Gotham Diary:
Je Promets
September 2017 (III)

19, 20 and 21 September

Tuesday 19th

Rolling Stone has always been something of a tease for me. Handsomely laid out, studded with impressive photographs, it looks like the sort of thing that I’d like to read. But it isn’t. Alive to most forms of music, I am resistant, to put it mildly, to rock. I object to the very idea of “popular culture.” I find denim astonishingly uncomfortable — why do people wear it? (And then, there’s what it looks like. The world is not your living room.) Rolling Stone is not, and never was, for me.

So I almost skipped Sydney Ember’s story in yesterday’s Times. Adorned by a dozen or so of Rolling Stone’s always iconic covers, the article seemed designed for the Styles or Arts sections, but it was in Business. “Rolling Stone, Once a Counterculture Bible, Will Be Put Up for Sale.” It was only when I’d gotten through the whole paper that I went back, micro-provoked by the last part of that headline. Will be put up for sale. I went through the article quite carefully, but the headline told the whole story. There was no mention of counterparties, bidders, failed negotiations, or any other newsworthy elements. The story was a glorified want-ad, published at no cost to the beneficiaries, the magazine’s founder, Jan Wenner, and his son, Gus, who currently runs things.

A few years ago, the story told, an outfit in Singapore called BandLab purchased a 49% interest in Rolling Stone. But BandLab’s role in the present story was that of an inert gas. It had no comment to make on the proposed sale of the Wenners’ remaining interest, not even “no comment.”

If I were a cynic, I’d say that the Wenners have been disappointed in their let-us-say preliminary encounters with bankers, and that a friend at the Times has cast for them a much wider net, one that might capture the attention of an idle billionaire who didn’t know, until he read Ember’s story, that it would be not only cool but possible to own Rolling Stone. But I am not a cynic. I am a critical thinker. It’s quite enough for me to ask questions. In this case: how does this piece meet the newspaper’s editorial standards?

It struck me right away that this questionable story, or perhaps my reaction to it, provides a little case history of critical thinking. In the absence of Critical Thinking for Dummies, how do you learn to think critically? What happens when you do? Any good high school teacher will probably tell you that it involves not taking things at face value, and a degree of low-grade skepticism, calm rather than fanatical, is certainly an essential ingredient in critical thinking. But familiarity with the context — particular knowledge, that is, rather than universal principles — is essential, too. I read the Times every day, and have been doing so for more than forty years. I have a good sense of “how the Times works.” For example, a piece about a new play that appears in the Arts and Leisure section the weekend before the show opens is not a review. It is a puff piece, aiming readers’ attention in the direction of productions that are likely to be successful or controversial or at least “interesting” — unlike, that is, the run of new offerings. Everything in the paper tells me something about the editors who put it there. There is nothing mysterious about this; it simply takes exposure over time to get a feeling for it.

It is not hard to imagine a very different piece about current events at Rolling Stone: two short columns of print, with no accompanying illustration at all, much less all those covers and two large images of Wenner père et fils. This other story would mention the name of a bank or a brokerage that has been retained to represent the magazine’s interests. At least the ghost of a real transaction would flicker between the lines. Such is the story that many years of reading The New York Story has led me to expect. Instead, I see something rather more like a Facebook update announcing that Sydney Ember’s uncle wants to unload his vintage Chris-Craft, a pleasure boat on which he and his friends have enjoyed many good times. (If Ms Ember actually has an uncle who owns a Chris Craft, I apologize.) Had the piece appeared in the Styles or Arts sections, my critical-thinking apparatus would never have been engaged, because in those contexts, the story contains real news. End of an era, and all that. But idle billionaires dismiss Styles and Arts as fit for — never mind.

Critical thinking doesn’t stop at resisting face value. It formulates what experimenters might call a control, an alternative that, all things considered, makes more sense because it conforms to recognized patterns. This alternative is not an abstract construction but the residue of experience, and by “experience” I mean a mode of paying attention, not just sitting through something. The paradox is that critical thinking is ignited without conscious thinking. This is what a good high school teacher might mean when cautioning that critical thinking can’t be taught.

