The Wages of Disrespect
3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 17, 18, 24, 26, 27 and 31 January
It’s hard to resist the notion that, once we have set forth from this quiet cove between New Year’s Day and the Inauguration, we will being to wonder, what were we expecting? What did we think would happen? It’s for that very reason that I’m trying not to think. And I’ve got a fantastic distraction right at my feet.
After seven years of tohu-bohu, our fairy godmother not only got the new subway working but also swept away almost all the evidence of construction and confusion. The four corners at the intersection of 86th Street and Second Avenue are equally paved, curbed, and serviceable. There is nothing noteworthy about them except the dim certainty that they were never as nice as they are now, if a corner can be nice. There are no fenced-off areas, no portable potties, no lengths of pipe or wire, and no workmen. There is a new bike lane, complete with its own stoplights, that finally makes sense of the uptown bike lane that was installed on First Avenue a few years ago. The crosswalks are uniformly perpendicular. Vehicular traffic crosses the intersection without the guidance of traffic agents. People do the same, bundled up for the cold. Then some of the people step under the glass roofs of the escalator kiosks and descend to the new subway station.
One escalator takes you down about three storeys to a triangular area, from which another, longer escalator leads to the mezzanine of the station, which is where the turnstiles are. There is art, by Chuck Close, on the walls, but we didn’t pay much attention to that. I’d known it would be there, and Kathleen thought it was advertising something. We were there for the ride. I took out my Metro Card and swiped it for Kathleen. Once she was through, I realized that there wasn’t enough money on the card for me to follow her, so she had to wait while I crossed the mezzanine to fix that. Together again, we walked along to the stairs. There are escalators climbing up to the mezzanine from the station platform, but stairs for going down. We waited for a downtown train. An uptown train was being held in the station. At first, I thought that they must be having first-day problems up at 96th Street, where the Q line now ends, but later I wondered if the trouble wasn’t at 63rd Street. A downtown train pulled in, and we boarded it. As it pulled out, so did the uptown train.
The ride was very smooth. In the tunnel, I noticed a parapet or walkway alongside the train, a continuation of the platform that ran the length of the distance between stations. How civilized! It was all rather like one of those pretend subways that they have at airports. After what felt like the right amount of time, we arrived at 72nd Street. When we got off the train, we ought to have taken the escalator up to the mezzanine to look at the art there, but that didn’t occur to us. We crossed the platform and boarded an uptown train that, just like the one at 86th Street, was being held in the station. We stood there about five minutes before the doors closed.
And then the train crept to 86th Street, almost coming to a stop at two points. Now that I am an old man, I very much dislike it when trains stop between stations. Only steady motion keeps the presentiment of disaster at bay. I did what I could to will it into the 86th Street station, and at last we got there. We got off the train and rode up all the escalators, this time debouching from the other kiosk — there’s one to either side of our building’s U-shaped driveway. While we were underground, night had fallen.
It was when we got home that I freaked out. Slowly, quietly, meltingly really; but, nevertheless: what the hell was that? And here’s what the hell that was: vast dunes of metaphorical sand sweeping over and obliterating a sense of the neighborhood that I have lived with for more than thirty-five years. I will soon forget the need to walk uphill to Lexington Avenue to catch the nearest train. I may never again make the transfer, at 57th Street/Lexington Avenue, from the IRT to the BMT, in order to get to Carnegie Hall or the theatre district. And I will also forget, indeed have already forgotten, what it has been like to live at this intersection for the past seven years. (AWFUL!) For a while, I’ll step outside the building and sigh, This is nice. Then even that will stop, and I will begin to live in a neighborhood that newcomers will find it difficult to imagine ever having been otherwise.
Eventually, I will take the Q to go somewhere, and, when I do, I’ll hold my breath on either side of the 63rd Street station. That is where the F and Q lines effectively cross, sharing the track near and through the station. It’s an unusual configuration for New York transit. I hope it won’t prove to be too interesting.
In today’s Times, Robert Leonard, a journalist from Iowa, quotes a Baptist pastor on a point of difference.
“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that.”
To the extent that this is true, I am neither a Republican nor Democrat. I don’t see people as fundamentally good or bad. It seems witless and simpleminded to do either. I see people as fundamentally human, which is to say conflicted — some more, some much more, than others. And I regard human society, not faith in the supernatural, as the means of settling and soothing conflict, whether institutionally, as in a court of law, or informally, as by doing someone a good turn. Alone, we are nothing, devoid of interest. Alone with God is still alone.
Who died and made that Baptist an authority?
Although I bought a clutch of books by Alan Bennett a few months ago, I’ve been reading one that I’ve had for nearly ten years, Untold Stories, and for the first time. I’ve even begun with the title piece, right at the beginning. “Untold Stories” is a family memoir focused on Bennett’s parents and his mother’s two sisters, with the ghost of his suicide grandfather loitering in the background. Also hovering, Bennett’s BBC films, A Visit from Mrs Prothero, Our Winnie, and A Day Out. “Every family has a secret and the secret is that it’s not like other families.” This is not quite true; there are families whose secret it is is that they are not as fantastic as they think they are, but you could argue that the secret in that case is simply an immodest inversion of Bennett’s. The line is in any case a fine example of Bennett’s dry but redeeming humor.
The latest intalment of his diary in the new LRB aside, Bennett was brought to mind by the reading of four or five novels by Barbara Pym, whose voice is also dry but redeeming. Inevitably, I wondered what Bennett thought of Pym, if at anything at all. The index of Untold Stories bears a single reference, to page 78, which lies in the final third of “Untold Stories.” Bennett is writing about his Aunty Myra’s widowhood.
Myra lives in a succession of briefly rented rooms, first in Midhurst, then Uxbridge and finally at West Malling in Kent. These comfortless accommodations and the meals that go with them — or rather don’t, as they seldom have cooking facilities, so have to be taken in cheap cafés serving spaghetti on toast or poached egg, tea and bread and butter — exude a particular sort of hopelessness quite separate from the sad circumstances which have brought her to them. Aunty Myra had too many sharp corners to be one of her characters, but they are setting of many of the novels of Barbara Pym, and one of the reasons I find her books quite lowering to read.
