11, 12, 14, 15 July
For the first time in the more than ten years that I’ve been writing The Daily Blague, I’m beset, thinking about the sniper in Dallas, by the fear that anything that I say can be taken out of context as the affirmation of a stance that I am weighing and considering, but not adopting. A Times headline asked, “But whose side are you on?” (or words to that effect). I especially don’t know the answer to that question, and explaining my perplexity may be the best way of beginning the discussion that I think ought to be taking place — instead of the several that are already ongoing.
I single out for scorn the camp-meeting enthusiasm that proclaims our basic American unity. I don’t believe that Americans have the right to claim unity. Such unity as Americans have enjoyed has never amounted to more than dismissively tolerant cohabitation within very roomy borders. Americans have not had to put up with fellow-citizens of markedly different views. They have been cushioned from opposition by geographical and economic distances. They have been free to repudiate any commitment to national unity in the company of their friends and immediate neighbors. This is not to suggest that Americans have taken to advocating sedition. It is merely to note the ballrooms of hypocrisy that stretch behind polite speech about pulling together in a crisis. We do, I think, pull together in a crisis. But if there is no crisis, we prefer to forget about each other. And when it becomes necessary to recognize that there are Americans who want to do some things differently, we resort to contemptuous, caricatural language that smacks, politically, of anarchy.
The geographic and economic distances that I mentioned have largely collapsed in the age of pervasive media, just as television networks have flattened the difference in regional accents. But there remain secretive but powerful pockets of resistance to unity, and a fellow named Sam Polk opened the lid on one of them in a piece in the Sunday Review section of yesterday’s Times (“How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down”). Polk reports the routine small talk that focuses on objectifying women and treating sexual intercourse as a kind of victory. The point wasn’t, I think, to tell anyone that Wall Street men talk like this among themselves — what Times reader could have been unaware of it — but to connect it to the difficulties that women face in advancing their careers. Polk was very personal about this.
But a few years after I left Wall Street, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we learned that it was going to be a girl, I burst into tears. My daughter would soon enter a world not just of unequal pay and unequal opportunity, but one in which almost 20 percent of women are raped, and a quarter of girls are sexually abused.
If you think that this violence has nothing to do with bro talk, you’re wrong. When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. And even if we don’t participate, our silence condones this language. I deeply regret remaining quiet while women were being disparaged during my eight years as a trader.
What I want to say about Dallas right now — as distinct from what I might have to say after I’ve thought about it more, and over more time — is that this kind of talk, on Wall Street and elsewhere, extends to blacks and all other “minority” groups who have not historically prospered there. As a white man who worked on Wall Street (in no very exalted position) for seven years, I heard plenty of such talk, coming from all directions. I have no reason to believe that it suddenly came to an end when Bill Clinton was president. I no longer hear it, but I know it’s there. Sam Polk makes this impossible to doubt.
Another thing that I want to say about Dallas is to remind readers of the purpose of this site, which is to discuss and critique the culture of the American élite. I have spent my entire life in the élite, and I know it well. I know that it has not been doing its job. When asked for a response to Dallas, a Wall Street friend told me that it took him by surprise, that he had thought that race relations were “better” than they are, and that he had been preoccupied by the markets lately, and not been paying much attention to the general news. It was not a surprising answer. Dismaying, yes, especially because of the implicit shrugging-off of élite obligations. If you want to know who the élite are, you will know them by their insistence that they work too hard to familiarize themselves with “issues.” They leave that to journalists. As I always says, the American élite comprises all the people who deny belonging to it.
My own claim to belong to the élite might seem grandiose, given my rather vacant CV. But I grew up in an élite town, attended élite schools, and participated in élite rituals. I rarely did this with any enthusiasm. I didn’t think that it was anything special until I was in my forties. Then I began to understand that my economically comfortable life had conditioned me to an outlook that few Americans, or people anywhere, could or would share. Had I merely stumbled along within that outlook, without becoming aware of it and, as a result, trying to grow a brain, I should now be excoriating the stupidity of Donald Trump’s supporters and the self-destructiveness of Leave voters. I should have simply gone on looking at the world with the élitist’s rose-colored glasses — and it would never occurred to me to regard myself as a member of the élite.
Instead of that, I set myself up as the scourge of the élites — a jocular way of putting it that I hope harmonizes with my intended victims’ insistence that they are not élit(ists).
