Gotham Diary:
Beautiful Decorative
October 2017 (I)

3, 5 and 6 October

Tuesday 3rd

Two extracts from the same Op-Ed piece, “The Disastrous Decline of the European Center-Left,” by Sheri Berman. Don’t try too hard to make sense of them; merely observe that each refers to liberalism.

These new center-left politicians celebrated the market’s upsides but ignored its downsides. They differed from classical liberals and conservatives by supporting a social safety net to buffer markets’ worst effects, but they didn’t offer a fundamental critique of capitalism or any sense that market forces should be redirected to protect social needs.


But the decline of the center-left has larger implications. Most obviously, it has created a space for a populist right whose commitment to liberalism, and even democracy, is questionable.

In the first quote, Berman distinguishes New Labour from “classical liberals and conservatives,” who are grouped together for the purpose of making a point about safety nets, which in Berman’s view, apparently, are contrary to classical liberal policy. In the second quote, Berman regrets the populist right’s lack of a commitment “to liberalism, and even democracy,” the implication being that the commitment to these values of the center-left — this would presumably include New Labour —is robust.

I’m not sure that I would have caught this inconsistency if I hadn’t been struggling to pin liberalism down. Perhaps you don’t see the inconsistency even now that I’ve pointed it out. Perhaps it is not so much an inconsistency as a change in context. In the first quote, Berman is talking about economic liberalism; in the second, political liberalism. Are these two versions of the same thing, or two things, “twin births” as Domenico Losurdo has it (in Liberalism: A Counter-History). Which one is the “real” liberalism? Which kind of liberal are you? Am I?

It’s a serious problem. This persistent ambiguity contributes a great deal of confusion to political discourse, making “liberalism” everything and nothing, whatever an unreflecting speaker takes for granted. Unlike most words that have been misused so extensively that they must simply be avoided by careful writers (fulsome is my best example, as it means quite contradictory things to people who use it without being aware of this), “liberalism” can’t be done without. We need a convention to determine its proper application. Failing that, there’s me.

I had the image of a pair of horses in harness, pulling a carriage. The horses are definitely two different animals, and the smoothness of the ride depends on the health of each. This metaphor would construe political and economic liberalism as associated but different. But because political and economic liberalism came to dominate Anglophone life at the same time (in the Eighteenth Century), it’s easier to think of them as two aspects of the same thing, and I had another image. Political liberalism looks up, wary of the power of capricious monarchs. Political liberalism curtails the power of tyranny from above. Economic liberalism looks down and out, assessing the property that makes the liberal régime prosperous and also the vagrants who, owning no property and having no investment in the commonwealth, threaten tyranny from below. Political liberal concerns itself with constitutions and the rule of law. Economic liberalism protects individual property owners from interference of any kind, even from the well-meaning state. Essential to the liberal DNA is a preference for indirect solutions, for making the most of favorable winds, for counting on enlightened self-interest, for muddling through.

For a long time, liberals looked in both directions. Over time, though, humans invariably specialize, and inevitably liberals who looked mostly in one direction or the other saw different things. By the postwar period, dissonance between political and economic liberals on the subject of social welfare became so grating that the latter began to call themselves “neoliberals”: they sought to restore the outlook of the previous century. Political liberals, moving away from exclusivism, were determined to complete the project of endowing all members of society with equal access to and protection by constitutional law. While economic liberals wanted to continue to exclude (and even to punish) the vagrants, political liberals sought to improve them, out of existence as it were.

More recently, the gulf between liberals and neoliberals has stretched to encompass contrary attitudes toward the environment. Political liberals are aware that economic liberalism, to the extent that it failed to constrain predatory capitalism, has made a mess of the world, and endangered the Earth itself. Neoliberals appear to be in denial. Meanwhile, the fear of tyranny, so reasonable three hundred years ago, his become chimerical. In the absence of dictators on the one hand and hordes of unwashed “human garbage” on the other, the constitution itself has assumed the role of tyrant, or at any rate it has become the big gun that populists and elitists try to aim at one another.

And the meritocrats, brainchildren of the liberals but zombies without political consciousness, continue to pile up wealth in the coffers of the lucky. Nothing succeeds like success.

