Notebook

The gilded prisons of America’s elderly rich

Also in Max Hastings’s US notebook: Trump and the triumph of irrationality, and a lament for the washbasin plug

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

I have been driving many hundreds of miles across America, interviewing Vietnam veterans for a book. Though I have been doing this sort of thing for 40 years, the fascination of the serendipity persists. I meet an extraordinary variety of people, way outside my usual social round. Some talk in modest bungalows, others in motels, one last week in a conspicuously wealthy gated community. Many rich Americans now live in such places — essentially their own country clubs, fortified by wired perimeters. The one that I visited covered 6,000 acres, with lots of lakes and a golf course. There is excellent food in the clubhouse, skeet ranges, riding stables and a small army of black staff. The notional population, mainly elderly, is around 400, though most inmates live there only a few months in the year, between vacations. Everybody appears wonderfully friendly, even at breakfast in the clubhouse. My host said that he likes living among his peer group: there are no great ego clashes, because all the residents enjoy the same sort of status and income level, which enabled us to sample Ch. Pétrus and Ch. Lafite over dinner. He asked if we have anything like his community in England. No, I said. I did not add that our friends like their own homes too much to confine themselves to an open prison, however lavishly padded the cells.

Civilised Americans wring their hands about the tone of the Republican election campaign. This seems derived overwhelmingly from social media and rant radio. We are witnessing the translation on to the hustings of the hysterical and abusive language in which most patrons of Twitter and Facebook, together with many Fox News commentators, address the world. Few internet conversationalists want to explore evidence or seek truth. Instead they unleash rival barrages of intemperate and usually false assertions, impervious to debate or compromise. The same process is poisoning university campuses, where students demand a right to be protected from exposure to unwelcome views and even unpalatable facts. It is less surprising that students are stupid, which they have always been, than that university authorities kowtow. Harvard has just announced that it is changing its law school’s crest because of an association with slave trading. Some of us would argue they should be far more disturbed about the moral implications of Harvard alumni’s links with bond trading. We are witnessing a retreat from rationality, of which the candidacies of Trump, Cruz and Rubio are manifestations. In 1968 Malcolm Muggeridge wrote from the US in his default mode of anguished despair: ‘There is so much information and so little knowledge.’ Half a century on, matters are much worse, as a significant element of the population seeks to reverse the age of enlightenment. If this movement is sustained, in academia as in politics, it seems hard to overstate the implications for American culture, and perhaps eventually for ours too.

There was panic in media circles when Jeff Bezos, megalomaniacal lord of Amazon, bought the Washington Post. In DC, however, I heard nothing but good things about the new regime. Thus far, at least, it has brought a big injection of investment, and no editorial interference. Morale at the paper is higher than it has been for years. These are still early days, but it would be great news if this great newspaper’s revival were to continue.


Apple’s refusal to assist the FBI in decrypting the iPhone data of a dead Muslim terrorist defies comprehension in the eyes of most British people. But Neil Sheehan, legendary New York Times reporter in Vietnam and many other places, told me at the weekend that he strongly supports Apple. So do many East Coast liberals. In Britain, a willingness persists to give government and the intelligence services the benefit of some doubt on security issues. This has been absent in the US since the Vietnam era, when the Johnson and Nixon administrations systematically abused the instruments of government to deceive the nation and undermine the anti-war movement. Plenty of Americans today consider Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency geek who exposed many secrets of government eavesdropping from the sanctuary of Moscow, a noble whistleblower rather than a traitor. This indulgent view is surely influenced by the fact that on their side of the Atlantic, the terrorist threat seems more remote than it does on ours.

On a brilliant spring day I passed by Gettysburg, most moving of American battlefields. I once lamented to the historian Eliot Cohen, author of Supreme Command, the difficulty of persuading immigrants to engage with our heritage. He responded: ‘When I take my students to Gettysburg and read them the Address, you would be surprised how often one can wring a tear from a Korean American or Cuban American.’ I believed him. His nation, more unashamedly sentimental than ours, does the stuff with immigrants much better. I remain doggedly optimistic about the United States, despite the obvious reasons for dismay. There is still so very much to admire, above all its boundless capacity for reinventing itself.

