A Cool Scene
It was almost seven o’clock in the evening, last Thursday, and the sun had sunk beneath the buildings and their shadows in the gray flat light promised rain to come. I wore my Navy surplus trench coat, with a dark blue corduroy shirt buttoned Mediterranean, black trousers, black boots, athletic socks hidden beneath. I’d already done a lot of walking. I was scruffy from the train ride and sober for Lent, a tin of Panter small cigars in my pocket. They were dark blues, Sumatran wrapper. I was everything the right-wing writer in Manhattan ought to be. I was going to the Compact launch party.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns at all the times in all the world, it was at the KGB bar in the East Village, March 2022. KGB is for Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti but here it was also for Kraine (Theater) Gallery Bar, and UKraine Gallery Bar lately, with the blue and yellow banners hanging wherever was convenient and even a few places that were inconvenient. Compact was conceived here, I’d read. Seemed right. A good place for sincere and open plotting, surrounded by Soviet kitsch. Put some postliberal personalities together in a dark room with alcohol and no protection and what did you expect? Some months later out comes a magazine. As I walked up, I saw Sohrab Ahmari, a Compact founder and editor and an American Conservative columnist and colleague on our podcast, standing at the bottom of the steps out front, directing traffic upstairs—“all the way up.” We chitted and chatted and I went inside, all the way up.
The bar was open for a couple hours and I had some orange juice. The private room was full and loud. Eventually there was jazz. I played “nice to meet you in person” and “spot the Twitter personality” and scored pretty well. Matthew Schmitz, Compact founder and editor, formerly of First Things, was a first category. Edwin Aponte, the third founder and editor, formerly of the Bellows, was something in between. Schmitz, like Ahmari, writes a column for us here at TAC; we email. Aponte was someone I’ve read, whose work I’d enjoyed, and now someone I’ve met, the Marxist of the New York Times’s “Two Religious Conservatives and a Marxist Walk into a Journal” anti-joke. Together, with Compact, the three hope to explore the limits of postliberal, anti-globalist horseshoe theory, an attempted American take on social democratic politics, filling a materialist niche in a world of culture and policy journals.
We’ll see how that will work out. The serious right and serious left are both notorious for their purity spirals, not exactly known for playing well with others, and I fear eventually patching up hurt feelings will distract from the serious work of criticism and analysis. But in the meantime I wish the three founders and Compact all the best. I hope they can bring fruitful dialogue from the left and right to their pages and build a fresh syntax for addressing the crises of the moment. They put a strong lineup together for launch week, and the party scene was cool, too. And that’s the thing—a cool scene.
Compact may be populist in its politics, but it’s Manhattan intelligentsia in its aesthetics. The party didn’t have everybody but it did have New York people. I talked to Geoff Shullenberger about Illich. Park MacDougald was comparing freelance rates with “The Personality Girl.” David Rieff had a fresh haircut. Nina Power was at a table with artist Adam Lehrer. It seemed like half of First Things was there: Rusty, Ramona, and Julia. Bria Sandford, the editor at Penguin imprints, was catching up with Susannah Black, the essayist. Speaking of essayists, it turned out Nick Burns used to live with WSJ letters editor Elliot Kauffman. Sam Adler-Bell of Know Your Enemy was a fun if cautious Twitter meeting. Anna Khachiyan of the Red Scare podcast wandered in so late I wasn’t sure if she was there for the party or for KGB. While we will all have to wait to find out if the populist part in all this has legs—which is to say, has candidates and leaders that can put theory into practice—in the meantime, Compact’s contribution might be prompting more trans-ideological conversations like the launch party, an insertion of New York scene into D.C.
That was the conclusion I was left with last week. New York has scenes, places where conversation transcends partisan and electoral politics and people are themselves, sharing their passions, using their gifts. D.C. has meetings. Even many of the parties, particularly the ones sponsored by think tanks and the like, are meetings. The reading groups are for professional development. The D.C. world needs more scenes. I don’t mean a vibe or energy, though I don’t not mean that, either. I mean that if anyone in the capital is to accomplish radical changes to the status quo here, however you think that happens—great man politics, art movements, religious revivals—there has got to be a set, friendships, aesthetics behind them, not just slogans and programs. The Manhattan publication parties, readings, salons, and loft debates might sound insufferable, but they represent spaces where thinking and discourse and relationship can be done without the mediation and conditioning of the next Hill fight, confirmation hearing, or election. Those things all foreshorten thought, just let you find what raises funds and votes and milk that till it doesn’t.
It’s trite, maybe, almost bowtied to say, but the true and the beautiful have to go along with the good: Our cause may be just, but its prosecution demands phronesis, practical wisdom, and arete, excellence. The right has lost the academy; that wouldn’t matter as much if more of us did serious intellectual work anyway. Religious conservatives have lost the art world; that wouldn’t matter either if great works were being made outside it (not that they’re being made in it much). We’re not going to unseat the “professional managerial class” or “occupational class” in the chairs of influence in this country and global affairs simply by being better Excel junkies or writing better white papers. If we are to displace the status structures of our time, we have to become attractive, worthy, aspirational.
Matthew Walther, another contributing editor here at TAC and editor of the Lamp magazine—decidedly not part of any Manhattan scenes, living in small town Michigan, and not in attendance at last Thursday’s party—asked and sought to answer a vital question in a recent essay: “What Killed Cultural Aspiration”? People do not, as a rule, channel their ambition into the highbrow anymore. Yes, he observes, there are the material conditions that have contributed to this development, or devolution: Sustained attention and study are made extra difficult in conditions of economic precariousness and digital distraction. But there has also been a cultural retreat from excellence and beauty for their own sake, which has left the tradition (The Tradition, The Great Books of middlebrow aspirants, et al.) merely more ammunition in politics of the moment. That, Walther concludes, suggests an unwillingness to stand in awe before works that surpass our abilities, a laziness and fear that prevent the hard work of apprenticeship. Our sensibilities are not well formed, because we would prefer to stand above than sit beneath. We’d rather not be “a try hard,” and our moral imaginations suffer for it.
We would not know Socrates—the gadfly of Athens would not be a gadfly still—without Plato and Xenophon developing a whole new genre for encountering him. Alexander would be a warlord but for Hellenic art and architecture, his companions preserving in their slices of his empire something of the genuine cosmopolitanism he sought. If there is to be a future worth giving to posterity it will take parties, the breaking of bread together, wine making the heart glad, to build it. Writers, artists, statesmen, all need friends. We don’t know what will become of any conversation or meeting that happened at the Compact launch party last week. We have only heard in passing of the generous hosts whose homes held the first stirrings of Plato’s Academy. Here in D.C., I think gratefully now of my dear friend Christopher McCaffery, cook par excellence, bibliophile, highbrow aspirant—Chris throws the best parties.