Gotham Diary:
More Rectification
June 2018 (III)

19 and 20 June

Tuesday 19th

I have something new, I think, to say against television. I don’t think that I’ve said it before.

Television is a dream.

Last night, as I was finishing up Thinking Without a Banister, a collection of odds and ends by Hannah Arendt, including interviews and panel discussions, I came across this, from an opening address to her students at the New School.

Plato, certainly foremost among all those whose texts have been taught and learned throughout the centuries, once said: “Every one of us is like a man who sees things in a dream and thinks he knows them perfectly, and then he awakens and finds that he knows nothing.” (513-4)

So it is, I saw at once, with watching television. Television is crafted to convey an illusion of knowledge and understanding. This illusion evaporates when put to the test, when the dreamer “awakens” and tries to contribute the new knowledge and understanding to a discussion with other people. Confusion ensues. Dreamers remember something of what they saw, but nothing about what it meant. Only vague and contradictory feelings persist.

Many viewers of television, of course, never awaken in this sense at all. They go on thinking that they know and understand everything.

In its infancy, television was regarded as a medium that would connect people to the world. Proto-MOOCs provided some of the earliest programming; Sunrise Semester debuted in 1957. By then, however, it was understood that the general audience was not interested in genuine edification. Learning is difficult, by turns tedious and scary. (Just ask any first-year law student.) People have enough real life as it is. What they want from television is entertainment and uplift.

I’ve got nothing to say against that, except that anyone with an education ought to find entertainment and uplift in superior formats. (It’s difficult to think of any that are inferior.) And to argue that presenting news as a kind of uplifting entertainment transforms it instantly into fantasy — a dream that never was and can never be. So it is with the monstrous (and partially scripted) reality shows, of which Donald Trump was a leading exponent.

For many, television is a dream of luxury and gratification in comparison to which their actual circumstances are matter for bitter resentment.

It is frightening to consider how much time and emotional investment the citizens of what is supposed to be the world’s most powerful nation spend on dreaming.


The other day, I concluded an entry at the other blog by quipping, “Men may make things happen, but it’s women who keep things going.” I thought that this was very clever at the time, but as soon as I repeated it to Kathleen, who did laugh, I saw how fatuous it was, because everyone has always known that it is true. What is new, what I neglected to say, is that women’s ability, or determination, to keep things going is no longer to be attributed to some mysterious female essence, inborn or hermetically inculcated, that a real man could never comprehend, much less imitate. If feminists have accomplished nothing else, they have exposed traditional women’s work as a grim regime of unattainably smooth routine pursued behind a mask of false placidity. They have traded in the model of keeping things going that men had in mind for something more humane and sustainable. And there are men who do know how to keep things going. Engineers come to mind. Now if we could only get teenaged boys to pick up their rooms.

(This was never an issue for me. By the time my mother got through with me, and I was living on my own, I found the sight of an unmade bed deeply unsettling.)

If only, that is, we didn’t have to wait for men to find out that there is nothing inherently special about being male. What’s special about being male is living in a culture that believes it to be the case. In our culture, this belief is somewhat vestigial. The principal traditional manly virtues, courage and stoicism, are no longer so blankly admired. Courage turns out to be surprising. It is not something that you have, but something that you express (or don’t) in an uncontrollable, often spontaneous situation. Sometimes, it’s hard to distinguish heroism from recklessness, the reach for glory from vanity. As for stoicism, it’s a cop-out, a learned inability to feel. There is something nihilistic about playing tough. If life is a struggle, then it ought to be for the sake of improvement, not for acquiescence.

Still, courage and stoicism — and let’s throw in honor while we’re at it — are often what keeps a man, especially a young man, from behaving like a rank pig, from collapsing into a black hole of selfishness. From expecting life on earth to follow the script of a pornographic film. Simple decency would do the job just as well, but one of the hiccups of receding machismo is the idea that decency is for losers.

The very concept of losers betrays the tremendous anxiety of men who, mistaking masculinity for personhood, sense that their manliness is “under siege.” (If so, by whom? By women? Ha! By other men, that’s by whom.) Losers are traitors who let down the side. Have a look at the Ngram: it’s interesting that the surge in usage coincides with the advance of feminist policies. I don’t think that men who use the word “loser” are afraid of becoming women. I think that they’re afraid of not being, ipso facto, special. It’s painful to lose privileges, especially unearned ones.


Wednesday 20th

Perhaps my favorite piece in Thinking Without a Banister, the Hannah Arendt collection that I mentioned yesterday, is entitled “Hannah Arendt on Hannah Arendt.”

Even before I became familiar with the work of Hannah Arendt, I shared her habit of beginning by defining terms, by making distinctions, in her case often surprising ones (between “power” and “violence,” for example). I know that it imparts a potentially tedious atmosphere of the treatise, teasing the reader with a suspicion that the preliminaries are never going to come to an end, but I don’t know where I stand if the words representing ideas are untethered to clear limitations.

