Saturday, May 26, 2018

The gift of disinhibition

In her paean to Philip Roth in The New Yorker, Zadie Smith says his “central gift and the quality he shared with America itself” is unrestrained, “sheer energy.” In her Philp Roth Lecture two years ago, she said something slightly different – that reading Roth, she “felt something impossible loosen” inside. To her, it was an invaluable gift – “a gift of freedom.” Good for Ms. Smith, who went on to become a superbly creative writer. The gift she cherishes so much, however, might have had a larger fallout – related to the broader cultural trend Roth epitomized so powerfully. He apparently rode the crest of the “culture of narcissism” (or of “self-expression values,” if you the Zeitgeist calls for a less judgmental term). That tide has allowed, among other things, some exceptional individuals to make and keep what in the past would have been obscene amounts of money. This social group would include financial speculators, captains of the “attention economy,” and other “bad actors” (as Paul Krugman has dubbed them). They can now wallow in billions without the slightest sense of shame or embarrassment, and be a target of admiration rather than opprobrium.