In one of the many articles about tensions between American police and black Americans, one officer insisted that “we do not get up in the morning wanting to infringe someone’s civil rights.” (Or words to that effect.) This was a way of saying that policeman harbor no peculiar animus against blacks, that they’re not “out to get them.” I take this statement to have the same value as a Wall Street executive’s insistence that his firm is an equal-opportunity employer. I think that it’s very important to both the cop and the trader to protect the civil rights of people like themselves, people whom they see as orderly, and to protect these rights against infringement by unruly elements, people unlike themselves. People with a different way of speaking, dressing, walking, standing still even. This double standard is reinforced, and reinforced again, day in and day out, by what Sam Polk calls “bro talk.” I am not promoting a conspiracy theory here. I am describing the behavior of segments of the American élite. I haven’t spent any time in precinct houses, but I do know Wall Street. Sadly, I know Wall Street better than my wife does, although she has actually worked there her entire adult life. Only now are she and other women her age (sixtyish) beginning to suspect that they may have been victims of sexism in the workplace. They feel rather foolish about the possibility of having overlooked this. Perhaps they could not have continued on Wall Street if they hadn’t suppressed their inklings. Come to think of it, I can remember when Kathleen worked with young black lawyers. Those associates have somehow not turned into partners. Why is that? Where did they go?
I am trying very hard here not to appear to be making a case for Black Lives Matter. I believe that blacks are not treated equally in the United States, and that the prosecution of black Americans includes more than a small measure of persecution. This mistreatment is simply wrong, and it must stop. And so must I stop, right there. I am not competent to dilate on the problems faced by black Americans. I have no experience of those problems, not even at second- or third-hand. I have no right to righteous indignation.
What I can do is to call attention to what I increasingly regard as the decadence of the American élite. I know about this first-hand. I know about highly-educated professionals who ignore the world of humanist high culture and immerse themselves instead in the working man’s world of sports, not out of any solidarity with working men — the professionals buy the best seats, and don’t turn down invitations to skyboxes — but because the world of sports is the world of adolescence, of boys playing games. For men of a certain age, Arnold Palmer stands atop the plinth that might be more usefully graced by William Shakespeare, the man who played with the words that tie us together instead of with balls. As indeed highly-educated professionals are aware. But Shakespeare is unshakably adult.
Americans are like addicts who can’t begin the recovery process because they won’t acknowledge the nature of their addiction. Americans are addicted to a view of their history that will always stand in the way of genuine unity. It is the story of a bogus union that was formed during a so-called revolution (actually a war of secession) and then nearly sundered by a so-called civil war (also a war of secession) that was won by “the Union.” It is a story that acknowledges “slavery” but not the lives of slaves, nor the counting of black lives as “three-fifths” of the value of white lives for census purposes, while of course withholding the franchise from blacks altogether, nor the degradation of black lives after the grant of so-called “freedom.” It is a story that treats Jim Crow as either a necessary social crutch or a boys’ club rulebook that got out of hand — somewhere else. It is a story that cannot even be bothered to lie about Native Americans; Native Americans occupy precisely the place of a malarial swamp that required draining.
It is a story in which Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the greatest hero, for holding the “Union” together. I think that Lincoln was a fine man, but perhaps the worst president, for exactly that reason. What followed the victory of the “Union” was a series of social abscesses, festering under the pretension of social harmony. We are still lying about this, still telling ourselves that things are better than they really are. (Just for the record, I am quite certain that Andrew Jackson was the worst president — an early Trump.)
It is a story in which the United States has become an exceptional nation, the world’s superpower (lately incapable of winning wars, however), the victor in the Cold War (which more and more shows itself to have been the greatest stabilizing factor in postwar life), and an example to the world of how to conduct a democracy (no comment). And the people who tell themselves this story are so stuck in it that they cling to it even when they realize that some of the chapters are maybe a little misleading. The people who tell themselves this story are charged with managing the country, but almost everything that they “know” about the place is not true.
We have become obsessed with personal responsibility. Personal responsibility explains why people spend so much time working that they have neither the time nor the energy to attend to public affairs — except where “personal responsibility” (ie, enrichment) is involved. There is no thought of “public responsibility.” I am not talking about welfare or charity here — or not about those virtues only. I am talking about paying attention to the truth. And the truth is that the American élite denies its own existence. It pretends that “the élite” dress up in haute couture and diamonds and get driven around in limousines. It imagines that a gathering of “the élite” looks like the Academy Awards. This is perhaps a hapless default, for in fact the American élite does not gather. How can it, in its state of denial?
If you can read this, you are one of the élite. Armed with the foregoing ideas, give all the thought you can to healing the wounds inflicted by Donald Trump and Micah Johnson.
It was foreseeable that we Baby Boomers would by and large fail to shoulder the public responsibilities of a functioning élite. We were raised in an atmosphere of social fantasy. It was assumed by our elders that things would be different in the future, if only because they would be so much “better,” whatever that meant. It was obvious to them that we had “advantages” that had been denied to them. They told us that things were easier for us than they had ever been for any generation, and we agreed: we set our defaults at “easier.” When we encountered difficulties that our parents had not foreseen (most notably, climate degradation), we resisted the tedium of sorting out priorities and methodologies. If I were a comedian, I would joke that Boomers who took mind-altering drugs were quick to acknowledge the threat of global warming, while those who did not lacked the imagination to grasp it. But there’s a piece in today’s Times about the disarray among those who don’t deny it.