This is unfair and untrue. Aside from Quartet in Autumn — a lowering read, to be sure — there are no bedsits in the Pym novels that I’ve read. Mildred Lathbury, of Excellent Woman, has her own flat, while Dulcie Mainwaring, in No Fond Return of Love, has her own house, and it’s not a small one. It’s the vicarage, in Jane and Prudence, that features uninspiring food; the unmarried sisters in Some Tame Gazelle eat very well. The remark is unfair because seems inspired by the view of Barbara Pym that led a callow editor at Jonathan Cape to stop publishing her novels in 1963. It is easy to remember the action in Pym’s novels as taking place mainly in church basements, but one of the great pleasures of re-reading her is finding out how untrue this really is. And the satire, while muted, is sabre-sharp: Pym’s gallery of ridiculous men and the women who cosset them is as funny, once you’ve adjusted for volume, as PG Wodehouse. (What Bennett’s summation really attaches to is Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, where the boarding house is indeed too oppressive for comfort.) What Bennett and Pym share is disenchanted kindness. Unenthusiastic about the human condition, and quite heartlessly unsentimental behind their self-deprecating manner, they nevertheless leave one with a genuinely hopeful smile.
(I do wish that Bennett wouldn’t write “try and,” as in, “I must try and convince her.” This is a pointless barbarism. I notice that, while Richard J Evans avoids it in The Pursuit of Power, Ian Kershaw goes in for it in the succeeding volume of the Penguin History of Europe, To Hell and Back. This is just one of many little things that makes me prefer Evans, to the extent that I’m thinking of reading his “Reich Trilogy.”)
“Untold Stories” provoked more than a few laughing barks as I turned its pages last night, but one passage reduced me to helpless giggling. I had of course examined all the photographs before reading the book, and I’d wondered a little about the snapshot of “Jordy and Ossie,” with its reference to page 65. I didn’t turn to the reference for enlightenment, but noted with distaste that Ossie seemed to have deposited a pound of calf liver in his swimsuit. I had forgotten all about it when I came to page 64, which is where the explanation begins.
I am twelve when I first see [Aunty Myra's] albums, which duly take their place, along with other family relics, in the sitting-room dresser in which, while Grandma is dozing in the kitchen, I do my customary Saturday afternoon ‘rooting.’ One of the albums in particular fascinates me (and even today it falls open at the place): it has a photo, postcard size, of two Australian soldiers, “Jordy’ and ‘Ossie,’ standing in bush hats and bathing trunks against a background of palm trees. ‘Jordy’ is unremarkable, with a devious other-ranks sort of face. It’s ‘Ossie’ who draws the eye, better-looking, with his arms folded and smiling, and with some reason, as he is weighed down, almost over-balanced, by what, even in the less than skimpy bathing trunks of the time, is a dick of enormous proportions, the bathing costume in effect just a hammock in which is idling this colossal member. Underneath Aunty Myra has written, roguishly:
‘Yes, girls! It’s all real!’
I started laughing at “and with some reason,” and was bellowing when I got to the “hammock in which is idling…” The poise between hesitation and advance is a textbook example of brilliantly funny writing. This is not to say that everyone will find it hilarious, but only to point out that the funniness is entirely in the composition, without which Ossie’s member would be an enormous ew, as the photograph makes clear. The unforgettable note, of course, is the album’s tattle-tale way of falling open at the page with the postcard-sized picture. In the next piece in Untold Stories, “Written on the Body,” Bennett notes the hypocrisy of being prim and prurient at the same time. It is when Bennett exposes his own hypocrisy that he is often funniest.
Although, not entirely unrelated to hypocrisy, I wonder just how many meals of spaghetti on toast and poached egg &c Alan shared with his aunty. Receipts, please.
What I’d really like to do is to celebrate my sixty-ninth birthday by reading the rest of Michael Lewis’s irresistible new book, The Undoing Project. (I haven’t got much left to get through.) Having read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow when it came out, I’m familiar with the nuts and bolts that Lewis pulls out of his bag of poker chips, and that frees me to step back a bit, so that I can see the work that Kahneman did with Amos Tversky and others in the longer perspective of the Industrial Revolution, of which it is a very important part. Two questions spring forward: Why now? and Why so fascinating?
By the first question, I mean to suggest that the Israeli psychologists’ investigations into systematic miscalculation occurred when they did (roughly) for a reason. Off the top of my head, I’d trace it back to the Crash of 1929, which among other things made understanding the nature of human predictions more pressing than ever before. That there had never been anything like the Crash was also a product of the Industrial Revolution, which by the Twentieth Century had reached a third, and undreamed-of, phase. The first two phases had solved venerable problems of production and transportation. Power looms wove magic carpets of textile, and then the application of steam power to travel (and, somewhat later, of electric power to vast networks of wire) blasted away the stubbornness of distance. Ancient prayers were answered.
The third phase, in contrast, introduced a new figure, the consumer, and a new problem, supplying the mass of consumers. As in the earlier phases (maimed factory attendants, derailed locomotives), mistakes were made. By 1960, an American, Ward Edwards, was suggesting, as Lewis puts it, that “psychologists be invited, or perhaps invite themselves, to test both the assumptions and the predictions made by economists.” (102) At the end of that decade, Kahneman and Tversky were brought together by disagreement with Edwards’s theory that people are “conservative Bayesians.” The rest is heuristics.
The heuristics are the subject of the second question. They’re fascinating, Kahneman’s and Tversky’s findings, because they demonstrate that people are systematically mistaken when big numbers are involved. Not only are they wrong about probabilities, but they are predictably wrong. This erroneousness, too, is an effect of the Industrial Revolution. Before Kahneman and Tversky did their work, it was assumed that people who weren’t good at making predictions would face extinction, but of course the real problem is that people were making predictions of an altogether new kind, involving masses of instances which the human mind had not evolved to confront. There were no masses before the Nineteenth Century. Masses were the product of mass transportation, mass communication, and mass production, none of which existed before 1800. There was no need for probabilistic agility before there were masses. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that people apply predictive rules of thumb (or heuristics) that were developed for dealing with much smaller numbers. In the new dispensation, this exposes people to the risk (more of a certainty, really) that judgments will be extrapolated from inadequately small samples. Not only are mistakes made, but the same mistakes are made over and over.
