Third Order Thinking

Third Order Thinking:
The Television Audience
May 2019

The evolution of the television audience as we know it today, from the one that was imagined by its original marketers, would make a very interesting history book. It would necessarily involve the evolution not only of television shows but of televised advertising (which would include broadcasters’ self-representations and all other signifiers of distinctiveness). The later chapters of the book would show how the atomization of the audience by the Internet was prefigured first by (additional) UHF and then by (proliferating) cable channels, but the story would never be able to ignore the major television (or entertainment) producers capable of satisfying the mass audience that television eventually inherited from the movies. Although fewer people than ever still watch “broadcast” entertainment (whether or not it is actually “broadcast”), millions of viewers still do watch it. And although there are often two or three versions of the same sort of TV show “on the air” at the same time — morning shows, evening news — these shows compete for the attention of the same mass audience, spinning variations not so much on content as on the personalities of their hosts.

The most important chapter of this hypothetical history of television would detail the collapse of élite resistance to the medium. Putting things as briefly as possible, the television columns that now appear in The New Yorker would have been unthinkable sixty years ago. Thirty years ago, they would have been haughtily denounced. The nature of this shift in snob appeal needs to be considered in the round. Sixty years ago, the magazine regularly covered horse-racing, golf, New York’s specialty shops (clothes) for women, and local jazz performances. Those were the more or less idle pastimes of the élite. The New Yorker has not grown a new readership, but its readership has changed its fancies.

The television shows covered in The New Yorker are not the shows with the biggest ratings — far from it. But unlike horse-racing and millinery-hunting, which were rich in qualities that set them apart from auto-racing and bargain-hunting, the magazine’s media critics were and are focused on entertainment. Feature films are still reviewed separately.

How did this happen? What eroded élite resistance to entertainment, notwithstanding the millions of dollars in tuition fees paid for painstaking lessons in the essentially non-entertaining humanities? Clueless is a very clever adaptation of the story of Emma, but it is no substitute whatsoever for reading (and spending the time to read) the novel by Jane Austen. How did it become acceptable for college grads to admit, “No, (but) I’ve seen the movie.” What’s more, how did the élite fail to realize that, instead of being informed, it was being entertained?

Television was always going to feature entertainment, but its pioneers expected more from it than that. The second most important chapter of the history of television would correlate the price of television sets with the decline of the pioneers’ ambitions for education on television. There was a great deal of this at the start — I was a keen follower of Jon Gnagy on CBS, from which I learned a great deal about the structure of perspectival illustration, if not how to draw well myself. As I recall, Gnagy’s show was slow and quiet, entirely focused on his seemingly miraculous control of the black crayon. The dispatch with which Gnagy transformed a couple of lines into a persuasive illusion — a flattened circle, say, became a Halloween pumpkin — was at least as entertaining as any feat of prestidigitation, but the man was always teaching. What seems most astonishing about the show now, looking back, is that Gnagy held the camera by himself. He had no one to talk to except the audience. Today, I expect, this would be found more than a little disconcerting.

If you look up Roddy McDowell on IMDb, you will discover that he was very busy in television throughout the Fifties — starring in plays. Although filmed in television studios, these productions usually simulated stage productions, and captured for all time the “experimental” aesthetic of the time. Quite accidentally, the taste for black-and-white minimalism clicked with current technology, but the results are hard to watch now. Somewhere in my collection, I have a CD of the Playhouse 90 adaptation of Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” from 1958. Oscar Homolka, Cathleen Nesbitt, Eartha Kitt and Boris Karloff (as Kurtz!) are featured in the cast. But the effect is pretty much that of David Lynch’s Eraserhead — everybody looks terrible, the story is barely comprehensible, and the very dark backgrounds make it difficult to see what is going on. The production is hopelessly sophisticated — it’s as if Cambridge Analytica had been commissioned to design a pitch for “The Wonderful World of Color.” It was perhaps simply unlucky that the artists who were most influential during television’s early years were big believers in “difficulty,” which, it was hoped, would shake up bourgeois complacency.

As I’ve suggested, television sets became more affordable. And of course the viability of television’s future all but ceased to be speculative. In Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, a novel set in the Fifties, Mrs Kehoe, the heroine’s landlady, wonders if it will turn out to have been a fad.

She worried, she said,that it might not catch on and she’d be left with it. Both Tony and Father Fl;ood advised her to buy a set, and this seemed only to cause further remarks about how there was no guarantee that they would go on making programmes and she did not think she would take the risk.

“When everybody gets one, I’ll get one,” she said.(194)

Well, everybody got one, and the manufacturers seemed to understand that improvements should be made slowly if at all. For decades, television sets died of fatigue, not supercession. Instead of buying the latest model, people bought second sets, and pretty soon Americans could watch television anywhere in the house where they might spend time. While a handful of trusted brands saturated the territory with appliances, producers worked on developing programs that would attract the swelling audience, which was, of course, made up primarily of rumps. Meanwhile, on a third front, fortunes were made selling consumer goods to television’s “mass” audience by means of commercials. And let us not forget the rentiers who had the luck to hold the licenses to broadcast frequencies. What might have been a medium of edification was corrupted by avalanches of money.

In short, the production values that flourished on television were in large part the result of three very successful marketing campaigns. There was nothing intrinsically necessary about the evolution of the medium.

Until I began thinking about Third Order Thinking, I agreed with Neil Postman, whose 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business argues that entertainment has swallowed television, so that everything shown on television, regardless of its purpose or its high-minded goals, is transmuted into entertainment — extremely unreliable information. I still agree with Postman, but only if it is understood that entertainment, which is after all just one of countless human inventions, and not in itself an agent, was capable of this feat only after the rump of the Third Order achieved complete domination of the television audience.

Postman’s arguments have never been far from my mind whenever I considered the disappointments of American public life — which is to say, constantly. What I could never forget was his pungent analysis of a 1963 “discussion,” featuring such luminaries as Carl Sagan and Henry Kissinger, of nuclear war. Few subjects have more power to concentrate the mind, but as Postman showed, none of the panelists could be seen to do the slightest bit of thinking; every remark was prepared and rehearsed.

When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say …?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago.” (90)

The foundation of Postman’s argument is that television supplanted the world of words that had inspired the West since Gutenberg with a world of pictures — a world of pictures supplemented by disjointed, telegraphic messages unknown to the conventions of print. (“And now this.”) Again, however, television is not an agent. The supplanting was effected by producers in response to ratings, and the ratings were determined by popular — rump — inclinations. We ought to remember here that the movies had never been intended to amount to much, and certainly not to scale the heights of artistic expression attained by a handful of great films. Throughout the so-called golden age of the studio system, films were thought to be disposable and forgettable. Television began on the opposite footing, but was co-opted by movie values — the values of the bulk of films, out of mind as soon as they were out of sight — when the rumps, like Mrs Kehoe, acquired television sets, not en masse but in conformity. It was this shift that transformed television from a source of what Postman would call typographic information into a source of pictorial diversion — entertainment.

And it was precisely this transformation that suckered the élite into deciding that there was no harm in enjoying pleasures that had hitherto been regarded as beneath them. For television, constantly reacting to the critique implicit in the ratings, had gotten extremely good at entertainment. Nowhere is television’s skill at rendering visual phenomena instantly comprehensible (and therefore entertaining) than it is in sports. I hope that I will also be forgiven for my ignorance of the precise details of sportscasting. It is my impression that a basketball game, say, is photographed for video by three or four cameramen whose equipment, while mobile, is confined to particular zones of the court’s periphery. If the cameramen know more about how the game is played than anyone else on earth, that is certainly in part because they are not professionally invested in winners and losers. Their only objective is to follow the ball, and in the course of learning to do this they acquire something like the ability to predict where the ball is going to go. For the cameramen to be taken by surprise is a moment of the greatest excitement, because it hardly ever happens. Curiously, the point is proved by attending a game in person. Here you will find most eyes raised to the Jumbotron hanging over the court, or fixed to the many screens in the skyboxes. Why go to the trouble of trying to keep track of the scramble taking place right in front of you when the cameramen will do it for you? That’s entertainment.

It is also… not discourse. This is the crucial point. From 1789 until the day before yesterday, old and new social groups have watched the Third Order rumps for signs of political intention. Although Those Who Rule and Those Who Trade (the most powerful exponents of the new order) heard themselves to be asking, What do they want? the actual question was something else: What do they propose? And the Third Order rumps, as I have pointed out, never proposed anything. They merely continued to demand what they had always demanded: more food/better pay. And as the Twentieth Century saw a diffusion of moderate comfort and security throughout the working classes of the West, a new demand did emerge, but it was not a political demand, or rather not the kind of demand that the other groups, most latterly the testable élites, would or could recognize as political, at least before it was too late. What the rumps now asked for they finally got with the election of Donald Trump: nonstop entertainment.

Third Order Note:
What Entertainment Is
5 June 2019

What is entertainment? Well, “entertainment” is one of those words that everybody uses without a hint of definition, as if entertainment were a planet, and all you had to do was point. Among people like me, there is a certain guilty feeling — more vestigial every day, it’s true — that entertainment is a disappointment, a lesser thing, not serious somehow. But these bad feelings are swamped and sunk by the fact that entertainment makes its producers pots of money, and gives everybody else something to talk about. Something like Game of Thrones that is. Not “entertainment.” Nobody talks about “entertainment.”

I began thinking about the matter just as anybody would. What sorts of products bear the label “entertainment”? A television sit-com is entertainment, certainly, and so is a circus act. But what about the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center? Is the show of Dutch paintings at the Museum entertainment? Cockfighting? Are Hamlet and The Real Housewives of New Jersey simply two instances of the same species?

I soon saw a jungle of split hairs and a world of disagreement. I had already decided that reassurance and something else were invariable elements of entertainment. I forget what the something else was, but my thinking pivoted on these characteristics to take the opposite point of view. What are the criteria that must be satisfied for people to be entertained? Assuming that almost anything can be entertainment, and that almost nothing entertains everybody, what (if anything) do people always have in mind when they seek it?

Here is my list of four criteria. I’ll get to reassurance last.

  • Diversion. The word that most people would use here is “distraction,” which suggests the distemper of the times. Diversion is the better term, because what people in search of entertainment want is something to shift their attention from everyday concerns to lighter, more pleasant matters.
  • Familiarity. Diversion also requires novelty, for the effortless capture of people’s attention. But if the novelty of the presentation is greater than its familiarity, the result is not entertainment, but challenge and anxiety. Consider the musical form of “theme and variations.” If the the theme is pronounced in every variation, as, for example, in Mozart’s take on the nursery song about the alphabet, the result is very entertaining. If, however, the tune is stripped down to its harmonic essence, to its chord sequence, as it is in Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations and in the bulk of classic ensemble jazz, far fewer listeners will find the music “entertaining.” People may agree that it is “interesting” instead.
  • Straightforwardness. Interest is not a characteristic of entertainment — although, as Mozart proves, it is possible to be very diverting and very interesting at the same time. (What’s difficult is responding to both qualities at the same time. This is why Emperor Joseph complained of “too many notes.”) Interest is meta, a self-conscious reflection on what’s going on. Viewers cannot be teased with the suspicion that Peter Boyle is “up to something” — say, recycling an old Molière performance — in an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. Boyle must never suggest that Frank Barone is up to anything but raiding the icebox. 
  • Reassurance. Because, after all, who is Molière? The long-dead author of bygone entertainments, that’s who. And entertainments date poorly. The carefully-designed blend of diversion and familiarity inevitably collides with the icebergs of changing fashion and generational evolution. Entertainment must deny that such icebergs exist. Titanic is an entertaining movie because everyone knows from the start that at least one glamorous old broad has survived, and now the audience wants her story, even if a lot of other people die. Nobody, however, wants to hope for the best and book passage.

You might conclude from this list that entertainment must be cozy and benign, not to say — for hipsters — boring. But one factor crucial to the quality of human life is missing, and that is

  • Humanity. Here is a word that people misuse to connote the sum of human beings, emphasizing what they all have in common. Curiously, we do not have similar words for other species — “doggery,” “elephanthood” — and this suggests to me that people are aware that “humanity” means something else, which it does. Insofar as it refers to the aggregate of human beings, it stresses what makes each human being different from every other — there can be no sum. For practical purposes, “humanity” is the aggregate of two or three hundred other people who appear in anyone’s everyday life. (I’m thinking of city life here, although the total in many villages would be much higher.) “Humanity,” moreover, does not describe these other people — how could it? — but rather it expresses one’s willing ability to grasp, to respect, and to accommodate, as far as healthily possible, their peculiarities. Humanity is in short the opposite of sociology. Sociology searches for timeless laws capable of predicting what people will do. The most lucrative application of sociology today is television production, which is why so much entertainment today is plainly inhumane. What could be more pleasant than the freude in Schadenfreude? Let’s see those housewives throw tantrums with their Birkins!

“Entertainment” is not enough. It is never “only entertainment.”

Third Order Thinking:
Something Really New
29 May 2019

At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, something really new was happening. It took a while to unfold, and in fact it is still unfolding. Let’s call it “the Business of Motion Pictures.” The more this business took definite shape, the clearer its unprecedented nature became. Everyone was distracted by the marvel on the screen, of course. But the moving of pictures to create an illusion of the real world was the easiest part of the magic to understand. More mysterious were the associated phenomena. Movies, as they came to be called in English — the unique resort to the vernacular, eschewing highbrow “cinema” and “film,” is noteworthy — were shown in large, dark rooms that effaced the contradictory nature of the audience. The audience was made up of couples and family groups, on the one hand, and, at the same time, it was made up of perfect strangers. Some people went to the movies by themselves, certainly, but most people in the theatre were both known to a few and unknown to the rest. When the lights came up, you might recognize someone in a distant aisle, but for the duration of the movie, you shared a tiny island with locals like yourself, beyond which stretched a sea of transients.

I am not going to bog down in comparisons of the movies to stage drama. It’s enough to suggest, as I think is quite true, that the latter brings foreign lands and people to us, where we live, while movies take us away. This may be no more than an effect of the light, which is dim to the point of darkness at the movies. One other point: it has always been a great deal cheaper to see a movie than to see a play. A great many more distinctions of nearly equal significance could be made, but these two will do. What we call “the theatre” calls for an education and a bankroll. If the movies are to be compared to anything that went before, it is the circus. Indeed, you might say that the movies succeeded because they repackaged drama in a form easily accessible to audiences familiar with nothing more imaginative than physical spectacles.

Movies were the first form of mass entertainment, preceding radio by a few years. By “mass,” I do not of course mean that movies were made “for the masses,” because, as I have pointed out, “the masses” were no more real than unicorns. I speak of mass entertainment because each individual movie could be shown to and enjoyed by thousands of people — millions. A massive audience. Local censorship aside — and this was uncommon, because movies that might invite local snipping were less profitable — individual movies were not adapted to suit particular audiences. What played in Seattle played it Atlanta. It might make more money in one town than in the other, but it was almost always the same movie.

The other “hidden” phenomenon associated with motion pictures was the business of making movies. Unlike the businesses of mounting plays or staging circuses, making movies was incredibly lucrative. Each movie was made once, in a relatively short space of time, and then exhibited everywhere, for as long as people would buy tickets. It is hard to think of another non-extractive line of business with such an exaggerated rate of return. Within a decade, a small clutch of anonymous retailers, furriers many of them, amassed pharaonic fortunes and founded the wonderland of Hollywood. At the same time, they acquired an expertise in producing profitable products. They did not do this by reading Shakespeare or Shaw. Their field of study was receipts. The proof was in the box office. It might be difficult to put the elements of profitable film-making into words, but if anything this made it easier for the largely uneducated producers to master what they had to learn and to keep the riches to themselves. You had to be a mogul, a chief executive, orbiting far above the peculiarities of individual screenplays and stars, in order to operate a money-making studio. An amazing number of these moguls spent their careers in New York offices and their time with bankers and other investors, paying as few condescending visits to California as possible.

Everybody wanted to produce a blockbuster, of course. But chasing blockbusters was a road to ruin. To succeed, you had to master the art of making lots of ordinary pictures that ordinary people wanted to see. What critics had to say was less than irrelevant. In short, you might not have to know much about making movies, but you had to know a lot about your audiences.

Who were the audiences? I’m not a scholar of the relevant demographics, but you don’t have to be one to know that industrialists and their families, even industrialists and their families and retainers, did not sustain the movie business with their ticket purchases. If anything, industrials &c stayed away. Movies were widely regarded by the professional and upper classes as vulgar and even boring. Once you had experienced the medium’s cheap thrills — gasping as the locomotive raced to the edge of the screen, delighting in the longed-for effectiveness of magic wands — you were done with the novelty element, because one of the first lessons mastered by Hollywood was the audience’s well-established love of genre.What movie audiences demanded, it emerged, was the retelling, over and over, of the same stories, romantic, heroic, or terrifying, but with different stars in the leading roles and different wrinkles in the screenplay. A story set in ancient Egypt might be repurposed for the ante-bellum South. The same sorts of characters, hardly more varied than the stock figures of itinerant puppet theatre, reappeared in every show, doing the same things and coming to the same end. Cads never — never never — rode off into the sunset with the innocent maids. Nor did they hold on to their ill-gotten gains (they couldn’t even hypothecate them). Something not entirely unrecognizable as justice inevitably prevailed.

Am I going to claim that the movie audience was primarily made up of Third-Order rumps? No, because I’m not sure that it was. But I do believe that the rumps were the movies’ most reliable audience, and that the success of ironclad genres reflected the ironclad conformism that so confused social superiors into believing that peasants and their post-Revolutionary descendants constituted a “mass.” The apparent paradox is easily explained. It existed only in the minds of the bourgeoisie, a class increasingly devoted to personal differentiation. At one time, the peasantry and the bourgeoisie alike (when they were both parts of the Third Order) shared an understanding that it was prudent to conform to general appearances, safe not to stand out. Standing out was left to the top two Orders. After 1789, however, the bourgeois increasingly fancied that it was taking the place of those Orders. There might still be princes and dukes, but the Rothschilds were richer, and a lot more powerful. The proletariat had no occasion to make such a change; nor, for a long time, did it have the resources to do so. Outward conformity was a simple and sure way of getting by — or at least of not standing in the way of getting by. Inwardly, peasants and proletarians were unique human beings, just like everybody else (another apparent paradox), and, if anything, more devoted to the rudimentary autonomy that made them fiercely reject political attempts to bundle them together in collectives. The movies reflected all of this. The story was always the same, the hero always somebody new. (Audiences were notoriously — inconveniently — avid for new faces.) The hero might, occasionally, be rich and powerful at the end — usually, he had to settle for getting the girl — but he was never rich and powerful at the beginning, not unless the story was going to strip him of worldly goods and oblige him to earn them all over again. Rich and powerful characters generally hugged the periphery of the tale. The bourgeoisie, as I have said, stayed away, preferring to patronise the “legitimate” theatre.