The key word in the following discussion is going to be capitalism.

I’ve just read a piece by Ross Douthat in which he discusses the evaporation of feminist opposition to surrogacy.

You can tell a number of stories about why this happened. Defending the legal logic of abortion rights — my body, my choice — pushed feminism in a libertarian direction. The benefits of in vitro fertilization made a lively trade in eggs and embryos seem desirable or at least inevitable. The gay rights movement created strong social pressure in favor of allowing male same-sex couples to have children as close to the old-fashioned way as possible. And biotechnology advanced to a point where most commercial surrogacy became “gestational,” meaning that the surrogate carries someone else’s child rather than her own — which reduces the particularly agonizing aspect of the Whitehead case, where it was her own biological child that she had sold and wanted back.

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.

The logic of capitalism? What’s that doing there? Puzzling over the statement, I conclude that Douthat is attributing to the concept of capitalism the notion that everything is for sale, that consumerism will eventually prevail. I certainly share his concern, but I don’t think that it helps his argument at all to invoke capitalism. For one thing, it obliges him to claim that “the most serious form of cultural conservatism has always offered at most two cheers for capitalism, recognizing that its great material beneficence can coexist with dehumanizing cruelty, that its individualist logic can encourage a ruthless materialism unless curbed and checked and challenged by a moralistic vision.” Not only is it confusing to hear a conservative commentator derogate capitalism, but it heaps up further attributions that aren’t really proper to capitalism.

I have said it before, but I will say it again. Capitalism is a strategy for creating new enterprises — perhaps it’s the only effective one. In order to get a new business going, investors commit a pool of money (“surplus capital”) to entrepreneurs, who use the money to buy things and pay salaries and go into business and, it is hoped, make a profit. Profits are then repaid to the investors (the “capitalists”), replenishing and perhaps even augmenting their stock of surplus capital, so that they can go and invest in other start-ups. That is all there is to it. Capitalism itself is agnostic about the morality of the enterprise and its business methods. Those are social concerns, to be decided and enforced by behavioral norms or by laws. Many conceivable enterprises ought to be discouraged, or even prohibited, but it is not up to capitalists to decide which ones, because they have no interest in making such distinctions. It is up to society at large, not to capitalists, to decide what is for sale, and what isn’t.

We happen to live in a time when money is the only medium of value that is recognized by everyone. We all agree that a dollar is a dollar. We’re nearly as unanimous on the point that it’s wrong — unacceptable, criminal, punishable — to pay a third party to kill someone. It is wrong to kidnap children for ransom. If I put my mind to it, I might be able to come up with ten or twenty nearly absolute monetized no-nos. A trivial pursuit, in light of the perfect legality of covering acres of agricultural land with shoddy ranch houses and lots of pavement. This isn’t perceived as an instance of “dehumanizing cruelty” today, but I hope that it will be, in a generation or two. But the fact that today’s capitalists can invest in a tract housing scheme does not imply that capitalism is wicked, or even that capitalists are wicked. The dehumanizing cruelties of the early phase of the Industrial Revolution had never been experienced before, but they were quickly recognized as such, and duly curbed. It really cannot be argued that the activities of capitalists have not been substantially humanized — not that there isn’t room for improvement — since 1800.

“Capitalism” and “consumerism” are not synonyms, nor does one term subsume the other. Unlike capitalism, which is neutral in this regard, consumerism actually seeks to put a price on everything, to gratify every conceivable desire. As a vernacular, consumerism has become confused with self-realization, a projection of the soul onto stuff. Advertising has replaced scripture.

Now I will wrinkle the page a bit by positing two forms of capitalism, or rather a sequence of capitalist phases. The first, which is what I have been discussing, is risk capitalism: money invested in new enterprises. When I said that “profits are then repaid to the investors,” I was being idealistic, because that is what ought to happen. When a start-up is successful, and especially when a business stabilizes, the investors ought to sever their connections and move on to other gambles. This is pretty much what venture capitalists do. They sell the new operation to another class of investors: rentiers. I have nothing against those who spend their days clipping coupons and eating bon bons (pardon my dated image!), but I should prefer them to be creditors, not owners.

I raise this distinction between gamblers and rentiers simply to underline my belief that genuine capitalism is exclusively a matter of short-term ventures, and that mature business operations ought to generate and consume their own revenues without the distraction of passive shareholders. In other words: no profits, no surplus capital. Mature businesses, in my view, owe too much to the communities in which they flourish to entertain the concerns of profit-seeking investors. I hope it will be seen that I am by the same token opposed to government interference or ownership. The idea that, between them, rentier capitalism and socialism exhaust the possibilities of business operations is unintelligent.

Bon week-end à tous!