CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
How should we understand what’s happening to American culture? Why is a fire eating away at our civilization? The Cosmopolitan Globalist interviews David Berlinski.
Bewildered by the news from America, the editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist sat down for a long chat with her father about the 1960s, JFK, the demise of the WASPS, Robin DiAngelo, Donald Trump, Bostock, Black Lives Matter, Freud, mobs, the psychological poverty of groups, and much more …
CLAIRE BERLINSKI: What do you think is happening in the United States? Do you have the sense, as I do, that the country is now profoundly different than the one in which we grew up?
DAVID BERLINSKI: Yes, I do. Edmund Wilson once wrote late in his life, when he was preoccupied with death and dentures—hey, come to think of it, so am I—that he still regarded himself as a man of the twenties. I know what he meant. I regard myself as a man of the fifties, a decade that ended with the assassination of JFK. I drove across the country in the summer of 1963, tootling along on US Routes 30 and 40 until I got to Berkeley, which I loathed on sight and left in a hurry …
CB: Why on earth didn’t you like Berkeley in 1963?
DB: I don’t know. Platzangst, maybe. I was away from New York for the first time. I went back to California in 1966, fetching up at Stanford as an assistant professor. Academic jobs were like dandelions: I could pick the one I wanted. Princeton was three thousand miles away. Adieu canaux, connards, & clubs.
CB: Voltaire, right?
You pointed out to me a remarkably perceptive observation that Freud made in 1930 in talking about “difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform.” There follows a stunning phrase: the psychological poverty of groups. … Parties have leaders; and factions, a collective sense of self-interest, however venal or venial. A Freudian group is a mob in the making—a proto-mob. The United States is today swarming with Freudian groups of various sordid sorts, its members identifying with one another and with nothing else.
DB: No, that’s canaux, canards, canailles. He was talking about the Dutch; and those clubs were Princeton’s eating clubs. Well, where was I? Yes, wreathed in Stanford sunshine, the smell of mountain sage drifting down from all the hills. The students happy, healthy and hefty. You were waiting in the wings of time, emerging two years later at the Stanford Medical Center, your mother, having given up Lamaze within seconds of her first contraction, made radiant by anesthetic relief. I was panting sympathetically at her bedside. I did my best.
And you did just fine. Everything else fell apart. President Johnson was given assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam war as his hand—that and the sneers of all the sad young men, the Massachusetts myrmidons. No wonder he folded. The anti-war movement was everywhere and nowhere, a mood more than a movement, a mob more than a mood.
CB: You once told me that you gave speeches against the Vietnam war at Stanford and that you had been at the anti-draft protest in Oakland.
DB: I did. I was. I was the only Oakland protester dressed in a three-piece suit. Charvet tie, too. I have always appreciated higher education for the opportunity it afforded me to display my wardrobe. When a red-faced federal official mounted a podium of some sort and said, “In the name of the people of the United States, I order you to disperse,” we roared back in unison and at once: “We are the people.”
I had no idea what I was doing and I had no idea what I was saying.
CB You’ve said that that JFK’s assassination was the beginning—that things have somehow never been right since then, that everything we’re seeing now somehow dates from that—
DB: Not everything, but as Leo Reifl remarked in his much neglected Reifl Practice, history is rather like a field of some sort, a linked array of secret springs, like quantum oscillators, where nothing ever disappears without having had an effect or leaving a trace. Sometimes it takes a long time for the effect to ripple across the field.
What is left is a kind of rhetorical efflorescence: political correctness, call out, cancel culture, woke, hate speech, systemic racism, dog whistle, spewing hate, racist tropes, gas-lighting, me-too, rapey, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, shame-shaming, moral panics, micro-aggression, white privilege, snowflake, whiteness, white fragility, punching down, punching up, speaking truth to power, intersectional, allyship, dead-naming, TERFS, diversity, inclusion, virtue–signaling, decolonization and our values. These are words and phrases that describe an essentially childish view of the world: they belong in the nursery.
