An edited/shortened version of this letter appears in the June 2., 2014 New Yorker

Dale Russsakoff’s thorough report on the Newark schools rescue (5/19/2014) contains echoes from social reform efforts a century ago. When Cory Booker, Newark’s “rock-star mayor,” calls for top-down reform because an open political process would be messy and could potentially be “taken captive” by opponents, he sounds eerily like the social reformer John Purroy Mitchell, the wondrous “Boy Mayor” of New York City in 2014. Convinced of his own pure motives and good heart, uniquely capable of wielding “sophisticated data” to transform the lives of the down-trodden and the new immigrants, Mitchell never bothered to consult the folks he was uplifting. Neither mayor thought serious participation could be a positive force in their grand plans, neither encouraged broad participation, neither appeared to believe that the people with the problems are essential to crafting the solutions nor that the dilemmas and messes in a democracy are best addressed through more, not less, democracy. It’s a long tradition—child-savers, social engineers, Lady Bountiful—and it rests on an ugly assumption: only “the best and the brightest” are endowed with a sufficiently deep understanding of history or are capable of exercising their own agency, while the rest of us can be written off by our statistical profiles: age, race, income, and place of residence. Mitchell was driven from office after a single term, and the New Republic concluded that people had “revolted against the consequences to themselves of government by capable and disinterested experts,” an undemocratic “autocracy of experts.” The election of Ras Baracka is one more echo.

William Ayers

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