Some years ago I was ill with a strange nausea that for several weeks refused to get better or worse, but simply sapped my will and energy. It seemed as if it rained every day and all day during that time. I spent hour after long, gray hour in bed, like someone with a mysterious “wasting disease,” as such undiagnosed ailments were once called. I had no idea what was wrong with me, but I had no job, and no money for doctors.
One afternoon the New Yorker came. I wasn’t sure why it arrived on my doorstep, as I couldn’t remember ordering it, but I was glad to get it. I was longing for something which would engage my attention without meaning that I had to get out of bed. My extreme lethargy was appalling to me, but it literally made me sick to move about much, or even to think about moving.
As I lay in bed and leafed through the magazine, which in and out of my intellectual life had been some sort of benchmark for it for at least two decades, I was very conscious, suddenly, of entering a world that I remembered as once seeming wide and seamless as the world itself, and that I now found, in all its staid presumption, to be highly circumscribed and narrowly defined. It had almost nothing to do with what I had come to perceive as the truth of my own experience. The New Yorker, I realized, was not a magazine so much as the distillation of a very particular culture.
This in and of itself was no major revelation. But my feelings about it were contradictory and somehow related to the nature of what ailed me then, and ails me still, if not physically then psychologically, even spiritually.
What astounded me was the complete fantasy at the core of the New Yorker worldview, the unshakeable assumption of the fundamental truth of an illusion. And also, how attractive this enclosed world was to me, because it was a known quantity. It was unquestionably the world of the old “liberal elite.” Its mythology, secular humanism, is one I grew up steeped in and surrounded by. Its believers suggest, without ever overtly boasting, that within its boundaries lie all that is reasonable, elegant, insightful and just, i.e., all that is truly real. Accordingly, the impoverishment, cruelty, isolation and rage that I see grimacing out of so many exhausted faces on every street, are not the defining parameters of our society. They are not the real world.
The real world, according to the New Yorker, is the world of concepts, the struggle of the soul of man to express itself in art, or commerce—or one of the boundary worlds between the two, like fashion or cinema–or politics or science or some field of endeavor. It is a quiet, sunlit world of cottages on the Long Island shore and travel in Europe (look at the ads). It is peopled at the center by comfortable educated persons ensconced in the Western tradition but firmly believing they are possessed of open, enquiring minds. Though it prides itself on skepticism and inquiry, this mindset retains a number of unspoken preconceptions: totalitarianism (i.e. what used to be the ruling system in the former Soviet Union) is evil by nature; western civilization is flawed but basically good; other cultures are generally primitive or strange, but often have aspects of grandeur and mystery which serve primarily to enrich “our” culture and understanding. Personal income is not relevant to an individual’s ability to perform, unless it is excessively large or small. Political or socially engaged art is de facto inferior art. Class, as an institutional, structural, economic and political fundament of society does not exist, at least in this country, and is of fairly minor relevance even in more overtly stratified societies. The U.S. government functions as mediator among a variety of conflicting interests, not a mere servant of the interests of a powerful elite. Or it did when “we” were running it. Whenever that was.
I could pull an article or review out of any issue of the New Yorker at random and find examples of one or more of these ideas in it. I remember that the particular issue I received that afternoon was rich with them. I first read a long, glowing article on the life and work of James Merrill, a great American poet recently dead. I knew little of his work, and yet several poems of his encountered serendipitously have stayed with me as lovely evocations, in shimmering, opalescent language, of a particular moment or truth. As a man, he seems to have embodied the ideals of the liberal elite, to have been an example of all that it sees as noble, vibrant and great in itself. He was the son of Charles Merrill, one of the founders of Merrill Lynch (now, of course, in this moment of roosting chickens, as defunct as the Soviet Union). His family was phenomenally wealthy, but he himself was apparently not obsessed with money, though he did not reject it either. He and his male lover lived for many years in a cottage on the Long Island shore and on a hilltop in Greece; he was generous and witty and loyal to his friends and produced some of America’s best poetry. It was not once mentioned, in this long, comprehensive piece, whether James Merrill ever held a job.
I felt a great sense of longing when I read about his life, for, freed from the constraints of livelihood which continually oppress so many talented people, he dedicated himself to his art and excelled at it, and he seems not to have been perverse or cruel or tormented or isolated (stereotypical artistic “types”) but warm and happy and human. He embodied that liberal argument which says: “money is really irrelevant; it’s what’s inside that counts.” Ironically, his life was actually proof that the only circumstance in which money is truly irrelevant is when one is privileged to have enough of it (and not to want more than enough). The point is not that art cannot be created out of poverty–historically, far more art, even great art, I would venture to say, has been created by poor artists than by wealthy ones. The real point, in my view, is that James Merrill got by accident of birth what all human souls ought to have by right. His inherited affluence gave him freedom from physical hardship, from having to sell his labor for another’s benefit, freedom to live his life in pursuit of his dreams, loves and, in his case, deep insights about human nature and life itself. Not everyone has his talent. But I cannot see that creative excellence, or any particular strength of character, should be offered to justify the fact that his freedom and comfort is humanity’s exception, not its rule.
There were other representative articles in the issue: a weak defense of affirmative action (the classic liberal “it’s not great but it’s better than the alternative” argument), and a film review complaining predictably about an entertainment which weakened itself, in the reviewer’s view, by trying to convey some kind of social message.
The most striking thing about the whole experience of reading the New Yorker that day was my extreme sense of cognitive dissonance. The tolerant, liberal, economically privileged social group which even now continues, in the teeth of the last decade of reaction, to promote its views in these glossy, colorful mouthpieces as central, firmly established and omnipresent is, according to my knowledge of this society and several others, not only marginal and irrelevant to most of the beings on the planet, but actually under threat of extinction here in the U.S., the Obama campaign notwithstanding. The creepy shotgun marriage between Christian and market fundamentalisms that has been in our faces for the last eight years is so mired in its own mind-boggling contradictions right now that if U.S. liberalism—including its specious race-blindness—were not also so thoroughly and understandably discredited and on the ropes, for reasons Thomas Frank, among others, has had the insight to explain to us, the polls would be running 80%-20% in Obama’s favor.
