Gotham Diary:
February 2016 (III)

Monday 15th

This cold of mine has begun to demoralize me. Am I feeling sorry for myself? Sort of, I suppose. What I’m really sorry about is that I have to live through this moment in American history. It’s an ugly one. With the body of Antonin Scalia still at the undertaker’s, partisans were already crying, Aux barricades! Not only do the Republicans deny President Obama the moral right to nominate Scalia’s successor, but they’re talking about overturning the same-sex marriage case. It seems that thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of hot buttons were pushed by the late Justice’s death.

For about ten minutes after hearing the news (Fossil Darling called to tell me), I was so exultant that it is now official: I am going straight to hell. Over the past thirty years, Scalia has been the reason why I couldn’t claim to be a person of good will, wishing death to none. If he had retired, I might have forgotten about him. But of course he did not retire, so my loathing ran right up to the moment of his demise.

When I was growing up, people like Scalia — and the people who admire Donald Trump — were thought to be beneath contempt, even in conservative Westchester County. Perhaps they were. But they’re not any more. This does not mean that they are not contemptible. It is very unpleasant to live in a democracy that requires you to respect contemptible people.

These people, I hasten to add, are contemptible only to the extent that they venture past the election booth into active politicking. And what is contemptible about them is simply that they want black Americans either to disappear or to settle back into slavery. At least that truth is being squeezed out into the open. For far too long, liberals and progressives have concluded that the fight for Civil Rights was over and won. If asked, black Americans would offer a contrary view, but we smart people always know better, don’t we. How could anybody get up in the morning, in our enlightened world, and embrace bigotry? It took Barack Obama’s residency in the White House to teach us.

Enough intemperance. Blame it on the cold. Or blame it on the chill of grand peur that I’m beginning to feel.


As I read Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, I wondered about its intended readership. Whom did A O Scott have in mind? College students, I concluded. (Folks in the book business, and other critics, too — but that’s a very small market.) It would be nice to think that general readers will pick up this book, but I doubt it. Even the self-help subtitle (for shame!) can’t lighten the lead weight of criticism. I don’t know when it became comprehensible English for one civilian to bark at another, “Don’t criticize me!”, but that is when the word was vernacularized, and lost to thoughtful writers. “Criticism” is something unpleasant that nasty people inflict on their supposed friends. That’s why even professional critics, the men and women who write reviews of books, plays, movies, concerts and whatnot, are believed to set out to knock things down. Even “positive criticism” has an air of the oxymoronic about it. It sounds like an inoculation: “This is going to hurt, but then you’ll be all better.” And Scott writes from a position that accepts all this negative feedback. He takes it as understood that what critics do is reprehensible, and that critics themselves are hateful.

Then he sets out to replace that understanding with a better one. On page 17, he states that criticism is the late-born twin of art. Now, that’s a wild claim! But three pages later, he is quoting H L Mencken: “Literature always thrives best, in fact, in an atmosphere of heavy strife.” Sounds like the same-old to me: Criticism is painful. Re-reading Mencken’s line just now, I was reminded of free-market economics, which also advances a duke-’em-out ethos. Let the best man win!

I really don’t know where to begin with Better Living. I read the book thinking that I should have to re-read it, perhaps several times, or else just let it go. I’m still undecided. I couldn’t find the center of the book, the point from which Scott’s thought might be seen to radiate. Perhaps it was unfair or wrongheaded to look for one, but I couldn’t help it, because I believe that I have figured out what criticism is all about, or at least where it ought to go from here. In the most basic sense, I have learned by doing, writing this Web log. What I have discovered is that the bundle of skills and judgments that distinguish the craft of journalism will no longer sustain what is worthwhile about criticism.

Perhaps it never has; I believe that I have always worried that it didn’t. Instead of writing more about Better Living Through Criticism right now, I’m going to take up another autobiographical question: why didn’t I try to be a journalist? Why was it something that I quite consciously shied away from?

I’ve just deleted a longish paragraph about how I did radio instead. Interesting perhaps, but not on point. I did radio because it came very easily to me. I did not have to work at it. Using radio to teach myself about serious music, I was always ahead of the requirements, such as they were. I went in, at the college level, knowing more than anyone else, and I stayed in that position for more than ten years. You may wonder how someone who never seriously studied music or played an instrument with proficiency could excel in this way, but in fact that’s precisely how I did it. I didn’t make music. I listened to it.

