Gotham Diary:
Epistocracy
November 2016 (I)

31 October; 1 and 4 November

Monday 31st

Adam Mars-Jones, I see, has been mentioned twice in this space, both times in 2015. Once was for his favorable review of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and earlier, for his unfavorable review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There’s an interesting complementarity here: the British reviewer likes the American novel, but not his own countryman’s. I happened to like Clegg’s novel quite a lot, but on the whole I reverse Mars-Jones’s preferences. When Mars-Jones quoted an extract from Philip Roth in a recent review of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, and insisted on the superiority of the former, I was so choked with irritation that I went out and bought Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father, Mars-Jones’s memoir of his difficult dad.

Adam Mars-Jones writes frequently for the London Review of Books, and I almost always read his pieces. I almost always disagree with them, not so much with their judgments about particular books as with their implicit premises. We are not on the same page. We don’t agree about what’s important. Nevertheless I read him, because he writes very well, and so clearly about his obvious wrong-headedness that I am always stimulated. His tone suggests to me that he is happy to be writing from outside the cultural barbican, dressed in the motley of a caustic literary bohemian. Just say the word canon and he’ll shoot. In the memoir, he mentions that he has never got round to reading Daniel Martin or The Ambassadors. No problem! I cannot tell if the nearly seven years that separate us in age makes us contemporaries or not contemporaries, but I suppose that, from the standpoint of a thirtysomething, two men in their sixties are contemporaries.

You can learn a lot from articulate writers who think differently. Actually, I’m learning a lot from everything that I read these days; it’s as though Providence were supplying me with just the books that will help me to clarify the thinking behind the conclusion of my writing project. I’ve read that that happens: when you’re hot, everything is relevant. But from Mars-Jones, I learned something rather central: that I am pious, and always have been, about the experiment of civilization. “Piety” was the word that I had been looking for to describe the quality that I think makes me unusual. I’m no more pious in the traditional sense than anybody else these days; I have never respected my elders per se and I am not an obedient observer of the standards to which I was raised. Certainly not! But it would be wrong to say that I have done the usual thing and rebelled. Nor am I a straightforward reactionary. But before I was out of my teens, whether I knew it or not, I felt passionately protective about the fragile connections that allow us at our best to overcome rage and the itch to do violence.

This train of thought began when Mars-Jones mentioned, early in the book, his lack of interest in history. He claims that he can’t remember dates. I don’t want to read too much into what might have been intended as a light, perhaps self-mocking comment, but I find that when people associate history with dates they are saying that they have never heard history’s stories. When a history story has been well-told, the dates are as memorable as the names — they are names. Instead of “Liverpool,” the Titanic might just as well have had “1912″ painted on its stern. In any case, dates are not the point of history; they’re just an excuse for people who believe that the past is dead baggage. (“The past” may be defined as time of which no one has a direct or indirect memory. Rosemary Hill, again in the LRB, has a memory of dancing with Steven Runciman, who in turn, as a child, danced with a lady who had danced with Prince Albert. “The past” has swallowed up the prince but not the lady.) It’s an axiom of my piety that people who regard the past as a pointless burden are also natural anarchists. Before I quite saw that I was pious, I understood that Adam Mars-Jones is impious, and probably wouldn’t mind my or anyone else’s saying so.

Another thing that I learned from Kid Gloves is that am deeply bigoted — about handedness. I had been sputtering through the book’s pages when the author mentioned in passing — I can’t find it — that he was left-handed. “There!” I said to myself. “That explains everything.” Even though I was talking to myself, I was shocked by what I had just said. I was shocked to note that I hadn’t really been joking. I hadn’t been joking to the extent that I really did — really do, it seems — believe that it was better to be right-handed than not. And it was obvious as well that this belief was a bit of unexamined bigotry.

There are studies showing that left-handed people have shorter life spans, aren’t there? But forget that, along with all the quotidian difficulties; there is nothing practical about my prejudice. Even thought I’ve never given the matter much “thought,” I clearly recall feeling relief when it became clear that neither my daughter nor my grandson was of the sinister persuasion. That’s what makes it bigotry: my preference was unconsidered. It’s not that I think that there’s anything wrong about being left-handed. It’s just that being right-handed is, well, right.

Oh, dear. Kid Gloves was just like Mars-Jones’s LRB pieces in that it was easy to follow but hard to understand. There are no chapters, and the narrative line is often obscure; this is a book of tangents. Once it occurred to me that Tristram Shandy might have been a model, I felt less impatient. Despite not finding Mars-Jones particularly simpatico, I was always, always on his side whenever life with father was contentious. I was repelled by Sir William. If nothing else, he seemed to be a prime instance of the weakness of the English legal system for translating successful barristers — partisan advocates — into positions of impartial magistracy, where, by the way, they make less money. I thought he had no business being on the bench. A good deal of the story’s point owes to accidents of time, to different generational experiences to which Sir William was probably more responsive for being a self-made man.

Certainly it was this self-made quality that explains the man’s ardent homophobia, which Mars-Jones presents in lush detail. And yet, how ardent could it have been? In the wake of the “sexuality summit” in which the son came out to his father, there was no rage, no banishment, no disinheritance. There was instead the beginning of an attempt to accept, sour and insincere at first, and never entirely satisfactory — Sir William could never manage to remember the name of Mars-Jones’s partner — but genuine enough in the end. At the same time, I wondered if his story was best told by his son, a man with a constitution almost alien to Sir William’s.

