Gotham Diary:
The Clowns of Bohemia
August 2017 (II)

8, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 8th

Ross Douthat said something interesting in his Sunday Times piece. (He’s almost always interesting, but you know what I mean.)

The second problem is that mainstream liberalism has gone a little bit insane on immigration, digging into a position that any restrictions are ipso facto racist, and any policy that doesn’t take us closer to open borders is illegitimate and un-American.

He’s right, of course, except that “liberalism,” mainstream or otherwise, has nothing to do with this development. The moment you go “a little bit insane,” you’re no longer a liberal.

Dispassion is both an essential component and a major defect of liberalism. It is what allows the liberal to sympathize with positions that he does not hold, to understand “where they’re coming from” and to try to work out accommodations. This desire to accommodate, this ability to compromise, these are the traits that non-liberals revile. To the illiberal mind, dispassion signals an inability to care. The liberal mind is painfully aware of the ease with which caring leads to conflict. Accommodation is very difficult — and it is not always possible. But the liberal keeps trying. Right now, true liberals are as rare as any endangered species.

When Douthat goes on to say, “Liberalism used to recognize the complexities of immigration,” what he’s really saying is that liberalism has dropped out of mainstream political discourse. The ghost of liberal approval of certain positions on certain issues hovers over the center-left, but the distaste for zealousness has disappeared. “Liberalism” is a term that so-called educated people used to respect, even if they didn’t know what it meant, but now it just seems weak and confused. It was an important banner in the Cold War. Now it is an empty shell, nailed to a post as a shooting target.

How did this happen? Liberalism has long been expelled from its native, Republican party, and it has never been welcomed by Democrats. I have suggested elsewhere that liberalism has been fatally corrupted by a belief in meritocracy. Meritocracy suits the liberal mind, which is uncomfortable pronouncing judgments on people and fears the abuse of discretion. Much better just to make everyone sit an exam. But there are too many important human qualities that can’t be tested.

“Liberalism” has become identified with feminism, environmentalism, and the embrace of social diversity, but there is nothing liberal about any of these issues, especially the last. You can be a liberal feminist or a liberal environmentalist, but your willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy and sincerity (if not the correctness) of conservative opposition to these “isms” will probably discredit you in the eyes of more ardent advocates.

It doesn’t seem to be much different on the other side. Real conservatism is the party of faith in God. It is not a front for the Chamber of Commerce, and it ought to steer clear of greedy plutocrats.

What we’re left with in this country is a pair of radicalized blocs. On one side, people cry out for social justice. On the other, they demand the end of the state. There is no interest in politics. But why would there be, when everything that’s “real” happens on a screen?


Wednesday 9th

Yesterday, David Brooks wrote in his Times column that he is going to pay less attention to the President. That may be a tall order, but if it means that he is going to talk less about what he sees, I’m all for it. It’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since the Inauguration. This is not because I’ve succumbed to magical thinking, and believe that Grump will go away if I ignore him. It’s rather because I’m waiting for something to happen. So far, nothing has. If you set the tumult in the West Wing to one side — I remember the good old days, when no one knew where the West Wing was, much less who was in it — all you have is the failure to Repeal and Replace. I realize that this could change. We could have fire and fury. But nothing has happened yet, certainly nothing worth paying attention to. More dismaying is the fact that nothing has happened in the Democratic Party, either.

For a few days, recently, I wondered if we’re not in for a repeat of the Carter Administration. I got the idea from something that I read somewhere, and was haunted by the way I had carried on, in the early Reagan days, about what a bad president Jimmy Carter was. “The worst!” I cried. Jimmy Carter was so bad that, even with his incumbent’s advantage, he could not defeat an ageing actor. I was in my early thirties at the time, and not very seasoned. Now that I’ve seen more of what the country can come up with, Carter doesn’t seem so bad.

Then I was reading a book about China. It was published in 1992, when lots of China-watchers believed that the Tiananmen Square massacre would bring the Communist Party down. Nobody in 1992 could foresee what the Internet was going to do for China — in terms of manufacturing profits, not political liberation — or that the sons of Mao’s adjutants were going to assume power as if by hereditary right. The book — The Tyranny of History, by WJF Jenner — is invaluable even in its unrealized expectations, but I’m particularly glad to have re-read it because it made me realize that Grump is less like Carter and more like Mao. Like Grump, Mao bored easily, and he could take only so much peace and quiet. So far, there is little to suggest that the President has the Chairman’s ability to whip up chaos — something like the Cultural Revolution, say — throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Far more interesting than anything going on in Washington is the firing of James Damore at Google. I’m with Voltaire on this one: we have to fight to the death to protect people’s right to say stupid things. At the same time, not everything can be overlooked. Insults, for example. Was Damore’s memo insulting? It was disrespectful, but that’s something else. Advocates of political correctness ought to reflect that careful speech has done very little to advance the struggle against racism in this country. It may even have done positive harm, by lulling bystanders into believing that racism is a thing of the past. The same can be said for misogyny. If there are men who believe that women lack the equipment to cope with stress, then how are we going to know who they are unless we let them speak their minds with impunity? Only then can we investigate their valorization of stress, and thank them for pointing out that women lack the equipment to be self-destructive.


