Gotham Diary:
Trump Was Not on the Test
December 2015 (II)

Monday 7th

Last night, I went to bed early — early, that is, considering that I spent almost the entire morning in bed, luxuriating in repose. I had spoken to Kathleen just before she went to bed, and I had felt for the first time that she had gone no farther than Australia; she was not blowing through a wormhole to some inaccessible galaxy. I rejoiced and relaxed. When I eventually got up, I had a good day. I managed to shelve all the poetry books together. I emptied and sorted the contents of a porcelain bowl into which I had been dumping the contents of pockets for years. I read a great deal, fascinated, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. When I went to bed, I set the alarm for seven o’clock.

It turned out to be a bumpy night. I would sleep for about an hour, after a good deal of dozing, and then I would wake up. At some point between five and six, I had just crawled back into bed when I heard the Whats App ping. Kathleen’s text told me that she was exhausted after an intense day of brainstorming about Bitcoin, and that she would struggle to stay up until eleven, seven my time. So I called her then and there. It was balm to hear her voice. She told me that the group had spent the evening at on a terrace at some well-known quai, from which she had taken “probably lousy” photographs of the Opera House. She was very glad about attending the Bitcoin workshop, for practical reasons as well as for the sheer excitement. She asked me for a wake-up call, at seven-thirty her time, three-thirty mine.

By the time Kathleen leaves Sydney, I’ll be an expert at telling you what the time is in New South Wales. Roughly, you subtract eight hours from the local time, and then add a day. To know what time it will be in New York when it is a given time in Sydney, you add eight hours and subtract a day. (This works better with the twenty-four hour clock.) As it happens, there is a certain accidental elegance about the time difference, at least at this time of year. The sixteen-hour difference invites a division of the day into three shifts — as, for example, the three shifts of doormen in our building. When New York begins the first shift, at midnight, Sydney is beginning the third, at four in the afternoon. This is the only shift in which the two cities share the same date. When New York goes into the second shift, Sydney goes into the first — of the next day. The problem with all this calculating is that I don’t know where the hell I am, or even what day of the week it is. It is Monday here but Tuesday there. Kathleen is already on the second day of her five-day workshop — well, she will be, when I wake her up this afternoon. I keep thinking that she will leave on Thursday, but for her it will be Friday. Her Friday will last a lot more than twenty-four hours, because after a few hours in the air, she will cross the International Date Line, and it will go on being Friday right through the change of planes at Los Angeles and nearly all the way to New York, where she will land between one and two in the morning on Saturday. It’s like watching a 3-D movie without the special glasses, only worse.


What’s wrong with those people? This seems to be the standard Northeast Corridor response to shootings out West. The one, and very terrible, incident that has hit close to home was the work of a clearly deranged young man: Adam Lanza’s parents split up over the proper way to deal with his antisocial behavior (and it’s hard to feel sorry for the mother who enabled him, only be murdered for her pains). I don’t suppose that many Northeasterners are waltzing around in serene confidence that a domestic terrorist shooting will not happen here. But we worry more about outsiders, and another 9/11.

What’s wrong with those people, I think, is that they’re unhappy in the America of today, and have no place to go. The West (including the Southwest) is our last frontier, beyond which there is nowhere. There has always been a residuum of disappointed people in the West. What’s new, I think, is the temperature of rhetorical violence in today’s political discourse. Donald Trump is of course the worst example by far: day after day, he invites his audiences to hate their neighbors. He and his followers believe that everyone else is a loser. But Republicans have been spewing vitriol for decades. They have been talking in polarized, we versus they, tropes since World War II. (“We versus they” sounds odd, I know, but I stick with it because it illuminates the grubby passivity of the standard usage, “us versus them.”)

Everything about our political life encourages partisan responses. Preaching for inclusiveness is not altogether unknown, but there is nothing in the way of true, persuasive leadership. I’m afraid that I’ve heard very little from President Obama that can’t be labeled “bromide.” Whatever his manner in the 2008 campaign, he has abandoned the possibly uncool approach of inspiring us to want to be our best selves. Neither he nor anyone else is engaging in dialogue with racists and libertarians; no one is trying to talk these people off the ledge from which their jumps may carry the nation to destruction. The ownership of an automatic weapon has become the emblem of stubborn/heroic resistance to a nanny state. How did that happen?

