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Postcard From New York – NYPD, a Prodigal Prince and Other Stories

January 8, 2015

Manhattan

There’s no city I enjoy visiting more than New York, but no city I would less like to make my home. The second statement is a bit of an exaggeration perhaps – give me New York any time over Karachi, Caracas and Mosul. It’s a city for young people, and I’m not young any more. But as a place to visit it’s superb.

It’s the first Monday of 2015, and New York hurtles back into work like a stampede of buffaloes. My wife and I are here for a long weekend, and the city has welcomed us like an old friend – not that it treats new ones with any less relentless enthusiasm.

I always check out the local media in any place I visit. The news story that’s been bubbling away for a while came to a head again over the weekend: the ongoing war between Mayor De Blasio and the New York Police Department. The other story attracting most attention is the allegation against Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, that he had sex with minors procured from him by a zillionaire American financier and the daughter of a deceased British fraudster.

The NYPD story arises out of remarks by the mayor questioning the partiality of the police following the death of a man who died after being held in a choke hold. A number of officers responded by turning their backs on the mayor at the funeral of one of the officers killed by a mentally unstable man in Brooklyn.

Now at this point I must say that there’s any police force I would want on my side it would be the NYPD. Those guys are the roughest, toughest, meanest looking bunch of law enforcers to be found in any city I’ve visited. Not only that, but contrary to the popular myth about them being brusque and unhelpful to tourists , if you ask them directions, they will usually reply with courtesy.

I do wonder, though, whether they’ve become a little too absorbed in their own mythology. All that stuff about New York’s Finest and the affectionate if warts-and-all portrayal of the force in NYPD Blue reflects an admirable esprit de corps. But when it comes to public arguments with politicians, the gesture against De Blasio looks a little like arrogance.

Nobody in New York questions the NYPD’s bravery, and few around the world will forget the sacrifice they and the fire fighters made on 9/11. Yet the De Blasio incident gives you the feeling that here is an organisation that has forgotten that it is part of a chain of command at the head of which is the elected mayor. If members of the US armed forces were to pull a similar stunt at the expense of their commander-in-chief, the President, there would surely be an almighty row, followed by severe disciplinary action. Heads would almost certainly roll.

If the NYPD feels that it is above criticism – and I leave it to you to judge on the basis of this video whether the criticism of the conduct of arresting officers in the choke-hold incident was justified – it’s not the only police force to take that view. In my country, the UK, police forces have come in for serious hammering over the past couple of years from the Home Secretary Theresa May. Accusations of “institutional racism” on the part of the Metropolitan Police, and the more recent Plebgate affair, in which an officer invented evidence to support allegations of inappropriate language against a Cabinet Minister, suggest an adversarial culture in the police’s relationship with their political masters.

One thing does surprise me though, both from personal observation of officers around the Rockefeller Center this weekend and from the video, is how many officers seem seriously overweight. Is physical fitness a requirement of New York police officers? I would bet strongly in favour of a fleeing suspect in a contest for speed against at least 50% of the cops I saw. So if an officer is unable to chase a suspect on foot, what alternative does he or she have? Presumably to draw a gun, taser them or call for support. Does the officer’s inability to give chase increase the chance of a violent outcome? I don’t know enough about policing to say. But compared, for example, with the (more-or-less) unarmed officers of London’s Metropolitan Police, athleticism would not seem to be at a premium within the NYPD.

The story about Prince Andrew made headlines in New York partly because of America’s fascination with the British aristocracy (the latest series of Downton Abbey made the front page of USA Today), and partly because the legal proceedings around Andrew’s friend Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted paedophile, are taking place in the US. For fear of finding myself locked up in the Tower of London I will say no more about Prince Charles’s younger brother than to suggest that his finest hour came 30 years ago when he was a navy helicopter pilot in the Falklands war. Given his subsequent well-publicised private life, perhaps he should have gone on to a career as an airline pilot. He would have had plenty of opportunity to travel, not to mention regular proximity to the opposite sex.

When I say we visited New York, I should actually say Manhattan, because that island is really a city within a city. Most of the places we visited were within walking distance, or otherwise a few hops on the subway. But mostly walking, which brings its own special pleasure. New Yorkers are great walkers. Most of them at this time of the year are wrapped up as if for a trip to the North Pole, though one difference from London is the prevalence of leggings. Now leggings look good on some people, but on others they look, well, spectacular. You don’t have to walk far to encounter an extremely large woman waddling past, her gargantuan backside protected only by skin-tight leggings, leaving nothing – cellulite, dimples, wobbles and all – to the imagination. I’m not talking Kim Kardsashian here – more Walking with Dinosaurs. One of the notable sights of the city, in a gruesome kind of way.

