Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (II)

14, 15 and 16 March

Wednesday 14th

So, the meritocracy is under attack on two fronts — two fronts that, under the old dispensation (which appears to have passed, just as its predecessors have done, between fifteen and twenty years into a new century) would have been at war with one another. The meritocracy, formerly unassailable, has become the softest of targets, undone by habits of smugness and decadence. Smugness blinded it to its vulnerability to populist resentment; decadence rendered it oblivious of its sexual depravity. That the populists are led by an alleged sex offender is an irony that pales in the glare of the meritocracy’s hypocrisy.

Donald Trump has never claimed to be a great orchestra conductor or a sensitive editor or an innovative architect. He has never greenlighted film projects that raised consciousness of feminist issues. He has always been merely a developer who misbehaved like one — and, so far, he has been successful at denying the misbehavior, whether or not anybody believes him. Denial is part of the developer’s package; it’s what developers do. That we tolerate developers even though we know that most their product is only superficially beneficial, tinsel really, is our sin, not theirs. But leaders in the arts and media are supposed to be the flower of the meritocracy, the men and women — but mostly men — who not only display great skills but use them to make timeless contributions to humanist understanding. When we learn that these leaders have imposed their sexual whims on less powerful colleagues and students, what infuriates us is not so much the lurid, disgusting detail as the embedded, intensifying entitlement. Not only did they think they could get away with it, but they did get away with, often it for decades — objectively, no better than developers, and subjectively much, much worse.

The current wave of exposure and termination, which is characterized by the plunge of exalted celebrities into a sea of shame, is more spectacular than the last one, which concerned teachers and priests who abused their authority over the young. But those offenders, too, were exponents of their meritocracy, just as many of their victims were potential meritocrats. We are now hearing women of a certain age declare that they didn’t make a fuss about inappropriate advances; they took them in stride, just like generations of fraternity rushes who have undergone hazing as the price of access to the meritocratic arena.

A puzzle for historians to work out would trace the roughly parallel but occasionally intersecting developments of the postwar meritocracy and the so-called sexual revolution. It is now generally conceded that one of the principal consequences of the sexual revolution, and certainly its most unintended one, was that it made it so much easier for men — especially meritocratic men — to fool around. And the women who were most available for fooling around with were also members, albeit of lower status, of the meritocracy; women outside the meritocracy long remained old-fashioned about sex.

A big piece of this puzzle is the role played by privileged men and women who qualified for membership in the meritocracy. It is my impression that relations between the sexes at the top of the modern Western social order have been considerably less unequal than at lower levels for several hundred years. Anglophone women of property were among the first anywhere to enjoy equal rights and equal access in certain areas, beginning, probably, with the dining table, at which men and women routinely sat together by the end of the Eighteenth Century. Men from privileged backgrounds are consequently somewhat less inclined to regard women as inferior, while the women among whom they have grown up are more likely to resist being treated as inferiors — making them unlikely to be victimized by predatory men. I suspect that this privileged sexuality, however attractive in itself, has given “well-born” meritocrats a perch from which to look down on their upwardly-mobile colleagues, giving them a sense of superiority within the meritocracy that would hardly encourage them to blow whistles.


Thursday 15th

Via The Browser, I came across a provocative piece by Justin Stover, “quondam fellow of All Souls” &c, entitled “There is No Case for the Humanities.” At first, I expected to agree with Stover, because I believe that there is indeed no “case,” no instrumentalist argument, no claim to relevance or sociality utility, to be made on behalf of “the humanities.” But I soon grasped that my idea of what the humanities are differed sharply from Stover’s. His is certainly closer to received wisdom. Mine, I see, has evolved in the pressures of contemporary society.

In a word: scholarship. Scholarship is at the heart of Stover’s conception of the humanities. It is scholarship in the context of a particularly British tradition.

The humanities have always been, just as their critics complain, self-contained, self-referential, and self-serving. Those tendencies are exactly what enabled the humanities to create a class that continued to demand them. People have read Virgil for two thousand years, and people have built institutions designed to facilitate the reading of Virgil. Some people built their lives around reading Virgil, whereas others just spent fifteen years of their childhood and adolescence learning to read Virgil, before moving on to more lucrative pursuits. For reasons high and low, people have believed that the one qualification truly necessary—for civil service, for foreign service, for politics, for medicine, for science, for law, for estate management, for ecclesiastical preferment, for a life of aristocratic leisure—was the ability to compose good Latin hexameters. They did not do this because they thought that mastering prosody was something which would directly contribute to success in other areas. They were not looking for skills or creativity or values. They did, however, believe that conjugating irregular verbs would mysteriously produce moral improvement (perhaps it did), but they were not too concerned about how. They simply believed in the humanities, and knew from experience that they would bring students above the categories of nation, vocation, and time to become members of a class constrained by no such boundaries.

