Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
March 2018 (III)

21 and 22 March

Wednesday 21st

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been keeping my original Web log, The Daily Blague, and writing about the things that I do around the house or in the neighborhood, all the stuff that what I’ll call the thoughtfulness of this site has driven out. I still don’t really know what I’m doing at The Daily Blague, but as I grope my way along, one question persists: Is this important? Not, is it interesting. I try never to publish anything that’s not interesting, at least to me. That’s always the important question about writing. But the nagging thing about this subject matter — housekeeping, as I generally call it, or home-making, which I find awkward but more accurate — is that it has never been considered to be much worth talking about.

There’s a good reason for this. Until very recently — in terms of human social history, the Twentieth Century is very recent — there was nothing to discuss. Housekeeping was necessary, which made it important in itself, but in much the same way that most things that happen in a bathroom are important, but not generally talked about unless something goes wrong. Housekeeping in the old days was a matter of keeping things as clean as possible and meals as nourishing as possible. Every household adhered as closely to widely acknowledged standards as the householder’s resources allowed. Women worked inside the house, tidying rooms, caring for clothes, and cooking dinners, while men worked out of doors, in stables and gardens. Wealthy people could hire servants to do all the housework for them; in most middle-class households, some family members worked alongside a servant or two. But aside from minor idiosyncrasies, everyone living in a given town or countryside observed the same standards of housekeeping,  and every household was a cooperative endeavor.

The Twentieth Century is noted for the introduction of labor-saving domestic appliances. What has received far less attention is the introduction of domestic options. For one thing, it became economically feasible for people to live entirely alone. This was as utterly novel as mobile phones would be, seventy-odd years later. Keeping a small apartment in reasonable order need not require a lot of labor, and the whole problem of meals was refigured in terms of convenience, a transformation that climaxed with the appearance of the microwave oven. But people living alone could live as they liked. They were free to ignore, if they chose, those “widely acknowledged standards” that had been observed as part and parcel of respectable life in the old days. It is clear, in retrospect, that servants had served a supplementary function: they were the conscience of the household. They would refuse to work for employers who indulged bad domestic habits or who deviated too far from what servants understood to be correct. (This was particularly true of senior female servants.) Ordinary people, now living on their own, were free of such constraints.

I could insert a paragraph here about the impact of feminism on housekeeping, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The result of modern freedoms has brought about, as one might have foreseen, the collapse of housekeeping standards, and it occurs to me that this collapse is what makes talking about housekeeping important. What does housekeeping mean, now? What does it entail? Are there many ways of keeping house, some of them inconsistent with others? Does it even make sense to speak of housekeeping in the singular?

I think it does. While it might seem reasonable to discuss housekeeping in terms of practices, most of them optional — is it necessary to press bedlinens? — I prefer to look behind the things that housekeepers do to the reasons why they do it. Now, there is no doubt that, for some people, housekeeping is a fantasy, or a neurosis, something that must be done in a certain way to satisfy cravings or to alleviate psychological anxieties. Even in these pathological cases, however, housekeeping is still a matter of caring for someone. And wherever two or more people live together, there is almost inevitably going to be one who cares, in housekeeping terms, for the other(s).

We generally reserve the word caring for situations involving either children or disabled and elderly people who are dependent on others for very basic needs, and we understandably regard this caring as a regrettable, if potential ennobling, kind of drudgery. This reflects the derelict state of the idea of housekeeping, which has become synonymous with the endless repetition of tedious labors. But while it is understandable that we seek to avoid drudgery, it is diminishing to associate caring with mindlessness. I have long believed that caring requires a great deal of thought, especially since most of the people we care for in our homes are not helpless at all, and making them comfortable — the whole point of caring — is anything but straightforward. But even caring for the helpless is not mindless, a point made brilliantly by Jill Lepore in her essay on Rachel Carson in the current issue of The New Yorker.

Carson’s father died in 1935, followed, two years later, by her older sister, leaving Carson to care for her mother and her nieces, ages eleven and twelve; she later adopted her grandnephew, when he was orphaned at the age of four. These obligations sometimes frustrated Carson, but not half as much as they frustrate her biographers. For [Linda] Lear, the author of “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature” (1997) and the editor of an excellent anthology, “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson” (1998), Carson’s familial obligations—in particular, the children—are nothing but burdens that “deprived her of privacy and drained her physical and emotional energy.” Lear means this generously, as a way of accounting for why Carson didn’t write more, and why, except for her Sun articles, she never once submitted a manuscript on time. But caring for other people brings its own knowledge. Carson came to see the world as beautiful, wild, animal, and vulnerable, each part attached to every other part, not only through prodigious scientific research but also through a lifetime of caring for the very old and the very young, wiping a dying man’s brow, tucking motherless girls into bed, heating up dinners for a lonely little boy. The domestic pervades Carson’s understanding of nature. “Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed,” she wrote in 1938, “but the home of the wildlife is also our home.” If she’d had fewer ties, she would have had less insight.

