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  1. The Staggers
17 April 2023

A rat? Dead for a dollar under New York’s tsar

Kathleen Corradi’s targets are “cunning, voracious and prolific”. If the history of real tsars is anything to go by, she might not last long.

By Benedict Spence

I’ve never understood the trend in the West of governments appointing tsars. A catch-all expression for someone given an unusual job, they are wheeled out like the Ghostbusters or the A-Team to solve problems elected officials are struggling with.

Why we decided on the term, I’m not sure. If modern tsars are anything like London’s current night tsar it may have something to do with living in relative opulence while everything in their domain decays around them. Perhaps it’s a sotto voce reference to the feeling that sometimes an iron fist is needed to smash a problem, like homelessness, teen pregnancy or pothole proliferation. Maybe it’s an ironic reference to the victory of secular democracy, that the once quasi-religious title can be handed out at will by people in ill-fitting suits with rather forlorn rosettes pinned to their chests.

Or it could just be because, unlike their elected masters, tsars are surprisingly easy to dispose of when no longer useful. 

And disposal is the name of the game for one tsar, in the least likely place to ever have want of a divine monarch. New York City has appointed Kathleen Corradi its new director of rodent mitigation, which sounds like a cover job title for a mobster and will probably involve similar levels of whacking. For New York has a problem: it is full of rats. No, the Boston Celtics aren’t in town this week – real rats. Perhaps not a surprise: this being the metropolis it is, numbers have exploded.

The problem has reached the stage where even the mayor, Eric Adams, is struggling to rid his own property on Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, of the beasts, leading to some awkward conversations in a local courtroom with his tenants. 

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[See also: How the New York Times became its own worst enemy]

Now, let’s give the rats a fair hearing. Long-term economic trends have driven them to New York in significant numbers, which is hardly their fault. Millions have descended on the city since the 2008 financial crisis in search of food, or perhaps employment. They play an important part in any ecosystem, devouring waste (of which New York has a lot) and keeping other vermin numbers in check. Though most of this work is done in the black economy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. From there, rats have a springboard into other areas of the city’s economy that plenty of residents wouldn’t touch. Quite how many work in New York’s sweltering kitchens, as bomb disposal experts or on its flagging stand-up comedy scene can’t be determined, but the odds are never zero.

Yet, rather than recognise their contributions, and perhaps help them on their way to citizenship, New York is calling for a total and complete shutdown of its rats (this is, after all, the city of former president Trump). And despite not being particularly fond of its most famous son, it seems there’s something of the Donald in the new tsar. The role was described as requiring someone with “drive, determination and killer instinct” for the “somewhat bloodthirsty” task at hand.

“This is almost a job that’s made for her,” Adams said of Corradi, a former elementary school teacher, upon her appointment. No former pupils have been identified or approached to give comment. Make of that what you will.

So, New York, that Democratic stronghold, has appointed a strongman to rid it of its pests. Quite how she’ll do it, no one is sure. Perhaps we should watch out for any government-funded work trips to Lower Saxony, or expense receipts for flutes. Maybe a modified flute with a semiautomatic magazine. The city, though, already has a sizeable “rodent task force” as part of its Office of Pest Control, and an expert rodent biologist who, as part of his remit, sets up cameras to document rat activity – another step on the road to a nightmarish China-like surveillance state. Corradi will certainly not be lacking in resources. Perhaps she might find herself saying, after Hamlet, “How now! A rat? Dead for a dollar.”

All is not lost for the rats, of course, especially if the history of the tsars is anything to go by. The rats have been described as “cunning, voracious and prolific” by the city’s administration, and in such numbers, rising up and toppling their nemesis cannot be ruled out. No one has done any research into how organised they are, but if the Russians or Iranians get wind of this, it’s only a matter of time before funding from Moscow rolls in and senior rats are invited to Tehran to discuss drone deals with the Revolutionary Guard.

In any case, the battle lines are now drawn. “You’ll be seeing a lot of me, and a lot less rats,” Corradi told the press on her appointment. To which the rats may well respond: “May God bless and keep the rat tsar – far away from us!”

[See also: New York’s hipster wars]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
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