***

Tuesday 1st

It’s a commonplace that the United States’s body politic is polarized. But I wonder. If only white men voted, Donald Trump would carry every state, or so they say. If only people of color voted, Hillary Clinton would do the same. Women and voters with college educations are divided, but I suspect that polarized is not the word for them. It’s white men against non-white people, a very old American story, with the modern twist that the non-white people get to vote. White men have landed in a peculiar situation. They have been unable to propose a truly presentable candidate — a Dwight Eisenhower, say. Somehow, they have wound up backing a clown. Does this say something about white men? It would be pretty to think so. But I think it’s the result of blown fuses, brains shut down by the prospect of a woman installed in the White House by non-white voters. Nothing in the care, feeding, or training of white men has prepared them for that. Is it their fault that the United States so glaringly lacks true military heroes? Officer class, I mean. Maybe white men ought to get better at winning wars. That’s what they say they’re good at.

I’m a white man, and like many people who are going to vote for Donald Trump — that came out wrong. I am not going to vote for Donald Trump. But I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton mostly because I’m thinking about the Supreme Court. That has become a habit over the years. I’m beginning to question it, though. The scandal of Barack Obama’s inability to replace Antonin Scalia is arguably the most disturbing sign of constitutional breakdown since the Alien & Sedition Act. What if Hillary fares no better? And what if she succeeds at tilting the Court to the left? What happens when gerrymandered congressional districts are declared unconstitutional and half the House (at least) is sent packing? An undesirable scenario, however mouthwatering.

Without that gerrymandering, however, it just might happen that white men would not carry every state for Trump. The real polarization is among white men.

This just in: According to a reliable source (Andy Borowitz), Elizabeth Windsor (not Edith) has launched a write-in campaign.

***

Friday 4th

My mother, who died thirty-nine, nearly forty years ago, would have been ninety-eight today. For a moment, I made a plan to call my daughter, to wish her a happy birthday. But my daughter’s birthday falls next Friday, not this one. My mother was born on False Armistice Day — the end of the fighting in World War I was announced, but the announcement was premature. My daughter was born on the fifty-fourth anniversary of the actual Armistice, which occurred a week later.

It was only recently, certainly not earlier than reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers a few years ago, that I woke up to what Armistice really meant. It meant, at least on 11 November 1918, that nobody won the war, and that nobody lost it. The two sides simply agreed to stop fighting. How this neutral-sounding situation led to a conference in which self-styled “victorious allies” refused a seat at the table to the Germans seems no less worthy of attention than the “July Crisis,” the shambolic and cavalier shuffle of military and diplomatic cloak and dagger that resulted in something even more appalling than the Republican nomination of Donald Trump. The peace treaties that emerged in the wake of the Great War were punitive and wrong-headed; some of its terrible consequences were dealt with in the next war, while others (in the Middle East particularly) remain to be rectified.

The allies — represented by Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau — believed that an invincible tide of progressive thinking would support the peace that they imposed on the defeated powers, two of which had obliged by collapsing from within. The egregiously harsh terms in which they dealt with the third, Turkey, were so unrealistic that a wave of optimistic Greek colonists, settling in territories made available to them by the treaty, was quite quickly repulsed, with great loss of life. We can now clearly see how many conflicts engendered by Versailles and its satellite treaties were preserved in states of suspended animation during the Cold War, only to take on new life once Russia discarded the cause of International Communism. The war in Syria is both a consequence of the treaties and a Cold-War leftover.

In writing the foregoing, I checked only one reference: I couldn’t remember Clemenceau’s first name, although it came to me before the Wikipedia page opened. I don’t think that I’ve said anything novel or penetrating; I was just calling for a nice, chewy book, to balance Clark’s, on the immediate aftermath of the War. If you, my dear reader, happen not to be sufficiently conversant with the Great War, its origins and its aftermath to write such paragraphs off the top of your head, then I should still suppose that nothing that I’ve written surprises you; I should like to think that it has refreshed your memory. But while I am writing and you are reading, there is another body politic out there.

Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.

This is Caleb Crain writing in The New Yorker. I think that we can set aside any idea that these ignorant Americans are stupid, somehow incapable of grasping basic facts. It would seem, rather, that there is no downside to their ignorance, no penalty. The reward for knowledge is always the knowledge itself, obviously, but, to be honest, it takes a lot of learning to appreciate the reward. And if ignorance is a bad thing, it does not seem to hurt the ignorant, not in any way that they are likely to understand. Ignorance always, always rests on the assumption that somebody else will figure things out, which is tantamount to an assumption that somebody else is in charge.

As many critics of our particular democratic arrangements have complained, too much emphasis is placed on voting, and on the campaigns that precede them. Every so often, the man in the street is invited to cast his vote by an angelic choir that urges him to give the matter some thought. It’s hard to believe that anyone in media-saturated America can ever, for five minutes, be unaware of the national political scene, but the quality of general awareness may be difficult for educated observers to assess. How well voters understand the consequences of voting is also obscure. I should expect that most Americans would agree that voting for president is “more important” than voting for American Idol, but what would we find if we unpacked that greater importance?

Some would say that we need smarter voters. Some would say that we need fewer voters. This is the nub of arguments in favor of “epistocracy” — rule by the knowledgeable — that Crain was considering in his New Yorker review. I would say that we need more neighborly voters — voters who know what’s going on locally because their lives are directly impacted by it. And these good neighbors will need more than self-interest seasoned by good will. They will need to understand the long-term consequences of current decisions, at least as well as anyone can. There’s nothing like long-term consequences to dampen the drama.

Bon week-end à tous!