Our Discontented Winter

17 September 2001 The catastrophe that struck New York on 11 September has had (I am as happy to report as I can be about anything in so grievous an hour) an invigorating effect upon my cosmopolitan outlook: I can only wish that everybody shared it. There would have been no explosions at the World Trade Center, either this year or in 1993, if the cosmopolitan view of human variety prevailed.

The cosmopolitan is sure of himself but affable to others; he knows how offensive self-righteousness can be. He accepts the fact that we have only one planet to share among us all; he shuns the notion that life might be simplified by the elimination of recalcitrant strangers. He knows that civil life begins and ends in the relations of individuals; he hears the smug roar of a mob with impatient dread.

He understands, most of all, that nothing he believes is more important than another's life.

If I seem to slight the cosmopolitan woman here, that is because women remain conspicuously absent from the ranks of those who would slam tanks of jet fuel into crowded buildings. What happened on Black Tuesday has inspired more than one woman to express an exasperated weariness with the rule of men. 'Why don't they put us in charge?' asked a very good friend - giving away the game with that implicit reference to the men who are in charge now. I'll worry about whether 'cosmopolitan' is more than the name of a silly magazine to most women when the first day-care center is destroyed by a female suicide bomber. Cosmopolitan or not, women appear to honor life too greatly to take it in the name of principle.

Cosmopolitans are often portrayed as tuxedo-clad nihilists with thick billfolds and no deeper purpose than the pursuit of a good time; they're tolerant because they don't give a damn. Shanghai between the wars is often referred to as a capital of the cosmopolitan - and of every known depravity. The current capital is undoubtedly New York, and it has just been bombed by men to whom it epitomized the tinsel bazaars of the West. It's unlikely that any other office building in the world housed as international a workforce. The men and women who showed up for work every day at the World Trade Center were the true cosmopolitans.

Unfortunately, they were probably cosmopolitans because circumstances forced them to be. There is indeed something unnatural about the cosmopolitan character - certainly if, like Samuel P. Huntington, the author of 1996's 'The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,' you believe that cultures and civilizations must somehow be true to themselves or wither away. If it is natural to spend an entire lifetime in the same cave-bound village, hating the unseen aliens who live in the next valley, then surely I am a monstrosity, and so are the hundreds of thousands of people who have come to New York from some other place, within or without the United States. We're here, and still here, not because we value diversity as such but simply because we won't let it get in the way of more important things. We enjoy a measure of personal privacy unimagined in small towns, but instead of hoarding it like hermits, we break it up to meet all the opportunities that New York offers to be many things to many people.

There are a few thousand fewer opportunities this week, mourned by the millions who remain.

10 October 2001: For anyone who wonders what grounds the rest of the world have for regarding the United States and Americans as arrogant, I can think of no simpler test than the following extract from an address to the General Assembly of the United Nations given by the man of the hour, Rudolph Giuliani, on Monday, 1 October 2001. If I were a conspiracy-minded thinker on the left, I'd find the omission of this passage from the extracts printed in the next day's New York Times 'highly significant,' but I'm not, and I can see why the newspaper editors cut the bromides. But hearing them spoken, even on the radio, was another matter. (My extract - taken from the Times online - picks up roughly a fourth of the way in.)

The strength of America's response, please understand, flows from the principles upon which we stand. Americans are not a single ethnic group. Americans are not of one race or one religion. Americans emerge from all of your nations. We're defined as Americans by our beliefs, not by our ethnic origins, our race or our religion.

Our belief in religious freedom, political freedom, economic freedom — that's what makes an American. Our belief in democracy, the rule of law and respect for human life. That's how you become an American.

It's these very principles and the opportunities these principles give to so many to create a better life for themselves and their families that make America and New York a shining city on a hill.

There's no nation in the history of the world, and no city that has seen more immigrants in less time than America. And people continue to come here in large large numbers to seek freedom, opportunity, decency, civility.

Yes, this is a test. If Mayor Giuliani's remarks in such a setting and to such an audience strike you as appropriate and unexceptionable, then I'm afraid I shall ask you to read the passage again, and to keep reading it until it begins to occur to you that delegates representing all the other nations of the world might find its flag-waving offensive. While it is true that Americans profess belief in religious, political, and economic freedom, it's wrong to imply, as the mayor did, that Americans are the only people with such beliefs, or that they're more committed to such beliefs than anybody else is. While it is true that this country's freedoms make it possible for immigrants from all over the world to establish themselves as Americans in fairly short order, it is obnoxious to give to their new and different lives the label 'better,' and positively rude to identify 'American and New York' as 'a shining city on a hill.' I would find this hyperpatriotic association objectionable on demagogic grounds if Giuliani had been making a stumping speech to voters. But to a room full of the representatives of sovereign states, it's downright insulting. 