If the rumps did not constitute a genuine mass, movie audiences did. From the producers’ standpoint, there were only two kinds of people, the ones who bought tickets and the others. The ones who bought tickets demonstrated satisfaction with an increasingly standardized product that in turn would have a standardizing impact on audiences. This reciprocal action would become more efficient in the later Twentieth Century, when an even newer medium freed conventional film to explore alternatives that would have been financially unrewarding earlier — alternatives inspired by the relatively small group of quirky movies, made at the height of the old Studio System, that came to be appreciated by new audience, the cinephiles. In discovering something “artistic” about the movies, cinephiles created a new film aesthetic, one that took as a point of departure (when it did not overlook it altogether), the old objective, known to audiences and producers alike as “entertainment.”

What, analytically, is entertainment?

Third Order Thinking:
Elusive Masses
22 May 2019

After 1789, the Third Order was renamed “The People.” What followed was a century and more in which a few People (sons of the bourgeoisie) made pronouncements, declared revolutions, and organized institutions on behalf of most People. In later years, most People were also known as “the Masses.”

Two inconvenient facts doomed these vicarious efforts. First, none of the People had elected or appointed or in any way chosen restless and alienated young men who were obviously unsuited to follow in their fathers’ footsteps as their spokespersons. Aside from inspiring novelists writing in almost every language to create romantic/demonic heroes and villains, it is hard to see what these activists accomplished. Active without achievement, they littered fiction with  monsters and clowns, but the People did not yet read novels.

The other fact was stated by Raymond Williams in 1958: “There are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses.”

If the activists represented anything, it was the guilty conscience shared very unequally by everyone who led a more or less comfortable, orderly existence, from clerks to kings, when forced to reflect on the miserable lives of farmworkers in the country and factory workers in the city. This guilty conscience was pricked often enough to bring about more than a few reforms. But political reforms were not interesting to the rumps of the Third Order, however miserable they were. What the rumps wanted was the same old something else, changed by 1789 only in name: what had been called “food” was now called “wages.” Whenever viscerally pressed by the need for a better diet, the rumps of the Third Order did what they had always done: they indulged in coercive protest. Thanks to reforms volunteered by anxious rulers, violent uprisings were gradually channeled into labor strikes. A railway shutdown might not be as destructive as the looting of a town in the long run, but in the far more complex, interrelated world bequeathed by the Industrial Revolution, it was no less disruptive in the moment, and of course strikes inconvenienced many more citizens. It ought to be noted that while the occasional strike, like the occasional riot, might be prompted by widespread dislike of an ill-considered reform, none was ever intended to improve the rumps’ political position.

What Marx, Engels, and all the others seem never to have understood was that politics is inimical to Third Order Thinking. To get a feel for this hostility, one need only consider the similar fact that corruption is inimical to Liberal Thinking.

Before the Liberal reconstitution of Britain at the end of the Seventeenth Century, the world of affairs was both fundamentally and openly corrupt. Everyone knew that the opportunistic extortion of goods was wrong — that’s why it was recognized as corruption — but nobody could design a political system that reliably prevented it. For this reason, the ancien régime favored rulers strong enough to regulate corrupt practices and to prevent the more shocking flares of unjust enrichment. Corruption was officially and philosophically regretted, but it was accepted as a fact of life.

Then something happened in Britain. It would be a distraction to trace the steps, here, by which British leaders hit on a solution to the Grandee Problem. It’s enough to say that the Grandee Problem was and is universal, wherever it is not constitutionally restrained. Every individual ruler is obliged to come to power-sharing terms with his or her most powerful subjects in order to avoid life-threatening conspiracies. These terms are essentially corrupt, in that they are agreed upon without regard for the general welfare. Some rulers are better at coming to terms than others, and some are much, much worse. This puts the stability of the state at the mercy of the ruler’s character. The British solution was to make the state stronger than the ruler. This was achieved by limiting the rulers’ choice of advisers. It took about fifty years to work out the details, but by the 1730s it was understood by all the leading men of the world’s richest country that the king (the ruler), while free to seek the advice of anyone in the country, must take the advice of the leader of Parliament’s House of Commons — who could be anyone in the country, anyone, that is, capable of winning the recognition of a great number of potential, self-interested rivals. (For a long time, this leader might occasionally sit in the Lords, but no matter.) Thus did the Rule of Law take hold in Britain, and, with it, the world’s first political government — government according to the Rules. Corruption and all the other human vices were hardly exterminated by this transformation, but they were practicably condemned, and those who were found to be corrupt were held to be enemies of the political state.

Speaking of the Rule of Law, I have indulged in a bit of piety. It would be more honest to speak of the Rules of the Game. The men who dominated public affairs toward the end of the Seventeenth Century, and even more and ever more the generations that succeeded them, had the same sort of educations and played the same field sports. It was natural for them to regard the ragbag of procedural traditions that they inherited from the Middle Ages as material from which rules of order might be fashioned. The essence of their legitimacy depended upon not being seen to invent things. A purely rational approach to government and legislation would have demanded a great deal of invention, so the founders of liberal practices settled for taking no approach whatever. There was no need for an approach to politics if you already knew how to play. For this reason, British liberalism, almost in full flower by 1789 and admired everywhere for its efficient and good-natured dispatch of partisan difficulties, was never successfully imitated anywhere.

As I remarked in the last section, the rulers of the post-Revolutionary régime, and bourgeois property-owners as well, could not decide how to deal with the rumps of the Third Order — the proletarians and the serfs. They could never abandon for long the conviction that the rumps must somehow be included in political life. They could not understand why the rumps resisted political engagement. They did not want to think that there was any reason for the rumps to persist in the Third Order belief that authority was always and everywhere at least potentially corrupt. And they did not understand that the rumps’ unambiguous grasp of Right and Wrong made it resistant to compromise, and hostile to the practice of making Right and Wrong stakes in a game that, outside of Britain, was played rather badly. Worse, the new régime, being more principled than the old, was less flexible about charitable interventions; in a word, it was much stingier than the nobles and clerics had been. An equal but thin distribution of benefits showered evenly upon an entire society was bound to be far less satisfactory than buckets of plenty dropped capriciously here and there. The new rulers were right to charge the rumps with ingratitude, but mistaken in their failure to see that it was deserved.

And another thing: hierarchy. For centuries, the old rulers had preached that the social structure of Christendom (Europe) was divinely ordained. Indeed, as Duby tells us, those pioneers of the Three-Order model, Adalbero and Gerard, assumed that any proper order on earth would mirror the order of heaven, with its tripartite division of angels. (Medieval thinkers knew a great deal about this sort of thing.) The toilers of the Third Order were assured that they would receive their reward for backbreaking work in the next world — when, that is, they weren’t being told that they were damned to the pits of hell from the moment they were born. Centuries of such imprecation were not without effect. By the closing years of the ancien régime, the Third Order rumps-to-be (certainly not the bourgeois-to-be) were almost comforted by the image of a Great Chain of Being, linking every one of God’s creatures in an order, from angels to worms. This was an arrangement that peasants could count on, in a world where certainty was at a premium that we cannot currently imagine. It was an arrangement, moreover, that was manifested in varieties of dress and behavior. Tales of Haroun al-Rashid drifting anonymously through the Baghdad nights might appealing at bedtime, but peasants did not want to be in any doubt about which person in the procession was the king. Nor did they doubt that the king would dispense more largesse than anyone else, or that more local bigwigs would not tailor their generosity to their rank.

The new régimes were themselves ambivalent about hierarchy. Officially, of course, they declared it to be defunct, but in everyday life they were no more prepared to conduct their affairs without deference and acknowledgment than the rumps were prepared to believe that these no longer mattered. Titles of nobility were swept away by the Revolution, but only for a time. Even before Napoleon’s advent it was agreed that doing away with the feudal claims that were thought to underpin noble status was sufficient, and dukes continued to parade the earth. What’s more, the European aristocracy continued to control (with occasional interruptions) the military forces of the new régime, right up until the fiasco of the Great War (which I see as the aristocracy’s last bid — idiotic but sincere — to regain hegemony). By that time, of course, the rumps were less inclined to bow and curtsy, not least because, the military aside, the upper reaches of the old hierarchy were no longer behaving properly.

We shall return to hierarchical slippage by the better sort. For the moment, we need only notice that in their preference for hierarchy to politics, Third Order rumps displayed a stubborn attachment to the ultimacy of the individual. This was in part doubtless owing to their lack of education and of comfort with abstractions. They never forgot that you do not meet abstractions in the street, but only distinct persons. Similarly, and to the bafflement of those who still saw themselves as their social superiors, they refused to regard themselves as members of groups most of whose other members were completely unknown to them, ie “the working class.” The old rulers might have rattled on about the peasantry as an order, but in their everyday dealings they dealt with actual subordinates and dependents, often by name. The art of stripping a human being of individuality would await more earnest attempts by the totalitarians of the Twentieth Century (and even they would fail). The old and new ruling classes alike were aware that the peasantry and the proletariat could be angered into so-called “mob” behavior, and we know that mob behavior dissolves the sense of individuality — but only for a time, only so long as the anger is white-hot, which it cannot be, owing to human frailty, for long. Terrified of mob misrule, and living in conditions of increasing social segregation, the new rulers and the bourgeoisie rather lazily imagined that workers were always governed by mob psychology, when in actuality they were only very rarely. Hence the spectre of “the masses.”

When Gladstone famously pledged to side with “the masses” against “the classes,” he was projecting (unconsciously, I think) an image of society, part hierarchical, part “middle” and “upper,” from which the working class, considered as a monad, had been cut away. This the rumps would never accept. Rumps never ceased to see themselves as belonging integrally and individually to society as a whole — for all the nodding and curtsying, they knew that the king was no less mortal than they themselves — and they never ceased to demand a minimum wage for the work that they did. That each man was entitled to his due was a belief that the rumps would never trade in for the more advanced benefit of guaranteed welfare; although they were happy to take such benefits, they didn’t like to see them distributed to the undeserving.

In short, the rumps of the Third Order continued — and continue — to regard politics as an interference with the exchange of labor for the rudiments of a prosperous subsistence. At least they were aware of politics, if only as a nuisance. What neither they, plowing along through the catastrophes of the last century, nor anone else had any reason to foresee was that the coming medium of television would get the rumps out of their rut. Even less would anyone have imagined that television would succeed at the task that had bested generations of well-meaning reformers precisely by enshrining the old Third Order way of seeing the world.

Third Order Thinking:
The Three Orders
15 MayApril 2019

Classification is an ancient passion. Whatever good it does anyone else, it suffuses the classifier with a sense of control over the world. As with tidying possessions, nothing is added, nothing taken away — and yet the sensation of new knowledge is strong. Jorge Luis Borges’s famous “Chinese” taxonomy of animals (“Those that are included in this classification”) gives a taste of how ridiculous, and totally devoid of knowledge, classifications can become with time.

Classifications of human society are generally not very fanciful, but perhaps for that very reason they can be all the more painfully wrongheaded. Wishful thinking is like the forger’s hand, doomed to betray the social classification as something other than actual information. Tripartite schemes have always been very popular, but dichotomous ones have a robust appeal, while divisions into four classes are not unknown; ultimately, there is the Great Chain of Being, in which every individual being occupies his or her own place in a link that binds all of creation. The decision to order society in so many ways, and not more or less, is never stable, and it is not uncommon for people to entertain two or more inconsistent groupings at the same time, as for example the triadic model of an upper, a middle, and a lower class, along with, on the other, a dualistic view dividing the few on top from the many underneath.

Georges Duby has written an exhaustive book about the development of the concept of the Three Orders, from the second quarter of the Eleventh Century to the third quarter of the Twelfth. Duby’s examination of such written records as we have throws a great deal of light on the interesting relationship between the stream of current events and the stock of rational, “eternal” truisms. Suffice it to say that several principle ways of dividing society under two, three or four headings were explored during the period. Changes in the relative status of the secular and the monastic clergy caused shifts in the place of laymen in the configuration. The important thing to bear in mind, after the final setting of the Three Orders model itself, is the role of this evolution in the foundation of European self-consciousness, which also had its origins in this period. The annihilation of the concept of Three Orders in 1789 signaled the inauguration of a new, post-European epoch. At the very least, the strictly European world, formerly known as “Christendom,” gave way to an expanded reach of civilization that now included the Americas; although settled long before 1789, of course, the New World came into being at about the same time that the Three Orders model broke down into little more than a reactionary brake on social development. The idea of the Three Orders was never accepted in what would become the United States. Indeed, there the model was precluded by a far more powerful commitment to social divisions according to skin color (ie race).

I finished a recent re-reading of Duby’s book without its being altogether clear to me which of the first two of the Three Orders represented which social group — was the First Order composed of clergymen or of noblemen? It seems to have been determined by any given analyst. The kings of France may have found it useful to assign the clergy to the First Order, thus differentiating themselves from a contentious nobility by the promotion of a class to which they had vestigial claims of membership. That, at any rate, seems to have been the general understanding of the matter when the representatives of France’s three Estates (as the Three Orders were by now called) were summoned to Versailles at the end of the ancien régime. The question is ultimately without importance, as the Order of the clergy was never envisioned as including secular priests and monks of non-noble background. From our perspective, the first two Orders can be distinguished only by marriage and career; men from the same families (and ergo social groups) fully constituted both Orders. Furthermore, these Orders, as based on birth, were swept away when the concept was annihilated. The elimination of official recognition of inherited social position is, as everyone knows, the main event of 1789.

The Third Order, which as Duby makes clear was of almost no intrinsic interest to various eleventh- and twelfth-century theoreticians of the Three Orders models, underwent a dual metamorphosis in 1789. On the one hand, it was liberated from servitude to members of the First and Second Orders. On the other, it absorbed its former masters. One could say with equal cogency that the Third Order had been eliminated along with the other two, and that everyone now belonged to the Third Order. It is my position that the difference between these two statements is not idle.

The Three Orders of the Twelfth Century comprised Those Who Pray, Those Who Fight, and Those Who Work. The purpose of the work envisioned by the model was the nutritive sustenance, by the Third Order, of the members of the First and Second, who were too occupied by their respective responsibilities to produce their own food. That this was an extremely simplistic way of analyzing the society of the time, rudimentary with respect to modern society as it was, quickly becomes clear to anyone who studies the cities of the period. Although very small by today’s standards, eleventh- and twelfth-century European cities were nevertheless bustling hubs of commerce. Often surrounded by orchards and market gardens, these settlements could nevertheless not be said to produce their own food. Their non-noble inhabitants, moreover, provided goods other than food to the top classes. Already the inhabitants of the town of Cluny, which existed to serve the once-magnificent monastery there, were already called bourgeois. Interestingly, Cluniac social models did not include laymen at all.

What all of the models that Duby discusses share is a great discomfort among the aristocrats (lay or clergy) with the complexity of the much larger non-aristocratic world. All the models, and certainly the one that finally took hold, betray wishful thinking about ordinary Europeans. Having instituted the formal exploitation of these people, noblemen now seemed possessed by the desire to think them out of existence. We need not distract ourselves with the multiplying but ineffective barriers to social advancement by members of the Third Order into the First and Second. What we need to focus on is the confusion which thickened beneath the simplicity of the Three-Order model. Duby makes it clear that the merchant class, Those Who Trade, was deliberately excluded from the Model. It is my view that a second important group was also painted out: Those Who Rule, and I want to say a word about this group now.

Any medieval priest or nobleman familiar with the Three-Order model would have laughingly insisted that the members of the ruling class were drawn from Those Who Fight, and while this remained true on a local level well after 1789, it was the first aspect of the model to cease to describe social reality on the important level that did not quite exist when Gerard of Cambrai and Adalbero of Laon inaugurated thinking about the model in the 1020s. It was as yet anachronistic to speak of the national level, on which Those Who Rule would begin to flourish before the century was out. The European state very quickly outgrew the capacity of any one man to rule it, at least as Charlemagne had ruled his transitory empire.

The flocks of ministerial assistants, some great, most small, who made it possible to govern the newly-forming states of Europe, perched uneasily alongside the great men among Those Who Fought who regarded their ruler as primus inter pares and themselves as inherently privileged to participate in official councils. While the ministers were chosen by the monarch, the magnates chose themselves. This increasingly conflicted coexistence, and not the inexorable emergence of a self-standing bourgeoisie, would spell the end of the ancien régime in its European heartland; only in Britain was the problem solved (and upheaval prevented) by the introduction and constitutionalization of liberal political practices — which I beg the reader not to conflate with “liberal policies.” In France, Louis XIV perfected a dangerous acrobatic act by assiduously balancing the forces of both groups. (By now, the ministers had become quasi-aristocrats in their own right, maddeningly making use of the same legal nomenclature that Those Who Fight regarded as exclusive to themselves.) Norbert Elias’s brilliant study of the Sun King’s dubious achievement shows just how personal this solution was, and how unlikely any successor was to master it.

In 1788, Louis XVI slipped. His refusal to open the government’s accounts to the Notables’ perusal and to allow the Notables to participate in policy-making invoked an autocracy for which he quite lacked authority. Unable to compel loans, He Who Ruled was shown not to rule at all, and Those Who Would Rule soon took over. It has always been tempting to regard this upstart gang as a bunch of unruly bourgeois, but while there were unruly bourgeois among them there were also staid international bankers, who for the soundest of reasons were developing the power to make or break kings. It is becoming almost fashionable to conclude that the French Revolution occurred because France lacked a Bank (as in the Bank of England). It was insolvency that undid the ancien régime, not the bourgeoisie.

