Archive for February, 2017

Gotham Diary:
Teachers’ Homework
February 2017

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 14, 17, 21, 22, 24 and 27 February

Tuesday 2nd

On the way from the dermatologist’s office to the barber shop, I stopped in yesterday at the Video Room, and rented a couple of discs. One was Secretariat, which we haven’t seen even though Diane Lane is in it. The other featured an even grander diva, Meryl Streep: it was the recent Florence Foster Jenkins. This we watched after dinner. (Secretariat, no longer a new release, can wait.)

I’m enormously puzzled by Florence, because the people who made it are all master craftsmen who know how to make what they set out to make. What did they have in mind here? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that they had inconsistent things in mind. At the center of the production, of course, is the spectacle of the society dame who used her wealth and the cooperation of her fellow biddies to conduct a semi-private musical career, the joke being: was there a joke about the fact that every sound coming out of her mouth was unmusical? The spectacle (according to the movie) took place when Florence, finding herself adrift in a fog of loneliness, ill-health, and patriotism, hired Carnegie Hall and distributed free tickets to her show to servicemen. This swan dive was followed almost immediately by illness and death. Florence Foster Jenkins would be an arcane footnote in the history of Gotham if she had not taken the trouble to record  performances of a number of chestnuts, accompanied by the fantastically-named pianist, Cosme McMoon. I doubt that these recordings have ever been out of print in my lifetime. They were part of the soundtrack, an occasional weir in the flood of Edith Piaf, at the mauve end of the undergraduate spectrum when I was in school. To be at all sophisticated, you had to know who she was and how bad she was.

The fascination is hard to pin down. Once you have been acquainted with the sheer fact of Jenkins’s voice, there is little pressure to explore further, because her singing is just bad. I haven’t been able to find a redeeming contour, but I haven’t tried very hard. This isn’t to say, however, that the Jenkins story isn’t interesting. It’s almost too interesting.  In 2005, Judy Kaye and Donald Corren brought Stepehen Temperley’s Souvenir to the stage. It was in its every corpuscle an evening of theatre: you had to be there. I thought that it would run forever, so perfect it was, but it didn’t. Happily, I wrote it up at Portico. I knew from the reviews that Florence Foster Jenkins would be nothing like it: I had never heard of Jenkins’s husband, St Clair Bayfield, and there was certainly no room for him in Souvenir. I found it hard to believe that Meryl Streep was going to spend a significant chunk of film time being ludicrous.

And of course she doesn’t. She does something so unusual — for her — that I’m not sure that she really did it. Two things, actually. First, she recycles an earlier performance, the one as Julia Child. Mrs Child was something of a society dame, too, but if she could actually cook she also could deal with the fact that many of her viewers found her presentations to be hysterically funny. (Maybe the laughter doesn’t hurt if it can’t be heard in the studio.) Jenkins, at least until Carnegie Hall, performed with the very reasonable expectation (unconscious, probably) that it would be unforgivably rude to guffaw. Streep has only to add a dash of cluelessness to her slyly distracted Julia to produce a convincing Florence.

Even more surprising, however, she does not attempt to steal the show from Hugh Grant, and this is where the puzzle lies. The film’s title is misleading; it ought to have been something like The Constant Husband, or perhaps The Inconstant Husband, sounding different registers of irony but identifying the heart of the story, which is the tale of a devoted (if unfaithful) husband’s determination to protect his wife’s amour propre from her ambitions. When she indulges in a song recital, he hand-picks the audience. After the performance, he assures her that she was wonderful. If necessary, he bribes newspapermen. It’s a full-time job, and of course Hugh Grant is perfectly suited to making madcap leaps from panicked frown to flashbulb smile, and to forestalling calamity with preternatural glibness. (His voice has two gears, ultra-hesistant and gush.) The difficulty with Florence Foster Jenkins is that you don’t worry about Florence; you worry about St Clair.

And yet the movie raises a great deal of pathos out of Florence’s health, a problem having little to do with her singing. Infected with syphilis by her husband as a teen bride, Florence is a survivor at the end of her ninth life. (This is very wicked of me, but when Florence’s maid — played so well by Brid Brennan that I wanted to see a movie about her — removed her lady’s wig, and replaced it with a turban, I saw that Streep’s very next role ought to be Edith Sitwell.) The movie rather helplessly kills Florence off by a bad review from which all of St Clair’s efforts couldn’t protect her. It is very dramatic, of course; the tragedy of the final farce is very well done. But did she die because Earl Wilson panned her? The puzzle is that the filmmakers ought to have known that this somewhat illegitimate  wind-up would be cinematically inevitable. The cabaret of Souvenir could end with McMoon’s narrative from the piano. But Nicholas Martin’s screenplay has to show us something, and mere after-the-show exhaustion wouldn’t be enough. So we get Meryl on the marble.

The only way to redeem this confusing exploit will be to make a film about Mrs Miller.


Friday 3rd

Last month, Daniel Barenboim conducted a cycle of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies at Carnegie Hall. I didn’t attend any of the concerts. Although I’ve known the Third Symphony since I was a freshman in college, the rest are more or less indistinguishable to me. They’re beautiful and exciting, but, more than that, they’re the same. I seem to be incapable of discriminating among them. Now I wonder if Times music critic Corinna da Fonseca Wollheim hasn’t put her finger on why. In a discussion with her colleague Zachary Woolfe that the newspaper published last week, she said something that stuck with me — something that bears on a great deal more than Bruckner.

My experience in the hall was inevitably colored by what has happened in the world, beginning with a presidential inauguration that was heavy on nationalist rhetoric. Perhaps my biggest gripe about Bruckner has been how perfectly suited his music is to communal veneration. A lot of people who love Mahler also love Bruckner, and there are similarities. But Mahler always puts the individual — the doubting, neurotic individual — at the center. In Bruckner, the triumphant hero of too many movements seems to be a “we.”

In today’s paper, David Brooks writes about the American myth that he finds represented on the dome of the Library of Congress.

In that story, America is placed at the vanguard of the great human march of progress. America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind.

This historical story was America’s true myth. When we are children, and also when we are adults, we learn our deepest truths through myth.

