EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the November 29, 2004, issue of National Review.
I had a Russian friend of the Soviet era who was in love with English literature. He read the salutation “How do you do?” in the very literal sense of “How are you doing?” To his enchanted mind, all the grotesques of Dickens greeted each other by asking, “Are you making money?”
The archetypal salutation of a city is, “What do you know?” City dwellers chose city life, they like to think, because they are smarter than hinterlanders. Living in the city makes them smarter still (whence street-smarts; the country has roads, not streets). Pre-Internet, cities were information-exchange systems. Most obviously on Wall Street, but also in artists’ lofts (and bars). Every New York meeting contains the question, spoken or unspoken, “What do you know?”
Conversation is not a peer-reviewed article, so the knowledge that people offer in response to this question serves different purposes, none of them value-neutral. Much of our knowledge is meant to intimidate.
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