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.
Beyond that narrow circle of the 0.1 percent, the cultural trend Roth expressed so well has spurred the proverbial “revolt of the elites” (another memorable Christopher Lasch coinage). That rebellion has apparently produced a “new establishment” (the Vanity Fair category) or a “new global elite” (Chrystia Freeland’s more serious term) buoyed by a serene sense of meritocratic entitlement. Its members must treasure the new freedom they have been granted even more strongly – undeterred by the resentment of the humiliated and insulted who have so tragically placed their hopes in Trump or Brexit. Six years ago, Kurt Andersen lamented in The New York Times “the downside of liberty.” His sentiments, however, are not widely shared among “the best and the brightest” – and the caravan only picks up speed. It would be curious to stage a debate between Andersen and Zadie Smith on the side effects of the cultural revolution that shook the world in the 1960s – and has gathered pace ever since.