Journalism would not have been such a snap, not remotely. But what really kept me away was the ambiance. Is there a reason why the prototypical journalist always seems to be a sportswriter?

Life has taught me that, although I’m not bad in genuine emergencies, I wilt under routine pressure. I don’t like locker rooms, or other masculine enclaves. There is something terribly depressing — hellish, really — about hanging around with men-being-men. The smell is part of it, but so is the casual rudeness, and so is the cavalier attitude toward scratches and bruises. Throughout childhood and early adolescence, I was terrified of being drafted into the army. Being killed by the enemy never occurred to me; I was sure that I’d be killed by my sergeant. I was also a little afraid that I’d kill my sergeant. I was afraid of violence in part because I feared that I might like it, even thought it might kill me. I was afraid of a life so pointless.


Yes, I was afraid that journalism was pointless. Something to wrap up fish in. And yet, what an avid consumer I was — and remain! I read the Times every day, and a host of magazines. Didn’t I ever want to write for The New Yorker? (Come on, tell the truth.) Well, there were times when I’d have liked to be the sort of guy who writes for The New Yorker. But I always knew that I wasn’t that guy. This had, and has, nothing to do with not being good enough. It has everything to do with doing what I want to do. And that would be? Until recently, I didn’t know; I was still looking. You could say that my looking got serious when I launched Portico, a Web site, in 2000. (Or was it 2001?)

Portico was laid out like a magazine. There were departments — the top menu links — and these were subdivided. The cooking section, “Culinarion,” came in four sub-sections, “Sweets,” “Savories,” “Eggs,” and “Extras.” (I still find that to be an elegant disposition.) The page on Hollandaise is physically remote from the page on Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, which dates from 2005, by which time I had set up the first version of this Web log. The page on Didion is a review, no two ways about it. So are most of the other pages devoted to books; although, if you look at the page on Netherland, from 2009, you see that it is a “Note,” and that it deals with an aspect of Joseph O’Neill’s novel, making no pretense of comprehensiveness. Even the Netherland page, however, is more objective than anything that I’ve been writing lately.

By “objective” I mean something slightly different. I mean that the writer’s personality — mine, in this case — is only indirectly present. I make a lot of judgments on this page, but they appear as in the guise of truths.

Netherland is not only a novel about but a treatise on wistfulness. And what is wistfulness but nostalgia faced the other way? Not, in other words, nostalgia at all. It is the longing for things to happen again, now that one is capable of understanding and appreciating them. The wistful man does not want to go back in time. He wants to bring the past forward to the present, and refresh it with his enhanced grasp of how things might be, or might have been, otherwise.

Who is this “wistful man” that I seem to be familiar with? I can’t answer that. I couldn’t possibly write this page today. I don’t think that way anymore. I’m not sure that I should choose the same long passage (about a fellow called Cardozo) for comment. I’m glad that I wrote what I wrote, but it feels to me as though whoever wrote it is dead and gone.

The manner for which I am groping is “subjective” in that I embed what I have to say about a book or a movie or anything in a matrix of memoir. The idea is not to showcase my life but to plug books, movies and whatnot into it, and to see what happens in the long term; not what happens right after I’ve read the book for the first time, but after I’ve lived with it. I’m not reading a book because someone asked me to, or writing down a couple of interesting things about the book that may or may not kindle a desire to read it, and then collecting a paycheck and moving on to the next assignment. I’m not reading books that I don’t like and telling you what’s wrong with them. Everything that I write is intended to survive its ceasing to be news. In fact, I write for the second reading.

