Archive for March, 2018

Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (IV)

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

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!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
March 2018 (III)

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

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.

Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (II)

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

14, 15 and 16 March

Wednesday 14th

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 15th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday 16th

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

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

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

Boy, do I hope I’ll be proved wrong!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (I)

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

6 and 8 March

Tuesday 6th

This year, we did not watch the Academy Awards show. Kathleen wasn’t feeling well, and I was only too happy to give it a pass. Never keen on watching it anyway, I felt an extra resistance this year because of the Weinstein aftermath. While I don’t disagree that people ought to be protected, both socially and institutionally, from harassment of any kind, I dislike displays of righteousness in what are supposed to be congenial settings. I note that this year’s ratings hit a record low. (This was true, however, of the Super Bowl and the Olympics as well.)

I am also not terribly interested in what the movie industry thinks or feels about itself, which is of course what the Awards crudely measure. There’s an interesting chart in today’s Times that shows how relatively poorly Best Pictures do at the box office. (I can’t find it online.) Between 1980 and 2004, only one winner, The Last Emperor, brought in less than $100 million. Since 2005, there have been only four winners that brought in more — The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo — and none of them made more than $200 million. This is not a problem for The Industry; everybody gets paid. As long as box office receipts are not the measure of quality (and I’m certainly not suggesting that they ought to be), then I should prefer to have a truly disinterested body do the judging. Critics, for example, as with The Golden Globes.

As it happens, I went to the movies exactly once in 2017, to see Get Out, and Kathleen did not go to the movies at all. (To think that I used to go every Friday!)


Get Out got an Award — that’s nice, and especially nice, I’m sure for Jordan Peele, who won it for Best Original Screenplay. I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, but I still haven’t watched it, because the best thing about Get Out was watching it in a theatre with other people. Now, this is something that simply doesn’t come up with other films. I regard movies as an alternate form of literature, and I no more mind watching a movie alone than I do reading a novel. I’m aware that the viewer, like the reader, is a character, too, figuring in the fiction. But Get Out is the only great movie that I can think of where the viewer really ought to be plural. It’s rather like riding a roller coaster: when you’re screaming, it’s reassuring to hear the screams of others. In Get Out, it’s the oscillation between screaming and laughter that’s really wild. And that moment when Betty Gabriel (who ought to have won something) repeats “No” so insistently that tears pop out of her eyes — that’s really too scary to watch alone.


The new Vanity Fair arrived yesterday, looking very different from previous issues. (New editor, Radikha Jones.) The title was so hard to read that I had to stare it to be sure. The photograph of Jennifer Lawrence seemed artfully blurred in places, but, again, a closer look indicated strange lighting. Inside, the nomenclature remained the same (“Vanities,” “Fanfair”), but the typography was new. The impish designs that Graydon Carter brought from Spy (for which magazine I can never stop thanking him and his confederates) appeared to be suppressed. But sho ’nuff, there was a story (yet another) featuring rich Italians and their lovely villa — in this case, the family behind the shoemaker Tod’s. James Wolcott’s space was taken up by the discussion of a cable series that I shall probably never see. I read Nick Bilton’s content-free piece about Facebook — can it be saved or will it kill us all? — but I couldn’t decide how much twaddle about Jennifer Lawrence, a truly great actress, I want to have bumping around in my head.

That’s part of why I didn’t want to watch the Oscars, too. I’ve learned that attempting to satisfy one’s curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes is rarely rewarding. What’s he really like? is an inane question for strangers to ask. Publicity departments long ago learned how to dispense candy-flavored answers, and nowadays the more intelligent stars know how to invest their remarks with marks of personality that stop well short of intimacy. Mere simulacrum. It’s better to remain in the theatre audience, where I belong. There or here, reading and writing. Years ago, I had an interesting online exchange on the subject of musical structure with pianist Jeremy Denk. A few weeks later, I saw him standing a few rows ahead of us at an Orpheus concert, at Carnegie Hall. I went up and introduced myself, making a clear reference to our little discussion. That was that. The next time I saw Denk, he was onstage, accompanied by Orpheus — where he belonged.


