Mensch and Menschkeit

The key concept in the 1996 movie City Hall is menschkeit. In Yiddish a mensch is someone of noble character and dignity, someone who does what is right and what is responsible. Menschkeit (or menschlichkeit) is the set of properties that make one a mensch. Mensch and menschkeit are terms that, in New York at least, have been assimilated into English. Mayor John Pappas, whose background is Greek rather than Jewish, refers to menschkeit as “about honor and character” and “the space between a handshake.”

Intrinsic to Pappas’s role as a politician is deal-making: literally hundreds of deals, closed by hundreds of handshakes. How does a politician maintain nobility of character and a sense of what is ethical in all the many deals? The movie refers to three types of deals: public-private partnerships, deals involving public policy, and deals with the devil (in this case, the Mafia).

The public-private partnership (though the movie didn’t use the term) involved Mayor Pappas finding the money in the city’s and the state’s budgets for expressway and subway access to a proposed financial center in Brooklyn. Undertaking the project will make both the developers and the citizens who will get jobs there better off. This partnership is comparable to the infrastructure partnerships the Harper Government in its Economic Action Plan.

Deals about public policy involve politicians voting for a policy or program that constituents or interest groups desire, in exchange for their political support in terms of votes, campaign donations, or both. That’s how politics works, particularly in systems such as the US, where individual politicians are more or less free agents. Campaign finance laws may constrain these deals in terms of who is permitted to give, and how much.

The third type of deal is a compact with the devil. Mayor Pappas did a favor for one of his city councilors who was beholden to the Mafia. Pappas phoned a judge to persuade him to give a Mafioso who had sold narcotics to minors parole rather than the long prison term he ought to have received. What the mayor did was flat-out illegal. The movie didn’t disclose what the other side of the deal was – the benefits the mayor and councilor received (or pain they avoided) in exchange for influencing the judge.

Why, in the first place, would any politician do deals with known Mafiosi? By definition, they are not people of character or people who know what is right or what is responsible. A Mafioso cannot be a mensch or display menschkeit. I have no first-hand knowledge of this, but my assumption, drawn from The Godfather, is that their modus operandi is to pretend to be people of character, and to do favors for politicians that incur obligations that, at some future point, can be called in.

Pappas’s protégé, Kevin Calhoun, who investigated a shooting causing the deaths of the paroled Mafioso, a police officer, and an innocent child, found that the trail led straight to the mayor. The movie concludes with Calhoun’s confrontation with Pappas. While he forcefully pointed out Mayor Pappas’s ethical and legal failings as a public servant, he did it with sympathy and respect for John Pappas, the human being. Here Calhoun was the true mensch and it was his behavior – not Pappas’s deal with the devil – that showed true menschkeit.



One response to “Mensch and Menschkeit”

  1. Neil Greenberg Avatar

    Enjoyed your comments– over ten years old, but who knows where one’s ideas will end up when you toss them out there
    (Marilynne Robinson recently wrote (in the New YorK Review) about “John Flavel [who] said that we will be judged twice, once when we die and once when everything we have said or done has had its final effect.”

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