What authority do I have to practice criticism? That’s up to you to decide — and I am certain that, after you have read enough of what I have to say, you will know how to regard my authority — what it means to you. At the end of Lit Up, David Denby writes of the teachers in whose classrooms he has watched fifteen year-olds grow,

They were more experienced, certainly, than students; they were guides, leaders, dispensers of knowledge and justice, but also people subject to the ups and downs, the happiness and mishaps, that the students were subject to. They demonstrated that it was possible to do that without losing authority. In fact, in media-sozzled America, where skepticism is the prevailing mode of thought, candor may be a way of gaining authority. Teaching is about building trust. Acknowledgment of one’s own humanity is one powerful way of building it. (238)

As I say, I’m figuring this out as I go along. But it’s a matter of refining, now, not looking. I was thinking over the weekend of the time that I put into reviewing The New York Times Book Review, week after week, year after year. There was a long time in the middle when I didn’t know why I was bothering, because, on such close inspection, the Book Review turned out to be a pretty shoddy product. But I kept at it because there was something that wasn’t clear to me. This turned out to be what the whole point of reviewing was: to sell books. I say that tongue-in-cheek, because what I mean has nothing to do with shilling or publicity. I mean that a good review makes the people who will get the most out of the book want to read it. (A really good review also warns away those who won’t — without making one unfavorable remark.) I also learned that I wasn’t interested in reviewing books myself. It’s the other way round. I want them to live in me.


Tuesday 16th

The bleakness that prevails in a North Atlantic February — and that makes Februarys so hard to remember as times when anything happened — is intensifying, somehow, the sting that I gave myself yesterday, when I wrote that I went into radio because it came easily to me. Haven’t I always (and here I hang my head in shame) done the things that came easily to me? Kathleen says, “Nonsense,” but she is a great comforter.

The issue wasn’t why I went into radio. It was why I didn’t pursue journalism, which might seem to be the natural home for a fluent writer with a worldly take on varied interests. And the answer to that question, with the sting still lodged in my skin, seems to be that I was a chicken, a sissy, a coward. I didn’t think I could take it. Not the writing assignments, but the other guys. (What I should now, looking over a great distance in age and time, call the roughhousing. I have also learned that I am a very sore loser. I am incapable of sustaining the thought, “It’s only a game.” So I avoid competitions.) Questions of courage and confidence aside, moreover, I am allergic to esprit de corps. It is a reaction to growing up in the United States in the Fifties.

Whatever the personal issues, there was also the question of journalism itself. Not journalists or the way they might carry on, but the result of their labors: columns of print that are soon forgotten. This does not mean that journalism is unimportant. In our complicated world, journalism is often the only thing that suggests the possibility of making sense of things. But, as its name suggests, it is important for the day. Tomorrow, we shall require other instructions, other pointers, other commentary. Journalism embeds itself in the day that it addresses. The interest that it has for later readers, when not plainly historical or a matter of record, is almost always ironic.

Take Frank Nugent’s review of Bringing Up Baby. A O Scott does, in Better Living Through Criticism. The review appeared in the Times on 4 March 1938. If you have access to old Times pages, then you can read it for yourself. It’s not long, and it will make you smile. Aside from some framing matter, the review is a catalogue of the hoary old comic routines that Howard Hawks ran through, one after another, to provide a ridiculous but acerbic backdrop to his screwball comedy. You’re smiling not because Nugent doesn’t get it but because his litany reminds you of the fun of watching the movie. What’s actually funny about Bringing Up Baby isn’t any of the “clichés” that Nugent lists, but the cognitive dissonance between the nonstop circus in the background and David Huxley’s perplexity up front. (Huxley is played by Cary Grant.) When his precious intercostal clavicle (well, not his) is buried in the yard by George (a/k/a Asta, Skippy, Mr Smith — a terrier), Huxley is understandably upset, and not inclined to see what has happened as a cliché at all. Clichés are what happen to other people.

What may have lulled Nugent into missing this irony is that Cary Grant, even in the guise of a bumbling paleontologist, belongs in a circus himself. The actor grew up in one, and it is arguable that no movie brings out Grant’s acrobatic talents as much as this one does. Nugent may well have seen Grant’s performance as yet another cliché. The movie is dangerously smooth on this point — this dissonance, as I call it, between Huxley and the leopards. It is compromised by Grant’s physical grace in response to disaster. A more conventional leading man would have looked like — Frank Nugent; not funny. And it takes a while for Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) to declare her resolution to detach the man she loves from his dreary fiancée. Her strategy is anything but romantic. On the contrary: she hurls her future husband into a cyclone of trauma. That’s what’s funny, too. What a strange girl this Susan Vance is! And what a genius Howard Hawks was, to mount her triumph in the hyper-vaudeville collapse of a bunch of scary old dinosaur bones!