It seems to me that the “we” whom David Brooks has learning our deepest truths through myth is the same triumphant hero that makes da Fonseca Wollheim so uncomfortable (as it does me)

My preferred “we” is a crowd of doubting, neurotic individuals. Call it the Manhattan We. We don’t share many myths, because we disagree about most things, but we know how to walk down the street. When strangers ask, we either give good directions or we admit that we don’t know the way. Despite our differences about everything that matters, we Gothamites manage to get along in surprisingly peaceful coexistence. If anything, that is our myth.

We even put up with decades of Donald Trump.

Now, there’s a myth for you!


Monday 6th

It seems that Kathleen has just volunteered my services as a cook to produce a dinner on Thursday night for two of her Smith classmates, “if he’s up for it.” Her friends may have better ideas, involving real restaurants. Why come into the city just to sit in a quiet apartment? But I must be prepared for Kathleen’s offer to be accepted, particularly as I’ve ratified it with an email of my own.

Over the weekend, I browsed the pages of Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, a collection of pieces written for The Spectator and other periodicals, mostly during the Fifties and the Sixties. David’s writing about food casts a spellbinding illusion: all you need do to prepare a scrumptious meal is to take a nap. While you sleep, delicious ingredients will pile up in a nearby marketplace. When you wake up, just stroll down the stalls and fill your shopping basket with produce so bursting with culinary virtue that, once spread out on your rustic kitchen table, it will cook itself.

(Some of David’s books, such as English Bread and Yeast Cookery, do not bear much relation to meals at all, but seem more like craft projects that just happen to produce edible goods.)

This illusion is doubtless produced by David’s long experience of staying out of kitchens whilst other people did the cooking. She did cook herself, of course, but when I think of her at home I remember reading that she liked to sit at her rustic kitchen table with a glass of wine that was never empty. She would perch next to the oven, so that all she had to to was turn in her seat, open the oven door, and give the casserole a little stir. How the casserole was composed is not in the picture, but the glass of wine must have been part of that, too. On the cover of An Omelette and A Glass of Wine is a drawing of David, leaning against a cabinet, holding a glass of wine. She seems to be engaged with an unseen friend, and utterly relaxed. It is clear that David’s school of gastronomy holds, as a first principle, that we will eat our dinner when it is good and ready.

I learned about this approach to cooking too late in life to adapt to it, and I never had a kitchen large enough for a rustic kitchen table. The moment that separates what used to be called “cocktails,” a period that begins when guests arrive, and “sitting down” at the table has always been, for lack of a better word, decisive, because my first principle holds that, once people are seated, dinner proceeds at a reasonable pace. If there is a soup to start, then whatever follows must be on the table within twenty minutes at the utmost of clearing the bowls. Guests cannot be allowed to wonder, uncomfortably, what is going on in the kitchen. Even when it is just the two of us, and Kathleen is wholly absorbed by whatever she is reading or stitching, I am haunted by the quartermaster over my shoulder.

Although the local marketplaces are among the best in Manhattan, it would never occur to me to shop for what looks good. The very idea of such spontaneous impressionism puts me into a panic. I must be armed with plans when I walk into Agata & Valentina or Whole Foods. But plans, no matter how well drawn up, are rarely fun to follow. A few times in my life, I have thrown together delicious meals from ingredients on hand. It is like great sex: better not to count on it. I have also thrown together meals that tasted thrown together, against a brick wall somewhere.

David gives a recipe from a Tuscan inn that she calls “the lake place.” I shall certainly give it a try, but not this Thursday. (Kathleen’s offer has been declined.) It’s for spaghetti with chicken livers and lemon. Other ingredients include ham, garlic, Parmesan, and lots of egg yolks. (It sounds like a supercharged carbonara.) David talks about the size and excellence of the livers of well-fed Tuscan chickens; I wonder if I can count on Agata & Valentina for quality above and beyond the ordinary. And all those eggs! In another essay, David writes about the fame of Mme Poularde’s Mont-St-Michel omelettes. She laughs at the food writers who speculated wildly about secret ingredients. But it was probably just the eggs, very good and very fresh eggs. How fresh can an egg in Manhattan be?

There are at least two pieces about Norman Douglas in An Omelette and A Glass of Wine. I had heard of Douglas before I learned about David’s friendship with him, but only barely. On the strength of her enthusiasm, I roped in a copy of South Wind from somewhere. “Wind” was right. It reminded me of E F Benson’s Lucia books, but without the laughs. Instead, something that Mrs Lucas herself might have penned. South Wind may be a cornerstone of Anglophone Caprimania, but I’d rather read Shirley Hazzard on the subject. David herself is pretty good; after all, she makes Douglas sound interesting. One of her pieces here explodes with indignation at the witlessness of a publisher who reprinted Douglas’s Venus in the Kitchen, as if the title were not ironic, with drawings of little cupids in bathing trunks. The notion of a craftily concocted dish that will reduce anyone who eats it to indiscriminate erotic wantonness is probably as old as clay pots, but while a good meal will almost always produce good feelings, the cook must still in propria persona attract the diner from the table to the divan.

But what do I know? I don’t really associate food with love. I associate it with conversation. Without good talk, even the best food is just snacks.


Thursday 9th

It has been a quiet week. On Monday, I did nothing, aside from writing here. On Tuesday, I took the new subway down to 72nd Street, the next stop, and walked three long blocks to the Hospital for Special Surgery, where I spent the later afternoon in the Infusion Therapy Unit, connected to a Remicade drip. On the way, I discovered that there are no escalators at the northern, or 72nd Street, end of the station, only a bank of elevators. The elevators open directly onto the sidewalk, beneath a canopy. On my return, I was bemused by the rhythm of progressing upwards from the platform via three escalators and then, without a great deal of lateral travel, the elevator in which my homewards ascent was concluded.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend from out of town. We walked over to the Museum afterwards, for some reason along 83rd Street. I used to walk the block of 83rd Street between Second and Third Avenues all the time, in the days of the Green Village Market, a Korean greengrocery where I could sign for boxes of produce and have them delivered. The space has for quite a long time now been occupied by a 7-Eleven. More happily, St Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church still occupies its spot on 83rd Street. At one point, it seemed doomed by the archdiocese. It may still be at risk. But it is still there, its façade flush with its neighbors’, its gable and spire giving the sky above a European air.

