Upstate

I’m spending a month in the Catskills with my girlfriend—it was her idea!—and so far, so good. Last night we were in Callicoon, on the Delaware River, eating great burgers, but mostly we just grill whatever animal spills from the freezer before noon.

We eat breakfast over the electronic Times, then go to work—OK, she works all goddamn day, she’s on a deadline, I just fuck around on Facebook for a while and maybe try to write the memoir—and then (when?) we take a walk around the lake that anchors the tiny borough of Smallwood, New York, founded in 1928 as a gated community reserved for Christian Caucasians. There are still covenants in the deeds, but there are only 566 residents and 129 households left here, according to the 2000 Census.

It’s a landlocked island worthy of anthropological attention. Its residents are marooned right now, because 300,000 Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish Caucasians from Brooklyn are taking their summer vacations right here, in Sullivan County, a desperately poor place that, like most of upstate New York, looks to have been abandoned right around 1973.

Does that number sound outlandish or inflated? In the 1950s, it was three times that large, because, according to the Catskills Institute run by Professor Phil Brown of Northeastern University—c’mon, could I make that up?—“more than a million [Jewish] people inhabited the summer world of bungalow colonies, summer camps and small hotels.” Remember the big hotels, Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s (where Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, and Leo Spinks trained), the Concord?  They’re gone, but the bungalows remain.

Therein lies a political problem.  Or is it ethical?  In the last few years, certain townships have stirred local movements in Sullivan County to limit the building, even the maintenance, of the bungalow colonies where the Jews vacation. (There are 100 Orthodox summer camps in this county.) The logic is impeccable. The Jews mean more summer spending, to be sure, but less room for aesthetically pleasing apartments to house all the people clamoring to live here year round, even when it snows four feet and the only paying job in town is plowing it for the Public Works Department.

Sullivan County, like most places colonized by gambling, whether on the horses or the cards, is, empirically speaking, a desolate place, unless you think that Nature is something like the parents you wanted, a benign presence that let you live your own life, not reproduce theirs. Trees thrive here, but little else. Climate change notwithstanding, there are more of them in these parts than there were in 1916, or in 1816, because when human beings leave, the residual flora and fauna reassert their claims to the land.

Get off NY 17—future Interstate 86, there’s a kind of progress for you—toward the racetrack in Monticello, or yet further, to Smallwood and other vacation “resorts,” and you will find nothing open on 17B except antique stores and gas stations, the mini-marts where beer, aspirin, condoms, and potato chips are the featured items because every customer is presumably headed for that ideal one-night stand. Between Monticello and Smallwood, not even the strip club is open, although the Help Wanted sign still stands. (And who among us would not want to fill out the application form?)

Nobody shops in Monticello, the once-quaint little town six miles down the road from Smallwood, because there’s nothing left to buy, or rather no stores to sell what you might want or need to buy, except for the quiet CVS on East Broadway. Instead, everybody goes to the Shop-Rite and the Walmart on Route 42, between Exits 104 and 105 off NY 17, future Interstate 86.

In these places, you will feel the hustle and the bustle of the city—you will feel a seething, almost athletic energy—because these are the places where the young men and women, whether Orthodox or Hasidic, can have some fun. Otherwise they’re studying Talmud or caring for their siblings.

We hit the Shop-Rite on Friday night about 6:00, July 1, having already stopped at the Costco in Clifton, NJ. The lines at the registers here in Monticello looked like a mosh pit except that nobody was high, happy, or horizontal. It was the weekend of the 4th, a hallowed secular holiday, so the locals were stocking up on beer, painkillers, and ice—these items are always at the top of my list—but it was also almost Shabbas, a real holiday, and the sun was going down, so the vacationers were stocking up on . . . bottled water. It was bedlam because everybody knew the rules, and didn’t care. I certainly didn’t. Macy’s on Black Friday? I’ve been there, and this was far worse.

