Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (I)

5, 6 and 8 December


Tuesday 5th

Given the state of current events, it often feels foolish to be thinking about liberalism. The current state of affairs can be summarized as a drift toward radicalism, an impatience with real-world complexities and a longing for simple, straightforward solutions. Perhaps the first thing that can be said about the liberal outlook is that it struggles to be patient and doubts the viability of simple solutions. To the liberal mind, radicalism is little more than the realism of two-year-olds.

Just like small children, radicals know what they want, and they want it now. And they are equally incapable of behaving well if they are thwarted.

It is no fun, being a grown-up around small children. It is hundreds of times less agreeable to be a liberal surrounded by radicals. Unlike small children, radicals can shoot.


In the wake of the French Revolution, or perhaps even when it was still making life hell for clever Frenchmen, a new metaphor for political life came into circulation. The vehicle for the metaphor was the amphitheatrical arrangement of political assemblies, rendered simply by the curve of a half-circle. As the new world of representative democracy took shape, political significance attached to the right, center, and left of this curve. Socialists, communists, and levelers of all kinds sat on the left. Royalists, aristocrats, and religious conservatives sat on the right. Those who sat in the middle, if only because they did not agree with the extremists, were known as centrists. Sometimes, they were called liberals. It was never very clear, in contrast to those on the left and the right, what the centrists stood for, unless it was the unprincipled opportunism of compromise.

I don’t think that this metaphor works anymore. For one thing, the old conservative party has completely evaporated. As defined classes, royals and aristocrats have played no political role for a very long time, and it is a mistake to associate the religious conservatives of France and England in 1800 with the evangelists and millenialists of today. Evangelists have always been reformers, not preservers. They are obviously as dissatisfied with today’s society as socialists are, and just as eager for change. The drift of many wealthy businessmen toward libertarianism is equally radical. In the old, semicircular arrangement, the left was the party of action, the center the party of moderation, and the right the party of reaction or inaction. Today’s right wing is as activist as the left. What they share is a fear and loathing of liberals, who are now, by default, the only political actors interested in maintaining social institutions that work. Liberals have become de facto conservatives.


Rather than bloviate further upon these brisk observations, I’ll direct your attention to a nifty little book that, like so many interesting things, came to my attention via The Browser. Irene Yuan Sun is a Harvard-educated consultant at McKinsey & Company. Her new book, The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment Is Reshaping Africa, is the most eloquent defense of liberal economic policy that I have ever read. It is also a collection of fascinating business stories. Thanks to Sun’s work, we are able to revisit the conditions of our own “capitalist” past, the rough and ready chancing of bygone days — for they are not bygone in Africa. If you have any interest in figuring out what “liberal economics” means in practice, Next Factory is the book for you. I hasten to add that it is a great read.

After graduation from Harvard College, Sun signed on to teach English and other subjects in a Namibian public school. Her doubts about the value of this work were intensified when she met a young Chinese businessman on a blind date. He was in the market for a wife, and not particularly appealing in any other way, either, but Sun understood that he was contributing something more immediately important to Africans than English lessons: jobs. Sun doesn’t spell out what happened next, but presumably it was her return to Harvard, this time to the Kennedy School, and her research into African industry. She tells us that it was on a research visit to Nigeria that she had her “aha! moment.”

Until she was six, Sun lived in a town in Northern China that was dominated by an automotive works. The company’s colors, a distinctive blue and white, were everywhere. Not long after she was born — and Sun is about thirty now — the factory began a cooperative project with Volkswagen to produce Audi sedans in China. Sun can remember her first ride in one; it was her first ride in any car at all. That hundreds of millions of Chinese people share Sun’s conscious memory of a first car ride is a key of sorts to the economic realities that come to life in her book. Chinese entrepreneurs are not just investing in African business, but moving to Africa and settling there, partly because it is not so very different from the China of their childhoods. They feel the hardships less keenly than ordinary Americans would, and so are less distracted by them. And they also know how China transformed itself, not by aiming for perfection but by settling for good-enough results. What was good enough for China a few decades ago and is good enough for Africa now has not been good enough for America for nearly a century, and if nothing else Sun reminds us of the forgotten costs of our standard of living. She herself woke up to them when, at the end of a tiring day of factory visits, she realized that the color scheme of the factory at her last appointment paired the distinctive blue and white that characterized her original hometown.