CB: You are going to explain all this, right?
DB: Nah. I was hoping to overawe your readers and leave it at that. The seven years between 1963 and 1970—everyone understood that they marked a radical change and everyone was right. They went bad, those years, and this is also something that everyone understands. They went bad and they went underground:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Nothing in human history every goes underground forever:
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
There are two slogans from the sixties that retain their resonance and so their relevance. The first is make love not war, and the second, the personal is the political. They are in conflict, but it requires a moment to see this. Make love not war is the theme of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; and both the book and the slogan represent the defense of private over public life. Hemingway’s novel ends in sadness: private life is not without pain; and if it embodies a victory, it also involves a betrayal. Lieutenant Henry is a deserter. This, too, is a part of the slogan’s meaning. To make love and not war is a pleasure purchased dearly. The sixties made the purchase. We paid the price. It was a layaway plan. We are paying it still.
CB: Yes, but why did the establishment collapse? You knew some of these people, didn’t you?
DB: Yes, I knew some of them very well—at Princeton, at Stanford, later at McKinsey & Co., and at Columbia. The WASP establishment knew all about reality. They had fought in the Second World War. Tough men, all of them. And they had read Heraclitus: “We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being through strife necessarily.” But the WASP establishment lost its sense of entitlement and so its power to rule. They saw the student protests for what they were; they had read Hemingway; but they saw something they were never intended to see, and that was the young in one another’s arms—wild anarchic Aphrodite. They were defeated by what they saw.
Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse. WASPs too.
CB: You used those words in describing the fire at Notre Dame.
DB: The French have a word for everything, and they are always right. There is a fire eating away at civilization. It can never be extinguished. The best we can do is a form of fire control. But fire control requires fire controllers. They gave up in the sixties, those controllers; they are giving up now.
That the personal is the political goes in the other direction. It makes for, because it enforces, an obliteration of private life by exposing its least element to public scrutiny and thus to public censure. It is this second slogan that is today everywhere triumphant, as any number of rat-faced little shits ecstatically snitch on one another. The idea that one might have deeply regressive private thoughts is now anathema. Many years ago, Marco Schutzenberger remarked of one of our colleagues that he was “a ferocious anti-Semite.” It would seem that he despised Jews; he just could not stand them. And, yet, he was our colleague, and so far as I could tell, he never once revealed his prejudices to me and never acted on them either. He was fair and thoughtful when it came to hiring decisions. Circumstances such as these would be impossible today. The crime would be sniffed out.
CB: All the sniffing and ratting and whining—it’s grotesque, isn’t it. Whether the orthodoxy is enforced by the CCP or by the matrons in the Human Resources Department makes little difference. The obliteration of private life is also a function of technology. If the medium is the message, the message of social media is that you live in both in a state of perpetual performance and in a surveillance state.
DB: Just so. The sniffers are now everywhere, and like bosons, generically indistinguishable. The following biographical tag applies to all but the three women currently residing in Holy Orders: Writes about gender, sexuality, social justice, & science—the words gender and sexuality a coded confession of an abiding interest in being ravished by some improbably good-looking billionaire, a genetic cross between Leonardo DiCaprio and Warren Buffett—and the appeal to science proof only that the author is in command of the multiplication table up to ten. If the sniffers are everywhere, their sniffing has become exquisite. Not a day passes in which The New York Times does not publish an account by some aggrieved fruitcake listing in lurid detail the micro-aggressions afflicting her wa.
A remarkably inventive publicitaire named Robin DiAngelo—Christ! the woman looks like a Hagfish—has created the concept of white fragility and made a fortune peddling it to gullible women. Buying her book is said to ameliorate the symptoms of unconscious racism, which DiAngelo has promoted to a logical truth as compelling as the law of the excluded middle. She is, of course, white; her publishers are, of course, white; her readers are, of course, white; and if anyone in the black community has paid her any mind at all, it is only to observe that damn, why didn’t we think of that?