It happened because American élites, particularly those of the liberal persuasion, put too much reliance on the edifying power of progressive legislation. The first response to any problem is to propose a law that would obviate it. (In nine cases out of ten, the law already exists.) But genuinely liberal democratic states do not act in loco parentis. They do not maintain order by spanking the naughty. The naughty are shamed by their neighbors before their naughtiness becomes unruly.

American élites, seeking the rather impracticable sophistication of a modern, open state, one in which shaming played little part, not only invited members of the body politic to delegate social surveillance to the nation, but made it illegal, in many cases, not to do so. In one well-intentioned but retrospectively sad instance, local loitering laws were declared “unconstitutionally vague,” way back in the early Sixties. It is true that loitering laws were enforced with a racist bias, but doing away with the laws themselves was probably not the answer. I should have argued (with the wisdom of hindsight) for a more fine-grained response. I should have invalidated arrests that could be shown to be racist, and I should have weighted each case for its economic element. (If poor whites were shooed out of nice neighborhoods along with poor blacks, then the racism charge would not stand.)

My example of loitering may seem wrong-headed, given my premise. Loitering laws were struck down. But the opinions that informed the Supreme Court decisions about loitering had the effect of new laws, and the laws that they struck down were highly discretionary tools in the hands of local enforcement, which presumably acted in concord with the expectations of local society. That was indeed the essential legal argument against them: they were too discretionary (“vague”) to amount to any kind of law. But discretionary enforcement is still distinguishable from arbitrary enforcement.

In the back of my mind, I’m playing over Chapman Pincher’s remarks in support of Enoch Powell, the conservative British politician who, because he argued that the large-scale immigration of ex-colonials from the Caribbean and Pakistan was a mistake, got branded as a racist. I’ll have more to say about this later. Forty and more years ago, figures like Powell were regarded as radical reactionaries — crazy people. Today, however, their positions have been adopted in this country by mainstream Republicans, who want to promise that whites will remain the majority “racial” group. Forty and more years ago, you could tell white Englishmen (the only kind, in their view) that it was discreditable to view other peoples as indigestibly alien, but you can’t tell that to white Americans today.


One of the books that surfaced in the bout of reshelving that I wrote about last Friday was Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. I have no recollection of buying it nor any idea of why I bought it. It is only recently that I have taken a practical interest in memoirs, and I learned from Birkerts’s first well-known book, The Gutenberg Elegies, that he and I do not judge alike. Reading the first chapter, I fairly boiled over with objections. Objections, that is, to the notion that Birkerts’s generalizations about truth, life, and memory applied to me. Where I felt most volcanic was on the subject of childhood, which seems, for Birkerts as for many other writers (such as Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, and Dillard), to be the fons et origo of memoir. I vehemently believe that my childhood was only superficially formative: I learned all about table manners. The me who I am now was always there, and my attitude toward childhood while I had to endure it was one of relentless impatience. I longed for it to end not because I wished to be autonomous and to call my own shots — indeed, I was afraid of that eventuality — but because I needed to know about the world. From the dawn of my consciousness it was clear that most sure things about the adult world, when tested, turned out to be unexamined piffle. My impatience with childhood was, therefore, not inspired by admiration for the grown-ups. If I had thought of knowledge as a tool of heroism, I should have wanted to grow up so that I could save the planet.

I did not associate heroism with intelligence; nor did anyone else. Intelligence, in the wondrous Fifties, was associated with subversion, with treason. Any intelligence that was not required to pass a test was to be regarded as tumorous, and probably malignant. We were living in the best of all possible worlds. Not! It is true that I never gave much thought to the victims of social injustice. That is because I believed, as I believe still, that social injustice would disappear if anybody were living in the best of all possible worlds. Which is to say that I thought that nobody was living in the best of all possible worlds in those days. I should have had to walk miles from my home to encounter serious disadvantage, but I always knew that the long walk would not take me through any part of paradise.

