Magazine | June 11, 2012, Issue

In the Know

‘You are in the seat the cardinal sat in when we had dinner here.” We were three, expecting a fourth. The fourth would be a lady, so we had already started drinking. We were perched on a little mezzanine, almost a balcony, of a dark midtown restaurant, composed of descending levels. Our host sat in the corner against the wall: banker’s suit, crisply parted hair, sharp features, sharp voice. He looked to the friend seated at his left and said, “You are in the seat the cardinal sat in when we had dinner here.”

What could be a better opening? We already knew several things without being told: Any cleric our host knew would be of this city, hence a figure in the church nationwide, first, because the city is a media echo chamber and bandstand, second because its archdiocese is the historic preserve, no, property, of Irish-Americans (the ethnicity of our host), who know how to keep things humming. Franciscans might have been baptizing Indians under the cacti centuries ago, but ever since the Irish met the city, this is where it’s been at, church-wise. But this was all background, set-up: We were to be told something new, a story, not secret exactly, but special. A story about what? Religion? Politics? Political religion? Religious politics? Gossip (least likely, but possible)? Either the story was something the cardinal had told our host, or something our host had told the cardinal (seeking confirmation), or something the two of them were somehow involved in in some other way. We would learn. Our host offered me some red wine, then turned to his friend. “You are in the seat the cardinal sat in when we had dinner here.”

One of the things we cherish about the city is the opportunity of being in the know. Everyone knows his own life, more or less (usually less). What else can we know? We can know what we read in the papers or on the start-up menu, or what we hear on Jon Stewart. But can you be satisfied with that dirty dishwater? Assuming the answer is no, we can inquire of the Internet, the great brain that contains everything. There we will find tiny, brightly lit chambers, buzzing with relevant information, but also bias, attitude, and lies. The exasperated spirit spends hours, evenings, lifetimes linking from prison to prison, trying to pull it all together. There is an alternative to ignorance and futility: the conversation, face to face, tête-à-tête (or at most aux-trois-têtes) with the one who says what he says because he himself knows it, and now wants you to know it too. “You are in the seat the cardinal sat in . . .”

#page#Being in the know is not the same as being in with the in-crowd. The in-crowd is defined by fashion or taste: by being a step ahead (if you are a time snob) or a step up (if you are a quality snob). In-crowds congeal around shared appreciations: I have seen the YouTube diva, I worship the great artist. Screw that, say the knowledgeable. Those who are in the know are joined by the currency of information they pass from one to the other. Sometimes only a dime, a farthing, a mite changes hands. But every bit however small is real, and handling it makes you richer than those who are outside the know.

Organizations are mines of knowledge/money. Washington, D.C., is the Comstock lode, but its riches are all extracted and circulated by politicians. The city, because it is a real city, offers more variety. Politicians exchange knowledge here too, often of far-flung places (since politicians from the outlands so often come here to raise money). The Catholic Church looks at these transactions as at Tom Sawyer and his friends whitewashing the fence; it has been an organization for two thousand years (beat that for patina). Judaism is not an organization exactly, but it is a big family, riven into dozens of clans, many of which can’t stand each other, yet all of which seem to be aware of each other, from atheist anti-Zionists to bearded rebbes, and word gets around. Media, entertainment, sports, law, Wall Street, gaylandia — the options wink off into the distance, like stops on the A train.

Historically one of the subjects most worth knowing was gossip — the personal business, erotic or financial, of someone behind whose back the knowledge was imparted. We live in inflationary times, however, when people who would once have been the victims of gossip have become the stars (and producers) of their own dramas of exposure. John Edwards is perhaps the last American who did not want something about himself to be known; anyone else would have filmed the whole saga on his iPhone and sent it straight to Facebook. The moment knowledge is common, it stops being of interest to those who are in the know.

The most knowing writer in history was probably Saint-Simon, the meticulous duke who recorded everything he saw and heard in the reign of Louis XIV and the regency of Louis XV, from the War of the Spanish Succession to the bowel movements of a fellow duke (it takes too long to explain, but you can find the episode early in the Memoirs). Next to Saint-Simon, Proust seems lazy and wordy — and he had the advantage of making it all up. Saint-Simon’s great predecessor in the ancient world was Plutarch. Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus feel obliged to hammer what they know into narratives; The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans just gives us the goods.