What's insulting is the thoughtlessness. I've no doubt whatsoever that the mayor meant well. But good intentions are never enough in situations requiring diplomacy. Perhaps the mayor believes, as I'm sure many Americans do, that the United Nations General Assembly ought to rise somehow above the quaint and corrupt dictates of diplomacy. But there is nothing quaint or corrupt about resolving to treat others - particularly other sovereigns and their representatives - with the same respect that one seeks or expects for oneself. 

At issue here is good manners in the simplest sense, keeping a simple question uppermost in mind. How Would You Like It?

5 November 2001. Right now, 'The Corrections' looks like a great book, notwithstanding the brouhaha, but before I read it again, I'm going to have a look at Jonathan Franzen's earlier novels, 'Strong Motion' and 'The Twenty-Seventh' City. (I'm about halfway through the latter, which is a good novel in the way that novels were good before 'The Corrections' appeared.) Then maybe I'll have something to say about 'The Corrections. For the time being, I content myself with urging everyone to read this book. 

Is that how Oprah Winfrey puts it, when she 'endorses' a novel? Does she say, 'I urge everyone to read this book?' Although I was quite impressed by the portrait that A&E's 'Biography' painted of her, I haven't seen her own show. I've read three of her picks, beginning with the first one, Jacquelyn Mitchard's 'The Deep End of the Ocean.' Christina Schwarz's 'Drowning Ruth' was a bit of a disappointment, but Robert Morgan's 'Gap Creek' is a very fine book (I urge everyone to read it, too). There is no reason to suspect Oprah of foisting second-rate fiction on the public. But I cannot imagine sitting down in front of the TV in the late afternoon for anything but a national disaster. (I will never forget watching the Branch Davidian compound collapse in flames.) Once in a while, Kathleen and I end the evening with an episode of 'Law & Order.' (We met in law school, after all, and, besides, the show has almost become a legit Off-Broadway credit, given the regularity with which solid stage actors make guest appearances.) But we have never had the habit of turning on the set as a way of announcing that we're home, and we avoid television news like the plague. Our orbit so completely fails to intersect with Planet Television's that it would never occur to us to hold Oprah's seal of approval against 'The Corrections.' 

 The Franzen Operah has garnished an astonishing amount of publicity, considering the complete absence of criminal allegations. The principals themselves have spoken politely; the writer has expressed a measure of regret, if not remorse, for having conveyed the impression that he is too fine a writer for Oprah's approbation. I shouldn't wonder that he's written a suitably abject letter begging her forgiveness, but that he has begged Oprah to reinstate her invitation to join in one of her 'kaffeeklatsches' (her word or his?), I rather doubt. He wouldn't be able to talk about anything but how misguided he'd been. Oprah, who seems to be a remarkable woman, will find a way through the difficulty, and she may even end up making Mr Franzen look good. But what disturbs me is the fallout in the literary establishment.  The New York Times has made no secret of its indignation, printing an unflattering photograph of the author not once but twice -compare it to the buff portrait that now graces all of Franzen's books - and publishing a nasty Editorial Page comment by Verlyn Klinkenborg. 

Mr Klinkenborg, as 'Editorial Observer,' makes occasional appearances below the Times' editorial column. He writes well, if a trifle reverently, about the vestigially agricultural phenomena that recur with the seasons at his farm in the Berkshires, but he writes about other things, too. Now he has weighed in on the great literary scandal of the moment. ('The Not-Yet-Ready-For-Prime-Time Novelist' appeared on October 30, 2001.) 

The reasons for Mr. Franzen's demurral are two. Being selected for Ms. Winfrey's book club might detract from his self-anointed membership in what he calls the "high-art literary tradition," a phrase he'll be ironically linked with forever. He also quibbled that some copies of his book would appear with the Oprah's Book Club seal on the dust jacket, potentially causing a crisis among people who buy books mainly to advertise their intellectual independence.

Most of the negative criticism lobbed at Mr Franzen in defense of Oprah's credentials as an arbiter insists that there's no such thing as 'high art.' This tenet of mainstream cultural criticism seems to be motivated by a political,  rather than an imaginative, regard for something that's called 'popular culture' (but shouldn't be).  Anything designated 'high art' must be suspected of harboring exclusive ideas. Remember when 'exclusive' was an advertising come-on? That was before people learned that truly exclusive goods and services don't advertise. Nowadays, the word is used more correctly, but it carries the torpid baggage of self-esteem pathology. Being 'exclusive' means, inevitably, hurting somebody's feelings - and we can't have that. High art, aimed, allegedly, over the heads of the untutored, must be rejected as 'élitist.'

Whether or not there exist artworks so excellent that some people can't enjoy them is a very loaded question, and not nearly as interesting as whether the culture of taste and discrimination that television allegedly dethroned survives in any meaningful way. I myself believe that it does, and I offer this entire Web site as evidence. I also believe that this discriminating culture is totally incompatible with the presence of a constant stream of television images. I don't like to make a fuss about not watching TV, because TV isn't interesting enough to deserve it. But I gag whenever a writer claims that television is somehow normative, or assumes that watching television is as necessary as breathing. It isn't. 

