Tuna Carpaccio Days are Here Again!

Jay McInerney is most famous for his first novel, “Bright Lights, Big City,” a skillfully-written but vapid portrait of a self-pitying young man’s excursions through Manhattan’s cocaine-charged 1980s night life. It was obviously a roman a clef, but he billed it as a novel; so if he’d wanted to make things up, unlike James Frey, he could have. That it was such a boring, obvious narrative can, therefore, only be blamed on McInerney’s underdeveloped imagination. (In your opinion, my grandmother would hasten me to add.)

“Bright Lights, Big City” captured the zeitgeist of the New York media crowd, who recognized themselves or their offspring in it, so it got lots of publicity, sold lots of copies and was eventually made into a meandering movie, for which McInerney wrote the screenplay. I resented McInerney at the time for many reasons — some having to do with envy, but also because he misappropriated the name of a great Jimmy Reed song.

Since then, McInerney wrote other novels that failed to capture any special zeitgeist, but he’s still deemed worth profiling in major media whenever a new one gets published. In this morning’s New York Times Sunday Styles section, we get the usual rehash of dates, drugs, marriages, divorces, depression, recovery and fashion. However, McInerney and one of his ex-wives make a couple of comments I found significant (emphasis added by me):

Mr. McInerney and Ms. Hanson broke up in 1991, and soon after he asked out Ms. Bransford, a jewelry designer from Tennessee. Three months later they married at the Municipal Building in Manhattan. Mr. McInerney published “Brightness Falls” in 1993, and they moved to a farm they bought outside Nashville. The idea was to put New York behind him, but that proved harder than he anticipated.

“I couldn’t quite handle it full time,” he said. “I need to be around Democrats sometimes. I need to get my fix of tuna carpaccio.”

Between Mr. McInerney’s frequent trips back to New York the couple tried unsuccessfully to have children. But in 1994, with donated eggs and a surrogate mother, they had twins just before Mr. McInerney turned 40, a development that, Ms. Bransford said, came as a shock to him.

“He just didn’t know who to be,” she said.

Doesn’t that just sum up why the Democratic party is in such a mess right now?

Democratic rhetoric continues to evoke the time when the party and its ideals reflected the aspirations of the working men and women, the members of industrial unions, the people whose upward mobility was tied to the overall prosperity of the nation. If the day ever came when tuna carpaccio was savored by a Democrat, it would be at a picnic where everybody got to have some, because hard work had made our country rich; not at a restaurant that only trust-funders and lottery winners could afford.

Today, the Democratic party gets associated with the concerns of the cultural elite — fetishists of haute cuisine, riders on the lifestyle tour of America. McInerney’s a perfect symbol. Messy, betrayal-filled love life, abandoned kids, a sudden identity shift from sleek urbanite to farm boy, who then starts to whine about missing those tuna-carpaccio-gulping nights with his Democrat friends. A man secure in the knowledge he can overcome mistakes and changes of heart by carpet-bombing his problems with money — money earned primarily through talking about himself in the media.

There are plenty of Americans whose lives reflect McInerney’s angst about “who to be.” Just not enough of them to elect a president or take over Congress.

5 thoughts on “Tuna Carpaccio Days are Here Again!

  1. “Messy, betrayal-filled love life, abandoned kids, a sudden identity shift from sleek urbanite to farm boy, who then starts to whine about missing those tuna-carpaccio-gulping nights with his Democrat friends.”–you mean you can’t find a single Republican with these problems in the entire nation?

    You seek to define the Democrat Party with Republic Party slurs.

  2. I guess I’m not much of a team player. I’m a lifelong Democrat, but having watched the party lurch from one failed strategy to another since the 1970s, I don’t think it does my side any good to play cheerleader or sugarcoat the truth. The liberal blogosphere is much too tidy of a cocoon these days, and I fear it is leading the party to yet another disappointing fall. That’s why I call this category “Democratic Tough Love.” I’m sick of losing.

    Sure, I was taking a little literary license by associating McInerney and his tuna carpaccio fetish with the Democratic party (he said, it not me). McInerney seems to be one of those baby boomers who is in a perpetual identity crisis, and it struck me as symbolic of the Democratic Party, which tends to develop a whole new strategy and new set of positions each election.

