Bloomberg, Revisited

Last July, I sprinkled faint praise on Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, for having the gumption to push through his initiative to ban large containers of sugary beverages in his city’s theaters and restaurants, no matter how many people objected.

In a political world of timidity and pandering, I wrote, here at least was a guy with the courage of his convictions and the force of will to get the job done.

It appears that not everyone in America agrees.

Last Tuesday was to be when New York’s famous (or infamous) soda ban took effect, except that on the previous day, a New York Supreme Court judge invalidated the whole bloody thing, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.”

And the floodgates of schadenfreude burst open.

As reported pretty much everywhere, response to the news of the soda ban’s sudden demise, both within and without New York’s city limits, has been decidedly of the “good riddance” variety.  The Onion, reliable as ever, summed things up nicely with the headline, “Opposition To Soda Ban Sad Proof That Americans Still Fight For What They Believe In.”

A good deal of this antipathy seems as much against Bloomberg himself as against his latest public health pet project.

In point of fact, for as long as he has been mayor, Bloomberg has invited intense feedback from his not-always-adoring public.  He could fairly be described as a “polarizing” figure, not least for his ability to provoke a polarized reaction in a single person.

As a case in point, it is worth recalling Bloomberg’s rather memorable 2008 campaign to extend his own tenure.  Faced with an imminent forced retirement from the mayoralty thanks to a 1993 term limit law, Bloomberg successfully lobbied the City Council to extend the mayor’s maximum reign from two four-year terms to three.

Tellingly, New York public opinion was largely against the term extension idea—voters have affirmed such limits every time they have been given the chance, including in 2010—yet Bloomberg nonetheless won a third term in 2009 and has maintained relatively high approval ratings for most of his rule.

In short, however strongly the good people of New York have judged Bloomberg’s ideas and works, they have come to stridently disapprove of his methods.  The ends are not justified by the means, and in this case, the people didn’t much care for the ends, either.

The scorn of the Onion notwithstanding, I can only applaud this state of the public mind as a rare and admirable defense of principle over personality.

To be certain, the principle being defended in the present controversy is not a noble one.  The right to pour indiscriminate amounts of high fructose corn syrup down one’s gullet without having to shuffle back to the counter for a refill is (probably) not what Patrick Henry quite had in mind in proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

But that does not make such a concern illegitimate, for the principle behind the principle—the right to do what one damn well pleases—is as central to the American way of life as ever it has been, and must always be guarded and reaffirmed.

The challenge, then, is to direct these healthy and essential affirmations of one’s liberties toward more weighty matters.

I am reminded of the old gripe about how much better shape America might be in if the folks who spend an entire weekend camped outside Best Buy to purchase the newest iPhone were able to summon equal passion and dedication toward, say, eradicating HIV in Africa or combating climate change here in the States.

Our great country is not suffering from an enthusiasm deficit so much as a seriousness deficit.

As for Mayor Bloomberg himself:  With this setback in his quest for a healthier New York (following so many successes), he has perhaps been humbled to learn, at long last, that the keys to Gracie Mansion and a few billion dollars license a person to accomplish only so much unilaterally.  That if the common folk are truly disdainful of their leader’s actions, they will eventually rebel.

Then again, Bloomberg has vowed in no uncertain terms to continue his war against liquid sugar to the bitter, bubbly end.  In the arrogance department he, like Charles Foster Kane, may “need more than one lesson.”  The question is, with less than a year left in his (apparently final) term, whether there is time enough for him to receive it.

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