The other day, I weathered an attack of the vapors by watching A Thousand Clowns. I had just rescued the videotape from the room by the freight elevator where Ray Soleil had dumped a bag of discardenda from the storage unit. I had declined to paw through the tapes at the unit itself, because I had just culled piles of LPs and books and was tired of making decisions. Back at the apartment, though, I saw A Thousand Clowns peeping out from a shopping bag, and I grabbed it.

It was a very big movie in 1965, at least for me. For the first time, I watched a grown-up, played by Jason Robards, Jr, stage a protest against the regimentation of nine-to-five life. It is a doomed gesture, of course; in the end, to keep not only the custody of his tween nephew (a fantastic Barry Gordon) but also the romantic interest of Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris at her most winsome), Murray Burns puts on a suit and goes back to work — writing gags for a TV clown. But the movie is an extended day off, an ode to the joy of playing hookey in Manhattan. And what a Manhattan it was! The light in midtown was always dusty with particulate matter. The men in their fedoras, the women in their gloves — it all really existed; I saw it myself. The Metropolitan Opera House was under construction! In the Wall Street skyline (seen from the Statue of Liberty), rectangles had only begun to dwarf the spires.

A Thousand Clowns started out as a Broadway show, and Fred Coe’s film toggles between theatrical scenes, set mostly in a one-room walkup, and cinematic montages, in which many local landmarks make an appearance. There is a feeling, also palpable in Robert Mulligan’s Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), of a new world waiting to crack through the old edifice. It’s much easier to see the old than the new, because the new hasn’t really taken shape yet; it’s just about to. The harshness of the change is blared by Don Walker’s marching-band score, which promises a more carefree life to come even as it makes fun of the commuters running to catch a bus. Arthur Ornitz’s cinematography suffers the period’s addiction to zooms whenever the camera is set up out of doors.

What keeps the movie from flying off into fecklessness is Martin Balsam’s award-winning performance as Murray’s brother, who has settled down to the responsibilities of a wife and three kids. He used to be a free spirit, too, but he has matured, and his tired but proud defense of bourgeois commitment makes Murray look stunted. Also arresting is the performance by William Daniels, as a social worker who’s supposed to be a figure of fun. According to IMDb, Daniels hasn’t made all that many feature films, but he always seems hugely familiar, probably because he always plays the same character, a creature of the period, the respectable, rule-bound priss who battens down his massive anxieties by insisting on correct procedure. He gives a little something extra in Coe’s picture, and never misses a chance to be inadvertently funny.


Thursday 10th

It’s a small world — in another sort of way. Ray Soleil dropped by yesterday afternoon, in connection with our impending evacuation of the downtown storage unit*, and as we chatted over iced tea I showed him a book that I was reading, Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal. Flipping through the pages, I was surprised by a bit of artwork that I hadn’t noticed before (the book is illustrated with drawings and photos), not having got that far in the text. It was an Al Hirschfeld drawing for the Times, and it didn’t take me long to see that it was his rendering of A Thousand Clowns! There they were, Jason Robards, Jr and Barry Gordon, strumming their guitars and (you could almost hear it) singing “Yes, sir, that’s my baby”— but not, surely, to Barbara Harris. Could that be Sandy Dennis? Indeed it was. Sandy Dennis played Sandra Markowitz in the 1962 Broadway production of A Thousand Clowns. Here I had just been writing about the movie, and a book that I happened to be reading tossed me a delightful picture of the play on which it was based. Of all the Hirschfelds that Tamara Shopsin could have picked!

Her choice of A Thousand Clowns seems by no means accidental. It quite beautifully suits her winsome and comic memoir of la vie de Bohème in the middle and late decades of the last century, when Manhattan was a teeming dump of crazy genuine diversity and not the bloated pied-à-terre that it has become. I’m not quite sure what prompted me to buy Arbitrary Stupid Goal, because I have strict rules about new acquisitions on the library front (having no more room for books), involving parameters that Shopsin’s book doesn’t meet. Moment of weakness, I guess. I had never heard of Shopsin or her family or her family’s famous restaurant, which makes a lot of sense and leads me directly to say that this is what books are for: to take you to places that you can’t or wouldn’t want to visit. The restaurant described in Arbitrary Stupid Goal is an outstanding example of the latter — for me. First of all, it’s tiny and crowded, and probably not very quiet. Second, it’s full of famous people. Third and most, it’s definitely not my kind of cuisine. But the book is a delight, and I’m afraid that I’m going to have to keep it, and find out how to put it right next to Ben Ryder Howe’s My Korean Deli.

A Thousand Clowns and Arbitrary Stupid Goal have something else in common — although maybe it’s not really something else. Maybe it’s already included in the New York chapter of Bohemia. They’re both the same certain kind of Jewish. There’s nothing religious about this, nothing even racial. Post-tribal at the most. This certain kind of Jewish manifests itself in a way of speaking that, like Irish English, expresses a heightened consciousness of how the language works along with a complete lack of respect for its formalities. Grammatically, Arbitrary Stupid Goal is a Superfund site; nobody under the age of thirty ought to be allowed to read it, lest its pungent vernacular denature basic literary standards. In A Thousand Clowns, the tone is just the opposite, mock-polite and faux bureaucratic. But in both cases, things don’t mean what they say. They mean things that it’s not cool to say, things that can only be hinted at by articulate indirection. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand. Maybe you do have to be a New Yorker.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Once known jocularly as “Westphalia,” because “that’s where we keep detritus.” The jocularity evaporated more than five years ago. If I were to give the storage unit a nickname today, it would be “Don’t!”