My girlfriend is a real shopper—she pays attention to the prices and the possibilities.  (I just buy shit.)  She was dismayed by the crowd, but not daunted, or rather panicked, as I was. When I said, “I gotta get outta here, this is making me crazy,” she said, “We will, calm down, buy some beer, and find the whole milk.” I didn’t calm down, but I accomplished the other assigned tasks. I bought a lot of beer.

On our return to Smallwood—we had unloaded our city cargo and then gone back to the Shop-Rite—I apologized to my girlfriend for being insanely impatient, seething in my own unathletic way.   She was uncharacteristically diplomatic. She said, “Well, that was a scene.”

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Unhappy 4th of July

The new intellectual fashion on the academic Left, which makes as much sense as mascara on nostril hair, is to argue that when the founders declared American independence, they were heading off “domestic insurrection”—the possibility of slave revolts, and with them the possibility that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration itself was not written with all men in mind, you see, nor intended to include them, but was meant to apply only to white men.

Quite apart from what I think of this newly fashionable argument, the fact is that it’s not even new.

As Abraham Lincoln reminded his audiences, the notion that the Declaration excluded black folk became the stock-in-trade of slaveholders and white supremacists—for example, Senators Alexander Stephens of Georgia and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—only after 1854, when the question of slavery became the central issue in American politics.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read Robert G. Parkinson’s op-ed in today’s 4th of July Times. This professor’s serene confidence in the unproven assumption that the founders were downright afraid of equality and inclusion—this confidence makes me think he’ll be celebrating today by lecturing his family and friends on why he won’t be going to see the fireworks. Here’s an excerpt.

“For more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights. . . .

“The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. . . . We like to excuse the founders from this [idea of racial fear and exclusion], to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. . . . [my italics]

“All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution—and lots did—were no match against the idea that they were all ‘merciless savages’ and ‘domestic insurrectionists.’ . . . Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.”

Actually, this notion comes not from the founders, but from later interpretations of the Declaration and Constitution, from jurists and politicians who feared the ideological implications of these documents—from people like John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, and Alexander Stephens. And now, from people like Professor Parkinson, who need, for reasons only their shrink can explain, to believe that the founders had no stake and no interest in universal rights or in equality.

The founders meant “that bit” about equality. We know this because they passed Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance, which barred slavery from those trans-Appalachian territories that weren’t already settled, in 1784 and again in 1789.. It was the slaveholders and the white supremacists who insisted that black folk had no part in the founding, and that the equality of all men was a self-evident lie. Et tu, Professor Parkinson?

Lincoln got it right. Before 1854, no one except Calhoun could get away with saying that the Declaration applied only to white men. Here’s how he put it, in debate with Douglas.

“I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Indpendence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence; I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any president ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation.” (Charleston)

Lincoln wasn’t naïve about the meaning or the scope of equality, in 1776 or in 1858. Here’s what he said about it in the last debate with Douglas.

“Allow me, while upon this subject, briefly to present one other extract from a speech of mine, made more than a year ago, at Springfield, in discussing this very same question, soon after Judge Douglas took his ground that negroes were not included in the Declaration of Independence:

“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all and revered by all — constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated; and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” (Alton)

This nation is always in need of a new birth of freedom—something else that Lincoln got right, in speaking about an epic battle that the Union Army won on the eve of the 4th of July, in 1863. But its founders knew that liberty couldn’t survive the end of equality, and they—Jefferson included—hoped that slavery was in the course of ultimate extinction when they declared their independence.

The new intellectual fashion on the academic Left—to assert without evidence that the founders intended to exclude black folk from the promise of the Declaration—is at least ironic, because it exhumes arguments once made by slaveholders and white supremacists before the Civil War. But irony presupposes a capacity to understand tragedy. This new fashion begins and ends as farce.

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Businessmen and Reform

Citizens United (2010) was a watershed, to be sure, because it abolished the long-standing legal distinction between a natural person and a corporate person—the distinction the Supreme Court had sustained since Santa Clara (1886), which designated corporations “persons” as per the second clause of the 14th Amendment, thus affording them substantive rather than procedural rights of due process at the law.

