By Samuel Hux (January 2018)
Saturday Morning, Upper West Side, Theresa Bernstein, 1946
olitical thought should be personal, or give up any pretense to being serious—not out of books, that is, no matter how supported by books. I can no more trust an impersonal political theorist than I can someone who writes ethics for someone else. And political thought is about the “good life,” as Aristotle understood, or it doesn’t seem to me worth doing. For many years I’ve thought I lived a, if not the, good life. And by some standards, cultural and economic, I have. I have certainly not been one of the “culturally deprived,” and by the sad standards of millions of people I’ve not been deprived economically. But as I never heard my father say—he’d lost a hand in a press accident as a youth—“At least I need only one glove,” I reject the relativist mode of thought. You have to pay for the pair.
“I’m better off than many . . . I’m better off than most” only because “Many are worse off than I . . . most are.” I know the destitute only by safe observation; I know the marginal the same way. Sensing the quality of life of the marginal is no great mental act, for I was uncomfortably close several times in my earlier years—more times than my “station” would have led me to expect. I can sense how it is for the destitute only vicariously. And one would do well to take to heart, and suffer, the terrible irony that E.M. Forster was willing to turn upon himself in Howard’s End. “We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.”
“One” would do well? Yes . . . for frankly I do not feel comfortable with the first person pronoun in what follows. I need a certain distance.
H’s father was a profoundly conservative man, but with opinions surprising for a supposed Southern Democrat and which had nothing to do with economic orthodoxies. “The Democracy” meant to him as a young man William Jennings Bryan, and then FDR, and the radical but very odd, sometime Republican labor leader (he supported both Hoover and Willkie) John L. Lewis—that last at least an unexpected hero for a small businessman. “These damned fools around here don’t know that if labor costs go up five percent, it’s the owners who will grin and raise prices fifteen.” When the Democrats selected Adlai Stevenson for the first time, he preferred Estes Kefauver of the coonskin hat. He was a populist, although without (H was pleased to note when he learned a bit more history) the nativist spite, anti-Semitism, and general small-town prejudices that often degraded populism. So, deficient in Oedipal rage, H had no great distance in feeling to travel when he went to college: reading of “the cross of gold,” writing a paper on Henry George, devouring biographies of Eugene Victor Debs, writing for a card in Noman Thomas’s Socialist Party—well on his way, through books not experience, to possession of the “proper” views for an academic before he knew he would become one. However, a big however, when he studied English history under a professor he’d discover many years later was a contributor to Russell Kirk’s journal Modern Age, H always “pulled for” the Royalists rather than the Roundheads, admired the Tories rather than the Whigs. A kind of schizoid tendency was setting in.
H’s life is not particularly interesting, and mostly irrelevant to these reflections, for many years. University, army, university again, marriage, fatherhood, graduate school, instructorship—the marriage not surviving the extended adolescence of graduate school and instructorship. Petitions, civil rights protests, ban-the-bomb sit-ins, anti-war marches. Ordinary stuff for a junior member of what was once called “the West Side Jacobins.”
By the 1970s, H’s existence had settled . . . no, elevated, to give truth its due . . . into as close an approximation of the “good life” as he reasonably could have expected. Personally: the beginnings of a quite remarkable relationship, interesting friends. Professionally: publication, pleasure at the very occasional recognition of his name, slow but predictable academic advancement. Economically: child support was a healthy cut, salaries at one of the highest paying public universities in America meant “you’re better off than most,” the boring pattern of contingency loan and enforced period of tight-belt, but predictable increments will be a blessing, things are looking up in other respects so why not here? One’s “ship will come in.”
Just as often it went out. Or rather airplanes did. H was introduced to “abroad.” The pattern of nine or ten months in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and two or three months in Europe was less expensive than it might seem. An apartment could be sub-let, charter flights were laughably reasonable in those days, with friends and luck one could find a house in Europe for a relative pittance (H did), and daily expenses were lower than in New York. It’s foolish to undervalue (or to price) the experience of a decade of continent-hopping. Friends have no price tag: an expatriate American painter, a German actor, a Latvian-Swedish-Jewish journalist, a Swedish psychoanalyst, an Australian novelist, a “Prussian” painter (“I’m no German! We’re older than that pissy nation”), an ex-RAF pilot become the self-proclaimed “Kosher butcher of London,” a Mountbatten ex-patriated to Spain who kept the original German name. Nor do acquaintances: an aged veteran of Franco’s Blue Division on the Russian front, the Eurocommunist mayor of a Spanish village, a Hungarian freedom fighter become mercenary soldier, a one-good-armed Lithuanian veteran (or Ukrainian, or Ruthenian, depending upon the day) of the Waffen SS (or the Russian partisans, depending upon the day), the deposed president of an extraordinarily insignificant Third World Nation, a British Rothschild so un-assuming one never thought to call him Baron. People, whether you like or love them and are in return, or whether they are only occasions of experience, have to be accounted part of the good life.
