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Gotham in Decline

Those of us who grew up in New York City in the 1980s have troubling memories of a grimy, graffiti-ridden urban landscape where danger was a part of everyday life and you could not walk the streets without anticipating the possibility of becoming a victim of harassment or worse.

The election of Rudolph Giuliani in the 1993 mayoral race drew howls of outrage from the left, but under Giuliani, and his police commissioner William Bratton, the city at last began to make steps to becoming slightly more civilized and habitable. The tough approach continued under Michael Bloomberg, but it came to an abrupt end under Bill de Blasio, who rejected tough policing as unfair to minorities in New York. De Blasio did not seem to understand or care that while crime and disorder affected almost everyone, those who benefited most from a decline in the homicide rate were precisely the city’s racial minorities.

Now, at the end of De Blasio’s awful tenure, incidents happen every day that cannot fail to summon memories of the 1980s. On December 2, a gang member with an arrest record going back to 2012 stabbed to death Davide Giri, a Columbia University graduate student from Italy, and viciously attacked two other strangers before being caught. The perpetrator was out on post-release supervision.

New Yorkers will soon see if our mayor-elect, former cop Eric Adams, can make good on his pledge to reverse course. Mayor Adams, let’s see what you’re made of.

Germany’s Man of the Hour

The Economist of December 11-17 features a profile of Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz. The article, “Enter the Quiet Man,” presents Scholz as a moderate pragmatist with a strong work ethic. According to the article, some of Scholz’s fellow Social Democrats find him a bit too moderate, far from the politician who would be needed to spearhead a reenergized European left.

Or at least that was the case until the Covid pandemic came along, the article tells us. Today one may wonder just how moderate Scholz has every really been beneath the surface. The pandemic has brought out certain tendencies. The article details how the emergency gave Scholz as finance minister the opportunity to design a 750 billion-Euro recovery fund for the E.U. and to advance a far-reaching corporate tax deal.

Now that he is chancellor, Scholz’s purview over these and other state functions is even more vastly enlarged. The article describes his hugely ambitious plans for fighting climate change, not least by overseeing the shift to carbon-free industry.

On North Korea

Another article in The Economist presents the findings of researchers from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, an organization based in Seoul. The researchers interviewed refugees from the North Korean city of Hyesan about family life in the country they had fled. A full 47% of respondents said that women had become the primary bread-winners in families in the North, 37% said that men contributed the lion’s share of earnings, and 17% said that husbands and wives made equal contributions. According to the article, the reasons for these surprising findings have to do largely with the fact that the regime in North Korea forces men into state jobs for which they receive little or no pay. With neither the freedom to choose between a vocation and spending time with family, nor the competitive salaries that they might be earning in western countries, men in North Korea may come to feel something the class-tinged resentment that finally turns one of the protagonists of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite homicidal. But overthrowing a totalitarian regime by force from the inside is arguably an even more doomed proposition than acting out a revenge fantasy against a callous and snooty upper-class family.

Joan Didion photographed by Jill Krementz in Trancas, California, on March 31, 1972. (Photo: Jill Krementz)

On Joan Didion

The website Book and Film Globe, edited by Neal Pollack, features my thoughts on the passing of Joan Didion, the pioneering and prolific essayist, memoirist, critic, and novelist who showed us all how porous the borders between fiction and nonfiction narrative really are. To read Didion is to see that there is no reason an account of a trip to El Salvador, a Doors rehearsal, a Bay Area courtroom during a trial of Black Panthers accused of murder, or a stint in New York City during a tender and impressionable time of life cannot have all the passion, drive, and power of riveting fiction. Since Didion’s passing on Thursday, December 23, tributes have come pouring in from critics, journalists, editors, and publishers all over the world, and I tried in my Book and Film Globe piece to convey at least some sense of why readers are so passionate about the late celebrity.

By Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist. He is the author of the short story collections Scenes from the Catastrophe (2016), The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). Michael's story "Confessions of a Spook" won Causeway Lit's 2018 fiction contest.