Critiques & Commentary

Welcome to Midas Watch – A Mission Statement

For the last two or three years, I’ve used FB as a sort of blog, sounding- and bulletin-board and forum. I posted stuff I thought my friends might be interested in reading and thinking about. But I’ve grown sick of FB in almost every way. I’m sick of the intrusions: the ads, the puffery, the come-ons. I’m sick of the dialogue, the trolling, the cloying compliments, the unremitting delectations of the self-evident and the obvious. So I’ve decided to launch this website. If you’re looking for me, here’s where I’ll be.

I’ve given this website the title of the column I wrote from October 1987 until early 2009 for The New York Observer. Certain principles abide. I started by what the Brits call “taking a view,” and so I plan to continue. As I saw it, we had entered a new Gilded Age, dominated by what I thought of as “the Overclass”, a money-based oligarchy that was despoiling the public and private institutions of the country .  This Overclass was exhibitionistic, ruthless, shameless, solipsistic, humorless, with little concern for the sensibility or situation of those less plugged in. If you spoke to these people of noblesse oblige, you were greeted with a look that combined moral blankness and contempt. I had grown up in and with relative affluence; what I began to see ran in the face of every way I had been taught to behave, I found myself agreeing with Dorothy Parker’s famous quip: “If you want to see what God thinks of money, look at who He gives it to,” and that’s how I wrote about them. They didn’t like being made fun of, being tagged with schoolyard nicknames like “the Prince of Swine” or “the Wee Haberdasher.” I have always believed the bad guys and idiots have names – and I had no compunction naming them.

Not that I made any difference. The despoilers are more in control than ever – and not only thicker on the ground, but more contemptible and self-regarding. In 1993, Random House contracted and paid me for a nonfiction book about The Overclass (that was the working title), but for reasons that remain obscure didn’t publish it. I guess it was ahead of its time, and in American life, nothing has less cash value than that.

Speaking out – saying what you think – can cost you friends. It cost me, especially when more and more people I had been close to in younger days began to discover how much they really loved money, and to organize their social lives and acquaintanceships around the indubitable truth that wealth loves wealth. Or, as they used to say on Wall Street, friendship can’t buy money.

That sort of thing made me angry back then, but no longer. I was 51 when I began the Observer column. I had much to look forward to – or so I thought. My fuse was much shorter. Now I’m 80, and my thoughts turn mainly to the past. When shit happens – and it does – I find I’ve become surprisingly philosophical. I must also confess that after nine novels and a few false starts (including The Overclass), the inclination and mental stamina to write another book has all but petered out. Writing is great fun – but being published (or not published) is torture, and after the way my recent novel Fixers was received (raves in The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, but no other major reviews. None), what’s the point? Still, once opinionated, always opinionated, once a writer always a writer. So here we are.

And so it goes. I should end this overture as overtures should, on a joyous note. The day this website launches is the birthday of my darling wife Tamara Glenny and my grandson Cooper Thomas. He’s turning 25; Tamara’s a tiny bit older. And tomorrow, my youngest son Francis turns 30; he had just turned 1 when I began “The Midas Watch”; readers of the Observer column knew him as  “Master Francis”. My family is my greatest blessing.

One final note: I’m not trying to make debating points. here. Trolls need not apply. People whose reactions I care about can post on FB or reach me by email at [email protected] or any other address you already have.

I’m fond of declaring…

that the principal problem with the Internet is that it’s given millions of people with nothing to say a place to say it. But it also brings us people (present company most definitively excluded) with much to say who can say it well. One is James Howard Kunstler. Here’s a recent post of his that Naked Capitalism, the website/blog that I consider indispensable, has deemed the best all-around case for voting for Clinton:

Sizing Up the Endgame

Pin these on the blackboard….

http://www.salon.com/2016/10/04/election-blindness-its-the-end-of-the-world-economy-as-we-know-it-and-we-feel-fine/

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-10-06/designing-a-tax-that-doesn-t-reward-failure

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/11/crash-how-computers-are-setting-us-up-disaster

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-12/get-out

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2016/10/earth-to-regulators-if-youre-going-to-ding-john-stumpf-how-did-you-miss-henry-kravis-leon-black-et-al.html

A requiem for “the country.”

My oldest friends have left Southampton after fifty years and moved further back up Long Island, an easy drive to the city. They’re, like me, of an age when closer proximity to children and doctors becomes a real consideration.

For me, as for them, it’s the end of an era. A kind of little death, if you will. It’s not just the logistical particulars inherent upon aging that impelled this decision. As important perhaps, the Southampton we all knew has pretty much ceased to exist – so why not leave. “The country”, as in “Are you going to the country this weekend,” has become “the Hamptons.” The architecture of that part of the world, and I mean not simply the physical structures, but the framework of distinctions and connections that make up the “social architecture” of a place, the way people handle themselves and each other, the ease and pleasure of dealing with daily life, has changed beyond recognition.  Inexpressibly, unacceptably.

