Gotham Diary:
November 2016 (II)

7, 9, and 11 November

Monday 7th

At breakfast yesterday, I remarked that nothing could bring me to read another word of Maureen Dowd. It was more a fulmination than a remark, really, and I was surprised when Kathleen asked me why. Surprised that she would. Surprised that, at first, I couldn’t say. It took a minute or so to reflect that Dowd’s manner of speaking has become intolerable. It’s not her views, whatever those might be — it’s hard for me to tell, which is no small part of my disgust. It’s her everlasting cleverness, and the shallowness to which its relentlessness confines her. There’s her unresolved ambivalence about politics considered as a game: she knows that there’s much more at stake than simple wins and losses, and that scoring points can be pointless, but she admires the pros who play the game well. There is her more explicit resentment of people getting above themselves, as well as her anger with those at the top who commit sins of sloppiness. These are both, basically, high-school concerns, motivated by the adolescent need for a consensus of style, masquerading as moral judgments.

All I said to Kathleen was, “It’s her abuse of language.” I’d gotten the notion of language abuse from John Lanchester, who in the Magazine inaugurated a series of essays about finance and the economy by lambasting money men for conversing in a jargon that laymen, particularly uneducated laymen, cannot understand.

Banks and the financial elite can’t just talk to each other as if nothing has changed, as if the little people are just going to accept that they can’t follow the big words, so the rich should just keep running things in their own interest. The experts need to set terms for the debate that everyone can understand. So yes, when it comes to economics, language matters.

Lanchester is concerned with reading levels: texts can be scored according to various metrics, and in order to reach a general audience without taxing it, you must, apparently, aim no higher than a tenth-grade reading level. “Private sector banking output,” it seems, requires a twelfth-grade reading level, and while that may be necessary for the banking industry to function efficiently, just as the sciences tend to require very high levels of proficiency in mathematics, it is unacceptable for civic discourse. Lanchester reminds us that Richard Feynman was able to explain many abstruse concepts in modern physics at the eighth-grade level. If bankers won’t do it, then journalists must step in, as indeed Lanchester himself has done. John Lanchester is the go-to writer for understanding money today. I’m not sure that his fantastic pieces for the London Review of Books aren’t rather more demanding than his piece in the Times Magazine (which he ranks at a grade 9.6 level), but financial patois has become so hermetic that it needs to be simplified even for those of us with sixteenth-grade skills and more.

But reading levels have not been a political issue in this election campaign. Sure, Donald Trump has pitched his talk to sixth-graders of all ages. Hillary Clinton’s resistance to frank apology, however, is a different kind of language problem. And so is the hypocrisy of columnists who attack her for it. In case you smell a whiff of misogyny in my complaint about Dowd, I can say that I have a corresponding objection to Thomas Friedman’s irritatingly jockular manner [sic!]. My dislike of Friedman’s arrogant exaggerations, of his simplistic divisions of the herd into those who get it and those who don’t, is actually so intense that I almost always give his byline a pass. I’m more naturally attracted to Maureen Dowd’s wit. But I’ve become terminally discouraged by her persistent undermining. If I were to characterize Dowd with an offensive stereotype, it wouldn’t be misogynistic but cultural: she’s so Irish-American.

(To which I cannot quite add that I’m Irish-American, too. All I can say is that I’m not anything else.)


When I was in college, I wanted to write a book that would be titled The Age of Cool. In it, I would describe the toxic side-effects of cool, the necrotic tendency of the minimalist aesthetic that underpins it. I would capture the numbness and the enervating fastidiousness of what had yet to be called hipsters. But I’d have my cake and eat it, too, because there would be at least one character, ideally a plausible version of myself, who was so innately cool that no pruning would be required. He would rarely talk, but whatever he did say would be wise and vital. The main difficulty with this teen-aged fantasy was that I could never make up my mind about the roles of nature and nurture. If my hero was naturally cool, that would imply a certain regrettable, or at least uninspiring lack of effort. Nurture, however, would clearly take too long to bear fruit, and, besides, it would entail a polluting degree of self-consciousness. This was a very Sixties issue. We wanted to believe that excellence could be easily achieved once the correct attitudes were adopted. Baby-boomers have had a hard time letting go of that wishfulness.

We believed, for example, that racism could be eliminated by legislative fiat. We confused sanctions against certain official kinds of racial discrimination with a massive change of heart. It isn’t so much that we were wrong as that we didn’t bother to check. We just assumed that new laws would make a new society. No wonder so many of us were vulnerable to the infections of Theory, according to which the approved analytical terminology was both all-powerful and wholly artificial.

Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius insisted upon something that in the first English translation of his Analects was called “the rectification of names.” The Chinese is simpler, zheng ming, or “right names.” Call a spade a spade. Confucius was not discussing mere usage. Had Confucius’s advice been taken, a would-be prince would have been retitled a usurper — an illegitimate ruler. Whether or not it was politically viable to enforce this formal demotion — it wasn’t — Confucius claimed that civil order depended on it. He had no idea of “mere usage.” I don’t think that we can attempt to imitate such rigorous nominalism today. (In the West, nominalism has usually been projected onto imaginary or metaphysical spheres). Our affairs require a great deal of supple flexibility. But the kernel of Confucius’s verbal hygiene is indispensable, and we must carry it with us at all times. It is regrettable to temper one’s speech to facts on the ground. However necessary, it is never okay. We must always struggle to avoid or at least to confine it.

“Racism” — what is it? Specifically, what is it in the United States, between European-Americans and African-Americans? Is it discrimination on the basis of skin color? Somewhat, perhaps. I don’t think that skin color would be significant in the absence of other features that it is impolite to discuss, of resemblances to other species that ought to be unthinkable, of manners evolved in circumstances of acute involuntary degradation. “Skin color” is a euphemism. The first step toward true reconciliation is the truth: come to terms (literally) with the fact that humanity assumes many features — without ceasing to be humanity. We are all the same, and all different, and the feeling that some people are more the same as we are and less different is a powerful and perhaps essential emotional convenience but nothing more than that. It is always wrong to believe that this convenience reflects humane reality. We must keep the names straight.


Wednesday 9th

May we hope, at least, that this is the End of the Clintons? Not even that, perhaps.

I did not sit up into the early hours, waiting for the bad news to be confirmed. I got into bed because Kathleen was having trouble falling asleep, and then wouldn’t you know I fell asleep. The last time I looked, though, the Electoral map looked a lot like the speculative one that circulated a few weeks ago — it even popped up in a New Yorker cartoon — showing which states Trump would win if only men voted. My gut feeling throughout the election has been that Hillary Clinton was not the right choice for a first attempt at piercing the ultimate glass ceiling. Trump supporters made a lot of outrageously unlikely predictions about the terrible things that would befall the country if Clinton occupied the Oval Office, but the outrageousness itself was telltale: they were talking about a witch. They talked as though Hillary and the Democratic Party were the same thing — as if Hillary were a body snatcher. And I was never surprised that they did.

I’m trying to puzzle out this gut feeling, that Hillary Clinton was far more “unelectable” than Donald Trump. The simplest way to put it, I suppose, is that I felt, however irrationally, that Clinton would need to win two-thirds of the popular vote in order to win at all. She could be carried into office only by the most massive landslide in history. But it seemed unlikely that she would ever rouse any such phenomenon. This was implicit in the seriousness with which her e-mail imbroglios were taken. The issue was nonsense, but the actual black magic of Hillary converted what ought to have been a venial sin into a mortal one. It was the same with her “basket of deplorables.” It took no time at all for deplorable to become a badge of honor: Deplorable Lives Matter. To be a contender against Donald Trump, a woman running for the White House ought to have wielded deplorable like Thor’s hammer, thundering relentlessly. But instead she backtracked, as if it were rude to point out her opponent’s unelectability. Trump took care of his unelectability all by himself, but he made sure to saddle her with even more.


I’ve already read one blog post that seeks to comfort those of us who are dismayed by the prospect of a Trump presidency. I want to keep things in proportion, too, but I can’t quite manage to argue that the country has survived worse disasters than Donald Trump, and the fact that many Americans don’t see him as a disaster at all is even more upsetting. It is in fact the problem. Tim Urban is wise, but too youthful, I think, to worry seriously about a civil war. Regular readers will at the very least suspect that I not only worry about civil war but fear that it is inevitable. Instead of rattling on about that, though, I want to share a tangential distraction that I have found more than a little beguiling.

If you look at the five centuries preceding the present one, you will find, in the second decade of each, a disruption or sea change that’s conspicuously lacking in the first. It’s as though it took fifteen years or so for the old century to run out of steam, or for the new one to get a sense of itself. George Dangerfield writes hauntingly about noticing changes in style and attitude in the early part of 1914, long before whispers of the war to come. In any case, the war did come. In 1815, a long war came to an end. In 1715, not only did a long war end but Louis XIV died, taking with him the gravitational system with which he personally governed France. In 1618, there began a long war that was comparable in horror and length to the two-part catastrophe of the Twentieth Century. And 1517, Martin Luther posted his complaints about papal indulgences.