Kathleen and I went without cable altogether for nearly a decade without missing it, before made the mistake of subscribing in order to watch the Presidential debates. (In Manhattan, facing northeast, we haven't a chance of picking up broadcast signals.) I did think about tuning into Oprah's show after she revoked Franzen's  invitation to appear on it. I found out when it was on, and on what channel. But when four o'clock came around, I was busy writing something, and wouldn't be disturbed. Besides, it seemed better to write from a position of avowed ignorance than to draw a lot of probably condescending conclusions from one hour's viewing. The point, here, after all, is that I don't belong to 'TV.' 

In the world that I do belong to,  where we have a lot of other things to do with our time  - talking, mostly, but reading and writing, too - it's difficult to know what to make of the claim, made over and over again in this affair, that 'Oprah has done more for reading than anyone else in this country.' The Oprah Book Club has undoubtedly spurred millions of people to buy and read good books. But it has done so from the platform of television, a medium hostile to reflection. If millions of people have read books solely to be able to follow mass discussions, is that by itself a good thing? Is the world a richer place because millions of people have an opinion about 'The Deep End of the Ocean'? Or does it matter what kind of opinion they have? There are good opinions and bad ones, and the bad ones are not worth having. I'm not speaking of 'right' and 'wrong' here. What I mean by a bad opinion is an outlook that fails to connect the person entertaining it to the object in view. It's an intellectual kind of tourism, a matter of trying on ideas for fun - and then putting them away. As an example of bad opinion, consider this pervasive one: "I think the really great thing about this book is that we've all read it and shared our feelings about it." That is simply not an opinion about a book.

As long as the focus of Oprah's Book Club is a television show, the Club will reduce the books it honors to decorations in the lives of those who belong to it. There are two levels of membership in the Club, Oprah's and everybody else's.  Ms Winfrey herself gets to pick the books, meet the authors, ask the questions - and everybody else gets to watch. (I'm told that there is a discussion group, but for most 'members' this is necessarily decorative, too.) No matter how astute Ms Winfrey's questions might be, and no matter how intriguing her guests' answers, I have no interest in a discussion that I can't take part in; nor - and I suspect that Mr Franzen was uneasy about this as well - do I care to discuss anything in front of people who can't join in. (A symposium among expert peers is not what's going on here.) Discussion simply isn't entertainment. I am hardly more keen to follow Ms Winfrey's glamorous interactions with writers than I would be to substitute her descriptions of the books for reading them myself. In the discriminating culture that ignores TV, a book's status as 'great' emerges from countless discussions motivated by considered, searching readings. A few of these discussions achieve published permanence, but most are transitory, occurring in classrooms and cafes. If you're watching television, you can't participate in discussions. You're not part of the wonderfully intricate process by which human beings build up the coral reef of cultural engagement. Instead, sitting there, with no one listening to you, you inhale other people's ideas and exhale their opinions. If you try to talk thoughtfully while the TV is on (even with the sound off), you will discover how astonishingly obnoxious television can be. You have to turn off the TV set to find out what your own ideas are. 

I'm not without hope that one of these days Oprah Winfrey will astonish the nation by urging it, from the pages of her very successful magazine, to turn off the TV. 

Is it any wonder that the writer of 'The Corrections,' a book that abounds in ambivalent positions about many issues, fears that his book will be reduced, in a televised forum, to a stringy mass of talking points? Realizing that I'd missed Mr Franzen's appearance on NPR's Fresh Air, I ordered a tape of his interview with Terry Gross, which I listened to the day before Oprah's grand revocation was announced. A few days later, I dug up an interview conducted by Dave Weich for Both interviewers asked Mr Franzen questions about the OBC nomination that took his discomfort  for granted. Literate as both were, they did a terrible disservice to 'The Corrections' and to literature. It is so much easier to talk about almost anything but the nub of a book, especially a big, complex book like 'The Corrections.' But Oprah's recognition of the importance of this book, no matter how many books it sells, is just one opinion, altogether irrelevant to the author's. The matter should never have come up. While I agree with Mr Franzen that he could have phrased his reservations more judiciously, while I go so far as to wish that he'd merely grinned with happiness when asked about the nomination, I believe that his reservations about Oprah's brand of fame remain sound. It's the Klinkenborgs who should be chastised for their basely demagogic complacency about the passive nonculture of television. 

20 December 2001: The winter holidays are ordinarily a homogenizing time, when a handful of menus, pastimes, and rituals dominate most agendas whether or not people want them to. But the season feels different here in New York this year. No one has any time for fakery. There is uncertainty about the appropriateness, in the wake of September 11, of blindly following the seasonal formulas. While some people clutch the traditions, others leave town. The 'Christmas spirit,' a synthetic, nostalgic flashback accented by silver bells and snowflakes, seems so remote that I don't think many people miss it, and after a year out of commission, it may be wholly renovated, harking back to 1995 instead of 1945. There is a general understanding that everyone will be allowed to feel his or her way through the season, and customary gestures are not to be expected as a matter of course. Despite everything, this may be the best Christmas ever. The feelings that most people have are likely to be genuine, not willed.