At the Museum, as we walked among the Old Master paintings, my friend told me about the cousin with whom he would be having dinner. I came away with a rather Cubist notion of the lady; I know her age for sure, but other details, however individually distinct, remain only unclearly related to her. I attribute this confusion to my having interrupted my friend to point at various pictures, such as the Rubens painting that, as it happened, adorned the jacket of my first recording of Beethoven’s Seventh. (Only just now have I learned that the background was painted by the elder Brueghel.) It’s odd that the Holocaust comes into this cousin’s story, but I’m quite sure that it does.

Yesterday was a pleasant day for walking, quite unseasonably balmy. Today it is cold again but at least there is the mitigation of piles of snow. Kathleen decided to stay home, and we slept until well past noon. I got up, finally, because my dreams were disturbing me. One involved a set of miniature kitchen implements, and it needled me with questions not only about whether I had lost part or all of it but also about having invented it. If I had invented it, why something so silly and pointless? Just talking about it, I see my hand placing a small plastic fork on a piece of dark cloth. It’s not restful.

In the new New Yorker (13 & 20 February), I read two pieces about death, Thomas Mallon’s review of George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Kathryn Schulz’s essay, “Losing Streak.” I am not in a hurry to get to the novel, but I expect that I’ll read it presently. Schulz writes about losing her father; she also mentions losing the election. I’ve lost elections before, but this time the loss is different.

The morning after the election, I cried again, missing my refugee father, missing the future I had thought would unfold. In its place, other kinds of losses suddenly seemed imminent: of civil rights, personal safety, financial security, the foundational American values of respect for dissent and difference, the institutions and protections of democracy.

The sentence brought me up short, because I long ago ceased to believe in the existence of “foundational American values.” What I’ve lost in this past election is faith in the ability of intelligent Americans to protect the institutions, from law courts to power plants, that have made complex organisms such as New York City largely safe and largely predictable. This isn’t to say that I’m expecting disaster tomorrow. But too many people have been counting too heavily on things like respect for dissent and difference, taking them for granted, even. Taking things for granted is a small weakness that can open the door to great evil.


Friday 10th

Last night, I finally got to the end of Mark Greengrass’s Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648. It’s a sound history, but not a particularly captivating one, because it favors issues analysis over narrative. I had made up my mind, midway through it, that my next book would be C V Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, and I had already taken it down from the shelf, so after I closed the one I opened the other. A clipping from the Times fluttered out: a brief obituary of Wedgwood from 1997. If I’d known it, I’d forgotten how young Wedgwood was when she wrote her big book — not quite thirty.

It didn’t take long to savor the difference between the two books. Wedgwood is lucidity itself, written in the spirit of Johnsonian coherence. Greengrass seems to have something insightful but complicated to tell us; it is always just a little too complicated for the point to be made. The writing is somewhat curious: just to pick one tiny example, on page 163 the word “deception” occurs, but it makes no sense unless construed as déception, the French for “disappointment.” As I worked my way through Christendom Destroyed, I was often made aware of changes in academic fashion, as I suppose any serious reader of my age is bound to be; like anyone of my age, I’m inclined to think that the old fashions served well enough, although I suppose that Wedgwood’s confidence might strike younger minds as presumptuous. Even twenty years ago, the Times bracketed her as a “Storyteller of History.”

Sixteen pages in, Wedgwood inserts a political observation that deserves, I think, more attention: it highlights the Machiavellian impulses not of rulers but of the ruled.

Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.

The truth of this maxim is borne out by terrorism, which seeks to eliminate the comfort that a bad government can provide. Reformers also try to make us uncomfortable. The reason why it might not be a good idea to accept the comforts of a bad government is that a bad government might change its mind about you, and decide to withhold your comforts. It is certainly more prudent to enjoy moderate comfort under a good government than excessive comfort under a tyranny.

We all have different ideas of comfort, some of which cannot be harmonized with others, and that makes for political problems. But for each of us personally there is a moral question: how righteous are your comforts? The easy, adolescent answer is that comfort is never righteous. Teenagers cling to this view because they can’t find comfort anywhere. Most of us outgrow the misery of those years, but some people don’t. Some people never learn that other people have feelings, too, and that the mere fact that their feelings are different does not make them wrong.

Most of us are much more respectful of others when we are comfortable. This is a law of human nature that ought to inform political arrangements at the most basic level. There is no point in drafting a constitution that disregards the importance of comfort. Our Declaration of Independence speaks of “happiness,” which, for political purposes, seems to me to be much the same thing. If I am allowed to pursue happiness, I am unlikely to begrudge others the same freedom. The righteousness of my comforts, then, is a factor of the liberty that my behavior bestows. If my idea of comfort involves screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night, it is manifestly unrighteous. My comforts must be constrained by my neighbors’ right to the quiet enjoyment of their homes, to their comfort. Neighborly comfort is righteous.


Monday 13th

No matter how nutty they are, Transhumanists — at least, the ones Mark O’Connell writes about in this weekend’s Times Magazine — have one very attractive selling point: opposed to death in general, they’re opposed to war in particular. They argue for diverting defense budgets into advancing the technology that will make them immortal.

And they’re not really so nutty. They’re just young, or rather just old enough to grasp the terrible waste of their dying now, in the prime of life. They can’t imagine that this prime will ever come to an end, other than by premature death. Nor has the selfishness of their desire to stick around forever, leaving no room for future generations, really occurred to them; if it has, they’ve probably satisfied their conscience by supposing that, once their principal objective has been achieved, the colonization of space ad infinitem will be no problem.

Mark O’Connell’s piece is very well done, but it probably isn’t as funny as I thought it was when I encountered it, simply by turning a page in the Magazine. I had been reading a very different sort of piece, an essay about what is arguably the most complicated topic of civil conversation today, feminism. Feminism is so complicated, in fact, that it’s probably a mistake to call it “feminism,” but I’ll come back to that in a moment. The juxtaposition of a grave meditation on questions that, although addressed to women, make demands of us all, and a travelogue involving a rattling old recreational vehicle and two young guys, one of them, in the journalist’s words, “as strange a person as I had ever met, and I had met a great many strange people in the year and a half I spent reporting on transhumanists,” was as jolting as a pothole. How could the editors of the Magazine imagine for a moment that O’Connell’s clowns deserved even more column inches than Amanda Hess’s reflections?

But there you have it. A lot of women, over here, trying to imagine a more civil arrangement of human affairs. Over there, a couple of guys yakking about transcending it. If you have any kind of mind at all, you can’t help wishing that the Transhumanists will succeed — and then disappear.