The society we live in now is openly fragmented into economically stratified classes and dozens, if not hundreds, of culturally distinct groups that utterly distrust one another, with some good reason. These groupings have few shared interests or passions (“…how ‘bout those Red Sox?”) Our social dividedness goes still deeper, because economic classes do not unite across cultural lines, nor cultures across lines of class. The middle class where all our vaunted melting was supposed to happen has been shrinking every year for at least the last ten. Thus all illusion vanishes of an educated, sophisticated and tolerant liberal bastion being some sort of societal center of gravity.
With it, in my case, vanishes my upbringing and most of the traditions and precepts in which I was educated, in those soon-to-be-hazily remembered boom years of the 20th century. Since maturity I have lived in parts of the world where most people live as most people do everywhere, that is, bound nearly hand and foot by the political, economic and ethnic circumstances of their birth. I have seen that the true norm for the majority of the planet’s human inhabitants is not spaciousness, physical comfort and quiet ratiocination, but vibrant and desperate daily struggles with the severe, imposed limitations of their lives. My cognitive center has long vanished, that world of soi-disant reason, beauty, knowledge of human frailty but faith in human progress. It now seems a quaint, fading Victorian place, out of one of the costume dramas that are such a popular component of the bland PBS programming favored by old-style liberals. (Actually, except for their lack of local fashion and gossip, public television and radio could be seen as some kind of audiovisual equivalent of the New Yorker.)
I realized back then that my liberal birth culture had become inadequate to the times we were entering, and have been living in since. It did not provide sufficient strength for me to function, much less accomplish in the world, once its falsely optimistic unities were gone. It did not supply the conceptual tools I needed to survive outside its shrinking boundaries, in the vicious glare of the rapidly-collapsing but determined-to-take you-with-it-when-it-goes New World Order.
I’m not the first to say that liberalism’s fundamental conceptual flaw is its pretentious dismissal of class-based socio-economic analysis. Such analysis, liberalism implies, lacks any relevance to matters of the human spirit. Historically it has only produced the theoretical basis for totalitarianism. The liberal view, by refusing in this way to accept any explanation for oppression beyond flaws in the individual human character, is no match for the easy vicious demagoguery that has fueled reaction. In fact it plays right into it: the only reason for terrorism, for example, becomes the existence of evil people called terrorists, and evil people need no rights, no justification, no context. Nor does liberalism offer any balm to the spirit wounded and trapped in the enormous machineries of power. In our time, as this machinery, utterly unfettered, demands ever more resources to maintain, throwing more lives into dislocation and suffering, liberalism’s analysis is so inadequate that the situation is a fun-house mirror version of the end of socialism in Orwell’s Animal Farm: on the most fundamental issues of the day, you can look from “liberal” candidate to “conservative” candidate and find it impossible to tell which is which.
The voice of class-based analysis is one still perceived in the liberal mindset to be too shrill, too didactic, too “divisive” for the symposium of rational discourse. Certain passions are allowed to inspire meaningful action and thought in the liberal worldview; anger is not one of them. Yet a deep, abiding anger at injustice does inform much class analysis. This anger is tolerantly seen as misguided and counterproductive by liberal rationalism. This is another reason why old-style liberalism is so completely out of step with and inadequate to the times. If there is one thing characteristic of public discourse in the U.S. today, from politicians to call-in shows to “real life” television, it is anger. It is rage that rankles and simmers and explodes, and much of it is anger at injustices real or perceived. Denying this anger any real, systemic reason for existing is a serious failing of any conceptual system. In the face of verbal and physical terrorism by populist reactionaries, as in the face of radical social upheaval among marginalized groups, the liberal response is to bleat for some sort of institutional mediation, as if class warfare could be mitigated by a combination of legislation, policing and therapy. (Outside the U.S., class war is of course to be waged with troops in arms, but not in the “angry” way those right-wingers do it.)
Tarring all anger as destructive and misinformed is simply wrongheaded. It is as misguided as it would be to stigmatize all desire, all pain. These emotions carry truth, and can be creative, transformational forces, if the person who feels them has an understanding of her society’s fundamental mechanisms and her relation to them.
I have been reflecting as I look back on those rainy days in bed with the New Yorker that perhaps my unidentifiable nausea was more than just a strain of super-flu. For weeks I lay huddled under blankets in a damp, cold, disintegrating tenement, paid for during my unemployment by a companion who was never there because he was working three separate ill-paying jobs. Without the deus ex machina of a lottery win, we had little hope of ever being able to improve our economic situation beyond subsistence. I felt eerily dissociated from the society that surrounded me. I felt as if my power to shape my own destiny were being sapped, drawn from me in direct proportion to my increasing alienation. All I could hear around me was the generalized mutterings of unfocused and barely suppressed rage, as the privileged continued to raise the already impossible ante in their loaded game against the poor, and the poor fought and howled at and destroyed one another in their despair. Now, so many years later, even with market fundamentalism’s program in an utter shambles, no election contest between two equally discredited liberalisms, old-style and neo- seems likely to change that scenario.
As I put the New Yorker aside that day, it seemed bizarre to me that so much effort and money were expended to maintain so foundationless and irrelevant a world. But to this moment it remains a very necessary illusion to those (increasingly) privileged (and increasingly) few who can afford to maintain it. In that vast sphere outside its orderly little gated square, where most of life actually happens for most people, inchoate and incalculable struggles rage.