I don’t know. Why didn’t they?
CB: Ibrahim X. Kendi is making himself a fortune from the very same ideas.
DB: Damn! Why didn’t we think of that? The X stands for Xhosa, right? I am assuming the man is an Albanian on his mother’s side.
Mais je divague. Brandy Lee is a Professor of Psychiatry at Yale. Named after a cocktail first introduced at the Stork Club in 1949—
CB: Bandy Lee, Pop.
DB: Fine, it was an honest mistake. Whatever her name, she is a great champion of diagnosis at a distance. Having never examined or even met Donald Trump, she regularly determines that he manifests all manner of psychiatric disorders and calls for an urgent conclave of psychiatrists to get rid of the man once and for good. What goes unmentioned in this rich display of vanity and self-importance is what the French call une déformation professionnelle—a corruption of procedure. This little lunatic has conceived a dislike for President Trump and has allowed it to override her prior commitment to act in the way demanded by her profession.
The personal is the political.
CB: On the other hand, she’s right. Trump is nuts. I watched Barr testify and I just could not understand why everyone in Congress was behaving as if it were perfectly normal for the President of the United States to be out of his mind. For Christ’s sake, he has the sole power to launch on command! There are 150,000 Americans dead. It’s a charade—they all know he’s nuts. They either know it, or they’re nuts, too.
DB: Trump nuts? Sure. He is also overweight. What is to be gained by superimposing on these trivial observations a layer of psychiatric terms, or even ideas?
CB: What’s to be gained, perhaps, is an insight into why neither facts that are obvious nor principles that are self-evident seem to matter anymore.
CB: That’s all you are going to say?
DB: About Brandy? That’s it. You pointed out to me a remarkably perceptive observation that Freud made in 1930 in talking about “difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform.” There follows a stunning phrase: the psychological poverty of groups. Freud was describing the United States and not Weimar Germany; and he was referring to groups coordinated only by “the identification of its members with one another.” Groups of this sort are neither political parties nor political factions. Parties, as Freud noted, have leaders; and factions, a collective sense of self-interest, however venal or venial. I wonder whether Lewis Namier might have read Freud? I wonder, for that matter, whether anyone reads Lewis Namier? A Freudian group is a mob in the making—a proto-mob. The United States is today swarming with Freudian groups of various sordid sorts, its members identifying with one another and with nothing else. Conflict between groups is as aimless as it is inevitable. The result is a frenzy of competitive anarchy. Women who just yesterday were busy clambering on to the Me Too movement must now cede ground to Black Lives Matter, the emerging intersection of women who have been harassed and held down by the police now threatening to eclipse either movement in a blaze of virtue.
CB: From fetish to faculty.
DB: Indeed. You observed quite correctly that Christine Blassey Ford was unable to distinguish between a real and a psychic wound. How could she? There is, in contemporary life, no distinction. Having promoted the psychic wound to public prominence, Ford became a competitive actor on a competitive stage demanding loudly that her wounds be dressed first, due process be damned. If the personal is the political, what is left of the public?
Not much. An inevitably corollary now follows. Without some vivid and robust sense of public life, collective solipsism is the inevitable result. Once promoted to the public arena, the raw sewage-like stuff that froths and churns and stinks and bubbles in psychic life must inevitably become a part of the competitive jostling that is public life itself. That stuff, as Freud understood perfectly, admits of no standards: it is what it is. The truth, by way of contrast, is public or it is nothing; and this is precisely why so many women are disposed to talk about their truth or their lived experiences, and why no one can bring himself to begin even the tamest and tritest of observations without some inane personal observation or anecdote. The personal is not only the political: it has become the public. If the promotion is not dangerous, as so often it is, then it is boring, as when someone insists on recounting a dream. So anyway, I was in this like tunnel or something and there was this yellow thing and that cashier at the supermarket, she was there, too, or maybe it was someone else and it was all so strange, you know what I mean?
