Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Book Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir by Toby Young.

Tocqueville comes to America. Again.

This time, however, he arrives in the form of Toby Young, a Brit who took a writing job at Vanity Fair in the mid-1990s.

The allusion to Tocqueville isn't much of a leap. Young quotes him liberally in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir.

Educated at Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge, Young intersperses incisive commentary on American culture much like Frenchman Tocqueville did in 1835's Democracy in America with hilarious, self-deprecating stories burnishing Young's reputation as one with "negative charisma." As he describes his condition, "I only had to walk across a crowded room in which I knew nobody and nobody knew me and already I'd made ten enemies."

In this cultural commentary, Young makes three poignant and perhaps surprising observations.

First, the United States is in many ways more hierarchical than Great Britain. For example, America "is fundamentally different [in] the way powerful people are treated in London. Anyone expecting their social inferiors to prostrate themselves before them is regarded as pathetically insecure. Indeed, any public display of flattery is considered bad form. The correct way to behave towards a superior [in England] is to be ever so slightly insolent, thereby paying them the compliment that they're confident enough to take a bit of public ribbing....[T]he difference between London and New York is that in London people are rude to your face but loyal behind your back, whereas in New York they're polite to your face but rude behind your back."

Second, despite priding itself as a meritocracy, Young argues that the US is far from it. And Young asserts that Americans' delusion about this is deleterious. "Americans believe their country to be meritocratic whereas Brits don't. Brits acknowledge that the socioeconomic status of your parents can have a crucial impact on your life chances, whereas the majority of Americans believe they all compete on a level playing field. In fact, it's not quote accurate to say that they 'believe' this, since it's so patently false. Rather, it's an article of faith, an example of what Plato called 'a noble lie.' It's a national myth designed to make the extreme levels of inequality dictated by untrammeled market forces more acceptable and to dispute it would be downright unpatriotic."

Young continues: "On balance, however, Britain's more accurate self-understanding strikes me as overwhelmingly preferable. The fact that Brits acknowledge that your changes in life are profoundly affected by who your parents are means they're less inclined to judge people according to how well or badly they're doing. Brits are less worshipful of success than Americans and, more importantly, less contemptuous of failure. The aristocratic tradition of noblesse oblige has been preserved in Britain precisely because Brits don't believe their country is a meritocracy. Unlike America's top dogs, the better off in British society tend to feel a bit guilty and embarrassed about their good fortune, as if they don't quite deserve it. ... Contrast this with America, where anyone who doing well is automatically dismissed as a loser... The casual, unthinking cruelty with which successful New Yorkers treat cab drivers and waiters....was something I witnessed every day."

Third, according to Young, Americans are less free than their British counterparts, especially as it relates to free speech. For example, "Where's that love of liberty that's supposed to burn so brightly in every American breast? I was particularly shocked by the extent to which glossy magazine writers have given up their right to free speech in return for access to celebrities.... It seems far more likely that the gradual erosion of freedom is an irreversible process, the inevitable consequence of the triumph of equality over liberty that Tocqueville warned of in Democracy in America. The thicket of petty restrictions that New Yorkers willingly submit to every day is an example of what Tocqueville referred to as 'mild despotism.' Why do they put up with them? Because they enjoy the support of the majority, making them absolutely irresistible in a society so thoroughly democratic. It's a form of voluntary servitude, the means by which the majority imposes its well on the individual."

As a bonus, Young writes about how he put into practice at Vanity Fair something he learned in a philosophy class. "In Keynes's view, the key to persuading someone of the rightness of your moral point of view lay in asserting it as emphatically as possible." Young took this advice to heart and punctuated his story pitch with "Absolutely" and "No question" to appear as assured as possible. I had to laugh because I have come across this very form of argumentation in Court, but it's not particularly persuasive.
(See, e.g.:

A true "fish-out-of-water" story, with iconoclastic, intelligent Young trying to survive in Darwinian Manhattan, he delivers laughs as well as sobering thoughts about American culture.

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