No ordinary American could have written Next Factory, because Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa would not have talked to them. Even if their English were good enough, they would never share their insights with outsiders. Sun herself stands on an edgy border. At a garment factory in Lesotho (which benefits from a favorable trade arrangement with the United States), the owner cannot quite make up her mind about Sun. On the plus side, Sun’s mother also comes from Shanghai, and even shares the owner’s surname. On the con side, Sun herself cannot speak Shanghainese. In general, Sun’s background makes her a privileged explicator of Chinese business culture, not only because her interlocutors are frank with her but also because she can tell when they’re not being frank. She is not a journalist but a business scholar herself, so she has a good idea of the garment factory owner’s capital costs, and can tell when they have been overestimated.

My favorite story from Next Factory comes in the second half of the book. It is an essay in humility and insight that is untainted by the air of bragging that so often leaks into the accounts of Americans abroad. Sun was working on an ambitious skills-training project in Kenya. Just when everything seemed to be coordinated, Sun and her colleagues ran into an intransigent bureaucracy. Months of work and dozens of contacts suddenly seemed wasted. Sun had to return to America and move on. Mortified by what she regarded as a complete failure, Sun did not talk about the project for over a year. When she did — she was writing Next Factory and felt that she must confront what happened — she was surprised to hear a collaborator working for the Chinese corporate partner declare that the project had succeeded in many partial ways. Nor had he ever given up on it, and, shortly thereafter an altered version of the skills-training program was launched. “Far from the stereotype that developing country actors move slowly, I [the American expert] was the holdup.”

In my view, Sun illustrates a key characteristic of the liberal mind, the willingness to settle for good-enough in order to learn from experience how to do better. Constitutionally, this outlook is directly at odds with the all-or-nothing insistence of radical ambition. It is so unpleasant to admit failure that many people simply cannot bear to do it. Most of them simply give up; a few cheat and lie about the results. (And you can always blame everything and everyone else.) Liberals understand, I think, that failure is the royal road to education; what helps them to follow this difficult path is a faith in time as an agent of change. Such change, of course, can be for the worse, and it probably will be if no one is paying attention. (This is what makes so many so-called liberals unworthy of the name — how else to explain the loss of nine hundred state-level seats during the Obama years?) The liberal advantage over the radical is the patience to get things right over time. Liberals understand what radical and small children can’t bear to hear: we have all the time in the world.


Wednesday 6th

In today’s Times, music critic Anthony Tommasini asks, “Should I put away my James Levine recordings?” I was asking myself more or less the same thing last night. The underlying question is this: will the pleasure of listening to these recordings be stunted by the allegations that have provoked the conductor’s ejection from the Metropolitan Opera? I think that everyone of a certain age had heard stories about Levine, so to some extent the news is not news. But the element of coercion was not hitherto salient. Perhaps it rarely is in gossip; while we like to hear what other people have got up to, we don’t like hearing that undue pressure was involved. (Is Harvey Weinstein still claiming that his many imbroglios were all “consensual”?) Sex isn’t fun if it’s forced, and sex that isn’t fun isn’t sex. It’s something else, something so pathetic and unpleasant that, so far, not a single former eminence has stood up and demanded, “What of it?”

As for the recordings, time will tell, as it usually does. When I was young, Richard Strauss’s reputation was still suffering, at least here in New York, from his brief association with the Nazi régime. There was an understanding that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose Nazi associations were less equivocal, would never be invited by the Met to sing the role of the Marschallin, in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, so long as manager Rudolf Bing had any say in the matter, and, indeed, she never did.* Looking forward, I’m more inclined, somewhat pessimistically I admit, to wonder if anyone at all will be listening to anybody’s recordings of Mahler’s Third in thirty years. So much of the world that has been engulfed by the harassment and abuse scandals seems almost too fragile to survive the alterations in public sympathies that have brought these scandals forward. While Anthony Tommasini and I may be asking whether Levine’s artistic achievement will shine through the tarnish, the public may be signalling simply that brilliant orchestral performances are neither interesting nor important enough for the question to be raised. It may not be the case that power has been stripped away from villainous producers and politicians; it may be, rather, that the power itself has dissipated, so that what Al Franken and Leon Wieseltier do in the way of day jobs, and what their more virtuous colleagues also do, no longer matters quite as much as it has done in the past.

