My most recent post was written to express my wife’s frustration with the fact that her hotmail account was down for days. She was frustrated because she couldn’t tell if anyone was really doing anything to fix it. Her fate was in the hands of people she couldn’t communicate with and did not know.
I did get a lot of feedback with suggestions about how she might be able to remedy the problem. The ideas were appreciated, and may have helped, thank you. But one thing nobody suggested was that she might not be able to do anything about it at all. Nobody said she should consider saving her energy, doing nothing, and just wait it out until the problem resolved itself on its own.
It goes against our nature to accept that there is nothing we can do to fix a problem. We like to think there must be something we can do that will make things better. Late Sunday I made a change to her account, and voila, within a half hour, it was fixed. Did that solve the problem? I have no idea. But it is in our nature to think that we can make things better for ourselves. We like to think we have control over things, we like to think we can thwart obstacles.
In history we don’t like to be reminded of cases in which people couldn’t solve their own problems. We don’t like to hear about stories of failure. We especially don’t like to hear about it when it concerns recent New York City history. I believe that’s one reason people don’t like to admit Robert Moses was such a bad guy. How could the person who built every road and bridge in the city be so bad? Surely the folks he displaced could have done something to resolve their problems, it’s not fair to blame all their suffering on him is it?
This thinking has been part of the recent effort to resurrect Moses’ reputation. To accept that Moses is a dark character is to accept our own futility. We have to admit that the city as an entity didn’t take care of its own. That’s bothersome. We don’t like to think that those who suffered did so through no fault of their own. We like to think they must have been able to do something to remedy their situation. I think that is also why the New York Times forgot to mention the AIDS controversy when it published Ed Koch’s obituary. It wasn’t necessarily an intentional omission, it might just have been their human nature to forget.
One of the great things about historical photos is that they are hard to refute. No spin or propaganda can diffuse their meaning The shot of the Cross Bronx Expressway ripping through the fragile neighborhood of the Bronx cannot be woven into any type of positive message about Moses. If you choose to defend him, if you choose to refute Robert Caro’s 1400 page expose of him, it’s still hard to look at the picture and reconcile it with all the positive thoughts you want to convey to us about the man.
But don’t go too far, another frailty of humanity is that we like to think of people as merely villains and heroes. It may be simpler that way, but it is not accurate. Moses did some very good things and you have to incorporate those into your evaluation of him as well. The pictures of Jones Beach, the Triboro Bridge, and Verrazano belong in the Robert Moses mosaic as well as those of the Cross Bronx.
Our goal should be to use the research of facts to unravel the truth, not to conceal it. We should try to approach the legacy of Ed Koch in the same way. We will no doubt find out more good and bad about him as we go, and we should reevaluate him accordingly. With the new Ed Koch movie, and the AIDS documentary from last year, we see different pictures of a complicated man. Let’s try to look at them objectively. Let’s try to give ourselves some time to figure out what we can about the former mayor, and do so without making any quick judgement.