Kathleen and I will have our Christmas Day open house, as usual, and I'll put up a tree some time this weekend - we don't hang ornaments until Christmas Eve - but we're not doing things only because it's Christmas time and we're supposed to. Rather, we're taking the holiday as a special time apart, and junking everything about it that's not special to us. Having cut back, over the past couple of years, our gift-giving action - which seems less and less meaningful in a world of articulate consumer desire, where people know what they want and buy it when they need it - we have stopped it altogether, and will squeak through the season without recourse to wrapping paper.

Of course, it may be that the Christmas spirit seems absent because so many people have replaced the seasonal red and green decor with red, white, and blue. This is problematic and worrisome. Flag-draped patriotism doesn't seem genuine to me, except as a superstition. I have read a number of boosting claims that Americans have a widely inclusive sense of their country, but I don't believe it. What I think is the case is that most Americans have a strong but ill-defined sense of what their flag represents, and assume that their patriotic ideal holds sway wherever that flag flies. Television encourages this extrapolation, for on television there are no real differences between any two places in the United States, other than New York and Los Angeles. But New Englanders are almost secretive about their patriotic feelings compared with the racket that Texans make, and I'm pretty sure that Nebraskans and Long Islanders have very different ideas about Fourth of July picnics. Although I don't want to sound like Samuel P. Huntington here, I suspect that all-American sentiment is bogus. It has nothing to do with the rootedness that binds me, not without unreasoning pride, to the Northeast generally and to Manhattan Island in particular.

I gather that most Americans have 'moved on' from September 11, and 'put it behind them.' And why not? To the extent that I was shaken by the destruction of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, I got over it pretty quickly. Oklahoma is not only over a thousand miles, but three or four cultures away. I have driven through it several times, and it is nothing like the world I know. That New York is the bigger and more celebrated city is not the point. The point is that this is where I come from.

Kathleen can see Ground Zero from her office - it's not even five blocks away - and she has taken a few good photographs of the view. I, on the other hand, had been nowhere near the World Trade Center in years, and haven't been south of Houston Street since September 11. Although everyone says that photographs don't give a true impression of the devastation, I'm pretty sure that staring at the rubble would add nothing to my sense of the horror of the attacks. Watching the towers dissolve into their own dust (on television), I was sure that many more than four thousand people must have been trapped in the collapse. For the first time, I was overwhelmed by the wickedness of terrorism, even though, at the same time, I caught a glimpse of the sense of injustice that had motivated Mohammed Atta and his crew. The terrorists intended to strike a blow against Western secular capitalism, but when the symbolism cleared, they had killed a few thousand people and leveled a few very large buildings in my home town.

Americans have flooded the families of those killed in the attacks with donations, while ignoring not only the victims of other catastrophes (which occur, if less sensationally, all the time) but also the folks who have lost their jobs or suffered bankruptcy in the economic downdraft whipped up by the attacks. It's not hard to see why. Identifying, and 'compensating,' the families of the dead feels like a sure and simple method of beginning to redress the violation of September 11. We invest this small but obvious class of victims with the glory and honor of a sacrifice that, rescuers aside (and a few guys over Pennsylvania), its members didn't, couldn't make. We transform 'innocent victims' who were in the wrong place at the wrong time into 'patriotic heroes,' because that's what we need them to be. But they were by no means the only victims. The city's tourism and restaurant industries (among its largest) are still reeling, months later, as are small businesses overall in lower Manhattan, near the World Trade Center site. Suffering the collateral damage of losing a job in this welfare-unfriendly environment can't make anybody feel lucky to be alive.

31 December 2001: Never mind the 'Happy.' I'll settle for plain New. '2001' has already settled into position at the top of the list of bad years; it has been, for me, the worst of years. Materially, I emerge unscathed, with life and living intact; but almost every meaningful thing has been challenged by an inimical force: self-righteous provinciality. 

I add the qualification 'self-righteous' because we are all hopelessly provincial. We all see things our own way, and our vision is necessarily limited. But many people forget this - or prefer to pretend that it isn't true. They imagine that they see everything quite clearly and can easily tell right from wrong, all the time. They denounce as 'relativistic' - a very dirty word among rightist-thinking people - any attentiveness to ambiguities and shades of grey. But there's a big difference between holding that the same act or situation can be good or bad, depending - that's relativism - and being able to analyze an act or situation correctly. Failing to recognize this distinction, the self-righteously provincial bring down cascades of horrors upon us all. 

So 2001 was the year of people who can't agree to disagree. I wish that they would disappear along with it, for this is the one thing I can't agree to disagree about. 

