Gotham Diary:
Swan Songs
10 July 2012

What will it be like when the day no longer begins with fishing up the Times from the floor of the hallway outside our front door? I wondered about that yesterday morning as I looked through the Business section. (That’s how I begin, giving Kathleen first crack at the First Section.) There was a piece by David Carr on the latest mudslides in the newspaper business. The bottom line appears to be that newspapers have been as badly run as most American industries, and suffer from underfunded pension plans and scary debt service. (Close those goddam business schools before the country goes completely broke!) The peculiar problems of print journalism — competition from Internet media both for readers and for advertising dollars — don’t help, but one imagines that, without those generic business problems in the background, solutions might be more hopeful.

What will take the place of what is now called the “Sunday Review,” the weekly think pages of the newspaper, replete with editorials Op-Ed commentary? That’s what I used to wonder. This weekend, I felt that the replacement had arrived: thinking was giving way to nonsense. The lead story, ”Don’t Indulge. Be Happy,” begins with a subtitle announcing that $75,000 is all the income that most people need to be satisfied with life. When you follow this piece into the heart of the section, two other equally dubious items appear: “The New Elitists” and “Why Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals.”

While the “Happiness” piece is loaded with tidbits of good sense, the $75,000 figure looks very odd in a periodical aimed principally at upscale Manhattanites, most of whom would have to find somewhere else to live on a five-figure income, abandoning, in the process, the restaurants and dry cleaners and health clubs and food markets that currently employ thousands of people to serve the neighborhood, not to mention museum memberships and theatre subscriptions. I’m not saying that happiness can’t be found on $75,000. Not at all. I’m just saying that the mass search for it would kill Manhattan. When I see a story like this one, I imagine writers and researchers who either have not or would not care to share the excitement of living on this island; I suppose that we are lucky, here, that more people don’t. What beggars belief is seeing the story printed in the Times, and not in the Styles Section where it belongs, but in the Sunday Review.

Shamus Khan’s essay on “elitists” reads like something sourced by Wikipedia and a content farm, with perhaps some hasty review of university-level history texts. It is hugely wrong on one major point, failing as it does to recognize that audiences for the city’s vibrant classical-music establishment were nurtured more by the public schools, which used to make a much greater use of the city’s artistic resources, than by any socialite philanthropists. (It’s worth noting that those public schools also transported generations of students from low-income backgrounds to six-figure careers — miserable wretches!) Khan falls for a widespread solecism about culture: that it is always “popular” and that people find what they like on their own. This is a picture of the arts in which education has no role — a very convenient premise for conservatives who wish to reduce education to vocational school. Printing such stuff is a disgrace to the Times.

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By the time I got to the rubbish about conservatives and liberals — no wonder conservatives dislike paying taxes, if they’ve found happiness on $75,000! — I had run out of indignation. I didn’t have to read the piece to be shocked; the byline took care of that. Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute! To grasp the utlity and reliability of such a person’s remarks on this issue, I ask you to imagine my devoting the rest of this week’s blog entries to the Greatness of Me. I will tell you how super I am, and I will back it up with findings from studies that I have personally conducted. I have never met a happy conservative man in my life. Smug and anxiously sarcastic, yes. Happy, no. (It’s like a bad cologne.) There are many conservative women, right here on this island, who maintain an appearance of happiness, but it depends too much upon disciplined disregard for the happiness of others, not to mention colorists’ fees that would easily gobble up a quarter of that $75,000, to strike me as genuine.  

One thing that the “Happiness” piece got right: Happiness and generosity — open-heartedness — are constant companions.