The New Yorker‘s George Packer can’t decide what to think about 21st-century America.
On the one hand, Packer likes developments that enhance the lifestyles of the educated upper middle class: “marriage equality, Lipitor, a black President, Google searches, airbags, novelistic TV shows, the opportunity for women to be as singlemindedly driven as their male colleagues, good coffee, safer cities, cleaner air, photographs of the kids on my phone, anti-bullying, Daniel Day Lewis, cheap communications, smoke-free airplanes, wheelchair parking, and I could go on.” On the other hand, he’s sorry that these benefits aren’t more broadly shared. Life is pretty good in brownstone Brooklyn and its spiritual counterparts. But it’s gotten harder and harder in “urban cores like Youngstown, Ohio; rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina; and the exurban slums outside Tampa…”
So how can this be the best of times for gays, sufferers from cardiovascular disease, African American politicians, TV fans, ambitious women, and so on, but among the worst for the urban poor, agricultural workers, and overleveraged homeowners? Packer can’t quite figure it out:
We usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality. But in our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are unrelated. The fortunes of middle-class Americans have declined while prospects for many women and minorities have risen. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have improved together—this is what appeared to be happening in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Since then, many women and minorities have done better than in any previous generations, but many others in both groups have seen their lives and communities squeezed by the economic contractions of the past generation.
Although his economic generalizations are accurate, Packer’s remark is historically and politically obtuse. Rather than shedding light on the profound divergence in Americans’ fortunes and expectations over the last few decades, it reflects a spiritual crisis of the BoBo elite, which is unwilling even to contemplate the possibility that its commitments to individual autonomy and expressive consumerism are incompatible with the egalitarianism that it pretends to favor.
What do I have to do to get a review in The New York Times? More than a few frustrated authors have asked this question, posing it in some cases to their agents and and in others to a tumbler of whisky. There may be no a single answer. But it certainly helps to have famous name and the connections that often go along with it.
Even so, the extent of the coverage recently devoted to Nathaniel Rich has drawn attention. According to The Times‘s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan:
It’s beginning to feel like Nathaniel Rich Month at The Times. The author’s new novel was reviewed in the Arts section on April 10, then again in the Sunday Book Review on April 14. Mr. Rich also wrote an essay for the Sunday Book Review, with many references to that novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” In addition, the Editors’ Choice section of the Sunday Book Review listed Mr. Rich’s novel second on its list.
Back in January, Mr. Rich and his brother were also the subjects of a feature story about literary families. (His father is Frank Rich, the former Times columnist; his mother is Gail Winston, an executive editor at HarperCollins; his brother is a comedy writer, a novelist and a regular contributor to The New Yorker.)
This looks like a obvious case of nepotism. Tom Scocca explains, however, that there’s something more subtle and interesting going on. Rich’s book may be good (I haven’t read it). And, as the profile makes clear, he has evidently worked hard at his craft. But that’s not enough to explain Rich’s unusual success:
Relationships and knowledge are what the writing-and-culture business runs on. Some of it is cultural capital—knowing what to do and how to do it. Frank Rich’s children were exposed, at an early age, to the actual specific process of professional writing: deadlines, pitches, writing to length. Jewelers raise jewelers; plumbers raise plumbers. Cal Ripken Sr. and Bobby Bonds brought up their children around professional baseball. Johann Sebastian Bach produced musicians.
But some of it is social capital—who you know, and what they can do for you. People look out for the interests of people they know, even without anyone picking up a phone and telling them to. Disclosure: I was going to write about the profile of the Rich brothers when it first came out, for somewhere other than Gawker, but that place revoked the assignment because it didn’t want to be potentially unkind to Nathaniel Rich.
This isn’t the explicit favoritism of the old-fashioned Establishment, which often reward pedigree rather than competence. Instead, it’s a very contemporary form of advantage that coexists with the meritocratic principles of the new elite. Under this regime, rewards are available for “achievers” of any background. But it just so happens that the children of people who are already successful know how to achieve the most–and whom to inform of their accomplishments.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “mild despotism” to describe the tutelary state that might replace monarchical tyranny. By the same token, we might describe as “mild nepotism” the informal networks of privilege that have replaced formal aristocracy.
Mild nepotism would not be a big deal if it were confined to publishing. But it’s also a fact of life in finance, academia, and the upper reaches of the legal world. These fields are open, in principle, to all. In practice, however, they are dominated by those who have been outfitted since childhood with the skills and contacts they’ll need to do well in the right schools, find the right jobs, and, when the time comes, to welcome others very much like themselves inside the magic circle.