Poor Frank Nugent. He can’t have imagined that his unfavorable review of a movie that clearly annoyed the hell out of him would be brought back to life nearly eighty years later and reconsidered in an essay entitled “How To Be Wrong.” As Scott suggests, Nugent may simply have seen too many movies; he may have missed the subtle cues, at the beginning of the film, that a romance would be presented in a highly unlikely light, and this would make everything new. Hollywood’s gags had been recycled too many times — for Frank Nugent. Reviewers of Peter Bogdanovich’s remake, What’s Up, Doc? (1972), didn’t have Nugent’s problem at all; it had been ages since the “clichés” had been taken out of cold storage. In fact, the very antiquity of the jokes was part of the fun.

With the appearances of What’s Up, Doc? and, two years later, Chinatown, I realized that the old movies were back. That’s how I put it. I’d seen scores of old movies by then, both on the Early Show and Million Dollar Movie. The latter showcase played the same movie every night for a week: how’s that for a films course? I knew that color had somehow ruined everything, but I could see that Bogdanovich and Polanski knew how to fix that, even though I couldn’t have explained what I saw. I should venture now to say that Bogdanovich treated the color schemes of television’s new sitcoms the way Hawks treated the fiancée, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker): the benchmark of normal. (It was Eunice Burns, his film’s fiancée, played by Madeline Kahn, whom Bogdanovich would treat as the drunken Irishman.) The colors in What’s Up, Doc? seem to promise that all the awful things that happen to Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) couldn’t happen — and yet, of course, they do.

I wonder why Scott doesn’t mention What’s Up, Doc? I wonder a lot of things about the essay in which he talks about Nugent. It ranges over many subjects, all of them, allegedly, critical mistakes. Scott’s own mistake is to start off with a daring bid that the essay never quite delivers.

But it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong. Not on purpose, of course, and not out of laziness, ignorance, or stupidity. No: the critic’s task is to trace a twisted, looping, stutter-stepping, incomplete path toward the truth, and as such to fight an unending battle against premature and permanent certainty.

For one thing, I don’t see how you can call a duty sacred if the responsible party isn’t aware of trying to fulfill it. For another, I’m as tired as Frank Nugent could be of the metaphor of the unending path toward the truth.

“How to Be Wrong” reminds me of a priest at St Thomas More who used to give mesmerizing sermons, filled with name-checks and references to great art and literature. And yet nobody could ever determine what the point of the sermon was. (My father made the same complaint about Notre Dame’s Father Hesburgh.) Each one of Scott’s paragraphs flows from the one before it, and into the one that follows, making perfect sense — but the effect is miscellaneous. The closest we come to one of those “funnel paragraphs” that I was taught to write, and put at the beginning of each attempt at expository writing, appears toward the end of the essay, in the form of a summary. Scott runs through all the ways in which the critic can be wrong, pretty much as Nugent enumerates the clichés in Bringing Up Baby. Here is the end of that paragraph, and the beginning of the next one.

You can be earnest or flippant, plainspoken or baroque, blunt or coy, dilettante or geek. You can follow the precepts of theory or just go on your nerve. You can labor to be consistent or blithely and capaciously contradict yourself.

It doesn’t matter. Actually, it matters a great deal. It matters more than anything. You are guaranteed to be wrong…. (211)

Wrong? Only if you’re trying to be objective, as I defined it yesterday. You’ll be wrong only to the extent that you have pretended to make universal statements — statements that are true for everyone at all times. But why try? It’s silly, unnecessary, and — characteristically masculine to want to lay down the law, to pronounce an irreversible sentence. That’s a terrible power for a judge to have in a capital case, for a life is at stake. Outside the courtroom, however, there are no irreversible sentences. Everything is reversible, except — except the fact of you.

The fact of you, in subjective critical terms, exists only on the page. Every entry at this Web log presents the reader with the fact of me. Aside from quotations, I wrote everything that appears here. Now, it’s possible that no one will ever get to know “who I really am” — not even I. In fact, it’s certain. But what I’ve written is also a fact, and it cannot be wrong, no matter how many poor judgments I make.

