Saturday, December 24, 2005

mass transit loses its Johnson

In 1966, during the transit strike led by Mike Quill in New York City, I and other sophomores walked to school. The high school was on 84th St., we started from Battery Park, choked more than usual by our leaden schoolbags. No cabs, no money for cabs. We didn't look kindly upon the transit workers whose strike action was the direct cause of our inconvenience. But even then we dimly saw that other, indirect causes were at work. A multivalent world of causes voiced by Quill -- a welter of conflicting visions of class and labor -- reverberated in New York's population. Back then a good deal of that population was largely displaced from Europe, from a world in which work and money and class were not anally segmented by corporate media room dividers from larger perspectives offered by various ideologies inherited from Marx, among others. Barely audible in the US except in places like New York, the burbling of a non-capitalist view of labor and oppression.*

The other day, Steven Berlin Johnson offered a similar fit of pique at the direct cause of New York's recent transit strike. Fortunately one of his commenters offered a counterbalancing perspective from The Nation:
For three decades, business and political leaders have been chipping away at the social benefits that came out of the New Deal, union struggles and the expansive, post-World War II years of Western capitalism. Driven at first by economics, but increasingly by ideology, the crusade to dissolve all employer and state responsibility for individual welfare has swept like a grim reaper through pension plans, health insurance, labor rights and minimum wages. New York transit workers are fighting to stop that trend in their particular domain, not for themselves but for the next generation of workers. They are fighting against the lie that abstract, neutral economic necessity, not the ideas and interests of the rich and powerful, are driving the demolition of what remains of social solidarity. Their fight is worth supporting in itself, for the dignity and well-being of a group of hardworking women and men.
That Johnson, a highly regarded writer about things current and intelligent (like the brain), could offer such a reductive view of the reality of New York labor is instructive. (In an earlier post he complains that there's no easy way to click on the web and find all the traffic cams along a certain route. The realm of slovenly atoms clearly has failed to live up to certain suddenly normalized expectations of ease aroused by our instaworld of clicks and codes.)

It's probably not by accident that Brooklyn is the first place the aliens erupt in Spielberg's War of the Worlds. When one thinks of transit workers in New York, one thinks of people of "other" ethnic persuasions working underground. As far as anyone knows, they live there, breed there, die there. Except when they're on strike.

New York has been the stomping ground for conflicts between disparate ideologies from distant cultures brought into sudden improbable adjacency in the brave new world. These ideologies often stand next to each other on the subways or buses, making their ways through the world in mute noninteroperable interface. If nothing else, the environment teaches that otherness exists, not to be clicked away. A certain tolerance, an expectation of complexity was the collective upshot. Or used to be. If our smart, allegedly cosmopolite bloggers like Johnson can do no better than offer simpled-down media takes on large, history-burdened tremors in New York, it is not the city that's failed the promise of the web.
*One way of distinguishing genuine cities is to note that somewhere "in" them is maintained a portal to a difficult, alien discourses deriving from far flung spaces and times.


Blogger Jon Husband said...

I found it very interesting that Jeff Jarvis offered up a similarly simplistic view of the TWU mugging the citizenry of New York in a brief post on his blog, and about 80% of the comments (I think there were about 10 - 12 comments) took him to task quite sharply for his (to them) uninformed point of view.

12/24/2005 10:45 AM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks Jon - I'd only seen it because I was alerted to it by Jeneane, in whose post I am on the side of the Trane. Which about made my day.

12/24/2005 11:10 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

You have a good blog here. Is this your only one? I have a couple too. Happy blogging!

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