It can only be learned.


Wednesday 20th

The week before last, an item in the New York Times Book Review caught me eye. A new novel called The Party, by Elizabeth Day, seemed to be just thing the thing for me to read at bedtime. It was compared to The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, and even to Brideshead Revisited. I downloaded it at once. Hours later, it seemed, I had read it. I had been unable to stop reading it, but rather in the way of not being able to stop eating potato chips. Much, much shorter than the novels by Highsmith and Waugh, it even made Fitzgeralds’ classic feel massively substantial. The reason was that Day delivered everything required by a certain fictional premise, but no more. The Party is a gorgeously garnished skeleton key.

A few days later, I wrestled with the fictional premise. What would be a good title for the archetype? The Clerk and the Prince came to mind and stayed there, even if I’m not happy with it. In this story, which, by the way, must be set in Britain — Gatsby and Ripley are not really prototypes at all — a reasonably attractive boy of unprepossessing background meets a golden boy of rather grand family at school, or later, at Oxford. The two boys become great friends, meaning that the ordinary boy spends all his holidays at his pal’s family’s castle, gradually burying his own origins (for shame!). It goes without saying that his homoerotic attachment to the semi-conscious prince is unrequited, not least because it is unknown.

After coming down (Americans, typically upside-down, call this “graduation”), the boys, now men, have adventures of varying kinds; this is where the author gets to ad lib. But the ending is invariable. The grand friend, sometimes alone and sometimes with the force of his whole family, turns on and rejects the bloke from nowhere, who is revealed as a fraud and a poof, and shamed utterly, unto the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Need I spell out the moral of the story? Don’t be getting above yourself! This is a very satisfying precept for Britons, most of whom have the good sense not to try.

A beautiful example of this story, with many brilliant grace notes, is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which I’ve just put down for the second time. The Line of Beauty came out in 2004, but is set twenty years earlier, during the Thatcher era, when greed was good and need was naughted. A further decade later, it seems obvious that the years in which homosexuals demanded recognition and rights also saw a revival of opulence — baroque on ice, as it were. The last opulence died with Edward VII, and was obliterated by the Depression. Postwar modernism kept austerity fashionable for a good thirty years. Then — poof! London and Paris and even bits of New York were re-gilt. Presently, Daphne Guinness emerged on her half-soles.

The essence of the archetype here is longing, and The Line of Beauty is stuffed with it, longing of all kinds. The longings for sex rather sparingly noted; at the beginning, what Nick is really longing for is the end of his virginity. Hollinghurst gives greater space to his hero’s more sociable ambitions. Nick Guest longs to be both Henry James and a Henry James character, the observer who is paradoxically more vital than what he observes. He wants to be acknowledged as that most Icaran of figures, the natural aristocrat, the man of instinctive good taste and fine judgment who requires no pedigree. He longs to know more than he does, to speak better French and to understand finance, for example, and he longs to stop making a fool of himself, as he does repeatedly in a closed world that not only insists on credentials but rather gruffly dismisses Nick’s brand of discernment. Nick also longs to be the middle child of Gerald and Rachel Fedden, a complicated if outwardly harmonious couple. Gerald, who is an MP and devoted fan of the Iron Lady, struck me this time round as an amusingly prophetic edition of Donald Trump, a little nicer perhaps but just as prone to destructive boredom. Rachel is the daughter of a exalted Jewish banking family, in full possession of the inside/outside ironies of ineffable but exotic grandeur. Their actual children are the beautiful but simple Toby — the original object of Nick’s fascination, true to prototype — and the manic Catherine, a painfully clever girl whom Nick is mad to trust. Nick spends four years embedded in the Feddens’ Notting Hill pile, but what he treasures most is the key that admits him to the adjacent Ladbroke Square Gardens. Longing seems to carry betrayal within it; perhaps this is the significance of the perfume that Hollinghurst has invented for his novel: Je promets.