Do I know what you mean? I haven’t a clue.
CB Do you think this is simply the inevitable trajectory of the expatriate or the exile—to become, at some point, profoundly out of touch with one’s homeland?
DB: I am, of course, passing these judgments from Paris, and, no, I have hardly set foot in the States for almost twenty years. You know that. I did go back to San Francisco once. The place was filthy, menacing beggars everywhere, a crowd of crazies. And once to Seattle, which, in addition to being filthy, menacing, cheerless, and with beggars everywhere, too, happened to be cold and rainy. Well, no place home to Ted Bundy can be all bad. Do you remember the bear, by the way? On the one occasion I managed to organize a family expedition to the Cascades, it came ambling out of the underbrush. The thing was as big as a Brontosaurus. Thank God your mother was between me and the bear. It was a close call. In any case, what I need to know about American affairs I get from my go-to source, and that is The Daily Mail.
CB: Good God! If true, this would explain so many of the things you believe.
DB: It may. On the other hand, my remoteness and lack of direct experience offers me the matchless opportunity to deliver my judgments like thunder out of China in the east.
CB: The Seattle in which I grew up would not have tolerated a police-free “autonomous zone.” But was that an illusion? Did we both fail to appreciate latent potential in our culture for this kind of sudden degradation in civilization?
DB: No one was ever minded to confuse Portland or Seattle with Florence, but they were, I suppose, livable if not lovable cities. Portland and Seattle are now both being trashed by cheerless mobs, men and women with just barely enough by way of indignation to scrawl a few graffiti tags on police station walls. At night, they light a few fires, like characters in one of those depressing Cormac McCarthy novels: me and the boy, we wanted to light a fire, but there warn’t no wood, that sort of thing. Black Lives Matter, and with it black lives, of course, has receded into the distance.
The local police are as defeated and as dreary as the protesters. The Seattle Police department has undertaken various comical efforts to promote diversity. Who hasn’t? The result suggests a pride of laughing hyenas prepared to promote diversity by accepting a number of gentle sheep dogs as honorary hunt members:
– Uh Shep here will be joining the pack as our first Trans Hyena. Let’s hear a big Hyena Hello for Shep. Everyone now. Lift a leg.
– You know all about hyena hunting, right Shep? You just go out and bite some Zebra by his nuts.
– His nuts?
– Just hang on and call for backup.
– Uh, that wasn’t in training.
– No, but that’s the way it is.
The mayor of Portland is a man so lacking in personal force as to give the impression that peeling a banana would be an undertaking likely to exhaust him for weeks. The federal agents sent to Portland, at first, suggested that if they were not eager they were, at least, willing to club any number of miserable miscreants into the city’s urine-stained pavements. They drove around in unmarked cars, sprayed tear gas into the ambient air, and for a few nights, endeavored to convey the impression that at long last some form of authority more effective than aimlessness was in force and on the scene.
CB You haven’t answered my question, Pop.
DB: I haven’t? Well, maybe not. Events in Seattle and Portland proceeded from the same impulse: and that is to reject all forms of authority in favor of the pleasure principle. The Mayor of Seattle, an award-winning imbecile—no, really, it’s on Drudge: I read that, too—looked forward to “a summer of love.” I looked forward to the emergence in Seattle of some third-world worthy designating himself as the people’s emperor and demanding access to the autonomous zone’s women.
The mayor’s choice of words was no accident; they came as no surprise.
They never do. Sidney Morgenbesser was one of the cleverest men alive. I admired him. We were talking together at the corner of 116th Street. Students were happily trashing the university campus. It was, I seem to remember, 1971 or 1972. I was a graduate student in the department of mathematics and on a tight schedule and the campus was inaccessible. Led by some miserable Maoist named Mark Rudd, students were busy trashing things left and right, one intrepid group going so far as to command the president’s office. And there they sat, smoking his cigars and drinking his brandy, their muddy feet on his office desk. University officials finally called in the New York police. Great beefy men had begun to arrive and were collecting outside the campus walk. They had an abstract distant look in their eyes. Many years later, I saw the same look in Derek Chauvin’s eyes on the now-famous video.