In the wake of 1789, Those Who Trade and Those Who Rule appeared to detach themselves from Those Who Work almost at once. In fact, these two classes, default members of the Third Order, had long ago developed their own distinctive identities, and regarded themselves as unrelated to the peasants who made up the bulk of the Order. The denial of political recognition, however, left both groups without any established standing vis-à-vis the rump of their history, not to mention the sense of responsibility that comes from experience alone. The Reign of Terror brought it home to everyone that the new rulers could not be trusted with the theoretically absolute powers of the old ones; the greenhorns had no idea of where the theory stopped and the practicable began. As for Those Who Trade, they would be hated more virulently than the most arrogant and unfeeling noblemen. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, both Those Who Rule and Those Who Trade would master innumerable small lessons in the dual undertaking of realizing their own projects (extending and stabilizing government and commerce respectively). By the early years, around 1950, of what we are all learning to call Les Trente Glorieuses — the thirty years of sustained peace and increased prosperity that came to an end in the late Seventies — it seemed that ministers and businessmen alike not only knew their jobs but commanded fairly universal respect. They had come a long way, and for all the flash of scientific and industrial progress, the truly interesting history of the century and a half after 1800 is their transformation from inept novices to men (and women) of far greater self-possession than the most illustrious princes of the ancien régime church and state.

As I say, rulers and businessmen had not waited for the official end of the old regime to embark on careers that had nothing of the Third Order about them; indeed, Those Who Trade had already developed a mercantile ethos when the very idea of the Three Orders was first conceived. Those Who Ruled had been going to law school for centuries. These people certainly looked more like members of the first two Orders than like the others of their own — they dressed, lived, and talked more or less like Top People. That slipping into positions of genuine authority proved to be rockier and more problematic for men of education and fortune than might have been expected shows how profoundly the old political outlook constrained the emerging classes; it was not easily thrown off at all. (And if it was thrown off too precipitously, chaos ensued.)

Two problems remained. First, the annihilation of the old power structure did not inaugurate a new one. The legitimacy of post-Revolutionary arrangements remained uncertain, at least in France, with its blizzard of republics, kingdoms, and empires, until the advent of Charles DeGaulle in 1958. As for commerce, the proper relationship between the state and the market is if anything more uncertain now than it was in 1850. What holds things together is the universal determination not to regress to the condition of the ancien régime.

Second — and this is my true subject — the peasants of the Third Order did not conceive of a new program for themselves. This is not at all surprising; peasants lacked the education required to weigh and consider the abstractions of civil order. It is even less surprising because the mushrooming expansion of educational resources that has marked the post-Revolutionary era provided ample opportunity for those children of the Third Order with enough inborn curiosity and intelligence to lift themselves above — and to remove themselves from — the very narrow horizons of the Third Order outlook, or, as I shall call it, Third Order Thinking. The gifted recipients of scholarships to leading universities found their elders to be impervious or indifferent to their ideas for social reform and for a better life. This is least surprising of all: centuries of brutal exploitation had taught peasants to put little or no weight on new and different insights. Imagination is not a boon to the mind preoccupied by subsistence.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution transformed the peasantry into the proletariat. Life got even worse for many members of the old Third Order, and the prospect of old-timey uprisings haunted the leaders of the new regime. Those who had left the Third Order behind were of two minds about how to ameliorate the lot of those who remained. The first, as I have suggested, was along the lines of Improvement. Amazingly, after decades of failure, this is still being recommended. The other approach has combined benign neglect with material distraction. The physical poverty of proletarian life has been greatly eliminated; everyone seems to have access to food and a big-screen TV. No one imagined that, without pitchforks, torches, and violent anger, the remnant of the Third Order could alter the world fashioned by the new Top Two.

Third Order Thinking:
The Testable Élite
May 2019

The matter that I am going to discuss here is nowadays generally called “the meritocracy.” I avoid it for two reasons. The simpler one is that it is a vogue word, used by different people to describe somewhat different groups of people. The role of luck is usually overlooked, the thinking being, apparently, that while luck may land you a job, it won’t enable you to hold it — nonsense. So is the impact of parentage, a factor that has emerged as the class of able-minded knowledge workers has married within itself, and, not surprisingly, produced able-minded children. (Who are also, of course, lucky. The same thing happened at the dawn of Europe, when the sons of big, strong horsemen often turned out to be big, strong horsemen themselves, creating the hereditary nobility of warriors.) Finally, in a democracy, there is always the possibility that powerful officials may have no merit whatsoever, beyond that of appealing to voters. The ancient Greeks disliked democracy for this reason.

My second objection has to do with the implications of “merit.” A moment’s thought — well, perhaps more than a moment’s — suggests that “merit” is meant to substitute, as a relatively straightforward term, for the more complicated “virtue.” The root of “merit” lies in the idea of wages, whether positive (reward) or negative (punishment). Merit is earned — it is a property to be exchanged for other property. Virtue, famously, is its own reward; it has neither price nor compensation. Merit, being transactional, is necessarily objective, while virtue is necessarily not.

There is an idea that merit is pursued as a skill — practice, practice, practice, as the signpost to Carnegie Hall says. It is therefore felt to be more worthy than the position that one might acquire by the luck of birth. But birth is no more virtuous and no less objective than a gift for quadratic equations. It is a no less suitable basis for transactions. There is actually no good reason for not regarding a society governed by the well-born as a meritocracy. The problem with birth as a valuable property, well-recognized prior to 1789, was not so much that it advanced the careers of otherwise unsuitable persons — I question the frequency of egregious examples — as that it kept those who didn’t possess it out of the running. After 1789, of course, a numerous if proportionally small crowd of those born in the Third Estate launched itself into the newly enfranchised, highly interrelated classes of Those Who Rule and Those Who Trade. But with the passage of time it came to be felt that, among the children of rumps, much talent was going undiscovered. By 1945, it was also felt that even those well-born individuals who were unquestionably skilled often possessed retrograde social views as well. The solution that the higher institutions of Western society hit upon, and which was nowhere more aggressively touted than in the United States, was the universally deployed standardized examination. This examination, or type of examination, produced what is now called “the meritocracy.” I think greater modesty is in order: it produced what I call “the testable élite.

Which is to make very clear at the outset that there were virtues that this new élite might lack, for the simple reason that they cannot be tested by standardized examinations. The most important, if only from a functional point of view, may have been the ethos shared by the well-born. It does not matter what the elements of this ethos were, nor how honorably the well-born actually observed it in their personal conduct. What matters is that it was shared by the “meritocracy” that was composed of well-born people. Had the ethical principles of this class been printed on the walls of every room in which two or more gathered, they could not have been clearer to those concerned. Many of these principles were high-minded, even sacred, deriving from Scripture. Many were frivolous or mean-minded, important only because they enforced the exclusion of non-members. We must reflect for a moment on the extent of confusion about what is done and what is not done that this ethos prevented.

The standardized examination also accomplished another one of its advocates’ goals, by putting an end to any question about the desirability of schooling. Professionals, of course, had always prioritized schooling (although even into the late Nineteenth Century it was possible in America to “read law” — to become an attorney by apprenticeship rather than the completion of an academic program). But Those Who Trade were not so sure. They were inclined that the best way to learn about business was to do it. Advocates of the new dispensation conceded that this was all very well so far as business was concerned, but that it left unaddressed the more philosophical, less definable mental skills that participation in a liberal democracy was thought to require. Indeed, businessmen were reproached on all sides, even by themselves (by those, that is, in other lines of business) for their small imaginative horizons. The standardized examination was called “the Scholastic Aptitude Test.” It was billed as a predictor of how well an examinee would fare in a course of general studies — a sort of verbal IQ test. In fact it indicated the ability of a student to process the information imparted in the classroom. It also indicated the student’s ability to resist distraction.

Nor were businessmen the only ones with reservations about schooling. I find it richly ironic that the architects of the new dispensation, the “meritocracy” to come, chose the word “scholastic” for their label. How could they have forgotten the animus borne by the great figures of the Enlightenment toward the hair-splitting, intellectually vacant exercises of the scholastics, the schoolmen of the later Middle Ages? Wasn’t it settled that the very last thing any school ought to be was “scholastic”? Did it occur to no one responsible for the new test that, in decoupling measurable knowledge from immeasurable understanding, they were risking a recurrence of the decadent syllogisms of the Fifteenth-Century, a perversion of learning that the luminaries of the Renaissance had been determined to destroy?

Famously, the new examination did not require the study of any “specialized” knowledge. The student need not have read any great novels or intermediate history books in order to excel. In fact, we were assured, it was pointless to study for the test. For a generation or so, we took their word for it. Then the crammers, such as Princeton Review and Kramer’s, cropped up, making investors rich. For it turned out that you could improve your test score if you studied the kind of questions that were asked, not to mention the variant of English upheld by the examiners. Needless to say, studying for the test did not involve anything that could honestly be called “learning.”

In short, the SAT detached schooling from education. There is nothing testable capable of testing the validity of the test. For that, you have to reach above and beyond the testable. But who, in a testable élite, is going to do this reaching? Who is going to choose untestable values for testable values to encourage? The answer: many people — none with a better claim than anyone else’s. One result: a valuable but theoretically unnecessary book containing all the information that well-schooled — educated? — people ought to know: E D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy.

The new dispensation created a galaxy of experts with little or nothing in common — beyond, of course, a certain kind of proficiency. The doom of this highly intelligent dust cloud ought to have been obvious from the start, but hope is a great blinder. So I want you to imagine a large, moon-sized weapon, identical to the Death Star made famous by a motion picture that, regrettably, I need not worry about naming. My variant is the Whiz Star. Instead of killing people, it knocks out bigotry and political incorrectness. It enacts (but without enabling) such wonders as social justice and economic equity. Touring the known universe in search of noxious targets, it trumpets itself as a force for the good.

Its day of doom is not market by violence. There are no explosions. The Whiz Star is not attacked by a Third-Order-Thinking Luke Skywalker who penetrates a vulnerable patch of the weapon’s exterior. Rather, in a room within the Whiz Star — it matters not whether this hall is near the core or close to the surface — we find the leaders of Whiz gathered together in darkness. As the lights are turned up, these men — there may be some women — rise up, stretch, and smile at one another. “Gee,” they say, “Star Wars is one awesome movie!” There is nothing in their training to prevent them from having been richly entertained.

Third Order Thinking:
8 May 2019

Evil and Depravity

I have never been comfortable with the concept of evil. The word itself is too big, means too much. For moralists, it generally requires human agency to achieve its nefarious purposes, but in everyday speech evil is responsible for disease and natural disaster. When a child dies an awful death, someone nearby is certain to wonder how a just God could allow evil into the world — although someone else is equally likely to talk of divine punishment for human iniquity. The presence of this superhuman force, glittering with the most perverse tempations as well as the most wrathful punishments, transforms everyday life into a terrifying emergency. Nothing can be done until it is stamped out. And the stamping out of evil has provoked much of humanity’s cruelty.

Depravity suits me better. The word suggests an acquired taste, which I think is just right. And we do not use the word to describe the self overwhelmed by wicked impulses; indeed, the depraved individual is never overwhelmed, but only more responsible. Where evil may blind its victims to what they’re doing, depravity is altogether conscious. It is not that the depraved person can’t turn away, but only that he or she doesn’t want to. We do not speak of being possessed by depravity. Rather, we surrender to it by degrees — by agreeable, undramatic degrees. Depravity responds to the prospect of bad behavior with rationalizations, legalizing excuses. These range the gamut from “just this once” to “everybody does it”; all that changes is the extent of depravity within the individual human heart.

You can regard the spread of Hitler’s influence in Germany as a tide of evil, sweeping out of the wreckage of the Great War, that overwhelmed ta fragile democracy. Or you could see it as the multiplication of reasonable calculations, not so very morally dubious at first, made by individual Germans, one by one. The latter view may be less exciting, but it fits much better my understanding of human society.

I believe that “watching television” is a pretty bad thing, but that calling it evil sounds, if nothing else, silly. As Hannah Arendt found out the hard way, people are uncomfortable with the idea that evil can be banal. And nothing is more banal than watching television.

Watching Television

What do I mean by “watching television”? To begin with what I don’t mean: watching a feature film by slipping a DVD into a disc player and giving its content one’s undivided attention. The ways in which this differs from “watching television” will provide the anatomy of a definition.

  • The DVD, which is at least momentarily in the viewer’s possession, can be played (watched) at any time. It cannot be claimed that viewing the DVD interrupted or interfered with any other intention or obligation. Insofar as the content of the DVD is entertainment, it is scheduled by the viewer. By the same token, having chosen to watch the video, the viewer sets aside other activities as long as it lasts.
  • The DVD has been chosen by the viewer, optimally from a large and stable collection, the cinematic equivalent of a library of books. The viewer has paid to own or to rent titles from this collection, and is familiar with its contents.
  • Aside from previews of other movies (and perhaps some other regrettable advertising), the feature film is not embedded in the matrix of television’s production values, which are intended to keep you watching when the show is over.
  • As a rule, the viewer watches only one video per day. Private equivalents of multi-title film festivals are, like all festivals, uncommon.

The last item invokes the practice of binge-watching, which usually involves the episodes of a TV show. (I leave the differences between a multi-episode TV show and a feature film to the thoughtful mind.) Does binge-watching constitute “watching television”? It is certainly situated in the frontier between “watching television” and doing something else, and close to the actual border of “watching television.” Like all frontier practices, it cannot be judged without taking the totality of the viewer’s viewing habits and practices into account. The last item is intended only to make it perfectly clear that watching one old movie — old enough to be available on DVD — a day is not “watching television.”

Once, it so happened that all I wanted to do in life was to watch Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Over two days, I watched it at least seven times, without watching anything else in between viewings. This did not mean, however, that I found The Ghost Writer to be “inherently addicting.” I was not addicted to it, but only puzzled or intrigued (by the totality of the film, not by the story). My own attention, and nothing else, eventually put an end to the compulsion to watch Polanski’s film. On the third day, I did not long to see it again.

Two fairly reliable tell-tale signs of “watching television”:

  • Turning on the television set to see “what’s on.”
  • Sticking around when a show is over, to see “what’s next.”

About “watching television”  during an illness, I will say only that, while it is probably not actually depraved, it is still not a good idea. If you must watch television, try to find a station that broadcasts in a language that you do not understand.


For the purposes of this essay, “entertainment” is the result of the interplay between the interests of television producers and those of television viewers. These interests are slightly but significantly asymmetrical. The viewers, of course, want to be entertained. The producers want to entertain them, yes, but they want to continue to entertain them. Therefore the present moment is always shaded, and sometimes overpowered, by the prospective one. What’s going on now is diluted by what’s next.

The interplay between viewers and producers is, in the current scheme of things, entirely mediated by advertisers and other sources of funds; it is of the essence of the relationship that viewers pay nothing for the producers’ work, and have no other direct contact with the source of their entertainment. As a result, the relationship is both vague and plastic.

“Entertainment” also describes events that are patterned on what is seen on television, such as Las Vegas floor shows and the rallies of Donald Trump. As many commentators have noted, entertainment has come to characterize more and more of American political activity. It is important to distinguish entertainment from the historical examples of showmanship and spectacle from which most of it is derived, not as a development of historical models but as an entirely different mode of public display.

This teleological definition of entertainment will be supplemented by an analytical one in due course.

Third Order Thinking:
1 May 2019

Not so very long ago, I found myself judging current events in terms of something that I called “Third Order Thinking.” I can’t remember where I gathered the dust from which I fashioned this new criterion, but I was newly aware of something hitherto unremarked that happened in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Perhaps it was unremarked because, in fact, this “something” was something that didn’t happen.

I can tell you, roughly, that this something was the failure — “failure” is probably a bad choice of words, and one of my objectives in undertaking this inquiry into Third Order Thinking is to find a better one — the failure, as I say, of the rump of the newly-liberated Third Order to develop a new program or mission. Perhaps you would have a better idea of what I mean if I said “Third Estate.” You may recall from school that the body politic of royal, pre-Revolutionary France was divided into three classes: the clergy, the nobility, and everybody else. The vast majority of the members of the Third Estate were peasants. But other, much smaller groups were included in the Third Estate by default, because their members were neither priests nor aristocrats. Most notable among these other groups were the forebears of the bourgeoisie, the “middle class” that would be credited, quite incorrectly in my view, with having engineered the Revolution.

Even if it was not actually responsible for igniting the overthrow of the ancien régime, the bourgeoisie had a mission, which after 1789 became clear to the point of stridency: the extension and stabilization of commerce. This sort of purpose was what the rump of the Third Order lacked. (I will explain my use of the word “rump,” which might seem even more wrong-headed that “failure,” in a future entry.) Instead, the rump persisted in the passivity (punctuated by violence that only rarely amounted to political action) of the old-time peasantry. Although many voices were raised throughout the next two centuries to protest the miseries and urge the betterment of the Third Order — in other words, to advance a mission for it — these voices belonged without exception to members, usually disaffected sons, of the breakaway bourgeoisie. The rump did not speak for itself.

The rump did not speak for itself, that is, until the advent of television. At first, of course, television was designed for the educated, affluent bourgeoisie that could afford television sets, this was no longer the case twenty-five years later. After fifty years, it was possible to imagine that, in television, the rump of the Third Order had not only discovered but tuned its very own medium, through which it spoke to the world with characteristic indirectness. Through television, the rump’s habits of mind, its outlook on the world — what I call Third Order Thinking — had naturally spread through all the classes and economic levels of the Western democracies, so that it was no longer correct to associate Third Order Thinking with the old peasantry’s social successors, the proletarian or working class.

The principle objective of Third Order Thinking is survival, at most a modicum of prosperity in the short term. Third Order Thinking is uncomfortable and awkward with long-term views, in part because the long term is more abstract, more beset with variables, than the short term. Any member of the Third Order who develops a knack for long-term thinking will almost certainly drift into the bourgeoisie, either in person or through (educated) children. Thus the Third Order is continually purging itself of intellectually-active minds. This is curiously reminiscent of the way in which the bourgeoisie of the ancien régime continually purged itself, as its wealthier exponents traded their fortunes for ennobling titles.

All but the keenest members of today’s bourgeoisie, however, have adopted the Third Order’s relaxed approach to everyday life and general distrust of higher authority: we all live pretty much as peasants. (Comfortable, well-fed, healthy peasants, to be sure.) Whether the ambitious, evolving mission of the bourgeoisie will be eroded into insignificance by this concession remains to be seen, but the prevalence of Third Order Thinking has already put Donald Trump in the American White House and yoked Britain to Brexit, and we can be sure that it will not help us to deal with the colossal challenges of robotics and climate change.