The oldest Boomers were teenagers when the great civil rights legislation was enacted. We heard the nation’s leaders proclaim the end of segregation, and we took this as a done deal — if we lived in a region where blacks were inconspicuous. We smiled when liberal white Americans gestured to accept black Americans into their world. We frowned when black Americans declined to adopt the folkways of liberal whites, although we recognized that they had a point. We saw that wondrous progress into a future of racial harmony was stalled by a deal-breaking insistence on racial unison. This wasn’t our fault. We found other things to worry about.
We worried about authenticity. Who am I, really, and how do I know? We became a generation of self-absorbed individualists, hypnotized by doubts about our place in the world that soon ran up against the need to make a living. Countercultural experiments soon demonstrated that, beneath the scruffy hair and the seedy clothes, few of us were willing to abandon bourgeois supports, or to inflict the discomforts of roughing it on our children. But we were haunted by the insincerity of our accommodation. This unwillingness to commit explains a lot about our failure to lead — to behave as the élite ought to behave.
Questions about personal authenticity are as inappropriate for adolescents as exposure to adult sexuality is for younger children. Adolescents, quite rightly, are confined to the scale of adult approval. They can do the things that adults want them to do, or they can disobey. That’s about it. The very word “adolescent” means that, in the process of becoming adults, they are not adults yet. The mismatch between physical capability and social inexperience seems to get wider every day; it could that the dawn of true adulthood has been postponed into the late twenties at the earliest, and it is not altogether funny that 35 is the new 21. One certainly hopes that thirty year-olds will not behave as if they were half their age. But it might also be recognized that the social fontanelle does not close in our world until the onset of what used to be middle age.
Most college students are essentially incompetent to answer questions about authenticity, and ought to be protected from them. I re-read the foregoing sentence with reverberating astonishment: it is exactly the sort of thing that an illiberal dean of students would have argued in favor of banning access to pornography, back when I was in college. I certainly don’t mean to protect anyone from something by pretending that it isn’t there. Nor by insisting that it isn’t yet time to deal with it. But university is for learning about the world, not for deciding about the self. A student who arrives on campus with a well-buffed identity is simply going to waste a lot of people’s time.
We Baby Boomers believed that we invented sex, and this was not as wildly wrong as it looks. For we grew up with contraceptives that were both reliable and unobtrusive to men. We had sex without fear! And so we got to discover that inadvertent reproduction is not the only thing that is problematic about sex. Observing that it is orders of magnitude more likely for me to have friends who are seven years younger than friends who are three years older, I wonder if the “the Pill” is not the explanation. Anatole Broyard writes about this eloquently in Kafka Was the Rage, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. “One of the things we’ve lost is the terrific coaxing that used to go on between men and women, the men pleading with a girl to sleep with him and the girl pleading with him to be patient.” (136) Boomers never had to bother to coax. Relieved of the fear of pregnancy, nice girls discovered that they liked sex, too, and, what’s more, they discovered that men could be better at it than they were! This was a surprise that we have not yet, ahem, got over; it has complicated the hell out of feminism.
Now that, for all its failings, the élite has managed to junk Augustinian laws about what adults can and cannot do as sexual beings, sexual preference has become one of the first things that a young person can learn — something that, formerly, countless people never discovered (never hoped to discover) in their entire lifetimes. But this is not to say that every young person ought to settle on a sexual identity, that there is an obligation to know who you are by the time you are twenty-one. The only obligation that I can think of is that you ought to settle these matters before embarking on parenthood. But sexuality is only one of many matters that must be settled before children are allowed to come along. I speak as a Boomer who had settled few of those matters when his daughter was born — with as much regret as love for my daughter, pride in her achievements, and delight in her company allow.
But I don’t want to suggest that my peculiarities were caused by membership in a generational cohort. Being a Boomer exacerbated some of my faults, perhaps, but it had little to do with my oddity, because I was born, not “at forty,” as my mother used to say of my father, but at some indeterminate late-adolescent age. From the beginning, I was as crazy and mixed up as any teenager, madly impatient to grow up and bored to sobs (literally) by anything to do with childhood. I was writing to my daughter yesterday that one of my few childhood food memories is of pound cake and tea at the cozy Bermuda resort that my family visited in 1955, when I was seven. A lemon freshness made the pound cake and the tea so unlike anything that I had ever tasted before that it may have been then that I lodged the protest that would eventually make a cook out of me. At the age of twelve, I developed a troublesome passion for tea — troublesome for my mother, who disapproved of my laboring in the kitchen. I would have nothing to do with teabags, so not only did I buy tins of Twining’s Earl Grey at the fancy-food store on Park Place but I required two teapots as well, one for steeping. A world of delighful complication opened up.