Visitors to the old Soviet Union made sour jokes about a nation in chains, none of which pulled properly. In America — and increasingly, alas, in Britain — the issue is washbasin plugs. I have used maybe 20 of the clumsy, stupid mechanical variety in the past ten days, scarcely one of which contained water efficiently. I love new technology, but why in God’s name must we suffer leaking basins and baths, when boring old rubber plugs were infallible?

Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and author, most recently, of The Secret War.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • davidshort10

    Take a shower. Baths are unhygienic. And why would you want to use a basin of water rather than running water? It is difficult if there is no mixer tap, of course. An Italian-American friend of mine always complains he cannot wash his face in London because of there being separate hot and cold taps. He would no more wash his face in a basin of still water than a horse trough.

    • Absolute twaddle from top to bottom. Baths unhygienic? Complete nonsense. I REALLY hate the way some Americans trot out nauseating stereotypes about lack of hygiene among Europeans. Most of these are based on the reminiscences of GIs operating in a wrecked continent seventy years ago where the infrastructure was destroyed.

      • willybach

        I thought male circumsion in America had a puritanical, rather than hygenic, justification – to prevent boys masturbating.

        • Well that may be – I have no idea, but whenever I have discussed this with Americans online they soon come up with spurious justifications based on hygiene and warn us European people that we will die of penile cancer, and hiv not to mention being stinking wretches that no woman would look at twice. The tragedy is, they really believe this stuff.

          • KingEric

            Tis not only Americans who regard inhabitants of our little island as terribly unhygienic. I remember reading of one Italian football chairman who could not believe one of his players would want to sign for an English club as all the women were obviously unhygienic “down there” as they didn’t use bidets.

          • Makes me despair of ever getting common sense from people.

      • davidshort10

        I think you should seek help.

        • Perhaps if you presented some kind of argument I might not need any. Your assertion that baths are unhygienic is entirely unsupported. Our bodies are covered in bacteria and are meant to be. It is extremely rare that these are in the least harmful to us. In fact the attempts at radical hygiene of many mothers these days is the prime cause of the increase in allergic illness suffered by many young people born after about the 1980s. Just about every type of allergic illness you can think of has increased in people born from about that time, BUT ONLY among the upper income profile. Children living in what you would probably call less hygienic circumstances, on farms, with house pets like cats and dogs, and those allowed to play in the dirt of the garden DO NOT show anything like the incidence of these health problems. I can absolutely guarantee you that the millions of bacteria on my skin which I wash off in daily baths or showers have no harmful effect on me at all. They are actually necessary to my wellbeing. As for the tens of billions of bacteria that live inside me – without them, I couldn’t even digest my food. My cells of my body are fewer than the cells of symbiotic microbes which I carry around all day with me. I look after them and they look after me.

          • davidshort10

            I have not read your long comment because I have a job but do please get help.

    • ThatOneChap

      That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in quite some time. Sinks are generally very clean. I for one always clean my sink once I’ve used it and bleach it regularly. This is especially the case in hotels which rely on their hygiene as a selling point. Mixing water for a minute or two at most in a clean sink will not harm you and the idea that it would is disconnected from reality. Personally I hate mixer taps as they always seem to break and inevitably look tacky, plus they’re foolproof in terms of plumbing. Also, if your friend really can’t abide mixing water in a clean porcelain bowl for a minute, why doesn’t he just clean his face with the hot tap or just take a handful of hot and cold water in his hands and go on from there? Sounds more like your friend is dirty, unhygienic and just making excuses, or has serious issues with changing environments.

      • davidshort10

        You need either help or a job, or both.

        • ThatOneChap

          More like your friend needs to go see a psychiatrist for being deathly afraid of sinks holding water to the extent he refuses to use them.

          • davidshort10

            Don’t be ridiculous. Tell your mother I said so.

