What’s in a word? Or, rather, Who?
“Curmudgeon,” for example.
My Random House Unabridged (Second Edition) defines the word as “a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person,” and gives as synonyms, “grouch, crank, bear, sourpuss, crosspatch.” Not, in other words, the essence of jolly, “you leave it, I’ll take it” optimism. I bring this up because, in the past few weeks, the word has been publicly applied to your correspondent not once, not twice, but four or five times. Once, even, by a member of my family, once graphically, causing the present writer to ask his mirror the age-old question: If the shoe fits, why does it pinch so?
Some years ago, I observed that, in an age of euphemism, anyone expressing any doubts or criticism concerning the current state of things risked being labeled a cynic. I suppose that anyone who vocally clings to idealism-especially as regards human motive and possibility-in an age of cynicism risks being called a curmudgeon. I suppose that anyone who insists on noisily enjoying the fruits of a decent education in an era of downmarket ignorance, as if noisily eating an apple at some swank climber’s dinner party, risks being called an ill-mannered lout. I suppose that anyone who attempts to make an argument for moderation and discretion in the public behavior of the advantaged risks being called a snob.
Certainly, I was so described in print a while back by one Toby Young, one of those young Englishmen who have come ashore in the wake of Tina Brown. Like many of his ilk, Mr. Young seems to labor under the social burden of having attended a second-rate “public” school; when I see his byline, I instinctively think “Ampleforth,” or one of those places with, to borrow the legendary John le Carré line, a bit of red brick in the High Street. Writing in Time Out New York about how wonderful “the Hamptons” are, Mr. Young mentioned your correspondent specifically as the sort of person (he might have used the “C” word) whose complaints that this part of the world has turned into a pigsty are pure snobbery: specifically, as Mr. Young puts it, that the people drinking 90-year-old Armagnac in the American Hotel nowadays didn’t go to Exeter (my alma mater) or Groton. Or-he might have added had he known to do so-weren’t members of White’s or the Brook, two clubs from which I resigned when the members started to sell insurance to each other. The fact is, no one in his time has appreciated Ted Conklin’s superb locale more than I, but as I am both tapped out and teetotal these days, I lack the means and motive to visit the place with any regularity, and thus have no right to complain about the patrons, whoever they may be.
Which is not to say I don’t think things are going to Hell out here. I do. I’m afraid it goes a bit deeper than snobbery, however. Or-more accurately-a snobbery based on schools, clubs, addresses or telephone prefixes. My own is the view memorialized in a famous New Yorker cartoon. Told by his/her soignée mother that “It’s broccoli, dear,” a young person of indeterminate gender examines the mess on the plate before him/her and replies: “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!” Does that statement make that young person a curmudgeon? By the standards of, today, it would seem so-but is that fair?
For example, a true curmudgeon would have fastened on l’affaire Rennert and never let go, but loyal readers will have found scarce one word on the subject in this space. Why? Because I happen to think Ira Rennert is, in the absolute, entitled to do what he wishes with that plot as long as he obeys the zoning laws in force when he bought his property (I believe this to be his Constitutional right) and-this is the good part-because, when I consider the reality and the alternative, I believe his to be the better solution.
If he chose, he could have built 20 to 25 houses in one or more clusters on the plot. The arithmetic is pretty striking. Instead of Mr. Rennert’s 25 bedrooms, we would be looking at, say, 125. Instead of 39 toilets producing effluvia, 150. Twenty to 25 swimming pools instead of one. Sixty cars garaged instead of 20. Commensurate increases in daily vehicular traffic and emissions, landscaping activity etc. Architecturally? I hate even to think about the alternative, and so would you if you actually went and looked. That part of Sagaponack is home to some of the most hideous examples of American domestic architecture anywhere (I cite, in particular, the houses lining a cul-de-sac named Erica’s Lane), some of which presumably belong to the noisiest protesters. By comparison, the Rennert house looks like Fallingwater. The true scandal is not what Mr. Rennert hath wrought, or proposes to, but the hypocrisy and grandstanding of the opposition, many of whom can be found drinking 90-year-old Armagnac, and some of whom doubtless attended Exeter and Groton.