I would sip tea in my room while struggling to read by candlelight. My particular strain of adolescent puritanism — no matter what drives their frenzies, puritans are people who have not yet grown up — regarded electricity as vulgar. Well, electric light, anyway; I might have read by candlelight, but the Water Music was playing on the phonograph in the background. What was I reading? I have no idea; whatever it was, it was over my head. When my mother got sick once, she was given a book of light verse that was illustrated by Edward Gorey. Light verse did not appeal to my mother, and the book was soon mine, along with a passion for Gorey. (I read my first complete Gorey, The Willowdale Handcar — published under another title — in one of my mother’s Vogues.) By the time I began reading The New Yorker, in the summer of my fourteenth year, I had outgrown my fastidiousness about lighting, but I lacked the fortitude to get through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. My eyes glazed over at the mention of DDT, at the dismay occasioned by its toxic effect on wildlife. My premodern lack of interest in the natural world seems connected somehow to an elided childhood. I am enchanted by the song of birds, so much more common in Manhattan now than it was thirty years ago that I am indebted to Carson; but I don’t want to know more — what the birds look like, what they’re called. But some of my earliest thinking concerned modern man’s ability to mess up the world in ways that had nothing to do with the Bomb.
Not that skipping childhood is a good idea — I don’t at all endorse it. It was simply something that happened to me. And it did not make me a precocious adult. On the contrary. I mark the launch into adulthood to the winter of 1975-76, when I realized that going to law school would probably be the most reasonable thing that I could do, and the landing, ten years later, to the death of my father. Even then, there was something provisional about my adulthood. I held on to certain foolish behaviors until an excess of martinis caused me to fall and nearly break my neck, an accident that is still not ten years in the past, and I within hailing distance of seventy!
Growing up isn’t entirely a matter of leaving youthful vices behind. It also took me a long time to know my own mind. One could say that it took me far too long to stop dabbling. But I didn’t know what else to do. When the Wall Street firm that I worked for folded, I half-heartedly looked for work in a field that I had discovered but not really been trained in. Kathleen claims that we decided at about that time that I ought to be a writer, however long it took to accomplish that. For, although I could write, I didn’t know what to say. This was not a case of having nothing to say, but rather the opposite, of not knowing where to begin. I believe that in the entries that I’ve been logging at this site since last September lie the beginnings of knowing where to begin. The salient aspect of this beginning is indeed why it took so long to reach. For I do not believe that it was always there, right under my nose. And yet —
“Swimming against the tide,” “going against the grain” — these images seem pathetically anemic when I consider the course of my own thinking. If I’ve been swimming, it has been up the face of a waterfall. For everything that I have learned in life, ever little bit of it, has taught me, somehow, that the flight from éliteness is not only a terrible mistake but an impossibility. It is in fact a kind of puritanism — the kind of puritanism that forced me to try to do without lightbulbs, and that also (little did I know how not-uncommon such bravado is) induced me to swear in writing (on onion skin paper, the only available substitute for parchment) that I would never smoke, drink, or drive a car — when I was thirteen. Like all puritans, I forswore things that I thought were bad but that I didn’t know anything about. I endeavored to prevent mistakes and regrets with the violence of Procrustes.
In 1789 the Western World inaugurated a serious experiment in equality. The notion that all human lives are equally precious is not intuitive, but like a genuine religious conversion its adoption seems irreversible. (I argue that this notion re-introduced the teachings of Jesus to Christendom and engendered a new Christianity that today’s evangelicals dismiss as unorthodox.) And yet it is obvious that the impact of human lives varies so enormously that no two lives are equally important. How to reconcile the ideal of equality with human multifariousness is now our central problem. Denying the existence, the virtue, or the necessity of an élite seems as blind and arbitrary as denying instances of the Pareto curve. Given a multitude of human lives, the emergence of an élite seems to be statistically inevitable. And yet almost everyone in my lifetime has wished that the élite and the idea of the élite would go away. One result is the monstrosity of Donald Trump, a born élitist who has exploited every élite advantage to advance his fame or notoriety — he doesn’t care which; no one has ever thrived so luxuriantly on the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity. (Until there is, let us pray.) The worst thing about the flight from éliteness is the evaporation of leadership. Leadership is the opposite of demagoguery: it inspires people to take pains for a good cause. Leaders may be hypocrites — brazenly, in the case of lame FDR — but their importance lies not in their authenticity but in their beneficent persuasiveness. Most of the people alive today have lived in a world without leaders.
What Shakespeare said about greatness in Twelfth Night applies to éliteness. There may be many more élitists (meaning: members of the élite, not advocates of “élitism,” of whom there is no need) than there are truly great people — many, many more — and those who have been born élite, or who have had éliteness thrust upon them, may find that they have to work harder than those who are merely saddled with greatness. But it must be recognized as an inexorable condition, at least by those who are familiar with it because it is theirs. The small privileges of belonging to the élite — the deference that must never been taken for granted and always ritually declined — are dwarfed to the point of invisibility by the huge and arduous privilege of belonging itself.
