Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 58 (December 1995): 39-44.
Welcome to FIRST THINGS, the journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life.
Material bounty, particularly in the service of the person, the palate, and the household, is a striking feature of the Upper West Side of New York, a section stretching northward from 72nd Street and bounded on the east and west by Central Park and the Hudson River. I have been a resident there since arriving in New York more than a dozen years ago. In the first years I lived in the maid’s room of a very large apartment near Riverside Park and did office temp work several days a week to feed and clothe myself while writing my first novel. Back then there were two panhandlers in the neighborhood, both white females, and I would frequently compare the precariousness of my own life with that of the two women hanging out at the corner of 86th and Broadway and cadging change from passers-by.
Back then a much-smaller Zabar’s was in its familiar location, but mostly Broadway was full of the kinds of stores you still see in Queens but that were also a feature of the face of American towns in the 1950s, including the town in which I grew up. A sign of the future of the Upper West Side were two singles bars and the growing number of well-heeled white folks who had moved into the large apartment buildings on and off Broadway. The changes at Zabar’s since then exemplify the material permutations the Upper West Side has undergone, and another sign is that the two singles bars eventually turned into family restaurants. A handful of men of fifty-plus can be seen late at night at the one remaining; in the way of single men who have missed out on marriage or stable relationships, you can hear them retelling stories that were current twenty years ago. But it is the number of panhandlers who now make the Upper West Side their stomping ground that is a better sign of the culture of commerce that has mushroomed to cater to the affluent Manhattanites who have in the meantime raised families in the large apartments.
The Upper West Side is nothing short of a bazaar, with one shop after another not only selling things from everywhere but also manned by an assortment of ethnic types that can otherwise be encountered in places like Singapore or Bombay. Even at the Korean greengrocer I patronize, there are regularly three kinds of plums, four or five of oranges, three of tomatoes (New Jersey, Israeli, and “other”), fifteen kinds of cheeses, endives, marzipan, tortellini, two or three varieties of brownies, and Japanese party snacks. In the crowded windows at Zabar’s are frozen yogurt makers, automatic bread makers, a Neapolitan stainless steel stove-top espresso maker, and nine brands of ice-cream makers (from Germany, Italy, and the U.S.A.). I have seen mothers and fathers, kids in tow, shelling out hundreds of dollars for smoked salmon, caviar, Italian olive oils, French cheeses, coffee beans, coffee makers, pasta makers, and water purifiers at that famous deli. I imagine these families live in apartments with lots of light and large rooms with bookshelves to the ceiling and doormen in the lobby who accept packages, dry cleaning, and other deliveries while the adults are at work. The children who grow up in these apartments go to private schools, and when they come home they find in the refrigerator cheeses and jams with foreign names on the labels. Their parents are people with professional degrees and salaries to match and can afford the groceries at Zabar’s, the private schools for the kids, and full-time help for the preschoolers.
These are people whose views on the topics that excite current debate (insofar as there is a debate on these topics) stand to the left of people who don’t know the difference between brie and Camembert. In the last election, this congressional district voted 81 percent for the Democrats. During the primary election in September, a New York Post editorial characterized the congressional race as “campaigning in the twilight zone”: the incumbent and his challenger were fighting it out over who was more progressive on the issues of gay marriage and opposition to the death penalty. These voters are people who recognize and care about the difference between the New Republic, the Nation, and National Review, and who have read Noam Chomsky’s books on American imperialism if not those on linguistics.
As a Southerner and a Catholic, I am something of an outsider in this neighborhood. Since I am a writer and an academic, however, I often felt myself an outsider in the milieu in which I was raised. Thus, when I first moved to the Upper West Side, I felt I had arrived home, the home I always wanted, where there was a literary bookstore you could go to at 11:00 p.m. and find books that were reviewed in newspapers. Since the only cheeses I knew as a child were Velveeta and Swiss, and since my parents poured Carnation milk into their coffee, the shops with their enormous food offerings were a culinary variant of the literary bookstore.