Thursday 8th

Adam Gopnik has a piece about Andrew Lloyd Webber in the current New Yorker, and while it’s full of interesting insights — no small feat, given the subject — it overlooks the one technological development that explains why Broadway musicals, which used to overflow with angular, memorable tunes, have become puddles of musical insipidity: the microphone.* The microphone obliterates the limitations of distance, and it does so in two ways. Thanks to the microphone, it is no longer necessary to be in the same room with the performers to hear their music, and it is no longer necessary for the performers to fill the room with their sound. I remember reading the rather spiteful remark that the singing voice of Sammy Davis, Jr could not be heard across a small room without the aide of a mike. Inversely, opera singers heard on the radio usually impress listeners who have never been to the opera as fruity and pompous. Until the microphone came along, it was exciting to hear Ethel Merman fill a theatre with lusty singing; her very style was a remarkable expression of unaided vocalism. Happily, it’s still possibly to hear opera singers do the same thing. Waltraud Meier hasn’t got the most beautiful voice in the world, but at the Met or in Carnegie Hall, she’s a knockout. And the songs that Merman sang, as well as the operas that Meier sings, were written to be belted out.

The microphone obviously favors intimacy over assertiveness; it easily creates the illusion that the listener is alone with the singer. (For a listener stretched out in bed and equipped with headsets, the accompanying performers disappear into their music.) The microphone also alters the balance between words and music, making words, so often incomprehensible in unaided singing, almost always clear. Is this a good thing? In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, someone wrote a short comic opera called Prima la musica, dopo le parole. First the music, then the words. Richard Strauss built his final opera, Capriccio, as a debate on this proposition, but of course there is never any real debate, because anyone who “gets” music — and there are those who really don’t, and probably can’t — will put up with ridiculous words for the sake of a compelling tune, or even scrap the words altogether while whistling down the street. If words are as salient as music, the demand for good music will drop — as indeed it has, almost everywhere but at the movies.

The world of rock is full of unmusical people. Bob Dylan is usually at the head of my list. The music of Bob Dylan ranges from simpleminded to unpleasant, the unpleasantness rooted in the sound of his croaking, adenoidal voice. He sounds like someone for whom singing might be bad for his health. For his fans, it’s clear, le parole come prima. In which case, I suggest, we do without la musica altogether.

Since college days, I have been to two rock concerts, and only two. The first was given by Maria Muldaur, in Houston on tour. I had been a fan of hers for years, from back when she was Maria d’Amato, singing for Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. (Her “Richland Woman” is the most sweetly lubricious piece of music I’ve ever heard.) Now, with the big hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” she was something of a star. But, at the concert, I was surprised, and very disappointed, when the sultry nuances of her voice were lost in a blur of overamplified sound, a deafening, roaring noise. Everyone around me thought that the event was really totally cool, but I hated it.

Many years passed before I agreed to a second try. This time, I was lured by the venue, Radio City, to hear Kenny Loggins, long a favorite singer of Kathleen’s. Surely Radio City’s excellent acoustics would dampen the reliance on amplifiers, I thought, but I had forgotten what I learned the first time: most people in the audience liked, even craved, that terrible numbing racket.

A long time ago — nearly thirty years — Kathleen and I had the pleasure of sitting down with 1200 other people at a banquet in Palm Desert, California. Dinner was followed by a musical presentation for which most of the company, but not the people at ours or the surrounding tables, had to find seats set up before a makeshift stage. As a great treat, our hosts, Price Waterhouse, had imported some talent from Los Angeles to mount a chamber, abridged version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, and, lucky us, we were seated at an important partner’s table and could not quietly slip away. I cannot say that the show was unvaryingly excruciating. But it was often quite awful, and I couldn’t help noticing that the heroine’s music made her voice sound both shrill and immature. By “immature,” I mean not girlish but weirdly embryonic. Not ready to be heard. Why this should be so became somewhat more comprehensible when I read Adam Gopnik’s identification of Lloyd Webber’s music with progressive rock. There was really no place for women in progressive rock, and this, for all his emulation of Puccini, remained a stumbling block for Lloyd Webber. Phantom is still running on Broadway, though, evidence that, when washed over verbal drama and visual spectacle, shapeless music will offend few people.

I’m very much one of those people.

Bon weekend à tous!

* Please pardon my shorthand. The microphone is really just the most visible element of the chain of instruments used in the electrification — recording and playback — of sound.