It must be understood that all this will happen without any intention to play favorites. It’s only that there are so many impressive applications to consider, so many qualified candidates to interview, so many fine books to review. And unfortunately there’s space for just one…
We can acknowledge the reality of mild nepotism without endorsing coercive measures to end it. As Hayek argued, it would require a despotism of truly terrifying proportions to eliminate the cognitive, cultural, and social inequalities that emerge in any free society. But the attention lavished on Nathaniel Rich by The New York Times is an amusing and therefore useful reminder of the way that meritocracy functions as the legitimating myth of the modern ruling class. Do you think The New Yorker would run a piece on that? Can you give me the number of your friend who works there?
Developments of enormous consequence sometimes follow the most mundane of motives.
During the mid-1990s, the giant Disney Corporation became concerned that its 1928 copyright on Mickey Mouse was close to expiration. Deploying heavy lobbying efforts, it persuaded Congress to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign what was officially entitled the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, but more informally known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” The result was to extend Mickey’s copyright for another twenty years, and perhaps indefinitely if future corporate lobbying efforts bore similar fruit.
Now I have no particular burning desire to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons without paying for them, and I suspect that those around the world who feel otherwise simply ignore such legal restrictions, just as they watch pirated blockbuster movies only weeks after they are released into the theaters. So if the Disney executives had merely wanted to protect their rights to old Walt’s lucrative rodent, I wouldn’t have cared in the least. But since paying Congresspersons to enact such narrowly tailored legislation might have appeared unseemly, they decided to extend all other existing copyrights as well, including the vast number of written works possessing no financial but much intellectual value. Read More…
Everyone has some kind of advice for Romney and Obama tonight. I have some advice too, but it can go beyond tonight.
Romney needs to do well from Scranton to Sioux City among blue collar white voters, the very same subset of voters that turned against Obama in the 2008 primaries and in the 2010 midterms. His 47 percent remarks, his stiffness, Mormon faith, and private equity background make him as much an alien to these voters as any imagined Kenyan socialist.
Romney should talk about his history at Bain and Company and Bain Capital. If you read The Real Romney you find that Romney had his largest successes when he realigned the incentives of executives with those of workers and the longterm health of the company as a whole.
As this magazine has argued, our elites no longer see their interests as aligned with those of the commonwealth of the nation. We need someone to realign them.
Imagine if Romney said, “I agree with president Obama that America prospers most when it prospers together, when investors and workers rise together. But under his administration the six largest banks have only gotten larger and they retain the implicit guarantee of a taxpayer-funded bailout if their executives are reckless again. Wall Street is doing great, but unemployment is stuck above 8 percent. Wages are stagnant. Millions are underwater on their mortgages. One class gets special carveouts, and when they fail, the American people get stuck with the bill. Obama promised to bring us together, instead we’re growing further apart. We don’t need Washington trying to micro-manage every industry, doling out loans, guarantees, and subsidies for political reasons. We need to create a stable set of rules that allows everyone to prosper together.”
Is it an airtight case? No, a debate doesn’t stand for that. Does it lack specific policies? You betcha, but we’re late in the game for that. But it is at least a plausible story about where America is right now and why Romney may be the man for the moment.
Also I know it isn’t hard-hitting scoopy jounrnalism, but check out this little article I wrote for ESPN magazine about the Romney clan and their competitive sports-filled vacations.
The endless pace of change in our media landscape regularly plays tricks upon all of us.
Many have seen the amusing web video in which a very young child repeatedly attempts to click or swipe the colorful pages of a magazine, before finally declaring it “broken” to his smiling father, who finally hands him an “unbroken” iPad. Similarly, for over half a century US News and World Report ranked as one of America’s most influential weekly newsmagazines, but teenagers today probably consider it as just being some sort of website guide to colleges. And Newsweek, once even a more powerful and influential publication, with many millions of worldwide subscribers less than a decade ago, was sold in late 2010 ago for a single dollar, and is even now in the process of disappearing into a web-upstart calling itself “The Daily Beast.”