It is also, as Stover makes clearly elsewhere, the scholarship of a tribe or class of academics with shared interests not just in the LRB but in — I gasped — lifestyles. Stover writes with massive complacence of the durability of his version of the humanities, “which predate the university and may well survive it”; he seems to be saying, with stereotypical donnish weariness, not to worry.

But I don’t mean to get tangled up in cultural differences. I don’t want to appear to respond to Stover’s muddlesome Oxbridge virtues with American pragmatism, or to the self-serving tribalism of the senior commons room with leveling, purposeful populism. That’s all by the way. The nub of my contention is that the humanities have little or nothing to do with academic research and disputation. In fact, as Stover obliquely argues, it has nothing to do with the university itself.

If scholars in the humanities stopped researching arcane topics, stopped publishing them in obscure journals nobody reads, and spent all their time teaching instead, the university itself would cease to exist. We would just have high schools, perhaps good high schools, but high schools nonetheless.

I quite agree. Except for that little phrase “scholars in the humanities.” In my view, there are no such personages. There are only teachers of the humanities. Presumably, they have been trained by scholars, at least in part, and have done some sort of scholarly work themselves as part of their education. But the kind of interrogation that propels scholarship is different from and perhaps even inimical to the questioning that the teacher of humanities sets out to make habitual in students. And if the price of securing solid teaching in the humanities is to forswear the glorious name of “university” and to settle for “good high schools,” I’m happy to pay it.

Let’s grant that the current state of university scholarship is at the very least satisfactory and deserving of public support. Let’s not argue about that when the pressing issue is the education of ordinary citizens at affordable prices.

An idea of education that settles for the inculcation of skill sets is one that all thinking people will reject as inadequate, especially at a time when advances in automation threaten to execute many skills far better than human beings can. What more, then, are we looking for? I believe that citizens need two habits of mind. (The difference between skills and habits of mind is roughly comparable to the difference between amorous acrobatics and love.) They need the habit of critical thinking, of evaluating propositions in context, not just at face value. And they need the habit of curiosity, of wanting to know what is happening. And these habits ought to be yoked by a body of common knowledge: knowledge, specifically, about what has happened in the past, or, in everyday usage, how the hell we got here. Some would call this body of knowledge “history,” but I think it better to leave this term to the scholars. What happened is a less formal, more open-ended way of describing the context of any event, and therefore of any thinking about it. What we mean by “the humanities” — what I mean; excuse me — is simply the grasp of present circumstances in light of what has already happened; there is nothing about this grasp that does not touch upon an aspect of human character; hence: “humanities.” The humanities are a prerequisite to the conduct of a liberal democracy. I don’t think that scholars have done a very good job of teaching them.


Friday 16th

Now that Robert S Mueller III has subpoenaed Trump Organization business documents, it seems to me that his investigation has arrived at a new stage of divisiveness. Critics of the President may tremble with enthusiasm, but I sense that his supporters regard the inquiry as an illegitimate waste of time. Because the division between critics and supporters is pretty much a division between meritocrats and ordinary people, it is all the more difficult for either group to understand the others’ position.

Meritocrats necessarily put great stock in compliance with the rules of the game, because that is the reason for their personal success. Cheating and other forms of dishonesty, however morally reprehensible, are perceived as evil because they undermine the procedures by which talented people attain professional status and worthwhile projects achieve institutional support.

Ordinary people are more inclined to see the rules of the game as weapons used to keep them in their place. They are understandably alert to the self-serving tendencies of meritocratic virtues, and enraged by instances of meritocratic hypocrisy — as, for example, Bill Clinton’s definition of sex. This rage is pretty self-serving, too, as is all ressentiment. But the ordinary people who support Trump don’t give much of a fig for the niceties of influence peddling. And current events have made them cynical about civil safeguards that protect the validity of elections. If Trump has violated some technicalities, he has only been doing (a) what you gotta do to get ahead and (b) what everybody goes. Trump’s supporters can see quite clearly that the meritocracy is out to get their man, period, and that it will bend the rules any whichway to do so. Mueller’s investigation is never going to gain their trust, whatever it uncovers.

Boy, do I hope I’ll be proved wrong!

Bon week-end à tous!