Police and the Poet: New York’s Crime Drop, T.S. Eliot’s Dark Days

By Benjamin Schwarz

The City That Became Safe, by Franklin F. Zimring (Oxford)

The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume One: 1898-1922 (Revised Edition); Volume Two: 1923-1925 (Yale)

November 2011 Atlantic

New-York-copsIN THE 1960S, ’70s, and ’80s, New Yorkers lived in intense, growing—and entirely reasonable—fear of being robbed, raped, or killed. But in less than a generation, their city has undergone the largest and longest decline in street crime that any major metropolis has ever experienced. Rates of homicide, stranger assault, robbery, and burglary have fallen 80 percent or more—an accomplishment that experts would have thought impossible 30 years ago. In a feat of clear-eyed analysis, Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at Berkeley, assesses the causes of this unprecedented public-safety achievement. He unpacks his evidence meticulously, synthesizes disparate and difficult materials economically, and addresses counterarguments methodically—and in the process explodes myths and shibboleths embraced by both the left and the right.

Piecing together the demographic data, Zimring shows that the city became safer, but not because of any shift in the ethnicity or income level of its population. In fact, New York’s racial and ethnic profile changed in ways that would normally point to an increase in crime. Moreover, although he’s a political liberal, Zimring demolishes the proposition that a drop in crime depends on an improvement of underlying social and economic conditions. New York’s sustained, broad, and deep drop in violent crime occurred despite the city’s glaring economic inequality, its stubbornly unyielding poverty, educational deficiencies, number of “fatherless high-risk youth,” and the “social isolation” of its underclass.

But if Zimring’s assessment will vex knee-jerk progressives, it will equally irk law-and-order types. Violent crime dropped precipitously in New York, even as the sale and use of illegal drugs remained stable. The city is winning the war on crime without scoring the smallest victory in the war on drugs. And New York achieved its stunning success even as it let a relatively large number of criminals run free on the streets: the rate at which the city filled its jails and the state’s prisons is well below the national pattern.

Policing, it turns out, is the crucial factor in the city’s crime decline—but why, exactly? Zimring can’t put his finger on which specific techniques, strategies, and programs worked. Almost certainly the NYPD’s growth, management reforms, and use of statistical analysis (the so-called Compstat program) helped. Incontrovertibly, Zimring says, the NYPD’s focus on pacifying “hot spots”—areas with long and deep histories of violent crime—and eradicating open-air drug markets stanched crime. But these tactics involve very aggressive street policing, which is a broader strategy entailing a lavish number of “stop and frisks” and misdemeanor arrests. Although New York’s police made half a million such stops and 200,000 such arrests in 2009, Zimring, a scrupulous scholar, is willing to go only as far as the evidence will take him—and he has stated cautiously that this strategy “is the biggest and most costly police change with an unknown impact.” I infer that Zimring suspects that these aggressive street stops were in fact a decisive weapon in the NYPD’s arsenal—and that he’s troubled by that suspicion.

Let’s not pussyfoot: the line between aggressive policing and bullying is very fine, and regardless of the sensitivity of the police and the forbearance of the citizenry, it’s a line that’s perforce crossed daily. Another term for the misdemeanor arrests that Zimring discusses is pretextual arrest. Policing is at best a blunt instrument, and those on the receiving end of police aggressiveness are almost always those with the least recourse to protect their rights and their dignity.

But just as the costs of aggressive crime control are disproportionately borne by the disadvantaged, so too have been the benefits: the reduction in crime is one of the few public goods in New York—that global center of capitalism red in tooth and claw—that is truly progressive, benefiting disproportionately the poor and vulnerable, who need it most.


1391716380615THE AMERICAN PUBLISHER of these massive volumes—1,832 pages in all—calls them “highly anticipated.” For once, publicists understate. The first volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters initially appeared in 1988. The editor of that volume, Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, wrote in the introduction that she’d intended to include correspondence up to 1926, but there was too much material, so she promised a second volume “next year.” It’s been one of those decades-spanning years, and the wait has meant that Eliot scholarship has long been arrested.

