4 May 2007:

Three American Pieces, in Vanity Fair

Three articles on the same subject appear in the Vanity Fair for 2007. That subject is the unhappy state of the union. In "The Sack of Washington," Cullen Murphy summarizes the accelerating privatization of public goods and makes explicit (and chilling) comparisons with the findings of Ramsay McMullen's Corruption and the Decline of Rome (Yale, 1988), a book that ought to be required reading for all college students no matter what they're studying. Mr Murphy suggests in passing that private contractors are not always, or even usually, an improvement on government agencies, but his focus is on the inexorable slide toward a world in which every public service has a price. In other words, a world without public service. Much of our corruption is lawful. Thanks to Buckley v Valeo, rich people can buy patronage by supporting political parties and action committees.

Optimists might find something to hold onto in Kipling Buis's essay, "Mrs Trollope's America." According to Mr Buis, we haven't changed all that much in the nearly two centuries since the famous novelist's mother brought out Domestic Manners of the Americans. We're still crude, and sanctimonious. We take sincerity to quite anti-social extremes. We overinformed and under-read. 

Our knowledge of the outside world, therefore, has mainly come to us in sensationalized fragments that are never connected and thus quickly forgotten. Hence the famous American ignorance. Books, by imparting a sense of continuity and context, can enlarge the imagination and an enable you to weigh evidence, compare, contrast, and make important connections - in short, to exercise skepticism. Without this skill, your grasp of reality is going to be at best superficial and your ability to challenge prevailing myths nonexistent.

Mr Buis finds most television programming "harmless," but, like me, he argues against the way that serious news is covered. "Quite a few Americans mistake our 'serious' news programs for reality, however, so this is where our denial of reality reaches outlandish heights."

Mr Buis closes with a comment, channeled through Frances Trollope, on Vice President Cheney's difficulty in simulating compassion for the victims of Katrina.

If Mrs Trollope had seen the vice president that day, she would have realized anew that there are worse things in the world than hypocrisy. As a Francophile, she was no doubt familiar with La Rochefoucauld's observation that hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue. When a miser pretends to be generous, he's at least acknowledging the fact that generosity is a good thing. The upper crust of Mrs Trollope's day, in the spirit of noblesse oblige, would occasionally throw a few crumbs to the peasants. In today's climate of brazen greed and make-believe democracy, our leaders keep all the crumbs to themselves. They have dropped their masks. It is time for us to remove the scales from our eyes.

If letting the scales drop from our eyes will help us to perceive the fantastic inappropriateness of former New York City mayor Rudolf Giuliani, then it can't happen fast enough. But Michael Wolff, in "Crazy for Rudy," wonders if we might not be hypnotized by what we see and end up hopelessly electing the man whom the late political reporter Jack Newfield dismissed as "insane." Mr Wolff ticks off the things about Mr Giuliani that ought to prevent his being taken seriously as a presidential candidate - his temper, his associates, his romantic entanglements, his publicly estranged children, and his craving for publicity, any publicity - and shows in each case how, given the current political climate, the former mayer transforms his sows' ears into silk purses. Here's what I found most piquant.

Rudy, arguably, is the most anti-family-values candidate in the race (this or any other). And yet, in some sense - which could be playing well with the right wing - what he may be doing is going to the deeper meaning of family values, which is about male prerogative, an older, stubborn, my-way-or-the-highway, when-men-were-men, don't-tread-on-me kind of thing.

In short, a reversion to the patriarchy and an abandonment of the idea of building a better society. "When men were men," war was the defining experience of masculine life, as childbirth was for women. It wasn't much of a world, and it took millennia to work our way even partially out of it. Rudolph Giuliani may be insane, but he is also a very bad dream.

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