What does any of this have to do with what just happened in Las Vegas? Perhaps it’s an indication of how deeply-dyed my political liberalism is that I’m not jumping up and down calling for gun control. Do I believe that Americans have a right to possess automatic or semi-automatic weapons? No, I do not. But the weapons are out there, not least because we are a world-leader in arms manufacture. I don’t see in gun control the effective restraint that’s needed, and to me ineffective laws are a matter of great shame. What upsets me about these shootings is their reflection of an entertainment culture (comprising video games) that makes killing look exciting, even to people who have never held a weapon. The intensity of calls for gun control suggests to me a desire to look away from something far more troubling.

Rectify the names!


Thursday 5th

Venerable man of letters Robert Gottlieb was found slumming, over the weekend, in the candycane lanes of romance fiction. Why, he didn’t say. His omnibus review of recent titles ended, however, with a lengthy account of Danielle Steel’s The Duchess. I have never read one of these productions, but I’ve noted the dependability with which passages quoted from Steel’s books reveal a dislike of writing, a wilful rejection of all the wonderful things that words can do, matched only by Stephen King. What struck me as new in The Duchess was the ghost of a parody by Robert Benchley that, for sheer awfulness, made me laugh out loud. Note the chill of dreadfulness (or is it camp horror?) when Gottlieb’s prose yields to Steel’s.

It was a love match, despite a big disparity in age, and Marie-Isabelle loved Belgrave Castle as much as the duke himself did, “helping him to add beautiful decorative pieces to his existing heirlooms.”

Which is worse, “beautiful decorative pieces” or “existing heirlooms”? I have to vote for the latter. A duke with a castle — the Grosvenors really ought to bring a trademark-infringement suit against Steel and her publisher — has a collection of “heirlooms” (shades of Lizzie Eustace), and the best adjective that the author can come up with to describe its appeal is the utterly redundant “existing”? What a failure of the imagination!

But then it occurred to me that Steel’s readers are not looking for imagination. They already have plenty of their own, such as it is. What they’re looking for is armature, support for their own “existing” dreams. They don’t want Steel to call the furnishings that they long for “beautiful” or “decorative” when she can say that they’re both, even though these words are uninformative singly and together. “Pieces” is almost a Mad-Libs blank, only instead of calling for a noun or an adjective it specifies “dream item” beneath the line. Fainting couch? Butter churn? Louis XV lava lamp? Marie-Isabelle will love it!

This isn’t literature; this is sales. It isn’t about the experience of beauty; it’s about the ownership of beautiful decorative pieces. This is the language of QVC.

And The Duchess is probably cheaper than the stuff on TV.


On today’s Op-Ed page, Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Santa Barbara, suggested why gun advocates are so much more effective at political discourse than their gun-control opponents. Did you know that there are “more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonalds”? These are places to which people are drawn by their sense of who they are, not by a desire to debate the meaning of the Second Amendment. They do not come together in order to “take action.” (Not yet, anyway.)

My friends who support the N.R.A. did not join a club because of politics. They joined because they wanted somewhere to shoot their guns.

The problem for gun-control advocates is that what they want to do, or to have done, is entirely negative: they want guns to go away. They have no positive affiliation with each other. They believe that guns have little or no use in civil life. Gun owners, in contrast, are linked by a sense of vulnerability that, however meretricious a product of NRA propaganda, feels real to them, and my suspicion that it is altogether unreasonable to look to semi-automatic weapons for self-protection does not entitle me to disrespect their point of view. Such is my commitment to political liberalism. Also hampering gun-control activism is the liberal distaste for identity politics. Yes, you read that right. Whatever the Democratic Party says, liberals do not engage in identity politics. They promote something altogether different: respect for other people’s sense of identity. The conservative identity politics that makes people bond at the shooting range is, as Han says, “intimately tied to questions of race and identity.” Their own identity.

I do hope that the Route 91 massacre will seriously crimp the argument that guns make people safer. Guns wouldn’t have protected anyone from the attack.


