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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 [1] and Albert Shanker [2], 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 [3] 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 [4] 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 [5]:

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 [6], 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 [7], 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 [8], 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 [9], 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.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Shame, Pride, and Hizzoner"

#1 Comment By cw On February 6, 2013 @ 10:17 am

This is sort of a convoluted essay, for me relying too much on your own particular portrayal of Koch and his psychology, but I like your formulation of pride being somewhere on a continuum between shame and humility. That’s pretty good. It seems like a useful way of thinking about it.

#2 Comment By Noah Millman On February 6, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

Fair enough. I just saw the movie, “Koch,” so he was on my mind. And, assuming he is actually gay, it’s really striking the contrast between the politics he assumed around his ethno-religious identity, and the politics he assumed around his sexual orientation.

#3 Comment By Matt in TX On February 6, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

Great piece. Great connection between the “born this way” Jewishness of Koch, (you can see it in those particular words of Pearl’s, which emphasize his parentage) and the sexuality issue which seems, at least superficially, so similar.

#4 Comment By Steve Sailer On February 6, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

Koch conducted his life in such a way that he didn’t contract HIV and therefore didn’t pass it on. Larry Kramer lived in such a way that he did contract HIV and may have passed it on, perhaps killing one or more other gays. Shouldn’t Mr. Kramer feel a little shame and guilt?

The great unmentionable fact about the AIDS catastrophe in the U.S. is that it wasn’t caused by Ronald Reagan or by homophobia or by Ed Koch not coming out of the closet, but by gay liberation. Liberated gays gave each other AIDS. They killed each other, and this burden of guilt has driven a long attempt to lay the guilt off on the innocent.

#5 Comment By cw On February 6, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

“And, assuming he is actually gay, it’s really striking the contrast between the politics he assumed around his ethno-religious identity, and the politics he assumed around his sexual orientation.”

I don’t think it’s that striking when you consider the era. He never could have been elected mayor being openly gay. Plenty of closeted gays at that time were closeted for what I will just call expediency, and were not necessarily ashamed. Closeted doesn’t automatically equal ashamed. But maybe he was. Who knows.

But really, I think your continuum idea is good and useful. Whether Koch is a perfect example or not is irrelevant.

#6 Comment By Noah Millman On February 7, 2013 @ 5:47 am


Larry Kramer was the lone voice in the gay community of the early 1980s pushing gay men to stop having sex and thereby halt the spread of the disease. He’s a very strange choice to pick to make your point.

#7 Comment By cka2nd On February 7, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

Steve Sailer says: “The great unmentionable fact about the AIDS catastrophe in the U.S. is that it wasn’t caused by Ronald Reagan or by homophobia or by Ed Koch not coming out of the closet, but by gay liberation. Liberated gays gave each other AIDS. They killed each other, and this burden of guilt has driven a long attempt to lay the guilt off on the innocent.”

Mr. Sailer, am I correct in assuming that your statement is based on the facts (or an assumptions) that “gay liberation” resulted in more gay men having sex with more partners, hence causing the spread of AIDS and fueling the AIDS catastrophe, and that closeted gays would not have spread the HIV virus so widely? If I am, would you mind sharing your sources.

Would you at least admit that the response to the AIDS crisis by public officials such as President Reagan and Mayor Koch contributed to the depth of the catastrophe? Or that anti-gay sentiment on the part of the public and public officials deepened the catastrophe? Reagan and Koch may not have caused the AIDS catastrophe, but were they really innocent in its impact?

Lastly, do you have an opinion on the origin of HIV and AIDS, and to what degree blame can be assigned there, assuming liberated gays did not originate the virus?

#8 Comment By cw On February 8, 2013 @ 9:27 am

Gay men in the 70s are “guilty” of killing each other becasue their activities (mucho anonymous sex) spread a disease no one knew about?

If some currently unknown fatal disease is spread by wearing down coats in public is everyone in a puffy coat “guilty” of murder?