Surely there were certain gratings of the soul, a sort of foreboding that’s almost a professional disease (or dis-ease). Unless one is cushioned by independent means, there is something debilitating and frustrating about an academic career, about trying to make a living from studying culture and being cultured. After the happy democracy of genteel poverty of the first few years, something happens. It becomes difficult to keep tastes and urges compartmentalized. Assuming their existence (and if one can’t, one’s in the wrong profession absolutely—as most academics in fact are!) one’s sense of beauty and quality and distaste for the shoddy grow hard to restrict to aesthetic and intellectual judgment of poems, novels, scores, paintings, metaphysical propositions. One’s senses begin to spill over into . . . one’s life, the quotidian. Love a good poem for its fine quality, admire the painterly architecture of a Giotto, and just be not bothered by cheaply-crafted corduroys and formica-topped breakfast table? Many can manage it—having to. What to do? What you’re doing.
H knew there was a trade-off. This kind of good life, while not extravagant, did cost something. This was no way to make a nest-egg. A small surplus exchanged for pounds or pesetas was not a small capital investment. Nor was rent a mortgage payment. H had become a Manhattanite: to rent is natural. He’d not yet felt the effects of the abandonment of rent control, “gift” to the citizens from Republican-Liberal mayor John Lindsay; although later he was to feel the folly of Democrat Ed Koch’s sanguine trust in “land-lord restraint.” Yet, Manhattanite, he remained to a degree a small-towner: one might buy a house, elsewhere (as eventually much later he would), but it’s unnatural to buy an apartment!
It required even then a sturdiness to live in Manhattan, for all the cultural benefits, slowly beginning to rise to the cash level of the aristocrat’s diversion. And the Upper West Side has long been a schizoid area: intellectuals, academics, and shopping-bag ladies; park-bench philosophers and Christ-raving lunatics; sidewalk cafés, singles bars, Irish taverns, and corner gatherings of the unemployed with bottles in paper bags; transient hotels, Riverside Park views, and triple-locked doors. H dated his disenchantment to an afternoon walk to a news-stand. A drunk was taunting a foul-mouthed paraplegic in a wheelchair (an occasional Christ-raver). The paraplegic took out after the drunk, wheeling with his left hand, throwing beer bottles he had in a basket with his right. At home H thought: That seemed just normal
A year in Europe. Back to New York. After one year, for double the rent of his old apartment he could find plenty with half the space. We’re now in the 1980s: mild. A relative plus for “land-lord restraint.” After two months of shopping he more or less gave up (“This won’t be permanent—and I have to pay for foolishness”) and took an apartment, half the size, at roughly his old rent, in a fairly decent building in the most depressing neighborhood he’d lived in since one year in poverty-level housing in graduate school.
This wasn’t a slum. The slum was just the other side of the boulevard, the two blocks between building and boulevard a transition area. A hospital nearby gave an illusion of security; that is, it was lighted up. That did not mean that a considerable population of aged Jewish survivors would venture out at night, any more than they’d take a walk alone in the afternoon, or enter their apartment buildings with brave assurance at any time. H could imagine how they felt, and he was an unlikely candidate for rape and not the likeliest prospective victim of assault. However, having his apartment broken into twice was, in part, what eventually drove him away.
But he grew to know this neighborhood as well as any he’d ever lived in. He was no extraordinary drinker (had no “problem”) and had never been a regular in bars. But as there was no place in this neighborhood to browse, bookstores nonexistent, not a moviehouse for eight blocks and that one worthless, the most decent eatery within safe distance and open at night a McDonald’s, as his private life was on hold, and as the safest, lighted promenade led clearly to the safest place around, a cafeteria-bar, when the depression of the apartment descended he went. A multi-racial hangout frequented by physically harmless alcoholics and, reassuringly, by athletic-looking off-duty orderlies from the hospital.
H discovered he seldom had to pay the full bill. H didn’t really fit, and that was a plus: tending bar (which H had done when a student) is a mostly dull job, same faces, same conversations; barmen and barmaids liked his quirky line of talk and rewarded him. “The sonofabitch who owns this place owns five others; he can afford it. Given what he pays me, without tips I’d have to take my daughter from the nuns and send her back to that crummy P. S. ____.” H got the message: good tip.