The specious premise of the Citizens United decision was that money spent by corporate persons is the equivalent of speech acts made by natural persons—as if noise were music. Only penitent men in purgatory like Antonin Scalia can appreciate the simple fact, and the great irony, that this premise repudiated the “original intent” of the founders, which, in James Madison’s phrasing, meant balancing the “two cardinal objects of Government,“ the rights of persons and the rights of property. Madison spent his entire adult life trying to extricate the American polity from the mistakes of previous republics, ancient and modern, which “sacrificed the poor to the rich”—his words—by assuming that the rights of property were paramount.

Now, corporations are old news. You could say that the USA is a country created by corporations. The European invasion of North America was led, after all, by the Massachusetts Bay Co. and the Virginia Co.

But their sentimental and political significance was magnified in the 19th century, as the courts and the electorate woke up to the power of concentrated wealth. This awakening reached its apogee in the 1890s, when the Populist Revolt overlapped with a fiercely anti-corporate majority on the Supreme Court (the Harlan majority of 1897-1911, which ignored the “rule of reason,” that is, the common law distinction between lawful and unlawful combinations in restraint of trade).

Still, corporations as we know them are specific to the very late-19th century, when they were no longer chartered by states for specific public purposes—and, more important, when they spread from railroads and extractive industries to manufacturing. By then businessmen could consolidate their enterprises for just about any purpose without much supervision by state governments. The New Jersey statute of 1889, written by James B. Dill, a New York investment banker, was the template and the incentive. 80% of the 500 new industrial corporations created in the great merger wave of 1898-1904 (still the largest) were chartered in New Jersey.

II

The American Left has identified itself as anti-corporate since then, and has been incapable, accordingly, of understanding how businessmen would be interested in reform, then as now. It has ignored Marx’s copious remarks on the matter, and, if I may, it has also dismissed my explanation of why corporate executives wrote the signature legislation of the Progressive Era, including the Food & Drug Act, the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Trade Commission—all of which created a new role for the federal government in regulating commerce and subordinating economic forces, including the market power of corporations, to social goals.

Marx first. In volume 3 of Capital, he emphatically claimed that the convergence of modern credit—banking as we know it, everybody using other people’s money—and modern corporations made for a new, socialized mode of production. The corporation accomplished “the abolition of capital as private property within the boundaries of capitalist production itself.” The historical standard Marx used to measure this epochal change was the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I’m not going to quote him yet again: see the Kerr edition, volume 3, pp. 516-19, or just wander around in chapters 27-32. The point is that Marx glimpsed the transition from capitalism to socialism in the rise of the corporation.

Now me. I have argued that capitalists were losing the class struggle of the late-19th century, in the US at least, where the scope of that struggle was wider, deeper, and more consequential than in Europe, and that they resorted to the legal device of the corporation as their salvation. The larger regulation and reform of the market was the alternative to subaltern triumph. Businessmen weren’t co-opting anybody, they were saving themselves. They invented the industrial corporation as the means to that end. Their question was not whether but how to reinvent the market so that its civilizing content might be sustained. But they did meanwhile sentence themselves to social death by separating ownership and control of corporate assets—just as the landed nobles of England did when they handed control of agricultural production over to rent-paying commoners in the 15th and 16th centuries.

III

Since 1898, businessmen are reform, in other words. They want to keep up with the times because if they don’t, they lose market share. Their “brand” suffers. But these truths apply most stringently, most consistently, to retail enterprise. A consumer backlash against or boycott of, say, a manufacturer of construction equipment is improbable, even inconceivable, because that manufacturer is selling his product to contractors, not to consumers.

Notice, then, that the more the economy is driven by consumer demand rather than investment decisions—as the Eastern European economists of the 1950s put it, when growth becomes intensive rather than extensive—the more reformist businessmen will tend to be. To the extent that consumers can amplify their demands via social media, whether mimeographed manifestoes or Facebook, this reformist imperative becomes unavoidable, no matter how politically backward these businessmen may be in person.

