The Uses of Silly

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In politics, people like to have their positions and predictions validated more than they like surprises (even if the surprise might involve the system working or conditions improving for all). So delivering disliked politicians’ eulogy well before they leave office provides the certainty that makes everyone feel most assured.

Many postmortems on the reign of New York’s Mike Bloomberg have been mounting as more candidates make official their intention to inherit his job. The end of an era is being promised, not mourned, and I give that city and its dwellers and representatives credit for actually welcoming turnarounds in how society is conducted; we saw more of a break between Richard Nixon and his handpicked successor Gerald Effing Ford — in civil liberties, in curtailments on militarism — than we did between George W. Bush and Obama.

But it gets odd in a place like the social laboratory of New York, where an election can signal a change from, well, change. Bloomberg has become known as America’s Nanny, and many of his ideas go beyond the pale of civic norms. Though the balance (balance being what we have to consider while someone’s actually in office, as opposed to the decisive, digestible extremes of electoral conflicts and their one-day payoffs), the balance has been beneficial (including an overall lengthening of lifespan under his rule, though insurance companies are feeling ill).

Bloomberg has done nothing if not expend political capital, on issues few other politicians will open their mouth on but which represent a new mainstream of citizen thought (on gun moderation, on pollution curtailment); and on the issues that many or most people don’t agree with, he’s had a well-weighted equation of wins and loses. Some ideas seemed radical and worked (like school reform); some were great and got steamrolled by status quo (congestion pricing); some are still terrible and squeaked through (Atlantic Yards, personal term-limit exemptions); some were outlandish and got swatted down because NYC, unlike much of the country, has an informed and activated populace and a more-or-less functioning democracy and court system (various other mega-development monstrosities, installation of unqualified cronies, the hypocritical big-gulp ban); and some made sense and have been embraced against strong forces opposing them (the almost-universal smoking ban).

But even, maybe especially, the most crazy ones are worth focusing on. The true prophets should always be looked for among the people who seem the most silly and irrelevant at first. The movements that made the most progress in the 1980s were ACT-UP, animal rights and Al Sharpton’s causes; this is because none of them feared audacity and absurdity, in a conformist era where only raised volume could register. (And today, all their issues feel like institutions.) PETA seemed beyond the fringe but delivered relentless guilt that touched a moral nerve and employed gotcha media-documentation techniques that defined the following century; ACT-UP was spectacularly improper with its high-profile stunts, and compellingly informed and skilled once it got people’s attention; Sharpton played the buffoon while posing the questions no one else was demanding of the culture or asking of themselves.

Silliness sells, and changes things — it gets people thinking on different tracks in its unusualness, and in its openness to ridicule puts them at their ease in a way that lets consideration of your position seep in, rather than the superiority of earnestness that cements their defenses. If we survive as a country at all, then we’ll reach a point where we can’t remember when we ate as life-threateningly as Bloomberg was chicken-littling about (fried-chickening about?) in making fast-food places post their nutritional details. Just like we can scarcely remember when we walked through a cloud of poison smoke almost anywhere we went, though such conditions feel eternal while they’re going on.

But a silly voice whines through the mist and leads us out. Sometimes you need to break away from Nanny’s way of thinking, and sometimes you come to realize what she was looking out for. I don’t know what New York will be like this time next year, but in the rising celebration of Bloomberg’s departure it’s been interesting to observe how even people who proclaim the need for government react when they actually get some.

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One thought on “The Uses of Silly

  1. Pingback: The Leaving of It | Fanchild

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