My only question about childhood is this: how did I know that it was so bogus? Why does innocence seem to have been so conspicuously lacking?


After saying good-night to Kathleen, I puffed up the pillows and finished the Le Carré. More anon.


Tuesday 8th

Curiously, reading Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir is reminding me of things that I haven’t remembered in a long time. For example:

While I was a lawyer in the Law Department at E F Hutton & Co, a national brokerage firm or “wire house” that disappeared from the face of the earth shortly after I left it in 1987 (my last job), something very unusual happened. In the Law Department, we handled customer complaints, negotiating settlements, participating in arbitration proceedings, and hiring outside lawyers to deal with lawsuits. (We also dealt with certain internal affairs. For years, I reported to the General Counsel on the “outside business activities” of the stockbrokers. Quite a few brokers, I was surprised to learn, were also commercial airline pilots. This did not present any conflict of interest or other problem. My favorite example of an outside business activity that did present a problem — and a rather bulky one it was — was the publication by one of our brokers of a book entitled Riches Without Risk.) We had absolutely nothing to do with securities law.

I don’t remember how a particular customer complaint metastasized into a complaint about the Law Department itself, but it so happened that a number of our attorneys were deposed. No, we were not fired. We were, rather, required to give sworn, out-of-court testimony before a court reporter. The questions were put to us by the plaintiff’s attorneys. (In our part of the action, E F Hutton & Co was always the defendant.)

I don’t know why I had to give a deposition. I don’t remember the name or the face of the colleague whose activities formed the basis of the complaint; I seem to remember (what does that mean?) that the lawsuit came to nothing; that it was abandoned in the discovery phase. All I’m sure of is that I was asked, as I expected to be asked, about office procedures — the nuts and bolts of our workday.

We were also asked our opinions of what our colleague did or did not do. This is the part that I remember most clearly, because I steadfastly replied to these invitations to speculate with three little words: “I don’t know.”

And I didn’t know. I could surmise, I could make a good guess. But I didn’t know. Saying “I don’t know” was not evasive; it was the truth. And saying it, again and again, was perhaps the most resolute thing that I have ever done. It felt horribly rude, even unnatural. When someone asks you a question, your instinct is to answer as helpfully as you can. If you don’t know the answer, then you offer a good guess. “I don’t know, but I think I saw that book in Ben’s office.” When asked how my colleague handled his caseload generally, or the plaintiff’s complaint in particular, I had to resist this impulse, which I could override but not suppress. Every time I overrode it, I felt a bit more monstrous, more sociopathic. I was a bastard, I was a prick: I could feel the insults that such conduct would have elicited in more vernacular circumstances. But I stuck with it, and had the consolation of feeling quite proud of myself.

If I were to write a rigorous memoir, it wouldn’t be very long. “I don’t know.” Because I don’t remember. The only detail of the foregoing anecdote that I am absolutely sure of, besides my employment at E F Hutton & Co, is that I answered a lot of questions by saying “I don’t know.” I remember that much because it was simply unforgettable. Doing the right thing is often very difficult, very painful. But only rarely, in circumstances that one might well call “tragic,” does doing the right thing feel sharply like doing the wrong thing, the bad thing. Lawyers, who do things that look to others like the wrong thing, the bad thing, all the time, have been trained — indoctrinated, really — by law school professors to see things otherwise. It’s unusual for lawyers to sit in the witness box themselves, and submit to cross examination.

Now, how do I know all of that, that business about lawyers and law school indoctrination and so forth? Because I am married to a lawyer, a classmate at a particular law school, and we reminisce often about the intellectual trauma of our first year. (Kathleen has a vivid way of describing it, but I don’t remember her exact words, so I’ll just say that it sounds like a horror film involving brainwashing.) I don’t have to root about in memories that are approaching their fortieth anniversary.

On the whole, I don’t think much about my past. I am stung by certain unwanted memories that snap at me spontaneously; they all involve misconduct on my part and they can still flood me with shame. I try to find comfort in the fact that there are not very many of them. (But how many?) I have a lot of general impressions about the course of my life, but few reliable still images, so to speak. And the things that I do remember clearly are characterized by the element of unusualness. I have always preferred my life to be outwardly usual, because it frees my mind. So the unusual things are not terribly common, and either I don’t register them at all or I remember them clearly, but meaninglessly.