All these recent developments should be kept in mind when we consider the proper place in history of Encounter, a London-based magazine which was published for nearly forty years before finally closing at the beginning of the 1990s, soon after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I suspect that for 95% of American intellectuals under the age of 40, the name means almost nothing, while for those over the age of 60, it carries enormous weight and significance. The founding co-editors were American journalist Irving Kristol and British poet Stephen Spender, with European intellectual Melvin Lasky later serving as the primary editor for the last thirty-odd years of Encounter’s existence. Read More…
An article on writing instruction in The Atlantic is among the must-reads of the week. In a nutshell, the piece reports that a lousy high school on Staten Island has found success improving students’ writing by actually teaching writing—that is, the fundamentals of sentence construction, the use of coordinating conjunctions to identify logical connections, and the coherent organization of paragraphs.
As Alan Jacobs observes across the page, this should come as little surprise to people who were educated before the 1960s. But it was a shock to the teachers at New Dorp High School, who initially believed that their students were too dumb to write well. Many now speak enthusiastically of the program. There’s actually fodder here for both sides of the recent strike in Chicago. On the one hand, teachers had to be placed under considerable pressure to implement reforms they distrusted. On the other hand, those reforms were not based on high stakes testing.
As an occasional teacher of expository writing at the college level, I am delighted by the favorable attention paid here to an unglamorous job. Although great writing can’t be taught, competent writing can. And in my experience, most students are eager to learn.
But there’s an obstacle to learning to write that the Atlantic piece doesn’t bring up: few students have much experience as readers of expository texts. English classes generally emphasize fiction and drama (the New Dorp students are reading Death of a Salesman). Social studies classes rely on insipid textbooks. Asking students who have only these models to develop analytic arguments is something like asking rugby players to take up American football. They could be taught the rules. But they’d have trouble mastering a game they’d never seen played.
In addition to rigorous instruction then, students need examples of effective prose. To get them, they should be required to read good narrative history, traditional literary criticism, and, at least in my dreams, great political speeches.
What to assign? I’m curious to know what readers think. If you could require high school students to read just one text, what would it be? Think speeches, essays, or chapters of books. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is probably too much to ask.
For years now I’ve felt a need to apologize to Gore Vidal. But a letter would not have sufficed, and I never ran into him, and now of course it is too late. I met Vidal once, when I was 25. We were at small cocktail party in Paris—at the apartment of my former stepmother and her beau, an American diplomat. I was trying to make points about the apparent alliance of the French communists and socialists, and Eurocommunism and related subjects—I was then early in the turn away from youthful leftism, a reader of Dissent and The New Leader and Raymond Aron’s columns in Le Figaro. Vidal said something to the effect that it was nice that someone had invited “a young rightist” to entertain the party. I laughed while protesting that he was wrong. I was a liberal, my most recent job had been with Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. I didn’t even know any “rightists.” But Vidal had read the signs correctly, I was headed in that direction. Later that year I would begin reading Commentary, and a few years after that writing for it.
Nearly a decade later, I was married with children, a graduate degree, a job, an identity of sorts as a neoconservative writer, and a new circle of friends and associates, many of them unabashedly conservative. Into my mailbox one day came Commentary, my favorite magazine—with its featured essay, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” In the elevator going up I tried to guess who or what Norman Podhoretz was attacking. Within a few moments, the answer was clear: an article by Gore Vidal and left-wing tolerance of his anti-Zionism overflowing into anti-Semitism.
I’m trying to recall what I felt about Commentary pieces like this. I remember thinking generally that Israel was a burden, or perhaps a cross, which my Jewish neoconservative friends had to bear. While I often admired their ingenuity and tenacity in defending the Jewish state—rather the way one might admire a mother who gives effective care to a child with special needs—I was glad their burden was not mine. Beyond that, I didn’t pay much attention; there were then many other subjects in Commentary and in the neoconservative universe to attend to. Perhaps too there was some sense that if I explored the Israel question too deeply, I would be forced to recognize I didn’t really agree with the Commentary line. And since the Commentary line, broadly speaking, served as my connection into an entire sustaining professional and social network, it was an issue best left unexamined.
Anyway, I think I probably skimmed the Podhoretz article without paying it much attention. Stay in your lane is usually good advice, and this subject was outside of mine.
Five years later, I worked at the New York Post. I wrote unsigned editorials and a weekly column. I often tried to push at the subject I considered most important at the time—so many of my columns dealt with city politics and the race-and-crime nexus; I and others at the Post editorial page then believed that the future of New York’s and perhaps American urban civilization hung in the balance.
But one couldn’t do this all the time. One Monday evening with a column to write, I noticed a press mention that Gore Vidal was an advisor to Jerry Brown, who was then involved in very competitive primary contest with Bill Clinton. The New York primary was perhaps three weeks away. Clinton was favored, but Brown had won some New England states and had a little momentum. Suddenly I recognized a subject for a column that could more or less write itself, and I could be home by 9:30 or 10, in time to see my kids and have dinner with my wife.