This is shaping up to be a strange summer out here. The present Insanity of Riches seems, beyond dispute, to be one of those forms of premillennial madness that historians have noted in other eras. Excess and folly in all things. Real estate mania is definitely out of control. The luxury estates page in the latest number of a glossy giveaway called Country -for which your correspondent did some art-writing last year-offers a gracious home with all amenities for $3.95 million, but the building illustrated is the maintenance shed of a local golf club. Will this give prospective buyers pause for thought? I doubt it, because the operative word in the Hamptons is, spend before the other guy does. It’s the same “philosophy” that’s driving Internet stocks. If someone says it, it must be true, which is really no more than a variation on the First Commandment of Clintonism: If everyone’s lying, no one is.
There’s no place to hide. We now have a Web site that retails the same quality of local gossip that made Philistines at the Hedgerow such an effective alternative to Nembutal. The party pages of the local weeklies present the unwary reader with a gallery of faces that make Jar Jar Binks look like Cary Grant. Up and down Newtown Lane in East Hampton parade fat girls with shopping bags from Scoop containing frocks they can’t possibly fit into. Madness!
At such times, a prudent man repairs cautiously to his porch and wonders what it all means. Whence and why this hysteria?
My guess is, it is rooted in a creeping apprehension that New York, fons et origo of the Hamptons Weltanschauung , is becoming marginal or worse. That the hicks are taking over, but that they are us. That the true hayseeds are now to be found between the great rivers, barricaded inside the Four Seasons, rather than on the far banks and streaming across the bridges. Why is this? Much can be traced to the fateful convergence in 1983 of the elitist Gestalt of Tina Brown-London-centric, buzz-fixated, ultimately parochial-with the social, physiognomic and other insecurities of S.I. Newhouse Jr. Technology played a part. Bit by bit, (cyber) literally, the city-considered in all its cultural and social variety and wholeness-would be transformed into a playground for a small “inside” set breathlessly fascinated with its own boldface doings as these were reported in gossip columns mainly read by the people in them. This is also known as “Kurt Andersen Syndrome,” after the author of the novel, Turn of the Century , which celebrates a way of life in which people are so fascinated with themselves and their insiderness they disappear up their own rear ends and cease to exist.
As this happened, the city lost its pull on the rest of the country. The evidence is everywhere, in every sphere. Take The New Yorker . I think David Remnick is doing a good job, but I think he’s pushing a stone uphill, because I think that he no longer enjoys the blind good will of, yes, the little old lady in Dubuque. Good will that amounted to a faith that New York was where it’s at. Faith that anyone anywhere with a scintilla of desire to be “up” on things needed to have a sense of what was happening in the big city. There was no cultural God but Gotham, and The New Yorker was its prophet. And you happily paid full issue price to subscribe.
No longer. But it’s the god that’s dead, so don’t blame the prophet. New York has lost its difference. The streets may be safer, but what’s in those streets you can find anywhere these days, or in your computer, so why make the trip? Other cities have as good or better music, art, public spirit, quality of life. Other cities are better connected to reality. New York used to offer both. Today, it’s a no man’s land across which a small “in” group rushes frantically back and forth to each other’s publishing parties, without taking time to notice that the rest of the country no longer gives a damn. If anything speaks to the self-negation of New York, it’s that Hillary Clinton has chosen to run here. What more resonant existential definition of our emptiness can we ask for?
I actually think it’s worse than that. I think the rest of the country has grown to hate New York, and is showing it in the way it knows it hurts us most: by ignoring us. I think the N.B.A. playoffs furnished the entire nation with a very effective contrast of “New York” with the Rest, and the Rest came off better. I think the nation got a long look at Spike Lee, who-as the incomparable Phil Mushnick has pointed out-would be thrown out of any other N.B.A. arena for carrying on the way he does, and has decided to vote its distaste at the Summer of Sam box-office. I was intrigued by a Daily News report on July 6, in which a Sam viewer was quoted as saying she couldn’t fathom what possible meaning this picture could have to someone in the Middle West. I doubt we’ll ever know the answer, since I doubt anyone in the Middle West will bother to see the picture.
Ironic, isn’t it? Well, just as the Hamptons are the world capital of envy, New York is the world capital of irony. And its greatest irony is itself and what it has become. Once a watchword for everything that stood for progress and cosmopolitanism, but now as inward-facing, inbred and parochial as the meanest hamlet in Appalachia. Who’d'a thunk it? Only us curmudgeons, I guess.
Follow Michael M. Thomas via RSS.