You won’t find any of this Industrial Revolution background in Lewis, of course. Only crackpots like me are going to explore such tangents. Lewis has much more interesting material to work with in the harrowing narrative of Kahneman’s adolescence as a “rabbit” being hunted by Nazis in France. That is history enough. Still, I hope that, along with the Bayes for Dummies guides that are certain to proliferate, we see some serious academic or journalistic effort to apply the new learning about misjudgment to fields beyond the scientific and the economic. What I’m thinking of is the social problem of strangers. The plethora of strangers in modern life, at least in urban settings, presents us with countless opportunities to come to foolish conclusions. Politicians and planners have a lot to learn from our characteristic solecisms in their undertakings to foster positive social conventions, as do we all.
Kathleen had a Bar Association do last night, so I set up the ironing board and took care of the week’s repassage. To distract myself from the drudgery, I watched Spy, the Bond spoof that manages to be funny even about its faults. There is much to love about this movie, but with Robert Leonard’s Op-Ed piece still jangling in my mind, I found a very ugly moment. It’s the disco event in Budapest. A grand beaux-arts hall, monumentalizing human aspiration, is traduced by strobe lights, musical racket, and underdressed would-be teenagers. I not only understood but felt why conservative Iowans would regard urban hedonists as “loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.”
So often, these days, there is nothing to say. A context of long standing has been rejected; what remains is to see how much of it will be scrapped. For the moment, commentary seems premature.
Although I hoped to post an entry today, I could think of nothing to write about. After a tour of Facebook, however, it occurred to me to make a note of the discomfort occasioned by the enthusiasm with which friends and friends of friends have congratulated Meryl Streep for her remarks at the Golden Globe Awards presentation last night. I have not heard what Streep had to say — not yet. So nothing that follows is a criticism of her. I think it fair to infer, however, that she read the president-elect some sort of riot act, and that her attack was at least as personal as it was political. At least that is what I gather from my friends’ gleeful applause.
Nearly fifty years ago, I had a conversation with an underclassman at Notre Dame. This fellow and I were not friends, but our rooms on the top floor of an undesirable dormitory were not far apart. This neighbor of mine affected country ways, even wearing a cowboy hat, at a time when it could not have been less stylish to do so, even with irony. And this fellow was unironic in the extreme. I must have said something typically East-Coast arrogant, because he came at me, verbally, with something very close to boiling-over hatred. He promised me that his day would come.
Has it? I’ve thought about it ever since I woke up to the realization that Donald Trump was not only appealing to voters as a seasoned and successful entertainer but also holding out a lightning rod to energize his campaign with my old neighbor’s baneful resentment. At that moment, I stopped paying attention to the man and watched his supporters instead. I couldn’t say that they would stop at nothing to bring down what they perceived as a liberal tyranny, but it was obvious that they weren’t going to fool around with garden-variety Republicans; they were going to start with Donald Trump.
Maybe they didn’t really win the election. But they certainly came close enough to make the plausible, the electoral choice, with or without the help of Russians. I am almost relieved that the contest has been conceded to them, because the Republican candidate excited a great deal of ugliness. Now those of us who are unhappy about his victory have a choice to make.
When you must live with people who hate you because you have so tirelessly offended them — and make no mistake about that — you must, if violence is not an option, either learn to live apart or work hard to erase the hate. I like the living apart option; I’d be very happy with a constitution that permitted slightly different laws in the interior of the United States. But that arrangement is not on offer. I have to make myself more likeable. I certainly have to lose the contempt that radiates in everything that my body says and does.
In case you’re having trouble imagining what Trump supporters think about you, just ask a black American. Because what seems to have happened in the course of extending equal civil rights to the traditionally disenfranchised during the past half-century is that educated Americans have learned to treat their uneducated countrymen equally. For every handful of blacks allowed into the nation’s growing élite, thens of thousands of white Americans have been stripped of political respectability.
Now they’ve got it back.
In the New York Review, Timothy Garton Ash expresses our predicament succinctly.
In short, a reaction against the consequences of economic and social liberalism now threatens the achievements of political liberalism.
But this leaves us with messy questions. How tied up together are these various liberalisms? What do economic and social liberalism have to do with one another? What is political liberalism without the freedom from constraint that has both energized entrepreneurs and encouraged same-sex marriage? What, if anything, prevents liberalism of any kind from becoming a limitless license for the affluent? Is there a liberal conscience, or is there only a liberal pose?
It was anemically gratifying to read Beverly Gage’s thoughts about élites in the Times Magazine. Finally: It has taken Donald Trump’s ascent to inspire a public discussion.
Antipathy toward a wealthy, preening managerial class seems to be gaining popularity across the political spectrum — and, oddly, to have helped elect a wealthy, preening incoming president.
“Managerial class” is perhaps the best synonym for “élite” that I have come across. It identifies, more clearly than “professional class” does, what it is that the élite is supposed to do, and to do well: manage public affairs. It also scores the point that this class, stumbling along as it does within various professional disciplines, currently lacks a larger self-awareness. Merchant bankers and neurosurgeons will stoutly protest that they have nothing to do with each others’ business — and, meanwhile, medical costs just keep going up, because no one is in charge of that. We can assume that, as with “élite,” no one is going to admit belonging to the managerial class.
Garton Ash has a plan.
No, we who believe in liberty and liberalism must fight back against the advancing armies of Trumpismo. The starting point for fighting well is to understand exactly what consequences of which aspects of the post-wall era or economic and social liberalism — and related developments such as rapid technological change — have alienated so many people that they now vote for populists, who in turn threaten the foundations of political liberalism at home and abroad. Having made an accurate diagnosis, the liberal left and the liberal right need to come up with policies, and accessible, emotionally appealing language around those policies, to win these disaffected voters back. On the outcome of this struggle will depend the character and future name of our currently nameless era.
I resisted the temptation to break the two-sentence payload into bullet points for readier comprehensibility, because nothing is to be gained by making this look easier than it is going to be.