2001 was also a year of fetid media sentimentality, a fungus that infected The New York Times along with less guarded publications. There's a sample of it in today's lead editorial, "At Year's End." "The effect of Sept. 11 was to make many of our old concerns look puny, and there are very few Americans who have not made resolutions, changed priorities, or otherwise refocused their lives since the terrorists attacks." I'm afraid that I have struggled to maintain the focus that I had before the attacks, and that the resolution to stay on course has never seemed more important nor proven more fatiguing. What were other Americans up to, that now seems so puny? Besides watching television, of course. Nothing is more commendable than every hour of television-watching that has been traded in for an hour of volunteering, but then it's hard to think what could be worse, for able-bodied individuals and for the country alike, than watching television. "We may be a more caring people," the editorial continues, "but there are very few among us who would have chosen this path to self-improvement." I should hope that there are none who would choose it - among us, certainly - but I fear that it would take far worse than Atta's annihilations to break Americans of the TV habit. Perhaps because I had no habit to break, I haven't been able to watch so much as 'Law & Order' since tuning in to the Trade Towers' collapse. Editorials like today's make me wonder if I'm living in a parallel universe.  However:

My good friend Rebecca Thomson makes a helpful point. The people whom I know well and whom I've seen at holidays parties, our own and hers among them, she reminds me, were no more awakened than I was, by the attacks of 'nine eleven,' from lives that suddenly seemed trivial. They were already serious about life. Although nobody thought that 'American had it coming,' the people I know were not entirely surprised by the attacks, which is to say that what really surprised them was the scope - the destruction of those two very tall buildings that nobody but architects much liked and that almost everybody who had to hated working in. The people I know understand that New York is a global city of the first rank; we might even agree that, without claiming that New York is the most important city in the world, no other city is more important, either. Importance on that scale invites event, and event, after all, is what attracts people to this city. When so many things are happening, some of them are bound to be bad. No one was prepared for anything so very bad, and yet as the death toll slipped below three thousand, it became impossible not to see how much higher it might have been. Shocked and outraged, we were not, as I say, entirely surprised. I wish our government hadn't seemed to be so entirely surprised - how about a few more Arabists at the C.I.A., for example. But that's another matter. It's New Year's Eve, and I want to keep things cheerful. 

So: Have a New Year!

17 January 2002: The other day, I had to buy yet another copy of Microsoft's Office XP - my third in six months. Never mind the deep background; the immediate reason was that I couldn't explain to anyone in Microsoft's licensing area that two other machines had died on me, and I'd had to buy a third.  The prospect of shelling out another five hundred dollars made me almost as mad as a terrorist at Bill Gates and his juggernaut company. What bothered me most, though, wasn't Microsoft's anticompetitive practices and uncompetitive incompetence, but its exploitation of a scheme of unaccountability. If something goes wrong with a software package, or if you find that it doesn't work for you, you will have a very hard time making a return, or even speaking to a human being capable of making a decision about your problem. A nice little window tells you to call such-and-such a number to speak a 'representative.' But of course there are no representatives - no living beings - answering the phone. No one is effectively in charge. There are plenty of rules for everyone to follow, but the people who make them inhabit an inaccessible realm, and probably, as individuals, they don't have much sense of personal power anyway. A good word for this decentralized, unaccountable system would be 'Nullocracy.' 

I had another taste of it today. I was trying to get someone to tell me why my new Sony Vaio notebook wouldn't write files to a CD-RW drive.  That turned out not to be the problem. If I'd called Intuit first - and I had to pay cash American to learn this, by the way - I'd have discovered that the 'Backup' and 'Restore' features on Quicken don't write directly to CD drives. This was interesting news, because I'd been backing up Quicken files to CD for over a year, using a not-so-old Presario notebook that runs Windows 98. By the time I was told that what I'd been doing couldn't be done - and I accepted that it couldn't be done on a new machine running Windows XP - I'd detained three intelligent people at three different organizations. Now, if I'd had a better understanding of my problem, I'd have resolved it sooner, and interrupted fewer tech support workers. But I'm a writer, not an IT expert. It would be a terrible waste of time to try to stretch my computer savvy beyond its anecdotal character. It's the people in the computer business who ought to know how things interact. Making full use of powerful hardware and software should not be a quest. 

One of my big hopes for 2002 is that I won't have to think about computers much at all. I'll just use them!

'Nullocracy' means 'I'm not responsible!' - at least for the bad stuff. Bill Gates didn't invent it, of course; nor did anyone else. It emerged as an inevitable consequence of the American distrust of power. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum in this case rests where American authority ought to lie. Nullocracy has swept in to fill it. Legions of more or less sensible and intelligent people determine the conduct of minute affairs, and daily life proceeds pretty smoothly in the aggregate. But if something breaks, or if someone has unusual needs, or if the system needs a serious overhaul, then Nullocracy's manifold parts swing into an almost instinctive effort to make sure that nothing is done, lest corrective action disrupt it. 