      • The_Common_Potato

        That would require multitasking, with the left hand actually knowing what the right hand is doing.

    • Father Todd Untious

      Showers,especially power showers, waste a lot of water. Daily showers versus a bath every two or three days show the shower to waste more water.

      • davidshort10

        Well, I think we can assume you do not have a wife and probably not a job where you have to show up odour-less.

        • Father Todd Untious

          I didn’t say I don’t shower. I said showers waste precious water. The wars of the future will be about access to water, not oil.

          • davidshort10

            You are certainly right there.

          • Disqus Bolloqus

            I live in the Lake District. We have a surplus of water, as does much of UK

          • Tamerlane

            Bull, this argument had been floating about for twenty years and never materialised. The problem is you want to be clever but are too dim to know that just because it’s different and impresses you it doesn’t make it right.

          • Father Todd Untious

            So you advocate wasting water.
            By the way. I am clever. Just too clever for you.

          • Tamerlane

            You’re moving the gaol posts yet again. Whether I advocate wasting water is neither here nor there dimbo.

          • Father Todd Untious

            I am dealing with the same point. How is that moving goalposts?

          • gunnerbear

            I’m not sure moving jail posts is that efficient to be honest given the size and cost of most jails…. 🙂 I’ll get me coat..

          • gunnerbear

            Floating…..very good…very droll……

    • Disqus Bolloqus
      • aspeckofboggart

        That’s a lie. Some people are just clean freaks. Google American essay on this place named Nacirema. It’s no surprise the average American consume the most water on this planet.

  • T Gould

    I don’t think the nail is quite hit on the head with his analysis of loss of rationalism, but an interesting read nonetheless.

  • willybach

    The Malcolm Muggeridge quote seems to have drawn on what T S Eliot wrote: Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

  • davidshort10

    I hope my hair is as grey-free and dark as Hastings’ is in my seventies. It is a miracle.

    • There are a number of broadcasters on the BBC who have amazingly luxurious and youthfully looking hair. Wiggy Mardell also known as Mark Mardell is one such, but there are others too. Mostly they seem to operate in America, the land of faux teeth and wigs and dyed hair. Mark Sopel is another, but there are plenty more if you look.

  • ThatOneChap

    You see, Americans, and the United States in general, have not gone through a process of self-destruction of the national character and are allowed to be openly patriotic, even nationalistic, something that has been missing from British public life since the 1960s. As of such, there’s more of a core idea and identity that exists; anyone on Earth can become an American as long as they believe in X, Y Z and pledge allegiance to the nation. Generally people do actually pledge allegiance to the nation and while Americans are made fun of often for not having any history, the fact is that effectively, they do have more history than we do aside from appealing to the First and Second World Wars as why nationalism is bad and the Empire as a great sin, most people’s history of this country struggles to go back to the 1970s, let alone the 1670s. For Americans, they have roughly 500 years of inhabitation of their continent with 300 years of glorious independence. For Britons, we have 30 years of… um… EU is good and don’t be ‘racist’ or else bad things will happen?

    • Father Todd Untious

      The independence of the 13 Co!onies was agreed in 1783. 233 years ago not 300. For other US states independent CE came later with the Louisiana Purchase 1803 the Mexican wars in 1845 or the Alaska purchase in 1867 or Hawaii in 1959.
      Much of the US has only been free for 150 years or so.

      • Disqus Bolloqus

        Depends on the definition of free. Many would argue the inhabitants of NorthAmerica were free for many years prior to the events you describe, but that freedom ended with mass genocide of the population

  • davidshort10

    For a seasoned war and foreign correspondent, Hastings seems not up to the basics. Why doesn’t he carry a one size fits all rubber plug that many of us did on missions where water was precious and had to be saved in a basin? You can buy them for about £1 anywhere.

    • Mark My Words

      But you can’t use them if the plug hole is already partially filled with the mechanical device in question. They are only useful if there is no plug.