    These “slurs” don’t resonate just because the Republican party spreads them. It wasn’t the Republican Party that had Al Gore hire Naomi Wolf to advise him on how to become a new kind of person in the middle of a campaign. It wasn’t the Republican Party that forced John Kerry to issue his call for an Alito filibuster from Davos. The Republicans might have been unkind and negative with their 2004 portrayal of Kerry as a “flip-flopper,” but the strategy worked because Kerry handed them the sword. We do tend to find candidates who lurch from right to center to left, who embrace trendy ideas and then ditch them. Voters find this kind of thing shifty.

    The cultural elite of this country, by which I mean public intellectuals, publishers, editors, reporters, professors, leaders of arts organizations, film and TV executives and performers are, overwhelmingly, Democrats. That’s not a bad thing; and it was probably almost as true 50 years ago as it is today. The problem is that the tail is now wagging the dog. In the past few years, the party has let itself be defined in the public eye by its celebrity supporters. Mostly, this is a result of the Democratic Party failing to develop compelling leaders and compelling messages in recent years. We don’t act like a party that has core principles beyond pro-choice.

    Bill Clinton spoke to, and for, the typical voter. Who does that now on the Democratic side? I can’t think of anyone, can you?

  3. But maybe the problem here is that the Democratic Party as it currently is situated makes no sense, for it has no cohesive ideology, and it needs to reshuffle. Nothing wrong with that. It happens sometimes. The Democrats began to make no sense in the 1930s, and ultimately broke up in the 1960s — as Southern Segregationalists ultimately couldn’t stay in the same party as Eleanor Roosevelt, Northern Liberals, LBJ, and African-Americans supporting the Civil Rights Movement. The Republican Party hit a wall in 1932, when its progressives looking at the Great Depression and the prospects of FDR could no longer live with the party’s Lochner era throwbacks.

    I wonder whether we are at that point here. On key issues, Democrats are fundamentally and perhaps irreconcilably divided. I wonder if you lined up 10 Democrats and asked them the following questions, would you get even remotely reconcilable answers:

    (1) How America should respond to globalization and global competition? Protectionist walls or an open economy? Open immigration or closed borders? Protect legacy manufacturing industries and union benefits? Or let the global market sweep away major US manufacturing industries like the steel and auto industries?

    (2) How should America respond to security threats? Rely on existing multilateral structures, like the UN and the “Atlantic Alliance”? Or operate “unilaterally” with shifting alliances based on particular situations, recognizing an emerging multi-polar and multi-faceted world where the other powers and power centers don’t necessarily share our “values” or recognize our definition of the “international community”? Only go to war for humanitarian reasons, or for traditional “national interest” reasons?

    (3) How should America reform education? What’s the role of the federal government in this, versus the states? Are the teachers’ unions the solution or the problem?

    (4) How should America handle health care and pensions? Are these government guarantees, or should market forces and individual choices dominate? Do Democrats share Bush’s vision of the “ownership” society where, among other things, people would manage their own retirement savings by choosing to save through 401ks rather than social security, or use health savings plans? Or should we strengthen the current version of Social Security and expand Medicare into a single health care plan for all?

    (5) Should states legalize gay marriage? Should courts interpret constitutions to require it?

    In each of these broad areas and many others, it seems like there can be no coherent Democratic message, because Democrats are irreconcilable divided. Maybe this is why Democrats focus on such issues as pro-choice, because most (but not all) Democrats seem to be. So, if they can’t agree on how to face Islamism or whether we need a single payer health care system, at least they can rally around upholding Roe v. Wade (even though some Democrat lawyers may secretly question whether Roe had any grounding in the Constitution). Or they settle on euphemisms or compromises like being silent or evasive on the gay marriage question, but in favor of “civil unions” and things like “don’t ask don’t tell.”

    Ultimately, maybe what unifies Democrats is a state of mind — a sense that “we’re more tolerant than them, we play nicer than them, and we see more nuances in the world than those absolutists.” Well, maybe, but maybe not. But either way a perceived common ethos does not a great Party or Movement make, especially when we’re so divided on everything else — and where the ideologies and government solutions we created and continue espouse in platforms cut-and-pasted from prior ones were invented in the middle of the last century, before the Internet, Globalization, and Al Qaeda.

    Is it time to break up, take down the Republican moderates, and start a new movement? Or can the existing Democratic Party reach any kind of consensus on what it stands for?

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