The people  in charge - the politicians, the executives - can manipulate this decentralization to their own advantage. Consider the collapse of Enron. Has anyone from the top floor acknowledged anything like responsibility for what happened? No. Everyone - most astoundingly, Jeffrey Skilling - has emphatically denied any knowledge of all those irregular partnerships off the books. (Excepting, of course, their designer, Andrew Fastow, who apparently pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He knew, presumably. But how did everyone else at the helm manage to be out of the loop?) The prospective Enron defendants can say anything they like, because they worked behind a screen that regulators and other energy players allowed them to erect. It's amazing that Sherron Watkins' smoking-gun memo survived.

As for politicians, the American political system, with its myriad federal, state, and local jurisdictions, insures that almost every official can deny responsibility for anything. The Mayor of New York has very little direct control of the city's subway or school systems. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is an agency of the State, not the City, of New York, and the folks in Albany are very engaged in its operation. (The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey all but ceased to function a few years ago because its two chief executives, the states' respective governors, wouldn't speak to each other, largely because both cherished dreams of Republican-party presidential nomination. Now that New Jersey's governor is a Democrat, New York's George Pataki can afford to be more cooperative.) As for education, it appears that nobody, really nobody, is in charge. Checks and balances seems to resemble a trading floor for interest groups rather than the ultimate supervision of the city's classmate are one thing - a thing that ought to be reserved to the highest levels of government - but the New York City Board of Education 

suffers from acute sclerosis. The Republicans want to kill it off, and give more, if not complete authority, to the mayor. Democratic Assembly leader Sheldon Silver was prepared to entertain a change when it seemed that a Democrat was certain to follow Rudy Giuliani as mayor, but he changed his tune when nominally Republican Michael Bloomberg won the election. In, say, 1787. 

Where is the democracy here? Where is there a single input for voter participation. I don't mean to advocate referenda, but I can see their appeal; in the end, frustrated voters demand the right to take responsibility. But if you ask me, our way of doing things is as ripe as that of the 'ancien régime' (which means whom, exactly?) under Louis XVI. 


In response to my comments of December 31, 2001, Kate McDonough has sent the following wise and warm letter. It obliges me to restate that what I had on my mind when I wrote wasn't so much the reactions of individual people to the attacks of September 11, but rather the oversentimentalization that Kate mentions in her closing paragraph. 

I have to take issue with your comments on the effects of September 11th, particularly with regard to pooh-poohing people's efforts to "refocus their lives since the terrorist attacks". You seem to dismiss this experience by characterizing those who have done so as TV watchers with trivial lives. While I certainly don't disagree that TV, computer and video games and other non-challenging entertainment takes up way too much of everyone's time, not just children and teenagers, my experience and those of my friends does support the idea that September 11th did have a profound effect on how we view and live our lives.

Especially for those of us in the early stages of middle age, with many competing responsibilities and demands, the ability to regularly examine the lives we lead is limited and usually is last on the To-Do list (which means it never gets done). We all set out on  a path 10, 15 or 20 years ago, with pretty clear ideas about our goals, values and priorities. But as with most things in life, once we were set in motion down a particular path, the laws of physics took over and we have continued picking up speed down the straightaway. September 11th, for some, was the curve in the road, that slows your momentum and causes you to rethink your racing strategy. I think all of these people have always been serious about life, but have been forced by that momentum to focus on keeping the car on the road, not where the road was going. Having had my own brush with mortality early on has been, I've always thought, a gift. While I am not always as focused on where I am going, I do spend more time being grateful for where I am and that certainly keeps me more connected to what my purpose in life is than I would otherwise have been. Perhaps what people are going through is similar; once you really have to face and accept the fact that our lives are not infinite (of course, everyone knows this intellectually, but feeling and believing it are very different), you have the ability to toss aside all the baggage you may have picked up over the years that either once seemed meaningful, but no longer is, or that you once believed could get you where you wanted to go.

I do believe the media, has for the sake of the story, oversentimentalized this experience, but it's real and should not be dismissed out of hand.

Point well taken! Perhaps it's an occupational hazard of writers, who, both as wordsmiths and as analysts, subject their lives to constant, if low-key, review, to forget that most intelligent people lead un-self-conscious lives. To the extent that the writer is a thinker, the momentum that Kate talks about is a wholly internal matter. I regret having appeared to 'dismiss out of hand' anyone's stock-taking before or after September 11. 

4 February 2002: According to a background article in The New York Times (February 4, 2002, C1) by John Schwartz, Jeffrey Skilling, former Enron CEO, was an exceptional student at an exceptional school. "Professors at Harvard Business School recalled that even in that rich pool of future business titans, Mr. Skilling stood out as a student at the school in the late 1970's." I read this right after the latest account of the Enron/Andersen accounting shenanigans had me muttering, 'Jeez, these guys were dumb.' It showed me how wrong I was. It wasn't their stupidity that did 'these guys' in, but their smarts. When you're as smart as the men and women in Enron's executive suite, the parameters for determining just how smart you have to be fall away, for want of available comparisons. 'Available' is the word that I want you to keep your eye on.