  • Tickertapeguy

    To quote the article “We are witnessing a retreat from rationality, of which the candidacies of Trump, Cruz and Rubio are manifestations.”
    Really Mr. Hastings? if supporting Trump is “irrational”, it would have been nice if you provided the reader what you consider is a “rational” candidate for the President of the US in 2016.

    • Disqus Bolloqus

      There isn’t one. You are talking of a country that tolerates its citizens murdering one another so they can uphold their ancient constitutional rights and damn the consequences.

      • Tickertapeguy

        If you are referring to the 2nd amendment then whenever terrorists strike Europe or states in the US with strong anti gun laws they do a lot of damage as in Paris

        when citizens want to overthrow a dictatorship then they want our guns. Your England gave the right to own guns for a short time in the early days of ww2 under Churchill.

        Berlin banned guns from her citizens first then carted a good deal of them to death camps. One shining example to an exception of that was the “Warsaw ghetto” uprising where a small band of Jews held back the Gestapo because they had smuggled in guns

        another example was the “The underground” during World war 2. They too were armed and did a lot of damage to the German Regime.

        Now here you are telling the American people how out of date our right to own guns. Israel has a more open gun law that allows the Jews to own automatic guns. Tell them to disarm and see what they will call you.

        • Disqus Bolloqus

          I didn’t tell anyone anything. I merely passed an observation. Any comparison of murder rates between US and UK will show you the price Americans carry for the freedom to carry guns. However if they are prepared to pay the price of daily mass shootings and unnecessarily high murder rates, then that is their choice, I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how they should lead their life.

          • Tickertapeguy

            Of course you did. You and no other commenter on this forum made that an issue when it was not an issue in the article or in my first comment.
            But
            Your comment against ownership of guns falls apart if you cared to know that most murders happen in inner cities and in the Ghetto areas. Most victims are blacks and most of the guns they have are illegal.

            there are hundreds of millions of guns owned by Americans and over 99% of us do not go around settling differences with a gun. Neither does Isreali people.

            As for Europe one of the most efficient killing machines that did away with an entire population of people was the Guillotine. (French Revolution) and Cyclone B gas (Germany in the 1940’s ) and not guns

            During the roman era it was swords and an efficient army. Punishment along the ‘Appian Way:” for mile upon mile were people crucified

          • Disqus Bolloqus

            Yes of course, blacks and people who live in ghetto areas aren’t real people so that doesn’t count. Sorry for misunderstanding

          • Tickertapeguy

            Dripping with caustic sarcasm and why? Not only black on black murders is the main reason for death by guns but innocent bystanders including children inside homes end up dead because of the high level of gang warfare and drugs in those places.
            you take that , twist it around and come up with them being not “people”. wow.

          • Anna Bananahammok

            If they are ‘real’ people, why aren’t they concerned about the black-on-black killings that outnumber the white-on-black killings vastly?
            Cause most blacks dying at the hands of other blacks, that’s REALITY.

          • Disqus Bolloqus

            Thus proving my original point that Americans are happy to accept its own citizens murdering one another to uphold principles of a centuries old constitution.

      • Father Todd Untious

        A country with 48 million on food stamps. 2.3 million in prison. 5.5 million on probation. 10 million denied the vote.

        • Sargon the bone crusher

          And the other 327 million doing pretty damn well, commie-boy.

          • Father Todd Untious

            The whole population of the USA is 323 million. Subtracting the ones in my post leave 257 million. But 15 million are disabled, 20 million are very old, 35 million live on the minimum wage, 14 million are illiterate 8 million are drug addicted…..

          • rtj1211

            Article supplying statistics to back that up? More likely 100 million are doing Ok to unbelievably well, 100 million are making ends meet and 100 million are on the breadline.

    • MartinWW

      That really was an extraordinary sentence from Hastings, backed up by nothing at all. I can only suppose he is a ‘beltway’ conservative. My own view is that Trump, the Democrat who has given money to Hiliary Clinton and Rahm Emmanuel (!!), is unsuited for the presidency. However, I have seen little in Ted Cruz not to admire. The beltway Republicans seem to hate him, but for no sound reason.