The new corporations invented at the turn of the last century socialized property and goods production, and led the way toward an intensive model of growth which grants priority to consumers rather than investors in deciding the shape of the future. In this sense, the legal device we call the corporation is something to be deciphered, not denounced as such. Its political valence is totally unpredictable.

James Surowiecki of The New Yorker captures that mystery in his recent column on corporate opposition to LGBT legislation in North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. He notes that executives from more than 80 companies signed a letter to the governor of North Carolina protesting the law he recently signed which would allocate bathroom privileges according to gender declared on birth certificates. The corporations ready to leave these three states include Disney, GE, Pepsi, Dow, Lionsgate, and PayPal.

Surowiecki also ponders the implications. Here’s the key passage:

“The emergence of companies as social activists is complicating traditional attitudes on both the left and the right. Progressives have long complained of corporate influence over government policy. They’ve pilloried companies that threaten to move operations in order to extract favors from state legislatures; they’ve attacked the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council for its role in drafting a slew of pro-business state laws; they’ve called for overturning Citizens United. Now, though, progressives are confronted with a situation where [corporate] meddling with the legislative process and overriding popular opinion seems desirable.” (my italics)

Which is to say that social justice and majority rule are now at odds, at least in these states—and that the monetized voice of large corporations here speaks on behalf of justice, not majority rule. The Jim Crow South was ruled by majorities, after all, and they sacrificed justice on the altar of white supremacy. Do the interests of the Left now intersect with the voice monetized by Citizens United? That’s Surowiecki’s real question—the bottom line.

IV

Democracy prevails where the rights of persons and the rights of property converge—where state power is justified by the consent of the governed. But the practical embodiment of consent is public opinion. So, to ignore or override it is to discard democracy in favor of rule by the well-educated, the well-informed, and the wealthy, who must know better than the rest of us—you know who I mean, all those philosopher kings and queens from Harvard or Yale. To pay attention to public opinion it is to know that in a modern society, persuasion, not power, is the fulcrum of political change. “He who molds public opinion goes deeper than he who makes or enacts statutes,” as Lincoln put it.

Progressives, as we now call them, have always been willing to challenge public opinion, from the abolitionists of the 1830s to the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s. The question Surowiecki raises is more fundamental. Are they willing to make a pact with the devil to override it?

But that question raises two others. Can corporate persons be admitted into a body politic that defines itself as democratic? And, more urgently, is the Left itself committed to democracy, or is it willing to override public opinion in the name of better, scientific knowledge? The first question boils down to whether money is a form of protected speech specific to the corporate person. The Court said no until Citizens United. As late as Bellotti (!978), the most-cited precedent of the 2010 decision, the justices held that precisely because the monetary resources of corporations were both greater and more variegated than individuals—stockholders, those natural persons, have conflicting political views—their expenditures for political purposes could not be protected by the 1st Amendment as if they were unitary, natural persons speaking their minds in public.

The second question boils down to whether public opinion and majority rule are inviolable principles of democratic governance. A majority of money is no better than a majority of numbers or weapons, or a preponderance of intelligence, in the attainment of democracy. The Left rightly rejects Citizens United and its corollaries on these grounds. But how to make majorities that are not themselves undemocratic—the kind that reflect public opinion and yet lead directly to oppression?

And these questions leave us with the larger one of how to define democracy as such. I am one of those historians who think that the prospects of social democracy have improved since the rise of corporate capitalism, ca. 1890-1930. In other words, I think the Populists weren’t our last best hope. I think the cultural and political ferment of this period let us imagine the selves and the societies we can now demand without apology. The corporation was and is at the very center of our imagining, not least because it was and is an “artificial person”—something like ourselves, what we can remake in the image of the future we want.

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Nice Day at the Hoover Institution

I

Well, it happened—I met Harvey Mansfield, Christina Hoff Sommers, and William Kristol at the Hoover Institution’s outpost in Washington, D.C., courtesy of my girlfriend. She was invited to give a talk at an event that celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Harvey’s Manliness (Yale UP) because she has debated him before, and wrote about this very debate in MEN: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation. I went along for the ride.