Mr Skilling  was Enron's captain when Enron went on the rocks. The rocks in this case were partnerships that the company entered into with an entity set up by its financial officer, Andrew Fastow, and they ripped Enron's hull when guarantees that the company ought probably never to have made caused the tide of Enron's market value to drop. Lawyers have a way of imputing to captains the knowledge and general awareness of what's going on that ought to prompt responsible correctives, and the McLucas Report that appeared on Saturday made use of it: Skilling "knew or should have known of the magnitude and the risks associated with these transactions [with the Fastow partnerships]." That means that the Investigating Committee was unable to find any reason why Skilling wouldn't have known all about them - the magnitude, the risks, and, I should think, the relations between the parties. But drawing the inference that Skilling knew that he was doing something wrong (whether or not we hold him responsible for what he did and didn't do) isn't so straightforward. We can posit what he ought to have known about the areas of expertise that he claimed to command, or about the workings of the company that he headed, but we don't have any standards for determining whether he knew or should have known the limits of his own intelligence. He turned out not to be smart enough to pull off what looks like an astonishing piece of bootstrapping - but did anybody ever teach him how to assess his abilities in this area?

I am not making jokes about a School For Criminals; rather, I'm lamenting the neglect of a solid education in the humanities by those who need it the most. I'll be the first to agree that most students - the average, the mediocre, and those inferior to them - would benefit from more practical, less academic schooling. At the very least, their dealings with philosophical abstractions ought to be grounded in the contemporary and the concrete. But the students at the top, whether they're going to be doctors, lawyers, philosophers, scientists, or swimmers in 'that rich pool of future business titans' that Harvard really ought to keep a little cleaner, these students need to be humbled as only the humanities can humble. Unlike less-gifted students, future achievers  can be humbled by the humanities without being humiliated. Their very grasp of the abstractions in which thinkers and historians have encapsulated human limitations, both spares them the humiliation suffered by students who 'don't get it' and plants the seeds of genuine humility. The well-schooled executive in Mr Skilling's place would have rejected the proposed partnership deals (as they have been outlined in the Times) as looking too good to be true, as unduly vulnerable to plausible contingencies (such as the burst of the bubble). This is not a moral position, I hasten to note, but a prudent one.

Like all the top people at Enron, Jeffrey Skilling hated government regulation. His reasons for opposing it, generally and specifically, will, I hope, emerge during the coming investigations. They ought to be taken very seriously, and addressed head-on. I have little doubt that the nation's regulatory expenditures would be better spent on fewer and better-paid regulators, and perhaps the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the way hearings are conducted and rules developed, could use a fresh, streamlining look. For the proper response to poor regulation is not deregulation but improved regulation. If we could manage without regulation altogether - but nobody believes this for a moment; it's tantamount to believing that we can do without laws. Regulations are merely laws imposed by lawmakers' delegates at the various Federal regulatory agencies upon carefully delimited circumstances. It is unrealistic to expect Congress to address every complication of public life, but it is positively pernicious to believe that what Congress can't attend to doesn't need public attention. Mr Skilling's career may show us how pernicious.

It is a view that has been schooled in arrogance rather than humility. As a doctrine that urges ordinary people to place absolute trust in exceptional people, it differs very little from discredited notions of the divine right of kings. We are asked to take it on faith that the Skillings of the world will take their Enrons to victory, reaping immeasurable wealth at least for a few. We are asked to free them from the constraints of laws that they are too superhuman to require. If the law proscribes dummy partnerships between related parties, we are asked to make an exception for Enron, on the grounds that its executives are too smart to enter into commitments not guaranteed to succeed. I have no doubt that Jeffrey Skilling is guilty of the sin of regarding himself as really above the law. It would have been better for everyone if he had been obliged to learn what 'Oedipus The King' has to teach about such vanity.

Top executives lead very exceptional lives, and when I mentioned the lack of available comparisons that would enable them to assess what they're doing, I was  surmising that few of them look farther in time and space than the current membership of business associations. Few of them appear to have any training in the work of history and philosophy, rich sources of examples that season the growing mind.  I used the word 'prudent' a moment ago, and when I did I could hear disparaging cries exhorting leaders to be bold. Boldness, and even recklessness, are invaluable in the teeth of military catastrophe, but their usefulness in corporate life seems doubtful to me. Largely it is a matter of preposterous rhetoric, but at Enron it seems to have been taken to heart. In a time of peace, during a rise in the market that many believed would bring automatic prosperity, the leaders of Enron found it necessary to swashbuckle. No doubt it felt really cool. But as an unnamed former executive told Mr Schwartz, "There were no grown-ups at Enron."

