This was an article I wrote for the Roosevelt Borough Bulletin in the mid 1990's after a contentious time in our little town's politics. As you will read, I wasn't very happy with the choice of the two mayoral candidates we were given. Henry John-Alder (mentioned at the end) is a close friend and neighbor; we ran together for Borough Council in the early 1990's as write-in candidates.

The article was never published. For reasons I still can't fathom, the editor of the Borough Bulletin asked me to withhold it until after the election. I was so disgusted with our local politics that it was the last article I wrote for the Bulletin for almost 10 years. Oooooooooo!!!!!!


Once each year, I am required to teach a class on "Masterpieces
of Western Music" at Columbia University -- part of the much-vaunted
(and oft-debated) core curriculum that defines Columbia's approach to
liberal arts education.  Unlike a few of my faculty colleagues, I
honestly look forward to teaching this course.  Basically, I get to
play a bunch of music I really like and then talk about it; to a
"captive" audience, no less!  I also use the class as an excuse to
engage ideas and issues I feel have a degree of relevance to
contemporary life.

One of the more troublesome of these issues revolves around a particularly
problematic composer in the western classical canon: Richard Wagner.  Wagner
composed some of the most spectacularly sublime music written in the past
several centuries (just listen to the opening 4-5 minutes of *Das*
*Rheingold* if you doubt me).  At the same time, the man was one of the more
nauseating individuals the world has known.  He treated his friends and
enemies with equal callousness, and espoused absolutely horrific social
views.  How can I thrill to the arching melody of Isolde's *Liebestod* with
the knowledge that it was written by the disgusting author of *The* *Jew*
*in* *Music*?

Wagner seems an excessive case, and thus a good example, of a peculiar
separation we have developed in our society.  Call it a discrimination
between form/content, or text/context, but the fact of the matter is that
we divorce the working methodology used to build something from the
object thus built.  Wagner and other creative artists were the cultural
pioneers who mapped this way of being.  As a result, the debate over
"ends justifying means" has largely been settled, with the "means" now
functioning as little more than a footnote for the curious in the text
of our society.

This brings me to the point of this article, the choice we are
being given in the Democratic mayoral primary election (I won't
comment here on the mentally-acute Republican candidate...).  Although
I happen to agree with aspects of Mike Hamilton's narrowly-circumscribed
views on the Big Development Issue in town, I have serious problems
with the form of political operation employed by both candidates.  I think
I can best illustrate these problems by posing a hypothetical question.
In order to make clear my personal agenda behind the question I allow only
limited multiple-choice responses.

The question:  Suppose there were a group of people in town who disagreed
with you on an issue.  What would you do?

Choices for Lee Allen:

A.  Ignore them, pretend they don't exist.
B.  Claim that "professionals" have advised you to do exactly what
    you want to do.
C.  Crank up the ole spreadsheet, and futz with the cells enough to
    justify anything as Truly Cost-Effective (ah, how we
    long for the 1980's...)
D.  All of the above.

Choices for Mike Hamilton:

A.  Impugn the integrity and ascribe "scurrilous" motives to your
B.  Become so convinced of your own righteousness that total censorship
    of dissent becomes a valued goal.
C.  Weave a web of paranoiac conspiracy involving those with whom you
    disagree and promote a wide campaign of smear, fear and distortion;
    while at the same time being utterly oblivious to the consequences
    of your rhetoric.
D.  All of the above.

Both men have shown a singular lack of awareness of the context that
their political actions establish.  Do we actually want to live in
the world formed by their activities?  Two images suffice (for me
at least) to make my case:  Mike Hamilton considerately weighing opposing
viewpoints while wearing his "political action" gas mask; Lee Allen
thoughtfully contemplating the subtle aspects of landscape aesthetics
while hacking his bushes to shreds in front of his house.

To me, these concerns of context do matter.  My transparently sarcastic
multiple-choice responses listed above are intended to demonstrate that
the methodology of our actions as political and social beings does have
real significance -- *how* we do what we do determines the type of
discourse we use, and hence the type of government we create, and
ultimately the type of world we build.

So what am I advocating?  I certainly don't want to put in place some
form of Ayatollic "Rushdie Culture Police" guaranteeing that we all lead
exemplary lives of goodness and light.  But at the same time, I believe
that a little conflation of form with content is sorely needed in a world
populated by 'heroes' and 'winners' such as Latrell Sprewell and
Smilin' Kosovar Bill Clinton.  And the best way for this to happen is to
cultivate a heightened awareness of the consequences of our actions.  We can
no longer afford to shed responsibility for our methods by pointing to a
distant goal and proclaiming "it will be worth it!"  Chances are it isn't,
wasn't, and won't be.

The dilemma I face in deciding how to vote in the primary is not a simple
choice of an issue, but more a decision on how willing I am to trash a
deeply-held ethical conviction (something my wife and I are quite
adept at doing, according to at least one of the mayoral candidates).
I still enjoy listening to Wagner, but that does not preclude me from
attempting to build a more aware and responsible society of individuals.
On my view, to do this involves exercising the option to make informed
choices based upon a social awareness that encompasses both form and content.

Indeed, I actually have made a choice about voting in the primary. It is a
choice that surely can be seen as abdicating any political pressure that
might be brought to bear on the acute development question.  But it is also
a choice of an ethical statement, and a choice that seems appropriate for
the absurd Ionesco-an drama that is local Roosevelt politics:  I'm gonna
write-in Henry John-Alder!

Brad Garton