Vacation Note:
Autumn Break
Fall 2018

It hardly needs saying that, although I’m going to take a break from posting here, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to concentrate on the second round of the writing project, which is already proving to be much more difficult than the first. “That’s as it should be” sounds glib; “That’s how it had to be” is more like it. The first round produced a very readable piece of journalism, not without interest but no more demanding or memorable than a magazine article read to pass the time. You can imagine that it took awhile for this realization to stop stinging. As a memoir, it was somewhat uncertain, and I eventually learned from it that I did not want to write a memoir. And then what happened got in the way of explaining why I think the things I do.

But here’s something that happened. I don’t remember why I remembered it out of the blue the other day, but it has kept me laughing ever since.

I was somewhere between ten and twelve, I think. My friend Joey’s piano teacher had an annual recital for her pupils at a place in the City. This turned out to be what we now call Weill Recital Hall. Joey played his piece, and then we fooled around. We ran up and down the corridors, and when we got tired of that we started opening doors. There was nothing interesting behind any of these doors until we got to the last one. When we opened it, a blast of sound such as we had never heard in our lives, coming from somewhere far away down in a hole, threatened both to knock us flat where we stood and to suck us into the abyss. Of course we figured out that this was Carnegie Hall, in the middle of a concert, with a packed audience, and that we shouldn’t be there, but our bodies were so shocked by the sensation that we couldn’t move. We just stood there, transfixed, momentarily unworried about getting in trouble. If you’ve ever had a seat in the upper balconies of Carnegie Hall, you won’t have any trouble imagining our sudden vertigo. But the sound was just as disconcerting. We had opened the door on the climax of some grandiose romantic symphony, and although it was unbelievably loud, it was totally clear and not at all deafening. The audience, perfectly still and silent, may have thought it celestial, but when I remember it I think of opening the lid on Dante’s Inferno. After all, we had transgressed, and would go on transgressing until we closed that door!

The second time I saw Carnegie Hall, I was just a few years older, but already the most callow of adolescents. This time, I was a member of the audience myself, and I was sitting not in the balconies but in the front row of a center box. I can’t recall for certain — this is why I’m no good at memoir — but I expect I was too busy imagining myself as a royal personage to be reminded of my first encounter.

I’m not setting a date for return. Thanks for reading!

Gotham Diary:
Cool Jerks
September 2018 (III)

18 and 19 September

Tuesday 18th

Thanks to the republication of Iris Origo’s brief war diaries, I felt compelled to read up, for the first time, on Benito Mussolini, the Fascist forerunner and later junior partner of Adolf Hitler. Mussolini’s dark star has dimmed in recent times, largely, I think, because the Holocaust, the details of which were unknown to all but a few until after the end of the Second World War, is now the first and often the only horror that people associate with Hitler’s régime. Mussolini’s contribution to the Holocaust was half-hearted at most.

Deciding to begin conventionally, with a biography, I chose Jasper Ridley’s, because I’ve read his biography of Elizabeth I twice. Mussolini is a brisk double portrait, Ripley’s thesis being that, for several decades, Mussolini managed to ride two horses at the same time. We are familiar with what he looked like atop one of these horses: the bombastic thug. Since Ridley claims that, as an orator, Mussolini was unusually concise, I expect that the impression of bombasm owes to his ranting in Italian. But we still know him primarily from newsreels and other publicity sources. Atop the other horse, dressed in a morning suit, he was a charming man of the world, by all accounts, albeit one who showed his claws. The biggest surprise — because I’ve never heard this before — is that Mussolini was fluent in German and French, and fully apprised of political events around the world. His former compadre from early socialist days, Angelica Balabanoff, claimed that he lacked courage — not physical courage, but the moral strength to resist the desires of his supporters. Ridley puts it more nicely: Mussolini knew that his people would obey his orders without hesitation — so long as those orders were the ones that his people wanted to hear. He understood that he could never restrain them from beating people up and burning buildings down.

(I’m quite often reminded, reading about Ripley’s Mussolini, of Massimo Ghini’s performance as the Fascist Pooh-Bah of Florence, Leopardi, in Philip Haas’s Up at the Villa — suave but deadly.)

Mussolini was a man of the people, but he was not a peasant. His father was a blacksmith, and an ardent socialist. His mother was a schoolteacher. He may be said to have risen in the world by the most classical of means: as a rhetor, a public speaker. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, Mussolini could take advantage of a still fairly recent invention, the mass-produced newspaper. But the arc of his transition from socialism to fascism reveals that he was richly endowed with another modern gift: he was an entertainer. What distinguishes the entertainer from others is not the ability to attract attention but the knack for holding onto it. Entertainers are extraordinarily alert to audience feedback, and capable of adjusting their performances minutely. Mussolini carried it one step further. He dumped an audience that he felt was waning, and took up with one that was growing.

Without belaboring the point, Ridley does observe that Italy came out of World War I almost as embittered as Germany. Its only gains from the Peace of Versailles were territories that Austria had been willing to concede if Italy, its sometime ally, would simply stay out of the war. Italy’s designs on Istria, the Dalmatian coast, and the Dodacanese Islands (to name a few) ran squarely counter to the principle of self-determination that so naively governed the Allies’ deliberations. Britain’s secret offer of Jubaland (today’s Kenya), dangled as an inducement for Italy to enter the war on the Allied side, came to nothing.

Worse, returning veterans were mocked by Socialists for having stupidly participated in a pointless war. Socialists ideologically denounced war as a bourgeois gambit, and soldiers were its dupes. Mussolini, a veteran himself, discovered that soldiers preferred to be treated as heroes, whether or not their sacrifices had achieved anything. From this kernel grew an organization that always had the tacit support of the Italian armed and police forces. It was also an anti-democratic one. The Fascist rank and file would much rather act than vote. They reveled in a political climate that glorified the homeland and in a régime that devoted considerable resources to matching the achievements — primarily in technology and sport — of its hitherto more advanced neighbors. Their achievements, however, were largely confined to more brutish demonstrations of male superiority.

Hailing these demonstrations of Italian vigor and virtue, Mussolini ever more stridently denounced the rot of the Western democracies — and the Western democracies merely frowned in response. What they would have done in other circumstances can only be imagined, but in the particular circumstances of the Twenties and Thirties, Western minds were overwhelmed by a dread of Bolshevism. It is hard for us to appreciate this dread now, partly because we conflate Bolshevism with Communism (a mistake that Bolshevists encouraged), partly because the dread was infused with Victorian nightmares rooted in Gothic novels, and partly because the imagined horrors of Bolshevism have been replaced by the actual horrors of the Holocaust. Suffice it to say that Bolshevism was regarded as an unspeakable evil, in comparison with which Mussolini’s Blackshirts were guilty of nothing worse than aggravated roughhousing. At every turn in Mussolini’s career, he was deemed to be not only preferable to but a bulwark against Bolshevists.

As Mussolini moves into the Thirties, the dictator, whose patterns were already established, recedes slightly in the growing chaos of international disaster, and an unexpected narrative thread gathers strength. From the first burgeonings of Mussolini’s political career, Ridley keeps us informed of the opinions of British observers. This might strike some readers as provincial, as if the author were boosting the importance of his own country’s dealings with Mussolini. But to me, the fractured response of Westminster’s shifting personalities to Italy’s activities in Ethiopia and Spain, and then to Mussolini’s somewhat dodgy interactions with Hitler, show as no other study that I’m familiar with the extent to which the minds of the pre-eminent Western democracy simply fell apart in the run-up to 1939. As the Soviet Union developed the conventional features of a modern nation, industrially at least, and as Italy and Germany did the same, sophisticated Britons began to suspect that they were out of their depth when judging such unforeseen novelties. Many of them had strongly believed that their parliamentary democracy would never flourish in “less advanced” polities, but the calamities of the Thirties proved that they had been only half right. They had had no idea of the malignancy of the tyrannies into which misbegotten parliamentary democracy would mutate.

And I suddenly see (although Ridley has not yet made this point) that Churchill’s great strength in all this mess was not so much his bulldog determination to fight on as his ability to know his own mind. He did not flounder. He admired Mussolini for many years, but when he came to share Angelica Balabanoff’s doubts about Mussolini’s courage, he did not fall back in disillusioned bewilderment. He did what he always did: he changed his mind.

But perhaps I anticipate incorrectly. There will be more to read when I’m done with Ridley’s Mussolini. But Ridley has completely refreshed a sad history by inviting us to ask some new questions. What happens when a powerful culture loses its analytical grip? And what happens when political leaders are in fact professional entertainers?


Wednesday 19th

In recent commentaries, Michelle Goldberg and Jia Tolentino have taken the #MeToo issue around a corner where there happens to be a strong ray of sunlight. What bothers them about the (mostly male) offenders is not what they did but that they don’t seem to understand that they did it to another human being. Both have been provoked by the creeping rehabilitation of such figures as Louis CK, John Hockenberry, and Jian Ghomeshi, all of whom appear to argue that they’ve suffered enough already. They’ve suffered! What about their victims? It seems that these gentlemen don’t have anything to say about their victims, except to mumble, “I’m sorry — can I go now?”

I think Ian Buruma has said it for them. I haven’t read his Slate interview with Isaac Chotiner, but Tolentino quotes a bit of it.

Buruma claimed to support the #MeToo movement as a “necessary corrective.” When Chotiner reminded him that Ghomeshi has been accused of numerous acts of sexual assault, “including punching women in the head,” he responded, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is that really my concern.” What Buruma wanted to explore, he said, was the experience of “being at the top of the world, doing more or less what you like, being a jerk in many ways, and then finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried.”

The phrase “finding your life ruined” is remarkably telling.

No, “being a jerk in many ways” is remarkably telling. I’m pretty sure that most men would agree that each of the members of the #MeToo rogues gallery behaved like a jerk. They might differ as to how much worse than being a jerk each individual might be — but all were jerks. Al Franken’s offense was nothing worse than being a wacky jerk, I daresay most men smiled when they saw the image of him mugging with his hands over the sleeping woman’s breasts — no touching! Now, the opposite of being a jerk is being cool, and cool means never getting caught. The safest and smartest way to avoid getting caught is not to act like a jerk (or worse). But let it not be imagined that the cool guys who will probably never face a #MeToo challenge regard women any differently from the jerks. All it comes down to is this: the difference between a cool guy and a jerk is that the jerk’s timing is off. (It is never the right time to hit anyone, not even when asked.)

I think that women who are waiting for men, especially men in middle age, to awaken to the damage that being a jerk might do to a woman are wasting their time. For bad or worse, older men grew up in a vanished world, and the only thing to do is to wait for them to die off. Sorry! The thing to do is everything possible to make sure that they’re not replaced, that boys and young men growing up understanding that women are not toys. For that’s the problem: it’s not that men don’t empathize with women, or understand the pain caused by their unwanted maneuvers, &c &c, but that they believe that women exist for their pleasure — otherwise, why don’t they please go away? Not all men, but enough. This is why women wear burqas: in some cultures, men grow up believing that a man who does not take advantage of an “immodest” woman is not a man at all. To resist a sexual impulse is not to have it in the first place: the urge establishes its bona fides by overpowering the susceptible victim, who is, of course, a real man.

The respect for women that shielded them from the kind of harassment and abuse that seem so common now may have been very effective, but it wasn’t something that we want to revive, if only because it wasn’t genuine respect at all. It was rooted in the belief that women were special, not human in the way that men were human. Consigned to their special, arguably “superior” sphere, women were surrounded by thickets of restrictions and prohibitions that prevented their leading full lives, especially if they were not drawn to the career of marriage and motherhood. The destruction of those barriers is one of the big stories of the Twentieth Century. But the effective if old-fashioned respect that was destroyed along with them has not been replaced.

There will always be a handful of truly dangerous sexual predators, but I think that most of the inappropriateness (and worse) that has been called out in the #MeToo revival tent is rooted in foolishness and showing off, not pathology. Young men with pocket money and free time naturally challenge each other to pursue dubious achievements, but these need not include treating women as playthings. How to instill an effective if not heartfelt respect for all women in adolescent minds is a practical problem that women and men are going to have to hammer out. Meanwhile, I hope that Michelle Goldberg and Jia Tolentino will stop waiting for a new respect to emerge from spontaneously enlightened men.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fountain of Wisdom
September 2018 (II)

11 and 13 September

Tuesday 11

Well, this Tuesday, the weather in New York is on the dismal side, humid, cloud-covered and glum. Nothing like what it was seventeen years ago.

(When was the last time the anniversary fell on the weekday?)


The more obtrusive anniversary is that of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Ten years ago this month, its fall precipitated a financial calamity that was forestalled by quick thinking and bold responses, but at a terrible cost. This cost wasn’t so much the amount of money that it took to restore confidence to the short-term credit market — without which such terrible-to-imagine outcomes as empty supermarket shelves might have ensued — as it was the way in which payment of the price was allocated. “Austerity” was the word heard in Europe, but the people at fault for the disasters were not the ones forced to tighten their belts. Here in the United States, the word was “bail-out.” The intrusion of this maritime term was probably bound to cause confusion. At the time, as I recall, one spoke more often of “pumping money into the system.” And the banks did repay, at least technically, all or most of the money that was pumped into them. But the pressure-drop that both caused and was intensified by Lehman’s implosion affected much more than the banking sector. Nobody rescued the victims of collateral damage; at times, it seemed that only the banks were going to recover. So the public and its journalists settled on an image suggesting that the beneficiaries of official largesse weren’t as deserving as the innocent bystanders who were allowed to go under. From the Tea Party to Trump, the results were pretty much what could be expected of bravura, emergency-room politics.

We’re celebrating the anniversary with almost daily predictions that there is going to be another really big crash sometime soon.

In case you’re bored by money, there’s William T Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies, which critic Nathaniel Rich has called a “suicide note.” It’s not exactly cheering to consider that worldwide economic failure may be the only thing to prevent Vollmann’s scenario.


Just what prompted me to order a copy of Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), I can’t say for certain. It must have been a review of Amis’s latest collection of critical essays, which apparently has a lot to say about luminous literary figures who happen to be male, and almost nothing about those who don’t. Is it condescension that I find so annoying, or indifference? Year by year, I’m more exasperated by the palpable extent to which many if not most men believe that, when it comes to important things, Women Don’t Count.

But what does this mean? And who am I to suggest not only that Women Count, but that I Know What They Count For, especially if what this statement really means is that I (claim to) Understand Women. I can’t run fast enough away from that implication.

The Rachel Papers is proving quite helpful in sorting this out. It’s the account of a very bright but very callow young man’s pursuit of a nice girl who, while pretty enough, lacks the vulgar attractions that adolescents fetichise. She is also not the brilliant, inaccessible creature that he takes her to be (just as he doesn’t recognize her as the hostess of the party where they meet). She does, however, have a boyfriend, and her detachment from him becomes the hero’s project. I suppose that it’s because he likes her that he dumps her at the end.

One of the troubles with being over-articulate, with having a vocabulary more refined than your emotions, is that every turn in the conversation, every switch of of posture, opens up an estate of verbal avenues with a myriad side-turnings and cul-de-sacs — and there are no signposts but your own sincerity and good taste, and I’ve never had much of either. All I know is that I can go down any one of them and be welcomed as a returning lord. (158)

Remember, before you dismiss Charles Highway (our hero) as hopelessly loathsome, that he is saying this on the verge of his twentieth birthday. Every bright young man (many bright young women, too, although they’re actively discouraged) has a vocabulary more refined than his emotions.

The observation is suffused with ignorance. The young man gets lost, but it doesn’t matter — why not? Because he lives in a world where men do not have to pay attention to anything but personal performance. Charles is obsessed with his; if you take out all the passages that relate either to the foreshadowing of decay that makes adolescence so fearful (the smells, the spots; the dirt, suddenly so noticeable, in all the body’s crannies; the endless grooming), the strategies and mechanics of lovemaking (Charles is keeping a dossier entitled Conquests and Techniques: A Synthesis), the self-appraisal in mirrors, and the stage-managing of future encounters (“Enter without glasses on : put them on a) if don over 50, b) if don wearing glasses”), precious little of The Rachel Papers remains. The appearance of others is not altogether insignificant: aside from the few sharp men from whom pointers might be taken, humanity is grist for the cynic’s mill. But Charles is adamantly uninterested in anyone else’s inner life — perhaps because he’d give anything to escape his own.

Accordingly, the attention that he pays to desirable women is reminiscent of Cole Porter’s very funny but sadly overlooked song, “The Physician.” Random verse:

He murmured “molto bella”
When I sat on his patella,
But he never said he loved me

(And if he had, he’d have been lying.) There are breasts, and the “elusive shadows” lurking above the hems of short skirts; there is hair and skin and overall emotional climate. But the whole woman is more elusive than the shadows. Think, for contrast, of Jane Austen’s extraordinary range of leading men. The two military officers among them bear understandable similarities, but the others have nothing in common by way of personality; her heroines are rather more homogeneous. Austen, whom Amis somewhat grudgingly sort of respects, doesn’t understand this; he has said that her novels are all the same. But how can this be, when the men in them are all so different? The differences, moreover, are registered entirely in carriage and speech. Austen is famous for never having imagined a scene in which men interact without women, but there was no need for her to worry about the secret life of men. She had only to watch them carefully, as thoughtfully as appraisingly. She describes their appearances rather blandly, wisely letting her readers fill in the details, but the whole men appear with absolute distinctiveness. (It is impossible to settle on just how well Mr Knightley and Mr Darcy would get along.)

It’s not enough to charge Charles Highway with the self-important egotism of young men; that would miss his panic, a no less manly characteristic that can be revealed only in novels.


Thursday 13th

As I hope I suggested earlier this week, I do not propose myself as a champion of women. The only thing that women have ever asked from me is recipes.

A corollary of the notion that Women Don’t Count is that What Counts for Women Doesn’t Count. This is really just another way of defining “important things,” such as politics and leadership and business growth and military strategy, as particularly in need of masculine attention. And yet every campaign or operation begins with the establishment of a housekeeping unit — a quartermaster, an HR chief — to enable smooth running. Housekeeping chores are assigned on a spectrum of drudgery, so that the top guy never lifts a finger, while buck privates peel the potatoes. There is nothing sentimental about these units, and there is no intention of producing something like a home. Although absolutely necessary, housekeeping is not “important.”