It’s not difficult to come up with a list of alienating “aspects,” from abortion to immigration. What’s difficult is learning to talk about these issues conversationally. A conversation about abortion, for example, would have to begin on the premise that it would be permissible to ban abortions in some states. Without that “concession,” the talks are off and it’s back to the barricades. A conversation about bank bail-outs would begin with a coherent and readily understandable program for limiting the extent of financialization and for putting an end to hiding financial risks. (From consumers, of course; but also from the bankers who loaded up on misrated junk.) Another prong of the conversation about money would be planning an elementary-school syllabus to inform students about everyday credit, by which I mean not so much consumer loans as the commercial-paper market that keeps supermarket shelves stocked and their employees paid. The difficulties of conversations about the economics of immigration and the sociology of racism are not hard to imagine.
A universal public service, military or otherwise, must be imposed on all high-school graduates. Members of the managerial class must learn to work together across professional lines. Must, must, must.
This is the only way forward, and it is an essentially political way. Everyone will prefer the alternative of violence. Violence is simple and fast, and it projects an illusion of permanence. It is the way backward, back to the unsettled confusion from which human beings never stop trying to escape.
On page 81 of Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, a delicious bonbon of a book that he also illustrated, celebrity caricaturist Edward Sorel betrays a confusion. How it got by his editors (he names two), I don’t like to think, but there’s no getting round the blooper. When Sorel reads in her diary that Mary Astor dined “at the Colony,” he thinks she’s talking about The Colony Club. It’s remotely possible that she was, that she and George S Kaufman were somebody’s guests at New York’s most select and ultra-gentile women’s club. Remotely. It wouldn’t have been very romantic, though, would it, with extra company? It’s far more likely that Astor was talking about a celebrity eatery, just “the Colony,” no “club,” on 61st Street. In case you think I’m being arcane, it’s the restaurant that Roger O Thornhill (need I explain) refers to when he dictates a memo to a colleague, suggesting that the two men “colonize at the Colony,” in that taxi ride to the Plaza just before the action takes off.
And they wonder how Donald Trump got elected.
I was of two minds about the previous entry. One of them wrote it. The other thought there ought to be either more, a lot more, at least a few paragraphs about the substance of Edward Sorel’s book, or nothing at all. The mind that wrote the entry believed that deplorable evidence of shoddy editing required notice and scolding. The other mind pouted, and forgot to add, since the book had been mentioned anyway, that Sorel explains the reason why The Great Lie, one of my favorite Mary Astor pictures, and one of my favorite Bette Davis pictures as well, is not, despite their superb and also somewhat unusual performances, the hit that it might be.
But the lust that Mary and Bette displayed for a dull, porcine George Brent baffled me when I was eleven and had to sit through it at the Luxor, and it seemed absurd when I saw it again recently.
Although I always try to see George Brent as a hero of decency in this movie, I am not unaware of the effort. It’s too bad, because in addition to Astor and Davis, The Great Lie gives Hattie McDaniel the chance to turn Mammy up a notch or two.
Through The Browser, I came across an extract from Nicholas Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy. The extract is about transhumanism, the project, already ongoing, to improve and enlarge the human frame. I’m too old for this sort of thing: I’ve come to terms with things as they are, and the prospect of transformation makes me feel that I have nothing to say. So I’ll repeat an insight of Carr’s that is not so much brilliant as steady, the fruit of sustained thought:
Transhumanism ends in a paradox. The rigorously logical work that scientists, doctors, engineers, and programmers are doing to enhance and extend our bodies and minds is unlikely to raise us onto a more rational plane. It promises, instead, to return us to a more mythical existence, as we deploy our new tools in an effort to bring our dream selves more fully into the world.
There are transhumanists (I suppose) who want to be more like computers: more dependable, more exact. But developments are more likely to proceed down a different avenue, one that, as I said the other day of the first two waves of the Industrial Revolution, will answer a lot of old prayers.
I want wings. I remember realizing that the wings of angels that my favorite Netherlandish artists painted in the Fifteenth Century, both highly stylized and arrestingly realistic, were anatomical freaks. All vertebrates possess four limbs. The forearms of bird are their wings. It is unlikely that human beings are ever going to trade in their forearms, and especially their hands, for avian appendages, especially wings that, given the rest of our makeup, would probably fail to lift us off the ground. We have solved the unimaginative side of flight, and can fly (in planes) much faster and further than any birds. The imaginative side — what is it like to fly — will probably remain just that: imaginative, at least for almost everybody.
Or, here’s a thought. Human beings don’t seem to have spent a lot of time wishing that they were horses. If you could ride a bird, if instead of designing flight suits someone invented a drone that simulated a bird’s flight, would that supply the jollies?
“Globalization has the potential to benefit everyone.” It’s an interesting sentence. Benefiting everyone is a potential of globalization, and it is presumably one of several, perhaps many, potentials, unnamed here. I found the sentence in the Times: Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about Davos, annual home of the World Economic Forum.
The Davos Man has either failed to properly articulate the benefits of open trade — or the reality of open trade is more complicated than previously imagined.
I wonder which. Sorkin’s syntax brings Tacitus to mind.
I’m nearing the end of To Hell and Back: 1914-1949, Ian Kershaw’s contribution (the first of two) to the Penguin History of Europe. Had he asked for my advice, I would have counseled Kershaw to stop, conventionally, at 1945, and then to dedicate his next book to the Cold War, ending it in 1991 or thereabouts. The Cold War was an interesting conflict in many ways, not least for avoiding violence, and one of its themes was a war-damping supra-nationalism. There were three blocs, or “worlds”: America’s, Russia’s, and the remainder of countries too poor to merit worry. We learned in the Cold War that people don’t fight very enthusiastically for blocs.
I have not seen much evidence that commenters are aware of the role that the Cold War played in fostering globalization. To be sure, supra-nationalism was very much in the air the moment the War ended. The wars of 1914-1945 seemed to teach that nationalism was a very bad thing. (Let’s say, rather, that it had the potential to hurt everyone.) The United Nations Organization was intended to render war obsolete, and economic linkages creating the European Coal and Steel Community were formed soon after. But when Stalin made it clear that the Soviet Union and its satellites would nurture a separate, always somewhat autarchic, economy, the First World, home of globalization, had an obvious interest in the creation of a dense network of economic ties among its members. Business partners have a reduced need to police each other; it’s in everyone’s interest to sit back and let money be made. The Cold War gave these arrangements the glint of national defense. When the Cold War ended, the glint dulled, but, instead of seeing this, Davos Man now regarded the whole world, not just the First, as his marketplace.