He chose not to confess to a professorship (no quicker way to freeze a mood), so when asked what he did he’d answer “I write.” “Boy, could I tell you some stories”—and people did. “Hell, it’s better back in Georgia; I’ll tell you why.” “Know that light-skinned boy who never says a word? Shot two nights ago.” “You’re two young to have seen Phil Cavaretta. Most underrated ballplayer of this time. And don’t let anyone tell you the ’45 Series was just a bunch of 4-Fs.” One night he teamed with an orderly to forcibly escort from the premises a drunk (not a regular) who was threatening a barmaid. That more or less settled his entitlement to reward. That he did not fit was not always a plus—“Hell, man, you’re a cop; I know you are”—but mostly it was. A friendship of sorts evolved with a twenty-something-year-old black man who swept and polished floors, and one night eased into a quiet, dignified, and urgent one hour narrative of his life—as if he’d never had a listener before, as if he had to work something out. It was a painful story, “unthinkable,” and as the clear tone of it was “in confidence,” H preferred it not be shared.
One night, climbing from the subway, H caught a staggering middle-aged woman, apparently ill, possibly drunk, and at her request helped her to the emergency room. “It’s decent of you, sir,” said the nurse, “but she’s been here three times tonight and disappeared every time. What can ya’ do?” One noon at a coffee shop, a passerby rushed in to call for aid for a man on the street—“Think it’s a heart attack!” Two nurses charged out immediately. Four doctors remained in their booth. Unlike the doctors, H went out to observe.
But all this was only observation. This was a time when “brokers [were] roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse” (W.H. Auden) and “trickle down” was being called “supply side.” Bu there were no benefits to observe in that neighborhood: untouched by the dancing at the Bourse, nothing seeping down. Any benefits were unrelated and of earlier provenance: food stamps for chicken at Sloan’s. H could cash checks there. Twice in his life that he could remember he’d stood twenty feet or so from the border of a thunderstorm, dry, as if peering through a curtain. The neighborhood was depressing, but he came and went. Three days a week he would lecture on tragedy, biblical narrative, Plato and Aristotle. He attended parties and meetings of two journals for which he wrote as a regular member of the “stables,” one journal loudly democratic socialist, the other could safely be called neo-conservative (the schizoid tendency now safely settled). One July and two Augusts he was in Europe, again. Even the two times his door was cut from its hinges, he was absent: Vermont, Quebec. H would never pretend he knew “the abyss where nothing counts and the statements of democracy are inaudible” (Forster).
It was time to leave. Three years looked too permanent. But landlord restraint in livable areas was clearly now a fiction. H’s personal life had revived, so space for two was needed. And so a removal from the city was needed. And no one wants to inhabit a burglar’s thoroughfare in any case. Although he’d recently signed a new lease his non-resident landlady graciously released him from obligation. She had two marvelous family names, one ancient and rabbinical, the other from “Our Crowd,” the German-Jewish ascendancy of old New York. This is not to suggest that H found her graciousness surprising, although he later often recalled it. He had not yet met “the Colonel” and “the Prettywells.”
In all landed directions from New York City, within reasonable commuting distance (if you have an academic schedule), there are areas which specialize in winter rentals, September-May. H planned: find a winter rental and have plenty of time to shop for a year-round. Winter rentals were extraordinarily reasonable because summer rentals carried them. H selected an area, found a house with sufficient space for two studies, advertised as exceptionally well insulated. He also visited his credit union and financed, through payroll deduction, a car. He was truly now no more a Manhattanite.
It would be wrong to suggest he was pleased to depart the city, although not the neighborhood: the move was purely defensive . . . and depressing. A part of him was unsympathetic to being one of the rats with a choice, but clearly the ship was sinking.
New York is, or was, a very special place. For one thing, it’s been the most “Jewish” city in the States, which in ways perceivable to those interested gave it a distinct tone: supple verbal idiosyncrasies; a talent for, and a ready recognition of the justice of, moral outrage; a normality accorded high intellectual seriousness; liberalism as a secular faith, as often an unrecognized curse as an assumed blessing (and eventually a metropolitan death warrant). It was also (and this observation risks misunderstanding, as the fact observed always has) the least “American” city in the U.S.—which is more than a matter of hyphenated populations. New York has been the least assimilated to the ordinary standards, expectations, and demands, of the nation. This was truer of Manhattan than of New York in its totality: Manhattan, or “the city” to New Yorkers of all boroughs, the city within the city. But, although generations might repeat the pattern of removal from “the city” to one of “the boroughs” or to Westchester or Nassau county, they tended to recall where they came from, made jokes about a relative purity of air that must be bad for one’s lungs, and knew that what made their new homes distinctive was their proximity to “the city.” When the rare quality of Manhattan dies, so will the distinctiveness of the boroughs. Note the aggressive change of tense.