This is much more than the sleight-of-hand, the turning-of-tables that it might seem to be. Such authority as my pronouncements possess proceed from the fact of me, the fact that I’ve written everything here (or chosen what I haven’t myself written). The more you read, what you read acquires greater authority, and the clearer, in your mind, the nature of my authority becomes. You may conclude that I am an expert on things that make you feel happy on Tuesdays. Or you may make use of me in the way that Kathleen and I think that designers ought to make use of us: for whatever we choose, in the line of china patterns or upholstery fabrics, it is always promptly discontinued, so it would be much cheaper to ask us first.

And, at the very end of the essay, Scott writes,

It should go without saying that every good critic, every interesting critic, will commit some of the crimes enumerated above, whether brazenly or unwittingly. A great critic will be guilty of all of them. (212)

Again, this is perverse, because of course Scott is saying that you have to be wrong to be right. Which is merely clever, just as his talk about “sacred duty” is merely cheeky. The only way that I can make sense of “How to Be Wrong” is to claim that Scott is trying to say exactly what I’ve been saying, while, however, holding on to that illusion of objectivity. In the light of that illusion, the critic may be wrong, but that doesn’t stop him from laying down the law or telling it like it is or however you want to put it. But I don’t want to put it; I don’t see the need.


Thursday 18th

At lunch today, I overheard a couple of women whom I’ve overheard before. They’re a mother and a daughter. The daughter has a rather penetrating voice, possibly because her mother is hard of hearing, and her mother can be heard pretty clearly, too, even though she is beginning to fail. They have reached the point of reversal, so that now it is the daughter who scolds her mother. The mother ordered a portobello burger. That’s a portobello mushroom done up to resemble a burger, not a meat patty with a mushroom on top of it. “All you’re having for lunch is this mushroom,” said the daughter, exasperated, but only mildly.”You need more protein.”

As they talked about this and that, the mother querulously interrupting the daughter and then saying, “I get it, I get it,” I realized that neither of them had an organized way of looking at the world, and that both of them were irritated by this, whether consciously or not. The subject was a young woman with “a shitty resume,” in the daughter’s words. (The daughter is very outspoken with her mother. One wonders if she’s always outspoken, or if her mother provides a vent.) The relationship between the daughter and the young woman was not clear, but what was clear was that the daughter didn’t have a point of view from which to judge her, or her situation. She and her mother together had several points of view. That, in fact, was the actual subject of their conversation: trying to decide on a point of view — from which judgment would follow. Had the young woman been taken advantage of by her employer, or had she acted improperly? Well, both; the facts were not in dispute. But whose fault was it?

We’re all in this boat. It’s not that we’re relativists. That would entail applying the same point of view but changing our minds about applying matters of principle. Take same-sex marriage. The old point of view was that homosexuality was a weakness (or a vice) exhibited by a minority of people (deviants). This made it easy to transform our regrettable inclination to regard non-conforming sex as disgusting into a principle. Nobody was talked out of maintaining that principle. What happened was a shift in point of view. From thinking about homosexuality, whatever that might be, we moved, as we became more familiar with actual homosexuals, as friends and family members, to thinking about people in love. The more we thought about people in love, the more we realized that the very idea of “non-conforming sex” was obnoxious, and that other people’s sex lives are their own business. Thus we demoted the principle that had been in force to the status of a personal preference. It’s important to distinguish this from relativism, which holds that certain behaviors, while sometimes wrong, are sometimes not-so-wrong, or perhaps even right. It is actually a form of hypocrisy, and rightly condemned for that reason.

Point of view has a lot to do with ethics, much more than the philosophers might care to admit. And yet ethical standards makes no sense without points of view. Do you view this world as a vale of tears, in which we are tempted and tried so that we can prove ourselves to worthy of paradise? That is probably still the gist of Roman Catholic teaching. The Church takes the point of view of the supremacy of the individual soul. Your soul is all that you have to worry about in this world. You can’t do anything for anybody else’s soul. Just how Church teaching came to diverge so sharply from Christ’s charity is one of many interesting stories in the history of Christianity, but like most such stories, it boils down to doing what the patriarchs tell you to do, and don’t even think of questioning their aristocratical privileges, because they have their own souls to worry about, too. Their being good is their problem, and none of your business. It is understandable that the Church’s hierarchy would take such a constitutionally dim view of political activity.