In “Forces in Opposition,” Amanda Hess uses last month’s Women’s March on Washington to frame a problem that has nagged feminism since American women began to make demands that we now characterize as feminist, before the Civil War. Much bigger than the problem of women’s rights, the problem of racism, focused on and defined by African-American physiognomy, was something that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for one, wished would just go away. “In 1865,” Hess writes, “Stanton lamented having to ‘stand aside to see “Sambo” walk into the kingdom first’.” We may have arrived at last at the moment when the two struggles must be reconciled, and, going forward, prosecuted in the same terms. One such term, according to Hess, would be “intersectionality,” but the word is too new to me for me to use it. I do see that what anti-racists and feminists have in common is the conviction that physical destiny — outward appearance — is neither a support for privilege nor a justification of degradation. Although the thinkers of the Enlightenment were almost wholly devoted to enlarging the political franchise for white males only, their fundamental belief that quality of mind trumps accident of birth is the foundation of all equal-rights arguments. In other words, the white male body does not ipso facto house a superior intelligence.

Among the dreadful truths that Donald Trump’s campaign exposed (and they are truths!) is the extent to which Americans reject this enlightened idea. When it came to the vote, it was close enough to fifty-fifty to be extremely upsetting to anyone who believes in equal rights for all adults. (It ought not to have been so surprising, though.) The most striking feature of the vote was the support that white women gave to the Republican ticket. After the election, there was stream of anecdotal evidence that many of these women, while they didn’t think much of the presidential candidate himself, were comfortable with the idea of letting white men run things. Many Americans, of course, did not want one particular woman, Hillary Clinton, to run things, and I daresay that many of the women who voted for Trump would say that the real problem with feminism is that it throws women like Clinton into prominence.

It turns out that the United States was not ready to be governed by a black president. Too large a contingent of citizens simply hunkered down in absolute obstruction. It is clear now that this contingent was not so much opposed by Democrats as ignored, but then, as David Bromwich writes, in a powerful piece in the current London Review of Books, “Democrats have forgotten what it means to constitute an opposition.” At another point in “Act One, Scene One,” Bromwich sets out a calendar of Democratic Party failures to mount opposition to Republican Party advances.

With the election and partial legitimation of Trump against the massed energy of the Democratic Party, many Republicans and virtually all the mainstream media, we have witnessed a revolution of manners. Will a political revolution follow? What is ominous is the uncertainty and the leaderless state of the opposition. The Democrats are at their lowest ebb since 1920, and this is anything but a sudden misfortune: the loss of nerve started with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which surprised the Democrats and shook their confidence in the tenability of the welfare state, and the threat to mixed constitutional government was clear in the 1994 midterm election, when 367 Republican candidates signed the Contract with America, with its pledge to slash government spending in the first hundred days of a new Congress. The contract was the precursor of the Tea Party – its instigator, Newt Gingrich, has become a leading adviser to Donald Trump. The Democrats behaved persistently as if the Republican hostility to government-as-such were a curable aberration. Yet eight years of Obama have ended with his party’s loss of the presidency, its relegation to a minority in both houses of Congress and – something that happened when no one was counting – the loss of 900 seats in state legislatures. Any return to majority status must begin at the local and state levels, yet in the 50 states of the union, the Republican Party has 33 governors and now controls 32 legislatures. The losses grew steeper with every mishap, from the delay of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 to the standoff over the national debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. Yet after Obama’s re-election, as the PBS Frontline documentary Divided States of America vividly recalled, he thought he was in 2008 again, the old mandate renewed, and would say to reporters in 2012 and 2014 just as he had done in 2010: ‘the [Republican] fever will break.’

The most appalling item in this list is of course “the loss of 900 seats in state legislatures.” That is indeed where opposition must begin. And it seems important that opposition be launched by more people who are not themselves oppositional, not outsiders. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are unwelcome names in many political conversations. Why has the Democratic Party failed to groom candidates who are less “extreme”? I put the word in scare quotes because social progress is achieved in the long term by securing society’s comfort, not by assaulting it.

In the end, white men must be persuaded to bring diversities of their own to politics. They can be the enemies of “diversity,” or they can take a place in the diversity of Americans, a place to which they will rise or fall according to their individual merits. We know what their enmity looks like: it is regrettably fundamental to the “primitive” sects of all three of the Abrahamic faiths. We know that when men unite to thwart what they perceive to be a menace, they begin by assuming very unequal positions in a hierarchy rather more baroque than anything found among other animals. Inequality is the default setting; that is why the Enlightenment struggle for equality (for men!) was so protracted. The French Revolution and its aftermath showed us how spectacularly men can fail to overcome inequality — how readily, that is, they replace one form of it with another. Subsequent outbreaks of violence have confirmed the findings. In these interesting times of ours, we’re learning how tenuous equality is even in a time of peace.

Mark O’Connell’s report had little to say about the Transhumanist take on equality.


Tuesday 14th

Checking in at The Browser is slowly becoming a daily habit — slowly, because there’s a bit of confusion. I know that it’s a good thing to do, but I also (when I happen to think of it) look forward to reading the interesting, often unexpected commentary that abounds at the other end of its links. Duty and pleasure wrapped up together: unsettling!

The other day, The Browser introduced me to Slate Star Codex, a Web log kept by a doctor, Scott Alexander. In earlier days, I should have dropped everything and immersed myself in the site, but I want to avoid the hangover that always follows such infatuations. So I’ve read what I take to be the two latest entries. One is a review/consideration of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Alexander begins by saying that he read Hannah Arendt’s book at the recommendation of a friend who suggested it as a way of observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. He appears to come to it without any familiarity either with the famous trial or with Arendt and her work, and his reflections are agreeably fresh without being jejune, even in the rare passage, such as the following one, that is difficult to parse.

What eventually happened we all know too well. Other countries started closing their doors and refusing to accept Jewish refugees. Despite hearing this story a hundred times, the version in Eichmann in Jerusalem was new to me. I had always thought of countries as closing their gates to a few prescient people trying to flee Nazi Germany on their own, or to a few stragglers who managed to escape. The truth is on a much greater scale: the Nazis were willing to let every single Jew in Europe leave, they even had entire bureaucracies trying to make it happen – and the rest of the world wouldn’t cooperate. The blood on the hands of the people who wouldn’t let them in is not just that of a few escapees, but the entire six million.