It was an interesting and strangely edifying day. And it ended with the most spectacular dinner at an Argentine restaurant called Rural Society. No menu choices, family style common dishes, everyone awash in a rising sea of wine—despite what you may have heard about the supply side, in D.C. it’s alcohol that lifts all boats, not tax cuts.

First course: ensalada arugula, roasted red peppers with eggplant and anchovies, beef and spinach empanadas. Second: Snake River Wagu (the generic origin of Kobe beef), garlic whipped potatoes, wood-grilled mushrooms. Third: dulce de leche plus flan, on a spoon. Simple, rustic, extraordinary.

At one point, to my girlfriend’s obvious chagrin, I loudly ordered more Wagu because my end of the table had eaten most of the original serving—six Oliver Twists at the other end were pleading for more.

II

The two panels at the event proper were interesting in very different ways. The first featured Sommers and my girlfriend sparring about what Mansfield calls a “gender-neutral society”—in which putative natural differences between the sexes are denied or effaced by feminism and its policy-relevant armature. After Sommers argued that such differences are indeed natural—if not, where are the women among the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley?—Kipnis explained at length that gender difference isn’t the issue. Of course there are differences, she said, but to assume that they’re natural is to leave gender hierarchies unexamined and in place.

We don’t live in a gender-neutral society, Kipnis continued, not by a long shot. We live in a society that bends or blends genders, often in and through the market, so that choices about where you identify on the spectrum are constantly multiplying. Why can’t conservatives embrace this bending and blending as one more dimension of those free markets they admire, rather than insist that male and female—manliness and femininity—are the only available choices?

But on it went, the repeated assertion that natural (binary) differences are denied by current feminist regimes, to the detriment of manliness, masculinity, civilization, and good sex. Sommers cited William James from “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910) in passing, to demonstrate that old Will, a progressive and a socialist in his time, was someone desperate to preserve the “masculine virtues” without resort to war. She was on her way to praising John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women (1869) as the manifesto we deep thinkers need in our time to keep the feminist barbarians at the gate.

In the Q & A, I pointed out that Mill was one of James’s heroes, but he nonetheless criticized that epochal book for denying any differences between males and females, or rather for insisting that the ideal marriage would consist of an identity of interests between husband and wife—oh, and that sex was insignificant, in marriage or out. Sommers waved off this Jamesian critique of Mill, which I have argued is the founding gesture of the entire corpus, in “Hamlet, James, and the Woman Question,” Chapter 5 of my Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy (2001).

The denial of difference is, of course, a signature feature of liberal opposition to modern feminism and black nationalism (think affirmative action), both of which are animated by the assumption that neither women nor black folk want to treat white males—the “man of reason” posited by western philosophy and the common law—as their standard of achievement or comportment. Everybody denies that they’re denying difference, except the critics of liberal individualism who don’t claim to be conservatives.

III

The second panel concluded with William Kristol’s dramatic reading of the preface to Manliness. It could have been stand-up hilarious, but Bill was clearly feeling pedagogical. He wanted to explain political philosophy in the Straussian/Mansfield mood, by parsing every other sentence, as if close reading would convince us of the truth in the method. Since there’s nothing new about the method—ask Harvey—it was a mysterious moment.

Then Harvey himself spoke for about 35 minutes. Here again he invoked the supposed natural differences between males and females to cast doubt on a feminism that would deny them, and accordingly deform both men and women. But what he seems to have ignored or forgotten is that the goal of a gender-neutral society is not the erasure of difference—sameness is not the point. Unless we’re different, equality, the absence of hierarchy, can’t be something we could want, because then we’d all be alike. Who would then be able to care about equality? Mansfield fears this state of sameness, but it’s not where we are, and it’s not what feminists want.

The puzzling thing about the proceedings was the role of Nature in making them incoherent. On the one hand, it served as a fixed, external reality that can be violated, but only at the expense of intellectual order and political stability. That’s the legacy of ancient political philosophy, natural law theory, medieval theology, and Straussian method. The conservative critique of a world without differences between males and females is grounded in this idea of what Nature must be.