It is not inapposite to point out that the words ecology and ecosystem are rooted in the Greek word for household. So is the word economy. The first and the last were coined in the old days, when households were complex undertakings that required a great deal of cooperation. Food, for example, must not only be prepared but produced or paid for, thus connecting housework to agriculture and commerce. Any idea with the root eco- in it represents our deep sense that all things are interrelated. Our struggles to analyze and compartmentalize produce many fine insights and vital solutions, but they also tend to induce the illusion that any part is detachable from the whole. It was that illusion that inspired the widespread use of DDT, which Rachel Carson so effectively denounced.

In one view, housekeeping is a matter of ticking items off a petty list: when to drag out the vacuum cleaner, what detergent to use in the wash, and so on. In the better view, housekeeping is a matter of ensuring that the household is a home to those who dwell in it. Housekeeping is not only important, but, perhaps precisely thanks to the optionality introduced by the mod cons of the last century, it is arguably as pressing as any of the more established humanities.


Thursday 22nd

What is this meritocracy that I keep talking about? What makes it different from other, earlier schemes for putting the most capable people in charge of things? In a word, its impersonality.

I haven’t written much about liberalism lately. My idea of creating a Web page for this site on which I would spell out my understanding of liberalism in an organized way has not generated any hard work. Meanwhile, I have been writing about “the meritocracy,” which I finally recognize as the correct label for what journalists and demagogues so sloppily call “the élite.” For the most part, I’ve dwelt on the failings of the meritocracy, particularly the decay of its sense of mission, from serving the nation to servicing itself — the inevitable decadence of a ruling class that is answerable only to itself. When I ask what makes meritocracy different from other ways, however, and I locate the aspect of its design that sets it apart, its impersonality, I see in this impersonality a constitutional flaw. This feature has a bug.

Impersonality is a core liberal value. The liberal revolution in late seventeenth-century England instituted, for the first time, a workable solution to what I’ve called the “great men” problem, in which the relation between the crown and the magnates had to be reestablished after the coronation of every successive monarch, according to the personal attributes of all concerned. Sometimes, relations were smooth, but quite often they were not, and in any case they were always unpredictable. The great landowners who fathered liberalism might well have tried to eliminate unpredictability by imposing a new system of government, as indeed the kings of the time were doing. Instead, they repurposed a venerable institution, Parliament. The control over Parliament that these great men exercised was very great, but also somewhat vague and indirect; only a cynic would have claimed that Parliament was their puppet. And of course the magnates, even the liberal magnates, were not a unified political bloc. Liberal lords would have to submit to Parliamentary rule, along with their king and their Tory opponents. (In the event, Tories would so discredit themselves by undermining the Act of Succession that they would disappear from Parliamentary politics for fifty years.) In the impersonal system of liberal Parliamentary government, the king would be free to choose any advisers he chose, so long as those advisers had already been chosen by the Houses of Parliament.

A little over a century later, liberals expanded this impersonality into lower and wider branches of government. And although I am almost certain that nobody ever consciously thought of doing so, the magnates once again adapted a venerable institution. This time, it was the title deed. Every landowner was expected to be able to prove his title to ownership by means of documentary evidence; great landowners established muniment rooms, in which such documents were organized and preserved. Unconsciously, I suspect, liberals hit upon the notion of treating certificates of academic achievement as proof of possession of a certain kind of property — inalienable, in this case. Competitive examinations would establish and recognize the leading holders of intellectual capital. To the owners of such property would go appointments to the principal public offices. Favoritism would no longer have anything to do with advancement.

It took another century for this system to be adopted by all large institutions — universities and great business corporations as well as government offices — but by 1945 the transition was complete. Students were obliged to run a steeplechase of impersonal examinations, focusing on specific, correct answers and avoiding the stylistic, distracting, and ultimately rather personal idiosyncrasies of written essays. Achievement was quantified in scores and numeric grades. Transcripts and test results were as sacred as deeds — which is why cheating became so much more than a personal moral failing.

Thus we came to be governed by men and women who do well on tests.

If that sounds hollow — and it ought to — that’s because our tests are so scrupulously impersonal that they do not examine such important traits as character, moral acuity, or vision. They completely fail as humanistic measures of worth. Doing well on tests is probably an essential skill, but it cannot be the only one investigated, if only because students will have no compelling reason to develop other values, the absence of which in our meritocracy has become so awfully obvious.

Ask yourself if a genuine meritocracy would permit the existence of a media complex in which a man like Donald Trump would achieve wide popularity with certain sectors of the population and then garner extraordinary amounts of free news coverage as a presidential candidate. No matter what you think about her, would a genuine meritocracy have stood by while Hillary Clinton lost the election to such a man? Indeed, I believe Hillary Clinton might be a different, more appealing person in a genuine meritocracy.

She might even be Hillary Rodham period.

More anon.