Rudy Giuliani, American president?

Reading and lounging and watching.
May 11 2006 2:02 PM

The Giuliani Presidency?

A new documentary makes the case against the outsized mayor.

Giuliani Time, a new documentary opening on May 12, made in the same agitprop style as Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq *. It's one attack ad lowlight after another, and so successful—the archive being so generous, after all—at painting Giuliani as an unlikable bully that by the end of the film you're left wondering, Why even bother? Whether he's a viable presidential candidate or not—and I suspect he is—Rudy Giuliani remains a living symbol of the values every candidate, post 9/11, must embrace: a "man," as he was introduced at the 2004 Republican Convention, "who embodies the courage, the strength and the heart of New York City." (And to those who claim he won't run, newsflash: Giuliani just visited Iowa—"Giuliani Shows a Candidate's Mettle to Republicans in Iowa" was the New York Times headline—and early polls now have him a dead-heat front-runner with John McCain.) Giuliani is a smart, charismatic, and brutally self-promoting politician. He will run, and when he runs, he will present himself not as a nice guy but as a necessary bulwark against the forces of barbarism. But a principled opposition to the American Churchill is not only possible, it's necessary. It rests on an assertion even the comrades behind Giuliani Time won't venture: that in the near term, 9/11 may have made Rudy Giuliani a hero; in the long term it has only amplified what makes Rudy Giuliani an abominable human being.

Giuliani's is the odd political career that rested firmly on an idea—not an inflammatory set of pseudo-ideas but an actual idea, generated by social scientists, called "Broken Windows," or sometimes "Quality of Life Policing." Broken Windows helped propel Giuliani into office and guided his policymaking once he was there. The theory is pretty simple. As its original authors argued in a 1982 Atlantic article,

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

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Under Giuliani, Broken Windows started out as a good faith effort to reduce serious crime by going after petty crime. But over time it evolved into a branding mechanism, a means for relentlessly associating New York City's renaissance with Mayor Giuliani's face. Today, Broken Windows is among the most universally discredited theories in the social sciences. Study after study has concluded there is no causal link between the reduction in nuisance crimes, like turnstile jumping or aggressive panhandling, and the reduction in serious crimes, like robbery and murder. And this was easily inferable at the time. The reduction in New York City's crime rate was echoed nationally, in many cities that did not employ Quality of Life policing. In retrospect, the principal causes behind New York City's crime drop had nothing to do with Giuliani. They included: a receding of the '80s crack epidemic, a growth in the prison population thanks to the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, an increase in the numbers of police initiated by Giuliani's predecessor, and possibly, as the Freakonomics authors famously argued, the legalization of abortion a generation earlier. But, as the journalist Wayne Barrett says in Giuliani Time, "this mythology that Rudy Giuliani single-handedly supercopped, and conquered, crime in New York City" is now in the "bloodstream" of Americans.

Whether or not it represented a valid theory, the mayor was shrewd for clinging so steadfastly to Broken Windows. ("We've gotten rid of a lot of the aggressive panhandling, and at the same time, we've gotten the greatest decline in the major crimes that the city has ever had," Giuliani says, in file footage from his first term. "And the two things are connected to each other.") For there is a more insidious appeal to Broken Windows: It allowed Giuliani to dress up demagoguery as intellectual conscience. To understand how, consider the origins of modern social theories about crime. In the early 19th century, cities like London and Paris began to collect statistics in an organized and rational way. The early statisticians paved the way to compound interest, annuities, life insurance, and the regularization of debt and credit markets. But among the first things they studied was crime, and the first crime they studied was suicide. What they discovered—and here I am cribbing from Ian Hacking's masterful The Taming of Chance—was that everything they thought about suicide turned out to be wrong. It was less prevalent in England than on the Continent; it was more frequent in summer than in winter; and above all, what had appeared to them initially as a series of isolated and (by definition) mad acts in fact obeyed a tight periodical schedule. This revolutionized scientific thinking about human behavior. It shifted, in the span of only a couple of years, the vocabulary for describing crime from motives to causes.