Most people assume a point of view that maximizes the importance of Right Now. Because you’re alive right now, right? What does it matter what happened a thousand years ago? Who has any idea what’s going to be happening a thousand years from now? You’ve got to think about where your next meal is coming from, a concern not shared by the dead and the unborn.

But the dead made the world that is feeding you now — I hope you’re being fed! And you are making the world that will feed future generations. This has always been the case, but the introduction of liberal democracy ought to make us more conscious of the way life works, because each of us in a democracy is involved, however minutely, in making political decisions that will set the course of the nation. Don’t ask what you can do for your country now. Ask what you can do to help it into the future.

Such a point of view, in which I take the present for granted (“Our lives are ruined,” says the mother in Radio Days — and it’s a laugh line), but want future arrangements to be better, involves economic considerations that probably don’t come up at the University of Chicago. But they’re familiar to every seriously striving family.


“Philosophy” is a vexed word. Most people — even educated folk — are cowed by it, because the professionals who present themselves as philosophers are usually utterly unintelligible. And yet the question, “What’s your philosophy?” is, I feel, almost always asked in earnest. It’s really just a grand way of asking, “What do you think?”, but the grandeur is valid because the world is a big place, with lots of moving parts, and nearly as many broken ones.

Philosophy is, or has become, profoundly male, patriarchal. As I suggested the other day, philosophy, like the kinds of criticism that emerge from a philosophical position, deals in universal statements, valid for everyone at all times. I think that Plato was one of humanity’s star crackpots, but his idea of the cave, with all the little people watching shadows on the wall, caught on with guys who liked to think of themselves as superior. From Plato’s notions of form and matter issued a mechanistic moralism — an ethic of unattainable austerity that distracts its postulants from listening to, and truly caring for, others — that we have only recently outgrown. We have outgrown it, but we haven’t found anything to take its place. I would suggest looking for a replacement that is neither mechanistic (it follows, therefore…) nor moralistic (that men are fallen creatures). I suggest something closer to home: a point of view.

A congenial point of view: a point of view that would attract sharers. In other words, a point of view whose leading feature would be that many other people adopted it. As recent nightmares demonstrate, however, congeniality is not enough. You must have something like humanism, too: the conviction that every human life is precious unto itself must be part of the point of view. My hunch is that it is possible to articulate a point of view that can grapple with life’s problems while at the same time remaining fundamentally vernacular — no higher education required. I think that you can have a comprehensive point of view that depends upon a mere handful of readily understandable principles, such as “Murder is wrong.”

Before you can have political life, you must have a pre-political, apolitical consensus. We see that now. For what does “polarized” mean if not “lacking a common point of view”? Historically, it can be demonstrated that the current polarization of American society can be traced to a breakdown of the consensus of white Americans with respect to black Americans. The minority of Americans who rejected this consensus, which basically held that Negroes, to use the word of the time, were second-class people, was very small, at least until the late Forties. Then, not very mysteriously, there were breakdowns in the barriers that excluded black Americans from participation in Major League sports (so to speak). One thing led to another, and by the Sixties, a sizable bloc of white Americans was willing to grant black Americans effective political equality. This seemed like a nice idea at the time — most white Americans who were pro-civil rights thought that they were being very high-minded and generous — but it turned out to be very complicated, as developments such as Black Power soon showed. The fracture of the old consensus meant not just that white Americans were ho longer of one mind about black Americans, but that many Americans became doubtful about sharing the country with other Americans. At the same time, civil rights legislation in the Sixties exacerbated a lack of consensus as old as Andrew Jackson, about the role of the government in social affairs.

A consensus about the role of government, however, is a political consensus. It does not have to be in place before a social consensus can make politics possible. One thing that the United States has always lacked is a forum for the civilian discussion of such issues as the role of government. Thomas Jefferson worried about this (late in life); he saw that the victory of the Revolution and the triumph of the Second (1789) Republic had put town meetings and larger regional gatherings out of business. The new Constitution, on its face, professed to have no need of such institutions, and if any of the State constitutions provided for them, I’m unaware of it. We need to do something about that. Look what happens when you leave it to the government itself to decide.

