Anyone who has not yet seen Joe Lhota's latest campaign commercial titled "Can't Go Back," should immediately go to Joe Lhota's website and take a look. The ad features a marauding motorcycle gang, angry youth hurling rocks and bottles, a fight outside of a porno theater, police officers running down the street in riot gear, a frightened old lady on the subway, endless graffiti, and an overturned police car. Bill de Blasio and his allies responded with predictable outrage, characterizing the commercial as "divisive" fear mongering in the worst tradition of "dog whistle politics."
Yet perhaps de Blasio and his supporters have misunderstood Joe Lhota altogether. The commercial is not a campaign ad, rather it is a film, and Joe Lhota is not a lethargic and mumbling political candidate who appears to fall asleep while he himself is talking; rather he is an experimental artist who has set out to critique the shrill and alarmist nature of political advertising in our time. Lhota's film is not a tragedy but a farce. Had he seriously meant to imply that the election of Bill de Blasio would loose the bonds of civilization and cause contemporary New Yorkers to go berserk, he would have given us images of young Brooklynites recklessly spilling expensive coffee onto the sidewalk, smashing their iPhones in disgust, and furiously shouting ironic statements at police surveillance cameras. The Lhota film has instead relied on absurdity and exaggeration to raise profound questions about the role of fear, race, and historical memory within the political discourse.
While the Lhota film is without a doubt avant-garde and experimental in its fusion of art and political campaigning, there are nonetheless a handful of ways that the Lhota film could have gone further with its absurdist critique. For example, images of Dante de Blasio could have been superimposed into many of the 1980s images of urban decay used in the film: Dante de Blasio standing on top of the overturned police car, Dante de Blasio writing graffiti on the train, Dante de Blasio riding along with the motor cycle gang, etc. The Lhota film also showed a lack of ambition by confining itself to the themes of crime and policing. If the basic premise of the film is that the election of Bill de Blasio will literally reverse the direction of time itself, negating decades of social and technological progress, to revive a reality that has long since passed away, then the film could have explored many other areas of life: The election of Bill de Blasio will cause a polio epidemic, the election of Bill de Blasio will force everyone to live without air conditioning and indoor plumbing, the election of Bill de Blasio will leave New Yorkers with nothing to drink except unpasteurized milk.
Yet, on the outside chance that the Lhota film was in fact meant in all seriousness as a political advertisement, then it would have to be judged as truly lame. Does Joe Lhota believe that the NYPD lacks the institutional efficacy and strength to continue to police the city just because a new left-leaning mayor has been elected? Lhota, Bloomberg and others have howled that the reform of stop and frisk will bring great danger, yet we have just experienced a full week without a murder in New York City, at a time when the police have dramatically reduced their use of stop and frisk in response to both community outcry and a decision by a federal judge. Does Joe Lhota truly believe that anarchy and lawlessness lay just beneath the surface in New York City? Was he on vacation abroad during the blackout of 2003, within which New Yorkers comported themselves with dignity and altruism? If the film is indeed a campaign ad, then perhaps we should question the hacks and clowns working on the Lhota campaign who thought that this ad would be effective. If Lhota and his crew have failed to perceive that New Yorkers are not gripped with anxiety over motorcycle gangs, graffiti, and riots, rather they are gripped with anxiety about making rent, securing an education for their children, and holding on to the little they have in a city long ruled without mercy by the grossly rich, then Lhota and his crew are not very perceptive. Yet it is foolishness to take the ad seriously, as it is clearly a hilarious and subversive art film. Indeed, like so many starving artists, Lhota has struggled to finance his efforts to bring his artwork to a larger audience, and he has taken to passing the hat. As The New York Times reported, "The Lhota camp urged supporters to donate more money to keep its ad on the air."