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Shame, Pride, and Hizzoner

On former New York Mayor Ed Koch’s tomb, the text reads:

“My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, and I am Jewish” (Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by Muslim terrorists)

After the text of the shema (a witness to faith traditionally recited, among other times, on one’s deathbed), the gravestone continues:

He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.

Pride. It was a huge part of what was appealing about Koch as a Mayor, particularly early in his tenure – his pride in the city, his determination not to cringe, not to surrender, not to give up. His willingness to fight – and his conviction that the opposition was composed of “nuts” and others without a fundamental understanding of the way the world works – or, worse, who didn’t care if they destroyed the city so long as they got theirs. He may have been an insensitive jerk, New Yorkers felt, but he was our insensitive jerk.

Counterfactuals are tough, but having a personality like Koch’s in charge of the city in the late 1970s probably made a real difference in averting bankruptcy, inasmuch as the Congressional leaders sitting across the table from him believed that he would deliver on his promises to get the city’s fiscal house in order. Which he did.

And there was a particular Jewish dimension to Koch’s pride. Koch was one of a class of Jewish New Yorkers of his generation who, in their view, spoke truth to, if not power, then to a particular kind of force. The force of, from their perspective, barbarism. Norman Podhoretz and Albert Shanker, to pick two other exemplars of the type, had their disagreements, politically, but they shared with Koch a certain zest for street combat with people who, to them, represented chaos.

It’s not surprising that Koch would seize on the Pearl quote for his epitaph, as Pearl’s martyrdom was the perfect symbol of what drove Koch’s pride: a pride not so much in what he was, not what he stood for, but what he stood against.

Pearl’s father, though, asks what that emphasis on pride meant for Koch’s actual Jewishness:

I never met Koch in person, but we first corresponded in 2004, when my wife and I were working on a book of essays inspired by the last words of our son. When I first heard what Danny said in that dungeon, I knew it would strike a chord with every Jewish soul—and, in fact, that every decent human being would be moved by this expression of identity. That he declared those words—words connecting him to his people with a shared, ancient history—makes me feel he wasn’t alone, that he had many millions of hearts with him in Karachi. . . .

The echo of Danny’s words has not subsided. Koch took the dramatic act of putting it on his tombstone, but many others carry Danny’s words and are nurtured by them, quietly. For the book, we commissioned many prominent Jews to reflect on what the phrase “I am Jewish” meant to them, and Koch was one of the 300 people we asked. Koch sent in an essay mainly expressing anger about the terrorists—how they act against civilized society, and how they should be dealt with. It was about our world and how we got into this war, and we felt it didn’t fit the theme. The theme was what does being Jewish mean to you, a very personal question, and we asked Koch if he’d be open to revising it. Koch’s answer was definitive: That’s how I feel, he said, and I can’t change it.

Maybe his Jewishness was genuinely defined by who his enemies were. . . . “I’m proud of being Jewish,” he would always proclaim, and his tombstone will never allow us to forget that fact: “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith,” it reads. But Koch never explained, at least publicly, what that meant beyond triumphalism and the joy of making it as a minority. Why be proud? What particular elements are there to be proud of? Surely there is more than the fact that we have survived persecution and genocides for being who we are.

This is not a particularly Jewish problem. It’s a problem of pride in general – that it takes you out of the thing itself into a reflection on that thing, a reflection that grows more distorted the more dominant pride is in your relation to the thing of which you are proud.

Of course, to some during his tenure as Mayor, Koch was the one who would not take a stand for civilization and against chaos and death. Cue Richard Kim:

Reading Randy Shilts’s account in And the Band Played On, it’s impossible not to conclude that Koch’s personal paranoia [about being considered gay] came to determine his policy response to AIDS. According to Shilts, Koch “warmly embraced requests that cost the city nothing,” but routinely rejected any requests—for housing for people with AIDS, for a health center in Greenwich Village, for hospice space—that came with a price tag. Koch, Shilts writes, wanted to avoid the perception that gays would get “special treatment” in his administration. The result is that “for the next two years, AIDS policy in New York would be little more than a laundry list of unmet challenges, unheeded pleas, and programs not undertaken.” “All the ingredients for a successful battle against the epidemic existed in New York City” concludes Shilts, “except for one: leadership.”

As David France, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plaguepoints out, by January 1984, New York City under Koch’s leadership had spent a total of just $24,500 on AIDS (full disclosure: the producer of HTSAP is my partner, Howard Gertler). That same year, San Francisco, a city one-tenth the size of New York, spent $4.3 million, a figure that grew to over $10 million annually by 1987.

The mayor of San Francisco during those years was Dianne Feinstein, who like Koch was no radical. She came from the centrist coalition that included Dan White, the city supervisor who murdered Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, whose office Feinstein assumed in the wake. Like Koch, she had a troubled relationship with the gay community (she infamously vetoed a domestic partnership bill in 1983). And like Koch, she was, above all, a political opportunist with national ambitions who happened to live in a liberal city with a large, politically active gay population. But she was straight, and—paradoxically—that made a difference in how those two cities treated people with AIDS in those formative years.

I read Shilts’s book many years ago, but my recollection is that he bitterly recounted how the Koch Administration’s biggest enthusiasm, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, was for strong confidentiality rules. Saving lives, or making death more humane, was a much lower priority than preserving privacy – even if preserving privacy made it harder to fight the epidemic itself.

Whatever Koch’s own sexuality was (and I have no personal knowledge on that score, having only met the man once, and that briefly), his view of how society should treat sexual orientation was that, while there should be no discrimination against those who declare that orientation, it is vital that social mores preserve, even privilege, the prerogative not to so declare oneself. Which is, you know, fair enough. But what would Koch have thought about a Jew whose priorities were similarly place? Who felt that it was vital to say (as Koch does in the new documentary about him, when asked, once again, about his own sexuality), “it’s none of your f-ing business!” Whatever else one might say about that attitude, it isn’t proud.

One of Koch’s angriest antagonists in the latter years of his mayoralty was Larry Kramer, a key founder of ACT-UP and before that of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. It’s instructive to note that these two men, who despised each other, were so much alike. They just chose different aspects of their identities to be the focus of their pride. And they are loved and hated, fiercely, for that very quality.

Pride is a funny thing, with both positive and negative associations, and that’s reflected in its two opposites: shame and humility, the first a term of obloquy, the second a term of approbation. What this both reveals and obscures is the possibility that pride, rather than being a double-edged sword, is a station partway along a journey of character development, somewhere between shame and humility. It won’t do to look at Ed Koch’s fierce pride, pride so fierce it moved him to use his tombstone to point a finger at a fellow Jew’s murderer, and say, oy, do you have to be so aggressive? Couldn’t you be quieter, like you are about sexuality? By the same token, though, that fierce pride isn’t the end of the road, isn’t the place to stop. There’s a road further, to seeing that your own pride is the pride of a microscopic speck in the cosmos – your own speck, and so you love it fiercely, and certainly no worse than any other speck, no reason to cringe before the most exalted monarch, the most valiant hero – but still, just a speck. That’s not shame – shame is precisely that cringing and hiding that pride gets you out of, and that you must get out of. It’s humility.

The United States of America needed a shot of pride in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ed Koch personified that for New York. Ronald Reagan personified it for America as a whole. Those were my formative years, and for me, Koch will always be Mayor, just like Reagan will always be President. (My son, meanwhile, will undoubtedly grow up thinking the Mayor is always a billionaire, and the President is always black. Go figure.) But that pride has long since hypertrophied, and it is past time to progress further, as a city and as a nation, down that road to humility, which does not negate self-respect, but sees it in context.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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