The prescient people were the ones who got in, who left Germany in 1933; Arendt herself was one of the “stragglers who managed to escape.” I expect that Alexander is thinking of the passengers aboard the MS St Louis.

The other entry is titled “Considerations on Cost Disease.” Cost Disease is the mystifying tendency of things to cost more without increasing benefits. A good example is public education. Costs rise, but neither test scores nor teachers’ salaries budge. Where does the money go? Alexander considers eight possibilities, from inflation to fear of lawsuits, but he comes to no conclusions, and confesses at the end that he finds Cost Disease “really scary.”

At the start of his essay, Alexander suspects that few people know about Cost Disease, and, until I read it, I was certainly one of them. As I made my way through his survey of various sectors that are afflicted by the problem, I began to feel the pull of thoughts that I’ve been having for years now about building projects of all kinds. We build to last. We do not build to upgrade. Our approach to construction is still that of the pharaohs. In the pharaohs’ day, of course, most structures were unimportant hovels; their very flimsiness made them easy to alter. (I’m speculating here; I don’t actually know a damned thing about vernacular construction in ancient Egypt.) Buildings of interest to the ruling class, in contrast, were built to last forever, and so far that’s exactly what they’ve done.

We probably don’t intend our buildings to last forever; we certainly have a greater familiarity with the charm of ancient ruins than the Egyptians did. But we build, if not for all time, then for several generations. Or more: think of the water mains buried under the streets of Manhattan. They are old and leaky; we would not use cast iron if we were installing them today. They are also very hard to get to. Eventual replacement does not appear to have concerned the engineers who laid the pipes. Undoubtedly it occurred to some of them, but they wouldn’t have been crazy to imagine that, in the future, things would get easier. That was the story of their life, back then in the Nineteenth Century. But some things haven’t gotten easier, and replacing water mains is high on the list of projects that promise to be ruinously expensive. A big part of the difficulty is that transportation — the use of the roads beneath which the pipes are set — has become unimaginably easier in some ways. But not when it comes to diverting modern traffic when dig-we-must. Horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians would have posed a much more surmountable obstacle to maintenance.

Water mains are a hard case, but perhaps also an unusual one. More often, we are able to adapt what we’ve got to suit new circumstances. Before continuing, I want to suggest a difference between updates and upgrades. Upgrades are not adaptations; they are replacements. Updates are work-arounds. In the short term, updates are obviously cheaper than upgrades. In the long term, though, their proliferation produces complication (not complexity, which is organized), as updates are implemented without regard to other updates. And an updated update is likely to be patchier than the original work-around. Inevitably, a mess. The effectiveness of an adaptation — an update — is probably determined by the distance in time from the original creation, with effectiveness dropping as time passes. Eventually, further updating becomes impossible, and the old system, whether it be a material one such as the city’s water system or an abstraction such a code of law, is abandoned. Sometimes the abandonment is gentle; sometimes it is violent and revolutionary. In neither case, however, is the eventuality foreseen by designers.

That’s what we need to learn to change: how to upgrade a system without abandoning it or revolutionizing it. Here’s why:

Take a hospital. This institution is both material and abstract. There are buildings; there is equipment. There are the physical needs of the people who staff and who are served by them. On the abstract side, there are rules and regulations, schedules, chains of command, best practices, all of these being the same thing in different words.

Most hospitals, for all their new buildings, are institutions with histories going back decades, if not a century or more. The more venerable hospitals began as shelters for the sick, and served a function much more like that of the modern hospice. There wasn’t much that could be done for sick people, except to keep them warm and clean and fed. We reserve hospice care for the terminally ill, but its infirmary régime saved lives back in the days before modern pharmaceuticals.

The introduction of modern pharmaceuticals constitute one of the major changes to which hospitals have adapted. Another is the advance of emergency care, especially since the American War in Vietnam. When Scott Alexander muses on the the fact that, in some ways, medical care has gotten worse since his parents’ day (his father is also a doctor), what he has in mind is the fact that shifting from infirmary to emergency care, hospitals have adapted to clear beds as soon as possible. Once havens for quiet rest, hospitals are now noisy depots. But the old buildings, however heavily adapted, are still standing, and so are many of the old ideas about what a hospital ought to be. We still think of the hospital as the place where sick people ought to be. But the range of treatments, and even the very idea of illness itself, have shifted, away from the chronic to the acute. Chronic diseases are increasingly dealt with by medication that allows the sufferer to live at home. What we’ve lost is the place where someone who is not feeling well can get a much-needed rest. For the rich, this need is met by resorts. (It is interesting to compare hospitals and resorts, because money is no object for the latter. Resorts, which historically date back to spas, do not adapt old buildings, except for decorative purposes; nor do they preserve old ways of doing business.) For the ordinary person, however, a good rest is not available anymore.

And yet hospitals stagger on “as they are” partly because we think of them as “hospitals,” and partly because the complications of such heavily updated institutions require a phalanx of administrators with no interest in diminishing its compensation.

My very strong hunch is that Cost Disease would be better labeled Institutionary Disease.* I believe that the money exacted in rising costs is required to keep multiplying adaptations functional. I am certain that a similar argument could be made for American colleges and universities. Alexander is winks drolly about the “clubs/festivals/Milo” phenomenon.

But a while ago a commenter linked me to the Delta Cost Project, which scrutinizes the exact causes of increasing college tuition. Some of it is the administrative bloat that you would expect. But a lot of it is fun “student life” types of activities like clubs, festivals, and paying Milo Yiannopoulos to speak and then cleaning up after the ensuing riots. These sorts of things improve the student experience, but I’m not sure that the average student would rather go to an expensive college with clubs/festivals/Milo than a cheap college without them. More important, it doesn’t really seem like the average student is offered this choice. This kind of suggests a picture where colleges expect people will pay whatever price they set, so they set a very high price and then use the money for cool things and increasing their own prestige. Or maybe clubs/festivals/Milo become such a signal of prestige that students avoid colleges that don’t comply since they worry their degrees won’t be respected? Some people have pointed out that hospitals have switched from many-people-all-in-a-big-ward to private rooms. Once again, nobody seems to have been offered the choice between expensive hospitals with private rooms versus cheap hospitals with roommates. It’s almost as if industries have their own reasons for switching to more-bells-and-whistles services that people don’t necessarily want, and consumers just go along with it because for some reason they’re not exercising choice the same as they would in other markets.

