Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The New York City Marathon and Mayor Bloomberg’s decision.

In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, which devastated communities along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg faced an important decision. The New York City Marathon, which the city had sponsored for 40 years, was scheduled for the Sunday following the hurricane. The city expected forty thousand runners from all over the world. Yet this was only six days after the hurricane had devastated parts of lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn, all boroughs of the city. As Sunday approached, many families still lived in unheated and darkened homes and apartments. Yet to mount the marathon the city would have to provide electric generators to heat marathon tents, provide runners with emergency medical care, food and water, deploy police to oversee the marathon and close off streets in neighborhoods that suffered flood damage. Over 400,000 people were still without power two days before the marathon was to start.

Looked at pragmatically there were good enough reasons to hold the marathon. Many runners made substantial sacrifices, measured in time and money, to participate in the marathon, and they would be deeply disappointed. In addition, charities that sponsored runners would not get their expected contributions, and the city would lose about $340 million in marathon related spending, a significant sum, though trivial compared to the damage the hurricane wrought. Responding to citizens who felt the marathon would detract from the work of recovery, the Mayor assured them that the marathon “does use some resources, but it doesn't use resources that can really make a difference in recovery...There will be no diversion of resources." He added that, "If I thought it took any resources away from that, we wouldn't do that. We haven plenty of police officers who work in areas that aren't affected."

Perhaps sensing that pragmatism was not enough, Bloomberg also referenced a decision that the prior Mayor, Rudy Guiliani, took some two months after 9/11, to in fact hold the marathon. “I think Rudy had it right. You have to keep going and doing things, and you can grieve, cry, and laugh all at the same time. That's what human beings are good at." He added he had talked to Giuliani that morning, and Giuliani advised him to move forward: "New York has to show that we are here, and we are going to recover, and while we help people, we can still help companies that need business, still generate a tax base, and give people something to be cheery about in what's been a very dismal week for a lot of people."

The public reacted angrily, with people calling the decision selfish and unfeeling, while the Borough president of Staten Island, which had suffered great damage, called the decision “asinine.” A few hours later Bloomberg canceled the marathon.

One interesting question is, if Bloomberg was in fact unfeeling, what had he failed to feel? I don’t think it's sensible to say that he did not understand the public’s suffering. Rather, he failed to understand something more subtle, namely how the Marathon, if held, would lead people to feel that their suffering had been trivialized.

Bloomberg’s reference to 9/11 is telling. One can imagine holding a marathon after a terrorist attack --maybe even a week after -- if the event is experienced as a message to the terrorists and others that the city may be “bowed but not broken.” Under these circumstances the marathon becomes part of a narrative, which gives the disaster, in this case the attack, retrospective meaning. The narrative’s punch line is “we cannot be defeated” or “we represent life.” This message is embedded in a larger story about how people, when united, can defeat their enemies. Because an enemy launched the attack, people can feel that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

The link between meaning-making and trauma is well established, and in fact is the basis for “logotherapy,” a form of psychotherapy developed by Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist who was a concentration camp prisoner during World War Two. Logotherapy’s presumption is that we can bear suffering, and even grow psychologically from it, if we can infuse it with meaning. One reason that a personal trauma -- a rape, a deadly disease -- is traumatic, is because it is random. The trauma not only attacks our physical being but our belief that the world is orderly and that our life has some purpose. People who cope with trauma by discovering a meaning or purpose in it, for example, to live life fully, to help others who suffered, or to bear witness, are said to be resilient. While logotherapy has been called “the third Viennese psychotherapy,” to contrast it with Freud’s and Adler’s conceptions,  psychoanalysis can be thought of, in part, as a therapy for making meaning. The patient learns to tell the story of their personal suffering, where it came from and why, and in this way gains some psychological distance from it. 

People once saw meaning in natural disasters. Recall the tale of Jonah and whale. To avoid God’s injunction that he preach to the people of Nineveh, he escapes on a ship, which is soon lashed by a storm. Jonah knows that the storm is a message from God, and so, to calm the waters and save the people on the ship, he offers to be thrown overboard. But to those who accept a scientific worldview, the message of a natural disaster is that there is no message. While the natural world is our home it is also wholly indifferent to us. A comet could destroy most life on earth in an instant. That is why for example, Pat Robertson, the evangelist, insisted that hurricane Katrina, which resulted in New Orleans’ catastrophic flooding, was God’s message that abortion was a sin. This was the only way to preserve his conception that the natural world is orderly and meaningful. It is a measure of meaning’s salience that some people are willing to acknowledge that they are guilty and deserve to be punished, in order to give a disaster meaning. In this sense, the disaster strengthens belief. This is one reason why Orthodox Judaism is thriving in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

To be sure, in the longer run, many people, particularly those who were not directly affected, will draw out some meaning from this storm. To many, Sandy is even now a “message” that global warming imperils us, and that we need to take steps now, to save generations to come. But presently, people experience the storm and its impact as arbitrary. Indeed one feeling people have when faced with arbitrary outcomes, is the feeling that they have been treated “unfairly.” This feeling is a protest against randomness, but without denying it, as a religious person might. This also means that people are very sensitized to being treated unfairly in the disaster’s aftermath. This may be one reason that people in New York City, believed, despite the Mayor’s protestations, that the marathon would unfairly divert resources from the work of recovery to the plebian business of mounting a marathon.

One question is whether or not it is in the character of a pragmatist to be insensitive to these nuances of feeling and experience. I am inclined to answer, “at least sometimes.” Bloomberg is a very popular mayor, so much so that he persuaded New York City residents to change the city charter so that he could run for a third term! People appreciate deeply his focus on solving problem, using data in decision making, and planning for the long run. His administration was a respite from the polarizing politics of his predecessor, Rudy Guiliani, and from the racial politics of the mayor, David Dinkins, who preceded Guiliani. Pragmatists are practical people, who to their great credit and to our great benefit, are oriented to reality. That is why they are so good at solving problems. But their conception of reality can be too one dimensional – linked too tightly to the interplay between means and ends. They can’t see the reality beneath the surface.

This may account for Bloomberg’s clumsy rationale for mounting the marathon; “You have to keep going and doing things, and you can grieve, cry, and laugh all at the same time. That's what human beings are good at." The term “human beings” is an abstraction. Why not say “people” instead? One hypothesis is that his word-choice is a measure of his retreat from feeling, perhaps because as a pragmatist he cannot cope with its complexity. We say children are innocent because they do not recognize pain's necessity. We say that adults are naïve when they fail to understand feeling’s nuances, particularly its mixture of pleasure and pain. Perhaps it is not that Bloomberg can be unfeeling, but that he can appear naive. Perhaps this is one price we pay when we follow and reward pragmatists. 


  1. Larry, a fascinating and empathetic examination of this moment in the emotional life of a city and a mayor. I found the contrasting "meaning making" narratives of 9/11 and storms very helpful. Mostly, I greatly appreciate your ability to explore and probe experiences honestly, always holding the people involved in a relationship of respect and compassion. We need more of this in our world!

  2. thanks for your good thoughts Marisa

  3. Larry,you are such a decisive and gentle read. I appreciate.

  4. In this world of unrestrained digital posting, blogs and videos I come back often to read, learn and reflect from your postings. Please keep this up as its a real pleasure to read such cogent and thoughtful writings. Your insights are special and I truly appreciate your willingness to provide your thoughts.