CB: That’s not a great recommendation, Pop.
DB: No, it isn’t. Would you prefer the police to have eyes like Bambi?
Morgenbesser was beside himself. He was prepared to see the university destroyed before he would commit his allegiance to force.
He thought he was seeing the Gestapo.
Do you remember Sherburn and Boggs in Huckleberry Finn? Boggs is the town drunk:
Boggs comes a-tearing along on his horse, whooping and yelling like an Injun, and singing out: “Clear the track, thar. I’m on the waw-path, and the price uv coffins is a-gwyne to raise.” He was drunk, and weaving about in his saddle; he was over fifty year old, and had a very red face. Everybody yelled at him and laughed at him and sassed him, and he sassed back, and said he’d attend to them and lay them out in their regular turns, but he couldn’t wait now because he’d come to town to kill old Colonel Sherburn, and his motto was, “Meat first and spoon vittles to top off on.” He see me, and rode up and says: “Whar’d you come f’m boy? You prepared to die?” Then he rode on. I was scared, but a man says: “He don’t mean nothing; he’s always a-carryin’ on like that when he’s drunk. He’s the best-naturedest old fool in Arkansaw—never hurt nobody, drunk no sober.
Sherburn first warns Boggs of his insolence, and then shoots him dead. Later that night, a lynch mob forms in front of Sherburn’s house:
The idea of YOU lynching anybody! It’s amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a MAN! Because you’re brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here, did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a MAN? Why, a MAN’S safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind—as long as it’s daytime and you’re not behind him.
The clear warning that Sherman delivers; the drunken Boggs; the implacable Colonel.
And the university faculty, men that I so admired, witty, cultivated, some of them learned, men who would not hurt a fly? Boggs in bogs, which, in the end, swallowed them alive. Kipling writes about this—making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep; and Conrad puts the thought in plain and simple and irrefragable terms: “Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.” When this is forgotten, civilization goes into reverse:
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
CB: What are your thoughts about Black Lives Matter? I mean seriously.
DB: The sanctification of blackness—color, creed & conduct—is now underway in the United States; and with it, of course, the correlative de-sanctification of whiteness, so much so that any number of actresses, having recently demanded the right to get up from their knees in virtue of their commitment to the Me Too movement, are now willing to get right back down on them in virtue of their commitment to the BLM movement. Their orthopedic flexibility is unflagging.
There may be a handful of authentic white supremacists left lurking in the United States, men muttering darkly about the great replacement and otherwise persuaded that, like the Devil, George Soros has been observed with blue flames shooting from his anus, but white supremacy, like so many other counter-currencies, is very much a counter-creed: out of touch, out of place, and out of time. Everyone is eager to buy; no one is willing to sell.
CB: Their day is over. This is their last hurrah. I agree.
DB: Systemic racism, on the other hand, is useful on those occasions when the real stuff is unavailable and some form of racism more flamboyant than various fey micro-aggressions is ideologically required. The New York Times is committed to the ubiquity of systemic racism and regards it as comparable to Catholic doctrine about the ubiquity of the body of Christ. If the stuff is everywhere, the evidence for its existence remains disappointing. Having emerged from universities with their organs of indignation inflamed—the things are large as cantaloupes—younger journalists at the Times are reduced to occult studies, determining at a distance whether an opinion is potentially of harm to people of color or various sexual degenerates. Should it be adverted that the laws of arithmetic pose a threat to mutant Canadian transsexual Wiccans, The New York Times would, at once, look favorably on the thesis that twice two is six and consider its denial as evidence of systemic racism.
And so would I, of course. That goes without saying.
