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Michael Bettencourt

A Public Jewel

Each day I take the NYC MTA subway to work after a short bus ride in from New Jersey.

The subway has gotten a lot of bad press over the past few years, ranging from the Big-Dig-level costs of the two-decades-late Second Avenue Subway to the MTA machine shop that hand-manufactures parts that no longer exist anywhere on the planet for the aged signal system.

Add to the industrial challenges of running this nation-sized system the sniping between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio over funding, the regional quagmire about transportation financing, and the national infrastructure disgrace, not to mention the horrific stories of trapped passengers and the lesser headaches of delays “after an earlier incident at West 4th,” sick passengers, odorous street people, signal problems, the screwball rescheduling on weekends to accommodate repairs, manspreading, womanspreading, hip-hop dance routines (“It’s showtime!), beggars (“I’m very sorry to disturb you, but can anybody…”) and the stumps who plant themselves in the doorways and don’t move: all this, and more, and a person might begin to wonder why people of sound mind and body would inflict the subway on themselves.

Several answers to this question. First, of course, most of the millions taking the train don’t have a choice: this is our Uber at $2.75 a ride. Second, it’s efficient and economical, even with all its mechanical mangles and alchemical financing. Third, it’s one of the few places left in this unequalized city where the Walt Whitman multitudes have a chance to pass by and through each other and where our bubbles get dented, tried and spider-cracked by something real, smelly and felt.

This last point matters most to me. On the day of the women’s march in January 2018, I was waiting at 59th Street Columbus Circle for a train to Port Authority. I was looking down the track practicing my “subway suction” (a term from Garrison Keillor about pulling a subway into the station by the force of one’s stare) when a woman, who was also suctioning, turned to me and said that it was such a shame the subway was in such a shameful condition.

However, she didn’t say it with disdain but as a lament. She spoke about how the systems she traveled in Europe were better because their governing bodies saw the investment in the public space as good for the public and good for the whole society. A public good, properly managed, was a good that was good for everyone because it reduced the coarseness of common life and strengthened a social patience with the inevitable bumps and grinds that come with humans living cheek-by-jowl to one another.

I spoke about how I saw the subway as this public jewel that deserved better treatment but would not get it in today’s America since the country’s reigning ideologies are invested in improving shareholder value and the corporate profit rate, and disdain anything to do with improving the quality of public daily life for daily people.

This disdain turns to cruelty when considering the fate of those unlucky enough not be rich and down on their luck. If the ideologies could have their way, we would not have the poor (nor the black nor the brown nor the lame, halt and infirm) with us any longer. To ensure this happens without the negative fallout from a full-blown extermination campaign, the apocalypse is allowed to happen in slow motion through defunding health facilities, increasing deportations and incarcerations, starving the funds for public housing, work requirements for Medicaid, and so on.

For the price of the cost overruns on some unneeded weapons system, the subway could be fixed, with a maintenance endowment set up for modernization and improvements. But American conservative ideologues have a hatred of “the public” both as a concept and a practice, and subway neglect is one demonstration of this.

The U.S. postal system is another public jewel that deserves much better treatment. Instead, it is financially starved by a pension payment obligation that no other federal agency has to meet. (Two other sins for the ideologues: it is a strongly unionized organization that offers people of color an unprecedented opportunity for success and security.)

All complaints about crappy consumer service duly noted, but it sports the most sophisticated optical character reader system in the world as well as the most extensive address database, it has a presence it almost every municipality in the country, and it will bring a letter to the Navajo reservation in Canyon de Chelley for less than half a dollar, something the shareholders of FedEx or UPS would never do. (And it could provide low-friction banking services, as it once did in the early 20th century.)

Instead, we get Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget hitman and the new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, loosening the restrictions on the payday lending industry, using the agency that had been created to protect consumers to enable the predators to feed on consumers more efficiently.

It maddens me to live in a place that does this. Yes, of course, we could band together to vote the bastards out and get our bastards in, but that’s never really worked for any length of time, especially when it’s not the bastards exercising the real power. There is a “deep state”—though it’s not really that deep—where the crews at EPA and Education and Energy and HUD and Justice and the judiciary and fill-in-the-agency-name go about wrecking what few protections we have left against the incursion of the market into every corner of our lives.

These are damages that will really damage us, more than Russian trolling or an inept president or a Congress that “sucks” (Senator Joe Manchin’s inimitable phrase), though these will do their damages as well (just ask those tagged as DACA).

In First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Žižek notes that conservatism is not a legitimate intellectual philosophy but is the backlash that comes when a revolution has failed to liberate people. In the United States, this means that the failure of even mild revolutions like the New Deal or Johnson’s social programs has  engendered over five decades of conservative efforts to make sure they never happen again (Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, sort-of the last remnants of the revolutions, are clearly in the gunner’s cross-hairs.)

I’m not a fan of large-bore pronouncements about the end of empires or equating historical periods (e.g., what does the fall of Rome teach us about the United States?), but clearly things are falling apart. For some reason, we are letting a niggardly conservatism punish us for ever having had any pretentions to creating a society consonant with the country’s founding pronouncements.

I’ll be first to admit that I don’t know how to do this, but somehow we need to polish the word “public” to a lustrous revolutionary shine, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union” should be the liberatory tagline of our common lives. Public assistance, public service, public space, public trust – we need to underscore the nobility and grace in these phrases while, at the same, weaponizing them as barricades against the class war being waged on everyone not in the census of the rich and powerful. 

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Visit his website at:
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check the Archives.

©2018 Michael Bettencourt
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt April 2016 |




April 2018

Volume 18 Issue 11

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