Gotham Diary:
11 September 2011

We have just had Sunday breakfast, which included the first cantaloupe to be purchased at Fairway — a nine if not a 9.25. “Now, that’s what a cantaloupe tastes like!” raved Kathleen. I bought it yesterday on the second of two excursions. The first was to Gristede’s, where I still prefer to pick up non-food items such as dishwashing soap and Kleenex. Gristede’s was so bereft of customers that I wanted to cry. There were perhaps four of us. The stock was arranged nicely and neatly, as if what has never been a terribly prepossessing market were determined to put its best food forward. The best feet, unfortunately — the ones belonging to paying customers, anyway — were circulating through Fairway, a block to the west. (And not, as Adam Gopnik has it, on Third Avenue!) I’ve heard that the Food Emporium, downstairs in our building, is set for an overhaul, but it can just disappear, for all I care. It may be spiffier than Gristede’s, but I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to be sure of finding certain items on the shelves, then I ought to head for the larger store. I do hope that Gristede’s survives! Not that I’m going to stop going to Fairway every day, though, buying the smallest quantities of everything on my shopping list — and nothing else.

It’s only 10:30, and there are still plenty of hours left in which Events might occur, but it is difficult, after a Sunday breakfast anyway, not to feel sanguine. 9/11/01 left me wishing that New York City could be like Hong Kong or Singapore, the kind of small but rich and vaguely parasitic entrepot that most Americans think it is anyway. (I also wished, as I had wished since the day I first saw a photograph of them, that the towers had never been built — not here in New York, that is.) The supreme irony was that Mohammed Atta and his crew regarded New York as the central symbol of the United States. If only! New York is where two classes of people congregate, those who intend to thrive on its enormous cosmopolitan advantages, and those who cannot bear to live among the neighbors whom they have left behind. Many of the city’s immigrants already carry American citizenship.

The Gopnik piece to which I’ve alluded, “Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat,” ends by concluding that declinism — the conviction that the country is going to hell in a handbasket — is a bad idea but an irresistible one, because “the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up.” This is not an outlook that I share, perhaps because I am not given to nostalgia. Positioning the new Fairway on Third Avenue (which Gopnik does as a way of illustrating Paul Krugman’s point that nations do not compete in the way that firms do) is not the essay’s only misstep; there’s also the blank space between its title, which seems taken from a bottle of shampoo, and pervasive references to Beatles hits. Sometimes, writes Gopnik, the old songs are better than the new songs. At the moment, I’m listening to Schubert’s Ninth, which is a funny kind of old song because nobody really knew until it was several decades old and the composer had mouldered into Viennese dust. When the old songs are better than the new songs, it’s because they really are better now, not because they summon up the labile adolescence in which they were first encountered. No one writes with more sophisticated deliberation than Adam Gopnik, but like most well-known writers he boasts of a head packed with pop-culture references that occasionally seem, well, disingenuous.

One of the books under Gopnik’s review is That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, and its exhortation to our presumed can-do spirit provokes a livid and sour rebuke:

The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised. … In the long story of civilization, the moments when improving your lot beats out annoying your neighbor are vanishingly rare.

While I agree with Gopnik — peruse this entry for hints of a wish that New York City could be semi-detached from the United States, and you will not be disappointed — I don’t think that the point is usefully lingered on. Far more helpful, in my view, is the argument made by David Frum in his review of That Used to Be Us, which appears in today’s Book Review.

Friedman and Mandelbaum at one point praise the beauty of solutions that rise from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. This praise is not consciously insincere, but pretty plainly it does not accurately represent their operational plan. Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that! Societies inescapably generate elites. Those elites can be ­public-spirited and responsible or they can be selfish and shortsighted. An elite can have concern and care for the less advantaged or it can callously disregard them. Maybe not surprisingly, the language of anti-­elitism has often been a useful tool of the most rapacious and merciless among the elite.

American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend. They say less than might be wished about what a more ­public-spirited American elite might do. But they have eloquently described what such an elite should want to do.

I don’t know how Adam Gopnik, as a busy member of the elite, really finds time to “listen to oldies stations on Sirius radio as we drive back roads on holiday” — it can’t be something that he does often enough to support generalizations about the importance of history. The Beatles are great, and anybody can enjoy them. What are the pleasures that Adam Gopnik has had to work hard for?