Higher education in the United States is seriously off track (at least in the non-STEM fields), and has been since I was an undergraduate, fifty years ago, when the bizarre and perverse practice of Teacher Evaluations was introduced. The very idea of “student life” is one to which a serious university ought to give little or no thought, beyond cooperating with local police. This is true of public school districts as well. Every level of education in this country is weakened by the diversion of resources to pay for athletic activities. The connection between school and sport dates, like too many of our institutions, to ancien régime circumstances, in this case the feral environment of England’s “public schools” prior to the reforms of Thomas Arnold — the near-apocalyptic playing fields on which Wellington claimed the Battle of Waterloo had really been won. The links between an Oxford Blue and the Heisman Trophy make up a thicket of updates, swelling ever outwards and now threatening to suffocate the possibility of education. Learning how to build to upgrade — how to replace an institution without upheaval — begins with this sentence, with the hope that such a thing is possible.

*Institutionary” rather than “institutional” partly as a salute to Mansfield Park and partly as a way of suggesting multiplicity. The solution to some institutional problems is a new institution.


Friday 17th

Because I’m planning to give a small dinner party this evening, I’ve been taking it easy in the mornings this week. I did my shopping on Wednesday afternoon. Yesterday, I cleaned the kitchen and prepped a couple of things. Most of the cooking will be quickly done at the last minute, so I have to be especially focused on the steps of a couple of short-order recipes. There’s the dishwasher to think of: I don’t want the sink to pile up with clutter because I’m already running a full load. Nothing on the menu is particularly tricky (although there is always the chance that the Hollandaise might curdle), but I want everything to go smoothly and easily, and I want the food to be very good. So, for three days, I have allowed my ambitions as a host to suppress my appetite for writing.

And yet I feel obliged to punctuate the unusual silence with a note signalling my ongoing up-and-aboutness. The problem with such notes is their triviality. Hello, I’m still here! Well, so what. And I don’t think for a second that a few sentences about culinary tactics are intrinsically interesting. It’s not often that I have something to say that is briefly said. Whether that’s a failing or not I leave it to you to judge. But today I do have a chuckle to share.

Why, I don’t quite know, but when I was done with CV Wedgwood’s history of the Thirty Years War, I had a notion of re-reading The Name of the Rose for the first time. I’ve watched Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation dozens of times, but I’ve never gone back to the novel, or at any rate not read it through. I well remember my worries, back when William Weaver’s translation appeared in 1983, about whether I’d “get” it, whether I’d see the design that the famous Italian semiotician must clearly have hidden in plain sight behind his medieval whodunit. (What was the name of the rose, anyway?) In the end, I decided that it wasn’t very important — in other words, I didn’t get it. I admired Umberto Eco’s ability to load his narrative armature with heaps of lore and learning, and especially with urgent questions about the peculiarly European obsession with orthodoxy and heresy. And all that Latin! That labyrinthine library! I knew that the movie was signally unfaithful to the novel in many ways, but it was surprising that adaptation had been possible at all.

In the middle of the story, which takes place in 1327, the narrator, a Benedictine novice called Adso, encounters a young girl, in the kitchens of the monastery in which The Name of the Rose takes place, and is seduced. The movie’s very predictable approach to this congress involves lots of heavy breathing, and an angel with a dirty face to heighten the contrast of Christian Slater’s virginally pallid posterior. Although I had only read the novel the one time, this vernacular approach to sex seemed mistaken to me, and now I see why. Eco writes the scene as if he had never been outside a scriptorium, limiting Adso’s description of what he experiences to the text of the Song of Solomon. It’s pretty kinky, if you ask me; I always want to look away when I hear about those twin fawns feeding at lilies. The sheep coming from their bath? Well, it’s true that my youth was not spent in pastoral surroundings.

And then, when looking gives way to touching, and Adso barrels along toward orgasm (without, presumably, knowing what to expect), his thoughts shift to his recollections, still recent, of seeing a very holy heretic burned outside Florence. The experience of sex is as purifying as a flaming pyre; sex and death meet again. And not once does Eco slip into the actuality of the situation. The girl’s neck is the Tower of David, never a column of warm flesh. If fingers roam, they do so offscreen. The mechanics of entry and release are elided, hidden in a cloud of lucid but very literary earnest. I’m afraid that, grizzled old man that I am, I found the stunt most amusing. And refreshed, too: the tapestry of verbiage protected the couple’s modesty.

Sad to say, my signed first edition was not printed on acid-free paper. A medieval touch, perhaps, but a most unwelcome one.


Tuesday 21st

Elizabeth Drew made my weekend. At the end of a piece about the first weeks of the Trump Administration, published in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the venerable political writer speculated that, in addition to the narcissistic personality disorder that everybody talks about, the president may be afflicted by the early stages of dementia. (Apparently, his vocabulary has shrunk considerably over the past twenty years.) Dementia! I hadn’t heard that one, but it made a lot of sense. Or rather, it made no sense at all, but it was a good fit with the look and feel of the spectacle to which we have been treated for the past umpteen months. One phenomenon that seems very supportive of the dementia thesis is the proximity of the Kushners. Ivanka and Jared are more than a little like minders, don’t you think?

Another phenomenon is the Swedish outburst, which makes one wonder how long the president is going to be allowed to tweet bareback. But before I get to that, I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to any supporters of Donald Trump, except perhaps, un petit peu, for those who, while not necessarily deplorable people themselves, committed the deplorable act of casting their vote for Trump just because it would sock it to the liberal élites. I recognize that many fine Americans had good reasons for voting as they did, as well as for not voting as they didn’t, and what I have to say about Trump is not to be taken as reflecting on them in any way. Oh, and except for the Republican Party officials who — d’you really think they’d be clever enough to nominate a demented entertainer, just so that they could get rid of him after the election and put the nationally unelectable Mike Pence in his place?

It’s important to bear in mind that Donald Trump is, above all, an entertainer, a stand-up comedian with a shtick for our times. Especially, right now, if you are Sweden, and the man who appears to be the leader of the free world has just made a crack about violence in your country. Consider the source, and consider the medium, too. Twitter is nothing but a microphone that delivers one-liners in text. Also breaking news and calls for help, yes. But this was manifestly not breaking news:

“Give the public a break.“The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!”