If I feel that an era is coming to an end now, it’s probably because I’m feeling old; whatever objections I have to the way things were is outweighed by comfort and familiarity. I’m in no mood to learn new tricks; I wasn’t all that good at learning the old ones. New can be great, new can be terrible. But I felt, for most of yesterday, as if I had already died, and were just going through motions. At the polling station, Kathleen and I took turns filling out our ballots while waiting on a longish line for the scanner. Then an official offered us the chance, as seniors, to go to the head of the line. People ahead of us in line actually encouraged this! So we took the offer, sheepishly in my case.

We needn’t have voted. New York State was solidly blue, with almost 59% of votes going to Clinton. That gave a certain more-the-merrier feeling to taking the trouble. It was a beautiful day, but that only reminded me of the terrible thing that happened here on another beautiful fall day. I felt, as I did on and after 9/11, that we were badly out of gear, connected but tearing apart.

On the one hand, something that made me sick with worry has happened, so I needn’t be sick with worry anymore. Instead — ?


Friday 11th

What worries me most is the prospective administration’s bent for authoritarian policies. How insistent will this be? And what, if any, opposition will it meet with in Washington, where everything will soon be in Republican Party control? Because they can would be worrisome enough, but dictatorish witch-hunts will certainly be tempting if the material policies, such as trade, jobs, and immigration, run into more intractable resistance than Trump’s supporters seem to think possible.

It ought to be no news that Republicans have achieved a victory for which they have worked long and hard. Whether they will enjoy this victory is another matter: they may have won it only to pass it on to the alt-right. The Republican strategy was to exploit control of statehouses to determine national outcomes. This may have been made easier by their opponents’ attitudes. Liberals and progressives and everybody else who would be horrified by what has happened tended to view statehouses with something like contempt. I am sure that you would not have to scratch the hides of Hillary voters very deep to discover the conviction that states themselves are anachronisms. Certainly the actual American states no longer correspond to social reality. This, I think, is our most serious problem: how to replace outgrown borders. It is a problem that we share with other parts of the world; arguably, it is everyone’s biggest problem right now, in view of planetary degradation.

It is also pretty clear that Americans to the left of the Republican Party have complacently believed that their worldview sells itself. Who could possibly oppose something as enlightened as same-sex marriage? We may well find out who: what the Supreme Court giveth, it can take away. Probably because I’m an old man, I’ve felt that social liberalization has proceeded far too quickly. Certainly it has proceeded without sufficient account taken of resistance, for resistance has been slapped with the label of bigotry. It may have been wiser to allow small businesses involved in what we might call intimate issues to decline to participate in rites that their owners regarded as unconscionable. Liberals seem not to have learned, from the Soviet example, how obstinate people can be about changing their minds.

So, while Republican operatives were working overtime to tweak every little advantage, the rest of us were basking in the tanning beds of self-congratulation. We elected a black president! In a book reviewed in today’s Times, Wesley Lowery notes the persistence of Ferguson-style shootings during the Obama Administration. Dwight Garner:

Mr. Lowery’s book is valuable for many reasons. He circles slowly and warily around the question of why, during Barack Obama’s presidency, so little has seemed to improve on the racial front.

“The headlines of the Obama years often seemed a yearbook of black death,” he writes, “raising a morbid and depressing quandary for black men and women: Why had the promise and potential of such a transformative presidency not yet reached down to the lives of those who elected him? Even the historic Obama presidency could not suspend the injunction that playing by the rules wasn’t enough to keep you safe. What protection was offered by a black presidency when, as James Baldwin once wrote, the world is white, and we are black?”

What if the black man in the White House made things worse for black men everywhere else — just by being where he was?

If I thought that the Supreme Court to which Donald Trump is going to subject us would be inclined to make its overriding maxim Justice Brandeis’s dictum about states as the laboratories of democracy, I’d breathe a lot easier. Unfortunately, it was the liberals who turned their back on that idea, when, in pursuit of equal civil rights for all Americans, they tarred the idea of states’ rights with contempt. Am I trying to say that the campaign for civil rights in the Sixties was a regrettable mistake? No, I am not. But I am saying that a program that was inspired primarily by Cold War optics, far more than by any new-found concern for justice, was bound to have unwanted side-effects. And it made the Democratic Party untrustworthy at its core. That problem has never been reformed; at this point, nothing short of liquidation could cure it.

Who are we, anyway? And what do we really want? I hope that it’s more than just feeling good about things.

Bon week-end à tous!