Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (IV)

27, 28, 29 and 30 March

Tuesday 27th

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Alison Gopnik appraises Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, and finds it wanting — as indeed all reviews that I’ve seen have done, but far less clearly than Gopnik. Gopnik is disturbed by Pinker’s complete failure to address what the editors call “small-town values,” perhaps in a bid to appeal to readers in the flyover. For Gopnik, the problem is that Pinker has no sense of those local commitments that are characterized by peculiar, rather than rational and universal, objectives and relationships. The peculiar has always been a problem for Enlightenment thought; the philosophes appear to have believed that higher levels of education would simply float everyone above it — everyone with a brain, anyway. But people with brains have family ties to people with other strengths. They are attached to circumstances that are not optimal. Maybe Harvard is the best place to study X, but studying X at Harvard means living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least for several years. In our matrix of higher education, a stint at Harvard might require, for optimization, a few years studying X at Stanford, on the other side of the country. As Gopnik says, a scientist may well be unable to settle down to family life before the age of forty. Especially, of course, a scientist who is also a woman.

Gopnik’s piece is not very long; she doesn’t have the time to lay out the extent to which education has been infected by globalist values, or what that means when education involves moving people in the way that investors move money. People, unlike money, are not fungible; everyone is unique, and brilliant people are notably unique. Bringing a few gifted and unusually congenial minds together in the same place may be all it takes to set the Renaissance going, or, for that matter, the Enlightenment. This sort of cultural globalism was apparent in the Mediterranean world of classical antiquity, beginning with the Greeks who went to study mysticism with the Egyptians. Even in what we think of as a Dark Age, in 972, Gerbert of Aurillac, a scholar and statesman who would die as Pope Sylvester II about thirty years later, moved to Rheims, because that was where the best students of logic congregated. Their being in Rheims meant, of course, their not being anywhere else. Ever since, Europe, then the Western World, and now the planet itself have been marked by cultural capitals, outside of which everything was dismissable as provincial.

This is a problem that the Enlightenment didn’t solve, just as it didn’t solve so many others. (There were so many that it never took up.) By and large, the Enlightenment concerned itself with useful, material improvements, and Pinker is right to celebrate them. But he is obtuse to expect readers to ignore the costs. The measurable improvements that he charts throughout Enlightenment Now intensify our sense of what’s missing, the much more difficult to measure but still biting decline in the strength and reliability of personal attachments. Low crime rates and improved nutrition might well seem empty boons to people living alone in featureless environments.

There has been a strong intellectual tradition, ever since the Enlightenment, of regarding the family as a dead weight on the man who would be autonomous and self-realizing. A powerful fuel of this tradition has from the beginning been a contempt for the countervailing bourgeois tradition of regarding the family as a business enterprise requiring cooperation and commitment to collective goals. Initially a struggle of sons against fathers, it has become a resistance of individuals to family responsibilities. Our institutions, so many of them shaped by the Enlightenment and its failure to treat women equally, provide few avenues of resolution. That, Gopnik says, has to change.

One challenge for enlightenment now is to build social institutions that can bridge and balance these values. Family policy is a good example. People on both sides of the political and cultural divides in the U.S. are in rare agreement that programs like family leave and preschool deserve more support, even if the political will for such measures never seems to emerge.

The question is whether the Enlightenment can transcend its preoccupation with specialization, which rests on the observation that it is much easier to do something well if there are no distractions. Family life is a tissue of distractions. So long as Enlightenment institutions prefer people who are willing to abandon the family context, or to rely on others (women) to minister to family life, the Enlightenment project will continue to have fierce enemies.


Wednesday 28th

It is often quite difficult to think of writing anything here while Donald Trump occupies the White House. I am of two minds about the man, or rather, of one mind and one body. To my mind, Trump is a vaccine, untested and possibly lethal, that nevertheless might at the very least render smart people allergic to spending nonworking hours in front of screens. For over a year now, men and women who believe in the benefits of procedure, compromise, and complexity have been reeling in toxic shock; to my mind, this is a great opportunity to develop greater political respect for those who don’t, if only because the alternative might involved tumbrils and Madame Defarge.

So much for my mind. My body is, like everyone else’s, reeling in toxic shock. My mind counsels that things may very well get better. My body wants to throw up. My body is broken by the fact that the Short-Fingered Vulgarian has, not entirely unpredictably, exploited American media to make the derailment of American politics even worse than it already was. My mind argues that trains can usually be put back on the track. My body is not certain that it hasn’t been mauled by the derailment. Hush, hush, says my mind — why, you’ve hardly been out of the house. Exactly, says my body.

My body sees the man, hears the voice — nausea. And the knockdown stench of symbiosis — can his Republican and evangelical enablers ever be forgiven? Or will they kill us first?


Corey Robin’s “Easy Chair” essay, in the current issue of Harper’s, is one of the rare responses to Trump to indicate that the vaccine might be working; Robin, at least, has gotten beyond the allergic-to-Trump phase. Reading his essay, “Forget About It,” a second time, I wonder, actually, if Robin might have been previously inoculated. “Almost everything people found outrageous and objectionable about [Trump's] candidacy — the racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law — I’d been seeing in the right for years. Little in Trump surprised me, except for the fact that he won.”