Volume 1 (now revised to include some 200 letters unearthed since the first edition) sped along with an almost dizzying momentum, covering Eliot’s youth, the creation of a good chunk of the modernist poetic canon with the publication of Prufrock in 1917 and The Waste Land in 1922, and, with The Sacred Wood in 1920, Eliot’s establishment as one of the 20th century’s major literary critics.

Volume 2 covers a far darker period. These three years (1923–1925) were a barely endurable slog for Eliot, defined by his disaster of a marriage to his brittle, mentally unstable first wife, Vivienne. Careworn and tortured (if a bit conspicuously so), Eliot left a despairing correspondence. “So life is simply from minute to minute of horror,” he wrote to Virginia Woolf.

For the most part, he gave up trying to write poetry. “It is no use squeezing a dry sponge and it is no use trying to work a tired and distracted mind,” he wrote Gilbert Seldes. But he threw himself into Stakhanovite exertions in other areas. Until November 1925, when he took up a directorship at the publishing firm Faber and Faber, he spent his days beavering away in the City at Lloyd’s Bank, where he oversaw analysis of the financial activities of European governments—think international exchange rates, foreign government-bond issues, and payment of war debts; these volumes contain no correspondence related to his duties at the bank, even though that occupation took up most of Eliot’s working hours. He spent his nights editing the severely highbrow, groundbreaking quarterly The Criterion.

A journal reactionary in its outlook and modernist in its aesthetics, The Criterion published Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Proust. But as intellectually scintillating as the project was, Eliot’s correspondence regarding it makes for a deadeningly detailed account of literary sausage-making: a wearisome round of inveigling contributors (Eliot’s letters show that a great editor must be a shameless flatterer and a liar), complaining about printers, worrying over typefaces, wrestling with deadlines, and propitiating unhappy authors (and they all seem unhappy). Clearly, he did his best to remove himself emotionally from both his poetry and his marriage, as he explained in a letter to John Middleton Murray:

 I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V … Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? … must I kill her or kill myself?

Anxious, shy, at once striving and smug, emotionally besieged, cold, manipulative, Eliot can be a sympathetic figure, but he’s hardly a congenial one.

Since the publication of the dazzling literary indictment T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, by the scholar and star barrister Anthony Julius, Eliot is in danger of being defined by his anti-Semitism. This volume contains ample evidence to bolster the prosecution (see his letters to Herbert Read, in which he speculates about the “racial envy” of “that people”; and to John Quinn—“I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers”—and his sycophantic extolling of the Jew-hater Charles Maurras). Because I find the condescension of posterity—through which we applaud ourselves by imposing our enlightened standards on a supposedly benighted past—to be a particularly unattractive reflex, I’ve been accused of being somewhat soft on historical “genteel” anti-Semitism. But Eliot’s anti-Semitism is particularly unlovely, because he so obviously works himself up to it in an effort to conform to the pretentious and jejune ultra-reactionary ideal to which he aspires. Eliot’s anti-Semitism should not—cannot—be dismissed: it was integral to his worldview, however artificial that worldview was. But anti-Semitism wasn’t, as some critics would have it, his defining characteristic. The inspired poet, keen critic, and brilliant editor who emerges from these volumes was undoubtedly an anti-Semite, but it is our loss more than his if we reduce him to his anti-Semitism.

These books make stimulating and illuminating reading. To be sure, they have some editorial slips (and that they contain the letters Eliot wrote but not the correspondence he received means that of necessity they tell a partial story), but the fluent and full annotations are a triumph of learned compression. Really, though: this project got under way in 1965. Forty-six years later, we now have two books that cover the first 37 years of Eliot’s 76-year life. The quantity and variety of Eliot’s correspondence had to have grown with his renown, which will make future volumes all the fatter and all the slower to produce. Will anyone now living read the completed project?

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