On the other hand, it served as the fixed, external reality that these Aristotelians cannot abide—the dead universe of matter measured by modern science, the objective place where laws of motion hold. “Manly nihilism” derives directly from the Darwinian disenchantment of Nature, according to Mansfield, and leads directly to Nietzschean excess, then on toward Jamesian, pragmatic acquiescence.

You can’t have it both ways. Or rather, you can, but then you’ve stopped making sense to anybody who doesn’t already share your schizophrenic attitude toward modernity.

IV

Things got more interesting after Harvey’s talk, at the reception that preceded the dinner in Argentina. My girlfriend and I are just waiting around, hoping to get going, when this very large manly man approaches her and says “I got a question for you.” I think immediately of Paul Newman and Richard Boone in Hombre (“How you gonna get down that hill?”), and realize that I might eventually have to intervene. Not to save a damsel in distress, just to assuage my irritation at the guy’s aggressive assertiveness—his manliness, as Harvey would say.

“Why is it that American women are so ideological? You can’t talk to them, I mean I’ve been all over the world and talked to a lot of women, believe me, but here you just get into an argument. Why is that?”

“Because we have more choices?” Kipnis says. “More resources? Are you complaining that women have more power here?”

“They just want to argue about everything, why? Women don’t argue with you in Africa.”

I leave to get a drink because I think I might have to break a glass on this guy’s forehead. When I get back with a beer, he’s kind of cave-man crouched and he’s saying “Just answer the question.” I’m thinking she’s gonna gut this Neanderthal with a plastic knife, but instead she says, “No,” then turns and leaves, to join another conversation. Just like that.

“You see what I mean,” the large manliness says to me, “she just walked away, she won’t answer the question.”

“It’s a stupid question,” I say, “No reason to answer it, I don’t even understand it, and why do you get to control the fucking conversation? Because you don’t like feminism?”

“You academics are all alike,” he says, “You don’t want an argument.”

“About what? Say something I understand, I’ll argue with you. Say something interesting for God’s sake. You want to explain ‘Nature’ to me, as Harvey speaks it? It makes no sense, either way he goes with it.”

“Like I said, you’re all alike. Have a nice life.” He leaves.

I drove him away, what a nice feeling it was. For just a few seconds before then, I thought he’d get all assertively manly and attempt a physical assault on my person—that’s probably the masochistic homosexual in me talking—but I was prepared for this possibility.

And there’s the really interesting thing. I am surely the least manly man Harvey Mansfield has ever met, because I’m a Marxist and a nihilist and a pragmatist and a feminist, but I’m usually ready for a fight—notice, I did not say fisticuffs. On second thought, this wouldn’t have been a fair fight. He would have been acting on impulse. Me, I was the man of reason who had already calculated the odds.

V

On the train back to New York, I was trying to figure out why the official hosts of this little conference were so affable, so comfortable, whereas my girlfriend and I were on guard the whole time. Sure, they were on home turf, and we were the outsiders—they could afford to be nice, and, as hosts, they were supposed to be.

But still. I decided that the sheer serenity of their affect is a function of their beliefs. They know who they are and what they think. Us creatures of the Left often torture ourselves when we reach any state of belief, because, unless we’re sectarian fanatics, we don’t rest easy with faith, whether it’s religious or political. We’re always asking how we know what we know. These figures on the Right, at least in this small sample, don’t seem to be bothered by that Kantian question. Again, they know who they are and what they think. They exude faith in themselves and their ideas.

The wonderful irony at work here is that their faith and our doubts derive from the same source—a profound sense of exile from the present. At the Hoover Institution, the form this sensibility took was a naïve faith in the ancients. Plato and Aristotle might as well have been on the program: references to them were as frequent as refusals to mention the Donald.

My girlfriend agreed with me, I think, when I offered this explanation of the weird equanimity that made everyone at the conference (except us) seem soaked in anti-depressants. She said, “It’s not meds, it’s money. You notice they didn’t ask about our allergies and food preferences, like they do when you go to a dinner planned by leftists. They just plunked a pile of meat on the table.”