      • Tickertapeguy

        My take on Ted Cruz includes
        – his ugly treatment of a man named Haley when he was an Attorney in Texas
        -Ted’s connection with Goldman Sachs, which is one of the banks of the Federal Reserve.
        -Ted does not qualify to be President based on his birth right.
        -Commenters have pointed to the “ugly factor” of Ted’s face. Shallow reason but having to live with that constipated looking face for 4 years is a big turn off.
        As for Hillary
        She was Secretary of State during the Benghazi scandal and instrumental in the Arab Springs
        Hillary is the heir apparent to the Obama legacy

        • MartinWW

          On your first point, I would refer you to the correct legal position explained in the article “An NYT Hatchet Job on Ted Cruz” published
          January 12, 2016 in the Crime & Consequences blog, or ” David Brooks’ dirty hit on Ted Cruz” on the Ethics alarms blog.
          I’ll not waste my time with your other points.

  • Control Freak

    The one living in a gated community is Max Hastings, who despite condescendingly claiming to meet people “way outside my usual social round” on his peregrinations around the US, obviously only ever talks to those living in the closed loop of US liberalism. He has heard “nothing but good things about the new regime” of Jeff Bezos at WaPo because Bezos is content to let WaPo continue to spout Beltway orthodoxy. As for deploring the Johnson and Nixon administrations for having “systematically abused the instruments of government to deceive the nation”, maybe Max could try updating his Presidential demonology and leave his chosen gated community, by for example, questioning Hillary Clinton’s determination to keep her communications in public office private?

    Of course, if he did so, he might not get invited parties given by “civilised Americans”, where he could deplore the crass materialism of the masses as the immigrant staff served him canapés.

  • jeffersonian

    This article reads as if it belonged in the New Statesman – not The Spectator.

  • gram64

    ‘Plenty of Americans today consider Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency geek who exposed many secrets of government eavesdropping from the sanctuary of Moscow, a noble whistleblower rather than a traitor. This indulgent view is surely influenced by the fact that on their side of the Atlantic, the terrorist threat seems more remote than it does on ours.’ Don’t see how that is possible after 9/11, the Boston bombings, the recent mass shootings perpetrated by an immigrant Muslim couple, and so on. Hastings’ view is also not supported by the reality of the Presidential campaign, where Trump’s emphasis on the Muslim threat has been a major factor in his success.

    • rtj1211

      More that on this side of the Atlantic the majority are so thick that no amount of spying would actually find anything of value in their computers.

      It’s only those who actually do something innovative who have economic harm coming from the CIA/NSA axis. And trust me, they are organised criminals thieving for America across the globe in that regard.

  • Tamerlane

    ‘He asked if we have anything like his community in England. No, I said. I did not add that our friends like their own homes too much to confine themselves to an open prison, however lavishly padded the cells…’

    Wentworth!

    • Sargon the bone crusher

      And, in general, what a nasty. isolated snobby bunch live in that sh1thole.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        You’re confused, not many live in your house.

    • gunnerbear

      And the ‘Wentworthers’ are whining that the real 1%ers have rocked up and are pricing them out….

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    “Everybody appears wonderfully friendly, even at breakfast in the clubhouse. My host said that he likes living among his peer group: there are no great ego clashes, because all the residents enjoy the same sort of status and income level, which enabled us to sample Ch. Pétrus and Ch. Lafite over dinner. He asked if we have anything like his community in England. No, I said. I did not add that our friends like their own homes too much to confine themselves to an open prison, however lavishly padded the cells.”

    Pathetic English petty snobbery – England is now, in general, a poor, brutal society that cosigns most older people to isolation, foul conditions, loneliness, bitterness from the young, and a general feeling that the best thing they can do for the country is visit Dignities whether or not they need to. The housing for older people is often dreadful; their lives reduced by a pathological resentment of their continued existence.

    I am so sick of the few well heeled in England sneering at the rest and not giving a damn that another country offers a great life where the real nasty prison with the hard tack and cold poor cell is England,

    Stuff the arrogant ruling class there.