I’m grateful that 1992 New York Post columns are not on the internet, because what was produced is surely embarrassing. A copy of the Podhoretz Commentary piece was faxed to our office, and a column adducing that Vidal was the author of a vilely anti-Israel and anti-Semitic screed was duly produced, and questions of what does Jerry Brown think about this were raised. Of course, Vidal was soon summarily dumped from whatever advisory status he had with the Brown campaign. I proceeded on to a round of radio interviews, including a debate with Victor Navasky, who surely had better things to do than go through the Vidal-Podhoretz controversy once again.
My column was more or less solid. Vidal’s Nation piece attacking the Podhoretz’s was inflammatory, seasoned with anti-Semitic tropes. And I do think that it’s important, for extremely well-founded moral reasons as well as practical ones, to avoid anti-Semitism in polemical discourse. But it now seems clear there are other factors to be weighed in assessing the Vidal piece. The target of Vidal’s ire was plainly not Jews in any general sense, but the Podhoretzes and their loyalties to Israel and the problems such loyalties posed for America. It’s not as if, in 1986, there were an whole slew of Tony Judts and M.J. Rosenbergs and Philip Weisses writing about this subject with verve and passion and judiciousness and sensitivity. No leading political scientists had excavated the workings and explored the consequences of The Israel Lobby. The subject of the U.S.-Israel relationship, if not taboo, was kept far off the national radar screen.
By writing something over the top, and easily perceived as anti-Semitic, Vidal had fired an illumination flare at a subject which richly deserved his readers’ notice. How then to balance the torts in this case: accusing the Podhoretzes of not being real Americans because of their ties to Israel is reprehensible, but so too are Israel’s policies of occupation and ethnic cleansing. The Podhoretzes use of their considerable talents and cultural influence to defend these policies—and, more, to render debate about them out of bounds, is reprehensible as well.
In any case, Jerry Brown lost the New York primary and was deprived of Gore Vidal’s strategic advice. I had the lesson reinforced that it is seldom a bad career move for someone with a Mc in their surname to accuse someone of anti-Semitism, especially if there’s any basis for the charge. If Vidal deserved no credit for the tone of his polemic, he clearly does for its foresight, especially the insight that Israel’s belligerence, then seemingly a secondary or even tertiary factor in the determination of American foreign policy, would begin to weigh more heavily so long as we remained so closely tied to the country. Today this seems almost beyond dispute. In any case, had I the chance I would have told Vidal that my column was written out of conviction and at the time quite genuine affection for the Podhoretzes, but also some laziness and at least some subconscious sense that it would please those with a chance to favor my career. And for that I was sorry. I would tell him also that his piece, while still over the top, at least worked towards some important truths.
As web readers have already seen, Michael Brendan Dougherty has returned to The American Conservative as our national correspondent through the election. In addition to his blogging below, you can also get a double-dose of Michael’s writing in the August issue, which includes his look at the Burkean conservatives who supported Obama in 2008 and may do so again — the Obamacons — and his take on a Cologne court’s ruling against male circumcision.
The August issue also features Rod Dreher on the class-war at the dinner table: “porky populist” outrage against Whole Foods and high-quality (and high-priced) food. David Cowan, meanwhile, urges conservatives to look to Jack Kemp before Ronald Reagan for inspiration and notes Kemp’s keen understanding of the priority of economics over military interventionism. (Kemp opposed the Iraq War.) Brendan O’Neill looks at how Britain is abolishing itself, while Brad Birzer explores the lost tradition of Christian humanism in T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, and other great 20th century literary figures. All this, plus Taki, Bill Kauffman, Bill Lind, Pat Buchanan, and reviews by Robert Schlesinger, Jacob Heilbrunn, Jeremy Beer, and much more.
Our cover story, which goes live on the site tonight, sees publisher Ron Unz tackling one of the most controversial topics of today: “Race, IQ, and Wealth.” Has political bias distorted our understanding of how intelligence, genes, and national wealth are related?
The magazine is in the mail to bookstores and subscribers (who can also read the digital edition the whole mag right away.) You can get instant access to by subscribing here, or try our Kindle edition.
A couple of months ago, Rolling Stone published a list of what it describes as the “500 greatest albums of all time“. The contents aren’t surprising. Sgt. Pepper comes in at number one, followed by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, more Beatles records, entries by Dylan and the Stones, and so on.