For example, I remember driving from Bronxville to the Woodlawn subway station on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, so that I could pick up my friend Michael, who lived in Manhattan (just a block from where I’ve lived for decades). I don’t know why I didn’t drive into the city to fetch him, but I surmise that he took the subway because it was cheaper than the commuter train; for both of us, simply being on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, alongside Woodlawn Cemetery, was an adventure. On top of this, Michael brought me a treat, one that I had asked for. I had asked him to go to Sam Goody’s and buy, if it was available, a recording on Deutsche Gramophon by an ensemble directed by Herbert von Karajan of Mozart’s Divertimento K 334. Which he did. Why I asked him to do this — had I gone to the Sam Goody’s in Cross County Center, not far from home, and discovered that they didn’t have it? — I have no idea.

This recollection is like a snapshot in that it represents an actual event or moment but is embalmed in a great cloud of So What? I wish I knew how to flesh it out, by telling you which of my parents’ cars I was driving (a blue Oldsmobile comes to mind, but that may be corrupting influence of a car that I had in law school), or what I was wearing, or how characteristically cheeky it was of me to ask Michael to go out of his way to buy me a record that I just had to have. (How did I even know about this divertimento of Mozart’s?)

And, come to think of it, it might have been a different LP: Eileen Farrell singing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung.

Kathleen and I took our honeymoon at an inn in New Hampshire, not far from where my aunt and uncle and some of my cousins lived. I am reminded of it every time I hear songs from the Hall & Oates album, Private Eyes. But I didn’t know a single one of those songs at the time. It was only when we came home that we got the record. I suppose that still-lively memories of the inn in New Hampshire got mixed up with the new music. And the only thing that I am really sure of here, aside from the effect of the songs, is that I have long been mystified by this association. Perhaps the mystification is itself a mistake. Maybe, in fact, I did know the songs. Did I bring a boombox along on the honeymoon? Did we have a cassette tape of Private Eyes? I don’t remember one way or the other. All that I remember is that, for years now, I have thought how odd it was that the songs make me think of a trip that took place before I knew them.

I don’t know.


Wednesday 9th

How black can political despair get? In all of today’s Times, the statement that I most fully agreed with was this:

“Anyone who thinks@realDonaldTrump comments will hurt him don’t know the temperature of the American ppl,” the radio host Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter.

On the Op-Ed page, Frank Bruni scolded the Donald for his addiction to attention; I wondered who needed to read, or would benefit from reading, this column. Because: The problem is not Donald Trump. The problem is that Americans seem to be crowding into meeting halls to hear him. The only thing I really want to know is how many Americans. I want Nate Silver’s squad of data sifters to keep track of Trump’s support in bodies. That way, I can keep my horror to reasonable proportions.

The Times reported on the worldwide dismay at Trump’s call for a ban on non-citizen Muslim entry into the United States. This dismay is largely official, which makes sense, because it is the crust of officials, a worldwide club of élite managers, that constitutes Trump’s prime target. He’s only going after Muslims because he wants to whip up his fans into a frenzy that will break that crust. “Down with the leaders!” That is Trump’s message. When pressed for a detailed second step, Trump fails utterly. “We’ll figure it out.”

Donald Trump wants attention. How long could his pre-eminence endure, I wonder, if it were challenged by those who want not attention but power? I can see Ted Cruz signing Trump’s death warrant.

Laura Ingraham is right, I’m afraid (very afraid): too many Americans have given up, not so much on our way of government, which they don’t really understand, as on the men and women who show up in the news as political leaders.

