Gotham Diary:
4 April 2014

On Revolution arrived yesterday. At the moment, it appears to be the last “big” book by Hannah Arendt that I’ll be reading; after this, I’ve got some books about her to read. The adventure so far has carried me much further than anything I dreamed of when I read Eichmann in Jerusalem (because it was fifty years old and people were talking about it). I’ve never had an intellectual experience remotely like this one, half of it a struggle with a fiercely independent, self-directed thinker who was, at the same time, deeply versed in tradition; the other half a deeply satisfying resolution, a bringing into focus of ideas that I’ve been nursing for years. It is as if Arendt had handed me a pair of glasses that at the same time corrected my vision, making every detail crisp, and intensified the three-dimensionality of the world. I have never known a philosopher to deepen my awareness of things.

I’m beginning, though, to look forward to writing without mentioning her: I can already see just how far she is going to take me, the point from which I shall have to continue on my own, or with someone else’s help. I don’t see it very clearly now, but I know that it is the portal beneath which totalitarian probabilities drop their world-historical pretensions and assume, instead, the skimpier garb of market totalism. Market totalism is the drive to put a price tag on everything, and to reduce all human activity to productivity. We’re in the thick of it now. When I say that Arendt will take me so far and no further, I’m not talking about events to come. The events are already at hand. The point that I refer to is the one at which I will be putting to full use everything that Arendt has taught me, as I try to understand the catastrophe-in-process.

Three stories are swimming together in my brain right now: GM’s ignition-switch mess, the McCutcheon decision, and Amazon’s Fire TV. What to they have in common? The elite’s capitulation to the values of mass entertainment. We have allowed mass entertainment to take the place of civil, democratic discourse, so that anything that doesn’t fit the parameters of mass entertainment is ipso facto intolerably pointless and boring. Would GM be able to pretend that no individual is personally responsible for the Cobalt fiasco if educated Americans (a) repudiated the notion that an artificial person can commit a criminal act or (b) were less willing to “liquidate” damages in financial settlements?  Would McCutcheon matter at all if educated Americans set the example of doing their own political homework, or if American institutions supported clear and distinct ideas about political honesty? Would Amazon, a huge online emporium, be permitted to engage in media distribution if the spirit of human-sized modesty that underlies all US trade regulation were enforced? If Americans — the elite included — were not, as the late Neil Postman put it, entertaining themselves to death, would any of these stories even exist?

I don’t bother to object to mass entertainment itself, not least because I know that it would be quite different if the elite withdrew its attention and pursued humane culture instead. It’s the crazy misapprehension of leisure currently prevailing among the elite that makes me sea-sick. Here is a “little list” of ersatz leisure activities that affluent and degree-carrying Americans expect friends, not without warrant, to want to hear about:

  • Short-term travel to exotic regions, with no hope of personal engagement with the people of those regions. Bucket lists.
  • Real-estate prices — considered as awesome natural phenomena.
  • Collections of comic books and other quondam ephemera. Downton Abbey, in season.
  • Spectator sports. Children’s sports.
  • Automobiles and their “recreational” use.
  • Privileged access to celebrities.

The best that can be said of these topics is that they refer to forms of vacation. Vacation is vital: prolonged effort requires periods of relaxation. Today’s elite, however, perverts vacation by making it strenuous or at least rushed wherever possible. What ought to be relaxed hours are as pressed as worktime. Without the moderating and cohering — steadying — influence of thought, varied pastimes melt into miscellaneous occupation.

What’s worse, vacation ought to be a private matter, with little or nothing to be said about it. (Golf!!!) By devoting masses of free time to what ought to be occasional pastimes, the elite leaves itself with nothing better to talk about. It’s as though the decision had been taken that it’s all right to leave the house in your underwear.

It will be imagined that I am calling for more “high-minded” conversation. No — just “minded.”