Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: Conscience in the Principality of Progress

letter from new york
Conscience in the Principality of Progress
by Jonny Diamond

drawing by Amanda Park Taylor

Part One
More Blood on the Tracks

The train I am on has just hit a deer. I’m on the way back into New York City, after a weekend in the country. I know it is a deer because as the conductor passes by his walky-talky spits out, amid anachronistic, pre-digital sizzle and crack: “just hit a deer, approx 4.7 miles south of Croton-On-Hudson.”

When a train hits a deer, the noise is bad: a sack of rusted cutlery masticated in the darkness by 19th-century automata; or a thousand storm-frantic branches clawing at a thousand lead-pane windows. The commuters stir only slightly from their larval half-sleeps (technocrats in the foetal position, taking up two seats). Most of them are coming down from Albany, on a train that leaves the station in total darkness. They stir, some even blink awake, but after no worthy disaster reveals itself, no terrorist malevolence or bland malfunction, when it can be subconsciously explained away as obscure terrestrial interruption — indeterminate, benign — all go back to their morning gestation.

But I cannot. I have been cursed with this overheard sentence fragment, this blunt truth. I am stuck with the cinematically clichéd image of the deer on the tracks: an inviolate moment of quiet and mist on the eastern shore of the Hudson River shattered by the arch-villainous train, sleek, silver and impossibly solid, a force as purely destructive as it is indifferent to that which it destroys. This death, the cold red obliteration of this deer, will not leave my thoughts — it is an image unwanted and enormous and I curse the timing of the goateed conductor with the sour hands and ash-grey walky-talky.

But I realize there is metaphorical substance here, obvious, suspicious, unavoidable and blessedly distracting. In my distraction, I seek to isolate the allegory.

Begin with Ovid:

Actaeon, metamorphosed into a deer for the lesser transgression of human wonderment, rent apart by his own beloved hunting dogs.

So.

Progress, incarnate in the convenience and power of indifferent technology, destroys the living beauty of the natural world.

And.

By its destruction — by the unmaking of all that articulate bone and sinew and blood — the deer, symbol of what we had, becomes a symbol of what we’ve lost.

Wait. No. That’s not what Ovid meant at all with the story of Actaeon. My random experience of a deer’s blood and bone on dew-wet iron tracks, though secret and hidden, is insignificant; it does not have the narrative substance of an Ovidian tale, the proscriptive potency; it’s lost to nearly everyone on the train, lost to the very characters in the drama who would benefit from a little mythic awfulness in their lives. Those characters caught in half-sleep, who don’t know. And so the train is just a long silver tunnel to the City, a juddering womb daily birthing 345 passengers out through Penn Station into the cruel hum of midtown Manhattan.

Part Two
the Ballad of Jane & Robert

But maybe the persistent allegorical substance of The Deer and The Train can be transferred to New York, to the City itself: a heedless thing progressing through time and space; an engine of destruction operating outside the consolations of tragedy, operating beyond the human capacities to reconcile, to justify. New York City: a creation of humanity which long ago outstripped its need of human beings.

The story of progress in the City is one of forgetting, or more specifically, forgetfulness: a story of low-frequency communal amnesia in which all and none are culpable. The New Yorker, turning away from the accretions of the past (lest she become buried), turns instead to look forward down grand avenues that carve straight and deep beneath buildings giant and golden.

Novelist and essayist Colson Whitehead, when asked what made a person a bona fide New Yorker, described that amnesiac moment, walking by any given street corner, when one realizes that something has changed, but is unable to pinpoint exactly what. This change — dizzying, oneiric, overnight — is the fundamental experience of life in New York; immigrant, exile, arriviste (for this is the population of the City); each one succumbs, all forget. Indeed, this is the life of all cities, but in New York, capital of pure capitalism and ongoing reverence of naked ambition, the change is faster, bigger and greedier; it is a heedless, wilful pissing contest in which banal monstrosity and staggering beauty are nothing more than by-products.

If New York is chief Principality of Progress, then Robert Moses is its Medici, Richelieu and Stalin rolled into one; a man of preternatural wilfulness matched only by a diabolical singularity of vision, who aspired to bring theories of British Colonial rule to bear on the complexities of administering a modern city. This is the municipal despot — at one point he controlled ten of twelve city departments — who not only demolished the grand old Penn Station, but gutted neighbourhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn to make way for highways, displacing tens of thousands of New Yorkers, single-handedly laying the groundwork for forty years of urban decline. (Those ‘Projects’ that people talk about with dread on TV crime dramas? Those were Moses’ projects). The only redeeming thing about Moses was the catalytic volatility of his excess, which galvanized a retiring young urban theorist in opposition to the razing of Penn Station. Though unsuccessful in this first battle, she later gave Moses his first defeat over the planned Lower Manhattan Expressway (which would’ve cut through what is now billion dollar real estate in SoHo). This urban theorist is none other than that great, adopted Canadian, Jane Jacobs.

The conscience in opposition to Moses’ bullying hubris could only have been the soft-spoken Jacobs. She was the perfect Ovidian foe in that purest agon of the post-atomic age: progress vs. conscience; the wilful, eccentric autocrat vs the thoughtful pragmatist with a talent for inclusion and consensus; The Train vs The Deer.

Progress in the context of capitalism is often characterized as a religion (of which Moses would certainly have been a high priest); if so, then Progress As Religion is a brand of polytheistic animism. Money, Technology, Innovation are as local deities, propitiated with a fervour commensurate to that which can be gained, each functioning in a malign complex of ritual and sacrifice. Jacobs defeated Moses over the Lower Manhattan Expressway not because she had a more powerful god, but because she revealed the programmatic simony of Progress As Religion, and nailed her theses to the church door with a diverse group of human beings at her back. What gave Jacobs power over Moses was consensus, gathered in a humanist context, beyond distinctions of race, class and creed, based in a commonality between human beings who did not want to see their lives destroyed by the forces of greed and progress.

Part Three
Hear that Whistle Blowin’

If only I could stop the speeding silver train, march everybody off, and make them look at the remains of the deer; make them examine the catastrophic results of indifference, of progress unheeded, and force them to understand that we cannot, no matter how fast we travel, escape the consequences of our (in)actions.

But the train speeds still toward Moses’ cloacal version of Penn Station, toward the giant grey city at the end of history, the half-sleeping commuters rustling beneath their ink-heavy daily papers.

And no one even thinks about looking out the window.

Jonny Diamond is a transplanted Torontonian who currently works as a writer and editor in New York City.

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