    • rtj1211

      He’s not sneering at the poor of the UK, he’s disagreeing with the rich of America. If you don’t know much about the cost of Chateau Lafite, I suggest to you that you won’t be buying it on the state pension……

      • Sargon the bone crusher

        A silly nitpicking response – he was laughing at hospitable Americans as only the English can Having accepted their kind hospitality.

        I could have expected a nobody would associate with him.

        He is simply spitting false superiority, and from a country that is by any reasonable standard a pathetic and very nasty failure, I wish it were not so, but Britain is unpleasant for most of its people, almost irrespective of personal assets and income.

        He drinks Petrous and Lafite ( and I have some in my cellar, so don’t try to patronise me) from pleasant people and then sneers his false superiority at them, to an audience he assumes to be the same petty English snobs as he is.

        He is in error. Times have changed

        He is on his own, except for a stuffed shirt like you.

  • gunnerbear

    “Apple’s refusal to assist the FBI in decrypting the iPhone data of a dead Muslim terrorist defies comprehension in the eyes of most British people.” I wouldn’t want to bet on that and I wonder why MH – an intelligent man – doesn’t even mentioned the rest of the issue….it isn’t the FBI demanding a ‘backdoor’ to one device for one occasion, it is the state demanding access to every device every time it wants it….something quite different from the inference in MHs article.

  • rtj1211

    Mr Hastings

    It is an indubitable fact that your profession may want to ‘discuss the issues’, but they only wish to do so on their terms, with them earning the money from it.

    I cannot tell you how many professional ‘journalists’/’blog owners’ write absolute garbage, find themselves corrected by me in factual terms, write their next article targeting me allegorically, then write the next one after that spouting what I originally said to correct their bollocks.

    Do you think I should respect such behaviour? Engage with it whilst deferring to them?

    Or should I expose them for what they are, lying charlatans who will join the CIA/MI6 in order to use the techniques of mass surveillance to balance the fact that their brains are rather lower than average??

    They come from the Labour Party, the UK right wing. They come from the US Republican Party and the US Democratic Party.

    They are working class yobboes from the East End, semi-alcoholics from Northern Ireland. They are public school hooray henrys. And more……

    What there is right now is a crisis of authority for very, very good reasons. People are no longer prepared to die to perpetuate the giddy lives of pleasure of the very rich. They aren’t and that won’t change. People won’t be diplomatic when journalists lie in print, quite rightly they want such journalists sacked. People won’t be diplomatic when politicians tell citizens that they are worthless as they won’t work for peanuts like immigrants. They want them thrown out of their country for good. People won’t be diplomatic when business CEOs start hacking computers and tracking people online for profit without explicit consent. They want those CEOs banned from business for life. Finally, people can’t stand SNP supporters coming to work in England and threatening the English in the place of work. They want those SNP shysters hung, drawn and quartered, not to put too fine a point on it.

    You want the ancien regime, Mr Hastings: earn the right to it.

    And remember, you don’t define the rules of engagement.

    That’s what you can’t bear more than anything isn’t it? That the oiks won’t accept you telling them what’s good for them any more……..

    • We’re in the midst of a social revolution – people such as the present writer (talented though he is) can’t accept it, because it is a revolution against ‘liberalism’. In the 1960s ‘liberalism’ captured the commanding heights of society and it is unthinkable to current members of the establishment that it can ever be removed – but it must be destroyed if we are to survive.

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    I know many fine Americans who have led creative and hardworking lives, and now pass their years in gated communities, where civic virtues unknown in bitter, divide, green-eyed and profoundly unsuccessful,Britain are practiced, and where the envious, impoverished, dysfunctional British would give their eye-teeth to enjoy the American life.
    Except of course for the morally bankrupt and rotten English ruling class, as full of arrogance as it is indifferent to the lives of its many disadvantaged subjects.
    Not citizens, but subjects who are required to know their place.
    Pitiful.

Close