“DIRECTORY TO THE SERAGLIOS”

In the Times yesterday, Alison Leigh Cowan has a piece aboutThe Gentleman’s Directory, an 1870 Guide to Manhattan brothels that is currently among the holdings of The New York Historical Society. Listing 150 establishments, and delivering “insight into the character and doings of people whose deeds are carefully screened from public view,” the palm-sized book discloses that “an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly” than at Harry Hill’s place on 25 East Houston Street; that Ada Blashfield of 55 West Houston Street had “8 to 10 boarders both blondes and brunettes”; that Mrs. Wright’s place at 61 Elizabeth Street had “everything that makes time pass agreeably”; that Miss Jennie Creagh had spared “neither expense nor labor” at 17 Amity Street to create a “palace of beauty forever”; and that Madame Buemont of 127 West 26th Street reportedly had “a bear being kept in the cellar but for what reason may be inferred.’’ While at least fifty of the establishments received rave reviews, others were panned: Mme. Pauline Beck of 69 Elizabeth Street ran “a noisy and untidy den of assignation, visited only by the lowest class of people,” and Hattie Taylor’s house at 111 Spring Street attracted “roughs and rowdies and gentlemen who turn their shirts wrong-side out when the other side is dirty.” Not many of the buildings that housed these brothels are still standing; the private residence at 105 Mercer Street is thought to be the oldest of these structures remaining. By the way, the Society has a an older, smaller guide dating from 1859 called Directory to the Seraglios, compiled by the “Free Loveyer.” (Pictured, a drawing from the an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette titled “The Genius of Advertising” that shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of the residents awaiting within.)

ANOTHER BIG SNOW

The sixth big snow of the season fell last night and this morning. We got about ten inches. The big problem now is to find a place to put it. We’ve had snow on the ground since the December 26th, and the snow berms lining the driveway and sidewalks are too high for the dogs to breast them. And we’re just about halfway through snow season. This could rival the big storm seasons of 1993 and 1996.

RAMBLING WITH LEVON

On Saturday night, Ginny and I and our friends Cathy, Tim, Greg, Susan, Jo and Dave took a limo (!) up to Woodstock to see the legendary Levon Helm perform at his studio/home. In this warm, intimate atmosphere (the audience couldn’t have numbered more than 200), Helm and his wonderful band (among the players: Larry Campbell, Amy Helm, Jim Weider, Brian Mitchell, Teresa Williams and Jimmy Vivino) offer a performance based on old time medicine shows: a mixture of blues, country, bluegrass, gospel, New Orleans-style jazz, Texas swing and rock and roll. Helm has had throat cancer, and so sang little and talked not all, but he played the drums and the mandolin and when he did sing, it was a pure pleasure to hear the 71 year-old trouper, hoarse as he was, throw himself into the roots music that has been his life-long love; indeed, the great pleasure of the evening was hearing all these virtuosic musicians throw themselves into these songs with such passion and enthusiasm and delight. Among the performances I most enjoyed: “The Shape I’m In,” “Ophelia,” “Bourgeoise Blues,” “God Never Changes,” a beautiful Spanish love song, and the closer, “The Weight.” The opening act, a young quintet from Knoxville called The Dirty Guv’nahs (boisterous, derivative, thrilled), came onstage and joined the band for this, and to hear seventeen musicians–the grandfatherly Helm and all his spiritual sons and daughters onstage–as well as the faithful in the audience, sing and play the great, mournful, enigmatic ballad was altogether like being in church. It was a singularly wonderful experience.

TRIUMPHANT `FIGHTER’

Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby: I’m not so crazy about boxing, but I love boxing movies, David O. Russell‘s The Fighter is one of the best, because, like the other great ones, it’s less about the pugilism than it is about the people. The fighter of the title is the promising but aging perpetual underdog Irish Micky Ward, but the film is not only about him: it’s about his lost, crack-addicted brother Dickie; Micky’s flinty girlfriend Charlane; his tough, exploitative mother; his tribal, “flying Irish” sisters; and the whole dismal, declining, prideful town of Lowell, Massachusetts. The film is full of great performances from Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams, and most generously, from a restrained Mark Walhberg, who appropriately underplays the stoic, internalized Micky, and allows the peacocks around him to strut, but without ever yielding his centrality. Well written, directed, and performed; excellent choice of music, too: Russell uses familiar songs like Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now” and Poison’s “Here I am Again” in ways that make them seem fresh, like revelations. Between his performances and his very smart choices as a TV producer (Entourage, Boardwalk Empire), Walhberg has established himself as a Hollywood power.