Mrs Gaskell’s Ruth is in my reading rotation at the moment. Kathleen picked up the novel in her travels and liked it. I’ve never read a novel by Mrs Gaskell that I didn’t like, and yet I’ve never gone on one of my jags, running out and buying everything of hers that I can find. So I still haven’t read, for example, North and South. I had not heard of Ruth at all. The editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition, Tim Dolin, naturally claims that it is underrated. I’m not especially keen on it, especially now that the villain, or the heavy, or the whatever-he’s-going-to-turn-out-to-be (maybe just a man, if you know what I mean), has made his appearance. I’m in no mood at all for Mr Bradshaw.
I will say that Gaskell introduces Mr Bradshaw with sly éclat — you won’t forget this about him:
The country people came in sleeking down their hair, and treading with earnest attempts at noiseless lightness of step over the floor of the side, and by-and-by, when all were assembled, Mr Benson followed, unmarshalled and unattended. When he had closed the pulpit-door, and knelt in prayer for an instant or two, he gave out a psalm from the dear old Scottish paraphrase, with its primitive inversions of the simple perfect Bible words, and a kind of precentor stood up and, having sounded the note on a pitch-pipe, sang a couple of lines by way of indicating the tune; then all the congregation stood up and sang aloud, Mr Bradshaw’s great bass voice being half a note in advance of the others, in accordance with his place of precedence as principal member of the congregation. His powerful voice was like an organ very badly played, and very much out of tune, but as he had no ear, and no diffidence, it pleased him very much to hear the fine loud sound. He was a tall, large-boned, iron man, stern, powerful, and authoritative in appearance; dressed in clothes of the finest broadcloth, and scrupulously ill-made, as if to show that he was indifferent to all outward things. His wife was sweet and gentle-looking, but as if she was thoroughly broken into submission. (126)
Lord, how I detest this man! A page or so later, Ruth — a young woman in trouble who has been rescued by and is staying with Mr Benson — receives a gift of cambric from Mr Bradshaw, and her immediate instinct is to refuse it. I posed three questions to Kathleen.
- On a scale of one to ten, with one as the worst, how wicked is Mr Bradshaw?
- (I forget the second question.)
- Is Mr Bradshaw in the novel until the very end?
Kathleen’s answer to the first question was “three.” Oh dear. “You were counting zero?” I asked hopefully, reformulating my question after the fact. The third answer was unintelligible, because it turned out that Kathleen was slipping off into asleep. I closed Ruth and picked up something else.
I’m sure that I must have encountered a heroine in the act of refusing a gift from someone whose generosity she did not welcome, but I can’t think of one. Ladies refuse to receive letters and packages all the time in fiction, but we are not privy to their decisions; we’re usually looking over the shoulder of a disappointed lover. Ruth’s expresses her wish not to accept Mr Bradshaw’s cambric with surprising alacrity; after all, she has never spoken with him. He can hardly harbor the usual designs. And yet one agrees at once with Ruth. It is curious — although this is not noticed by Ruth or Mr Benson — that the cambric does not come from Mrs Bradshaw.
“It’s interesting,” Kathleen said of Ruth when she finished reading it. I have to agree that it is — intermittently. To conjure an image from Mrs Gaskell’s day, it is like being driven along an avenue, from which unexpected sights can be glimpsed in the distance, by horses who want to veer off the road and plunge the carriage into the worst sort of Trollope. The worst sort of Trollope is that author’s tendency to get carried away, to put it mildly, by the pure virtuous steadfastness of his nubile heroines. Mrs Gaskell seems equally obsessed with Ruth’s innocence, which is so extreme that the moment of her deflowerment is never directly referred to. By the end of Volume I, Ruth, seduced in East Anglia and abandoned in Wales, is pregnant, but for all she seems to know about it the Holy Spirit may have been the father. But then Mr Benson, a deformed man with a great soul, says something earnest, and I sit up. Sally, the Bensons’ housemaid, a woman old enough to have brought them both up, is a particularly saucy-mouthed servant. But I think that I have yet to strike what it was that provoked Kathleen’s “interesting.”
There is a page-and-a-half story (very big deal) in today’s Times by Nicholas Confessore. You can read it online, but you’ll miss the headline in the print edition. I am thinking of stepping out and asking the nice men who are working on the subway station if they have a crane that might help lift my jaw back into place:
Trump Mines Grievances Of Whites Who Feel Lost
Then, in smaller print,
His Charged Words Allow the Disaffected to Vent Feelings Usually Unspoken.
It’s almost as if the editorial staff at The Onion had taken over. “Area Man Hails Trump As Much-Needed Demagogue.” How about “Sky Is Blue On Sunny Day”? Why Now? Kathleen and I asked when we saw the paper. What took them so long to state the obvious? Confessore may have answered that question quite well, with his references to Pat Buchanan, a presidential candidate, albeit better-mannered, whose message was essentially the same as Trump’s. Buchanan was ahead of his time; most white voters confidently dismissed him as a crank. Now that most white voters seem not to be confident about anything, the supremacist message is much more appealing. I do wish, though, that the Times’s editors were quicker on the draw than the average voter. Confessore’s story is at least six months overdue.