One begins to suggest that masculine culture regards “necessary” and “important” as antonyms. Necessity pre-empts a lot of opportunities for making decisions; and decisions, as Hannah Arendt proposes in The Human Condition, are the summit of human action. Necessity is drudgery — work for slaves.

But there are problems with decisions in the larger culture. The larger culture is risk-averse. Mistakes that lead to broken bodies are not readily forgiven. Nor is the larger culture willing to endow anyone with the power to make sweeping changes. It is more difficult than ever to be a man. It would be nice to think that this difficulty might finally distract men from their fear of being mistaken for women — the panic that I mentioned the other day.


Women often write about trying to decide whether or not to have children. Quite often, they speak of “having a baby,” which confuses the spectacular achievement of producing and nourishing a living infant with the long-term commitment to caring for children who are rarely adorable. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if they asked themselves whether they were willing to make a home — by which I do not mean some comfy little nest with all the modcons, and television sets in every room. (I wonder if what I do mean is a home altogether without television sets.) Nor do I mean a domestic order that requires anybody’s full-time attention. The domestic order that I have in mind is oriented less towards service and more toward cooperation. Do something about the problem of unpaid housework: pay children handsomely to keep themselves clean and their quarters ship-shape. Maybe with money, maybe with something else. Dr Johnson claimed that no boy ever learned Latin without having it flogged into him, which unfortunately became a good reason for giving up Latin. (It was one of Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite subjects, though, and he wasn’t flogged.) Now that punishment has come to be widely regarded as an inhumane and unacceptable inducement to good behavior, the demands that parents make on children have dwindled to a handful of minimal daily requirements, largely centered on “doing well in school.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t involve being part of a family, or contributing to the health of a home.

A home is a place where people know each other well, and want to know each other better. A home that children can’t wait to escape is broken, whether or not the parents remain together. (Indeed, I can think of a couple of happy marriages that were so fulfilling to the spouses that there was nothing for their children to do except endure childhood. Roz Chast illustrates one in her memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?) At the same time, a home without children can still be a home.

Children, as we know, take care of themselves somehow or other. They deal with necessity as best they can. For good parents, providing children with the necessities is only the first step. Every other step requires the thoughtful attentiveness to people as they are that we call wisdom.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Where the Action Is
September 2018 (I)

4 and 7 September

Tuesday 4

In his new memoir, Every Day Is Extra, John Kerry apparently regrets not having been more aggressive about refuting the “Swift Boat” attacks that were made during his presidential campaign in 2004. I never paid much attention to them; they were obviously beneath notice. But then I wasn’t the candidate. Maybe, when you’re running for office, you have to deal with every clump of mud that’s thrown at you.

Pope Francis is not running for anything, so John Kerry’s advice does not apply. But his determination to ignore the reactionaries who are now his open opponents in the Church is certainly the most exciting thing going. Will he be able to pull it off? If his silence succeeds, it may transform journalism and create a new model of institutional authority. I will try to explain that transformation is a later entry. Right now, I want to take stock of the present moment.

With respect to Archbishop Viganò and his American collaborators, Francis has urged journalists to do their thing, and investigate the contentions, which are two in number. First, there is the nature of sanctions, if any, allegedly imposed on former Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI, and allegedly lifted by his successor. The twaddle about homosexual networks within the American clergy will to some extent be clarified by this investigation, insofar as any connection can be demonstrated between such conspiracies (if they exist) and the cancer of pedophilia that has undermined the health of the American Church.

The other matter is Kim Davis. Who said what to whom about her brief interview with the Pope on his Washington visit in 2015? Good luck with that one. The Times suggests that the Pope has muzzled those in the Vatican who could shed some light on the subject. I disagree. I think that the Pope is trying to keep the issue’s Rashomon potential to a minimum. Kim Davis was the most ephemeral sort of celebrity, and the only word for any Vatican attempt to assess her true value would necessarily be “slapstick.” It could not have been otherwise.

It becomes more clear every day that those calling for Francis’s resignation are reactionaries, and not conservatives, for the simple reason that they want to undo a revolution that has already taken place. It is also clear that Francis hopes to temporize for as long as possible, making pleasant but rather insubstantial gestures of reconciliation to those who have fallen away from Christ’s Body on Earth because of sexual and marital complications. Significant numbers of  Catholics in Western countries have rejected, in their own lives, the validity of the Augustinian settlement, which allowed sex — yay! — but only in the marriages of men and women. These largely quiet revolutionaries do not believe that all other expressions of sexuality are depraved. They also disagree that women are inherently inferior to men. (It goes without saying that this revolution, as well as the inevitable counter-revolution, is hardly confined to Catholics!)

At the moment, we are watching what I hope are last-ditch efforts, by men and women who either don’t want to lose unearned privileges or don’t want to assume personal responsibility for familiar arrangements, to thwart this revolution. The Pope is doing his part, to thwart the thwarting, by saying nothing. Augustine’s teaching has informed Church dogma for a very long time, and there is no conceivable Rose Roseannadanna to sigh, “Well, never mind.” Nor has the revolution touched recently-converted non-Western congregations, many and possibly most of whom are engaged in open and unseemly competition with unreformed Muslims for adherents. Rome won’t be rebuilt in a day. As I see it, the Pope’s job, any pope’s job, is to play for time.

Being the Pope, Francis cannot say different things to different people. He can, and ought to, punish subordinates who press for premature resolution. I hope that he will gain the institutional strength — he doesn’t have it now — to deter the complicity of American prelates with their Evangelical pals in the pursuit of a reactionary social agenda. But to the faithful at large he must remain genial and non-committal. He can only pray to be followed on St Peter’s throne by a like-minded man.  Some day, that throne may be occupied by a like-minded woman, but not anytime soon. For the time being, what the sexual revolution needs most is the peace and quiet of deep shade. What the Church needs most is for Francis to go on smiling, and with a closed mouth.


Friday 7th

To continue with the thread that I left dangling on Tuesday: the Pope’s decision to give Archbishop Viganò’s malicious and opportunistic allegations the Silent Treatment, so far as the press is concerned, may prove beneficial in two ways. First, the press will have to clarify those allegations itself as it investigates the story pursuant to the Pope’s invitation, and the exercise may sharpen its scruples about succumbing to the excitement of a saucy news story and giving gravitas to an irrelevant bombshell. Second, that invitation may reweave the ancient relationship between authority and secrecy.

Taking up the second possibility first, it has become fairly clear during Francis’s incumbency that, while he is no fan of murky, same-old same-old ways of doing things, he is not a puritan reformer, zealously committed to bringing the Church’s irregularities to light, whatever they may. He wants to do the best possible job going forward, but he understands that the Church’s age alone contributes to the proliferation of shady corners and dodgy deals, many of them innocent even if inadvisable. There is little reason to believe that the Vatican mind, which has been reproducing itself from generation to generation for well over a thousand years, has taken note of the fact that the Church’s territorial assets have shrunk quite drastically in relatively recent times. While every secretary and bureaucrat in the Holy City is surely aware that Bologna is now part of the Republic of Italy, and no longer the Holy See’s auxiliary capital in the north, it is probable that not every longstanding habit of thought has been edited in accordance.

Rather than mount a crusade against the procedural irregularities that have threatened to hurl the Vatican into the abysses of insolvency and moral corruption, counting on the good guys in the Church to wipe out the bad guys and risking cosmetic changes that leave the bad guys sitting pretty, Francis seems to be challenging disinterested journalists to do the job for him. The two scandals that I mention come together in the person of George Cardinal Pell, the Australian prelate whom Francis asked to help organize the Church’s finances but who was soon embroiled in pedophile scandals back home.

Pell’s Wikipedia page states that Francis “allowed” Pell to return to Australia to defend himself, but I should say rather that the Pope declined to protect him. The modern function of the press with respect to criminal matters is to force prosecutors to consider bringing charges in pursuit of a definitive judgment; it is a function of the modern world that prosecutors don’t work for the Church. If Francis’s treatment of the Pell case becomes truly exemplary, then the last sinews of the doctrine of “benefit of clergy” will have been severely abraded, and the Church might finally abandon its medieval claim to the right to discipline its members in purely secular matters — such as sexual abuse. That will be a far more effective method of cleaning out the stables than promising to reveal all of the Vatican’s secrets in an orgy of transparency. All Francis has to do is stand out of the way, and he seems to be pretty good at that, even if it hasn’t won him many admirers. He prefers to exert his authority where it is needed, as for example in condemning capital punishment tout court.


We can only hope that the Pope’s conduct so far has induced a round of soul-searching among journalists who succumbed to the thrill of reporting Archbishop Viganò’s bold claims without registering that they had been timed with the Pope’s journey of reconciliation of Ireland in mind, and thereby encouraged the public to confuse two utterly unrelated issues. The Archbishop obviously intended to create a connection between the “homosexual network” of American priests (the actual subject of his outburst) with clerical pederasty without making it explicitly himself. He could rely on the “coincidence” of the Pope’s Irish pilgrimage — and the avidity of journalists for stories of outrage and catastrophe.

A Times story over the weekend, written by Laurie Goodstein and Jason Horowitz, asserted in different parts of their report that, as of July, former Cardinal McCarrick “is appealing” the judgment that demoted him to mere archbishop status, and yet that “in June” (the previous month), Pope Francis effectively defrocked him (“decreed that the cardinal could no longer work or minister as a priest in public”). In another story, McCarrick was reported to have “accepted” the latter judgment. What, then, is the status of his appeal? This is nitpicking, of course, but making sense of the Vatican requires an advanced degree in nitpicking.


About the anonymous Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times, which I found its presence in the paper deeply demoralizing, I will only say that I agree with Masha Gessen — expecially that the piece wasn’t really newsworthy. I mention only because by the end of the day, I’d had a brainwave.

The news, apparently — it’s in Bob Woodward’s book, too, which is why the Times ought to have let Dwight Garner’s review, in the day’s Arts Section, make the point — is that the President’s assistants are manipulating his agenda by nipping documents from his Oval Office desk before he can sign them and make them official. (Even Gessen admits that this may be good for the nation in the short run.) I expect that the President will go through the motions of indignation. But I don’t think he really cares. He regards working at his desk as one of the most boring parts of his job as the star of the reality show that he has hijacked a near-majority of American brains into letting him produce at no personal cost. He prefers running things from his bedroom, where he watches TV news, writes his Tweets, provides remote, phoned-in interviews, and talks to his cronies, men who wouldn’t be caught dead in the West Wing — not, at least, tasked with any responsibilities. His bedroom is where the action is. He has no reason to doubt that, soon enough, this outrageous story will die down, like all the others, to make room for new episodes.

I also agree, this time with Mark Leibovich, that the Donald ran for president because the NFL owners wouldn’t let him into their club. (Maybe for the good reason that he can’t really afford it.)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fifth-Tier Grifters
August 2018 (V)

28 and 30 August

Tuesday 28th

This Web log is becoming difficult to maintain. It is hard to think, much less to write, with all the background noise of crumbling. And is this noise a sound effect, an illusion projected by our growing confusion? Or is the world really falling apart?

Somehow, I manage. But I’m having an unusually hard time today, trying to assess the damage done, or at least intended, by Archbishop Viganò’s demand that Pope Francis resign. Such a demand has not, I think, been made since the Middle Ages, when complaints were made by armed forces, not open letters. It is the archbishop’s position that the pope protected the recently defrocked cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, and, behind McCarrick, a network of homosexual clergymen in the United States. The letter (which I haven’t read) doesn’t connect this network with the rash of pedophile abuses that have once again surged to the fore in the news cycle, thanks to a grand jury report in Pennsylvania. That’s an important point, one that I daresay many will miss. I have no doubt the archbishop hopes they will. In the prevailing confusion, many may take the archbishop to be accusing the pope of protecting pedophiles.

In parallel to the secular civil-rights struggle that has been irritating the American body politic since the Sixties, a fight for the spirit of American Catholicism has been raging for just as long. The contenders in both conflicts have had much the same objectives: conservatives who defend the status quo on one side, campaigners for the social justice of ending all kinds of outsider status on the other. Notwithstanding all the political rhetoric, this is nothing less than a battle for the nature of God. Is God righteous, or is he merciful? Does he love his creation, or does it disgust him? Did he endow man with a brain so that man can think for himself, or is the whole purpose of intelligence to praise what God has done? Doctrinally, the conservatives are on firmer ground; it is difficult, I think, to find support for inclusive social justice in the writings of Scripture, which bristle with anathemas. The question is whether the old doctrines still have much support.

The Church purports to be unchanging, but of course it cannot be in a world that changes constantly. Catholic authorities have developed a knack not so much for adapting to new circumstances as for retouching aspects of the past to make them look more like the present. This requires a good deal of cleverness, but in the end it is the sheer limits of common memory that do the work. Nobody today can remember a religious climate in which people could be condemned to death for their views on the Trinity. When confronted with such horrors, contemporary believers blame the long-dead authorities, not the Church itself.

Enlightened opinion from 1750 on regarded the Church as moribund, unlikely to survive the century. And, in a way, enlightened opinion was right. The Church did not disappear in the Age of Revolutions, but it underwent a metamorphosis — or rather, the opposite of a metamorphosis, for the outward Church appeared unchanged. The abstract doctrines that had dominated scholastic debate even after the onset of the Renaissance were shelved; the Church now stood ready to protect traditional ways of life, which of course presupposed membership in the Church, but also placed a new emphasis on the conformity of lay behavior to age-old norms. This has degenerated into a defense of “family life” against claims of sexual autonomy. The real issue is the superiority of celibate males.

Over the centuries, the purely practical reasons for taking a vow of celibacy have dwindled, at least in the West. It is hard not to sound cynical about this, when all I mean to do is sound humane. Why should a healthy heterosexual man renounce sexual pleasure and intimate companionship? I am not talking about monks here, retiring into bastions of piety. I’m talking about secular priests, living among and ministering to the laity. In any case, vocations have fallen, and American diocese are staffing parishes with priests from poorer countries. One must wonder where this trend will end.

For a time, it now appears, an increasingly significant practical reason for joining the priesthood was its accommodation of homosexual life. It is important here to distinguish pedophilia from any variety of adult sexuality: pedophilia is an erotic perversion that finds pleasure in commanding the powerless. To Archbishop Viganò, I suppose, the differences between pedophilia and homosexuality, considered as perversions, are not very interesting. As I say, it is hard to doubt that the timing of his letter is opportunistic. But the recruitment of gay men to the priesthood, on a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, was an early response to the drop in the number of seminarians. Unlike the Protestant denominations, whose ministers are free to marry, the Church has never been able to afford a rigorously inquisitive approach to its priests’ private lives. Archbishop Viganò and other conservative leaders want to change that. They want it so badly that they are prepared to force the resignation of a pope who seems to have grown up not very uncomfortable, given the press of other, more spiritual concerns, with the tacit tolerance of sexual deviance.

What kind of God, indeed.


Thursday 30th

A few minutes ago, I finished reading Ian Parker’s piece about Glenn Greenwald in The New Yorker. It filled me with a sensation that I can only call “the narcissism of small differences,” but that’s not right, because it not a feeling of antagonism toward Greenwald, whom I have always vaguely regarded, from the distance of someone who avoids all forms of media strife, as a troublemaker. It was, rather, an inquisition into why I, surprised to find that I share Greenwald’s conviction that American institutions were in very bad shape long before Donald Trump came along, and also, but not with the same intensity, his belief that anti-Trump “resistance” is little more than a campaign to restore the status quo ante (the only explanation of the resistors’ embrace of the FBI and the CIA), why I don’t share his outrage.

Aside from differences in temperament — I am not a debater, which according to Parker Greenwald very much is; and I find that hostility is always an expense that exceeds its value — I conclude what damps the sparks that might ignite an angry outburst is my pessimism about the prospects of a democracy in a population that is too addicted to excitement to pay attention to what is actually happening. More and more, I regard Trump as a sort of Biblical plague, unloosed by a Jehovah indignant at his chosen people’s violation of the covenant.

This covenant incorporates what have come to be called The Federalist Papers, a series of epistolary essays designed to explain to the literate voters of the United States, from every angle, the nature of the constitutional democracy that the Federalists proposed — and the harm caused by human weakness that it was designed to mitigate. James Madison and his colleagues would have been horrified by the pride with which later generations would praise the Constitution as “a machine that would go of itself.” The Constitution was no machine, but only a guide, and a guide only as valuable as the quality of attention paid to it.

I often blame television for the low standard of public life, but I have come to see that doing so is no different from blaming the current president for long-standing evils. Television is simply the latest in the series of intellectually undemanding solutions that Americans have preferred ever since the Revolution, when impatience with the British government’s hostility to the colonies’ westward expansion fueled popular support for an élitist undertaking. The Founders’ tragedy is that Americans overall were always unworthy of their noble experiment. Once the Founders’ aura wore off — long before two of them, Jefferson and Adams, both contrived to die on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of independence — Americans rolled up their sleeves and greedily exploited the cornucopia of resources that was theirs for the taking. Andrew Carnegie would write a tract called “The Gospel of Wealth,” but he might better have said “of Taking.” Taking was justified by the takers’ knack for making something out of their loot, whether it be railroads, washing machines, or profits to be invested in new kinds of production, but during the 1970s an even better solution was hit upon (heavy irony intended) when the money men figured out how to put wealth to use in the production of more wealth. This, I predict, will be the last apple on the tree, after which we shall all be expelled from the dream of Easy Living that Americans have always hoped for, after which it will be necessary to think much more seriously about work.

Which is not to say that we’ll have to work harder. We’ll just have to pay more attention to what we’re working on — to what we’re doing. We’ll have a lot less time for idle watching.

I agree with Glenn Greenwald that, since the Second World War, the United States has inflicted more harm and death on the world than any other outside force. It is difficult to read the history of recent times without reaching this conclusion. (My phrasing is designed to except domestically-induced famines, in China and elsewhere.) What gives this awfulness its peculiarly American flavor is the fact that most Americans are genuinely unaware of the nation’s record abroad. For too many Americans, the kinds of “abroad” that are not represented at Disney World simply don’t exist.