We believe what the knowers tell us because that is how we first learned anything: Mom put us on her lap, Dad sat beside the bed, and said: “In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk . . .”

Our host and the cardinal? I could tell you what they said to each other, but I am not sure they would want you to know.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Canadian Crackdown

A considered and empathetic opposition to same-sex marriage has nothing to do with phobia or hatred, but that doesn’t stop Christians, conservatives, and anybody else who doesn’t take the fashionable line ...
Politics & Policy

Tea-Party Prequel

The three-plus years of the Obama administration have been something of a roller coaster for the Republican party and the broader conservative movement. On one hand there was Scott Brown’s ...
Politics & Policy

Getting Irreligion

There was a time when American politicians could condemn godless heathens almost anywhere in the country and expect nothing but lusty applause. Now, however, there are large swathes of the ...
Politics & Policy

Diverse Like Me

Once, not too long ago, when I was hiring writers for a television show, a network executive called me up. “We’re really hoping you’ll keep diversity in mind when you make ...


Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

The Odd Couple

Both the subtitle of Richard Aldous’s book — “The Difficult Relationship” — and its foreword proclaim it to be an exercise in historical revisionism. Justifying this, he quotes Sir Nicholas ...
Politics & Policy

The Scholar

Bernard Lewis is far and away the single most influential commentator in the English language on the Muslim world past and present. In the course of a long lifetime, he ...
Politics & Policy

Running Deep

The problem awaiting any author seeking to define introversion is that, in essence, it is about not needing, and not particularly liking, people. This is a felony in America, so ...
Politics & Policy

Tame Tyrant

During the spring television season, my wife and I became strangely fascinated by the Manhattan real-estate agent Fredrik Eklund, who is featured prominently in Million Dollar Listing: New York, one ...
City Desk

In the Know

‘You are in the seat the cardinal sat in when we had dinner here.” We were three, expecting a fourth. The fourth would be a lady, so we had already ...


Politics & Policy


A Childish Question In “The Empty Playground and the Welfare State” (May 28), Ramesh Ponnuru proposes increasing the child tax credit. Much of the argument is compelling, but I found one ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ A prisoner took 40 percent of the vote in a Democratic presidential primary against Obama. We see the makings of a John Edwards comeback. ‐ President Obama has renewed his ...

To Boldly Politick

It’s one thing to read that scientists are working on teleportation devices. It’s quite another to learn they not only got one to work but beamed something 143 kilometers between ...
Politics & Policy


Time and the River Time and the river have always their place in life as the essential things never to be brought home in triumph or in sorrow; never lost as they can never be possessed; and if ...
Happy Warrior

Eutopia, Limited

As the advanced social-democratic Big Government state sinks under a multi-trillion-dollar debt avalanche, the conventional wisdom remains all too conventional, and disinclined even to mount an argument. So much “progressive” ...

Most Popular


What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going? Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Lessons of the Mueller Probe

Editor’s Note: The following is the written testimony submitted by Mr. McCarthy in connection with a hearing earlier today before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the Mueller Report (specifically, the first volume of the report, which addresses Russia’s interference in the 2016 ... Read More

Kamala Harris Runs for Queen

I’m going to let you in on a secret about the 2020 presidential contest: Unless unforeseen circumstances lead to a true wave election, the legislative stakes will be extremely low. The odds are heavily stacked against Democrats’ retaking the Senate, and that means that even if a Democrat wins the White House, ... Read More

Why Are the Western Middle Classes So Angry?

What is going on with the unending Brexit drama, the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s election, and the “yellow vests” protests in France? What drives the growing estrangement of southern and eastern Europe from the European Union establishment? What fuels the anti-EU themes of recent European elections and ... Read More
Energy & Environment

The Climate Trap for Democrats

The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the ... Read More
White House

Sarah Sanders to Resign at End of June

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will resign from her position as White House press secretary at the end of the month, President Trump announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon. Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, succeeded Sean ... Read More
Politics & Policy

But Why Is Guatemala Hungry?

I really, really don’t want to be on the “Nicolas Kristof Wrote Something Dumb” beat, but, Jiminy Cricket! Kristof has taken a trip to Guatemala, with a young woman from Arizona State University in tow. “My annual win-a-trip journey,” he writes. Reporting from Guatemala, he discovers that many ... Read More