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Sentimental Journeys’

In response to:

New York: Sentimental Journeys from the January 17, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

Like a moth to a flame, Joan Didion was drawn to whatever warmth and light the quasi-theatrical jogger trials might afford a sojourner in a city otherwise heartless and dark [“New York: Sentimental Journeys,” NYR, January 17]. What she calls variously “sentimental,” “preferred,” and “transforming narratives”—civic idylls and passion plays resolved too neatly in courtroom dramas and media circuses—do indeed “blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems,” including economic injustice.

But Didion’s essay is also a retelling of her own preferred narrative, carried from Salvador to Miami to New York—an account of ceremonies of innocence drowned in the moral abysses they conceal, of institutions forever collapsing into centers that cannot hold. Her predisposition, if one may call it that, skews the analysis here.

Pundits’ outrage about cases such as the jogger’s don’t truly capture, with anything like the power Didion assumes, the imaginations of New Yorkers who watch the news and then shuttle daily across lines of color and class. Perhaps because these ordinary citizens are curiously unknown as well as unknowing in Didion’s essay, she conflates a “white” narrative of the case with a defense of hoary fantasies of phony civic comity and mistakes her “black” narrative for a salutary disruption of it. Demonstrations led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who brought Tawana Brawley to the jogger trial to greet the alleged rapists, seem to serve Didion about as well as would, say, a strike by the interracial Hospital Workers’ Union.

What seemed not at all understood”—by whom, Didion avoids telling us in half a dozen such maddeningly passive constructions—was that Sharpton wasn’t out to “ease tension.” Rather, we’re told, he used blacks’ and whites’ divergent interests as “a ready-made organizing tool,…a metaphor for the sense of victimization felt not only by blacks….”

But a metaphor for whom? Most white-ethnic, Hispanic, Asian and Caribbean (and even American black) New Yorkers have neither the charged relationship to the image of the jogger nor the presumptions of civic harmony which Didion so casually ascribes to them; they are neither enthralled by nor terrified of Sharpton’s race-drenched metaphors.

So fixed were the emotions provoked by this case that the idea that there could have been, for even one juror, even a moment’s doubt in the state’s case…seemed, to many in the city, bewildering, almost unthinkable.” Unthinkable precisely to whom? How many have excoriated the racially mixed juries that weighed the evidence they got in these and other highly charged cases, drew distinctions among defendants—and confounded prosecutors and protesters alike?

Didion’s “black” narrative, a communal psychodrama born of ancient wounds that surfaced under the ministrations of Sharpton and others in the Howard Beach and Brawley cases, no longer promotes creative disruption. As the “white” narrative of a civic harmony broken only by devils is counterfeit, so the “black” narrative of a conspiratorial, genocidal racism as the engine of victimization is too flawed to do anything but deepen black impotence and isolation.

There is every reason to wish that the city might be redeemed through confrontations with established powers that draw upon African-Americans’ outrage and strengths. But whenever that has actually happened in neighborhoods long thought drained of political and economic clout, blacks have been forging bonds with people of other races; racism has not been the issue, nor race pride the key. It’s a story I tell in The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, which Didion cites accurately yet seems not to have understood.

Something truly terrible did happen that night in Central Park; and the young men who made the videotaped statements made it happen. Their presumed experience of racism does not alone explain it, nor does their putative material deprivation; (contrary to the impression Didion gives us, they were not poor). Nor does what Didion calls the city’s “long unindictable conspiracy of criminal and semi-criminal civic and commercial arrangements,” which has reigned through boom and bust ever since the Dutch swindled Manhattan from Native Americans.

The explanation lies in the debilitating effects of consumer culture and of liberal social welfare policies, as well as of economic inequity; of abysmal black leadership as well as of white racism; and of the tragic distance between those New Yorkers who embrace Didion’s narratives and the vast majority who are trying to redeem in their daily lives the churning, outerborough neighborhoods where the civic culture is up for grabs.

Jim Sleeper
New York Newsday
New York City

Joan Didion replies:

Mr. Sleeper seems distressed that I do not share the views expressed in his recent book, which he believes I do not understand and I believe to be a considerably less definitive text on the city than he does. Given what I wrote and what he wrote, the only “hoary fantasies of phony civic comity” in view would appear to be Mr. Sleeper’s. In fact this letter seems so willfully remote from anything I wrote or think as to make response frivolous. However, since not just my piece but what Mr. Sleeper calls my “predisposition” seems to be at question, for the record: I did not suggest that racism was, in Mr. Sleeper’s words, “the issue,” nor did I suggest that, again in his words, “race pride” was “the key.” Nor did I ascribe what he calls “presumptions of civic harmony” to what he calls “white-ethnic, Hispanic, Asian and Caribbean (and even American black) New Yorkers.” Nor did I suggest about the Central Park defendants that either, as he phrases it, “their presumed experience of racism” or “their putative material deprivation” explained what happened in Central Park. Nor, on the other hand, do I find Mr. Sleeper’s “explanation” adequate, accurate, or to the point.

One last note: those “ceremonies of innocence” also come from somebody else’s movie, again Mr. Sleeper’s, the one in which “the vast majority” of New Yorkers “are trying to redeem in their daily lives the churning, outer-borough neighborhoods.” His movie, certainly not mine. In fact this reflexive return to one’s own scenario is the mark of someone who has just come off a book tour, as in “It’s a story I tell in The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York.”

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