The European Union was never going to take out the garbage, but it could and did promulgate laws directing how the garbage must be taken out. Harmoniously, among all member nations! That was the dream, anyway. Similarly, supra-national institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank — and, later, the WTO — created rules of economic play in which local officials, the people who had to take out the garbage, had little or no say. Ordinary voters might be forgiven for asking, in the absence of the Cold War’s ramp-up to hypothetical extinction, why this should be so.
The role of the nation has been an unfashionable topic for decades. Tech gurus and their clients behave as though nations were on the verge of melting away, drained of all conceivable significance and remaining little more than annoying obstructions. Unfortunately, tech types are professionally deformed by visions in which there is no longer any garbage to worry about. In fact the political reality is that if Apple’s technology displaces x jobs, that makes for X workers for whom the state will have to provide. Apple has no meaningful political ties to any state or region, but it can disrupt them enormously.
Globalization sounds like a good thing — it has the potential to sound like a good thing — but worse, much worse, it sounds like something that somebody, somewhere, understands. But no one understands it; no one can. It is best likened to a new disease whose malignant side-effects have not yet been fully experienced. I don’t mean to dramatize the matter. Every step of the Industrial Revolution has resembled a disease, at least for the millions of human beings who have been crammed into foul slums during the best of times and then thrown out of work during the slumps. And may we please accept what I just said as a statement of fact, not a point of Marxist ideology? Might it be borne in mind that even the Holy See has deplored the living conditions of the working class?
If the Industrial Revolution — which will not end, so long as there is power to fuel them, until robots have taken over every boring job — is a syndrome of diseases, does this mean that we ought to stop it? Perhaps, but we don’t begin to have the power to stop it. We can only understand it, and do our best to mitigate its consequences. This is something that globalists have no vested interest in doing. They don’t live anywhere in particular. And so nationalism, in all its ugliness, has come back, because national governments do not just have the potential to benefit their citizens, they have the obligation to do so.
Surely it has become impolitic, if not outright insulting, to speak of “creative destruction” wherever it is someone’s livelihood that is being destroyed?
For once, I remember to think of my father on his birthday. This would have been his 103rd.
Some time ago, The New Yorker profiled Derek Parfitt, the philosopher who died at the beginning of the year, and I rashly bought a couple of books. Handsome, but very thick books they were, not so much hard to read as demanding lots of shelf-space. They proved to be books that I may have given away unread. A few pages of Parfitt — Reasons and Persons? — convinced me that he was not going to restore my juvenile faith in systematic thinking, which I regard as an affliction of the XY gender, a sort of educated mansplaining.
I spend a lot of time these days wondering why people get so worked up about things that are not worth thinking about at all, such as how Donald Trump duped American voters into electing him as president, while overlooking the problems that so urgently require clear thinking, such as the need for persuasive (ie non-coercive) leadership. Advocates of liberal democracy appear to be terminally unaware that their favored form of government depends on unwavering leadership, and blind to the fact that what they have settled for over two generations is smug self-congratulation. Liberal democracy is never secure. That is the point of it, really.
And I’ve been thinking about Parfitt, too. That he was a fellow at All Souls, Oxford, was one of those irrelevant hooks that keep people in mind; All Souls, a triumph, if that is the word, of Georgian Gothick, is the richest of Oxford’s colleges with respect to wealth per capita, because it has hardly any students — just the fellows. At least that’s what I discovered on an idle Internet search. I’m crazy — definitely the word — about Hawksmoor’s spires, with their four strands each of buzz-cut stone.
In the current LRB, Amia Srinivasan writes about Parfitt, who became her adviser when she was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls. She describes an indiscriminately beneficent figure, a walking categorical imperative. Srinivasan’s philosophy is closer to mine.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Derek didn’t see what is obvious to many others: that there are persons, non-fungible and non-interchangeable, whose immense particularity matters and is indeed the basis of, rather than a distraction from, morality. But in not seeing this, Derek was able to theorise with unusual, often breathtaking novelty, clarity and insight. He was also free to be, in some ways at least, better than the rest of us. After he retired from All Souls, Derek didn’t like to go to the college common room, so we had our last meeting in my study. While jostling his papers he knocked over a glass. He was unfazed. We sat and talked for a few hours, his feet in a pool of water and shattered glass.
This is ambivalent, don’t you think? Is an absent-minded professor who sits unconcerned with his feet in a puddle of water, never mind the broken glass, really “better than the rest of us”? Not to me. And what is the value of breathtakingly novel theories that take no account of the breathtaking complications of individual human makeup? Earlier in her short piece, Srinavasan tells us that she had to “recant” a philosophical position to keep Parfitt from leaving the table at their first fellowship lunch, “because it implied that there was nothing wrong with torture.” Parfitt was adamantly opposed to any justification for causing pain. My own philosophy holds that a ban on torture is meaningless. Rather, on every occasion, individuals must conclude that it is not right, in the case at hand, to inflict pain. The difference may seem supersubtle but it expresses my objection to systematic thinking, which actually short-circuits the need for thought. If I must always do x, then I will miss the difference between doing x in each set of circumstances, or in other words with regard to different people. The general rule frees me from recognizing differences. That is the nub of what I think of as an XY weakness for “efficiency.” Life is more of a slog than that: we must rekindle our goodness every time it is called for.
I’ve just read Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker piece, “Tragedy Plus Time,” for the second time, in its print version. Online, it was spellbinding, but I had no sense of an ending, no physical indication that there was only a page or a paragraph yet to read. So I came away slightly confused. The second reading clarified a great deal, if only as to the essay’s coherence; I still couldn’t understand — and this is why I don’t read Nussbaum regularly — why anyone would think that television could be a good thing. Surely its inherent malignancy must now be obvious to every active mind?
I don’t have a sense of humor about television, because few things in life are as important as a sense of humor and television has none whatsoever. Instead, it has a sense of ridicule. The difference is simple: the proper object of humor is the joker himself. Ample space is available for the first-person plural: we ought to laugh at ourselves. (For me, humor is profoundly tied up in how we speak, how we used our shared language.) Television has no time for such delicacies. Television encourages us to laugh at others. It parades idiots, preferably idiots who are unaware of being idiots, across the screen. Our laughter dulls into contempt. Contempt makes it impossible to take things seriously. I have always though that Jon Stewart must be an interesting man, but I take this on faith, never having watched The Daily Show, which always seemed to me to be a bad idea. I do not think that comedy news is an improvement on straight news; quite the contrary.