There is something gorgeous in all this, a kind of national performative art enriched by a fabulously inventive daring so that cancelation culture has acquired second and third order effects, like certain obscure phenomena in particle physics or the Chinese martial arts. Her New York Times colleagues having proven peevish, Bari Weiss has, in her resignation letter, undertaken a reverse Heimlich maneuver, grabbing the Times from the front and covering it in a cloud of her own hot air. It would have been sufficient to provoke the Schenectady Daily Herald to a coronary spasm. The New York Times ran a sorrowful account of her resignation on its front page, every party to the controversy well-satisfied that they had been injured and thus dignified.
CB: Yeah, that was amazing, wasn’t it? Back in my day you didn’t give up a well-paid job at The New York Times. But back in my day there was full employment and writers got massive advances, so what the hell was she thinking?
DB: Not much, I would guess. Still, who doesn’t love the The New York Times? The question answers itself. Only the man born with a petrified diaphragm and for this reason, unable to laugh. I regard a day in which I am unable to read Maureen Dowd, or Bret Stephens, or Ross Douthat, or even Paul Krugman, now one Tweet away from frank clinical obsession, as somehow incomplete, like a day without a bowel movement.
CB: Krugman? His Twitter feed is a model of sobriety. Pop, you’re not really on Twitter. I can tell.
DB: It is not what he says but his compulsion to keep saying it. And, no, I am not really on Twitter because I am not on Twitter at all.
CB: Do you think there is such a thing as white privilege?
DB: Sure. I am counting on it. If, after robbing a convenience store, I find some eleven-foot monster French flic with his knee on my neck, I intend to remind him, so long as I can still breathe, that I am white. It is sure to help. But so does not robbing a convenience store. That helps, too.
CB: Yes, I agree.
DB: There is a well-hidden source of sympathy in all this between American blacks and American Jews. It is well-hidden because the two groups are emotionally, politically, and often aesthetically at odds. Hymie is one slur; schvartze, another. Deep down, American Blacks and American Jews are similar in their suffering and if this is something that neither group is willing to acknowledge, it remains something that both groups recognize on a level that remains hidden from sight.
American Jews and American Blacks suffer alike from a deep psychic wound. It is the same wound in both cases. And it cannot be healed. On se connait. Both Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt, in writing about the Holocaust, raised the same question: why did European Jews submit to their fate? Arendt went further, arguing counter-factually that had European Jews resisted everywhere, as for a brief moment they resisted in Warsaw or at Sobibor, their suffering, although terrible, would have been less terrible than it was. Eichmann in Jerusalem has become famous for its remark about the banality of evil. The idea is now a cliché. Arendt’s thesis about Jewish passivity, which she acquired from studying Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, was the deeper observation. The facts are not at issue. There was no widespread resistance among European Jews to the Holocaust. If this is an historical fact, it is now an historical memory. The memory gives rise to the wound. It is a wound of ineradicable shame. No Jew is free of it, and like all psychic wounds, it is passed from generation to generation. The behavior of the State of Israel is incomprehensible without mention of this wound. As an exhortation, Never Again! makes no sense. There is no possibility of another Holocaust because the first Holocaust was successful. That Holocaust is forever. American Blacks carry the same sense of shame. And for the same reason. To be a victim in this harsh world is to suffer a sense of shame. Black Lives Matter functions as a slogan precisely as Never Again. It exposes a wound: it says nothing.
CB: Well, that was grim. What is your opinion of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia? You kept muttering about it for days. Wouldn’t stop.
DB: And I am not about to stop now, either. The Court considered the complaint of some lowly washer of the dead who, in an access of folly, determined that he would henceforth be prepared to undertake his duties only if allowed to shed his dignified men’s suiting in favor of a woman’s ensemble. It is only owing to God’s grace that he failed to demand the right to wear a tutu. His employer feared that the sight of him accoutered in his new-found finery would have a discomfiting effect on the bereaved; or, what is worse, on the dead, get me the hell out of here an exclamation in all respects appropriate to their circumstances. It all depends, I suppose, on whether either party might be prevailed to elide the distinction between a funeral parlor and a Weimar cabaret.