Some Americans are very attentive — they’re paid to be. Recent books such as We the Corporations and Tailspin illustrate the cleverness with which lawyers and politicians hired by organized money have misled and bamboozled Americans who can’t be bothered to tune into anything but scandal and catastrophe. Paying attention does not usually involve the thrilling detective work of a Sherlock Holmes. It is often quite boring, and it requires a long memory. Engineers — notorious for dullness — pay scrupulous attention to the facts of the physical world. That’s simplicity itself, compared to the complicated sympathies that the citizen of a democracy composed of diverse human beings must exercise.

The pity of it is that Americans have so enthusiastically and even successfully pursued every other kind of virtue.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2018 (IV)

21, 22 and 23 August

Tuesday 21st

Reading the novella, “Reading Turgenev,” the first of two that William Trevor collected under the cover of Two Lives, I was reminded of a short story that I was pretty sure was also Trevor’s. In the short story, too, as I recalled, a girl rode a bicycle out of a small town into the countryside and visited a clever but sick young man in a remote house at the end of a drive. What I suppose it was about this motif that caught my attention was the unconventional inversion of the elements of a familiar trope: usually, it is the young man who rides out in search of the beautiful, but perhaps imprisoned, maiden. In any case, when I finished “Reading Turgenev,” I hauled down the bulky tome that contains all of Trevor’s stories up to 1992, and, after a good deal of searching, I found what I was looking for. It is called “Virgins.”

What the story and the novella have in common is the life-changing quality of the visits. But the young men are very different, and so are the visitors’ circumstances. Actually, there are two girls in “Virgins,” and each of them is altered by a parallel conviction that the charming invalid has chosen her. That they never discuss this between themselves is perhaps the first indication that they will soon outgrown their virginity; when the story begins, decades have passed, and the girls are now wives and mothers, tourists in Italy. They have not kept in touch. It will turn out that, during their second meeting with the dying boy, he asked both of them, quite separately, to write to him. Two much-treasured romantic correspondences ensued. Then the boy died. Because one of the girls is much more outspoken than the other, only the quieter girl fully understands what has happened; she knows about the boy’s humiliation of her friend because he wrote to her about it. But as she hasn’t acknowledged her own letters to and from the boy, she can’t express her sympathy. As it is, the other girl’s suspicions sour their friendship.

Laura, the more circumspect girl, knows why the boy humiliated Margaretta, because she grasps that the boy was playing with them. But that knowledge is her humiliation, and she keeps it to herself. The boy was dying; he needed amusement, and he enlisted the correspondence of two girls who would be away at school, writing to each of them exactly what she wanted to hear, and receiving no doubt flattering responses. Actual visits were unnecessary to this game, and actively discouraged. Margaretta was humiliated, in fact, because she ventured to pay an unsolicited, one might even say forbidden, visit to the house at the end of the drive.

It is sad and even a bit sordid, this story. Two girls are taken advantage of by an unscrupulous young man, and eventually horrified by the knowledge, in one case, and the suspicion, in the other, that they have shared both him and his mistreatment. “Reading Turgenev” is utterly different. Trevor’s virtuosity, usually implicit, becomes palpable when the story and the novella are considered together. He has put one rather striking motif (girls riding bicycles to visit dying young men) to two highly contrasting uses.

Mary Louise, the girl in “Reading Turgenev” is also a virgin, but disastrously. She has married a prosperous shopkeeper in order to escape the family farm. The marriage has not been (and never will be) consummated; the man, like his wife a virgin at the altar, too late discovers that she does not arouse him because she is not “his type.” The new bride is persecuted by her sisters-in-law, but she learns to ignore them. Then one Sunday afternoon, aimlessly cycling home from a visit to her parents’, she passes a familiar drive, at the end of which lives her aunt. The aunt’s husband was a feckless gambler who left her with a crumbling house and an invalid child. Years ago, when the boy went to school, Mary Louise had a crush on him, but she forgot about him when he stopped coming to classes (transferring her affections to James Stewart, whom the reader might not at first recognize as the movie star). Now, upon visiting him, she learns that he has always loved her, that he came to her wedding but stayed away from her wedding party because it would have been too painful. He takes her to an abandoned graveyard, adjacent to the burned-out hulk of a church, that nobody else knows about. There they have many Sunday-afternoon meetings, chaste until the very last one, when Robert kisses her. That night, he dies in his sleep. But Mary Louise knows what love is now, and it sets her free.

The freedom is purely internal. At home, over the shop, her mischievous disregard for the wickedly obsessed sisters-in-law eventually presents them with the opportunity they’ve been looking for. Mary Louise is interned in a home, where she spends thirty-one years, reading Robert’s beloved Russian novels, over and over, and eventually, one might say, she moves into them. It is not really madness; Mary Louise knows where she is. But she pays it no mind. She is disappointed when her husband comes to visit; “I thought you might be Insarov,” she tells him, referring to the hero of On the Eve.

I wish I could explain why “Reading Turgenev” needs to be about ten times longer than “Virgins,” beyond the obvious point that Mary Louise is a vessel of transcendence, whereas Laura and Margaretta are just pretty girls growing up. As teenagers, they have no reason to experience the desperation that prompts Mary Louise to accept the proposal of a dull draper who will take his first step into alcoholism on their marriage-night. They will have no reason to find out what really matters.


The other novella in Two Lives is “My House in Umbria,” which was made into a lovely motion picture starring Maggie Smith, for whose voice, indeed, the novella seems written. The movie is quite faithful to Trevor’s tale, although it amplifies the careless indulgence of Mrs Delahunty’s drinking. Also, there is no Giancarlo Gianni character, no charming, English-speaking detective to share her conclusions about what happened in the train. And the end — well, one knew that William Trevor could never have compassed it.


Wednesday 22nd

Oh dear, another “End of Trump?” piece at The New Yorker online. How many have there already been? Haven’t they heard of jinxes?

But what’s on my mind today is misogyny. There are men who really don’t like women, who use them (or don’t) for sex, but have as little else to do with them as possible. Clear misogyny.

But there are also men who regard women as delightful decorations, and who like being intimate with them. Some of these men steer clear of “challenging” women. There are (still) plenty of women who are happy to please a man, especially a well-behaved one. Some of these women are genuinely dim, but some are very clever Sheherazades. Some of the men who like women don’t mind an occasional challenge and are happy to spar with them on a recreational basis, perhaps even to lose an argument now and then. But these men, probably because they equate seriousness with their own masculine habits of mind, can’t be brought to believe that women have a place in public affairs.

Are these men, who like women but who also want to keep them “in their place” misogynists? Is there perhaps a better word?

“Please give an example of masculine habits of mind.”

Here’s VS Naipaul, in a Paris Review interview from a while ago, when the writer was in his late sixties.

You see, a writer tries very hard to see his childhood material as it exists. The nature of that childhood experience is very hard to understand—it has a beginning, a distant background, very dark, and then it has an end when a writer becomes a man. The reason why this early material is so important is that he needs to understand it to make it complete. It is contained, complete. After that there is trouble. You have to depend on your intelligence, on your inner strength. Yes, the later work rises out of this inner strength.

Have you ever heard a woman talk like this? It’s interesting that, throughout the interview, Naipaul never speaks of women. He expresses a number of sentiments that I expect most women would approve — he hates cruelty and appreciates generosity. He is no thug. But his concerns with power and strength and darkness and transformation might make it difficult for a woman to tell him about her day.

Many people who knew Naipaul in the Fifties were shocked to learn that he was married, that he had been married since Oxford. Then, when they did find out, he was not thought to have treated his wife as well as he might have done. His second wife appears (on a quick glance) to have done the Sheherazade thing.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the clear misogynists whom I mentioned at the outset are people who simply don’t regard gender as a determinative characteristic. It is much more significant, one might almost say that it is much more appealing, to be kind, or bright, or imaginative, than it is to be a man or a woman. Gender is an accident; kindness and attentiveness are not.

The question is what to call the men in the middle.


Thursday 23rd

Collecting the mail yesterday, I found lovely new magazines in the box: a New Yorker and Harper’s. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, each contained a first-rate piece about American depravity.

Depravity is both the act and the consequence of surrendering to a meretricious rationalization in order to render odious and immoral conduct permissible. In practice, having surrendered to a rationalization of fairly limited scope, we ever more comfortably accumulate a stack of further exemptions from decency until, step by step, we wind up with things like major-league football, in which white blowhards pay big bucks to see black giants trash one another’s bodies, and “activist investing,” in which rapacious fund managers upset firms and the people employed by them because they can, for the hell of it. No right-minded society would permit either of these depravities, much less sing their praises.

At Harper’s, Kevin Baker sits in the Easy Chair — a sweet name for the magazine’s monthly seat of judgment — and holds forth on the all-but-explicit racism of Donald Trump’s tweets and rants about how football ought to be played. He believes in a frankly gladiatorial fight to the death — by CTE if not quicker means — waged by players who check their humanity in the locker room, which Trumpsters believe ought to be easy to do because these guys aren’t human in the first place. One wonders how often such games, minus the flashy outfits and the snack-riddled stadiums, were staged by plantation owners and overseers in the ante-bellum South. Certainly the spirit is the same: righteous protest is registered as disrespect, as if the flag belonged to whites only and whites were somehow deserving, just by being white, of anyone’s respect.

Baker notes that football used to be “a very different game.” Most players played both offensive and defensive positions. How interesting it is that this began to change in the wake of the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties.

Playing one-way football also allowed for the development of the sort of freakish physique that is now ubiquitous in the NFL — linemen who weigh 350 pounds or more, with bellies hanging over their belts, but who can run a forty-yard dash in less than five seconds. Players who increasingly injure themselves just by falling down, who look like so much of American livestock, purposely bred to be short-lived, walking meat vessels.

And like those other animals, their shapes are made tenable only by drugs.

Mushrooming salaries have made these degrading opportunities irresistible to boys emerging from poverty. Prostitution is the only word for it.

At The New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar writes about Paul Singer and his hedge fund, Elliott Management, and frames the piece with the story of Jonathan Bush, nephew and cousin to the former presidents. Bush had built a successful medical-records firm, but, something of a good-time Charlie, he was not the conscientious manager, at least as regards cost-cutting, that he might have been. He was also somewhat promiscuously photographed in fun-seeking settings, looking more like a spruce beach bum than a CEO. None of this ought to have been of interest to anyone but his near and dear, since his company was doing well. The right to argue, as did Singer and his lieutenant, Jesse Cohn, that it might be doing better, ought to have been reserved to the firm’s clients, since better performance ought to yield lower prices. But Singer cared nothing for prices. Better performance, in his view, would mean better returns for investors. Although Kolhatkar never makes the point explicitly, her piece highlights the irrelevance of investors in the conduct of a going concern. This is the reason why “capitalism” ought to be confined to the start-up, entrepreneurial phase of any business, and then quietly shed as investors are paid off once and for all.

Kolhatkar’s account of Singer’s battle with Argentina, moreover, illustrates the pernicious embrace of court-supported neoliberalism. Anticipating a restructuring of Argentina’s debt, Singer purchased severely discounted bonds, and then refused to agree to the restructuring. The bad faith of this opportunism is grotesque. In a protracted fight lasting for fourteen years, Singer squeezed out a $2.4 billion, 1270% return on his investment at a time when ordinary Argentinians were squeezed for everyday expenses. Sovereign debt, of course, is not an example of capitalist enterprise at all; international law ought to be adjusted so that holdouts to those restructurings to which a very high percentage of bondholders have agreed are forced to join in or lose everything.

The important thing is to recognize these outrages for what they are. They are not evil. They are not rooted in some dark, incorrigible recess of the human soul. They are, on the contrary, obvious excesses with clear explanations. They are social agreements that it is okay to do things that are wrong — things that everyone knows are wrong and that everyone usually frowns upon. These agreements, which are not compromises any more than they are evil, are the surrenders to momentary convenience or desire that, precisely because they are social, almost inevitably explode into full-blown depravity. It is up to all of us to withhold support, even if we can do no more than call depravity what it is.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2018 (III)

16 and 17 August

Thursday 16th

Most human organizations that fall short of their goals do so not because of stupidity or faulty doctrines, but because of internal decay and rigidification.

— James A Garfield

What attracts me to this gem, found in Beth Macy’s stupefyingly discouraging Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Company That Addicted America, is certainly not its prosody, which I would characterize as homefalutin, a peculiarly American patois. I think that it’s the vintage that appeals. I don’t know when Garfield said it, but it wasn’t after 1881, the year of his assassination. Also, it’s a president speaking, expressing what I regard as a central fact about humanity. It concerns not individual humans, with their widely differing characters, but people acting in concert. No matter smart or well-intentioned those people may be, the organizations that they design inevitably fail — unless, as seems to be the case at Oxford University, they periodically renew themselves from within. Come to think of it, the British have a knack for stealth radicalism that may explain the uniqueness of such institutions as Parliament. (A good argument in favor of Brexit would be that membership in the European Community stifles the United Kingdom’s vitally important genius for muddle.)

Americans, who are really much more German than English, do not share this skill; Americans like their reform noisy — revivalist, almost. We also have a passion for writing brand-new laws instead of overhauling old ones. The other night, Kathleen and I were speculating on the benefits that might have accrued from a mid-Seventies re-think of the three major securities laws (which in this house we call the ’33 Act, the ’34 Act, and the ’40 Act), and it occurred to me that such an overhaul would have been a splendid occasion for folding the Glass-Steagall Act into the regulatory framework overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. I doubt that, had he had to deal with the SEC, Sanford Weill would have had such an easy go of annulling Glass-Steagall — by violating it. (No event more directly precipitated the Crash of 2008, and lots of us predicted disaster when the knot was untied ten years earlier.)

A brilliant and well-seasoned lawyer recently told me that he believes that all human arrangements need to be reconstituted every hundred years. It sounds appalling at first — an invitation for organized highjacking. On reflection, I think it would be better not to wait so long. Let’s say that reform is designed and imposed by one clear-sighted generation. The next generation grows up with it, and the third generation takes it for granted. The fourth generation begins to specialize in workarounds, as circumstances and opportunities never dreamed of by the reformers develop in the normal course of social evolution. The backbone of the original reform may have lost none of its importance, but it may be embedded in stale and outdated provisions. For example, did you know that New York State public health law still requires movie theatres to staff glove-wearing matrons, to supervise children’s matinees? Well, it did in the 1980s, when Kathleen was working on a commission related to the secession of Staten Island. It was laughable then. Laws should never be laughable.


Dopesick is about two things: a pair of twisted addictions — to drugs on the one hand and to money on the other — and the hopeless mess that we have made of treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery. The addiction to money is illustrated by the nicely contrasting examples of Purdue Pharma sales rep bonuses, which were legal at the time (and may still be, albeit curtailed) and the story of Ronnie Jones, for six months the Shenandoah Valley’s heroin kingpin. Known in the trade as “DC,” Jones never used the drug. “He was much too scared of heroin to ever use it,” one of his henchmen told Macy.

But from the first moment he sent one of his subordinate dealers out in Woodstock to sell a gram’s worth of heroin he’d paid $65 for in Harlem — and the dealer returned with $800 in cash — DC was hooked on another drug. (153)

It is hard to believe that opioid addiction would have mushroomed as it has done without the boost that it got from money addiction. And let’s not forget the money addiction that drug addicts themselves quickly develop, as they lose their jobs, their homes, their assets, and in general all lawful sources of income.

As for the hopeless mess — I just can’t. I can barely read Macy’s crackerjack reporting. The nub of the problem is an only-in-America polarization between believers in medically-assisted treatment (MAT) and believers in abstinence, among whom figure the proponents of Twelve-Step programs. The message that the destructive effects of alcohol come nowhere near those of opioid drugs is not universally accepted.

Adding to the confusion is the plethora of organizations charged with partial responsibility for treatment, together with the authority of competing jurisdictions. There are programs at the municipal, county, state and federal levels. There are also religious and other charitable operations. Each of them may be above reproach, but taken together they inflict a lot of stupidity and faulty doctrine.


Friday 17th

The most extraordinary little book came my way yesterday. Published for the first time in 2017, and now appearing as an NYRB imprint, it was written in 1939 and 1940, the diary of an Italian aristocrat of complicated, Anglophone background. Entitled A Chill in the Air, it documents the slow-motion whirlwind of Italy’s descent into World War II. That is its only topic.

Iris Origo was the daughter of Bayard Cutting, an American millionaire, and Lady Sybil Cuffe, the daughter of an Irish peer. Her father died when she was seven, and her mother brought her up at the Villa Medici in Fiesole, above Florence. Although the girl’s ambition to go to Oxford was thwarted by her mother’s preference for débutante cotillions, Iris was educated by the galaxy of brilliant visitors to her mother’s salon, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Bernard Berenson among them. Craving a simpler, more purposeful life, Iris married the aristocratic scion of Italian industrialists, Antonio Irigo, in 1924. They settled down on a desolate estate in Tuscany with a view to restoring its agricultural fertility. The loss of their son, Gianni, to meningitis put a strain on the marriage, but as the warclouds gathered, Iris recommitted to her marriage and to her estate. It was at this point that she decided,

Perhaps it might be useful to try to clear my mind by setting down, as truthfully and simply as I can, the tiny facet of the world’s events which I myself, in the months ahead, shall encounter at first hand.

The diary runs from March 1939 to July 1940; Origo set it aside after the birth of her daughter, Benedetta — an event that is prefigured in the most unusual way. In an entry from the previous month (15 June 1940), Origo writes,

William Phillips has come up from Rome. After a second air raid last night, he does not recommend it to me as the most restful place for my accouchement.

There has been no earlier mention of a pregnancy. We do know that William Phillips is the American Ambassador and Origo’s godfather. She will be delivered at the American Embassy — and that will be the occasion for abandoning the diary. By then, of course, the ambiguity and confusion that set the tone of the diary’s atmosphere will have evaporated in open hostility, with Churchill’s Britain Hitler’s only opponent. But the rigor with which Origo’s attentiveness to “the world’s events” eclipses all merely personal notations is stunningly professional, and it goes far to recreating, in a way that I have never seen done, except perhaps in Jean Paul Rappeneau’s glamorous film, Bon Voyage, the nightmare of not knowing what’s going happen next in the world at large. (And the film, it must be noted, is riotously personal.) Most narratives of World War II focus on the terror of being hunted down, a horrific experience that disturbed relatively few people. The crisis that Origo covers affected everyone.

She is a privileged observer. This does not mean that her information is better than anybody else’s (although she has a great deal more of it than most Italians), or that she “really knows” what’s going to happen. In fact, she teaches the opposite lesson. Her richly-networked perch allows her to see something that the man in the street is unlikely to discover.