Meanwhile, in the Business section, you will find a room-temperature piece about private equity returns that reads like a communication from another planet, if, that is, you can still keep the Trump nonsense in mind. Also the news of a proposed merger of DuPont and Dow, which will be followed by the consolidated company’s breakup into three pieces. Bill Gates is “nudging” world leaders and “tech billionaires” to “team up on clean technology.” Business as usual. The lone interesting story is about a new study showing that Walmart’s Chinese imports have displaced 400,000 American jobs. Hirocho Tabuki handles the story well, providing a lot of comment that is critical of the study. A Walmart spokesman claims that job losses are offset by job creations, in such fields as transportation, &c. There’s plenty to think about in this piece, not least that 400,000 is not a lot of jobs. We need to know more, because economic insecurity at the local level has a negative impact on the temperature of the American people.


For the moment, I’m going to call it a mutable icon. That’s something of a contradiction in terms, I know, but I think that offers a better description of what I’m going to talk about than memory does.

When I was thirteen, my life changed. My body had already changed; I was fully grown. It happened very quickly, and without the glandular swings that can make adolescence a living hell. Now my personality changed, or rather, it emerged — the one that I still have. We had moved house the year before, and my electric trains — a complicated but underfunded operation — were left behind. My childhood seems to have been left behind with them.

My interest in music underwent a rapid evolution. I had always listened to my parents’ records, which were mostly original cast albums of Broadway shows. One that wasn’t featured a choral group, and songs such as “I Love Paris” and “No Other Love” — very haunting, somehow. There was a recording of “You Belong to Me” — I’m thinking that it was Vera Lynn, and not Patti Page. From this song I learned that it told me everything I wanted to know about the pyramids along the Nile and Old Algiers. Some fond adult introduced me to Mantovani. The Mantovani album of (grossly cut) Strauss waltzes led to the purchase of a much more beautiful LP: Six waltzes by Waldteufel, played by a real orchestra under a real conductor (but I forget which and who). Joining the chorus at Bronxville High, I was soon singing bits of Mozart’s Requiem, and that, I can state with unusual assurance, was my first “classical record.”

I made the mistake of mentioning Mantovani to the chorus director, in front of a clutch of seniors. The ensuing blast of scorn taught me a highly useful discretion. It did not dampen my eclecticism, but it did teach me that if I were going to venture to talk about serious music, I had better know more about it. But that could wait. The seniors who talked about classical music were dismissive nerds. I was to discover that this was typical of all the boys who knew anything about the arts. (I was given no reason to think that there existed girls who listened to Mozart. Older women, yes, but not girls.) I was to discover later still that hermetic superiority was a feature of modernism itself. Modernism and dismissiveness alike made me uncomfortable. I preferred solitude to competition — another lifelong trait.

At some point in that year when I was thirteen, Handel’s Water Music became the thing I liked to listen to best. The Water Music is an element of the icon. So is Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Although I spent a great deal of time with books in those days, I was not a very good reader. Whenever I came up against something that I didn’t understand, I relaxed my focus and drifted effortlessly through the pages. In the very long run, this turned out not to be a bad thing, but in the short run it filled my head not with the contents of books but with abominable conceit, a portrait gallery of me reading now this book, now that one, and now the next. I was so aware that reading adult books for pleasure was an unusual pastime for anyone my age, much less one with my physical attributes, that actual reading required extra effort. A little competition might have shaped me up, but only at the cost of being able to say, as I can now, that my experience of the arts has been led by love, by the pursuit of pleasure.

So, there I was, reading A Tale of Two Cities, with the Water Music playing in the background. The novel, I knew, was written in the Nineteenth Century, but it was set in the 1790s. The Water Music, as best scholars could make out, was first played shortly before 1720. My grasp of history was still sufficiently inchoate for me to bunch everything together in a sort of Georgian moment. A George I moment. The liner notes told me the tale about the Water Music. It was a musical apology, a peace offering. Handel was still the court musician in Hanover — officially, that is; in fact, he had long been AWOL, first in Rome and then in London — when the Elector of Hanover became the King of England. The new king discovered that his old music director was already, one might at best say “prematurely,” very busy and very famous in his new capital. The extent to which George I honestly gave a damn about any of this is unclear. He blandly continued to patronize Handel. Handel was such an exponent of prevailing Hanoverian dynamics that he was disliked by George II and adored by George III.