Another thing that pleased me when I arrived was that people on the Upper West Side talked a lot, in full sentences. The authority with which they expressed their opinions had some connection with the New York Times tucked in their briefcases, which at that time seemed to me the most important newspaper in the world. During my tenure on the Upper West Side the possibilities for bookstores and food have multiplied, while my infatuation with the tendency of New Yorkers and Upper West Siders to opine on any subject with certitude has lessened.
I have become intrigued, however, by the conjunction of a high material standard of living with liberal opinion, especially the way in which the possession of the former protects the holder of the latter from its outcomes. To put the matter in terms that most people recognize: a breach characterizes the behavior of liberals (for that is how I will refer to my neighbors from here on out), a breach between preaching and practice. This breach, however, is accompanied by an anomaly. It is not simply the case, say, that liberals favor the rainbow curriculum for other people’s children while sending their own children to private schools where they will be protected from trendy social ideas while learning the basics. Liberals, after all, pay taxes too, a lot of taxes if I am correct about the combination of material affluence and liberal views-while paying exorbitant sums for private school tuition. Clearly liberals do not have faith in the public institutions they espouse. I have come to conclude that liberals have a very aberrant view of the way the world works, one that stands sharply at variance with the experience of generations of mankind. And I have also come to conclude that it is their material affluence that has produced this aberrant view.
It is a cliche that liberals have bleeding hearts, that they care, that they are compassionate, that they feel other people’s pain. Yet such compassion rests on being able to afford distance from pain, as I witnessed two years ago, when the city was making noises about moving homeless families into one of the few remaining rental buildings on 86th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. My neighbors, seeing their property values threatened, struggled not to appear crass and materialistic. Gathering in the hundreds on 86th Street around a specially erected podium, with TV news cameras turning, they listened to their leaders speak of their compassion, as if it were something that could be subdivided like the shares of a condominium corporation. They didn’t speak of their way of life being threatened or of, say, the value of safe streets or the right of elderly people to sit on a public bench without being harassed by panhandlers. Instead, “We have done enough!” was often reiterated, along with “We have done our part.” The subtext was, “We have been good people.” What they have really done for two decades, I thought to myself, was not to practice compassion at all, but to allow socially aberrant behavior to take over the streets of their neighborhood while waxing sanctimonious about working people who were intolerant because they did not want to share their neighborhoods with homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation clinics. Now, their tolerance was being tested where it really counted, in their own yards.
The supposed toleration for diverse “life styles” explains a lot about the way the Upper West Side looks. The Upper East Side is also a center of affluence and commerce, but one in which bourgeois decorum reigns. The Upper West Side, by contrast, has a strong infusion of the abject and weird that is more likely encountered in places like Surabaya and Bangkok. A not unusual sight at the corner of 86th and Broadway on a weekend afternoon is a thin woman in her forties with short-cropped hair. She chain-smokes Marlboros but otherwise looks like many other residents of the Upper West Side, except that she is ranting and raving about pornography, masturbation, and other sexual practices: “Women are being killed by men’s fantasies! What are you going to do about it?” she screams. She holds aloft a poster on which are affixed pictures from magazines, much like schoolchildren prepare for classes with pictures from Good Housekeeping to illustrate, say, nutrition groups. On her poster, however, are pictures from Hustler or worse, showing women, for instance, being fed into a meat grinder. Children walk by, while teenagers stream in and out of the Gap on the corner.
When I see these children I think of my own childhood in Louisville in the 1950s. Liberals probably consider that childhood benighted because, they would maintain, I wasn’t made sensitive from an early age to what is euphemistically called “other points of view.” If a woman had carried on in Louisville like the woman on Broadway, after all, she would have been hustled away quickly. People would not have walked by ignoring her. In my lower-middle-class neighborhood, there were no panhandlers, no derelicts sleeping on church steps or rifling through your garbage, no prostitutes on street corners on Saturday nights, no crack vials in the gutters. At the same time, there were no foreign cheeses in the refrigerator, no doormen, and no take-out food. You ate at home with your parents, whether you liked it or not.
