Liberal Arts

As readers of these pages will know, I spend a good deal of time in the beautiful seaside village of Wellfleet, out on the far end of Cape Cod. Demographically, Wellfleet is an interesting mixture; its flinty and hard-working year-round population of fewer than 3,000 swells to almost 20,000 in the summertime, as affluent vacationers flock to its sheltered inlets, freshwater ponds, art galleries, theater productions, excellent restaurants, and of course its spectacular Atlantic beaches, framed by towering dunes.

Wellfleet has long been a haven for writers and artists, some of whom my lovely wife Nina and I have befriended over the many years we have been coming here. You will not find it hard to imagine what the political climate of an artistic community in Massachusetts might be like, and as one would expect, the cars in town are festooned with bumper stickers bearing the predictable blue-state slogans. In many ways it is a lot like Park Slope, our neighborhood back home in Brooklyn. In fact, so many people from back there come up here in the summer that I used to say “you haven’t lived in Park Slope till you’ve been to Wellfleet.”

As is the case in Park Slope, such an environment can be tricky for people like me whose political views skew more toward the conservative on some issues. At social gatherings there seems to be an assumption that all in attendance think in lockstep regarding certain matters, for example that the presidency of George Bush is the direst calamity to befall the USA since the Civil War, and that Bush himself can be reasonably considered the spawn of Satan; that the invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein was morally and historically unjustifiable, and was based solely on the desire to further enrich an evil cadre of oil barons; that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and more recently Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and their ilk, rather than being power-besotted and ruthless proponents of a bankrupt and soul-destroying ideology, are in fact among the noblest figures of their age; and so on.

Now I’m no fan of George Bush myself, for a great many reasons. I cringe every time he opens his mouth to speak, and I agree he and his posse have made a “dog’s breakfast” of the rebuilding of Iraq. I don’t even like the way he walks. And I’ve certainly spent much more of my life on the Left side of the aisle than the Right. But as I’ve gotten older, and have seen more and more evidence that human beings are made of irremediably crooked timber, I have come round to a pointed and conservative skepticism of the Utopian fantasies of the Left, and have grown more than a little weary of hearing aging and comfortably-well-off people, their mouths full of Brie and Stoned Wheat Thins, opining that the US would be better off under Castro than Bush — the sort of opinion, of course, which, if expressed in reverse, would get them hauled off to jail in Havana.

But these are intelligent, likeable folks, with whom I do often have much in common. So I’ve trained myself, for the most part, simply to hold my tongue, because were I to get going on any of these topics at one of these get-togethers I am quite well aware that there’d be no end of it, and nothing to be gained. One thing I’ve learned: when people express a political opinion, you can generally be sure that it isn’t because they wish to invite their interlocutor to examine its merits with them. They want assent, or they want a fight, but they certainly aren’t in the market for a revised outlook. But this evening, at a convivial little soiree hosted by a friend at his lovely house by the bay, I did break my silence, in defense of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who was pilloried last year for trying to understand why women might be underrepresented in the sciences. Needless to say, it did no good whatsoever: despite the fact that Summers’ remarks had been, I think, completely misunderstood by the person I was discussing it with, and despite my having made a sweetly lucid and patient exposition of the key points, in a way that anyone of sound mind should have grasped without exertion, a disappointing result – which to my surprise resembled almost exactly that which would have been achieved by debating the matter with a mynah bird — was accomplished. (I want to add, by the way, that I have a great deal of respect for the man I was chatting with, an older gentleman of high intelligence, who had a distinguished career in public service, is the author of several books, and is generally a very likable fellow indeed.)

As my friend was leaving the party, he sought me out to say goodbye, and as we shook hands, he said, with a great big smile: “Malcolm, fuck you.”

So I think I softened him up. I’ll get him next time.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    George Bush isn’t the spawn of Satan?

    Boy, is my face red…

    Posted August 10, 2006 at 10:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Yeah – who knew?

    Posted August 10, 2006 at 10:58 pm | Permalink