By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, June 20, 1986
I get the occasional complaints — the latest from my daughter Rebecca — that I write most of the time about people who are unfair, situations that are messed up and things that are wrong about our society and institutions.
These critics have a point. We journalists, and a lot of other Americans, commonly use as our starting point the assumption that the good far outweighs the bad in our system. That assumption, however, is too often unstated. What gets articulated, therefore — since we accept the positive as a given — is the negative.
The particular motive force that brought these thoughts to the surface is the upcoming Statue of Liberty commemoration, which will remind us — notwithstanding all the Hooples who will deliver enough hot-air speeches to launch a thousand balloons — of the many pieces of good fortune we enjoy, for all the flaws in our system.
I have lived in a number of countries as a reporter, and I developed a deep affection for the people in many of them, but — forgive the cliche — I was always glad to come home.
In India, the commitment to democracy is abiding — people will walk three miles to cast their vote in elections — but the society is caste-ridden and poverty-ridden to a degree that can be crushing to an outsider.
Singapore, an island-state, is the most efficient country one could imagine. Everything works and everything runs on time. It is clean and green. The unemployment rate is minuscule. Crime is not a major element or topic in life. But Singapore achieves this efficiency by being an authoritarian nation. Preventive detention laws are the norm. Political opposition to the ruling party is suppressed. Americans would find the rules unacceptable.
I don’t think any of the poor or troubled in other countries still believe that the streets of America are paved with gold, if they ever did, but nonetheless, this remains the place of possibilities. Not certainties, by any means, but possibilities. The possibility of fairness. The possibility of education. The possibility of prosperity.
I participated recently in an award ceremony the New York Public Library has created as an annual event to honor the valedictorians of the city’s public high schools. The 18-year-old faces in the crowd were an enlightenment. So were the names. The faces were of many hues, and the names were Latino and Asian and Middle European and Moslem and Jewish and Buddhist and so on.
All of this, I know, sounds sloppy sentimental and melting-pot patriotic. But there’s an unsentimental reality to young people from working-class backgrounds who are breaking upward, become the first in their families to seize the possibilities. Talking to these youngsters is an antidote to negativism. Where are you going to college? “Cornell,” the smiling black woman said. Do you know what you want to major in? “I’m going to be a doctor,” she said with conviction. And there’s no doubt that she will be.
There are a heap more people like that young woman than a visitor from Mars would presume from a quick read of our newspapers or an evening’s watch of the television news. Again we presume everyone knows about the positive so we don’t make a big deal out of it.
Some of my favorite people in the city are the nurses, who work grueling hours for very modest pay, and the cops, who do a very dirty job with too little thanks. The orderlies in hospitals, the people who work in our oppressive subways, the social workers who minister to the homeless — they are also on my list of the not fully appreciated.
Yes, it would appear I relate to the underdog. But then, the overdogs don’t need my help.
And, anyway, it is these invisible people who keep New York City ticking over. The titans of commerce may provide the machinery, but these people make it work and give it value. In fact, it’s perpetually amazing to me that this behemoth of a city does move and function, that its gears don’t freeze and lock at least twice a week. It’s also amazing, with the social abrasion level as high as it is, that we don’t suffer occasional riots and don’t have more than our five to six murders a day.
Part of the reason has to be that we have escape valves. We can holler and yell about wrongs and inequities. Whistle-blowers are not liked by their superiors and sometimes get fired, but they are not jailed. You can pretty much say and write what you think, within the bounds of the slander and libel laws. Unlike England, we have no Official Secrets Act that would inhibit press coverage of government activities. Our phones, with some exceptions, are not tapped. When a voice is stilled at one newspaper, it is given a place at another.
Lest I be judged soft-headed, I wish to provide the assurance that I am not unaware of the many unfairnesses in this city and country — nonfeasance and malfeasances committed against minorities, the poor, women, American Indians, veterans.
The misuse of private and official power is a frequent subject of this column. That is why, I suppose, it is necessary from time to time to talk of our freedoms and benefits, to talk of what’s good about the system. All of this may be obvious, but it does need saying.