I imagined George I, as we see him in his state portraits, listening to the Water Music. An unlikely scene, in fact; but I imagined it to the degree of inhabiting it. There was a quiet but bizarre synchronicity of images: me sitting in my room; George I sitting on his throne — both of us listening to the Water Music. Dicken’s novel of the French Revolution was the unlikely catalyst of this magic.

This is my mutable icon. It is not the memory of a particular moment. As a self-image, it was not permanent. But it is the first in a series of “Our Baby” photographs, all of them variants of the icon. Throw in a candlestick and a cup of Earl Grey tea, as I did whenever I could circumvent my mother’s firm opposition to playing with matches and eating or drinking in my room, and you have a picture of my life as, aged thirteen, I badly wanted it to be. For of course the icon was aspirational. Most of the time, I was a bored, restless teenager, discovering new things to do every day but taking forever to learn how to do any of them, watching too much television and eating too many Fig Newtons.

I lived, in effect, two intellectual lives, for what happened in school had nothing to do with what happened in my room. School presented an entirely different, and, in my view, rather useless, approach to knowledge — the pleasure-free approach. As I grew older, the parallel lives bent a bit and headed toward a future intersection. Amazingly, the intersection occurred while I was a law student, thirty years old. But that’s another mystery. Is it another icon?


Thursday 10th

Ever since Thanksgiving Day, part of me has smouldered in a slow burn. The little fire was lighted by the Op-Ed piece that Kevin Dowd, given the floor by his sister, Maureen, offered Times readers for holiday dégustation. I disagreed with his estimation of the Republican candidates, although I sympathized with some of his reasons for supporting them. What bothered me much more was the tendentious self-assurance with which he overlooked inconvenient downsides. To begin at the beginning:

Donald Trump: With all his bombast and incivility, Trump has joyfully debunked political correctness for the complete fraud that it is. With his talent for making debate ratings soar, he has allowed all the other candidates to be seen and heard at celestial levels unreachable without him. He has touched a nerve because people are fed up with liberal groups being offended at every slight, real or imagined. (I can assure you none of these people were taught by Jesuits.)

It’s certainly true that Trump has livened up the campaign. But at what terrible cost? And would Dowd be as cheery about Trump today, only two weeks later, after Trump’s malignant proposal to ban entry by non-citizen Muslims? I certainly hope not. Another favorite:

Marco Rubio: Young, whip smart and self-assured, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign affairs and is a stunning contrast to Hillary Clinton both in generation and vision.

If anything can be determined about Rubio, it is that he puts Hillary Clinton to shame as an opportunist. His defection from the Gang of Eight appears to have been all too characteristic of the man. Rubio is whip smart all right, when it comes to determining which way the breeze is trending.

The comparison of Ben Carson to Dwight Eisenhower is perhaps Dowd’s perfect flame. This is nothing but the smart-ass provocation to which Irish-Americans, although they have no monopoly on the gambit, have given their own twinkling sarcasm, which opens up wiggle room for treating everything as a joke. The proposition is cleverly made: “Not since Eisenhower has a complete novice politician been so legitimate a contender.” This doesn’t mean that Carson is any good. What it means is that, if you disagree, if you object to framing the talk-circuit surgeon with the coordinator of Allied forces, it’s up to you to name another “novice politician.” But before you can think of Ross Perot, you have to swallow the insult, because that’s what the comparison is meant to be. Which is to say that Dowd is perfectly aware that his remark will reduce most liberals to sputtering rage.

In short, you have to be tough as well as whip-smart (which presumably Dowd is as well). And it’s the note of toughness that rankles. It becomes the key of the second half of the piece, which trembles patriotically about national weakness and American exceptionalism and the heroism of our police forces. Dowd’s rhetorical swagger may be less ridiculous than Trump’s “bombast and incivility,” but it is no less offensive. For eventually you must make a choice, between stoic, vale-of-tears conservatism such as Dowd’s, with its presumptions of male supremacy, and the humane generosity of spirit that Montaigne, initially a would-be stoic, learned from the writing of his Essays. You have to decide whether Dowd’s way of talking, and the worldview implicit in his style of speech, is acceptable in public discourse.