Confessore writes of conservative white resentment that it includes “a sense that an America without them at its center is not really America anymore.” It has become commonplace to dismiss this feeling as retrograde and unwelcoming; the United States is a land of diversity. “Diversity” is probably one of the more unexamined concepts in the current-affairs lexicon. My sense is that the cooperation of people of different backgrounds flourishes most robustly when the term is not bandied about. Diversity is not encouraged by self-conscious effort. Self-consciousness emphasizes feelings in which the advantages of diversity are likely to wilt. And of course it is monstrously hypocritical to impose diversity in neighborhoods far distant from one’s own unexceptionably affluent suburb.
The very word diversity is sharp and definite. I should prefer a word that sounded vague. Vagueness is much on my mind these days, although I am trying not to be vague about it myself. Partly it’s a consequence of my battle with the complex of words that are based on “élite.” This is a very old battle, going back fifteen years at least, with a never-ending skirmish over the word for a member of the élite. If you believe, as I do, that élites are as inevitable as ice cubes on the surface of a scotch on the rocks, that there is no way of preventing the emergence of an élite over time — three generations at most — no matter how levelling a political system sets out to be, then it is simply horseshit — sorry! — to talk of élitism and élitists. Élites require no support, no advocates, no theorists. Élites are as inevitable as death and a good deal more inevitable than taxes. You can make the leaders of today wear sackcloth and live in hovels. It doesn’t matter. Their grandchildren will wear designer sackcloth and have servants to clean their hovels.
And yet what else to call a member of the élite but an élitist? You give it a try. It is no help at all to go back to the French from which we have taken the term, because élu, which is what you can call a member of the élite in that language, is never ever going to join its relative as an borrowing in English. It’s both too slight and too difficult to say. Also, when spoken as an American is likely to say it, it sounds too much like “hello.” (I actually considered “halo” for about twenty minutes.)
So why not find another word? This is everyone’s suggestion. But it turns out that there are no real synonyms for “élite.” When C Wright Mills published The Power Elite in 1956, it made sense to identify “the élite” with a small coterie of leaders in various fields — politicians, business executives, and military officers — but that only shows how quickly things change, for the whole problem with today’s élite is that it is utterly devoid of leaders. Leadership is in fact frowned upon by many members of the élite. So is any act or demonstration of power. This explains the élite’s denial of its own existence. Which would work — banishing the term to the world of fantasy — if people, members of the élite among them, did not complain so much about the villainies of “the élite.”
The weirdly cosmic vagueness surrounding “the élite” as a term turns out, I finally see, to be an advantage. There was a time when someone who didn’t attend an Ivy League college could be ipso facto excluded from the élite, but those days are over. There are no rules of thumb, no shibboleths, for distinguishing insiders from outsiders. I often quip that, if you can read this, you belong to the élite, but that is not to say that every member of the élite can read this. I can only wish it were so, while recognizing with tears in my eyes how very not-so it is. The vagueness surrounding the insider/outsider switch does, however, make it easier to speculate on what it is that we need élites — members of the élite — to do.
There is another interesting aspect to this vagueness. Once upon a time, the people in charge were men with armed supporters. They knew who they were and you knew who they were. The natural trend of any society, however — barring invasions and environmental catastrophes — is to socialize people, to raise them to internalize the laws under which the society operates, minimizing the need for displays of external constraint. A society which has less reason to fear manifestations of power (which are always to some degree violent) will feel freer; truly socialized people are so unaware of their internal self-regulation that they feel free even as they observe every social convention to a nicety. Some people, it is true, have so much difficulty resolving this apparent paradox that they cannot live with social conventions; they must go off into the wilderness. But even they do not feel free not to care for themselves. Nobody except rapt intellectual adolescents regards suicide as an act of freedom. (Although it may of course be an act of liberation — liberation from extreme illness and pain, not from the wholeness of life.)
In the Western World, the postwar era that began in 1945 saw an unprecedented expansion of social freedom. Governments operated with ever-lighter hands. Decisions perceived to be arbitrary were not only denounced but resisted and repudiated. The loss of authority by religious and other institutional leaders nearly amounted to complete evaporation. The effect of all of this was to put more people in charge of smaller jobs. Nobody is in charge of everything, not even nominally, and that’s a good thing. But several generations of this freedom have produced, inevitably, its corresponding élite. People who are educated, affluent, locally influential, capable of forming interest blocs — there are many more such people than ever before. But like the society of which they are the élite, they don’t have a very clear idea of “the big picture.” Perhaps there is no big picture, just a lot of small pictures. But that’s not a good thing, because it opens the door for a very bad man to project a big picture of hatred and resentment — the worldview of those who are rightly sure that they do not belong to the élite. They can be sure, as I’ve said, because nobody asks them. Nobody asks a woman living in a trailer park if she is in charge of anything greater than the trailer park. Nobody asks a man hanging out at a garage if he is running anything. For decades, nobody has been asking such people anything at all. Worse, nobody has been really thinking about them — except to think how to bring the existence of such people to an end.