Local discussion groups — what Jefferson and, following him, Hannah Arendt called “councils” — would be a good place in which to consider a consensual point of view. Not that that’s going to stop me from proposing an idea or two.

I think that we can figure out how to share this country without treating anybody shabbily. The only hitch is, we have to want to.


In the current issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes about the simple candor about globalization that has made Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump so attractive to their supporters. As a member of the establishment himself, Surowiecki is careful to mention that adopting their policies “could well be harmful if implemented,” but even he is willing to face the facts that are already familiar to too many thousands of Americans:

American workers used to believe that a rising tide lifted all boats. But in the past thirty years it has sunk a whole lot of them.

The consensus about globalization was always more seriously embraced in the corridors of political and corporate power than anywhere else, but now it appears to have broken down. Globalization has had its chance, and it has failed. Or rather it has revealed itself as something quite unlike a rising tide. It is, instead, a funnel, getting smaller and smaller as it approaches outcomes. Globalization is nothing but a system of levers that increases the intake of those who control the levers. Everybody else gets poorer — certainly, relatively poorer. Walmart is not unlike the medieval Church, a machine for hoovering up the pennies of the poor and amassing the fortunes of a few.

In contrast to Sanders and Trump, all the other candidates — Hillary Clinton and the real Republicans — appear to be liars. They do not tell the truth about globalization, which is that they have no intention of seriously mitigating its damage. Previously untroubled supporters of Clinton are showing increasing discomfort with her appetite for this and other élitist Kool-Aids.

I would begin by breaking down “globalization” at home. You’ve heard all my nostrums before, so I’ll mention just one: large tracts of New Jersey and Long Island that have been ploughed under for suburban sprawl used to be fertile sources of local food. (It’s worth bearing in mind what any gardening catalogue will tell you: eastern Long Island lies in the same temperate zone as Virginia.) The cost of shipping things ought to be calculated more honestly, a change that would include better conditions for truck drivers, not to mention the upkeep of Interstate Highways. It is true that the Northeast will never (anytime soon) be able to support the vast monocultures of the prairie states, but I expect that an intelligent land-use program could produce enough food to support its very large population.

For the very reason that you get what you pay for, the lowest price is not necessarily the best price. Usually not, in fact.


Friday 19th

The other day, at Facebook, I came across a video clip in which Donald Trump was spliced into an episode of The Honeymooners. As Jackie Gleason fumed impatiently, Trump blathered on about his business acumen and so forth. I realized that I had not heard the Donald’s curiously light voice before, not at least for a very long time. And then, the very next day, I found myself asking, for the umpteenth time, how to pronounce Kanye West’s name. There it was, in the Times again. I hate reading words that I can’t say. “Ratiocination” used to drive me wild.

If I watched television, or even listened to the radio, I should know these things. From time to time, I’ll ask someone about Mr West, and I’ll be told, and I’ll forget it at once, because the only thing that I know about Kanye West is that I can’t say his name. Does he sing? Does he sell clothes? I’m never sure. There’s no good reason for me to know how to pronounce “Kanye” — not my opinion necessarily, but evidently it’s the judgment of my Memory Department. Kanye West inhabits a quarter of the universe that I do not visit. So does Donald Trump, although that may change. I have never seen The Apprentice; I cannot imagine wanting to watch it.

I do know the sound of Michael Bloomberg’s voice. Like almost everyone I know, I’d vote for Bloomberg for President in a heartbeat. Further proof of the extent of my removal from the center of American life.

I recently read a piece on the Internet that was hostile to Terry Gross, of Fresh Air. Hostility to Terry Gross is rarely expressed in public. I happen to admire her, primarily for her diligence: she reads her books, and, unlike the grotesque Charlie Rose, she does not attempt to create a bogus camaraderie. Listening to the show, you get the feeling that she is your friend, not her interlocutor’s. But I can understand that the modesty of her persona might very well metastasize, in the ears of someone who had come to find her irritating, into an egregious pretense. As I say, I admire Terry Gross — but I no longer have any desire to tune in to Fresh Air. I don’t want to listen to conversations in which I can’t take part. I’d read a transcript, I suppose, if it were put in front of me. I read “interviews” all the time. They’re not actually conversations; they’re exchanges of email. The interview subject “says” something, but nobody hears it until the “Send” button is pressed, by which time there has been opportunity for review and reconsideration.

