October 05 2016
Robert Moses and the Fall of New York is an epic biography of a man whose pursuit for power hitherto unimaginable in a democracy brings ruin to his idealism and the city he supposedly served. It is a cautionary tale for the man: as the unbridled pursuit of power blinds him to the idealism the power was meant to serve. It is more importantly a cautionary tale for democracy: that any single individual, however intelligent and capable of "Getting Things Done", if left unchecked, will bring ruin to the values the democracy holds dearest. It is most important a cautionary tale to the reader for how to Get Things Done in this world. Is it possible to Get Things Done without being a bully for power? Is it better to let great ideas quietly die or to fight for them with singular ambition even if the ideas are flawed and will be viewed by history as inherently wrong? Is it better to have achieved and lost than to never have achieved at all? At the end of his life. It is doubtful that the Robert Moses, a man who held monopolistic power on all public works construction in the State of New York in its formative years could come to any other conclusion than that he should have held onto it longer, should have fought harder, should have crushed his enemies with even less mercy than he did over his four-decades reign. Power: use it or lose it? The Power Broker is a wonderful story. Robert Moses begins as we all do, as an idealistic youth full of optimism. His idealism, as all idealisms tend to do when they come face to face with real life, are crushed by entrenched self interests. What happens next? Well you can guess I am sure. He comes back from the gutters with a force and reckoning that destroys all in his path. He wins. But what was the price of his victory? You guessed it, it is his idealism. In order to bring change upon the world, the change that as a young man he knew to be good and moral, he had to first get power. In order to get power, he had to compromise. He compromised his personality, he compromised his values and he compromised his ideals. The result? He got the power, more power in his chosen field than the President of the United States. But what did he lose? He lost his way. He lost sight of what he had been gaining power for. He kept on fighting only for the sake of increasing that power. He kept fighting because he believed that the ends justified the means. Even as those ends became less and less important for him and the means became the ends onto itself. The final result? He loses both power and the chance of realizing his dreams. The collateral damage? New York. The story is more nuanced than this of course. One nuance is the idea of preconditioned destiny, that of fate. Robert Moses was born and bred with a tinge of aristocratic arrogance and a haughty disregard for the opinions of others. Initially, these traits are shaded by the glow of his idealistic goals. We forgive him for his personal quirks because his goals are moral and good. We follow his story with interest and root for him and for his victory. So what if he has to be thick-skinned, single minded and manipulative in order to win? He has to do what it takes to win because his goals are so good, so necessary. But as he gains his victories and achieves the position of power to implement his vision, the traits that brought him power become his Achilles' heel. His arrogance and single force of will result in arbitrary and unilateral imposition of his vision, a vision that is biased and wrong because he refuses to give the opinion of others any chance. And in his failures, we the readers are implicated. We are implicated for having supported him to use any means to achieve his ends. But therein lies the irony, of inescapable fate. If Robert Moses was not Robert Moses, with his strength of will and disregard for the status quo, he would not have become the Robert Moses, the Power Broker, and would not have had the position to realize his dreams. But if it takes a Robert Moses, with of his prejudices, to become the Power Broker, then we would have to accept the consequent actions that follow. That he would continue to enforce his will upon the world and continue to disregard the status quo, and ruin the ideal and moral end he had initially set out to achieve. Let's try again. If Robert Moses was not Robert Moses, he would not have become the Robert Moses that Robert Moses wanted to be. But if Robert Moses was Robert Moses, he would have to become a Robert Moses that is the exact opposite of the Robert Moses that Robert Moses wanted to be. Get it? Another nuance is the role of individual power within a democratic society. The specific battleground of the life of Robert Moses is civil government in democratic United States. His youthful idealism was aimed at reshaping how the democracy is governed in order to assure a meritocracy whereby people who are able and efficient are granted power to make decisions that affect everyone in the democracy. A worthwhile and moral goal, right? What if in order to achieve this goal he claws his way to unchecked power and imposes his will on decisions that affect everyone. And what if no one, not even elected officials, can remove him from this power? Was he wrong to have sought out this power? When the alternative seems to be inefficiencies, corruption, red tape and waste? Is it better to have an individual so skillful at gaining power and getting visible results or to have a system where no one does anything? Probably the answer lies somewhere in the middle. But what a story to see Robert Moses go all the way to create an almost sovereign power as a fourth pillar in democratic United States. The final nuance is that of age. Had Robert Moses been in his 30s for 100 years, his vision and moral compass would have been aligned with the rest of society and history would probably not judge his results as harshly as they do now. As his power grew, he became insulated and fortressed himself against all outside opinion. This was a necessary part of achieving his vision by single minded dedication, but after 40 years in power, the fortification also blinded him to a changed world. Age is a funny thing. As we age, the moral standards and unspoken rules of social living ebb and flow. While we are actively part of the world, we don't notice it. But how scary it must be to age and be cognisant of growing age that is widening the gap between how life used to be (and maybe should be) and how life is now? The only concrete result of this line of thinking for me is to pity and empathize a little with old people. How it must feel to reminisce about the way life used to be? When the most basic morals and accepted ways of living have slowly but certainly shifted beyond recognition? That must be the scariest part of growing old, that the world you live in no longer jives with your ingrained values at the most fundamental level. What if we go through life being conditioned by the hidden forces and invisible rules to be able to optimize our whole beings for functioning in that world. And then to wake up one day and realize that the world we had optimized for on a cellular, social and psychological level is no longer the world we are physically in? Would we not make the same mistakes Robert Moses made? Are those mistakes not only foreseeable, but destined to happen? Are we basically destined to live and thrive only for a few good years and are equally destined to become obsolete and discarded? Is this the fate of human beings? If so, I better sympathize with my grandmother and my parents and hope my children with show me a little pity when I grow obsolete.