#9 Comment By Bill Pearlman On February 9, 2013 @ 8:40 am

I always liked Koch, voted for him a couple of times.

#10 Comment By David Lindsay On February 9, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

There is a logically unimpeachable combination of neoliberal economics, a liberal social policy which is nevertheless open to authoritarian measures against those whose perceived lack of enlightenment renders them a threat, rigid state secularism (even if accompanied by occasional, and occasionally even by regular, religious observance), and an aggressive military expansionism in that cause, especially in support of those countries which already most fully embody it. Above all, that means, or at least it has meant until recent years, the State of Israel. Since that position is, in a word, American Jewish, and above all New York Jewish.

Chestertonians and Burkeans are said to be on the rise as the Republican Party tries to reconstruct itself. I very much hope that that is true. And the recent elections indicated that the Bobby Kennedy black-blue coalition was now the Democratic majority as surely as was the George McGovern coalition of non-white ethnic minorities with urban and suburban, often Jewish, liberals.

Those last long ago decided that the essence of Jewish identity, and even of Judaism, was to be found in a celebration of dissent, argument, strict state secularism, egalitarian and democratic family structures, avant garde educational methods bound up with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, internationalism in general and liberal interventionism in particular, an openness to people’s and organizations’ Marxist pasts and to whatever they might have retained from those days, minimal religious observance and negligible religious instruction, all with a view to the highest or fullest degree of individual freedom and self-realization, themselves defined in terms of all the foregoing.

Initially, it was America that was idealized as the civic embodiment of those principles, by reference to a very particular reading of the Founding Fathers in such terms, and retaining the more or less explicit view that Jews were to form the liberal vanguard, the natural elite, the national or societal conscience. Later, mostly after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Israel also came to be so identified, in that case by so reading people who were in many cases still alive to correct such a wild misrepresentation, yet who rarely, if ever, did so.

This would of course have been unrecognizable and repugnant to its originators’ near ancestors in Central and Eastern Europe. That point is made most starkly by the very heavy rewriting of the Yiddish tales of Sholem Aleichem in order to turn them into Fiddler on the Roof, in which a man dressed like the first audience’s great-grandfathers articulates that audience’s own prejudices rather than those of its great-grandfathers.

A real life Tevye would have held views far more akin to those of a 1960s New York Jew’s Catholic neighbors, mostly of Irish and Italian stock, but also German and East European, the blue (i.e., blue-collar, working-class) in the black-blue: unshakably committed to ecclesial, civil and parental authority, which were inculcated by thoroughly traditional forms of education at the heart of which was the systematic impartation over many years, from early childhood until at least the middle or late teens, of a very extensive body of highly specific religious knowledge which was in no sense up for debate.

In political terms, this issued as much in an utterly uncompromising anti-Communism as in participation in organized labor and community activism, in a commitment to the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and in sympathy for Civil Rights, of which it was in fact often Jews who were more skeptical, although the Communist Party’s involvement in things like the NAACP did the cause no favors among the white ethnics in the North, who historically, and at that time well within living memory, had been just as much victims of things like the Ku Klux Klan.

Again, it was America that was idealized as the civic embodiment of those principles; again, by reference to a very particular reading of the Founding Fathers in such terms. A reading which was absolutely ridiculous considering how ferociously anti-Catholic the Founding Fathers were, but there we are. That would remain the fundamental, even if no longer always the conscious, frame of reference for most of the readers of the New York Post. Under its present Proprietor and Editor-in-Chief, Rupert Murdoch, that newspaper has done more than anything else to turn its readers into adherents of that which the rival, Jewish frame of reference has now become in practical policy terms.

But with even the New York Times, the house journal of that rival position, turning against key parts of it, what hope is there of keeping Pat and Carmine, Rosie and Carmela in line? In fact, Pat and Carmine, Rosie and Carmela have already seen through big business social liberalism and its global spread by force of arms, and they are reverting to a pattern of voting accordingly. Even at the Presidential level, which was where there was most desertion from the late 1960s onwards.