Call for help, you decide. Whether the world is big and strong enough to cope with an insult comic in the White House is the important question, not whether the billionaire entertainer trumps the statesman.


In the same issue of The New York Review, Thomas Nagle considers the latest book by Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Dennett is still going on, it seems, about consciousness. Having published Consciousness Explained twenty-five years ago, why? According to Nagle, Dennett claims that consciousness is an illusion. I came away from Consciousness Explained — and this was in the days before the Internet was a big deal — with the conviction (unstated by Dennett, it’s true) that consciousness is a kind of software program (as one used to say) that runs, so to speak, on the motherboard of the brain. It doesn’t make sense to speak of illusion. The software is objectively manifest: it’s what allows us to communicate with each other and to determine who is mentally ill — whose software isn’t working. If all human beings are subject to the same illusion at the same time, then “illusion” is the wrong word.

Dennett is quite right to insist that the brain is not the mind. As far as I can tell, we don’t know much about the brain. We know a lot more than we used to know, within living memory, but I would venture that every little thing that we do know about the brain suggests a hundred things that we don’t. For a while, our net ignorance of the brain will increase, even as we learn more. We’re far better informed about computers, probably because we invented them. Computers are binary calculators capable of no more than switching between on and off. Massively connected, computers can be made to simulate activities, such as typing text and editing images, that human beings can comprehend. The computer does not understand text or images, and most human beings do not understand what the computer is doing. The interface, or software, mediates between the machine and the mind.

I don’t know anything, really, about neurons, but I gather that they have a binary aspect in that they fire or don’t fire. I’ll bet, though, that there’s more to neuronal activity than “on” and “off.” It doesn’t matter; I don’t have to know how the brain works. I know how my mind works, and although I can get quite carried away with the curlicues that make my mind different from yours, the fact is that my obnoxiousness on the subject is something that we can agree on, because our minds operate similarly. To me, the interesting thing about the software of consciousness, if I may be permitted the expression, is not that it allows comprehensible thoughts to bubble up from my brain, but that it allows me to write them down and send them to you.


Wednesday 22nd

Regular readers will recall my harping — cue arpeggios — on social committees of ordinary citizens devoted to thrashing out solutions to public problems and arriving at the most inclusive consensus possible. (The pedigree of this idea goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who inspired Hannah Arendt.) And that’s where, until today, my great idea stopped. I had a hunch that committees would work much better on the Internet than in meet-ups, because the end result would be a statement of the consensus, ie a text, but, beyond that, I was ready to hand off the idea to younger, more energetic minds. Having had the idea, I sat back.

But then, having read the latest entry at Slate Star Codex, where I read, last week, about “cost disease,” I sat up. Scott Alexander (not, apparently his real name, quite), the keeper of the blog, compiled a series of extracts from the comment thread to the cost disease entry. I am not a fan of comment threads, because there is too much incoming from too many left fields. But I felt obliged to see if any of the comments approximated my response (which I did not try to post as a comment at Slate Star Codex on Valentine’s Day (see above). Having read as many of the comments as I could absorb at one time, I went on to do something else, but in the evening it occurred to me that what I was seeing was a prototype of the committee that I have in mind. If readers were able to express their support for certain passages (with support by other commenters marked more emphatically), then a consensus might really be pursued.

This morning, I made my way to the end. Consensus was nowhere in sight, and my response was just as singular as the comments. That’s as it should be, initially. A hazard to bear in mind is that social committees might be clogged, even overwhelmed, by contributions designed more to attract support than to solve problems.

Two comments lingered in my mind. Someone registered as fc123, identifying himself as not a native-born American, argued that cost disease is attributable to “servicing and extending the definition of the marginal ‘customer’.” We try to help people with problems that used to doom them to neglect; fc123 suggests “the 85 year old with triple bypass, 20 week premie.” A few decades ago, it became imperative, more or less overnight, to provide wheelchair and other handicapped access to public facilities. I think about this extension of service quite often: is it worth the expense of five or six Remicade infusions a year (the cost of which is distributed to others through insurance) to spare me the pain of an auto-immune disease? Would the question sound different if I were 19 instead of 69?

The other response that reverberated came at the end of a comment by economic writer Megan McArdle.

A big part of the story is that America just isn’t very good at regulation. When you talk to people who live elsewhere about what their government does, one thing that really strikes you about those conversations is how much more competent other rich industrial governments seem to be at regulating things and delivering services. Their bureaucracies are not perfect, but they are better than ours.

That’s not to say that America could have an awesome big government. Our regulatory state has been incompetent compared to others for decades, since long before the Reagan Revolution that Democrats like to blame. There are many, many factors in this, from our immigration history (vital to understanding how modern urban bureaucracies work in this country), to the fact that we have many competing centers of power instead of a single unified government providing over a single bureaucratic hierarchy. There is no way to fix this on a national level, and even at the level of local bureaucratic reform, it’s darned near impossible.

When you talk to people who live elsewhere… when you do that, the odds are that those people are not living in an Anglophone legal climate. The legal philosophy that prevails in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, the United States might as well be Martian for all that it has in common with other legal systems. This is not the place to explain the differences; it’s enough to say that the Anglophone approach, which advertises itself as “adversarial,” probably gives defendants more of a fighting chance, which is great for innocent defendants. To continue with the clichés, we’re far more interested in seeing the better man win than we are in distinguishing right from wrong. Perhaps effective regulation is not really possible in such a legal climate. This isn’t to doom the Anglophones (although McArdle is right: fixing it is “darned near impossible”), but to wonder if perhaps Americans might study and adapt European regulatory models.


Friday 24th

A few thoughts about home cooking.

Until my generation, the craft of home cooking was handed down, mostly from mother to daughter, according to local usage or tradition. It was not given much thought. Some women were better at cooking than others, just like everything else, but the women who were good cooks upheld the traditions. They did not search out exotic recipes from faraway places. They did not familiarize themselves with foreign ingredients. They did not consider what they were doing, and wouldn’t have been rewarded for doing so if they had.