The truth is that, according to the company in which one happens to be, one knows beforehand what the opinion will be on any of the current topics. Among the anti-Fascists, Chamberlain is spoken of with contempt and Bonnet with loathing; Roosevelt is admired. In Fascist circles the odium falls on Churchill and on the Labour Party; Catholics unite to deplore the advances to Russia. Moreover one also knows beforehand where the blind spots will be. The Fascist averts his mind from the refugee problem [in the Tyrol] and the situation in Czecho Slovakia (“All very much exaggerated — one must allow for foreign propaganda.”) The Catholics turn a deaf ear to all accounts of executions in Spain; the anti-Fascist has seldom heard of any trouble in Russia. Only on one point are they all agreed: they don’t want war. (6 August 1939)

This lockstep chaos is magnified, of course, in the press, and in the radio broadcasts that, until the very end, announce nothing not already known. There rumors, of course, and the diary is stuffed with the lively anecdotes in which they’re embedded. (Origo has a good head for dismissing the baseless ones.) In an astonishing promotional gesture that I had never heard of, Mussolini had himself filmed in a cockpit, apparently flying through a storm, reminding viewers that you don’t bother a heroic pilot with unnecessary questions.

Even Mussolini didn’t want the war, but he had no choice — not in the summer of 1940. After the Fall of France, his only alternative was to invite a German invasion that would in all likelihood have repeated the French capitulation. As A Chill in the Air progresses, the contemporary reader’s chill is likely to emanate not so much from the uncertainty of war (which cannot be fully shared, knowing, as we do, what happened) as from the figure of Il Duce. The fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the United States is not currently anywhere near Italy’s pre-war crossroads, is the only source of warmth when I consider the following entry. The speaker, Count Senni, belongs to a “Black Roman” family, more loyal to the Papacy than to the Kingdom, notwithstanding which he has served Mussolini for years.

Count Carlo Senni has just been talking about his years with Mussolini, to whom he is whole-heartedly, but not wholly uncritically, loyal. He emphasizes one trait which strikes everyone who has ever worked with Mussolini: his unbounded, almost undisguised, utterly cynical contempt for his own human instruments. Except for his brother Arnaldo (now dead) and perhaps, to a lesser degree, his daughter, there is no human being in the world whom he loves and trusts. He believes in the ability of his son-in-law [Count Ciano]; he does not trust him. A sentimentalist about “the people” en masse, he is completely cynical about all individuals, and measures them only by the use to which he can put them to … Yet so great is his personal ascendancy that his underlings — knowing that they themselves will be kicked away as soon as they cease to be useful — to retain their personal devotion to him. (31 July)

Perhaps, in the case of Donald Trump, the ascendancy is less personal than symbolic: Trump stands for destruction. That is why, says the discarded Steve Bannon (if not in so many words), he is mobilizing for Republican candidates at the midterms: it will keep that wrecking-ball swinging. The awful truth is that some Americans do want war.

Iris Origo (1902-1988) was an accomplished biographer whose reputation has faded, as reputations do when new titles stop appearing. Until, that is, the writer is for some reason or other rediscovered. A Chill in the Air ought to prompt such a rediscovery. The woman certainly knew how to write.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
No Critics, Please
August 2018 (II)

7, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 7th

Nearly fifty years have passed since Jane Jacobs published The Economy of Cities, and nearly thirty since the appearance of its sequel, Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. Re-reading the latter, and interrupting that re-reading to read the former for the first time, I thought of two things that had developed since 1984. One, of course, was the Internet. In my ignorant way — understanding so little about the basics of economics and technology gives me the freedom to dream — I wondered if some inversion of China’s Internet, in other words an Internet connecting and available to the inhabitants of what Jacobs would call a “city region,” and only to them, might be tweaked to provide the feedback loop that Jacobs locates in sovereign currencies. That’s pretty much where the ignorant dream ends, though, at least for now.

The other thing was chaos theory, again something that I don’t understand very well. It turned out that Jacobs was not as unaware of chaos as I thought at first, as I discovered when I resumed reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations and encountered her discussion of bifurcation, and then the devotion of her final chapter to the idea of “drift.” These are both alternative expressions of chaos. Bifurcation is a form of discontinuity, an unforeseen tangent. Drift, it seems to me, is not the happiest choice of terms, for while it might, as the Japanese thinker cited by Jacobs proposes, suggest inadvertent discoveries, what it suggests more forcibly is the economic stagnation that Jacobs deplores. Drift is pretty much passive. What Jacobs has in mind in her final chapter is a partial passivity, coupled with dynamic engagement: unplanned action. This is, from a political point of view, contained chaos. I wish that Jacobs had written a third book, about how to encourage the fertile experimentation and shift in objectives that lie at the heart of her many tales of unexpected enterprise — such as the invention of the brassiere industry. But this imaginary third book would not have involved much reporting — Jacobs’s forte. It would have been speculative, like the dark books about politics that Jacobs did go on to write.

What I’m left with, then, is the model of an economy that is (a) devoted to the sustainable provision of everyday material needs, (b) protected from fear and violence by civic institutions that may or may not be political in nature, and (c) constructively dissatisfied with the commercial status quo.

The United States fails most glaringly on the first count. Owing, perhaps, to their history, Americans don’t know the meaning of “sustainable,” which may explain the glibness with which the term is retailed. Until a point very much within living memory, it was always possible, in this country, to move on to new opportunities, leaving old messes behind for others to worry about (or not). I needn’t belabor the environmental aspect of this problem. But “sustainable” also encodes an economic principle that is not very developed in our culture, as a corrective to the concept of “profit.” While financiers are perfectly alive to the meaning of profit, the man in the street often has a different idea, one much closer to breaking even. The man in the street might say that a businessman is entitled to a “decent profit,” meaning, however not genuine profit but just the extra revenue sufficient to pay himself for his troubles, or to repay his backers. There is a widespread vernacular misunderstanding that owners and managers (unlike rank-and-file workers) are paid not out of revenues but out of profits. Journalists focused on economic matters ought to be working hard to correct this.

From an economic standpoint — that is, from the point of view of the people participating in an economy, considered together — the ideal business is one that breaks even. Nothing costs more than it ought to cost, allowing for the compensation of managers and backers. This is where the difference between a genuinely capitalist enterprise and a mature business ought to be marked more clearly than it is. I have belabored this matter, in several earlier entries. A capitalist enterprise is essentially a gamble, in which the generation of revenue is uncertain. The revenues of mature business, in contrast, are quite predictable over the medium term, if not the long. Americans appear have developed an impatience with mature businesses, and for the past forty years have been needlessly subjecting them to capitalist gambles. (There is no other way to judge the private equity racket.) This may be nothing more than a side-effect of the constantly trumpeted message that we live in a capitalist economy. But for the purposes of this paragraph it is enough to say that the managers and backers of a genuinely capitalist enterprise are entitled to increased compensation, to make up for the managers’ trial-and-error search for revenue, and for the backers’ losing gambles.

Because we do not clearly understand the meaning of terms such as profit and capitalism, we flounder in a widening swamp of unseemly incomes and sickened businesses. It is a swamp because the United States is beset by a fear of what it calls “socialism,” an imaginary alligator that approaches unseen — unseen because it is not there. This is failure on the second count. Our civic institutions seem increasingly incapable of calming fear and preventing violence. Our depraved popular culture — a non-political civic institution — actually celebrates fear and violence, arguing somewhat disingenuously that doing so is just a way of telling it like it is. In America, socialism is a bogeyman, a Freddie Krueger waiting just around the corner. Politicians have been exploiting this monster since the interwar period; during the Cold War, it meant little less than enslavement by Russians. Socialism is a mirage in the same way that the large business corporation is a mirage. There can be no abstract “state” or “corporate” ownership of anything. It will always be people, individual people, who are running things, either overmastering managers or faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats.

We fail on the third count because American curiosity and inventiveness have been directed away from the nitty-gritty of nuts and bolts, or, in other words, how things work. I attribute this to educational fastidiousness, to the misapprehension that intelligent people do not get their hands dirty. At the same time, there is a lot of romantic nostalgia for dirty hands. The modern equivalent to the old dream of running away with the circus is the ownership of a motorcycle repair shop. Perhaps the introduction of the first mass-produced home robot will straighten this out. In the mean time, I would encourage a lot of would-be journalists to sharpen their inquiring minds on the resistance of the material world, and give opinions and eyeballs a break. And just to be clear, electronic circuits and the instructions that govern them (a/k/a “code”) are utterly material.


Thursday 9th

The manuscript of the writing project has been moved from atop the printer to the writing table, but otherwise it has not been touched since last year, when two friends read it. (A third never got back.) In all this time, I have often wondered where to go with it. One of the readers liked it very much, but I’m not sure that she would have paid for a copy. The other reader, more rigorous, noted tonal incongruities and undeveloped propositions. His judgment convinced me that I would have to start over. From time to time, I would have an idea for reshaping the material, but nothing came of these daydreams, not even the slightest sketch.

About two weeks ago, maybe three, I was writing to a third friend about my impasse. It was a bleak paragraph and I deleted it. Then I blurted out the remark that I was trying to convey an idea of what it’s like to be me. Intellectually, I mean. What it’s like to be curious and expectant, obsessive and undisciplined, accountable to no one. Well, I didn’t spell out the latter two sentences. But I realized at once that this was exactly what I had set out to write in July 2016. And what I had stopped aiming for when it proved to be very, very difficult. What I went on to write was a highly selective, rather jumpy autobiography.

I remember how hard it was to make the first section, the original material, intelligible, and how bit by bit the complications were simply erased. At the heart of the piece was an attempt to express the rapture, which had overcome me earlier that July, of reading a passage from the dinner party chapter in To the Lighthouse as though it were one of Keats’s odes. Something about Mrs Ramsay “diving” into the daube, in search of prize morsels for William Bankes, sparked the “festal lyricism” of the great poems that I had been closely reading, in Helen Vendler’s magisterial study. And the joy was mine. It was something that had always been promised, but never quite attained — until now. The part that was hardest to get across was this very postponement: why had it taken so long? And why hadn’t I given up the pursuit?

The whole thing was ecstatic and incoherent, a bog of uninfectious enthusiasm. A year later, after much revision, it remained the weakest section of the manuscript. With every revision, the writing project withdrew its commitment to intellectual atmosphere — what does it mean to say “Yes” to the question, “Have you really read all of those books?” — and invested more in amusing anecdotes, funny things that happened to me on the way to old age. The writing got easier and easier as I forgot what I had set out to do.

But the manuscript remained studded with souvenirs of the original enterprise, and my more serious reader fastened on these. Either they would have to be given more substance, or they would have to go. Hearing this stern advice, I didn’t grasp how far I had drifted from an arduous path. All I could think of was the dreadful facility with which I had edited the various sections into readable shape. It had bothered me very much that this was too easy.

What it’s like to be me. Abominable conceit, or recovery memoir? Either way, what’s different about me? I didn’t — and still don’t — know, but I hoped that the writing would show me. If it failed to produce this revelation, I see now, it might be because I didn’t work hard enough. I remember thinking that the important thing was to get something down on paper, but I succumbed to the temptation to regard this preliminary something as a finished product, a mistake that it became ever easier to make as my revisions kneaded the text into the contours of a slightly exotic magazine article.

I have an idea. I am going to try to explain an unusual but nonetheless characteristic episode in the growth of my mind. In 1972, I was inspired to teach myself Chinese by an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I expect that this is going to be nearly as hard to write about as the learning experience was. With a lot of effort and a bit of luck, I may even learn something new.


Friday 10th

For weeks now, the Times has been running environmental disaster stories above the front-page fold. Quite aside from the depressing attempt to capture some of the excitement of television with photographs that seem determined to tell us nothing that we don’t already know, the newspaper is ignoring the constellation of poor commercial judgments that lead to every kind of disaster except volcanoes and earthquakes — and where fracking is concerned, even the earthquakes are manmade.

Meanwhile, the Times’s business pages appear to be clueless about this causality. The spice of thrilling danger is unwelcome there. Wildfires are out of place amid the financial tables. But so are stories about suburban sprawl, lawn-grass monoculture, heavy automobile use, and other bad things that looked good at the time but that now need to be scaled back, arguably eliminated, in order to reduce wildfires. If the Times does not want to take a stand on these issues, can it not find organizations that speak out about them, or that attempt experimental alternatives?

It seems to me that the Times is stuck in the bind common to media that depend on advertising. Printing or airing ads (and collecting a fee) is only the visible part of the deal between advertisers and media. The invisible part is the media’s obligation to frame the reader or the viewer as a consumer, as someone who buys stuff. What advertisers don’t want is an audience of critics and fault-finders. They want people who feel good about themselves and the world — good enough, anyway, not to be demoralized by all the bad news (which, if it must be reported, ought to be presented as happening Somewhere Else.) They want people who look to the media for entertainment.

In a story about new limits on Uber cars in New York City, two reporters make a blandly passing reference to “the city’s failing subway and buses.” Why doesn’t the Times have a weekly special section, mapping out the parties (human beings) responsible for operating the subway, and exposing, if nothing else, how each of them can point to someone else as the problem. Feet must be held in the fire!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Oxymoron of “Political Rally”
August 2018 (I)

31 July and 3 Augst

Tuesday 31st

Last week, I wrote a few lines about the anti-democratic thrust of neoliberalism. The neoliberal program endeavors to take certain economic options — principally the popular expropriation of foreigners’ property — off the local menu, using global institutions such as the World Trade Organization to enforce its safeguards. This enforcement, so far at least, makes no recourse to the violence of military solutions. Rather, it imposes economic sanctions that make non-compliance uncomfortable at best. It does nothing to prevent nations from committing political suicide, as Venezuela has done and as Britain is in danger of doing. But suicide is pretty much the only expression of democratic sovereignty that neoliberalism allows.

I am unsympathetic to neoliberal objectives. For one thing, I believe, with Jane Jacobs, that local economies have to learn how to do their own growing. Simply importing capital investments is sterile, because local workers, no matter how well treated, learn little or nothing about doing business, and are therefore helpless when capital moves on to more lucrative venues. I also believe that trade between cities ought to be weighted in favor of short distances. I’m sure that you’ve heard that tale about the Scottish salmon that is sent in freezer containers to Asian processing plants for slicing and then returned to Scotland for sale. I believe that it’s true, but even if it’s an urban legend it’s repugnant, an example of something that shouldn’t happen. Finally, I regard the tendency of liberal economics to encourage the proliferation of rentiers as a weakness requiring counteractive vigilance.

But I was thinking yesterday that the mechanics of neoliberalism might provide the only solution to the problem of environmental degradation. Again, it’s a matter of taking certain economic options off the menu. But instead of xenos expropriation, the principal no-no of climate globalism would be consumer recklessness. Consumers are reckless when they insist on access to goods whose low prices are made possible by the exploitation of natural resources and disregard for the unpleasant side-effects of manufacturing processes. The American belief that ground beef ought to be affordable by almost everyone — not just available, but available at an every day price — is a particularly blatant instance of consumer recklessness. I daresay that the nation’s political system is incapable of confronting it, much less of curbing it. Sadly, American exceptionalism has already demonstrated our disinclination to subscribe to international environmental conventions.

I’m just about to finish reading a biography of Lord Palmerston, by James Chambers. Palmerston crowned his very long career as a statesman, principally in the Foreign Office, by becoming the first Liberal prime minister. Nevertheless, he remained steadfastly opposed to any expansion of the electoral franchise that would include uneducated voters without property. In his view, universal franchise in France merely resulted in the election of a tyrant, Louis Bonaparte. Liberal democrats have long since decided that, the risk of tyrants notwithstanding, every sane adult must be presumed to be smart enough to cast an intelligent vote. I often wonder if anyone today is really smart enough to vote. The implications of every choice are so often either bewildering or invisible. Somebody must decide what to do, but I wish that we were better at asking the right questions.


Friday 3rd

Is “category mistake” the term? Not really, but it certainly sounds apt. Regardless of their attitudes toward the President’s policies, pundits and their audiences discuss his Administration in political terms, looking for the political outcomes of institutional rearrangements. But this sort of talk is of no interest to his fans. Perhaps it never has been, to the fans or the foes of any president. But Trump’s fans are no longer pretending to evaluate their man in political terms. They judge him as an entertainer. I think that we all have to admit that he is indeed very entertaining, however gruesome the show is for those who aren’t amused. It’s a waste of time to regard him as a political figure. Trump may be a political zero (or worse), but it is meaningless to point this out, or to expect the observation to usher Trump off the stage.

There are many kinds of entertainment, but it seems to me that Trump owes his success to a mastery of the forms of entertainment that have replaced, in many parts of America, what used to recognized as religion. American religion used to be noted for its rejection of the entertaining qualities of high-church, old-world, mainly Catholic services. Even American Catholics have learned to live without them. But whether or not God is dead, Hell is certainly on the fritz. Now that the threat of hellfire is no longer a prod to virtue, austerity has given way to simplicity. Now that Americans have gotten used to being entertained wherever they go, rituals have been replaced by rallies. And in the age of the smart phone, a rally can be attended by masses of people who don’t leave the house.

Similarly, the Republican Party has succumbed to a hatred of politics. The only thing that gives Republican politicians any pleasure is winning elections. They’ll do anything to win elections, not so that they can exercise legislative power but so that they can prevent its being exercised at all. A dynamic legislature confutes the belief that entertainment is the only thing that matters. Republicans may not be capable of being entertaining themselves, certainly not as a body, but they’re making sure that the spotlight rarely wavers from the White House.

The question is whether national political life can be revived without having to be recreated from the ground up.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
July 2018 (III)

24, 25, and 26 July

Tuesday 24th

Last night, I finished reading Jane Jacobs’s The Economy of Cities for the first time.

I had paused in the middle of re-reading her Cities and the Wealth of Nations when it finally struck me, what ought to have been obvious much sooner, that Cities is the second half of a two-volume treatise on urban economies. I read it, when it came out in 1984, in all ignorance of this fact; I hadn’t even read The Death and Life of Great American Cities (though I’d heard of that one). I learned so much from Cities, most of all the possibility of a humanist economics, that what I missed from not having read the first book might only have gotten in the way of my burgeoning grasp of something I’d never given much thought to (political economy) — had, that is, I read The Economy of Cities in 1984 as well.

