In the News
25 June 2012
Is it me, or is it the newspaper? Some days — most days — there’s nothing much worth reading; the headlines and lead sentences serve to reinforce my awareness of issues and personalities, but provoke no commentary. Every once in a while, though, the Times seems to burst with good stories. Now I think of it, this is most likely to happen on a Sunday.
There were five good pieces in yesterday’s Times. There was the Gitta Sereny obituary, more interesting than it might have been, perhaps, because I was just reading Diana Athill’s memoir of working with Sereny on the publication of her first big book, Into That Darkness, about the conscience of a Holocaust functionary. In the final paragraphs, Sereny’s “secret” — the power that enabled her to stare into “that darkness” — was revealed.
“I know this is difficult to believe, but I’m really, in the old sense of the word, quite a gay person,” she told the newspaper The Scotsman in 2000. “I’m very optimistic. About the world. About people. I believe the majority of people are good.”
Though Ms. Sereny chose to spend her professional life steeped in evil, she said that her calling had little effect on her own temperament.
I’ve got a copy of Into That Darkness on order.
Then there was Ken Johnson’s essay on LeRoy Neiman. Why, or in what way, was Neiman a “bad artist”? What does that mean? And how come the art world has no widely-respected figures comparable to Wes Anderson in film and Richard Ford in literature? Johnson puts his finger on it: “But there was nothing in his work to upset the couch potato’s televisual worldview.” But why is it important for fine artists to disturb viewers? Contemporary art has a commitment to discomfort that I expect will be seen as somewhat perverse by future generations, much like the Mannerist penchant for masculine bodies with notional female breasts. I don’t care much for LeRoy Neiman’s subject matter, but (much to my shame) I consistently found his pictures exhilarating.
The long story about Sandy Springs, Georgia, couldn’t have been more timely — for me. I’ve made an almost everyday habit of querying the business organizations around me and asking, why can’t they be not-for-profit? In what way do investors improve the way a given operation runs? Well, they’re the source of cash, obviously, but what do they contribute beyond that? Not much that I can see. A one-time grant might serve just as well. The grant might come from the government, or it might come from a philanthropist, but, either way, the undertaking — an apartment house, a movie theatre, a dry-cleaner, a grocery store — could thereupon go about its business without any distractions from its core objectives of providing services at prices that brought in sustaining revenues. There would be no need to grow. The original grant might be repaid over time, like bond debt, and then retired forever.
The same goes for many “governmental” functions, and the Sandy Springs story underlines the other improvement that I have in mind, which is that business operations — especially those the provide fundamental services such as power and water supply and waste disposal — ought to be run by people who have been educated to run them. The outfits that provide Sandy Springs with its outsourced services may or may not be any good at what they’re doing; I’m not as willing as Georgians are to trust the free market to maintain quality. I don’t like those pesky investors lurking in the background, with their itch to maximize profits. And I don’t know anything about the people who are doing the work. How have they been trained? The more I consider the matter, the more clearly I see the enormously stabilizing insitution most hated by modern economics: the guild. The more attractive price-fixing becomes.
In any case, you can see that I did not draw the usual conclusions from the Sandy Springs story.
I even read Thomas Friedman’s column, something that I never do. “The Rise of Popularism” is, for the most part, the usual huffenpuff about abstractions. Friedman doesn’t even run with the story that ought to have popped out at him when he typed the words, “generational shift.” That’s probably because, as one of the Baby Boomers whose wastrel ways he decries, he doesn’t care to consider generational shifts that might succeed him. Instead of lamenting the absence of truth-telling leaders in his own generation, he ought to have exhorted those who have grown up with all the new modcons, those who have never known a world without keyboards, screens, and touchpads, to consider the practical merits of candor and honesty in a deeply connected world.
Finally: Tek Young Lin, a highly-esteemed, retired English teacher and cross-country coach at Horace Mann, about whom ”whispers” arose in the wake of the newspaper’s recent account of long-ago sexual predation at the school. “In those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong,” Mr Lin now remarks. Breathtaking, no? No denial, no regret. It appears that Mr Lin never forced himself on any student (whatever that means), and that while at least one student may have been scarred by his preliminary advances, no one who consented to have sex with him (if we can allow that to be said for the moment) regretted it. These factors purify the object lesson, because even without the abuse of power that’s surely the most revolting feature of sexual predation, Mr Lin’s conduct remains objectionable.
“In those days,” of course, any kind of homosexual contact was very wrong indeed, by most accounts. It can only have seemed otherwise in the elite atmosphere that Mr Lin breathed — an atmosphere that would shortly bring about a revolution in our judgments about other people’s carnality. A great many things that were forbidden then are tolerated now, and not just tolerated, but formally overlooked, as of no account. But one taboo has taken clear and definite shape, as if drawing into itself all the power shed by abandoned proscriptions. That is the ban on pedophile sex, a ban that takes on an even sharper point where those charged with the upbringing of children violate it.
Tek Young Lin is no longer one of those so charaged; he has been retired for over twenty-five years. It seems that he won’t be prosecuted for his “indiscretions,” and I’m comfortable with that, because the gift of Mr Lin’s story is the insight that it gives into the nature of history itself, and of how things change. What he did was never all right, but the nature of its being not all right has changed. The only thing that would have improved the irony of the story would have been Mr Lin’s teaching history.