Home cooking had the objective of providing households with expected foods at expected times. For the most part, these expectations centered on nourishment, but there were cultural expectations, too — turkey at Thanksgiving, and so on. A husband who expected unusual things from his wife’s kitchen would have been as objectionable as his wife’s refusal to provide the usual.

In the two generations before mine, the commercial food producers — I would call them ‘food processors’ if that were not confusing — stressed convenience as a selling point. Basically, advertisers told housewives that it was stupid to take a lot of trouble making a dessert, say, when dumping the contents of a box of pudding mix into a pan of milk on the stove and stirring it for a few minutes would produce a reasonably tasty treat. These convenient products also tended to improve the meals served by all but the best home cooks. Women began to learn as much about cooking from advertisers (and newspaper food editors) as they did from their mothers.

Eventually, there was a reaction. A general judgment was made that, while it was permissible to serve an indifferent meal that had been made from scratch — without the help of convenient products — it was impermissible — unloving — to serve meals that, while marginally tastier, were industrially prepared. This was the end of traditional home cooking. From now on, many housewives, hooked on convenience, abandoned home cooking altogether, becoming the reheaters of fast food. Those who continued to cook, meanwhile, began to think about what they were doing.

At about the same time — a curious coincidence? — a fresh regiment of feminists argued that they were women first and housewives second. In the ensuing storm, it was recognized that thinking about what you were cooking was something that male cooks had been doing for centuries. These professional chefs worked for rich patrons; in more recent time, they ran restaurant kitchens. It was observed that they were generally rather, sometimes extremely, manly men. At least in those reaches of society that were familiar with feminists and good restaurants, it became all right for ordinary men to cook.

But what was the objective? For it was certainly not the provision of expected foods at expected times.

It’s hard for me to remember just why I took up cooking. I can think of three reasons. One, I was curious. Where do the holes in a slice of bread come from? Reasons two and three were intertwined. I liked to eat well; my mother didn’t like to cook. It is possible to cook well if you hate cooking, I suppose, but I think it fair to say that my mother’s dislike of cooking put a low upper limit on the tastiness of her dinners. She certainly knew what good food was, and she appreciated an array of dishes that she never attempted to make in her own kitchen. She might have been tempted to give curry a try if my father had not been as conservative as he was about food. He liked meat that was cooked in a broiler: steak, lamb chops, chicken. Occasionally, we had pork chops. I can’t even remember what the concessions to fish-on-Fridays were, but they definitely involved no fresh fish.

It would be wrong to say that I taught myself to cook so that I could host dinner parties, although within ten years of my first batch of whipped cream it was clear that hosting dinner parties was what kept me cooking. Ten years further on, however, hosting dinner parties got to be a bore. I had found my limits as an amateur chef and was no longer drawn to new heights. And assembling interesting parties became problematic when guests canceled at the last minute. The moral of this story was that I was not cut out to be an entertainer.

Twenty years further still, I found myself giving the occasional holiday dinner, while shambolically going about the business of everyday meals. There were many times when I wished that I had never taken up cooking. I had acquired a lot of skill, not to mention a formidable batterie de cuisine and a large cabinet of dinner plates, but no clear and distinct reason to use it.

Then we moved into an apartment with a larger kitchen, a kitchen with a window and two entrances. One of the doors connected the kitchen with the ell of the living room in which we stood our dining table. Even with the louvered doors shut, I could keep up with the dinner-table conversation. Over time, I rediscovered the joys of cooking. I developed a repertoire of dishes for two that enabled Kathleen and me to dine as well as if we were going out to nice neighborhood restaurants every night. (Given the damage that subway construction did to local businesses, restaurants included, there were some dishes that wouldn’t have been as good at local restaurants.)

By now, though, I was an old man. I moved slowly and rationed my energy. It was very, very important to think ahead, to plan and prepare. I am still learning how to do this . I gave a dinner party last Friday that was almost perfect. A slight bottleneck in the preparation of the main course kept me in the kitchen when I wanted to be at the table. I wrote a comprehensive memo about the meal, including notes that I made while prepping it, so that when I attempt the menu again — and there is no doubt about my doing that — I’ll have a good chance to work on that bottleneck, because I won’t have to think about anything else. (I even noted the china patterns used.) I am persuaded that my guests found the food to be delicious; as for me, I was challenged in just the right degree. Happy as I was, though, I had to ask:

Why did it take so long?


Monday 27th

After the Oscars, I needed something a little stronger than my nighttime tablet to calm me down. I had missed the moment of “epic flub” (Times) that spoiled the best-picture award, but that was a small mercy. When the producers of La La Land came on to accept the statuettes that weren’t, it turned out, intended for them, I left the room for a break; when I came back, Kathleen was gasping. She told me what had happened; I was transfixed by horror. Not because the mistake was so embarrassing but because it seemed that Donald Trump was already exacting his revenge.

All evening long, I was upset by the naïveté of Hollywood people — people claiming to be addressing an audience of millions around the world; but, even if this were true, it was an audience of self-selecting viewers who thought it would be cool to watch an awards presentation that lasted nearly four hours. True, Hollywood commands the power of vision. But it is a power that is more easily trumped by the power of coercion than Americans, who have not had much recent experience of the latter unless they are black, appear to grasp. Early in the evening, host Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about a “5 AM bowel movement.” It seemed insanely provocational to me.

In his Times column this morning, Paul Krugman exhorts all of us in “civil society” to resist and protest government by an administration that he denounces as illegitimate and unworthy. In other words, he sounds exactly like the commentators who screeched against Barack Obama for eight years. And no more than they does he have a plan for healing the rift in civil society, a rift that has been widening since the Sixties, between Americans uncomfortable with racial equality and Americans deluded by the notion that shaming eases discomfort.

I am waiting for that plan. Without it, protests are just ill-behaved noise, just more-of-same. Without it, Trump wins. His point all along, after all, is that we haven’t got a plan. We’ve just redistributed the goodies. Under the banner of Diversity, we have disenfranchised the men (and the women who love them) who used to regard themselves as the backbone of the nation. That may have been a good thing to do, or not, but in neither case was it politically responsible.

I want something more than the loudness of my anger and the righteousness of my indignation to address the people on the other side of the abyss. I want something other than anger and indignation to offer to them. Anger and indignation I reserve for the people on my side, the people whose hearts are in the right place but whose minds shirk the tedious homework of making America great by making it one, unum — and not “again,” but for the first time.