And now, Ed Koch is dead.

#11 Comment By Icarusr On February 10, 2013 @ 8:58 am

Beautiful essay.

#12 Comment By J M On February 10, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

Noah: Thanks for a great, very personal essay. My memories of hizzoner are much the same.

I think Koch’s WWII service was hugely formative to his personality. He was an infantryman who fought through the Battle of the Bulge – what he saw outpaced, by a mile, anything I witnessed in Iraq. Its effect on a nice, young Jewish boy from the Bronx can only be guessed at.

I met Mayor Koch once at a military gathering. He was an old man then, yet all he wanted to do was talk with guys in uniform (like me) and ask how “the war” was going and how “the boys” were doing. Class act, all the way.

So he was a closeted gay man of the old school – so what? Sorry to say it, but he didn’t infect anyone with AIDS or anything else. People need to own up to their own conduct, period.

May God rest Sergeant Koch’s soul.

#13 Comment By Rambler88 On February 10, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

I’m a native New Yorker, I remember Koch’s career well, and my father worked closely with him when he was mayor. He had a big mouth, an unpuncturable ego, and few scruples about truth. In my opinion, he did nothing but harm to the city’s image or it its self-esteem (except in the eyes and minds of Jews). As to his Jewishness, for someone who was born a Jew, Jewishness was a political necessity in New York. There was plenty of room for non-Jews in the city’s political machine, but not for an apikores (an apostate Jew) in a leading role. Traditionalist Judaism holds to a deadly hatred towards apostasy. I don’t know what his personal faith was, but like any good political shill, Koch internalized all political necessities. As mayor, he looks good only in comparison with Dinkins, who was a disaster. Thus there appears to be some nostalgia for the days when a registered Democrat could run the city without running it off a cliff. Some of Koch’s predecessors (including his immediate predecessor, Abe Beame) did better than that, but they’re ancient history to the media.

To my mind, the above about sums him up. My he rest in peace–and, at last, in silence.

There seems to be some impulse to make Koch into a gay saint, on the principle that any male bachelor of a certain age is ipso facto gay, and once he is dead, he can’t object. This is on an ethical par with the Mormons’ program of posthumously enrolling long-dead people among the LDS. I can’t guess what his sexual proclivities were, and I have met him. I never much cared. But if he’s to made into a gay exemplar, let’s see some evidence that he was gay. I never heard a whisper to the effect that there was anything but baseless political smear behind the allegations that he was. (“Vote for Cuomo, not the homo!”–Mario Cuomo, that was.) Contrary to current orthodoxy, there are such things as straight bachelors, and they do indeed get very irritated by the assumption–particularly widespread in New York City, even then–that they are gay. Such misunderstandings interfere seriously with one’s life. That may well have been the way Koch felt about it.

#14 Comment By John McKeown On February 12, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

The author ignores Koch’s two policy failures. The first concerned AIDS. When the disease was first detected the victims lived in two places, in North Beach in San Francisco and in the West Village in Manhattan. Gays contracted the disease from one another as a result of wanton unprotected sex in these two neighborhoods. Bath houses were popular places for such cavorting. What was needed to nip the plaque in the bud was an aggressive public health publizicing the danger and encouraging safe sex, and shutting down the bath houses. These common sense measures would have saved tens of thousands of lives but they took years to implement and by then it was too late.

His second policy failure was his inability to control the crime wave. By 1985 some 600,000 felonies were being committed in the city. Virtually all were committed by either recent arrivals in the city, or had parents who were recent arrivals. None of these people were economically viable. They were welfare immigrants (or migrants) attracted by city’s liberal welfare policies. Koch’s administration promoted these policies, especially “low income” housing. Without such policies the criminals would have lived elsewhere and the city would have been civilized.