My parents, aspiring to bourgeois habits of life, were living on the margin themselves and wished to stay within it. It was important to them to live in a neighborhood in which, if their children didn’t learn socially acceptable behavior, at least it didn’t discourage it. Had they been so fortunate as to have been able to afford to buy a house, a city- sponsored homeless shelter across the street would have been a catastrophe not merely of a material sort but also of the metaphysical order: the structure of the world that they supported by their taxes and hard work (both my parents worked) would have been violated by the very government that was supposed to have upheld this order. They could not afford irony, and thus toleration was not a word that often entered their vocabulary.
A mixture of abject human conditions and affluence has existed throughout history. No one would have remarked on this mixture in ancient Rome. It is noteworthy on the Upper West Side because of the number of people living there who believe, despite evidence on their very sidewalks to the contrary, that well-funded government programs will get to the root of such human suffering and extirpate it (“War on Poverty”). At the same time, so much of the visible poverty is a result of aberrant individual behavior and social practice that represent glaring deviations from rational self-control of the moral life. And such rational self-control, the belief that correct moral behavior can be inculcated by reason, is a dominant feature of contemporary liberal thinking.
To listen in on any number of conversations on the Upper West Side is to be convinced that liberals care very much about the realm of morals and that they are trying to communicate it to their children via appeals to reason. Such appeals resolutely ignore or gloss over all that is childlike about a child. The following was overheard on a Broadway bus between 86th and 96th Streets.
“Jonathan! A woman is sitting in front of you, and you’re yelling in her ears. Would you please tell her you’re sorry? [No response from Jonathan.] Remember when Benjamin hit you and then apologized to you and then how much better friends you were afterward? [Still no answer.] No? Well, I don’t think that you two guys can sit together again on the bus because you get too wild. [A minute later:] Remember the place we got your egg salad sandwich? We’re going to stop there and buy some veggies. Are you going to help me fix dinner?”
These are the kinds of full sentences that are constantly being unleashed on children, at a sound level that assures everyone on the bus is privy to them. Moral instruction is not private here. It’s the kind of voice, with distinct articulation, in which I imagine Hillary Clinton explaining her health care plan to recalcitrant members of Congress. It’s the voice in which I imagine Hillary speaking to Chelsea. It’s the voice that urges reason, like that of an obviously divorced dad on a lunch outing with his two offspring, as he alternated between ingratiating, smiling inquiries and the following gambit with the girl: “You’re acting up and you’re taking away the pleasure of a nice lunch. Is that what you want to do?”
So abstract that word “pleasure.” After all, wasn’t she already doing what pleased her, digging cherries from her glass and getting water all over the table? And the father (who assumed it was the most natural thing in the world to take two young children to a restaurant patronized otherwise only by adults) was unable to call forth from himself any of the age-old practices of parents to deal with such behavior-because such practices would show the failure of reason.
Since reason is so clearly ineffective when kids are being most kid- like, often my neighbors resort to a studied nonchalance in the face of a child’s unruliness, refusing (so it seems to suffering bystanders) to train their children in public etiquette. We have all seen children careening around a crowded waiting room at the doctor’s office, straining to get out of the shopping cart at the grocery store, or banging their spoons on the table in a restaurant. And sometimes they are manifestly tired and hungry and one can only envy them for doing what we would all like to do in our cranky moments. But many times two- year-olds are engaged in those ceaseless little actions whereby they endeavor to master and manipulate their environment-by grabbing items off the shelves at drug stores or insisting on standing alone in the aisle of a moving bus-activities that play havoc with other people’s property and even their own safety. In such situations one often notices on the parent’s face an ironic smile, hiding-or so one supposes-equal mixtures of rage and incompetence. It is the price you pay when you don’t want to appear unreasonable.
