It’s amazing how just four days in Jamaica will refresh the spirit, especially one whose substance has been laid waste by other people’s getting and spending, not to mention their need to fill column inches. Flying down with my son Francis the day before Thanksgiving, I was surprised to read in the New York Post a brief account of recent developments here at my address in Sag Harbor, L.I., which tickled a faint curiosity as to how it comes to pass that Richard Johnson is able to scoop me on my private life. I suspected his source may have been someone associated with a major local real estate firm–not Dunemere, which is handling the sale of my house–a suspicion subsequently confirmed by a message on my answering machine. This is why, incidentally, I am working with Dunemere, why great stars of TV and film work with Dunemere, why anyone with realty needs who wants to avoid the noxious miasma of publicity seeking and publicity bartering that has poisoned life out this way on the East End is well advised to work with Charles Bullock and his Dunemere partners and associates.
As longtime readers know, I regard Jamaica as a terrific vantage point from which to contemplate the New Global Order and its wonders. I say this because–in the course of a year’s reading on the N.G.O.–it has become perfectly clear that those who have the loudest opinions on the subject are people who actually spend precious little time living in it.
This Thanksgiving proved to be an especially fruitful period for the study and analysis of the N.G.O. The “outside world”–a phrase that in a place like Tryall Golf, Tennis & Beach Resort, near Montego Bay, Jamaica, has real resonance–was less present than ever. One reason is that the American networks have been scrubbed from our satellite TV system down there. No CBS, NBC, Fox or ABC on the dish. For this we can thank litigation that has convinced some idiot judge somewhere in the United States that a system relaying, say, the feed of NBC’s New York affiliate to 80 private residences in Jamaica is in restraint of trade–because the system is thereby (theoretically) denying NBC’s Missoula, Mont., affiliate access to this incalculably valuable market. Then there is The New York Times , now virtually impossible to obtain in Montego Bay, thanks to a U.S. distribution reorganization apparently designed to promote the Good Gray Lady’s e-publication. The latter takes the form of something called “Times Fax,” which arrives every afternoon and manages to exclude anything one would want to read.
Without a lot of news pouring in over the transom, the guests at Tryall were thrown back on their own experiences, reflections and convictions as we discussed the way the world may be going. It’s quite surprising, for example, how we overlook, by taking for granted, the philosophical and sociological implications of mechanical changes in our getting and spending. Take the computer, for instance, which all would agree is the soul of the N.G.O.
We talk about the computer this and the computer that, but one point I seldom hear advanced, a consequence that may loom largest of all, is that the computer has made it possible to economically (and often profitably) pursue infinitesimal sums of money. The computer has made the phrase “It’s too small to worry about” extinct. This phrase represents a human judgment, of which the computer is the enemy, despite all the talk one hears of “intuitivity.” How many times does a friendly merchant say, “Oh, forget the penny”? How many times does a computer make the same response?
In the difference, I submit, is the new world foreseen by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Not necessarily brave–but accurate to the 10th decimal place.
Making small judgments–we don’t all begin as Solomon, with a baby to bisect–is the way we learn to make large ones, the way we train people to manage, to move up the ladder. The more we turn the small judgments over to machines, the greater the risk of turning people into machine-directed automata–the sort who call you during dinner to make a pitch, but can barely pronounce the words they are laboriously deciphering from a screen before them. These are people who are learning absolutely nothing as they go.
More and more people are becoming uneasy with this, I suspect. This Thanksgiving, for example, I was interested to see that a distinguished, truly accomplished and cosmopolitan Tryall friend seemed to be singing a new tune. When the talk at the table turned to taxes–the flat tax, the wealth tax, progressivity in general–I was surprised to hear him say that we should oppose anything that further subsidizes the wealthy, of which he is eminently a member in best standing. Three years ago, I heard him declare exactly the opposite. It may well be that in the interval he has added a zero to his net worth, but that’s not what impelled him to say what he did. In his voice, I heard what I suppose Tocqueville did when he moved among our materialist ancestors 160-odd years ago: not altruism, but “self interest properly understood.”
This is a lesson the N.G.O. needs to learn. Since it was born two and a half decades ago in a conference room in Vienna, midwifed by OPEC and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the N.G.O. has basically been about making the rich richer through games played on computer screens. This effort has been abetted by a wondrous new technology of greed and a worldwide failure of political will at the top, from those in office to those in the media who are supposed to keep watch.
What bothers me most is how much of the N.G.O. seems increasingly to verge on the ridiculous, whether we’re talking I.M.F. policy or Internet wealth creation. It has such a comic quality, with the borderline between sublime and ridiculous all but effaced. Think about it: Trump for President, Clinton as President, the Mexican bailouts, Ebay, the “new” Russia, the “defeat” of Iraq in the Gulf “war.” Make your own list!
I’m beginning to think that this is what Marx foresaw when he made his famous statement: “Hegel observes somewhere that all great incidents and individuals occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Do not forget that Marx lived and wrote not only in the Revolutionary era of 1848, but in the Gilded Victorian times of the rising bourgeoisie, replete with railway (for which substitute Net) and emerging-markets speculation.
What Marx might also have added is this: that the working-out of either scenario, tragic or farcical, can prove equally catastrophic, perhaps bloody. A chair pulled out as a joke can lead to a broken back as easily as a smash with a club. So much of the N.G.O. has the dissociative unreality of a game. After all, where more so than from the window of a Gulfstream cruising at 40,000 feet does the world resemble a Monopoly board? Someone like Bill Gates has never had a real job. What does the world look like to him? What does he know of life?
We have survived, somehow, what Marx might have called the tragic instance: the 20th century of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the friends-in-power of Henry Kissinger. The question I found myself pondering as the stuffing and gravy went round was this: Can we survive its recurrence as a joke? Maybe this is what is really meant by Y2K!