If the least American . . . Manhattan cannot remain a weird half-presence of the old world if it becomes “European” in a merely medieval sense: concentrated wealth, extensive poverty, and a thin buffer in the middle. What all complained of and none with the power to do anything . . . do anything to stop: a city which the rich can afford to live in with little compromise to their style; which the poor will continue to live in in unofficially designated areas (the designator the real-estate industry); which more and more of the middle will flee, like H, threatened with marginality; and which will have the illusion of a middle—college graduates three to an apartment in college-dorm style, a declining number of ageing middle-aged inhabitants of rent-stabilized dwellings they cling to and clutch in while rumors fly that the building is “going co-op,” and the more successful Yuppies in $3,000-a-month efficiency studios.
“On the evening of September 23, 1925, I was dining with Hart Crane in a speakeasy on Washington Place in New York. Towards the end of dinner I saw Kenneth Burke and another man at the far end of the restaurant, and, when Crane left for another arrangement, I went over to speak to Burke. He introduced me to John Peal Bishop.”
H was a reader of memoirs and noted this recollection of Allen Tate’s. Or he noted a casual reference in Alfred Kazin’s New York Jew, “One night at the Trillings’ the conversation came round to Paul Goodman.” Far from celebrity-hopping in a reading chair, H was noting something antique and soon to be obsolete. Tate’s views of New York were never positive—and far different from Kazin’s. Beside the point. The point: For generations it was possible for a young Tate to dine with a young Crane and see a young Burke and meet a young Bishop—all of this very casual and just in the nature of things because that’s where they all were, or could be; and a conversation could “come around” at the Trillings’s because a Trilling and spouse could have a “Trillings.”
But in times that were certain to come, or rather in times that have come, propelled by landlord restraint and governmental acquiescence in it, artists and intellectuals unblessed with large independent incomes will mail their manuscripts or crate their paintings to New York, will make an occasional visit to attend a gallery, see a play, hear a concert, give a lecture, pass through. This will not be the death of culture in America, of course not. And New York, or Manhattan specifically, will continue to be the principal center of the culture industry. But it will be rather more an industrial park where culture is processed, not a living city where intellectual community (different from commutation to a complex) is possible and culture is done. Except for some of the performing arts, of course; the corps-de-ballet will live three, in they’re lucky, in a three-room flat. Change the tense in this paragraph from future to present.
And another thing about New York: It’s a city where Jews like to cut their throats. In the magazine Azure in 1999 the “godfather” of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, published an essay entitled “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews.” The thesis: the waggish observation that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans (somewhat outdated now since Episcopalians are no longer “the Republican party at prayer”) means that Jews have a history in America, and especially in New York, of voting the liberal (usually Democratic) line even to the point of sacrificing their own and their offsprings’ best interests (and often Israel’s as well) for the perceived best interest of the less fortunate—an old story so often foolishly thought praiseworthy in spite of the fact that the liberal plans for the less fortunate more often than not contribute to the transformation of the now-unfortunate into the permanent class of the unfortunate . . . so that the sacrificial liberalism of the Jews gains nobody, professional party hacks excepted, anything. H observed a variation of this phenomenon from a special angle:
A couple of summer-session visiting lecture gigs aside, H spent his entire professorial career at The City University of New York. CUNY was created in 1961 as the union of already existing municipal colleges, including the famous City College (CCNY) which dated to 1847, and quickly expanded with the establishment of other colleges. It was, in reputation although not officially, a “Jewish” university, just as the municipal colleges were with good reason considered to be. Administration and faculty were heavily Jewish, as was the student body, only much more so: Jews were the vast majority, with significant minority enrollment of Irish and Italian and a few other “Ethnics” and a smattering of African-Americans and Hispanics.