"Motives" describe individual actions by emphasizing the individual actor's free will. "Causes" describe individual actions by de-emphasizing the individual actor's free will, in favor of impersonal forces like the weather or poverty. Broken Windows was crucial to Giuliani's image because it allowed him to keep alive both the vocabulary of motives and causes. On the one hand he could spin out an entirely plausible and, on its face, statistically sophisticated argument, complete with charts and graphs, about the causes of crime. On the other hand, his conclusions about those causes allowed him to deploy the conservative shibboleth about crime: that its principal engine wasn't impersonal forces, like unemployment or poverty, but the deterioration of personal responsibility, especially at the hands of liberal do-gooders. As the University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt puts it in the film, "What the theory was able to do really was transform something that was viewed as a public nuisance into something viewed as a positive harm. So all of a sudden this panhandler on the street is not just a pain in the neck—it turns out that actually it's because of the panhandler that we have such high rates of crime."

Under the guise of academic dispassion, then, Broken Windows became a vehicle for exciting the well-developed antipathies of Giuliani's core constituency. That constituency was made up of working-class whites, the (largely white) middle and upper classes, commuters, tourists, and large corporations. There's nothing wrong with that coalition, and kowtowing to wealthy stakeholders can make for a healthier city. But as the city's misery index fell, and then fell precipitously, Giuliani struggled nonsensically to keep alive old habits of urban demonology while maintaining his stature as the lonely defender of civic virtue. "I believe it's the way to create a civilized society," Giuliani had said in term one, referring to respect for the city's cops. Fair enough, and coming out of the '80s, no doubt the Big Apple deserved a series of stern lectures on public decorum. But by his second term, Giuliani had evolved from a reasoned municipal savior into a demented scold. It wasn't in spite of, but because of Broken Windows, which—once the squeegee men had all been retired—required ever more outlandish "causes" to feed a waning public spite. "Streets do not exist in civilized cities for the purpose of people sleeping there," Giuliani says in term two, as he attempts to bulldoze Manhattan clear of the homeless, adding: "Bedrooms are for sleeping." (Yes, but … one still sputters in disbelief at this logic.) In his losing battle with the Brooklyn Museum, in which he tried to de-fund the institution for displaying art he found distasteful, he announced, "Civilization has been about trying to find the right place to put excrement, and it is not on the walls of museums."

Partisan distaste aside, let it never be forgotten that Giuliani strode toward the Towers, even as they burned, and at considerable risk to his own life. But what revived Giuliani's political fortunes on 9/11 wasn't simply bravery but the realignment of the city's—and the world's—consciousness around Giuliani's pet byword, civilization. As he pronounced starkly to the United Nations a month after the attacks, "You're either with civilization or with terrorists." Now, to me, the word civilized has always conjured up a certain urbane coolness. Being civilized is a condition, not a destiny; it's no more endemic to a people than fanaticism or terrorism. As a state of self-imposed and self-policed grace on the part of the very lucky, it is both very artificial and very fragile. A total freedom from hysteria might be another way of putting it. In the middle of Giuliani Time, a man who sounds African-American and slightly unhinged calls in to the mayor's weekly radio broadcast. "Hello, Mr. Mayor," he says, wheezingly, "I think you're the worst mayor this city has ever known. You're the biggest criminal in this city." Giuliani rears back, his face breaks into a rictus-grin, and he whinnies like a pony in heat. "Hey, John," he says gleefully. "What kind of hole are you in there? It sounds like you're in a little hole. Jooohn? Are you OK? You're breathing funny." The man replies, "No, I'm not, sir, I'm sick. And you cut me off of my food stamps and Medicaid several times, too. I guess you don't give a damn about that, do you?" The mayor continues to smile joyfully. "There's something really wrong with you, John. I mean, there really is. I can hear it in your voice. Now why don't you stay on the line, we'll take your name and your number, and we'll send you psychiatric help, because (laughing) you seriously need it." John Hynes, it turns out, is a white man from Queens, who worked for 25 years until he started degenerating from Parkinson's disease.

To defeat the American Churchill in an age of terror, it will take a level head, patience, and a respect for empirical facts, and not folklore, urban legend, or the exploitation of our worst fears. You must stay, in a word, civilized.

Correction, May 12, 2006: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Giuliani Time was created by the production company behind the recent documentaries Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq. This is not the case, though Giuliani Time and Uncovered were both distributed by Cinema Libre Studio. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)