Now, I can see from Nussbaum’s piece, we’re about to find out if an entertainer who joked his way into the White House will continue to have any desire to make us laugh. Nussbaum leads up to her finish with instances of Vladimir Putin’s oppression of Russian media. Then she warns that Trump may try to shut down Saturday Night Live, a show that made me laugh, back in 1975, largely by making me feel smart. Now the phenomenon of smart people laughing at people who aren’t smart fills me with dismay. It is both wrong and a bad idea. You’ve got to hope that the objects of your ridicule never get to shoot back, always bearing in mind that ridicule may not be their weapon of choice.
Nussbaum also registers — as does Rebecca Solnit in a much darker piece in the LRB — on the sex-linked nature of jokes. It’s not that women can’t be funny. But they can’t use humor (and ridicule) to create a sense of the pack. They can’t get away with the dumb misogynistic jokes whose real purpose is to create a bond among men who are confused by life, thinking that it ought to be much simpler than it is. They can’t respond to such jokes without strengthening the glue of malice. Nor have our social arrangements developed safeguards, which were unnecessary before the advent of mass media, to protect women from anonymous male attack.
It’s not funny.
Over the weekend, I read Rachel Cusk’s Outline. Cusk’s new book, Transit, which my friend Ms NOLA calls a “companion” rather than a sequel, has just come out. As with Tara French’s Trespassers — which I still haven’t read, because I’m waiting for the paperback edition that will conform to that of the five earlier books in her extraordinarily engaging Dublin Murder Squad series — the flurry of Transit reviews directed my interest toward the earlier book. Having read Outline in its Kindle edition, however, I’ll probably do the same with Transit, so I won’t have to wait.
Outline reminded me of novels with which it probably has nothing in common beyond the faulty wiring of my brain. Brigid Brophy’s In Transit came to mind, perhaps for an obvious reason but also, I think, because of the ruminative quality that I recall, thirty years or more after reading it the once. I also thought of Renata Adler’s fiction, because of its severity. I was always conscious, in Outline, of how little Cusk was telling me; I was also conscious of not complaining. We learn almost nothing about Faye, a pure and simple stand-in for the author. At the beginning, after lunch with a billionaire, she boards a plane to Athens. On the flight, she passes the time in conversation with a Greek gentleman of somewhat diminished opulence. We never hear of the billionaire again, but the fellow passenger, with whom Faye stays in contact in Athens, is thereafter referred to as “my neighbor.” This is a breathtakingly efficient way of sweeping all the actual, ordinary-sense-of-the-word neighbors whom Faye has had in the course of her life completely out of the story.
The neighbor keeps a motorboat at a marina outside of Athens, and Faye accompanies him on two day trips to a rocky outcrop, where the water is very clear. These outings, together with several gatherings in restaurants and two sessions of a writing class that Faye is leading, constitute the matter of the novel. There are limpid and concise descriptions of Athens and of the road to the marina, and of course of the very clear water, but aside from a tour of the apartment where Faye is staying — an oblique portrait of its owner — the extended passages are all narratives. People with whom Faye seems to have spent bursts of time in other cities (again, not neighbors) join her for meals and tell stories about themselves. And then there are her students. Because the structure of the novel reminded me of Palladio’s villas, with the large blocks of narrative connected by gracious antechambers, and because the tone of Cusk’s language is so measured, I thought of Boccaccio, but of course Boccaccio’s narrators talk about everything under the sun except themselves.
That is how the world has changed in the centuries since the Black Death sent Boccaccio’s aristocrats into the hills. They would have been bored silly, if not, in the alternative, traumatized, by the tales told by Cusk’s characters, all of which have one theme: the fragility of family. The family consists of men and women who come together (“fall in love” seems an almost hysterical overstatement) and produce children. The children and their parents are tied together, but the parents are not tied to one another, and substitutions in the form of step-parents are occasionally introduced, placing further pressure on the tender question, What is family? How does the biological network of reproduction and rearing correspond to the emotional lives of autonomous individuals? What happens to a family when the man and the woman who created it no longer care to live together? And what is the relation between our lives as children and our lives as parents?
These may not be the questions that Cusk is asking, if indeed she is doing anything so vulgar as asking questions, but they held court in my mind. Although everyone passing through Cusk’s chambers is affluent and more or less well-turned-out, nobody is really satisfied. Everybody is troubled by “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women,” as one character puts it. There is a general disinclination to accept the human condition, as if there were other options. I ought to have found Cusk’s people to have been too unattractive to read about. But the selfishness and egotism that spoil their private lives is not permitted to burden their narratives. Cusk’s characters tell their stories very well. I wouldn’t want to know them, but hearing them is provocative.
It would be tiresome, to me, anyway, to examine Outline for its views on the war between the sexes. Cusk seems to be writing in a time of cease-fire. But the problem of the family is clearly complicated not only by unilateral male entitlement but by the appeal that this entitlement has for women, at least from time to time, at least as a challenge. What makes a man attractive is often nothing more than the recognition by a woman of what he takes to be his superiority to other human beings. Once it becomes clear that a woman is not going to perform this service, she ceases to exist. One of the last stories in Outline illustrates this point. At the apartment, Faye meets another woman who will be staying there. The woman discusses her flight from England, and her conversation with her “neighbor” — the parallelism is a lovely way of closing the book. This woman’s neighbor was a diplomat, posted to Athens, who, although fluent in many languages, confessed to an inability to master Greek. The woman asked if the cause might be that his family was not accompanying him on this mission, but remained at home in Canada.
“He thought about this for a while, and then he said that to an extent it was true. But in his heart, he believed it was because he did not consider Greek to be useful. It was not an international language; everyone in the diplomatic world here communicated in English; it would have been a waste, in the end, of his time.
