Ordinarily, I hate August. By this time of the season, the enterprise of summer is running down, bumping over the ruts on tires that need air, essentially running on vapor. My golf game has turned out to be just what I feared, just what a couple of good rounds back in June deluded me into believing I might avoid just one last summer: one dreary 85 after another, a score I can find a dozen equally unsatisfying ways to shoot.
This August, on the surface, has been pretty much like most of its recent predecessors: bogey-bogey-bogey, with the occasional one-putt par and the occasional three-putt triple. But something’s going on out there in a larger way that’s caught my attention. Let’s call it the End of the Reign of the New York-Los Angeles Gestalt. My Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines “gestalt” as “a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.” To properly complete the wholeness that is the essence of a gestalt, let’s insert the word “cultural” between “biological” and “psychological.”
What I’m trying to get at is that I sense the Big Apple and its Left Coast counterpart have finally reached the end of their combined hegemonic role as the key factor in determining The Way Western Civilization Lives Now–and, by implication, the end to the perks, privileges and self-regard which go along with that exalted position. To put it the way it might be expressed by my young friend and former colleague Alex Kuczynski, now the ace media correspondent of The New York Times : New York-Los Angeles is, like, so over!
It’s not that the New York-Los Angeles Gestalt (hereinafter, the “NYLAG”) has run out of gas so much as that what it offers is no longer what’s needed or wanted. It no longer suffices. It is unequal to the day–because, at bottom, the NYLAG is basically nothing but talk. Gossip, buzz, hype, spin, pitch. It is a cultural system based on the belief that noise equals achievement.
It’s no coincidence that Tina Brown, the archetypal figure in the rise, rise and, now, stasis-before-collapse of Blah-Blah-Blah Culture, named her new magazine just that: Talk . And it’s why, I suspect, three-quarters of the copies shipped to newsstands, where the public is, don’t get sold. The London-centricity that works in the U.K., or used to, no longer works here.
Talk. Gossip, buzz, hype, spin, pitch and any other predicate of the notion that reality consists in being talked about, that saying makes it so. That hubbub equals artistic quality, cultural consequence, business truth: the “truth-positioning” of the spin doctor, the pomposity of the talking head, the entire world of Op-Ed bullbleep; the movie publicist, the stock analyst with his or her “price targets,” the corporate P.R. firm, “investor relations”; the tabloid “gossip” columns that are nothing more than publicists’ bulletin boards; publishing parties with free books for the “mouths” that will not only not read them, they won’t talk about them; Pearl Harbor , A.I. and other movies that fill more magazine covers than seats. The culture represented by Vanity Fair at its worst. All talk.
Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah! As my late stepmother used to say about the oil business: “All good news and no money.”
Or take the Clintons: all talk, all the time. It’s no coincidence that when Hillary Clinton looked for a state to become Senator from, she picked New York. All talk, all the time. The former First Family’s other favorite city? L.A. Shiny cars and movie stars and PMK. Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.
The trouble is that such a culture is based on a pervasive cynicism about the audience. A conviction that the audience is too obtuse to catch on, can be talked into buying anything, into accepting anything as gospel. It’s a conviction that comes from being utterly out of touch.
After a while, talk talks itself to death. And that’s what I think has happened. A kind of perversion of the old Chicken Little story, in which the protagonist runs around shouting, “The sky is beautiful and blue! The sky is beautiful and blue!” until finally nobody gives a merry screw. And then, because no one bothered to look up and check the cracks, it falls on their heads.
I think one reason the media establishment of this city so hates President George W. Bush is that he’s a sticks-and-stones kind of guy–words, he doesn’t fear; look at how he uses them–and they know it. I think The New York Times knows it, and that’s why Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is reinventing the big daily as a national newspaper. I think it’s why the magazines that are doing well in a disastrous magazine environment are the ones in touch with a country of 280 million people and not the 200 people who happen to be lunching that day in the Four Seasons. I really don’t think Felix Dennis, who publishes Maxim and The Week (which is, as someone pointed out, what Time used to be until Wally got his hands on it) would get out of bed to have lunch with, say, Henry Kissinger.
This all came to me a while back at a very classy cocktail party in the Hamptons: grade-A guest list (me being the exception); top-quality food and drink being passed around; lovely setting; fine evening. As is my wont, I stood off to one side, observing. And what did I see? A terrace full of people all going blah-blah-blah-blah-blah at each other. All with that special smile such people wear on such occasions: a grimace of joy at just being there, among all those other important people. I am here, I have arrived: blah-blah-blah-blah . And what did I think? I thought to myself: You know something? These people have talked their way from the center straight to the margin of American life. They don’t matter any more. And I think they know it. Of the glittering crowd, very few had done anything that you or I would consider “good work” within the past five years–unless attendance at the Davos Conference is your idea of accomplishment.
If Wordsworth were with us today, I think he’d rephrase his famous line to read: ” … getting and spending and talking , we lay waste our powers.” It is time, in other words, to shut up and deliver. To shut up and read. To shut up and think. To shut up, period.
Of course, talk is the way we perpetuate a state of being after it has passed. The 90’s boom was a perfect extended New York moment. It was all talk. It was a bubble–and what are bubbles generally filled with? Hot air. But it’s over.
The problem is, New Yorkers–including myself–are acclimated to think that talk is the trick. The city moves so fast–just the way the market did in 1998-99–that the pause for reflection will like as not cost you money. Better to keep the vocal cords humming. And frankly, there will be times–plenty of them–when that’s true.
But now is no longer one. And I think people sense it. There’s no better place to do fieldwork on the NYLAG than the Hamptons in August, and everywhere I went during the two weekends we were out there staying with friends–who represented both the “old” Hamptons and the “new” Hamptons, as these things are determined out there by date of settlement–I heard a lot of noise but felt precious little energy, and almost no conviction.
That’s what concerns me. My late father told me a few things while I was growing up that stuck, and one was this: “The point of learning to love reading is so that, if we lose our money, you won’t feel like jumping out the window.” He didn’t say: “Talk fast, and you’ll be able to reverse gravity on the way down.” There is a bookless generation out there–all those younger people jabbering away at each other under the polo tent. I don’t know how well, over time, they’ll be able to handle a world in which talk has lost its currency value.
You can see it happen. Talk has lost its power to create success, to buy acceptance. To make failure into success, to turn what is not into what is. Everything is weighed up, calibrated and calculated in terms of its “talk qualities,” its “talking points.” Look at this Lizzie Grubman business. No one I know thinks she drove into those people on purpose. Beyond that, conclusions with respect to this or that aspect of the situation tend to get pretty speculative. But I will bet on this: At the awful moment, in someone’s mind there flashed, like neon, the question What will people say? And from that flowed one bad decision after another.
For 15 years now, the NYLAG has prospered, but its moment, I think, has passed. Others may bemoan the fact. Personally, I think it may open the curtains on the fresh breezes of a new Golden Age.