Earlier this week, Jim Fusilli, the rock and pop critic at the Wall Street Journal sounded a counterblast. The Rolling Stone list, he argued, isn’t solely a marketing stunt. It’s the reflection of a “calcified rock orthodoxy” based on baby boomer nostalgia.
Fusilli criticizes the list for mostly excluding country, jazz, and non-American music. But his argument is based on too literal a reading. In the first place, the “greatest albums” doesn’t mean the greatest albums. It means the greatest albums of the kind of music popular among the white teenage audience to which Rolling Stone has always been geared. And “all time” surely isn’t supposed to include Mozart. Rather, it goes back to the genesis of that audience, some time after World War II. This stylistic and historical orientation is betrayed by the use of the word “album”, which I’ve rarely heard used by anyone under 40, and doesn’t even make sense in many “serious” musics.
The real question, then, isn’t whether the list is focused on commercial rock and pop. It’s whether the focus on the boomer golden age is justified within than context. Fusilli notes that “Of its 500 albums, 292 were released in the ’60s or ’70s, a highly improbable 59%.” But this is only “improbable” if you assume that achievements in a particular genre are randomly distributed across time. That’s absurd. Art forms have their periods of growth, maturity, and decadence.
Fusilli doesn’t want to be believe that rock is in its decadence. He suggests, for example, that Los Lobos’ 1992 record Kiko and Björk’s 2001 Vespertine rival Sgt. Pepper. I have never especially liked the Beatles, and do love Los Lobos and Björk. But their work isn’t comparable in influence or technical innovation. Sgt. Pepper changed listeners’ understanding of what rock ‘n’ roll could be. Kiko and Vespertine, on the other hand, are just terrific records.
The heroic age of rock and white pop has passed. But that doesn’t mean that latter-day music is essentially inferior. Borrowing a phrase from the late film critic Manny Farber (of whom I learned by reading the music writer Greil Marcus), rock used to be “white elephant art” that aimed at and sometimes succeeded in producing monuments. It has survived by transforming itself into “termite art” that “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
In its search for enduring classics, the Rolling Stone list is an expression of the white elephant mentality. The intellectual alternative isn’t to produce a different list, swapping ’60s favorites for more recent works, but to reject comprehensive “greatness” in favor of expressions meaning that may last no longer than an instant before receding into schlock, nonsense, and noise. At their best, that’s what postwar American rock and pop have always done. Rather than staking a claim to the accomplished, the influential, and the permanent, they ask, with the magazine’s namesake song, “How does it feel?”
Frank Rick of the long-format-journalism-reviving New York Magazine has a must-read piece that will no doubt provoke lots of pursed lips and tsk-tsking in Washington.
The thrust of Rich’s argument is that if President Obama wants to secure a second term, he needs to ignore the pleas of every “holier-than-thou critic who thinks politics should emulate the tone of a PBS public-affairs roundtable” and, instead, mimic the no-holds-barred example of LBJ’s “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater.
Rich’s justification is that a cash-rich Mitt Romney won’t hesitate to do the same, and with plausible deniability:
The premise of Romney’s entire campaign amounts to one long complaint against Obama, and shadowy donors whose names you’ll never learn can do the dirty work under PAC cover while Romney claims his hands are clean.
Rich argues, too, that both parties behave like this in equal measure and that negative campaigning is as American as log cabins and cherry trees:
The president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory. The notion that negative campaigning is some toxic modern aberration in American democracy is bogus. No campaign may ever top the Andrew Jackson–John Quincy Adams race of 1828, in which Jackson was accused of murder, drunkenness, cockfighting, slave-trading, and, most delicious of all, cannibalism. His wife and his mother, for good measure, were branded a bigamist and a whore, respectively. (Jackson won nonetheless.) In the last national campaign before the advent of political television ads, lovable Harry Truman didn’t just give hell to the “do nothing” Congress, as roseate memory has it. In a major speech in Chicago in late October 1948, he revisited still-raw World War II memories to imply that the “powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions” — that would be the Republicans— and their chosen front man, Thomas Dewey, were analogous to the Nazis and Hitler. Over-the-top? Dewey was a liberal by the standards of the postwar GOP and had more in common with a department-store mannequin than with a Fascist dictator.
I admire Rich’s candor. And I share his disdain for the preening Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s theatrical “nausea.” If the Democratic Party can’t permissibly raise skepticism about the notion of a Swiss bank account-holding private equity kingpin in the White House, what is the point of having a Democratic Party?