In 1895 anti-Semitic German politician Hermann Ahlwardt came to speak in New York City. Local Jews were very upset and there was political pressure on the police department not to provide Ahlwardt any protection. The police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, made sure to provide the visiting speaker with an adequate police escort; he also made sure that every officer in that security detail was Jewish. There was no better response than what Roosevelt did, and his gesture symbolized New York’s and America’s commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
This President’s Day, it is worth our time to look at who we consider our favorite president. For me there is no question: Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and was one of our greatest presidents.
There’s something for people of all political persuasions to like in Teddy Roosevelt. He believed in a just and fair America that respected the environment and he believed in a united country not beset by the kinds of divisions lesser leaders have allowed to fester. He supported women’s suffrage and also wanted America to be a forceful leader in the world with a very strong military He fought against monopolies, passed important laws keeping our food and medicines safe, and created national parks that protect millions of acres of land to this day.
Theodore Roosevelt came back from great tragedy that stalled his political career—his wife and mother died on the same day—and was the youngest person ever to become president. While most former presidents today cash in on their notoriety with lucrative book deals and speaking engagements, Theodore Roosevelt went on a South American safari that nearly killed him after losing the election of 1912. He was a war hero who braved Spanish cannon fire on San Juan Hill. He also once delivered a lengthy speech after being shot!
Few people in public office today could pass the character test and compare favorably to Roosevelt. He held to a code of honor that is unknown among most people we know in public life. Though he was born in to wealth and privilege that could have shielded him from hardship, he purposely strove to make himself strong and do things that were difficult. He lived his life for constant adventure and self-improvement. He was an avid reader and martial arts practitioner.
Truth, character, loyalty to the country above your immediate or self-serving interests: these are concepts that may seem quaint or get a lot of lip service, but Theodore Roosevelt lived them and expected America’s leadership to. Have our leaders lived up to the ideals Roosevelt set? How many of us can claim the levels of character and boldness that Roosevelt had? In my dreams I’m half as bold.
Though he is more closely associated with Oyster Bay on Long Island, Teddy Roosevelt was born in New York City. A few blocks from where I work in Manhattan is Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace. Sometime soon I will take time to visit and contemplate on American greatness and how we might improve upon it. In this and all matters of life, it pays to ask: What would Theodore Roosevelt do?
New York City generates billions of dollars in tourist revenue every year. Seeing and experiencing New York City should be on everyone’s to-do list and if you haven’t been here, you’re missing out.
Arguing about New York City is also its own industry. There are books and websites dedicated to letting you know what you should know about our city and all vie for authority and authenticity. People want to eat a real New York bagel and have a quintessential New York slice of pizza when they are here. People who live here want to keep things real as well. No one who lives in Manhattan dares dine in the tourist trap chain restaurants of Times Square if they can help it—that’s not the New York thing to do.
I was born in New York City, so I am a native New Yorker. I happen to have lived a good bit of time outside of the city though. I’ve been back a long time – almost 20 years now. But between the ages of 11 and 25 I lived outside of the New York City area. I drove back to New York in November of 1997 and have lived within the five boroughs since March of 1998.
While I’m proud to be have been born here and being a native New Yorker is a source of pride, I’d be kidding myself if I thought that being born here made you more of a real New Yorker than not. Our current and most recent former mayor are not native New Yorkers. In fact both Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio are originally from the Boston area (yuck!). But if you can get elected mayor of New York, no one can deny you are a real New Yorker.
For the record, the mayor who most embodied New York City during his tenure and beyond is the late Ed Koch. It’s a personal prejudice because I grew up during his time in office, but if there is one single person who embodied our city over the last half century it is Koch. Koch was a native New Yorker, but his definition of being a New Yorker was six months. He noted that more than half the people who live in the city are from somewhere else, so if you move here and at the end of your first six months here you find yourself walking, talking and thinking a little faster, you’re a New Yorker.
People have been arguing over what makes someone a real New Yorker since our metropolis became New York in 1664 (anyone calling our city New Amsterdam is a poseur). It’s something that will always be argued and debated. Like all debates about culture it will rage on forever and never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
But having lived in New York your whole life certainly gives you a good perspective. The Gothamist Web site has a column called Ask A Native New Yorker written by its publisher and cofounder Jake Dobkin. People write in anonymously with questions like: Is It OK To Smoke Weed With Other Parents During A Playdate? and Is It Wrong To Scream At Ivanka Trump If We See Her In Public? While the title of the column gives credence to the fraudulent idea that those born here are somehow more authentically New York, the column’s advice is very sound.