I’m not going to dwell on the changes. What would be the point? The world is what it is, people are what they are, or – in many cases – what they’ve become: Once upon a time, everyone saw everyone else. Then Mammon crashed the party and…well, it’s like that great Bob Dylan song:

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Jokin’ and talkin’ about the world outside

With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices they was few so the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

How many a year has passed and gone?
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

 

Of course, “ten thousand dollars” is chump change today, perhaps the price of a carpet for the media room. And the clocks that can’t be turned back now come from Jacob the Jeweler and costs multiple tens of thousands. I look out the car window at McMansion after McMansion and all I can think of are the “bare ruin’d choirs” of Sonnet 73. Still, I’m going to miss “the country,” as it was. I’m going to miss certain people I thought I’d always see a lot of. It’s probably mostly my fault: I couldn’t find it in myself to make the required intellectual, social and moral adjustments. I could never force myself to respect mere wealth: as my late father used to say, “The upper crust? A bunch of crumbs held together by dough.”

When I was eighteen, my spirit was seduced by the poetry of A.E. Housman. It’s never lost its spell.  Pondering how it used to be out on the East End, in “the country,” his famous lines resonate: “I see the land of lost content,/I see it shining plain;/The happy highways where I went/And cannot go again.”

 

 

 

 

 

Brought to mind by Trump’s crazed 3AM tweeting….

“In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation came to mind when reports appeared telling of the Republican’s middle-of-the-night tweeting following his disastrous debate performance. Trump starts to seem certifiable. Perhaps a psychiatric panel needs to be convened to consider his sanity. It isn’t hard to move from the image of Trump’s short, fat fingers skittering manically over his keyboard to imagine those same fingers reaching for the red button.

Unconditional Recommendation…

Joseph Lelyveld’s HIS FINAL BATTLE: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt is absolutely marvelous. And deeply relevant to today’s political confusion, especially the effort by various powers-that-be  to undo the New Deal, that FDR had brought into being largely by force of will. Lelyveld’s depictions are telling; his analyses feel spot-on; the reader marvels at his ability to break down extraordinarily complex situations in both domestic and foreign affairs, highlighted by FDR’s mistaken confidence that he would charm Stalin  into staying out of Poland. I rate this book Unmissable.

 

A Writer’s Lament……

There are few times that I don’t regret having turned eighty, but twenty years ago, the publication and reception of my novel FIXERS would have had me reaching for the hemlock. One could make the case that the book was published with a mixture of bad faith and incompetence. Certainly to release it right after Christmas, with no real prior buildup of galleys or reading copies, no arrangement for bookstore appearances, looks like singularly bad timing, and that the physical book, when it appeared in January, contained an unacceptable number of typos, about which Amazon readers have groused, some in pretty strong language, didn’t help. I have a few other complaints, but what’s the point? The publisher and I have had words and we are no longer communicating. He has advised that he has no intention of publishing FIXERS  in paperback and has graciously ceded the reprint rights to me – provided I do any paperback edition myself. Right now, I’m reviewing that option.

What disturbs me more is that the book is about an important subject: the virtual disappearance from American civic life of compassion and idealism. Michael Dirda, reviewing FIXERS in The Washington Post, one of only two major reviews, both raves, that the novel got (the other was by Bartle Bull in The Wall Street Journal), “got ” this about the book. The narrative, after all, is about a well-born New Yorker, marinated in traditional WASP values from birth, who undertakes a political assignment that goes against his embedded principles because he can’t resist (a) the technical challenge it poses, and (b) he relishes being, even briefly, inside the higher circles of what some have called “the Deep State.” These principles won’t stay submerged, however; they continue to haunt the narrator as the story progresses.

The urge to write FIXERS sprang from my own consuming moral distaste for Wall Street and its works and days. After all, I had worked on the Street at a very high level in the 1960s and 70s, and in corporate finance until the mid-1980s, a period in which moral nihilism was nowhere near as all-pervasively contemptible as today. The inner turmoil my protagonist experiences, pressed on him by forces both innate and external, very much anticipated the passions that today convulse the electorate. The novel is really about what kind of a country we want to be; for that reason I really had high hopes for it in what promised to be a politically convulsive point in our history. No such luck, alas. But as Adlai Stevenson remarked after his 1956 loss to Eisenhower, “I’m too old to cry.”

 

 

Dry thoughts in a dry season…

I can think of no great writer to whom postmodern modes of thought and expression are less attuned than Alexander Pope. In someone like myself, educated in a milieu in which the great Augustan writers from Dryden through Addison were still revered, Pope’s verse lives on. His translations of Iliad and Odyssey remain as good as it gets. And the other day, pondering how I, entering on my ninth decade, can come to terms with modern life, I was reminded of these lines from Pope’s version of the Second Epistle of Horace:

“Walk sober off; before a sprightlier age/Comes twittering on, and shoves you from the stage:/Leave such to trifle with more grace and ease,/Whom folly pleases, and whose follies please.”

Of course, Pope didn’t write “twittering,” he wrote “tittering.” But such are the existential claims on memory that I injected that fatal “w.” Of course, were Pope alive today, I believe he’d’ve spelled it my way – and capitalized it in the bargain.