“A NATION UNTO THEMSELVES”

The new issue of The Atlantic features an exceptionally good article by the impressive Chrystia Freeland called “The Rise of the New Global Elite.” The excellent article describes a new aristocracy whose power reaches across boundaries, whose ability to act in its own self-interest is probably impervious to national governments, and, perhaps most alarmingly, whose fortunes rise and fall separately from those of most of the rest of us. For them, the economy is improving; for the rest of us, not so much. The bottom line: the income disparity is widening.

Says Freeland, “This widening gap between the rich and non-rich has been evident for years. In a 2005 report to investors, for instance, three analysts at Citigroup advised that “the World is dividing into two blocs—the Plutonomy and the rest. In a plutonomy there is no such animal as “the U.S. consumer” or “the UK consumer”, or indeed the “Russian consumer”. There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie.”

Continues Freeland, “Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few. The wondrous inventions of the modern economy—Google, Amazon, the iPhone—broadly improved the lives of middle-class consumers, even as they made a tiny subset of entrepreneurs hugely wealthy. And the less-wondrous inventions—particularly the explosion of subprime credit—helped mask the rise of income inequality for many of those whose earnings were stagnant. But the financial crisis and its long, dismal aftermath have changed all that. A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble. . . .

“The rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.”

Freeland takes pains to note that these rich are quite hardworking and very philanthropic. But obviously, private philanthropy offers the world at large a very different benefit than tax-supported government services, and these rich often take pains to make sure that they and their corporations pay little or no taxes. Increasingly, the cost of government falls on the middle class, and the benefit that society is supposed to get from the success of these fortunate individuals is shrinking.

A perfect companion to this piece is Michael Powell‘s short feature on Robert Reich that ran in the New York Times on January 7th. Reich, the economist who was Bill Clinton‘s Secretary of Labor, says that he likes much of what President Obama has been doing, but “If you widen the lens, the public is being sold a big lie — that our problems owe to unions and the size of government and not to fraud and deregulation and vast concentration of wealth. Obama’s failure is that he won’t challenge this Republican narrative, and give people a story that helps them connect the dots and understand where we’re going. By freezing federal salaries, by talking about deficits, by extending the Bush tax cuts, he’s legitimizing a Republican narrative. Why won’t he tell the alternative story? For three decades we’ve cut taxes on the wealthy while real wages stood still.”

While critical of Republicans, Reich has harsh words for prosperous Democrats who have become alienated from the real middle class. Writes Powell, “The modern Democratic Party, Reich says, is removed from what he and [economist Paul] Krugman view as a better time: the decades stretching from World War II until about 1970. The typical high-income earner then paid more than 50 percent of income as taxes. The economic bargain was explicit: government encouraged industry, and working Americans shared in the fruits, buying houses and cars, with pensions to tide comfortable retirements. “We tend to think of the political center as static, but it’s become much more conservative over time,” Mr. Reich says. “What’s happened in the last 30 years is that the private sector worker has taken a shellacking.”

ENOUGH REPREHENSIBILITY TO GO AROUND

In the Times today, David Brooks takes on those in the media who would lay the acts of an apparently quite mad Jared Loughner at the door of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, et al. “These accusations — that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl — are extremely grave,” writes Brooks. “They were made despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness. Yet such is the state of things. We have a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leans toward political explanations. We have a news media with a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to tarnish them. We have a segmented news media, so there is nobody in most newsrooms to stand apart from the prevailing assumptions. We have a news media market in which the rewards go to anybody who can stroke the audience’s pleasure buttons. I have no love for Sarah Palin, and I like to think I’m committed to civil discourse. But the political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible.”

Brooks is right: it’s a bad thing to jump to conclusions, if only because we have all been surprised before. (Most people initially thought Arab terrorists were behind the Oklahoma City bombing; it was a surprise that a domestic right wing terrorist was the author.) But it is a regular and routine (and often lamentable) phenomenon in America to use a specific event to discuss a bigger issue that we can’t quite talk about (think, for example, how the OJ Simpson case became a springboard to discuss race relations, the administration of justice, racism among the police, interracial relationships, and so on.) Brooks finds reprehensible those who dumped this incident at the feet of the right wing, and he’s right. But one reason that people on the left (I personally saw Joe Klein) jumped on this conclusion is because the right has been spreading outrageous lies for a long time, at least since the swiftboating of John Kerrey, and that not enough people like Brooks (and maybe not even Brooks personally, although I’m not sure) haven’t called out Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes for their rhetorical excesses, flagrant distortions and outright lies. Instead, they are mildly deplored and gently admonished, usually with a boys will be boys shrug. And on they go.

So yes, blaming this on the right wing was wrong. But the right wing behaves outrageously all the time, in ways that ought not be countenanced.

And here’s the other thing: if Jared Loughner had been a regular Glenn Beck listener, would anyone have been the least bit surprised?