There are unconfirmed rumors that Gothamist is working to trademark the phrase “Ask a Native New Yorker” and that this goliath media entity will turn its legal hounds upon the modest upstart Ask A New Yorker. We say: bring it. We have no issue with what Gothamist is doing, but we were here before that column. Gothamist even interviewed our chief, Kennedy Moore.
Being an underdog and an upstart is also a very New York move. We don’t think anyone would ever mistake Ask A New Yorker for Gothamist. We couldn’t care less what overpriced food festivals are going to take hipsters to the cleaners this weekend or what shady faux dive bar “Still Got It.”
And bring on the debate over who gets to speak for New York City. I am proud to have been born within the five boroughs, but that’s not what makes me a real New Yorker. Enjoying the life of the city despite its many difficulties and compromises, embracing the chaos and the bustle that simultaneously energizes and exhausts you, and loving to share this city with others makes you a real New Yorker.
Last week, a mob descended on New York University and effectively cut short a talk by Gavin McInnes, an author and commentator who was a co-founder of VICE. The day before, rioters caused a talk by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley to be canceled.
Around the same time, a series of photos made the rounds of social media showing subway riders getting together to wash swastika graffiti from their subway car that some sad troll had scribbled there. It’s an example of the true New York. Some real Nazi thought they would get a rise out of someone and instead people rolled up their sleeves and did the right thing. People getting together to clean up some nasty vandalism makes New York, and America, a little bit greater.
There’s a reason Nazis are bad, and it’s not just because they sometimes graffito the subways. Nazis are awful because they believe they are entitled to step on the rights of others, to use political violence to silence their critics, and that they are self-righteous enough to sanction murder to further their ideas.
Censorship by mob violence is something we thought we had taken out of American life, and that in large, self-proclaimed “progressive” cities like Berkeley, California and New York would be treated as a sacred part of the social fabric. Indeed most New Yorkers who can read above a 12th grade level abide by the maxim often attributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.
But many factions of the progressive left do not see the threat to free speech when street thugs, or the spoiled Trustafarian versions most likely to join the “black block,” decide to be arbiters of who gets to exercise the universal human right of free expression. To them, the speakers at Berkeley and N.Y.U. were “Nazis” who lost their human rights when they embraced the dark side of the ideological divide.
Neither of these people being touted as Nazis really are. Milo Yiannopoulos is gay and part Jewish; he would have been made into a lampshade during the Third Reich. Gavin McInnes is a libertarian whose views would have gotten him thrown in the nearest labor camp in post-1933 Deutschland as well (full disclosure: I have had articles published on McInnes’ Web site Street Carnage and once met him at a party).
What the Milo Yiannopoulos’ of the world are is a threat to the tired identity politics that has become the Gospel of a detached and sanctimonious activist left. If the “alt right” is an evil empire of straight white males that will shove everyone who voted for Hillary into a new Auschwitz, then a gay Jewish immigrant as their poster boy belies all the boogeyman hype.
The people burning things and rioting to stop Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes from speaking are bigger fascists than any real “alt right” figure could ever dream of being.
There are real Nazis in America today. Most of them are keyboard commandos who like to dress in ridiculous uniforms. Some of them are dangerous criminals, but most couldn’t putsch their way out of their mother’s basement. These people feel emboldened, thinking that the breakdown of political orthodoxy signaled by Donald Trump’s victory means there is a market for extreme ideas. There isn’t.
New Yorkers have always reveled in their ability to get along with others despite the tribal nature of human life. If we’ve made a go of it here in New York, we figure, we’re a cut above the normal social mores that are taken for granted elsewhere. We put them aside though we know they are never completely gone. With millions of people crammed into the five boroughs like rats, we have a lot of hate for each other, but we’re pragmatic enough to get through our days frustrated but not hell-bent on murder.
“Hate speech” or “Free speech is not consequence-free speech” are calling card phrases of a dogmatic and intolerant left. This faction isn’t new but is newly. It is neither progressive nor just. When you judge them by their actions “antifa” is pretty damn “fa.”
New Yorkers aren’t fooled by self-proclaimed saviors who see a Nazi under every rock. Our city respects free speech, it is part of what makes us the most American of cities. The next time Gavin McInnes or Milo Yiannopoulos makes a public appearance in our Gotham, I plan to go see them.