CB: You’ve been banging on about the trans for months, Pop.
DB: Look on the bright side. I’m not banging on about Judith Butler anymore, right? I like to keep my animadversions fresh. And don’t get me wrong. If a man proposes to lop off his genitals and flounce around in a woman’s dress, I am minded only to wish him the best of luck in public and to regard him as an idiot otherwise. My sources in the Bureau tell me that even J. Edgar had a hankering for the occasional frou-frou. And, as you know, I am all for putting the new and improved Bruce Jenner back on the box of Wheaties. Breakfast of Champions! That will send sales through the roof.
Well, to each his own, as your grandmother used to say.
CB: She did?
DB: Not with any great enthusiasm. She almost stroked out when you brought up gay marriage.
CB: I never brought up gay marriage with her.
DB: She didn’t stroke out, either. Now you know why.
But never mind your grandmother. Back to basics. The court’s reasoning was notable for its incoherence. It so often is. “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.” The Court did not consider whether a man, impressed by its reasoning, would feel entitled to complaint were he refused an abortion. There are some badlands so bad that even the Supreme Court might think it prudent to avoid them. Not for long, I suppose. Some would-be woman is at this moment, no doubt, aggrieved beyond measure by the thought that were it not for the accident of anatomy, he, too, might profit from dilation and curettage. The controlling words in the argument are “traits or actions,” and the inference depends on some antecedent identification of a trait or action as the same whether exhibited, or undertaken, by a man or a woman. If what is at issue is marriage, then plainly a man married to a man and a woman married to a man are not exhibiting or undertaking the same “trait or action,” not even if they found themselves married to the same man at the same time in a spectacular demonstration of intersectional polygamy. Marriage is a two-place relationship, and such relationships are not identified by only one of their relata. A man and a women may be equally interested in gold, but there is some considerable difference between a gold-miner and a gold-digger, after all. In the case of marriage, sameness would require that a woman be married to a woman. With symmetry restored, the question, of course, reappears, but with no appeal to the legally compelling issue of sexual discrimination. Anyone disposed to object to “traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex” may feel free to do so. Go right ahead. There is some dishonesty in all this, but it is not a matter of discrimination. No one is ever much occupied by marriage between women. If a woman was disposed to marry a houseplant, no one would mind.
CB: Does this all tie together somehow?
DB: Yes, of course. In all of this, psychic sources of discontent remain hidden, but they are inevitably expressed under a disguise. When Mario Savio, that poor schlub, climbed onto a police car and delivered his speech at Berkeley, he was asking the students who listened for a reaction commensurate to his discontent. And he got it. Savio was full of inarticulate longings. He wished to have a cause and given his circumstances in paradise, if no cause came readily to hand, he would be obliged to create one:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
This passage calls to mind both Saint Sebastian, the one shot full of arrows in Guido Reni’s wonderful painting, and Sebastian Flyte from Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Savio found himself in paradise, unwilling to leave and unable to stay. Those gears might as well have been arrows. And there it is: that deep anxiety about a world in which drinks, drugs and draft-dodging are costly indulgences and sexual exuberance reveals its true meaning in the dismal plops and pains of childbirth.
That world, that system, our world.
Make it stop indeed.
Who at the age of twenty-two would not wish to stay in paradise? Not me. I know. I was there. And I was twenty-two. Never trust anyone over thirty? I was not about to. But I didn’t act on any of this either. Your mother would not let me.
And nothing has changed.
What is left is a kind of rhetorical efflorescence: political correctness, call out, cancel culture, woke, hate speech, systemic racism, dog whistle, spewing hate, racist tropes, gas-lighting, me-too, rapey, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, shame-shaming, moral panics, micro-aggression, white privilege, snowflake, whiteness, white fragility, punching down, punching up, speaking truth to power, intersectional, allyship, dead-naming, TERFS, diversity, inclusion, virtue signaling, decolonization and our values.
