Monday, December 24, 2001

The Empire State No Longer

When I was a lad and growing up in these environs, New York was always referred to as the Empire State, the largest and most important state in the Union and the breeding place for progressive government. There was the legacy of Al Smith, FDR, Herbert Lehman, Senator Wagner, Fiorello LaGuardia and others and there were ideas and ideals that were at the vital center of democracy and the foundation for a better society.

There was, of course, an excess of hyperbole in this. As with most mortals who achieve fame, some of our idols had feet of clay. We also know – and knew even then – that New York had Tammany Hall, the mob, too much corruption, too much racism, too much poverty. By comparison with other places though, New York excelled. There was ample cause for civic pride. Public housing was mainly a success, public schools were doing a good job, the city colleges were crown jewels, there was opportunity for advancement and the Yankees were winning.

They still are. But however we are called, we aren’t any longer the empire state, not by a long shot. The lustre is off our schools and colleges and there is an exhaustion of ideas, unless one mistakes the goal of making money for an idea. September 11 brought about a good measure of unity and pride and Mayor Giuliani was transformed from sinner to saint, reversing the usual progression of those in high places.

It is easy to lose sight these days of what is rotten, of the traducing of basic values and of New York being in the stranglehold of practices that we should not tolerate. Our voting system is a powerful and shameful example. A year ago, there was anger over Florida’s ballot and the counting or not counting of disputed votes. That misfortune was the consequence of Florida’s misguided attempt to develop an improved system. What we have in New York is a determination to maintain that which is broken and wrong. Our voting machines are fifty-year relics. Many do not work, the ballot is usually confusing and too many of the poll workers – recipients of minor political sinecures – have a close resemblance to the sedated denizens of old-age homes.

What we have is antithetical to democracy. For all of the calls for reform, the situation worsens as New York is paralyzed, here as in much else, by both inertia and a determination to protect special interests without a care for the public good.

This is true also of the State’s complicated electoral process which is one of the most reactionary in the country. There is a mind-boggling set of arcane rules that have the sole aim of limiting the right of voters to choose. These rules are offensive and they would emit a foul odor even in a fetid den of corruption. While they have been whittled down by several judicial rulings, the essential elements of a corrupt system are in place.

And this is the Empire State!

Months ago, the Daily News ran a series on the malignancy known as guardianships, the arrangement whereby courts appoint persons to preserve the assets of those who are presumably not competent to handle their own finances. While the ostensible purpose is to help those who are placed in guardianship, the reality is that the system is an easy street for self-enrichment by guardians motivated by greed. The Daily News provided chapter and verse of the sordid details, including the story of a once prominent person with significant assets who is now reduced to eating cat food after the guardian looted the savings.

Under the cover of law and generally away from public scrutiny, judges are able to appoint cronies who may have larceny in mind to supervise other persons’ money. New York’s Chief Judge, Judith Kaye, has issued a report criticizing the system and she has instituted certain reforms. They are by far too modest. There is, of course, the collateral processes for settling estates which provide ample feeding opportunities for cronies and other abuses. Too frequently, estates get lost in a legal thicket and their value is frittered away.

When we appear before judges in their black robes on their high benches, the convention is to address them, “Your Honor.” These may be the two most dishonest words spoken in America.

As more people live longer and as more live alone, the potential for judicial-mandated abuse is going to expand because this once but no longer empire state cares too little to safeguard orphans, widows, the elderly, the incompetent.

Cemeteries are another area where New York’s anti-progressivism is evident in the protection of special interests at the expense of the basic value of respect for the dead and their families. Too many of the cemeteries are political feeding grounds. I learned how rotten the system is when I looked into the situation at Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. My father is buried there in the section owned by the synagogue where he served as Rabbi. Also buried there are some persons who are not Jewish, thanks to cemetery officials.

Efforts to remedy the wrongs at Washington Cemetery and other cemeteries are of no avail because of entrenched special interests protected by rules and practices that should have been abandoned long ago. New York’s Cemetery Board is scarcely more alive than the people who are interred on cemetery grounds.

These are three examples of dozens that could be given. It may be that New York is no worse than other states, that state and local governments are rife with abuse, if not outright corruption, nearly everywhere. Whatever the story elsewhere, it remains that New York is now a regressive state. Human dignity and democratic values are secondary to special interests.