“There was something so final,” she said, “in that remark that I realized our conversation was over. And it was true that even though the flight had another half an hour to go we didn’t say one more word to each other. I sat beside this man and felt the power of his silence. I felt, almost, as though I had been chastised. Yet all that had happened was that he had refused to take the blame for his own failure, and had rejected my attempt to read any kind of significance into it, a significance he saw that I was all too ready to articulate. It was almost a battle of wills, his discipline against my emotion, with only the armrest between us. I waited for him to ask me a question, which after all would have been only polite, but he didn’t, even though I had asked him so many questions about himself. He sealed himself in his own view of life, even at the risk of causing offence, because he knew that view to be under threat.”
And yet he brought it up!
So far, I’ve been very happy with my new subscription to The Browser, a service that I recommend heartily, just as David Brooks did in one of his New Year’s columns. With the Pocket app on a smartphone (imagine me downloading this, but I did), there is no need to worry about having something to read while out and about. The subscription fee — $34 at the moment, I recall — provides access to material that is not otherwise available online. When I think how much I’d have had to pay to read the handful of pieces that I’ve found tremendously interesting in just three weeks’ time, The Browser‘s price seems nominal.
The other day, at The Browser, I came across the Introduction to Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President. Whether or not I’ll buy the book, which is a collection of Taibbi’s reportage from the late election cycle (I can’t imagine reading about it), the Introduction is worth clipping to Evernote. Embedded in the heart of the piece is a sinewy history of broadcast news in America that explains the fragility of journalism practices and institutions that we have tended to regard as safely monumental. As usual, integrity does not stand on a foundation of high-minded commitment but wobbles on a sea of money. I belong to the camp of analysts who believe that the medium of broadcast television could not help degenerating into an entertainment platform, and the extent to which it has compromised deliberative politics seems to recapitulate the inexorability of Greek tragedy. Like Taibbi, I didn’t see Trump coming, but perhaps I ought to put it differently: I didn’t see Trump coming. But the license to assemble idiosyncratic collections of “facts,” and the disregard for meaningful truth, have long been eventualities that I regarded as inevitable. The only question was whether I should live to see them.
I’m thinking of The Martian a lot, of Mark Watney’s last words:
At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?
As I see it, things have been going south for a long time, so I don’t have to catch my breath when I get to work. I’ve been thinking about how to repair what I’ll call the liberal democratic module ever since Hillary Clinton polarized the nation with her semi-official health-care investigations. This module is not so much a body of laws and regulations as it is the political principles behind them. Laws and regulations depend for their power upon the legitimacy of these principles. If the principles of liberal democracy have ever been less broadly legitimate (outside of dictatorships) than they are today, all across the West, then I’m unfamiliar with that period. Right now, a lot of what needs to be done requires, as a first step, reversing the device addiction that makes it difficult to pay attention to things over the long term. (Just where video games fall on an axis between cognitive exercise and crack cocaine is not much of a question to me.) As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, though, the important thing about a revolution is having a firm grasp of the second step. What happens next? Assume that everyone’s paying attention. But to what? Almost certainly without intending to do any such thing, Matt Taibbi handed me a great suggestion:
These are the voters who’ve never met a New York billionaire, but they’ve sure met a lot of corporate middle managers and divorce lawyers and professors and other such often-overcompensated members of the intellectual class.
Trump voters almost uniformly don’t begrudge someone for being an entrepreneurial success (“If the guy pulls his own weight, I don’t care how much he makes” was a typical comment I heard). But they can’t stand the book-smart college types who make cushy livings pushing words around in what these voters see as competition-averse professions that reward people who in real life need to call AAA to change a tire.
Trump tapped into all of this. His speeches were visual demonstrations of his power over us. We in the press, obediently clustered inside our protective rope line and/or standing mute on a riser in the middle of the hall, would sit looking guilty, like the pampered, narrow-shouldered, overgroomed hypocrites we are, while Trump blasted us as the embodiment of the class that had left regular America behind.
This group portrait of a pasty but hated class of would-be overlords is a call for a collective makeover. As people who think as I do march in protest against Trump, I wonder how many of them understand what they look like to Trump’s supporters. What they look like is so unattractive that it makes Trump look like Superman. What they look like is so devoid of apparent purpose that an imaginary superhero promises to be more likely to get the job done, any job. Here in New York, there’s a dreadfully potent phrase: stuck up. If you have been branded with this epithet (almost always by a woman), you can be sure that nothing you say will be taken seriously thereafter. You will become somebody who is simply making more money than you deserve.
One of the quickest ways of achieving stuck-up status is to assert that “education” and retraining will restore meaningful jobs. Anyone who has really thought about it knows this to be true, and as for regular Americans who have been left behind, they’ve discovered its truth empirically. They know a bromide when they smell one.
And on the home front: As I read the screeds on how important it is for the Democratic Party to foster identity politics, my poor brain is twisted by the fact that identity politics has done nothing to establish a generally satisfactory, publicly funded pre-K program throughout the country. What could be more important than the double-barrelled project of providing early education to children while fostering their mothers’ working lives? Has there been any progress on this front?
The second step is not to bellyache about Trump’s unraveling of political safeguards that were pretty flimsy in any case and definitely unpopular with a great many Americans. The second step is to “do the math” — to think hard and to think together (talk about a tall order!) about fixing the liberal-democratic module.
When I mentioned the liberal-democratic module yesterday, I decided to save explanation for another day. Or days.
Maybe the first thing to say is that my thinking on this subject is the result of new connections. I haven’t figured out a good way of talking about the way my mind makes new connections, so I may be unintelligible. What seems to have happened with reference to liberal democracy is that the term was again and again mentioned, in Richard J Evans’s The Pursuit of Power, which I read a few weeks ago, as part of a triad: it was one of three models that competed for power in nineteenth-century Europe. The other two were conservative reaction and populist socialism. I was used to thinking of liberal democracy in opposition to one or the other of those rivals, but not to both at the same time. The recurrence of the triad eventually prodded me to recognize that liberal democracy is in itself the least popular of the three, and always will be, because it is by far more difficult to maintain than either of the others, and it requires an acceptance of complexity that is almost unnatural to the human mind. This closer awareness of liberal democracy’s distinction acted like a magnet, drawing all sorts of observations from other parts of my mind — that, at any rate, is what it felt like. I went from not having much of an opinion about liberal democracy to not having much choice but to organize a crowd of insistent ideas.