On balance, I admire the Jesuits. They introduced a briskness to serious discussion that made it accessible to intelligent non-specialists. Conservatives of the ancien régime were probably right to discern seeds of revolution in Jesuit teaching. But the Jesuits were inclined to the vanity of always having an answer for everything. They disliked saying “I don’t know,” so instead, they said a lot of things that were plausible and glib. Kevin Dowd assures us that he was taught by Jesuits.


I have often complained of the lack of a synonym for “humanism” that isn’t grubby with the fingerprints of (a) secular, atheist humanists, for whom the whole point of humanism is to erase the role of gods in human affairs and (b) neo-Thomists, whose objective is just the opposite. What I mean by humanism is the fundamentality of human beings — people — as they live together, in all their myriad uniqueness.

I have come to wonder, though, if anything called “humanism” isn’t the wrong tree to bark up. I can state my misgivings in two ways. I don’t intend to take people “as they are,” and I’m not interested in individuals as such. I’m interested in individuals working together while remaining individuals, learning how to make the most of both cooperation and disagreement. I don’t want everyone to be the same, but I do want everyone to make an effort to live helpfully and comfortably with everyone else. I don’t really endorse our national motto, E pluribus unum. I don’t want “one thing” to result from the bustling of many. Union is not unity.

I’ve also become disenchanted with the language of “society.” Margaret Thatcher was a creep, given the context, to say that there is no such thing as society, but she was right; there isn’t. She was especially right in that society does not exist at the national level. What I mean by society is a very local affair: the people I pass in the elevator or up and down 86th Street. It is composed of familiar strangers. (In a small town, of course, everybody does know everybody else, and it become possible to talk about “community,” but community can be stifling, and of course bright people, exceptional by definition, often find life in their communities to be suffocating. Such, at least, is the story of every other newcomer to New York.)

I value peace and stability, but I also believe that intelligent change is vital. I dread violence and stupidity. I think that violence and stupidity are the fruit of loneliness and alienation; peace and stability are rooted in trust and decency. Expedience is costly and corrosive. Is there a word for my outlook?


Friday 11th

Last night, while doing the ironing, I watched Mystic Pizza. I was watching it for what has become the usual reason: a particular actor was in it. In this case, the actor was Matt Damon. Did you know that he was in Mystic Pizza? I was surprised to find it at the bottom of his credits at IMDb. He was seventeen or eighteen when it was shot, and you wouldn’t recognize him if you weren’t on the lookout. I’d almost given up waiting for him to appear when, there he was, at a family dinner, the younger brother, known as “Steamer,” of one of the supporting male leads’ character. It was very small part, in a single scene dominated by all the other actors. And it would have been a pleasant surprise, like spotting Lucille Ball in Top Hat, if it had been a surprise. But it was interesting anyway to see Matt Damon way back when.

Released in 1988, Mystic Pizza is coming up on its thirtieth year, and it looks it. Julia Roberts, whose first big role was Daisy Arujo, the wild and cynical romantic in the troika of young women who waitress at the eponymous pizzeria, is all big hair and puffy dresses. She looks best with her hair combed straight down and her body clad in a man’s dress shirt. As in another movie from 1988, Working Girl, Roberts’s exuberant look is supposed to register as low-class and uneducated. The posh women in Mystic Pizza have what would now be regarded as big hair, too, but theirs is more restrained, more coiffed.

Unlike Working Girl, which tells one story, Mystic Pizza tells three — or four, if you consider the Everyday Gourmet plotline, such as it is. There are two sisters, Daisy and Kat (Annabeth Gish), and their best friend, Jojo (Lili Taylor). The action, rather ingeniously, is footed by the displacement of a summer story. Daisy and Kat both run into men who ordinarily wouldn’t be hanging around the Connecticut coast in cold weather. (Jojo’s counterbalancing story suits her with a local boyfriend, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, an actor who had already established his cred in Full Metal Jacket.) One of these men is a married architect, working on someone else’s summer home, with a wife in London; the other has been thrown out of law school for cheating on an exam (played by William Moses and Adam Storke respectively). I found both of these stories of socioeconomic mismatch to be trite when the movie came out, and I still do.

