History Repeats Itself – New York Exposed Exposes Modern Political Quandaries

nyexposedNew York Exposed: The Police Scandal That Shocked the Nation and Launched the Progressive Era by Daniel Czitrom
Published on April 29, 2016
Oxford University Press
Source: ARC from Oxford University Press via Netgalley
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“A true-crime New York-based historical thriller featuring a colorful cast of turn-of-the-century figures–Tammany bosses, progressive do-gooders, and all the purveyors of vice and corruption;
the first thoroughly researched, thoughtfully written book about the Lexow investigation.” Source: Oxford University Press.

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Review
You know that book that you just picked up that coincidentally seems to address everything that’s been swirling through your head recently, that is somehow connected to everything else you’ve been reading? Of course, it’s no coincidence, there is no such thing – only opportunities to learn, born of interest and active pursuit.

New York has been on my mind recently, specifically 19th century NYC. I’ve been into an excellent historical fiction series on the founding of the police force (see Lyndsay Faye’s Gods of Gotham) and have been watching Gotham on Netflix, although I am informed by others that the show has something to do with Batman, and that it’s not set in NYC (well, whatever, I’m pop-culture illiterate but for me, it’s a close enough approximation of Faye’s aesthetic).

In general I’m a big fan of the 19th century – it is the time period, after all, of not only the Civil War and women’s suffrage but also of the industrial revolution, and of the “birth” of the modern era. Trains, Einstein, contemporary dance, modern ills and questions – all hail from that time.

Additionally, I am as addicted to politics as one can be without actively being a politician or paid activist (you know, typical engaged citizen stuff, I vote, I go to rallies, I read the news 247, comment on Politico forums, donate to political campaigns, sign petitions, and the like).

What I didn’t realize before New York Exposed was how these three foci – NYC, politics, the 19th century – are inextricably linked in history and in the formation of our current political climate in the United States. Basically, this scholarly work details, through meticulous research, the birth of modern politics, current debates, accusations, psychoses, etc. It’s a fascinating journey, brimming with real-life characters stranger than fiction will ever be, told in a lively, engaging way, for all audiences to enjoy (even though technically this is an academic book written by a real historian, not a “pop-history”).

I was blown away by this book, especially as I came to realize the complexity of issues that have been boiled down to mere slogans something like 200 years later. We make accusations today, for example, of voter fraud; the GOP insists we must protect against it, while Dems cry foul, because no proof of voter-fraud exists. But guess what? In 19th century NYC, in perhaps the most corrupt political era we have witnessed in American history, Democrats did commit massive voter fraud– offering fraudulent certificates of naturalization to immigrants in order to get their vote (sound like a familiar accusation?), encouraging people to vote more than once, counting ballots illegally, and the like.

My Conclusion: both parties are at fault for not educating voters: YES, voter fraud did exist – here is its history; NO, there is no evidence it still does. BUT: here is the real story of the legend behind the asinine accusations we throw around without knowing what we are saying. Here is the context, because it’s not that simple.*

[Examples: yes, Dems engaged in voter fraud, but that was a different Democratic party. And it’s not even as simple as saying the parties “switched”, because, back then, the Dems supported immigrants while abolitionists were mostly Republican; today, obviously, large majorities of both immigrants and non-whites vote Democrat. Another: while Democrats were busy corrupting themselves into public office, it was a Christian minister, in his fight against corruption – the main character in Czitrom’s story, whose actions evolved into the Progressive movement. Who would have thought – you know, “Christian values”, now the mantra of the GOP.]

This is why I love history: it explains pretty much everything, in such nuanced ways. Nothing is as simple as its distillation through time, and the journey into our collective memory always provides illumination for our current predicaments. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the modern political climate in the US, and would make it mandatory reading for all politicians if I could somehow do this.

Note
* Voter fraud is only one of MANY issues described and explained by Czitrom – I am using it as an example that struck me particularly, but this book is about MUCH, much more – think politics today as a whole – immigration, who gets to vote, what is the role of the state in providing for the less fortunate, you name it.

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