At the end, Nick is consoling himself — such is his abasement — with the expectation that a recent test will show him to be HIV positive. Hollinghurst writes about the plague at the lowest possible pitch, as if to minimize the pain of remembering those days and losses, but in a way that captures the averted glances that became a tic of the times. From almost every vantage, it was rude to acknowledge the presence of AIDS. Many wished to deny it, of course, or to dismiss it as just deserts, but for this very reason those who were not ashamed and who did not regard it as divine retribution also hesitated to speak up, lest mention of the disease further diminish the afflicted. Only those close to death could treat it as an everyday thing, and nothing obliged them to do that.

The Line of Beauty satisfies the demands of the archetype, but then transcends it, enveloping us all in the folds of a universal pathology, the one that draws us to “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding Adieu.” What could be riper than the nostalgia of a twenty-five year-old man!

More anon.


Thursday 21st

Ten years or so ago, I became obsessed with the use of a term, élite. It was difficult to say what this term might be describing, beyond a hostile but shadowy gang that monopolized the levers of power. It was impossible to find anyone who would admit to belonging to this crowd, which seemed more and more to be the invention of openly powerful people who felt thwarted in their designs. Who wanted, in short, more power. The “élite” was a bogeyman that hid behind a screen and countermanded the instructions of potentates. A few things could be said with certainty: the élite was highly educated, and it lived on the East and West Coasts. Universities and film studios were hives of the élite. I wasted a lot of time looking for a synonym — a more informative word that would pin down the identity of “élitists.” Eventually, I came to terms with the idea that the élite was comprised of everybody with discretionary authority, the right (or power) to decide whether or not to do something. Almost everybody who complained about the élite was part of it.

Now I find myself engaged in a similar but brisker struggle with the term “liberal.” I am not trying to understand what “liberal” means, however, but only to keep track of how different people use the term. It has always been a tricky, even unconsciously ironic word. It is supposed to describe those who cherish freedom from tyranny. But the first thing to learn about the meaning at its root is that liberalism is not democratic, and that “liberal democracy” is more than slightly oxymoronic. Unlike “élite,” which dates only to the Postwar era, “liberal” has a history that stretches back more than three hundred years.

Or more: it’s my current hypothesis that liberalism is one final outcome of the most persistent and destabilizing political problem of the Middle Ages, which is to say of the formation of Europe on the periphery of old Rome. I call this the “great men” problem. What was the relation between the monarch and his most powerful subjects? Often — notably in the case of the Norman conquest of England — these great men had helped the king to secure his throne; they weren’t just strong, they were owed. To read the history of France and England during these long, slow centuries is to follow the uneven oscillations not only of power but of the theory of power, between the ruler as “decider” and the ruler as first among equals. The issue was always the same: when does the king have to pay attention to what his important subjects have to say, and who are the important subjects? Accidents of birth were responsible for many of these swings, perhaps most of them. Sometimes, rulers were not only strong men but materially fortunate. Sometimes, rulers were weak men and deprived of resources. Sometimes, kings got to decide when and where councils would meet, who would attend them, and what business would be decided. Sometimes, all of this was decided by powerful noblemen. The advantage of having a strong king was the same thing as the disadvantage of having a strong nobility: nobles were something like cats, hard to herd. Battles of nobles against the king quickly degenerated into battles of nobles against nobles.

Over time, aspects of the problem were institutionalized, as for example in the English Parliament. The king always had a council of some sort, but membership in the council was somewhat arbitrary, decided either by the king (whoever this might be at the time) or by leading noblemen. Membership in the House of Lords, in contrast, was not arbitrary, and, for a long time, noblemen sponsored most of the representatives who sat in the House of Commons as well. The king, it was determined after much tussling, had nothing to say about parliamentary membership*; birth determined the Lords and the Commons were duly elected. During the later years of the Stuart Dynasty (which lasted for most of the Seventeenth Century), the great men of England decided that membership in the king’s council would be determined by parliament. The great men of England, acting not as hot-headed knights-errant but but as participants in an orderly assembly, would check the potential tyranny of the monarch — that is, any attempt by the king to establish his council to suit himself — simply by showing up regularly in the Palace of Westminster and going through certain motions. A cascade of accidents, not least of them the accession to the throne of a German-speaking princeling, conduced to the cementing of the arrangement. We have called this solution to the great men problem “liberalism” ever since.