In Larry McMurtry’s Moving On, published in 1970, the heroine and her husband consult a psychiatrist to see about saving their marriage. When Patsy complains that she doesn’t always want to have sex with Jim, the doctor informs her that it is simply her duty to oblige him. If she wants to remain in the marriage, she must yield to his desires, regardless of her own, because, after all, he is the man and she is the woman. Is the doctor condoning coercion? However you or I might answer, it seems clear that, in the doctor’s view, coercion has nothing to do with it. It makes no sense to speak of coercing people to do their duty; what makes sense is to speak of punishing those who won’t. To do one’s duty, if only in order to avoid punishment, is not to yield to coercion. Coercion comes into it only when one rejects the claims of duty. In the nearly fifty years since Moving On appeared, our ideas of conjugal duty have been altered at the root, but the older men who constitute the principal cohort in today’s sex scandals were all raised under the previous dispensation.They had every reason, if no right, to expect that there would be no ex post facto review of the stories that were whispered about them.


Friday 8th

As we were on our way to lunch, Ray Soleil sighed heavily and asked, “How did we get here?”

I looked right at him and said, “Reality television.” “Of course,” he said.

It’s easily forgotten, I suppose because there is immense resistance to regarding television as degrading. Television is degrading because you must sit still to watch it, still in your body but even more in your mind. (That you can “work out” while watching television proves my point.) It’s not your decision; television enforces these responses. Television cannot help being bad for you.

I once got caught up in an early season of Project Runway. Inevitably, I got sick of it, especially the urge, widely shared, to imitate Tim Gunn’s vocal tics. I thought I was very funny for a while; then I felt a perfect fool. One of the contestants reminded me of someone I’ve never much liked, and I reveled in her misfortunes. I pondered the mystery that even in a professedly feminist age, most designers seem to be men. What do they know that women don’t? Mostly, though, I frothed on cue. I would actually call up a friend to say, did you see that! Then I saw myself on the phone doing my own sort of that, and mortification put a stop to misbehavior.

So far, the reality show being broadcast from Washington has been inconsequential: nothing has actually happened. Does the transfer of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem count? Like everything else coming out of the White House, it seems symbolic, gestural, and very much the kind of excitement that whips up an audience for reality TV. Oh, look what he did now! The idea that “he” is doing it in the name of a world power means nothing, because there is no such thing in television. There is only entertainment.

The mad tax bill — mad-at-blue-states tax bill — may well be enacted, but laws don’t really happen; popular responses to them do. The audience may find itself confronted by some very unentertaining realities, realities that aren’t taking place on television. There is a lot of anxiety about nuclear warheads, but, so far, it is just that: anxiety. The dream of reality television is that things that are worried about will never quite happen, because happening will put an end to the fun, which is waiting for something to happen. There is no fulfillment in happening; immediately, a new wait must begin. I derive no small comfort from believing that the formula for soap-opera drama takes the place of imagination in the mind of Donald Trump. Not to mention attentiveness to ratings where conscience ought to be.

I wish that, instead of resigning, Al Franken had insisted on keeping his seat until the ongoing sexual inquisition deals with the president. Some might argue, as Michelle Goldberg did at the Times, that there will never be a reckoning for Trump, because he can’t be shamed. But that’s precisely why I’d like Franken to stay on. There ought to be more to this scourge than pressing decent men to admit their indecencies and then counting on them to withdraw. It’s genteel and toothless — true to reality TV, not to reality. It certainly hasn’t stopped Roy Moore. What’s the point, if only the good guys topple?

I expressed concern that younger men will conclude that female colleagues are more trouble than they’re worth. “I don’t think they’d have the legal right to act on that,” said Ray. I looked right at him.

Bon week-end à tous!

*This is incorrect. Fossil Darling informs me that Schwarzkopf sang several Rosenkavaliers at the Met in 1964.