These are words and phrases that describe an essentially childish view of the world: they belong in the nursery. Shaming has today become a contested category, the morbidly obese stoutly rejecting their shame, so much so that some fabulous fatty now finds herself on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, her pretty face mounted on a titanic torso, the whole suggesting nothing so much as a polar bear before hibernation. No one admires her. No one finds her attractive. She is just fat. She can be shamed just for being fat even though it may well be that short of frank anorexia nervosa, she cannot do a damn thing about it.
The inevitable response of the morbidly obese?
I didn’t do it.
Trump may well merit the endless geschrei he has provoked; but what strikes me most about Trump is his perfect eagerness to say that he didn’t do it when he did it and that he did it when he didn’t. This is the narcissistic mark, the connection to a childhood—our own, of course—in which narcissism is the only governing force. The American people elected one of their own. Both sides are now saddled with symmetrical albatrosses, the Republicans because they gave us Trump and the Democrats because they ensured his election.
It is no surprise that Sebastian Flyte and Mario Savio both came to a bad end, Sebastian winding up a hopeless drunk, and Savio, dismissed by the mob he had created, ending his days teaching physics in some dingy California Community College, all sullen sun and silent stoners.
…It’s like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist. Her father, David Berlinski, is an author who lives in Paris, blocks away from his daughter.
So nice to read about you and Daddy together. At one point in my life I realized there is a tremendous upside to being on a ship with no particular destination (which is probably why it is the cruise of choice for many); one is NEVER off-course. What often gets lost is that one is never ON course either. Where are you going with all this Claire? What is the goal? What are you seeking exactly? What is the point to all this? What is the purpose of human existence anyways? If there is a clear answer then please share it. If not, shouldn’t we clear that up first? Jewish Tradition teaches that all Jewish souls who would ever live stood at the revelation at Mt. Sinai. I think you were standing just in front of me to my left…that’s why I like you so much. I’m pretty sure I remember your Pop too.
Thank you both for an entertaining and refreshingly literate respite from reality!
Our pleasure! So pleased you enjoyed it.
I guess by Claire’s lights our 150,000 dead from COVID-19 would all miraculously be living still had Hillary Clinton only been elected POTUS. Typical NeverTrumper butt sniffing. Comments like “Trump is nuts” imply that millions of us who voted for him are simply incapable of sound judgement. If corrupt DC figures like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden reflect sanity I’ll remain here with the blinkered and lowborn, thanks.
A rant full of pearls. Loved it. Can I hear more?
Sure! I’ll ask him to contribute more often. It always depends what mood he’s in and whether he’s got the time, but I’ll tell him you asked for him, specially.
When the answer to the question what is the problem is – just enjoy the the swan song – and for heaven sake don’t be deluded into thinking Trump or Biden is a meaningful choice. There is no fix – just psychic wounds. Black America can figuratively forgive white America but can either forgive themselves – Never Again means all lives matter and all psychic wounds must be shared.
They all know he’s nuts? Didn’t your father just finish talking about une déformation professionnelle?
What commentary on Trump now is complete without some kind of a cheap assessment? So, yes, I’m going with “trivial observations.”
Thanks for this. A remarkably erudite take on the US cultural scene. I have seen nothing to equal it. One hopes it could be published for a wider audience but that would provoke a titanic Twitter rage, cancellation calamities, death threats, etc. Maybe the Tablet? On the other hand, Berlinski pere is not on Twitter and that is what makes his opinions so insightful. It would also insulate him from the inevitable fall out – plus Paris residency.
Great to hear from the man whose final words in Devil’s Delusion suggested a sad but acquiescent retirement from strife. (I sense irony in his 1986 title, Black Mischief. . .