At the height of the hippie movement in San Francisco, a strange thing happened. Doctors couldn’t understand a new set of medical problems they began to see. Eventually, they learned that the “new” problems were actually quite old—long-forgotten bacterial infections like “the itch” and “the rot.”
It turned out that the hippies had rejected modern hygiene and medicine for ideological reasons. They wanted to live free from the “shackles” of Western civilization and had “liberated” themselves from our greatest advances. But as long-forgotten diseases crept back into society, the hippies were forced to confront the same grotesque realities that had spurred our ancestors to develop basic hygiene practices centuries ago. Tom Wolfe called this phenomenon the “great relearning.”
That term might sound familiar to anyone living in a city today where we are witnessing a great unlearning on another societal ailment that previous leaders had made great strides in curbing – crime.
Thanks to reformers in the 1980s and 90s, and their years of strategizing, experimenting, and proving, crime rates had been dramatically reduced and Americans once again felt safe on the streets of our greatest cities. Community policing, truth-in-sentencing, stop-and-frisk, and broken-windows theory became household terms. And previously unsafe areas, especially majority-minority neighborhoods, were the biggest beneficiaries.
New York City under Rudy Giuliani was a shining example of the success of proactive crime policy. The numbers still amaze. In 1993, the year before Giuliani became Mayor, New York suffered more than 1,900 murders and 85,000 robberies. By 2001, his final year in office, New York had fewer than 650 murders and 28,000 robberies.
Now, in the name of “social justice,” progressives are casting aside these reforms across America.
They say community policing “deepens criminalization and expands police power.” Truth-in-sentencing contributes to “mass incarceration.” Stop-and-frisk is “discriminatory.” And broken-windows theory “contributed to the violent and racialized policing that dominates our criminal justice system today.”
Meanwhile, the murder rate surges and businesses in places like San Francisco are left powerless to stop shoplifters.
Current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has blamed the state’s bail reform. He also blamed the COVID-19 virus. He even bizarrely claimed that “one of the things that is holding us back” is that New York City doesn’t “have a functioning court system,” drawing a sharp public rebuke from his own justice system, which has been hamstrung by new laws preventing them from doing their job.
When Rudy Giuliani was mayor, he took the opposite attitude, even down to the details of his office decoration. A sign on his desk read “I’m responsible.”
He also hung two prints of frescoes painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti which have hung in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy for almost seven hundred years. The dueling paintings, titled Effects of Good Government on the City Life and Effects of Bad Government on the City Life, rank among the masterpieces of medieval art.
Effects of Bad Government, with its dark depiction of chaos, death, and Satan himself, reminded Giuliani and visitors how ugly city life can be when leaders surrender to the worst impulses of human nature.
Effects of Good Government is a scene of tranquility and order. Its text below calls the viewer to “turn your eyes to behold” Lady Justice, who “guards and defends those who honor her.”
Lorenzetti didn’t ask us to see the indispensability of wealth or even freedom. He asked us to turn our eyes to the power of justice.
Giuliani, after a law enforcement career spent taking down top mafia bosses and drug-dealers, understood this.
But progressive leaders today fetishize “social justice” instead, thinking that the extra word harmlessly tacks on an extra ounce of balanced compassion.
Lorenzetti would have seen right through this. In the Effects of Bad Government, Lorenzetti humanized Division as a figure working to help a tyrant capture the scales of justice, much like today’s left-wing activists, who use identity politics to erode the rule of law by deepening divisions in our society.
Some problems, crime and infection among them, can be beaten back and subdued, but never fully erased.
As a victim of the bubonic plague, Lorenzetti probably wouldn’t have understood the hippies in San Francisco who turned down clean toothbrushes and penicillin. But he—and Giuliani—understood two wisdoms.
First, justice is a timeless solution to crime. Second, “justice,” as a single word alone, already requires balance. Individual rights must weigh against an orderly society.
But “social justice,” on the other hand, tips the scales. By definition, it subtracts far more than it adds, abandoning hard-won order and legal justice in favor of ever-shifting notions of a “racial reckoning” or “reimagined policing.” The effects of these disastrous ideologies are evident on the streets of Democrat Bill de Blasio’s New York.
It is unclear how much time will pass and how many more will suffer before this unlearning becomes another relearning.