One of the more delightful aspects of New York is the lightness with which – at least on the surface – it wears its multiracial character. Not to say that there aren’t problems, as the accusations against the NYPD attest. But on the streets and in the towers of Manhattan black, white, Asian, and Hispanic citizens work happily together. It’s also worth noting that the NYPD has a vastly more diverse workforce than any of the British forces. The two officers killed recently were of Hispanic and Chinese descent.

Even among more recent immigrants you sense the urge to be American, to fit in. The extent to which the instinct for cultural homogeneity is more than skin deep was explored in Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s dark play that we saw on Broadway. Take Amir a high-flying lawyer of Pakistani descent, Emily, his white wife, Isaac, a Jewish art dealer and Jory, his wife, who is black, and happens to be a colleague of Amir. Emily is an artist who has an interest in Islamic art. She is hoping that the dealer will include her work in an upcoming exhibition. Her husband is hoping to be made partner in his firm. He is a self-proclaimed apostate from Islam, yet finds himself drawn into the case of an imam who has been jailed on suspicion of promoting terrorism.

The four of them get together for dinner, at which loin of pork is to be served – an obvious symbol of the assimilation of the Jewish and Muslim participants. Amir is half drunk on scotch by the time the other couple arrives, a reaction to being told that he has not made partner, partly, he thinks, because of the adverse publicity over his comments to the press on the imam’s detention.

Banter between Amir and Isaac turns sour as each reveals a mindset less liberal than was initially apparent. The action descends into darkness and destruction in a manner only matched by Edward Albee at his best. The uneasy position of America’s Muslims post 9/11, the contradictions inherent in the Quran, tensions between black and white and the divided loyalties of Jews when confronted with criticism of Israel combine in a toxic and combustible mix. A powerful piece of theatre for the largely moneyed white audience to think about. With the best seats selling for over $400, how could they not be moneyed?

Speaking of Jews, New York is home to over a million, probably the largest population in a single city outside Israel. Not surprising then that the city boasts a museum dedicated to Judaism and the Jewish heritage. Since I’m currently reading Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews, and no trip to the city would be complete without at least one museum visit, the Jewish Museum – which is just a short walk down 5th Avenue from the Guggenheim – was an obvious choice.

It has, it claims, the largest collection of Jewish artefacts outside Israel, and very impressive they are too. Before reading Schama’s book I was relatively unaware of the historical context of pre-Christian Judaism, and particularly the strong Hellenistic influence on Jewish culture and religion. This was much in evidence in the Jewish Museum, in the form of pottery, sculpture and coinage. I was also unaware that struggle for supremacy between political and religious leaders goes back so far. The tension between the religious and the secular in the present state of Israel is merely the latest iteration of a debate that started two and a half millennia ago.

The museum is well worth a visit for the art and artefacts alone. But it also serves as a reminder to those who view Jews and Judaism through the prisms of the Holocaust and the current Israeli state that here is a rich culture that has contributed as much to human thought as Christianity and Islam. Perhaps the critical difference of Judaism lies in its exceptionalism. The idea of one small group of people being anointed by God as “chosen” is dramatically different than the other two faiths, whose followers have actively sought to convert non-believers.

There are no doubt any number of theologians and historians who know far more about this than me, but Judaism’s history as a faith that looks inwards rather than proselytises has surely contributed to the paranoia and envy that has led to persecution and isolation over its long history. Yet which religion has inflicted the most pain and suffering on humanity? One that holds others at an arm’s length, or ones that for much of their existence have used the pen, the sword and the torture chamber to convert non-believers?

Not a subject on which I’m prepared to judge. My philosophy has always been to seek humanity wherever I can find it. Museums that emphasise humanity over inhumanity would always be my preference, and the Jewish Museum certainly does that.

And that, apart from a bit of shopping, a magnificent Sunday brunch at a restaurant called 8½ on 57th Street West and a visit to Ground Zero, now the site of a glimmering new tower, was our New York weekend. The latest of many, and hopefully not the last.

From → Politics, Religion, Travel, USA

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