There is nothing about the world of privilege as represented here that you couldn’t learn from any issue of Vanity Fair. That family dinner that I mentioned, the one with Matt Damon, is particularly painful, because the former law students’ parents and aunt are so clumsy about snubbing Daisy. When the mother says that there’s nothing wrong with being a waitress, she might as well be saying that there is nothing wrong with being Portuguese. I’ve been to a few dinners in which someone from the outside world was being introduced to the family, and the reception was invariably determined by personal appeal rather than snobbish standoffishness. Nor was it taken so seriously. Families don’t invest in real scrutiny until the fourth or the fifth dinner.

As for the married architect, Daisy calls the cliché before Kat even knows how seriously she has fallen for her situationally single employer (she babysits his daughter). It turns out to be no more and no less. Kat’s heart is broken when, upon the sudden return of his wife, the architect gives her, if not a cold, then a hangdog shoulder. But Kat has Yale to look forward to; she’ll find a more eligible cute guy among the undergraduates. At the end, when Jojo finally marries her boyfriend (in a twist, he refuses to have sex with her unless she does), Leona, the pizzeria owner, hands Kat a fat envolope of cash. “You three girls are our children,” she says. The former law student is still in the running when the curtain comes down, but you know that Daisy is going to give him the right kind of hard time. (His father gave him the wrong kind.) And no sooner does the Everyday Gourmet tell his television audience that Mystic Pizza’s Mystic Pizza is “superb” than the phone rings. Leona tells the caller that reservations are not necessary. Big win all round.

A law school friend of ours was living in Mystic at the time. (She was working in nearby New London.) She drove us around, and taught us that Mystic Pizza was shot largely in neighboring Stonington, a far more picturesque seaside village. This information symbolized for me the air of fantasy in the movie.


There’s no need for me to say any more about public affairs this week; it’s all in the first section of today’s Times. The essence is captured in Simon Romero’s report concerning a glass of wine tossed in someone’s face: “Some Brazilians also pondered what the encounter says about a self-obsessed and increasingly polarized political establishment.” Show me a political establishment in a liberal democracy that isn’t self-obsessed, as well as increasingly polarized! Please! Paul Krugman nails the two flavors of populist discontent, European and American, in his Op-Ed piece. There’s even a story about how Hillary Clinton is no longer laughing at or about Donald Trump. Took her a while, eh?

What’s depressing isn’t so much the apocalyptic cast of political discourse as the absence of positive critique. No one seems to have any serious idea of a better way. For several generations now, political establishments, business organizations, and news media have recruited men and women who perform well on tests. (What these prodigies retain of their tested learning is very uncertain.) While it is true that life presents endless challenges, life’s tests are not written by an older generation of educators. Agility with ignorance and the unknown is not a testable skill. For that, you have to look to designers, the creators of everything from smartphones to the software that operates them. Insofar as designers are formally schooled, they enter their schools with demonstrable talents, like the journeymen of old. They show up already knowing how to make things, like that little boy in Texas with his clock. (It is richly symbolic of education today that an object was immediately suspected of being a “device.”) I’m not suggesting that designers have much to tell us about how to run the world. What their example does suggest, though, is that the prevailing template for training élites is long on abstraction and lacking in practical experience.

That’s why our élites — in politics, business, and the press — talk only to themselves. Everything outside the élite bubble is perceived as a management problem. Which is fine, so long as the non-élite population is willing, however unenthusiastically, to be managed.

Twenty-five or thirty years of rather disastrous economic mismanagement have inclined significant numbers of people to ignore the élites and to listen to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and others of their ilk — fear-mongerers who in the happier days of Les Trente Glorieuses were written off as cranks. Ms Clinton has just received the memo: cranks are in. Neither she nor anyone else in the establishment has a clue about how to respond to cranks with anything but laughter. That is why there has been no anti-Trump. The élite cannot produce a character with, say, Michael Bloomberg’s money and Christopher Hitchens’s wit. So Trump’s insults go uncontested.

Trump was not on the test.


Bon week-end à tous!