I suppose lots of people listen to Fresh Air because they want to hear what a writer (for example) sounds like, and to estimate what kind of a person the writer is. It’s for this reason that people attend readings at bookstores. The writer reads a passage from the new book. Then questions from the audience are fielded. There was a time when I was a very competitive member of such audiences, and sought to score high points (with whom, though?) by asking penetrating questions that actually penetrated the writer’s necessarily bland, or at least wary, persona, and elicited an interesting comment. When I realized that this activity was not going to bring me fame or fortune, I lost interest.

While it lasted, though, I acquired a great many signed books. So many, in fact, that I finally did realize that there is no longer anything valuable about a signed book. Everybody has got at least a few. My rule is that, if the writer doesn’t know who you are, you should ask for a plain signature. You really ought not help the bookstore assistants who provide slips of paper on which to write your name, so that the writer won’t have to struggle with your peculiar background or manner of speaking. (“How do you write ‘Kanye'”?) The only value of having your name appear above that of the author lies in the extent of your own fame. “To Bismarck, Kind Regards, Lincoln.” Now that’s valuable. It’s called an “association” copy; it’s proof that two famous people at least knew of one another.

I have a duty to become famous in life — did you know that? It was settled upon me by Kathleen, in a remarkably material way. A hundred years ago, when she was a young associate at Hawkins, Delafield, and Wood, she bought a dozen or more copies of novels by Louis Auchincloss and carted them into his office, where he graciously inscribed them all to “Robert J Keefe.” Right there we have a problem: nobody who knew me at all would ever address me in such style, any more than anybody would call me “Bob” (and survive my Glare of Death). It is certainly the case that I never had a conversation with the eminent writer and lawyer about literature — or about anything else, either. The second problem is that Auchincloss may have come to regret knowing Kathleen at all, because when she left the firm under her partner’s shifty wing, it was bruited that the group departure damaged the firm’s capital structure, depleting major partners’ pensions. Finally, my opinion of Auchincloss’s fiction has slipped, over time, beneath the waves. As a young man — a lawyer myself — I naturally found his achievement impressive. He said many times that he could not just sit home and write. So he wrote on the subway, in odd free moments. I came to find that the results demonstrated good reasons for not going about the writing of novels in that manner.

So, there — I abjure my duty, by going on record that the apparent “association” in my copies of The Rector of Justin and The Winthrop Covenant is a sham. And yet — if I do become famous, might this pretty story not make those books more valuable? You never know.

(I want you to know that I have perused back pages of this Web log in search of the Auchincloss anecdote and not found it. If I missed it, and have already bored you silly with it, I do apologize.)

At the barber shop, I read an interview with Oscar Isaac. It was the cover story on a recent issue of GQ. So, the actor has got that far. Why is the world taking so long to see how great he is? I’ve admired him since Drive and W./E. I think that A Most Violent Year is the best mob movie ever made, its standing secure because there is no mob in the movie. But I like it because Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are so good. Inside Llewin Davis looked like a mistake, but who knows? Maybe over time we’ll come to love it — like Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca. In Ex Machina, Isaac does an astonishing job of being unattractive in almost every way. It’s what the story calls for, but, hey, the actor really throws himself into the job. If you ask me, he doesn’t look so great on the cover of GQ, either. Playing Outcome #3 in The Bourne Legacy, in contrast, he is almost pretty, with chiseled features (good lighting) and beautiful eyes. (As sometimes happens, I recognized his voice first.) It goes without saying that nothing was disclosed in the interview. It was a dusted-off resume with a few idle remarks on the lines of “Sorry I’m late.” I suppose that there was a positive nugget in the announcement that girlfriends would not be discussed. Neither was anything else. I couldn’t believe that I had fallen for the cover. I never read anything at the barber shop — my glasses get in the way. But this I had to read?

Is it ‘Eye-zik or Ee-‘zok? Tell me, and I promise to remember.

Bon week-end à tous!