After four years at one of the older colleges, where H marveled at the intelligence and sophistication of the students, so much more impressive than what he recalled from his own undergraduate days in Chapel Hill, H transferred to a new member college, noticing no apparent decline in cultural quality. When H arrived as a founding faculty member at the new college he and his colleagues created an impressive liberal arts curriculum: there was, for instance, no freshman composition deemed necessary, a sequence of lit courses instead; there was a year-long requirement in philosophy called, after a sequence at the University of Chicago, “Ideas and Methods;” etcetera, und so weiter—you get the gist. When H retired several decades later, indeterminate semesters of “bonehead English” preceded freshman comp; neither philosophy, nor foreign language competence, nor history, nor—you get the drift—were absolute requirements, so that students could get a degree while more or less culturally and scientifically illiterate. What had happened?
“Open Admissions.” A policy inaugurated by New York’s Democratic liberal political class, championed by the city’s higher-education establishment, and approved and facilitated by CUNY’s administrators and the vast majority of its faculty. The good feeling and self-congratulation were almost palpable. An elite (read primarily Jewish) higher-education system was being opened up to all citizens alike whether prepared for it or not (the necessary decline in entrance standards, and subsequent lowering of grade standards, quite simply—there is no other honest way to put it—just bloody well denied), and the traditional arts and sciences of liberal education relegated to secondary consideration as the nature of higher ed was adjusted to the perceived needs of the expanding student population more demanding of practical technical training instead of fripperies such as art, letters, history, philosophy, social sciences, scientific literacy, and so on.
By the time H retired he had not seen a Jew in a classroom in years.
There were a couple of other changes as well, personal, not so historically significant—but a part of H’s education nonetheless. The “leftish” side of his ideological contradictions was in decline, as liberalism’s traditional priorities were being replaced with “identity politics,” which was, after all, what Open Admissions was actually all about. Liberals (Jews as well as goyim) were incapable of saying, or seeing, that the students in the old CUNY were there simply because of their intelligence and high-school achievement; instead, they said, always sotto voce and never admitting it publicly, why in a public university should there be so many Jews, what about the other ethnic and racial groups?
H and lady moved to new quarters for two in six in barely commutable distance far out on Long Island. He got along well with the landlord, “the Colonel,” after the shock of their first meeting. The Colonel and his wife “the General,” as H came to call her, lived on an adjacent property touching the shore. Arriving to make arrangements H noticed the Colonel bore a striking resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt—and also noticed how although not a large man was extraordinarily well-proportioned, as he greeted H by coming out of a shower stark naked with bathrobe in hand. Go figure. H never could. The only warning he’d had was not to talk politics unless somewhat to the right of George Patton—a location H had not yet reached. The care-taker of a complex of houses, “the Sergeant” (same regiment retired, H assumed), was helpful to “the Professor.” H, army vet himself, took the class system with amused good spirits, but wondered at the Colonel’s sense of it: if the Professor wished to buy the house he’d have first call, half a million dollars. H even managed to nod seriously.
One evening returning from the city H had a desultory conversation with a commuter which soon became very connected. Where do you live? Ah, so do I. Own? Rent? From whom? “Ah, look to your security deposit.” What do ya’ mean? “Look, he’ll find a reason to keep it. If he’ll bilk an Austrian baron of several thousand after a summer rental, he’ll want your few hundred after a winter. It’s not a matter of the amount. It’s—believe it—almost as if it’s the principal of the thing.” This was in March. By June the conversation had become prophecy.
At the end of May H spent two days making sure he left the house as he had found it and departed. When the security deposit did not arrive in a month’s time he requested it and was informed by the Colonel that that was impossible because of this, because of that. Some of the thises were dull-witted: $100 labor to place furniture in proper order (which H had done himself). Some of the thats were inspired: $126 to scrape food off the kitchen ceiling! H never did get the money, eventually putting the loss down to “educational” costs. Lawyer’s fees would have exceeded the security amount; small claims court would have taken time not available because of other things going on and which went on for several months.
H had spent every weekend since March in real-estate offices and following leads in area newspapers looking for a year-round rental in his price range that was pleasant enough (or just not too depressing) to justify a reasonable commutation. When he departed the Colonel’s investment, he was in considerable straits. He depleted his financial safety margin in motels until he found late June temporary quarters in a suburban slum. Then he took out a contingency loan to finance the security, first month’s rent, and possible agent’s fee that surely must end the year’s faltering gamble.
H drove a hundred or two miles every other day, as long as money held out, before he finally lucked out, a second loan later, in September. But along the way to luck two good possibilities had fallen through. Along the way H made a disastrous error, admittedly stupid no matter the extenuation, that depleted the first loan and most of his emotional energy. After a search that had begun in March, H met in August the Prettywells, and the contrast between weekly frustration and apparent resolution, and the seeming difference between the Colonel and the Prettywells were, well, a weakening experience.