5 March 2002: Following some leads in Arts & Letters Daily, I've been reading a lot of well-put-together arguments for or against one thing or another, and the experience has left me unsure of everything except the true journalist's need to crank out prose on a daily basis. Most of the writers I've encountered on the Web appear to know their own minds, by which I mean that they can respond quickly to almost any event or situation by referring to a set of self-evident principles. Democracy is good, and America (though flawed) is great. These are axioms, incapable of proof even though they are often presented as proof of one another. America is great because it's the the biggest and richest democracy. Democracy is the American way. I envy the possessor of such principles his or her ease of mind. But not the principles themselves. And the confidence with which these principles are deployed suggests that Web pundits are taking turns preaching to the choir.

Democracy isn't good; it's only the least pernicious system for the organization of society that human beings have hit on so far. (Two thousand years ago, no serious person advocated it.) It remains enormously problematic, and there is no point - beyond the pleasure of a very transitory satisfaction - to wasting time on congratulations. To question any given democratic practice is not tantamount to advocating some less-distributed system. Nor does any American have a reason to take pride in being American. America isn't great at all, it's just Great Big: a colossal, materially abundant territory open to seemingly limitless fresh starts. Americans ought to feel grateful for their good luck, and perhaps a little humble, too. Such good fortune can be blinding, a truth that for many of us was confirmed by the attacks of September 11.

The problems of democracy, you ask? Let's start with the thorniest: egalitarianism. Are democracies necessarily egalitarian? This remains a raw question, with strong arguments on both sides and no prospect of peaceful resolution. Beyond general agreement that all are equal before the law lies a cluster of questions that would tax a Solomon. Is fine art better than pop art? Ought the benefits and burdens of everyday life to increase with health, beauty, or talent? And, speaking of burdens, what are the burdens of citizenship? Again, there is general agreement that everybody must submit to conscription in time of emergency, and that everyone (with an income) must pay taxes, but beyond that, one finds strangely little in the way of, say, theories of voters' responsibilities. In most democracies - all of them, perhaps, now that Australia has abandoned its experiment with compulsory voting - no one is actually required to vote. Still less is anyone obliged to learn about candidates from sources other than television news and political advertising, neither of which is even remotely informative. Conservative Americans appear to believe that the nation is one thing and its government another, and that the purpose of elections is to prevent the latter from interfering with the former. Liberals appear to want the government to enforce the unlegislated principle that nobody's way of doing things is better than anyone else's. It is difficult to be sure that the political parties themselves are more than dispensers of patronage, but nobody is addressing the average American's rumored hatred of politics and politicians. In a democracy, who ought to? Can a democracy have a conscience? A conscience that does not tyrannise?

The very different French and American Revolutions (the latter not a revolution at all) were completed within the same decade, give or take a year, but each left the details to be worked out in the future, and we are still working them out. To give just one example, African-Americans are correct, I believe, in insisting that they have not achieved complete citizenship, even though their ancestors were here before most Americans'. Now, in raising this detail, or any of the many others that would make a tedious list, do I mark myself as a liberal? No, because I don't necessarily expect the government to do anything about it. (With regard to African-Americans, it would appear that the federal government has done all that it can do, in the form of civil rights legislations whose aftershocks have not altogether lost their violence.) So, to the extent that I expect the people of America individually to address them, do I mark myself, even ironically, as a conservative?

Nothing confuses me more than contemporary terms of party affiliation. I can understand the difference between reactionaries, who want to restore a rejected way of life, and progressives, who want to anticipate a beneficent future, and I have little trouble putting myself on the progressive side, if as a relatively cautious participant. I can also understand the difference between Left and Right, although only within the limited scope of attitudes about vested property rights. On this issue, I'm inclined to the Right, but with serious concerns about excessive ownership. But if there is a continuum between liberal and conservative in the United States today, with a center somewhere in between, I can't make it out. The alliance between Big Business and Conservative Christianity is totally opportunistic, while the bond between minority groups and organized labor appears to be unworkably frayed. One hears talk of a 'socially liberal, fiscally conservative' ethos, but how this attitude plays out in the field of, say, public education remains murky. The differences between Republicans and Democrats are real, I suppose, but beyond the tendentious rhetoric, what exactly are the differences, and, most important, how do the differences interrelate? Would it be possible, by the way, to write a paragraph more thickly hedged?

I'd like some real answers. No preaching - I haven't converted.

Confused in Yorkville.

12 March 2002: To which Kate McDonough responds: 

I don't think you're confused at all, I think you've hit the nail on the head. One could argue that the sign of a true democracy is exactly the situation you're citing...opportunistic pairings, seemingly unreconcilable labels (fiscal conservative, social liberal, as if $ and funding don't have anything to do with social policy!). Not to say I think democracy is a bad thing, but as a rule, you do wind up with a few people at either end of the spectrum, and everyone else somewhat muddled in the middle. I'm not sure it's such a bad system, but I wouldn't call it ideal, just worth defending in light of the current alternatives out there.

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