its enough to say that I was shocked by what I saw at the Whitney — so shocked that I couldn’t have written about it for days anyway.

While I was mulling over the moral failure of art critics to evaluate Koons’s productions in a fully adult manner, a separate but not unrelated crisis in public criticism came to light, in the aftermath of events in Ferguson, Missouri. Sad to say, there was nothing very distinctive about the death of Michael Brown. Brown appears to have been the victim of yet one more unnecessary, arguably wrongful killing in the annals of American racism. The unrest provoked by the official response to the shooting wasn’t new, either, at least to those of us who could remember the riots of the late Sixties. The novelty driving the Ferguson story was the pseudo-military tomfoolery of the police. It was the image of civil policemen confronting American citizens in Army drag that ignited national outrage. But there was nothing new about this, either — not really. The truly awful thing about Ferguson turns out to be that there is nothing new about it. As the background stories tumbled out, Ferguson took on the distinct air of plus ça change… Photographs taken by Danny Lyons in the early Sixties were arrayed alongside images from Missouri, illustrating the lack of alteration in hostility between white law enforcers and black protesters. We learned about the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, which gifts municipal police forces with retired arms and armor on the sole and astounding condition that these weapons be deployed within the year. But the 1033 Program has been active for over a decade. Ross Douthat mentioned “Radley Balko’s essential 2013 book,” The Rise of the Warrior Cop. But 2013 was last year, not last week. Where was there news?

Even the news that Captain Ronald Johnson, the black chief of the Missouri Highway Patrol and a man who grew up in the Ferguson area, has been unable to stop the criminal violence that the clash has unleashed isn’t really news. Insofar as it is news to the young users of Twitter who seem to have propelled the events in Ferguson into the national forum, our American History teachers haven’t been doing a very good job.

Once again, I find myself landing in the helplessness, or moral bankruptcy, of David Carr’s Media Equation report. I don’t expect ordinary men and women to keep abreast of developments in public affairs. But I do expect professional journalists and commentators to transcend the demands of media entertainment by fashioning a serious world view that engages public attention. It is not enough, to follow stories. I don’t mean that journalists ought to fabricate their own stories, but rather that they ought to lead ongoing stories into general discussion. If they can’t figure out how to do that, it’s hard to see what they’re good for.

In David Carr’s view, the Ferguson story began in Ferguson.

On Thursday, after the chaos, there was a huge in-migration of news media. Perhaps even absent the conflagration on Twitter, journalists would have shown up. Perhaps cable news would have turned hard toward the story, and the kind of coverage that eventually drew the attention of the president and the governor of Missouri would have taken place. Perhaps all the things that led to the security situation in Ferguson being handed over to cooler heads would have ensued. But nothing much good was happening in Ferguson until it became a hashtag.

But the Ferguson story began with, among other things, the implementation of the 1033 Program. Twitter was the ideal vehicle for propagating images of the armored car topped by sharpshooters, but no one would have turned to a social media site to follow the path taken by that “tank” from a war zone to an American suburb. Until Ferguson, the use of military resources by ordinary policemen was largely limited to drug raids and hostage situations that were unlikely to provoke public indignation. Nobody got excited about warrior cops until the cops themselves played the bad guys’ part — as they were sure to do, eventually, but as they would not have been in a position to do, had knowledgeable and influential Americans put a quick stop to the 1033 Program by effectively shaming it.

How did American journalism ever become so passive? How much longer are we going to have to take our chances with stories that play well on Twitter?