One of the loveliest dwellings, both modest and inspiring he’d ever been in, and practically within his range: a cathedral ceiling high enough for three normal stories, multi-level spaces connected by bridge-like stairways, a fireplace, a piano, a sort of captain’s perch study which like most of the spaces commanded an expansive view of forest and river. Just the sort of place to think and write. And live the good life.
H and the Prettywells hit if off immediately as they showed him about. What do you do? What do you do? The Prettywells both practiced one of the liberal, remunerative professions, successfully enough that this was one of three rural dwellings that they let, that they had a New York condominium, and that they had a summer place. Unlike the Colonel—to the right of Patton—they were very liberal: expressions of concern for the rightward drift of students at the prestige college their offspring attended; noticeable pleasure that H wrote for a left-leaning journal (H cleverly failing to mention the neoconservative one). They liked the idea that someone would be writing here. Both? Good. She’s the musician between you? She’ll like the piano. “ Ashkefuszny” once played it for us. Cultivated talk. Ease. No pressure—although we don’t know who else will answer the ad. H leapt, signed a two year lease, two month’s security, first month’s rent. $1900.
Two days later he knew he’d done a foolish thing, had yielded to the mounting pressure of half a year’s accumulation, and had furthermore allowed the aesthetics of the place to overcome his practical reason: this was not a place, all open space, where two typewriters could harmonize to a melodious sound; this was not a place, with its beautiful multi-levels and connecting stairs like cantilevers, which, an operation possibly in the offing, his lady could navigate with ease. Utter, understandable, foolishness. H appealed to the Prettywells, apologized, explained, apologized. H offered to pay a nuisance fee. How much, P asked. A half-month’s rent, H said. A month’s rent, H said. Well, I don’t know, P said. It’s not the money, P said. It’s the principal of the thing, P said. H sensed he was done for. And with no legal recourse. (H studied the law books.) H knew the Prettywells could hold him to two years, but believed they would not. There was after all the matter of compassion, which liberals are famous for encouraging the distribution of. H hoped they would accept a nuisance fee. They did. $1900.
That was the bank loan and some more. H wrote to the Prettywells from his slum, repeating the considerations mentioned above, appealing to their liberal sentiments and assuring the Prettywells, with doubtful sincerity, “If there is a tone of accusation here, be assure it is self-accusation.” No answer. Never any answer until months later: sorry for the situation your change brought about. This in response to a final request from H not modulated by self-accusation and probably a bit too ideological for people of liberal sentiments. Noting that $1900 was roughly eight percent of his yearly net, H wrote: “Can one honestly say that a penalty of such a significant portion of my professional income to make up for a disappointment to your supplemental income is not unbalanced? Were our roles reversed I would not wish to insist upon such a redistribution of income.”
Is there a moral distinction between a fool and one who gains advantage from a fool’s foolishness? There is, but small compensation that is. H knew he’d been a fool, and a good case could be made that he’d been a fool all his adult life or he’d not have placed himself in a condition that so dramatized his foolishness. He had hardly lived, financially, a circumspect life. But if he had, to his fixed financial abilities, he would not have lived much of a life. His education was telling him what he already knew and often thought about: in this society, unless one is of a certain class, either/or.
Is there a moral distinction between the Colonel and the Prettywells? Yes, of course. But H was in no frame of mind to appreciate the miniscule. The Colonel was easier to comprehend although further from H’s normal experience. The Colonel was old money married to old money, resources of both branches multiplying exponentially. He had had money so long that he could not imagine that any that came into his possession, no matter how temporary the possession was supposed to be, was not by divine right his. There was even a certain charm to the colonel’s weakness. Obsessions can be amusing, if you can get the distance.
The Prettywells’ motives, H guessed, were not obsessional but, rather, “professional.” There was indeed a contract, freely entered into by H, and it was he who was asking for its abrogation, so there was no compelling reason for the Prettywells to show mercy beyond the compulsion to be merciful, which one is either subject to or not. But “professional” in a different sense as well.
There are three broad relationships to income once one is above the marginal labor of piece-work. One may have a fairly fixed income (H). One may have, beyond a basic income, a fluctuating degree of wealth depending upon degrees of success of investments (the Colonel). One may have—rather like the piece-work principle but vastly more lucrative—an income based upon fees-for-services (the Prettywells) . . . although clearly this may be supplemented to greater or lesser degree by investments.