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Miles on the Subway

The subway is tricky on weekends because that’s when the MTA repairs the tracks, especially on the lines below Penn Station. I guess they’re thinking the weekday commute to work is sacrosanct: fuck the tourists, or, I don’t know, let them experience the weird density of the place while they’re here.

So yesterday I allotted myself more time to get downtown, to save myself from the anxiety of jostling with Germans and Italians—they’re the predominant tourist type up here—who had just been to the Apollo Theater on 125th.

On the platform at 125th and Lenox, an old guy was holding a gym bag, green-lined with brown handles—there was music coming from the thing, somebody playing the horn. He wore sunglasses, sported a scraggly grey-streaked beard and a porkpie hat. He was a hipster out of phase, a visitor from an irretrievable past, a brother from another planet.

I stood next to him on the platform and sat down next to him when the 3 Train arrived. I just wanted to hear the music—I wasn’t looking for a lecture or a conversation. In my pedantic, academic way, I was trying, I admit, to identify the source, so I finally said, between 110th and 96th, “That sounds good.”

“You gotta listen. You know who that is? Nobody plays like that.”

“I wanna say Louis Armstrong, but I don’t know, it’s too contemplative, you know what I mean, the guy is thinking out loud.”

“Just listen. Best teacher I ever had kept sayin’ that.”

“I’m a teacher. That’s Miles, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s him. What do you teach?”

“I teach what I hate, I teach history, I can say that to you because I don’t know you.”

“I love history. This is the sound of 200 B.C., before Christ, you know, it’s the same music.”

“You can’t believe that, c’mon, nobody could’ve listened to this back then. They would’ve covered their ears.”

“No, don’t say that, you gotta listen.   I’m 85 years old. Listen to this.”

I stopped talking. The old guy got off at 34th, said he was bound for Long Island.

 

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Masonry

I’ve been working construction since I was 15 years old. Back then it was cleaning up after the carpenters and the masons, gathering and setting fire to whatever flammable debris they left behind.

When I was not in college, I worked for a mason contractor. That’s how I fell those 27 feet to my death, and why I was reborn as a Marxist who became a professor of History.

By the time I made it to graduate school, I knew my way around construction sites. I could mix mortar, I could carry tons of brick and cinder block, I could hold my own—when Stony said, “get you a plumb stick,” I knew what he meant.

I got the job with Mike Long because my friend Bob Graham recommended me. Bob was a grad student at NIU like me, but, having written an MA thesis on Henry Clay, he had decided to settle out in DeKalb, work the six months for Mike and collect unemployment the rest of the year, see what happened. He came from Providence—he might as well have been a Martian from my parochial Midwestern perspective. He took basketball way too seriously.

My life was breaking up in 1977. My mother had died of cancer at the age of 52, my sister was about to die of cancer at the age of 30, and my wife had left me to become a movie star in LA. The construction job saved my life. It paid $9.33 an hour, and it introduced me to the netherworld of country-ass bars in DeKalb, where you could cash your check on Fridays and dance with fat ladies to the tune of Patsy Cline.

Bill and Rog’s was the center of this world. There was a cash register, but the real money was in a drawer behind the bar, where old Roger also kept a loaded gun, just in case. You’d endorse your check, he’d pay you to the penny—my weekly take home was $291.25—and then you’d buy a round because, well, because there was this pile of bills with nothing better to do. Rog died like his dear friend, Bob Graham’s older brother Jack did, of cirrhosis of the liver. Jack taught chemistry at NIU. He was a patent holder on nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.

Saturday nights at Bill and Rog’s were an idyll, langorous evenings that always ended peacefully. You didn’t pick up girls there. You danced with fat ladies, and you said your goodbyes at 1:00 AM. I’d meet Bob there around 7:00, buy a couple rounds, pour the quarters into the jukebox, and wait for nothing because nothing was going to happen. The hardwood floor had turned white long before I arrived. The only honey-colored traces of oak were the narrow perimeters of the jukebox.