It doesn’t seem to have much to do with what Mark Lilla means by “liberalism” in his good little book, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla does not refer to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the liberal slaveholders that they were. (He does not mention them at all.) Liberals disavowed chattel slavery some time ago, but until the 1960s there was nothing about the liberal outlook that ordained a position one way or the other, and what happened in the 1960s was so uncharacteristic of liberalism that the term has been close to meaningless (by meaning too many different things) ever since. What happened in the 1960s (and began in the previous decade) was liberal engagement in the process of securing civil rights for citizens who were denied them — black Americans. But it did not alter the foundation of liberal thinking.

The foundation of liberal thinking remains the belief that the organization of men of property is the best defense against tyranny. We may define both “men” and “property” differently. “Men” now includes “women,” and property is more likely to be intellectual than material. But for all this, the idea that men of property are the best defense against tyranny retains its power because such “men” have the greatest stake in the commonwealth, not so much singly as in the solidarity of liberal government, which is clearly defined and established.

An inevitable side effect of the liberal belief in orderly government is that it makes “men of property” out of those who participate in it, meaning those who hold representative office and other important posts. Lilla has nothing to say about men of property, certainly, but an essential part of the program that he proposes for restoring liberal democracy in the United States could not be more liberal: he presses the need to run for office. To win elections. To keep the orderly government going, and to prevent it from being manipulated by enemies of liberalism in projects of civic dismemberment. This is the point on which “liberal” ceases to sound partisan and begins to describe a function. Many conservatives are liberal in this sense, even if, today, many more are not. To sit in the US Senate on the understanding that you will compromise some of your principles in the interest of a greater national good is essentially liberal. To sit in the Senate on the understanding that not even the least of your scruples will be compromised is to compass proto-tyranny.

Given the great shifts that have occurred in the social and economic life of the West since, say, 1689, the year of the “Glorious Revolution” through which modern liberalism was inaugurated, it is not surprising that liberalism is no longer the viewpoint of great landowners who believe that great landowners, working together, ought to run the country. But liberalism has never shaken its conviction that some people are better fitted for political life than others. This is, once again, a functional matter, not one of party platforms. In this, liberals oppose democrats, who believe that everybody ought to participate in government, or in any case that nothing should be allowed that privileges the participation in political processes of some people over that of others. On this point, the liberal is inclined to throw up his or her hands, mutely insisting that, given human nature, privileges are unavoidable. Liberals don’t believe that a world without élites is possible. Lilla does not make such an avowal explicitly, but it would be hard to find a passage in The Once and Future Liberal that does not address a reader who is not only educated but who also subscribes to the intellectual consensus of liberal tolerance. Indeed, his subtitle, After Identity Politics, points to the bulk of his discussion, which is an argument against the illiberal intolerance that has vitiated the sense of American citizenship. Identity politics is the democratic outlook with the smallest possible “d”: no interest group includes more than one person.

To a liberal, the complaint that representative democracy makes national citizens of us only one day in four years is wrong-headed, but only to the extent that it is a complaint. The liberal complaint, which Lilla does make, is rather that representatives and other officials fail to pay attention to their constituents every day. It is the liberal politician’s job to understand and to lead the people who vote for him, and it is liberal government’s purpose to confer power upon those who are both interested in and skilled at exercising it in a humane and orderly fashion.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Almost nothing. The one thing that the monarch could do — a step never resorted to — was to pack the Lords by elevating sympathizers to the peerage.