Liberal democracy would be hopeless as a political program if it could not, from time to time, depend on support from the margins of the other two camps. The trick — but it is not a trick — is to persuade populists and oligarchs that they are better off learning to live together than fighting. The small but powerful clusters of rich people at one end of the economic ladder are frightened of the resentful mass at the other, and this has been the case at almost all times almost everywhere in human history. What is new is the liberal democratic undertaking to strike a balance without resorting to coercion. Just to make the undertaking twice as difficult, conservatives and socialists, much as they fear and loathe one another, detest liberal democrats even more, because liberal democrats are all about compromise and reconciliation, which means that they clearly lack moral backbone. The extremists also share a contempt for the liberal-democrat’s aversion to open conflict. So what if a good fight accomplishes nothing? It makes you feel better! (Until, of course, it doesn’t.)
Most people — but men more than women, I suspect — are illiberal. They do not see why people who are unlike themselves ought to share in the benefits of social organizations. The parlous state of America’s infrastructure today is evidence of the lengths to which people will go to deny themselves benefits if it means denying them to other groups as well. We bemoan this state of affairs, but it is the normal one. A century or more of liberal-democratic hegemony in the United States has misled us into thinking that a large and effective public sector can be taken for granted. It can’t. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, we may be about to find out what life is usually like in most other places, and has been like for most of recorded history.
To some extent, liberal democracy proceeds by striking deals between “the classes and the masses.” It thrives whenever the hybrid of the two, the bourgeoisie, feels secure. Security is difficult to guarantee, however, in the middle of a revolution, and it must be acknowledged that liberal democracy has not navigated the latest phase of the Industrial Revolution — globalization — very well. It has subscribed to “neoliberal” economic ideas that promise social benefits but never deliver them, fueling grotesque income inequality instead. Liberal democracy has also failed to lead potential constituents toward reconciliation on another axis, a rather new one: immigration. Throughout the West, and even outside of it, traditional conflicts between rich and poor have been complicated by natives’ resentment of aliens, and aliens’ resistance to complete assimilation. In the United States, this new problem has been intensified by the liberal-democratic determination to extend full native rights to the formerly de jure alien black American population. Excellent (and overdue!) as this determination may have been, it was not followed up with the attentive leadership required to persuade Southern cavaliers and Northern workers to support it.
The liberal-democratic module — something between a completely abstract model and a time-stamped party platform — needs fixing on these two fronts. The liberal-democratic conception of beneficent commerce needs updating (to put it mildly). The liberal-democratic commitment to civil rights needs a much prettier face. These are the main “do the math” tasks that all of us who believe in the possibility of a peaceful, pluralistic society have to get to work on right away. We have to convince extremists that violence, while sexy and exciting, is both deadly and not really necessary. A good second step would be to abandon “non-negotiable” shibboleths, if only in order to understand the state of play. For the moment, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what these might be. Dont be afraid, my fellow liberal democrats, of appearing to be soft on principles. Nobody believes that we really have any anyway.
Yesterday, Ray Soleil and I went to the storage unit. Ray climbed the ladder and handed down all the stuff from the high, topmost shelves. It made a big difference: the unit began to look empty. Among the deposed items were Kathleen’s wedding dress, and a ball gown that she wore to a Museum gala long ago. We brought home bags full of junk, some of it not junk — does anyone remember the brief period during which you got a CD of digitized images along with the prints when you had a roll of film developed? I’ve got about a dozen of those. In the evening, Kathleen began to go through the litter of craft items that Ray and I found in one of those bins that are more usually slid under beds. In two or three more solo visits, I might be able to remove all of what came down from on high. Then I can cull the books again.
This morning, the Times ran an article about how happy the President’s supporters are about the aggressive immigration moves that have caused such consternation among my friends. I noted with relief that there not a whiff of Onion. One man, who made it clear that he had voted more against Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, noted that the measures were temporary, and added that it might be a good thing to “take a breather” from less discriminating policies. It is clear to me that, however wrong the President’s moves may have been, they appeal to the people who voted for him. Protesters seem to be unaware of this, or to think that it doesn’t matter. One might well think that the President’s opponents are no more interested in liberal democracy than his supporters are.
If I have not made it clear, in more than twelve years of blogging, that liberal America’s neglect of the less affluent and educated voters — those who, most recently, supported Donald Trump — has been a very grave mistake, then my writing is even more unintelligible than I fear. This neglect dates at least to the Fifties, when powerful Democrats, most notably Lyndon Johnson, began a political program that, by enforcing the civil rights of black Americans, would betray the white-supremacy world view of the Dixiecrat wing of the party. Far more damaging was the acquiescence and active support given by subsequent Democratic Party administrations to neoliberal economic views. There appears to have been a hope, amounting to magical thinking, that Americans who felt diminished by affirmative action and globalization would disappear, preferably by transforming themselves, via higher education, into fellow liberals. But Democrats did little or nothing to help that transformation along. Democrats worked hard at making civil rights programs more effective, but they wasted little time on persuading unethusiastic white Americans that equal civil rights would be better for everyone in the long run. Democrats — especially Bill Clinton — appear to have done nothing to protect white American workers from the ravages of financialization.
Pundits of almost every stripe are rightly worried that the new Administration may throw global diplomacy into disarray. Their mistake is to think that, having been issued this warning, the President’s supporters will change their minds about their man, and demand more conventional decorum at the very least. More magical thinking! Why should an ordinary American, educated or not but without any access to those who control the levers of power, bother to understand the niceties of international affairs? Is there a test? No, there is not a test, and, having led the world on so many franchise fronts, the United States has become the first nation in which everyone is free to be stupid. By “stupid,” of course, I mean disrepectful of liberal pieties. Those pieties are very dear to me, but I am not surprised that they are so widely rejected. If a brilliant student, the child of college professors, can emerge from an Ivy League college without knowing how to pronounce the name “Proust” (a true tale in my family), how can anything be expected of ordinary Americans?
As Matt Taibbi observes in the Introduction to Insane Clown President, it doesn’t do much good to call ordinary people on their faults at spelling and grammar. For ordinary people, language is a tool, not an art form. If it is believed that greater proficiency will increase what used to be called political virtue (and I for one believe it), then the schooling of ordinary people must be improved. Adults who don’t profess to be knowledge workers deserve the respect of being understood without comment. We have seen what disrespect can do.