What Robin is saying here is that the Trump vaccine ought not to have been necessary, after Nixon and Reagan — and, although he doesn’t mention him, Dick Cheney. You can argue that Nixon and Reagan are different because they held elected office prior to the presidency, but all that means is that it didn’t, and doesn’t, make a difference. You can’t argue that Nixon and Reagan were better than Trump because one of them had been a vice president and the other a governor. If Trump is in any way worse than Nixon and Reagan, that might simply owe to the destruction that they wrought on our institutions and traditions. Trump’s damage is more spectacular but also less fundamental, more superstructural.

Robin notes that friends find his plus ça change observations about Trump irritating. Sadly, they do so because they are still allergic to Trump. If we could get of Trump, they feel, everything would be fine. But that is dangerously wrong, for getting rid of Trump might simply make room for someone more capable of deploying malignancy than a repeatedly unsuccessful casino developer. It is essential that we explain Trump’s ascendancy in terms of everyday political life, not monstrous electoral aberration. “The racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law” — these characteristics are hardly limited to the conservative leadership. Nor are they necessarily signs of blinkered intelligence. The rule of law, for example, has degenerated into the rule of technicalities. Law no longer pretends to speak with deliberate intelligibility, because our complicated environment has convinced us that law, as if it were a branch of engineering, need only be understood by lawyers. I have long argued (to anyone who would listen) that one truly amazing thing about American history is how little time it took for the United States to develop the very same paralyzing surfeit of competing jurisdictions that made getting things done in medieval Europe so expensive. Regard for institutions is inevitably diminished by such bureaucratic kudzu. As for violence and racism, both express widespread existential uncertainties about masculinity in an industrial world that no longer requires manly muscle; I see zero effort to respond to this other than by scolding.

Meanwhile, everyone is staring at screens — when it’s time to man the lifeboats. That is: do something.


Thursday 29th

In today’s Times, there’s a story about Douglas Greenberg, ace financial planner and serial wife- and girlfriend-beater. As of publication date, Greenberg was still employed by Morgan Stanley, although the firm has been aware for some time of his domestic issues.

It’s a clarifying story, because Greenberg’s misbehavior does not involve work associates (or clients, needless to say). Greenberg was not a Human Resources problem for the banking firm. What he did at home was his business, or rather, it was not his business; it was his something else. Call it recreation if you like. Professionally, Greenberg was an untainted star.

This is a classic case of the meritocracy at work. So long as Greenberg’s “personal life” evaded criminal conviction, and his derelictions were in no way financial, Morgan Stanley could ignore them. Until #MeToo, anyway.

The other day (14 March), I wrote that the meritocracy is under attack on two fronts, by parties that are themselves mutually opposed. They are, interestingly, attacking the meritocracy for complementary reasons. The deplorables-and-proud-of-it, also known as Trump supporters, charge the meritocracy with incompetence — ruling without merit. Meanwhile, women and others who have been slighted by heteronormative privilege are calling out the meritocracy for ruling without humanity.

At a minimum, the meritocracy is going to have to do a better job, even though this will not redeem it with women, and to treat women properly, even if this would excite Trump supporters’ contempt.


Friday 30th

Kathleen and I often ask ourselves, whatever happened to leadership? The answer came to me yesterday: meritocracy. And how obvious. What could be less conducive to leadership than pursuing the skills required to do well on examinations — in other words, learning how to follow.

In their zeal to eliminate favoritism, nepotism, and other routes whereby the unqualified might attain political or professional power, the architects of meritocracy did what they could to prevent the replication of networks of eminent, mutually influential men in future generations. Professionalizing (quantifying) eminence was one step. Making prominence contingent on competition and mobility was another. By continuing the steeplechase of tests in the guise of publications and prizes, meritocracy made it difficult to settle down in any one place or position. Two professors, say, at Stanford and at Princeton, who might have been friends in the pre-meritocratic dispensation, sharing information about promising students on either side of the country, were now rivals for a top job at Harvard.

When my grandfather went to law school, I’m told, he wrote to say that he’d be coming. This was not in reply to an acceptance letter. The distance between his hometown, Clinton, and Davenport, both on the Iowa banks of the Mississippi River, was not great, and doubtless the authorities at St Ambrose had heard a thing or two about the young man, and were happy to welcome him. They may have had an inkling of his future, even if they could not foresee that he would become active in the Democratic Party, and instrumental in holding the Iowa delegation together in support of FDR at the 1932 national convention —for which he would be rewarded with appointment to the bench of what was then called the Customs Court.

I am fairly certain that my grandfather would have done just as well in our meritocracy. But I think the United States lost something in the surrender to academic gatekeeping. We might recall, by the way, that Roosevelt distinguished himself at Harvard neither as a student nor as an athlete, but as editor of the Crimson.

Bon week-end à tous!