To the member of the élite who sits at a desk puzzling out ways to bring the existence of such people to an end, this is a matter of helping people to become other, more desirable kinds of people. To the person in the trailer park or the garage, however, it is a matter of personal extermination. The same goes for Americans who no longer feel that they’re at the center of America.
The other night, Kathleen and I got to spend some time with the new baby of old friends, a beautiful three month-old child. It was very hard, when I was looking at her, to resist the thought that she was looking back at me, but I managed. I knew that she was seeing bits and pieces of me — although I couldn’t say which — and I should go so far as to say that she was aware of me as yet another human being. But her mind was not yet sufficiently organized to sort the particulars in a retrievable way. She would never remember our first meeting. She was experiencing, not learning. I knew this because I wasn’t just looking at her. I was also thinking about the weirdness of infancy.
Infancy does not occur in other animals, or rather, it doesn’t last for long. Newborns must be autonomous within a very short space of time, a matter of weeks at the most. For a number of reasons too well known for me to rehearse, human beings are born long before they’re ready to take care of themselves. When they become what we call toddlers, somewhere in the second half of their first year, they begin to be people in the world — small and helpless, but people. They respond when called by name; they learn to walk, and so on. But their presence as infants is dramatically unclear. In the first few months of life, a baby’s neural circuitry is inchoate, at least so far as higher-order functions such as consciousness are concerned. I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying things when I say that few of the connections (synapses) that characterize the brain of an eight year-old, much less an adult, have been made. And the wiring is uncertain. I have never seen an infant who did not, for at least a moment or two, seem to gasp in dismay, prompting me to do what adults always do, and fill in the lack of inputs with projections of my own experiences, in this case, the dreadful surprise of a power outage. It seems to me that the baby’s circuits have crashed, and taken down the sense of familiarity. Bearings are altogether lost. It lasts for a only an instant, and, if you’re lucky, it does not lead to tears. The system comes back on, and the baby knows where it is.
The really weird thing about infancy, though, is how we adults forget it. Although I know that there was a time when my grandson behaved in much the same way as this lovely little girl, with the same alternations of contentment, sleeping, crying, and confusion, I cannot remember it. Or, rather, I cannot associate the things that I remember with my grandson. My grandson, at the moment, is eternally six and a half. He is a fascinating (to me) instance of someone poised at the brink of “the age of reason,” and, being the boy he is, he is not going to cross the border until he has worked out the angles to his satisfaction. There are a few little souvenirs. I remember him poring over his brand-new iPad, sitting at the glass dining table and swinging his legs. I remember how he used to say, with the strangest blend of insistence and tonelessness, “Up, up,” meaning that he wanted to be picked up. I remember being able to understand what he was saying on the telephone. But when I think of him, he is who he is now. He has sucked up his infancy and his toddlerhood like a self-cleaning snail. Our friends’ child will do the same.
As I mentioned last week, one of the books that I brought home from storage last week was Arthur Koestler’s The Watershed. Koestler did not actually write a book with this title; “The Watershed” is the fourth part of his survey of the origins of modern cosmology, The Sleepwalkers (1959). Some gang of bright lights decided that the thick central portion of The Sleepwalkers, which tells the story of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), ought to be excerpted in a book of its own, as part of a series of “up-to-date, authoritative, and readable science books.” I shan’t know why until I read the intact original; it’s still in print, and I’ve ordered a copy. When it arrives, I may get rid of The Watershed. It is riddled with embarrassing marginalia and underlinings, almost all of which reveal an intellect in its toddler phase.
I’m not sure that I knew what a watershed was, when I read the book in college, and even now that I understand what Koestler is trying to say, I question the metaphor. Koestler’s subject, so brilliantly exemplified by Kepler, is the transition from one comprehensive world-view to a very different one. Kepler does indeed stand at the watershed of the new dispensation — way up there in the hills among countless little streams that have not yet been collected into a big river. But he also stood in the twilight of the classical outlook, which had been developed nearly two millennia earlier by Aristotle and Ptolemy. Twilight is not a water image. If you insist on finding a water image for Kepler’s relation to what had gone before, the Nile delta (or the Louisiana bayous) seems most apt — which is fine, but rather impossible to hook up to a watershed.