If old money creates a certain habit of “rightful” possession, fees-for-services creates another habit. Time is money. Practitioners of most of the liberal professions—law, medicine, especially—grow to value their time, since time has financial value. You don’t consult about an ulcer or a tax lien for nothing. You don’t consult about anything for nothing. A habit of profession can become a habit of behavior. You give time beyond the normal requirements of family and leisure—and, perhaps, the respectable clock expenditures of charity, perhaps—and you expect, feel a right to, compensation. The Prettywells had, no question, been put out. After a certain habit, one is not put out for nothing. This is less charming. But the differences between Colonel and Prettywells are matters not of kind, ultimately, but of degree. And they were moved, the Colonel, old money, to the right of George Patton, and the Prettywells, so comfortably liberal . . . they were moved by no motive that could be called cultivated, civil.
Our society is much exercised over the question of “entitlements”: social security, Medicare, welfare safety-nets, etc. Most of us don’t seem to feel, most of the time, that we (or “they”) are entitled to these things. Well . . . social security yes, for we can see from our paycheck stubs that we are paying for that, a kind of insurance account. And if one is temporarily laid off one tends not to question his entitlement to unemployment insurance, asks rather why it is so small. And the aged certainly feel possessive of their medicare. But one wonders if even they feel entitled, that it is their right—as opposed to simply yielding to necessity. If as a society we truly believed that health care were a different order of thing from personal consumption, we—conservatives as well as liberals and socialists—would be clamoring for national health in terms Washington could not mistake.
But toward the “entitlements” that reach only those without much social or political clout, such as food stamps, we tend to be much less ambiguous: Those are not things they are entitled to, are rather things that we, at great cost to ourselves, give them. And one might suspect that the recipients do not fundamentally disagree, would, rather, prefer to be in the position of complaining about the burden of their gift.
For all the advances in social legislation over the last seventy-five years or so, we as a society have not fully adjusted to a commensurate social philosophy, not in our bones. The welfare-state measures are still perceived, or rather felt, to be stopgap efforts, a long permanent temporary. No matter the occasional necessity (and for some the steady necessity) of aid, we have no essential and rightful claim against the state to insure our well-being (exclude the patrol car, exclude the military). The myth of rugged individualism dies hard in a late capitalist society which makes that myth profoundly irrelevant. If H had ever had any doubts about this, some conversations in his bar-refuge in Manhattan would have disabused him of them, conversations with people whose ruggedness would never help them climb anywhere.
Does this, the effects of my “education,” begin to sound socialistic? Wrong construction!—for if it is so its ancestor was Benjamin Disraeli’s “Tory socialism.” H had long before retirement from the academy become a possibly now-irrelevant kind of conservative—and I herewith retire H himself, as I no longer feel the need for a distance.
Wrong construction, I said. There is something perverse about labeling fairly ancient New Deal-like measures with the scare word “socialistic,” since they have become non-controversial not only for Democrats and Independents but registered and non-registered Republican voters as well, minus a loud minority of reactionary ideologues. They have become, that is, a part of the gift from the past to the present that is to be conserved! The essential difference between a conservative and a liberal disposition with respect to “welfare” (to have a convenient shorthand) is that conservatively disposed people desire a temporary safety net for the destitute and the marginal and a public respect for those entitlements necessary for the pursuit of the good life, while people possessed of a habitual liberalism reject the idea of a temporary net as small-minded and grudging, unaware that they thereby encourage the creation of a permanent class of the destitute and marginal.
Back in the days of my education, I identified myself as a social democrat and felt myself to be conservative, although not a conservative. I thought that socialists of democratic persuasion were more likely to champion the conserving of traditional virtues, art, culture, than people who identified themselves as conservative, most of whom I thought were really more interested in preserving laissez-faire capitalism and the bottom profit line. . . art, culture, tradition be damned. And, although my judgement was to a degree ideologically driven, I wasn’t wrong: men like Irving Howe and others associated with Dissent were cultivated intellectuals who wanted to save culture from the bottom line, profitability be damned.
In the meantime I grew weary of thinking myself a man of the Left, partly the old story of growing more conservative with age, but also because the people, outside of a small intellectual enclave who embraced the Left at least rhetorically, tended to find less meaning in the old social-democratic values and more thrill in the brave inanities of identity politics—with which H was so familiar—very much like the people (and often the same) who now tend to be thugs and/or vulgarians with neckties who want to tear down traditional symbols of the past such as monuments of those figures from the past who were not fortunate enough to possess the enlightened views of the thugs.