I think of my career in construction because today I served as the super on Mel’s masonry job. A square of sidewalk in front of the halfway house had turned to rubble, so he had to repair it. He used a miniature jackhammer to clear the broken concrete. We bagged the stones, if that’s what you can call the remainder.

Looking at the new, still fluid concrete, and eyeing the trowels he hadn’t yet handled, I said, “Mel, I can float this if you want.” He laughed and said, “What do you know about this, Jim?”

“I spent at least two years of my life doing this, I can bullfloat it if you want.”

Technically speaking, I was bullshitting. A bullfloat is a device you can extend up to 20 feet. It’s more or less a big trowel attached to a long handle. Think of a Swifter, only a lot larger. You hang the handle on your shoulder and push the trowel out to smooth the concrete, make the water rise, burnish the surface.

Mel and Lee, his second in command, floated the square nicely. But I got to do my part because, sure enough, in loading those stones, I stepped on a corner of the setting concrete. The wooden trowel I used to smooth this small surface felt like a musical instrument I hadn’t played in 30 years.

Still, I wasn’t just clumsy. The sidewalk will look better tomorrow. So will I.

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As I Fell

I fell 27 feet to my death on June 1st,, 1970. On the fifth floor of an office tower under construction—I was part of the mason contractor’s crew—I picked up one edge of a 3X3 plywood plank, started pushing it out of my way, and walked into the air. The plywood had covered a square hole in the floor.

It was a long way down. I had all the time I needed to assess my boots, my jeans, my life, and to decide in air that they all required replacements. I turned as I fell, trying to look down, so I landed on my right side. That’s why I never lost consciousness: my head hit the fourth floor, but glancingly, upside it.

The sound I made when I landed was a death rattle as rendered by those huge Marshall amps you still see behind every band in concert—in that moment I thought, this is an exhalation equal to any Poseidon made in obstructing Odysseus, and through meticulous research, I have subsequently determined that its butterfly effect was the oil crisis of 1973.

My right leg was totally purple by the time they got me to the emergency room at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. So was my right arm. I couldn’t move either. Was I paralyzed? My teeth also hurt. I answered the routine medical questions without opening my mouth. “Yes” sounded like “Ussh.”

My elbow was shattered, the doctors said, but everything else seemed, miraculously, intact. They would operate within the hour, repair the joint with metal screws, and keep me overnight at least. One of my bosses was there in the emergency room. As I remember, so was my father.

I stayed in the hospital for three nights. My girlfriend visited, as did friends who brought six-packs, and that boss from the mason contractor. I was most touched by his solicitude. I had nothing to do except read and drink beer, also ingest pain-killers—some things never change—so I churned my way through Catch-22. The experience was something like reading The Fountainhead two years earlier: here was a license to think yourself apart, so far apart that your abstention from the norms of everyday life, even civilized behavior, was not just sanctioned but sanctified.

I was on the fifth floor of that building under construction because I had been expelled from a small liberal arts college. I needed a real job, not just a summer gig between school years. Now here I was with time and pain and drugs enough to ask myself what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Neither the pilot nor the architect looked like role models.  But then my father didn’t, either.  He was a great bullshitter, a great salesman, he could beguile almost anyone except my mother with his stories about growing up in Chicago.  By his own account, he never did what he wanted to.

That boss showed up, unannounced, at my father’s house one night. I was still in the elbow sling, I hadn’t even started collecting workman’s compensation. The man offered a $1300 settlement to preempt any lawsuit for damages—the super on the job, he explained, had complained about the plywood covers on those square holes as a safety hazard—and my father enthusiastically recommended acceptance.

I wasn’t so sure. But I went along.

I’m glad I did. I took the $1300 and rented an apartment for nine months in DeKalb, Illinois, where my application for admittance to Northern Illinois University had been accepted. I figured I’d go back to college—it had to be better than working construction or pumping gas—but if the professors were morons, as they had been at the previous place, I’d just hole up in my apartment and write a novel. Give it three weeks, I told myself, see what happens.

That self died suddenly when I went to the first day of class. The rest is history.

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