One of the consequences of the information revolution, or the digital transformation, or whatever we’re calling it these days, is the sheer amount of punditry on tap. Despite talk of the Internet as a site of quickly glimpsed imagery and viral cat videos, a solid core of old-fashioned moralizing, even sermonizing, punditry is part of the daily burden it presents. Everyman and everywoman supplied with a keyboard has become a sapient op-ed opiner and obligated reader. In a grumpy midnight mood, this too-frequent pundit made a list of the kinds of pieces that he will, in the future, avoid, having doubtless produced one or two in each category himself, in order to get back to reading Knausgaard.
1. Any piece about a sudden new national crisis of confidence, our precipitously plunging morale, or America finding itself at a unique crossroads. There is some truth in such thoughts, but there has never been a time when this has not been so, or perceived to be so. In 1991, when, by any sane standard, America had just triumphed unconditionally in the Cold War and was on the brink of one of the longest uninterrupted periods of peace, prosperity, and unconditional unipolar hegemony that any nation has enjoyed, for good or ill, since Rome, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a nine-part series entitled “America: What Went Wrong.” And a fine and prize-worthy series it was, because, at that moment of triumph, there were many things wrong. As there always are. (The series investigated the roots of what we’re now calling a crisis of inequality.) But those looking for national moods are too often entranced by sudden breezes, passing fogs, or thunder squalls. If a cloud is passing over the sun when the ballot boxes open, the cloud might win the election—George H. W. Bush learned this in 1992. To turn these vagaries into some kind of fixed and significant national “mood” is unfailingly fatuous. In modern countries, we should be able to talk rationally of real problems—growing inequality, urban unrest, the plague of incarceration, climate change—without imagining that a collective emotion is sweeping through a wildly differentiated people. It is a libel on the human imagination, and on the truths that novels and stories provide us with every day, to imagine that. There were people exuberant with joy, for their own domestic or romantic reasons, during the London Blitz and after 9/11. Mood and feeling are as variable as the last kiss we got. Indeed, the enforcement of collective emotion is the essence of totalitarianism. We should give it up.
2. Any piece about how all of France has adopted some custom or cultural more of ours or that urges all of us to adopt some French custom or cultural more. (I am hypersensitive to this particular nationality, but one could extend it to Italy or Japan or Wales or whatever the culture of the moment or piece might be.) The actual customs and mores of a country are so complicatedly wrought, so full of balancing pluses and minuses—the great French gift for producing courteous children is more than met by the rage and misery that most French children feel about the discipline necessary to produce the manners (it’s why they riot at eighteen); the American gift for instant intimacy is more than overmatched by the American weakness for disposable friendship—that we can admire or be amused by them without desiring to make them our own. Any cultural trait visible enough to be noted is complicated enough to be non-exportable. Even menus and meals, neat encoded emissaries though they are, can just barely be taken over. The old, elaborate efforts to bring French food to New York whole, dover sole and haricots verts together, only really began to produce first-rate food when the chefs stopped trying to imitate and started trying to innovate from the local goods at hand. It would be nice if we could take the Italian attitude toward love and riposos, and not so nice if we adopted the accompanying Italian attitude toward post offices and punctuality. Reliable rules of social peace, and useful models for them, do surely exist—gun laws limit gun violence; public sanitation is always salubrious—but these broad standards of social life are different from its smaller, strange traditions. Even social programs can only be exported with knowledge of cultural inflection—everyone would expect French medical care to be statist and national, when, in many instances, it depends, far more than other successful systems, on private insurance. (We might do better simply by universalizing our own Medicare and Medicaid.) Cultures come at us whole. That is the beauty and terror of them. We should study them because they’re beautiful, and instructive in the endless, necessary human lesson that Others exist—not because they can be disaggregated like albums on iTunes, with one song or another put on our own playlists.
3. Any piece assigning credit for something to the person or politician who happened to be around to get the credit, while missing the reality that it was an earlier politician or administration who actually did it. The transformation of Times Square, universally credited to (or blamed on) Rudy Giuliani, was due in no small part to things done by the Koch administration, and to the new kinds of policing that have—or have not—brought about the miracle in crime reduction that began under Dinkins. Life, including social life, never moves in neat four-year or eight-year units. Causes are like roots, deep-planted, and the results that bloom are, like flowers, often misleadingly flashy in ways that enslave pollinating pundits.
4. Any piece arguing that a momentarily popular movie or television series completely explains—or, worse, has inspired—a new or current political trend. Of course, sometimes you have to be dunderheaded to miss the connection: Clint Eastwood movies were popular in the early seventies because people were frightened of crime and had vengeance fantasies, however ugly, that were acted out by Dirty Harry. “Mad Men” holds our imagination in some real part because of our natural nostalgia for things that happened thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, but mostly because of the actors and the writing—not because of some previously hidden urge to drink hard liquor in the afternoon or because we secretly want to harass women, as all the show’s imitators will soon find out. The success of a genre piece in its time tends to have more to do with the genre than with the time. Both “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos” said something or other about the decade in which they were made, but they said more about the enduring and mostly unchanging appetite for tales of feudal loyalty and feudal violence persisting in a capitalist world, which, on the whole, rewards neither. (There are times, no doubt, when it does reward them, but not with the tidiness and clarity that the largely invented, and idealized, image of the Italian-American gangster provides. That’s why we prefer the idealized and invented image of the gangster.)
All these objections, I see, have a common core, and it is that the general and specific never move in neat unison together. Countries don’t offer packets of manners to export; whole nations never share single emotional states; dramatic arts aren’t clear mirrors of the passing moods. It is the vice of the journalist, I once wrote, to think that history can always be reduced to experience, and of the scholar to think that experience can always be reduced to history. History and experience are far more frequently out of sync, or running on parallel tracks. If art, even popular art—especially popular art—were simply a repository of an era’s wishes, to be matched beat for beat with its time’s psyche, it would not be art. It would be, well, a Comment, or an op-ed piece, with all the necessary fatuities of its kind.