Friday 6th

Last night, I downloaded the most recent Inspector Rutledge novel, No Shred of Evidence, onto my Kindle. I discovered Charles Todd’s detective mystery series in the summer of 2014. Proof of Guilt, the fifteenth entry, had just come out in paper, so I decided to give it a try. Completely hooked, I realized that I must read all the books, and in order, something that I appear to have done — if Amazon’s records are reliable — in little more than a month. Torn, after swallowing the fourteenth book, The Confession, about whether to re-read Proof of Guilt, so as to follow the thread faithfully, I set the whole business aside. It wasn’t until last month that I took it up again. Classically, the trigger was a reference to Todd in David Remnick’s long piece about Hillary Clinton. Todd was mentioned, along with Donna Leon and a writer who wasn’t familiar to me, Louise Penny, as Clinton’s favorite sleuthers. I was casting about for something to read on the Kindle at bedtime, and enough time had passed since the 2014 binge for several new titles to accumulate; so, presently, I found myself in the fen country around Ely, with a windmill creaking in impenetrable mist.

This morning, I clicked on a link to a Guardian story about tech innovators who have succumbed to alarming concerns about the noxious effects of the attention economy. Paul Lewis cites an astonishing factoid: “research shows” that “people” “touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.” When I read this sort of thing, I feel that I am peering into the future. Where I live, the phone is still, mostly, a phone. But of course where I live is in a seventy year-old body in a very quiet apartment where even the landline seldom rings and the Times is delivered to the front door every morning. Oh, and the television is almost never on — accent on never. The music is usually Schubert or Brahms, but it doesn’t play when I am reading.

In short, I am living in a Charles Todd novel, relatively speaking. The Inspector Rutledge mysteries are set in the wake of World War I. The first one takes place in June, 1919, and the next one in the following month. Then August, September, and so on. The Todds — it is hard for me to speak of “Charles Todd,” because the books are actually written by a man called Charles Todd and his mother, Caroline Todd (I note with relief that they live in different Eastern States) — have now reached the fall of 1920, but nothing has changed since the previous year.

The countryside is unspoiled, and the villages and small towns blend into the landscape. Nice people live in genuinely Georgian or Tudor houses situated on extensive acreage. Telephones and automobiles are rare, and enjoyed only by the very wealthy. Photographs are more common, but hardly the ubiquitous “images” of today. England is a redoubt of respectability, but the stylish sophistication that would climax on the eve of the next war is already in evidence. It is also confined to the élite. Most people are servants or agricultural workers. Education is unusual, and liberal education is the preserve of the gentleman, that apogee of British manhood. Needless to say, Ian Rutledge is a gentleman. If he is not so grand as Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Whimsey, he is still too grand to be an inspector at Scotland Yard. He comes from the professional gentry, and would not be out of place at a royal garden party.

Since these are mystery novels — richly-detailed rather than fast-paced — there is always something exciting going on, and Inspector Rutledge is easily as busy as anyone tapping a phone 2,617 times a day. But behind the action there is a quiet world, which I am pretty sure is the basic draw. The only thing that disturbs this world is the weather, which is often pretty bad. Indeed, the Todds take us back to a time when the weather really was the only thing to talk about. What we call distractions were known as attractions in those days; they were much harder to come by.

By the time I encountered the Internet, I was already immunized against media dazzle. I remember being horrified by the political blogs that, around fifteen years ago, were being updated every few minutes. I already understood that there is simply not that much news in the world — not real news. And I regarded advertising with something close to fear and loathing. What horrified me much more than those updates was catching myself smiling at the pretty picture of life presented in commercial announcements. It was also disturbing to note that people who managed to read through television shows always looked up when the ads came on. The advertising model of content packaging — instead of paying for access, you put up with the ads — obviously tended to dumb content down toward the lowest common denominator. Valuable content, regardless of how much advertising it carried, remained tremendously expensive. Subscribing to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of books runs $300 a year or more.

So, while Ian Rutledge leads a life that is rather more advanced that than of most of his countrymen, I lead one that lags behind. Although no cosplay is involved, even I catch the fragrance of nostalgia. When Kathleen gets home from work, the candles in the living room are lighted, and the Times awaits her on her favorite sofa — which belonged to her grandmother. After dinner, we often talk for longer than it took to eat, our companionship at the table undisturbed by devices. Then we read. If the phone rings in the evening, it’s an emergency (usually related to Kathleen’s practice). Every now and then, I take a peek at the Times online at bedtime — for example, to see how the Catalonians are doing — but as a rule, the world could come to an end and we wouldn’t know about it until we read the paper in the morning. It is not paradise, but it is closer to paradise than it is to dystopia.

Paul Lewis’s Guardian story, “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: the Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia” is frightening, to be sure, but I think I have the answer. But first, you have to turn off everything except what you’re reading right now.

Bon week-end à tous!