What distinguishes the children of liberals past the age of two is that they talk constantly, with fully formed sentences pouring forth nonstop from their mouths. The first time you’re on a bus and you hear a four- year-old spelling out all the store signs is cute, but the kid doesn’t stop. In the way of kids, he goes on and on. It’s hyperactive behavior, transferred to the mouth. Again, the parent wears the ironic smile, while the syllables grow into a veritable logorrhea. Why, I used to ask myself, this passivity, this inability to stop the flow, assert discipline, say that Mommy needs a break-any action that would set limits and thereby help a child to assume the contours that come from life in interaction with others?
Even before reading Jurgen Habermas-the German sociologist formerly associated with the Frankfurt School-I had come to suspect that discipline is foreign to the liberal mind, that liberals hate contours and self-definition that comes from limits. Thus, public space becomes for liberals an extension of their private living room. At a recent academic convention I attended (which means a profusion of liberal people), liberals could be distinguished from the other business travelers by the way they sat in the bar area of the hotel without ordering drinks, their feet on the coffee table in front of them, while their kids amused themselves by running up and down the escalators and diving on the couches. Liberals tend to colonize all spaces they are in.
Liberal moms can be seen in coffee shops, their huge strollers blocking passageways, their bags arrayed on all available chairs. Diapers are changed when necessary, while the kids are allowed to sit on the floor and play and be under everyone’s feet. The Barnes and Noble bookstore on Broadway is nothing short of a homeless shelter for liberals, in which people spend hours reading the magazines or books, some with the coffee they have brought from Starbucks or plastic containers of noodles from Ollie’s.
Related to this inability to draw boundaries between private and public space is, as I have noted, the public nature of liberal discourse. I am using that word in its current extended sense. It applies to the articulations of the mother on the bus, but it also applies as well to a professor of literature at my university who, on walking out of his office, says to no one in particular among the group of graduate students standing around: “I hate religion.” Or “I just saw that ghastly Arianna Huffington on TV.” Being that he is head of the department, that he controls who gets graduate teaching jobs or financial assistance, there is little chance that any of the students will disagree. Liberal speech is seldom private: whether it’s in a subway, a restaurant, or a line at the bank, no one is safe when a liberal mom or dad decides to give a spelling lesson to a child. Because the subject interests them, it must interest everyone else.
It is in this matter of talking that Jurgen Habermas situates an essential component of modernity. Habermas’ own ideas have undergone considerable permutations since the publication in 1962 of his study on the public sphere, but his concept has served as a point of departure for countless studies of what constitutes “modernity.” According to Habermas, a specific subjectivity developed in the eighteenth century because of the privatization of life in the bourgeois home (private rooms and private possessions led to private needs). Rightly stressing the economic autonomy on which such privatization of emotion rested, Habermas notes that this sphere of private sentiment was “audience oriented.” Examples of such orientation include eighteenth-century epistolary novels (Pamela, The Sorrows of Young Werther), in which an endless dissection of emotions is directed at recipients. For Habermas, the “clarity” concerning the self attained in the private realm was transferred to the critical debates in the public sphere, which revolved around matters like self-government and representation. In this way, the bourgeoisie supposedly developed critical thinking and a conception of its role in public life, with important effects on the constitution of democratic institutions.
Conversations are easy to overhear on the Upper West Side. You hear them, as I said, whether you want to or not. And to hear a woman of twenty or forty, as she passes you on the street, discussing her abortions or her weight or her nervous breakdown, all in the same vocal register, lends certain anecdotal support to Habermas’ theory concerning the public nature of bourgeois emotionality. Indeed, despite the material affluence of the world around them, despite the fact that they can fill up their shopping baskets with pate, mangoes, Japanese apples, avocados, endives, Moroccan, Greek, Italian, and Lebanese olives, that they have time to sit in coffee bars and talk while consuming three- dollar cups of coffee, the inevitable subject of liberal conversation is . . . themselves. Their utterances are for the most part private talk: about dysfunctional families, about Prozac, about the motives and speech and behavior of their friends and enemies, about their own motives and behavior. Their speech is largely interminable self-analysis, for everyone to hear. And though they are living in the greatest time of abundance for the many in all of history, the reports they give of their lives are dark indeed.