Reading The Economy of Cities now, nearly fifty years after its appearance in 1969, my first reaction was an explosion of rage. Why was I not taught this book in school? It was unbearably mortifying to know that I had been holding forth on all manner of subjects for half a century without being aware of, among other nuggets, Jacobs’s brilliant hypothesis that agriculture originated in cities, not in the countryside! Ignorance of such an elemental insight threatened to invalidate every notion that I’d ever had.

When I simmered down, though, I saw that there were a few things that I would have missed way back then, no matter how forcibly Jacobs tried to express them. The less important of these blockages would have involved the singularity of the Industrial Revolution, which initiated all of the urban activity that Jacobs talks about, aside from those Stone-Age speculations about agriculture. Fifty years ago, it was easy to imagine that the Industrial Revolution was going to go on indefinitely. Even Jacobs, in her final pages, suggests that this might not be the case, but I’m not sure that I’d have taken the hint. The more important issue is one that, although she certainly describes it, she never identifies, and that is chaos.

Chaos is really nothing but unpredictability. When everything is unpredictable, life of any kind cannot be sustained, but a healthy economy requires a kind of organized unpredictability that continually refreshes the world of work. It’s important to state right away that we don’t know how to create or manage such organized unpredictability; at present, we can only appreciate it in retrospect. Unpredictable successes might be imagined as trains that go off the rails, only instead of heaving into disorder, these very special trains create new rails. Jacobs tells many interesting stories involving such felicity, and my  favorite is the one about Ida Rosenthal, the inventor of the brassiere. As a New York dressmaker, Rosenthal was unhappy with the fit of her clothes on her customers, so she designed an undergarment to improve it. But the thing about the invention of the brassiere is not that Rosenthal came up with it but that she decided to devote her working life to it. She stopped making dresses and started Maidenform, manufacturing brassieres first in New Jersey and then in West Virginia.

Another dressmaker might have been prompted, by the same dissatisfaction that motivated Ida Rosenthal, to invent the brassiere, but then that dressmaker might also have simply gone on doing what Rosenthal did at first: she simply gave brassieres to her customers. We might, were we privy to all the ins and outs of the current state of dressmaking in 1920, have been able to foresee something like the brassiere, but we should never have been able to predict that its inventor would decide to change careers, to give up cutting and sewing individual gowns in order to take up the mass production, cut and sewn by “workers,” of a single product.

The only thing that we can be sure of is that unpredictable successes are undertaken almost exclusively by the self-employed — or by those who are in a position to become what Jacobs calls “breakaways.” Another fine instance of creative chaos is provided by the young engineer in Southern California who left Douglas Aircraft after the war to start up a business manufacturing furnaces. The furnace idea turned out to be a bust, so the engineer took up sliding glass doors, a novelty for which there was a market in booming Los Angeles. There is no way that Douglas Aircraft would have sponsored the research and development, and then the manufacture, of sliding glass doors. The customers of Douglas Aircraft were not looking for sliding glass doors. Only stand-alone producers can decide, as Ida Rosenthal did, to change their customers.

For every success story, though, there are at least a few, and possibly dozens, of failures. To say that trial and error do not guarantee eventual success is to indulge in cruel understatement. Trial and error lead nowhere without help from the Mercury of chaos, whom we call luck. Meanwhile, who is to pay for all the effort that, while arguably not absolutely wasted, fails to make a sale?

Now, as we all know, Jane Jacobs hated planners. But The Economy of Cities is itself, at least implicitly, a blueprint. If you want your city to have a robust economy, it says, then here’s what you need. And what you need, although Jacobs quite understandably doesn’t emphasize it, is a lot of money thrown out the window. Who’s going to sign up to be in charge of that department? Who wants to play VC to breakaways that are only going to break down? How do we plan for innovation in a world where, when most trains run off the rails, nothing but disaster ensues?

Fifty years ago, none of these questions would have occurred to me. I’d have imagined instead a world in which, thanks to the discovery of the right scientific secrets, everyone would be Ida Rosenthal.


Wednesday 25th

There’s a big piece about Brexit in the current issue of The New Yorker, by Sam Knight. Having assiduously followed the Times‘s account of this slow-motion disaster, which still seems to me to be much worse than anything happening in the United States, and having been tipped from the start by what has turned out to be a spot-on analysis of Theresa May’s political character, published by David Runciman in the LRB a few months after she took office, I was not surprised by anything new in Knight’s resume. But Knight did capture a comment, made by “a senior EU official” in response to the resignations of Boris Johnson and others that followed May’s Chequers ultimatum on 6 July.

“It’s a moment that should have happened two years ago,” the official said, of May’s late attempt to soften Brexit. But the official stressed that the E.U. still would not accept her plan, which aims somewhere in between a free-trade deal and the more integrated ties of the E.E.A. nations. “The point of departure for the U.K. is ‘We are exceptional,’ ” the official said, sighing. “They don’t understand.”

Perhaps it was always going to be a problem for the former seat of empire, the ruler of the planet’s oceans and the overseer of its international compacts to see itself as no more than the equal of neighbors to whom for centuries it condescended. Knight captured another, even pithier comment, this one made by Kristian Jensen, Denmark’s Finance Minister. According to Jensen, there are two types of nations in Europe: small nations, and nations that don’t yet realize that they are small. Great Britain, which during my lifetime has staggered from the imperial metropole to the den mother of a ceremonial association of former colonies whose half-siblings have little use for each other, to the frequently mortified junior partner of a “special relationship” with the United States, often behaves like a reduced gentlewoman who insists on privileges she can no longer afford.

The purpose of Brexit, seen in the best light, is to restore total sovereignty to the UK. Easier said, it turns out, than done! Those who voted for it doubtless assumed that interfering Continental regulations were all contained in a book that could be binned. They had no idea of the “acquis,” the extensive interpenetration of those regulations into hundreds of English statutes, such that nobody can now tell the domestic from the foreign — because, as a matter of law, there is no difference! From the start, it ought to have been obvious that the only way to achieve Brexit’s goals was from within the EU.

The Brexit campaign, as everybody understands now, was a dog’s breakfast of Leave’s grotesque misrepresentations of facts and figures fermented by Remain’s criminal complacency; as with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, there will probably always be many who believe that the winners always intended to lose. As such, the vote ought to be stamped invalid. The referendum itself was engendered by such deep cynicism that there ought to be no talk of a second try. Parliament ought simply to direct the Prime Minister to proceed to Brussels on bended knee to beg that the Article 50 filing be rescinded. Then, and only then, can the twenty-eight members of the European Union take up the issue that bothers all of their populations: Has the EU gone too far? Or, as I put it, are France and Germany too big? What a difference it would make if Berlin and Paris ceded their authority to the constituent states and regions of the Union’s principal founders!

Beyond that, Europe must put a great deal more effort into creating a future in which non-Europeans are happy to remain where they are. The unsavory aftermath of colonialism must be cleared away. In other words, Europe will have to turn its back on global neoliberalism with a firmness that makes American persistence even more embarrassing than it already is. It is time to stop exploiting and “developing” the less fortunate economies of the world, and instead to help them grow flourishing markets of their own — and on their own terms.


Thursday 26th

Having finally pushed my way through the final chapter of Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists, after letting the book settle at the bottom of the pile for a dangerously extended hiatus, I’m considering whether or not it makes sense to continue my meditations on the word “liberal.” The word signifies too many different things, some of them good, some of them almost vile. Actually vile, as Domenico Losurdo makes clear in the pages of Liberalism that critique the staunch liberal case for slavery.

A word about Globalists: it was one of those books that leave me at sea. I could never tell from the text itself what Slobodian made of the theories that he was summarizing; only in the introductory material does he suggest that his book is an act of atonement for not participating in the Seattle manifestations of 1999. I looked in vain for a description of “ordoliberalism.” The term “cybernetic” was never quite properly grounded: what exactly did it mean to Hayek and his friends? Slobodian makes explicit the more recent neoliberals’ allegiance to property rights and corresponding opposition to democracy (that is, to democratically instigated expropriations), but he never comments on it. Whatever he might think of it, though, I did not find that this particular res simply spoke for itself. And, while it would have taken him on a tangent, how could he resist the hypocrisy of neoliberals such as Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, who claimed to be passionately committed to democracy in Iraq, when what they really wanted was a régime that would protect the property rights of foreign investors?

I also think that Slobodian might have invested some effort in explaining the imperial origins of neoliberalism. Imperial globalism was a peculiar and manifestly impermanent blend of developed economies and territories of commodity extraction. The goal of developing former colonies into actual competitors with the former centers of empire was never sincere, which is why it has never succeeded.

If neoliberalism is antagonistic to democracy, then, what about just plain liberalism?

The relationship between neoliberals and colonial populations is not quite the same thing as that between liberals and peasant populations, but there are certainly similarities, if ultimately the outcomes were different. (Until recently, that is.) If neoliberalism is a mutation of liberalism caused by imperial and post-imperial conditions, it is also true that liberalism itself was deformed by the Industrial Revolution. The origins of liberalism do not lie in democratic impulses.

The first liberals were grandees who intended to put a stop to royal caprice. After the liberal triumph of 1689 in England, the monarch was no longer free to interfere with private property — which, at the time, meant the private property of great landowners and merchants. (The property of middling people, such as it was, was protected by local customs with which the crown had long since ceased to interfere, a quiescence which has done much to give England its reputation for precocious democracy.) Among the property rights of these grandees was felt to lie the right to an orderly government, and as I have written earlier, it was established, in the decades following the Glorious Revolution, that the king could take the advice of anyone he liked, so long as that person were the chosen leader of Parliament, with a strong preference for the elected leader of the House of Commons. In the Eighteenth Century, the liberal dispensation of British politics, which is still in force, began to flourish.

With the Industrial Revolution, however, the nation was confronted by a new phenomenon. As grandees put their property to work in the development of factories and the like, they drew forth from the countryside a population of peasants who had never owned much of anything, and who therefore had little or nothing for the law to protect. These peasants did not, to say the least, vote; they quite literally counted for nothing. The idea that every human being owns his or her own body, and that, in parallel to the grandee’s expectation of orderly government, anyone might claim of the body politic a minimum of human decencies, in the way of food, clothing, shelter, and access to a better life — that, in short, the truly liberal state must liberate each and every person — citizen! — from any condition suggestive of bondage — took a long time to develop. The oppression of workers in the new factories might be universally deplored as cruel, but it was not for a while regarded as necessarily illiberal.

I think it safe to say, though, that liberal democracy, as it grew through the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, not only greatly extended the protection of property rights but augmented the range of property protected. Professional credentials, for example, became “as safe as houses.” Home ownership, perhaps not a very good idea in itself, made a mini-grandee of anyone who could afford it — and it was made very affordable. Unfortunately, the growth of liberal democracy was repeatedly defeated wherever it came into conflict with pre-existing racial bigotries. Eventually, liberal leaders would create a social crisis whose measure still remains to be taken when they committed their governments, in response to Communist equalitarianism, to overruling racist exclusions. That is how “liberal” became a term of abuse.

Meanwhile, empires came and went, leaving the neoliberal commitment to a globalism in which property rights were “encased,” as Slobodian nicely puts it, or protected from local government interference. Foreign investors were to be granted “xenos rights” that might exceed the property rights of natives. Inevitably, this global arrangement altered the commercial fabric of the developed countries, leading among other things to the familiar phenomenon of job exportation. Workers in the United States found themselves no more protected from globalist currents than workers in Borneo. For reasons not hard to seek, “liberal” became a term of quite different abuse, hurled by people who might well consider themselves the political opponents of those who complained of “liberal politicians.”

A mess, but such, I think, is the state of play.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
July 2018 (II)

17, 18 and 19 July

Tuesday 17th

While the commentariat is fixated on the arguable treason of President Trump’s response to his meeting with Russian President Putin, I’m bemused by other grounds for this most serious of charges.

The other night, realizing that irritations inflicted upon the characters in a long Mavis Gallant story, “The Pegnitz Junction,” were going to make it difficult for me to get to sleep, I confronted the bookcases and noticed a volume that, hving lost the latest round of musical chairs, was lying horizontal atop a tight row of up-and-down spines. Easy to grasp, it proved equally easy to imagine reading. Its title, The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Nationalism, might not seem very restful, but I knew that its author, William Pfaff, who died a couple of years ago, never wrote anything that wasn’t measured and considered. I read the book when it came out, in 1993. Regular readers will know that nationalism has been much on my mind lately, and it seemed providential that a brisk study of the subject was all but handed to me.

Indeed, Pfaff’s prose soon restored my mind to comfortable temperatures. But the next afternoon, when I continued reading, the substance of Pfaff’s discussion began to disturb me. I was hearing something beneath the explicit text, a meaning of which Pfaff may or may not have been aware. At the end of his second chapter, “Nations and Nationalism,” he quotes “the most eminent of contemporary students of nationalism, the late Hugh Seton-Watson.”

… a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one. (58)

Ever since last summer’s clash of demonstrators at Charlottesville, the president has displayed, sometimes ostentatiously, a comfort with groups of Americans whom all previous Postwar presidents have taken care to keep at an official distance, whatever their private sympathies. White supremacists, male supremacists, armed supremacists — extensively overlapping groups of Americans, in short, whom the educated classes have been taught to regard as bigots, and who have therefore been denied a forum on the media that the educated classes control. The president, simply by voicing his interest and support, has thrown a spotlight of encouragement on these people, and, much like Christians in the time of Constantine, they have been given an unprecedented opportunity to assess their own numbers. That they are nationalistic Americans hardly needs saying. But I wonder if the groups against whom they define themselves — Mexicans and Moslems notoriously — are not proxies for those other Americans who do not so define themselves, who, indeed, are too secular to define themselves at all.

These erstwhile bigots — isn’t Trump encouraging them to consider themselves to form the nation of Americans, resolved to throw off the oppression of the established authorities of the United States?


Wednesday 18th

Reading on in William Pfaff’s The Wrath of Nations, I came to the late chapter on American nationalism, and read it in the light of an idea that I know I didn’t have twenty-five years ago, and that I didn’t expect Pfaff to have, either. It came from David Nasaw’s Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements, a book that appeared about five years after Wrath. I didn’t read Going Out until many years later, but I read enough about it when it was published to absorb what might be its thesis, which is that the exclusion of African-Americans (the descendants of slaves) from amusement parks, theatres and other venues of commercial entertainment made it much easier than it might have been for those who were not excluded, particularly “swarthy” or “dark” immigrants from Mediterranean Europe, to attain genuinely American nationality. In other words, by representing the unacceptable other, blacks served a catalytic role in the making of modern America. It was a very simple test. If you were not black, then you were acceptable — at least at the movies.

So simple! If you were not black, then you were not the child of people who had suffered inhuman degradation. Therefore you would not arouse feelings of defensive hostility in the children of those who had inflicted that degradation. Nor would your white neighbor think of you, reflexively, Thank God I’m not him! You might be strange-looking, and you might speak English poorly, or with a heavy accent, but no one would wonder if you were actually, really human. If you weren’t black, you must be white, and all whites were welcome everywhere.

This is an essential element in the formation of an American nation, one that never quite breaks the surface of Pfaff’s account. It would be tedious to recapitulate his chapter here; perhaps I fear that I wouldn’t do it very well. It is always difficult to describe an absence. Pfaff is certainly aware of the inequities of black status, beginning with “the grotesque standing of three fifths of a free human being” prescribed by the Constitution for census purposes. He sees the Civil War as the event that transformed the citizens of various states into citizens of the United States, but he also mentions the “ignominious” survival of states’ rights rhetoric in the defeated South. What he does not mention is the shabby treatment of blacks elsewhere in the country. Elsewhere in the country, new immigrants (who tended to avoid the South) slipped right in to new American lives, simply on the strength of not being black.

In Nasaw’s book, this is an important but incidental point; Nasaw is primarily interested in the amusements themselves. It would hardly be surprising to find that nobody wants to address the institutionalized inferiority of blacks as a condition precedent to the easygoing homogenization of all other Americans. (Does the involuntary sacrifice never end?) We are willing enough to see that what was done to blacks was wrong. But we prefer to believe that any benefits conferred by this wrong to whites ended with the Civil War. That is not true. In the age of mass immigration that directly followed the war, white Americans had a new use for blacks, and blacks were tied to this new task with much of the bondage of slavery.

It was when that new use was put to an end, officially at least, in the “civil rights era” of the Sixties and Seventies that nationalism became a problem for many Americans, a problem to be ameliorated, if not solved, by waving a lot of flags. Many metaphorical feet were broken after having been caught standing up for the heavy, slamming door of the American War in Vietnam; there has been much limping since. Oblivious of the solvent role formerly played by blacks, but increasingly uncomfortable with economic dislocation, many Americans wondered why they could not return to a world in which cheerfully inclusive white men supported stay-at-home wives. It did not take long to develop a picture in which those who had no desire to make such a return marked themselves as un-American. In this picture, blacks are, quite understandably, all but invisible.

It is essential that this picture become visible to everyone in this country, and now.


Thursday 19th

At the other site, I referred to “a particularly vacant edition of the Times.” A little reflection suggested that this is not the newspaper’s fault.

The problem isn’t fake news. It’s no news. There is only the reality television show of the Trump régime’s entertainment cycle. Round and round it goes, and it threatens never to stop.

Events usually have consequences, but not for Donald Trump. This has always been the case. When, way back in 1980, he demolished the Bonwit Teller signage that he had agreed to preserve, there was a lot of moaning and groaning, but moans and groans break no bones. They didn’t then and they haven’t since. Trump’s businesses have undergone multiple bankruptcies. Not a problem! Now the president has unleashed an array of mutually-assured destructive tariffs, which something tells me he is not going to be the one to clean up.

We were ready for Trump, I suppose; we had it coming. Mass shootings, mounting evidence of environmental degradation, increased inequality directly attributable to our hopeless enthrallment to neoliberal ideas about capitalism, systematic social injustice inflicted on Americans of color — the repetitiveness of these stories has taken on that of the Super Bowl for quite some time. What else would happen? Could happen? Even an alien landing would have a hard time puncturing the bubble of our settled narrative tropes. Donald Trump is simply the epitome of our pre-existing inconsequence.

It terrifies me to imagine the violence that might be required to put an end to this pointlessness.

Bon week-end à tous!