On Bloomberg’s self-love and our narrow political imagination

Update: A revised version of the essay is available here at Counterpunch.

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Mayor Bloomberg is featured on the cover of the Feb. 7 New Yorker. Entitled “Bloom in Love,” the watercolor depicts our vain mayor smitten with his image. It is Valentine’s Day (or perhaps, it’s implied, every day for Bloomberg is Valentine’s Day), and he’s celebrating the occasion with self-addressed chocolates, some bubbly, and some me-time in front of the mirror. Outside, the city is barely visible, and from what we can gather it doesn’t figure prominently, or at all, in Bloom’s uninterrupted revelries.

Admittedly, the artist Barry Blitt is having a cheap laugh at the mayor’s expense. The joke is either that Bloomberg’s clueless about the state of the city (he’s too busy looking at himself to turn around and look out his window) or that he’s gotten into the habit of putting himself first. Either way, he doesn’t have the public interest at heart. (Yes, reader, the pun is intended.)

To my mind, the cover feels tired and cliched, and the “collective catharsis” the artist intends is just another example of scapegoating. Middle-brow muckracking, in short.

To be sure, the artist is not beyond playing on our shared sense of cynicism regarding matters of a political nature. We are held together, in some tenuous fashion, by the idea that our political leaders are self-interested and self-serving and by the feeling that our basic needs are not being met. After all, didn’t Bloomberg and the New York Sanitation Department show their indifference to the fate of New Yorkers when they failed to shovel the streets after the December blizzards? And wasn’t Bloomberg’s first response something snarky–though few of us can recall just what it was? I can’t even be bothered Googling what he said; I’d prefer to maintain my piannissimo fantasy. Fuckin’ mayor.

“Well, this just goes to show that you can’t count on government to do what it’s supposed to.”

“Yeah. What’s the city doing anyway with all the taxes we’re paying? We’ve got subway rate hikes to deal with, we’re being asked to tighten our belts, we’ve got shit jobs, and you tell me what’s the city doing for us? You tell me. These shit jobs we can’t even get to.”

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“Bloom in Love” and the issues surrounding it are telling but not for the reasons we might think. The narcissism, the bitterness, the anger, these all seem to point to the narrowing of our political imagination. That is to say, the terms of this discussion are signs of the poverty of our political life. The terms with which we’re familiar–those like private interest, public interest, and perhaps interest in general–are thinned-out conceptions of civic participation and of government involvement.

The contrast between our “agnostic but enraged quietism” and Aquinas’ notion of the common good is exceptionally illuminating (in what follows, I draw on the work of Braybooke and Monahan; see Further Reading below). For Aristotle and Aquinas, the common good is a highly demanding vision of the life of a people for it grounds our attachments to each other in forms of mutual independence, friendship, and law. But then law is not a foreign order regulating social behavior based on some overly abstract harm principle. Law according to the common good is a codification of the common good in the form of a general principle.

The common good springs from the Aristotelian first principle that humans are social animals, and it states that humans cannot be fully happy unless they are rooted in their community. As the fate of the community goes, so goes that of the individual. Happiness, therefore, is not just a state of mind associated with an individual, be it temporary or long-lasting, but an overall vision of the individual’s commitment to and satisfaction with the state of the community. Do you “feel good right now”? Well, bully to you. But that’s not happiness so understood.

I said that this political vision was highly demanding, and so it is. For it requires that a community take seriously the moral dimension of its educational systems as well as the requirement that it meet everyone’s basic needs . Consider the educational requirement first. Education in the normative sense must be the cultivation of the moral virtues, especially the virtue of courage. When the chips are down and the levies have been breached, will you, my brother, watch over me? Will I see to the safety of my neighbors and to the well-being of my grandparents? Will we have the courage to know when to stand and fight and when to flee together (cf. Plato’s Laches)?

Now consider our basic needs. This, mind you, is not a story about win-lose, win-win, or lose-lose for in this story there is no place for weighing, adding, and subtracting all the points scored. Thankfully, I might add. As Braybrooke and Monahan would have it, “public goods [are those goods which are] open to pursuit by the community.” But pursuing public goods does not of necessity entail sacrificing private goods (though, in extreme cases, individual sacrifice may be required). In pursuing public goods, we are also and at the same time seeking to satisfy private goods. What’s more, if you don’t have any food on the table, then in my heart I know that I’m not a very good friend.

Suppose we decide to build an affordable, aesthetic, sustainable house in our community. Ideally, in building this house, we will actualize our individual potentialities: those of the carpenter qua carpenter, those of the architect qua architect, those of the web designer qua web designer, and so on. We’ll be friends, won’t we?, working toward a common good, a better community. But, in this endeavor, we should also find that we’re satisfying various private goods and basic needs. Among other things, we actualize our own excellences, we improve the quality of our neighborhoods, and we seek to end poverty along with its attendant threats and problems. Private goods, accordingly, are “folded into” the common good without being our ultimate aim.

For reasons that go well beyond the scope of this blog, this ethical vision is foreign to many of us inhabitants of the modern world. I don’t mean to say that we don’t recognize it in glimmers here and there. Michael Sandel, for instance, thought that Obama’s campaign at least embodied the spirit of the common good despite the fact that it has yet to make that vision a reality.

And yet, we are much more used to the idea that narcissism is an inextirpable fact about political life. Only look at Bloomberg, we say, that figure of narcissism, the billionaire who refuses to see the city, its problems and possibilities. He doesn’t love us.

Further Reading

David Braybooke and Arthur P. Monahan, “Common Good,” Moral Objectives, Rules, and the Forms of Social Change (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).