Of course, liberals do utter opinions on public issues, and they do so in public spaces for all to hear. And though these opinions are often uttered with reference to moral values, whether these utterances truly constitute critical discourse is doubtful. If one clears away all the obfuscatory rhetoric liberals constantly utter about morals (about fairness, compassion, justice, tolerance, etc.), one recognizes that material affluence is requisite to the autonomizing of the emotional life and that this affluence has itself become the tail that wags the dog: the moral life is for liberals the same as the emotional life, and it centers upon the fulfillment of material conditions, which, if unmet, leads to what is felt as a life not quite human.
Liberal culture is not, as Habermas asserts, the basis of true democratic and representative life. On the contrary, it loathes the messy character of the modern, democratic world, which is a marketplace in which we all sell ourselves and our talents, including our opinions and ideas. Liberals have the same disdain as Theodor Adorno for what he called the “culture industry,” meaning principally the products of the entertainment conglomerates. Since, however, there is no longer an organically transmitted “high” culture (in the way, say, that Beethoven transmitted Haydn), contemporary “culture” today must be acquired at Zabar’s or Barney’s. One’s status in the world is measured by the possession of the requisite status objects and status opinions.
The transfer of private emotion to the public sphere has, indeed, transformed the debate concerning human “rights.” That this is a movement that is materially based and has nothing to do with enduring human values is apparent from the collapse of traditionally liberal views (say, those of John Stuart Mill or even Justice Brandeis) into those of advocates of “identity politics” and of others who speak of the constructedness of human beings and who dispute the very notion of self and of true human choice. This social-construction view is absolutely dependent, of course, on a booming capitalism. Though people who nowadays call themselves “progressives” are often contemptuous of capitalism, “progressive” is a word that well describes the built-in obsolescence of goods, of ideas, and of human institutions that characterizes the current American marketplace. Thus, liberals want their kids to be “good,” they just don’t want the Good. They want their kids to be moral, but they want morality that is fashionable and up-to- the-minute.
Scene of father and preschool girl in supermarket. She lingers in front of small cartons of ice cream. “You can have a yogurt,” he says. She jabs a finger in the direction of the ice cream. “You can have a yogurt,” he repeats. In her throat she begins to amass that guttural energy that will burst forth as a howl. “It’s your choice,” he says firmly.
At Chicken Fair, on 88th and Broadway, a father asks a child, who might be three-and-a-half years old, what she wants: breast or drumstick? rice or potato salad? Developing discrimination, developing “choice” in three-year- olds. A lot of time is consumed in this decision, while the rest of us wait patiently to order our dinner.
It has become a commonplace today that the failures of liberalism can be traced to the Enlightenment. If one studies that eighteenth-century movement one is struck by the moral seriousness of its leading advocates (and Habermas’ writings are imbued with it). One has only to read Shaftesbury to realize that theirs was no common materialism or atheism. The moral perfection of the human and of society that they envisioned, however, was based on transforming the material conditions of man, and this is indicative of the material trap into which liberalism has fallen.
One of the efforts of the early Enlightenment in Germany, my area of research, was the education of women. This did not have the aim of making women into poets or of admitting them to the spheres in which learned men operated. In fact, it is a sign that the Enlightenment itself occurred before the great break into the modern that such education for women was always promulgated by emphasizing the important role that educated mothers would play in the education of children. In an odd way, this was what today passes for home schooling. The men advocating female education, however, wished to wipe out the influence of the religious establishment in the sphere of morals and replace it with education that would train the child in the use of reason as the basis for the formation of individual authority in moral matters. The odd thing about such individual authority is that on all the contentious issues of the day-from Supreme Court nominees to animal rights-all liberals think alike. Not only that, but they are also certain that every rational person thinks like them.