The just-so story about modern science is that the Aristotelian, Ptolemaic worldview had to be “overthrown” in order for new ideas to thrive. What new ideas? I come back to the clock, the history of which captured my fancy last fall. (30 September 2015) Koestler quotes Kepler likening the universe to a clock; whether he was the first to do so, it was an idea that would capture the attention of almost every intelligent mind over the next two centuries. The kernel of explosive novelty here is that the universe worked like a machine. It partook of the same substance as that of sublunary earth. It was not composed of “ether”; it was not exempt from the laws of physical causality that operate on earth. For this reason, Kepler could not permit himself to do what astronomers had been doing since antiquity: fudge. His preliminary theory about the orbit of Mars was plausible enough until he submitted it to the test of some rare observations that Tycho Brahe had made. The result was an eight-minute error in the arc of the orbit. That would have been negligible in the old days, when ten minutes was an acceptable tolerance. Tycho’s precision instruments, and the multitude of observations that he had made with them, drastically reduced the permissible margin for error. Eight minutes was too gross. Years of work (calculations made without the aid of a computer) turned to ash.
Tycho is perhaps the real draw in The Watershed, partly because he was such a character (but then, so was Kepler), mostly because he stance in relation to science is modern. Tycho was mad for metrics. He discovered just one thing: “that astronomy needed precise and continuous observational data. (88) Copernicus deployed a total of twenty-six astronomical observations in support of his heliocentric theory. Tycho amassed thousands of observations, whether or not in support of any theory. Tycho did have a theory, but aside from being wrong it was unoriginal — as indeed was Copernicus’s. Almost every imaginable theory had been put forward in Classical Antiquity. Most theories were discounted because they flouted higher-order theories about how the world must work, such as Plato’s notion (not original) that the planets must move in uniform circular motion. Kepler was perhaps to abandon this pair of notions (uniform motion, circular) in a statement about reality. Kepler didn’t claim that astronomical phenomena made sense if you imagined that the planets traveled in elliptical orbits, and at such varying speeds that equal areas of those orbits were swept in equal amounts of time. Kepler claimed that planets really did travel in ellipses, and sweep equal areas in equal time. He did not undo Aristotelian theory so much as replace the Aristotelian universe.
And yet he never shook off the quasi-mysticism that had surrounded numbers since Pythagoras and before. Kepler never abandoned the idea that the orbits of the planets are at such a distance from the sun that — fasten your seatbelts; there are going to be some bumpy words — the orbit of Mercury can be fitted into a dodecahedron, that of Venus into an icosahedron, that of the earth into an octahedron, Mars into a tetrahedron, and Jupiter into a cube, leaving the one-sided perfect solid, the sphere, to Saturn. This is pure moonshine, and Kepler could never have demonstrated that it was true, but he never really tried. Perhaps he knew better than to try.
Galileo, however, is in contrast a wholly modern figure, and Koestler loathes him. Galileo represents a serious problem of modern science, which is that great genius is exhibited by “moral dwarves.” When Koestler is finished with him, Galileo is lost to heroism forever. He is a brilliant opportunist who never says thank you but who will use the worst language in the world if you cross him. Koestler explains that Galileo never in fact languished in Vatican dungeons, but he doesn’t mention the house arrest that confined Galileo to him home and garden for decades, which I used to regard as undue hardship. Not anymore.
Koestler quotes a remark of Alfred North Whitehead that seems to me to explain a great deal of what’s distinctive about the Western World.
All the world over and at all times there have been practical men, absorbed in “irreducible and stubborn fact; all the world over and at all times there have been men of philosophic temperament who have been absorbed in the weaving of general principles. It is this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalization which forms the novelty in our present society.
Koestler makes the case for Kepler as one of the first men to harmonize these habits of mind.
Although I sound like a know-it-all most of the time, I am really the one who is learning here. Yesterday, for example, I learned, as I wrote, that my idea of “the élite” is much larger and more comprehensive than I might have thought when I first took up my battle with the word, which struck me as a puzzle because the first thing that I noticed about it in general, journalistic use was that nobody admits to belonging to it. There are minds that would respond to this phenomenon by postulating the existence of a small band of conspirators, secretly running the world from mountain fastnesses — Davos! But I knew from my own life that that wasn’t true. Davos is just a lot of hot air, and a group of three or more people cannot be counted on to keep a secret. But it was only this week that I realized that I can see no reason to exclude from the élite anyone who has any discretionary authority whatever over how other people behave. This means, for example, that everyone who writes code for a smartphone is a member of the élite. It may mean that the school nurse is a member of the élite. Anyone to whom discretion over anything has been delegated is in the club.
Club? Anyone to whom discretion has been delegated has been saddled with responsibilities. We are living in a world that likes to pretend that this isn’t so. Whenever possible, people claim to be acting under orders. But it is rarely true. Every police officer makes countless personal decisions, and I daresay that most officers make very many good ones and very few bad ones. But I should be happier if I had reason to believe that policemen knew more about the development of the society that is under their supervision. Why is our world like this and not like that? I dismiss out of hand the idea that men in blue are intellectually incapable of overcoming a few popular mythologies.
Anyway, I saw that it is possible for the number of members of the élite to exceed that of the non-members. This is a fantastically good thing.
Bon week-end à tous!