So, if I became disenchanted with the Left, why not a thorough embrace of the Right, which calling myself a “possibly now-irrelevant kind of conservative” does not seem to suggest? Because so-called “conservatives” considered by themselves and others to be now-relevant are more or less defined by their un-ambiguous and loving embrace of laissez-faire capitalism, in spite of the fact that no system is as destructive of traditions and is therefore hardly conservative, as the philosopher Michael Novak admitted years ago while defending it in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. And while I pragmatically accept capitalism and do not wish to submit myself to socialist economics I can hardly define my conservatism by a celebration: Irving Kristol got my applause when he entitled a book Two Cheers for Capitalism instead of 300-plus hurrahs.
The word conservatism, it seems to me, has been debased in multiple ways since it was used by Peter Viereck (Conservatism Revisited), Russell Kirk (The Conservative Mind), and Clinton Rossiter (Conservatism in America), men of broad culture and unpredictable opinions. Often now—perhaps most often now—it is used to describe the libertarian persuasion, which to my mind would be better called libertarian confusion: nominal libertarians don’t seem to know whether they follow the “Austrian school” economics of Friedrich Hayek or the right-wing anarchism (or anarcho-capitalism) of Murray Rothbard, neither of whom claimed the mantle of conservative. Kirk refused to sit “cheek by jowl” with libertarians, and were I invited to pull up a chair (not very likely), I would prefer to stretch out on a couch. The claimed conservatism of enthusiasts for laissez-faire strikes me as only a putative conservatism, the enthusiasts themselves only “put-cons.” My conservatism is rather the traditionalist variety, Viereck’s and Rossiter’s and Kirk’s embrace of “the permanent things” (although they quarreled intramurally over details) deriving ultimately from Edmund Burke’s philosophy and akin to Michael Oakeshott’s and having less to do with economic arrangements and more to do with culture and cultural arrangements, and nothing whatsoever to do with an anarchic dismissal or dwarfing of government, Ayn Rand lite.
I haven’t voted for a Democrat since the party sold its soul to protect Bill Clinton from impeachment. I can’t register Independent because (my apologies to some friends) I understand the designation to mean too-dumb-to-make-up-one’s-mind. This leaves me a reluctant Republican, which party receives my vote, sometimes, for no economic reason whatsoever, but in appreciation for an aggressive foreign policy, and to express my contempt for a liberalism which Robert Frost characterized so exactly when he said a liberal was a person too fair-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.
If this sounds rather negative, I am not through yet. While traditional conservatism means to me a reverence for the past, the centrality of the Judaeo-Christian faiths, the traditional definition of marriage, a trust in the “small platoons” as Burke put it, a preference for slow change over revolutionary wrenchings, an insistence on the transcendent value of cultural achievements and the life of the mind, the inviolability of private property distinct from corporate power, and—for the sake of some brevity—all the other “permanent things”. . . it also means—now turning negative—an occasionally respectful resistance, lock, stock, and barrel, to the sordid temptation that liberalism has become. In Rationalism in Politics (the title is not pro-!) Oakeshott defines a conservative briefly thus: “The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.” C’est moi. Or as Nathaniel Hawthorne had it in The House of Seven Gables, while it is true that “The world owes all its inward impulse to men ill at ease,” which unease carries no political identity of any brand, “The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits.”
So much for liberalism, but a word more for the libertarian temptation: the pure laissez-faire arrangement it promises with such confidence is only “an unknown better.”
One could not think of this stuff constantly, H found. Many socialists had worried about the expenditure of time in the co-operative commonwealth. Just as much time could be spent contemplating the absence of such a commonwealth. So one would like occasionally to think of other things, would like that freedom from the cares of necessity, that ease of mind and invitation to the soul, that made the Prettywells so gracious. Now settled in an acceptable dwelling beside a lake, lovely views, the good life beckoning, H would then turn to that realm of experience outside economic worry, budgeting, fluctuations of the market.
There was a record, an old RCA, he wanted to obtain to share with his beloved—H all aglow knowing how much she would love it. He called several libraries in his and adjoining towns: No. Record shops: No, sorry, that’s out of print, try the second-hand places. When next in the city he tried some: No. He called several branches of the public library and found one in one of the boroughs which held it. But they held it: Sorry, sir, but that can’t be checked out; I don’t know why but that’s our policy. It’s because it’s out of print, H guessed, but hell, books you check out are out of print. A few months later, looking for something else, he did find it in a second-hand shop in New York. “How much did you say?” he shuddered. “Well now, there aren’t too many of those around. Supply and demand, ya’ know, but let ya’ have it cheap. That goes for near two hundred bucks.”
But what’s the good life without beauty? So . . . economies, like the laws of economics, be damned. H bought it.
Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
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