Bending principles to fit the needs of the game

All politics is local and all principles mutable.

Most big cities are run by Democratic politicians whose decisions are driven by activists on city commissions, and if you're trying to analyze what they do in the context of principles or logic, you'll either go crazy or (in my case) write long and useless blog posts in the hope of making sense out of deliberately contrived nonsense.

That's my initial reaction to the so-called "principle" often called "historic preservation."

This isn't meant to be a tale of two cities, but considering my many years of experience with both of them, it's hard for me to ignore the different ways Philadelphia and San Francisco grapple with their respective pasts. Both cities have "historic perservation" ordinances, which are normally thought of as relating to architectural heritage. The idea is somewhat analogous to saving an endangered species, and in fairness, there's nothing irrational about saving the Bald Eagle or American Alligator on the one hand, or Independence Hall or the house where Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence on the other.

Two events happened recently which upset residents of both cities, as well as citizens all over the country. In Philadelphia, the trustees of Thomas Jefferson Hospital decided to sell the most famous masterpiece by Philadelphia's most famous artist -- Thomas Eakins' "The Gross Clinic." Many people were outraged, and private charities and groups have been trying to raise the money the hospital needs to buy the painting and keep it here. I couldn't agree more with Callimachus at Done with Mirrors that its proper home is in Philadelphia and that "to simply have it spirited away to the Ozarks on the whim of inherited millions is criminal."

However, now the Philadelphia city government has stepped in, and Mayor Street wants the painting declared historic under the city ordinance, so that it cannot be removed:

Mayor Street has nominated Thomas Eakins' masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, for protection under the city's historic preservation ordinance, noting the painting's deep historical and cultural resonance throughout Philadelphia, city officials said yesterday.

Designation as a "historic object," a rarely used category of the preservation code, would prevent the painting from being altered or moved without the express approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Its proposed sale by Thomas Jefferson University for $68 million ignited a burgeoning controversy.

The first such designation blocked the removal of Dream Garden, a shimmering mosaic in the old Curtis Publishing building, which its owners sought to sell in 1998.

Stephanie Naidoff, city commerce director, said Street sent a letter to commission members on Friday requesting the designation for The Gross Clinic because he believes the painting is "a real treasure of Philadelphia."

"It's an icon of world art, but it is especially connected to Philadelphia, which has always been preeminent in medicine, and Dr. Gross was preeminent in his day," said Naidoff, referring to the surgeon at the center of the monumental canvas. "That's why the mayor requested this."

Samuel D. Gross was a renowned surgeon and educator at the university. But on Nov. 10, the university said it would sell the painting it has owned since 1878 to a partnership of an unbuilt Arkansas museum backed by Wal-Mart heirs and the National Gallery of Art. The price was a record $68 million, Jefferson officials said, arguing that the money would be best spent furthering the university's expansion and educational plans.

Local institutions have been given until Dec. 26 to match the $68 million to keep the painting here.

Yet when the Philadelphia Zoo decided to get rid of its elephant exhibit (which had been a feature of the zoo since the 19th Century), there was no such resort to historic preservation.

And I wonder whether Mayor Street knows that Dr. Gross, the subject of the painting, experimented upon animals. (Has the citizen's Humane Commission weighed in on this very urgent subject? Has a political background check been conducted to determine whether Dr. Gross -- who taught at the Louisville Medical Institute from 1840 to 1856 -- might have ever employed or received money derived from slave labor? No idle question, for Lousville was home to "one of the largest slave trades in the United States.")

San Francisco is recently in the news for the decision of its school board to eliminate JROTC from the public schools. Never mind that it's been there for over 90 years, that San Francisco was saved by the military after the '06 Quake, was the home of the bases at Presidio and Treasure Island, and had a major street named "Army Street." In 1995, despite widespread popular opposition, the Supervisors decided to make the name "Army Street" disappear. And last year, they refused to allow a historic USS Iowa to dock in San Francisco, prompting one writer to speculate about the fate of the city's other other military-related historical icons:

San Francisco's attitude toward the military is evident in other areas as well. A group that calls itself the Bay Area Peace Navy has been on a quest to rid the city of Fleet Week and the spectacular, albeit loud, air shows of the Blue Angels. So far they've been unsuccessful, but give it time.

The relatively paltry funding for San Francisco's Veterans Day Parade and Memorial commemoration also speaks volumes about where the city's priorities lie. When the Board of Supervisors renamed Army Street "Cesar Chavez Street" in 1995, it was yet another not-so-subtle jab at the military.

If the city truly wanted to rid itself of military symbols, it would have to dig up the graves at the San Francisco National Cemetery and raze all other evidence of the military's presence at the Presidio (including extensive Buffalo Soldier sites), pave over Crissy Field, bulldoze the War Memorial complex on Van Ness Avenue and knock down the Lone Sailor statue at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Since San Francisco has a long and rich military history, there certainly wouldn't be any shortage of monuments to destroy.

So much for historic preservation, and so much for the "principle" of respecting the past.

When local politics is brought to bear, there are no rules or principles that I can identify with any certainty. What seems to happen is that gut feelings come first, and rules (and what we call "principles") are used to advance or justify what some people want, or as arguments against what others oppose.

Politics is a game which if you take too seriously, you lose. The catch seems to be that if you don't take it seriously enough, you also lose.

In politics, it's not taking rules and principles seriously that's important. It's the appearance of taking rules and principles seriously.

Whether that's "hypocrisy" depends on which side you're on any given issue at any given time.

(Whether any of this is "cynical" depends on the nature of things like ultimate truth, which I'm cynical enough to admit cannot be settled in a blog post.)

AFTERTHOUGHT: I don't mean to sound overly dark, but often I don't know whether true hypocrisy exists, much less whether I should take hypocrisy seriously. I like to think that I am very tolerant of hypocrisy and hypocrites whether they truly exist or not. Yet, there's a side of me that's uneasy about being ruled by them....

posted by Eric on 11.20.06 at 07:29 AM


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