It is in their talk with their children that liberals reveal their ancestry from the secular values of the Enlightenment as well as the configuration of the moral universe in which they live. Solutions to human problems derive ultimately from talking, which will lead to rational solutions. It starts early with liberal children.
“Show me a tree, Nathan. Where’s a tree?” says a mom to a child in a stroller. Or, “That’s his hunter-and- gatherer thing,” a dad in a supermarket says. He is talking to the cashier, a teenage girl with Asian features, but he is referring to the behavior of the two-year-old strapped to his chest. The kid, of course, is trying to grab everything in sight. “Hunter and gatherer,” I reflect, signifies the father as someone who is culturally literate, but it also displaces the behavior beyond the immediate setting. This is Kantian categorizing at its best. Neither of my parents would have made such a witty remark about hunters and gatherers. And they would not have subsumed my obnoxious behavior under the rubric of some larger cultural manifestation.
There is an entire segment of the entertainment industry that contains witty talk of this sort: TV sit-coms, which are mostly written by people with liberal sensibilities. In these shows, usually revolving around family situations, people talk endlessly. They articulate their misunderstandings, which often come down to conflicting emotional positions, and, presto, troubles evaporate.
What I most recall about my own childhood, however, is that I seldom talked with my parents. As a child I used to read articles in women’s magazines, likewise written by that branch of secular culture that sees in talk the solution to life’s conundrums. The articles recommended mini-summit conferences with family members, during which one negotiated emotional positions, struck bargains, came to understandings. I remember even aspiring to live in such a state, just as I desired to live in a house that we owned, instead of moving from duplex to apartment when we fell on hard times, with a room of my own that looked like something out of Seventeen magazine. There were a few adults in my orbit with whom I occasionally had a serious conversation, but there were none of the confidences or imparting of wisdom that I see going on around me at all times on the Upper West Side, serious discussions with teenagers about the merits of, say, ear- or navel-piercing or abortion. In every case, Upper West Siders sound “mature,” another linguistic legacy of my teen reading in girls’ magazines.
It hardly needs to be pointed out where liberals stand on the issue of abortion, which signals more than any other issue the divide between liberal, secular culture and a culture with some remaining reverence for traditional pieties. Again, it is the material achievements of our age that are eroding these pieties, guaranteeing us that we’ll have children on the best possible terms and not on the terms that the rest of humanity has had to swallow, which in most cases includes our own mothers. Indeed, the values and the lives of liberals represent what families might be if we were all rich and weren’t beset by compromise and financial sacrifice and the incessant demands of children you loved well enough to bring into the world, but who grow up and are thankless or disappointing and who in the end become mirrors of your own shrunken self.
Apart from the use of words like “choice” to talk about abortion, nothing better emphasizes the material nature of liberal morality than the current obsession with dysfunctional families, which has become a media shibboleth precisely because the media are dominated by liberal values. What is called “dysfunctional” of course represents the family situations in which most people in history have grown up. In these families, people travel an ever-narrowing road that limits you, whittles you down to dimensions you never dreamed of when you were seventeen years old and felt on the brink of life. The reason such people are not fooled by slogans like “choice” is because they know not only that aborting the fetus is killing life but also that it lets you off the hook, lets you buy time, get on with your life, get ahead so that you’re not faced with all the compromises they faced by taking the hard road-by letting life live.
They are parents who have to struggle to keep a roof over their head, who tell you “no” and don’t explain in full sentences why you can’t have what you want, who say, “That’s the way it is.” You come to realize there’s a meaning that defies rational analysis. Such realizations breed contours, an understanding of limits, and acceptance of inevitability. “Choice” in these cases is more a poignant recognition than a real option-a recognition that life is a trap and that we can’t escape accountability for our actions. It is in such conditions that the intangibles are born; for instance, in the willingness of people to risk their lives for their children and for the life that will come after them.
One wonders if people whose “moral” order is dependent on material values can make such sacrifices.
Elizabeth Powers is a writer living in New York City. She is working on a collection of spiritual autobiographies.