AUGUST 13, 2008
The problem with The New Yorker's Obama bin Laden cover was owed to a certain confusion about the moral status of wit. The image was the creation of people for whom there is almost nothing more mortifying than not being in on the joke. That is the bridge and tunnel of the soul. So it is worth interjecting that the duty to get a joke is always followed by the duty to judge a joke. More, it is possible to get a joke and to hate it. I make such jokes often: I wish to be funny because I wish to offend. The New Yorker wishes to be funny but it does not wish to offend. No, that's not fair. It is prepared to offend Dick Cheney. But now its urbanity has backfired and it has offended Barack Obama, than which there is no greater blasphemy. (The really fine transgression took place in Ryan Lizza's disenchanted study of Obama's cunning, which was smothered by the too-cool-for-school cover.) There was some amusement to be had in the magazine's appeal in its defense to its politics, as if progressivism is proof against insularity, and not itself an insulation. Still, my brothers and sisters at The New Yorker were not guilty of the week's worst. Didn't anybody see Newsweek's cover? It consisted in a close-up of Obama praying, or in an attitude of prayer--his head on his clasped hands, his eyes closed, his brow gently furrowed by faith--a head shot by Memling. "What He Believes," intoned the caption above his holy ear. This devotional portrait marked another stage in the transformation of Newsweek into Commonweal, though in this instance religious credulity was accompanied by political credulity. Why is the religiosity of Barack Obama less deserving of liberal distaste than the religiosity of George W. Bush? I mean, Jesus is Jesus. And in an open society, which places an extraordinary intellectual burden upon ordinary men and women, and cannot fulfill its democratic purpose without the ceaseless encouragement of habits of critical thought in its citizens, surely blasphemy is better than idolatry.
But there are people beyond the glossy metropolis who have a proper claim on our pity, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the forms and meanings of satire. All thinking persons must agree that the costliness of oil is good news, because it will bring us to our senses and we will allow the market to get to work on more plentiful and less damaging sources of energy. Our epicene relationship with energy will be economically refuted. Crises are opportunities, after all. Greening is a way of learning to take the long view. Is there any standpoint more "macro" than the evaluation of human affairs from the perspective of the planet? And so I frequently detect, in the excitement of some energy-and-environment writers about the social revolution at the pump, a certain carelessness about the near-term, a technocrat's or revolutionist's insouciance about immediate consequences. They are more exercised by strategy than by relief. But there are many Americans who are living this summer in a dread of winter. They are urban, suburban, and rural. They are poor and they are old. Before they will be green, they will be cold. For these people, this is a crisis before it is an opportunity. Is compassion insufficiently visionary? I was taught that there is nothing more visionary than a just society. In The New York Times a few weeks ago, John Leland wrote a haunting report on the impact of gasoline prices upon the elderly in Michigan and elsewhere, and it left me wondering why we must choose between "macro" and "micro," between strategy and relief. Is there no politics in America that can contain them both? If it is true that social policy is not energy policy, it is no less true that energy policy is not social policy. Except, of course, for those whose philosophy demands that they make it so: the president, for example, who did his Dickensian best to reduce federal money--now!--for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. There are many Republicans for whom the advocates of low-income assistance are sentimentalists who fail to grasp that a society is not built on its losers. But it is not the losers--a disgraceful way to describe the helpless, but they are used to it--who stand in the way of rationality and decency in our energy policy. It is the winners--the oil companies and the car companies, full stop; and in the dissipation of the Bush government they enjoy high-income assistance. As Robert Solow recently remarked in these pages, "asking the truly disadvantaged to take the long view is both unrealistic and unjust."
The losers in contemporary America conspicuously include the old, or the no longer young; and in a country in which the addiction to newness is even greater than the addiction to petroleum, this is as much a laxity of culture as a laxity of economics. I am not old, but I am not young. I have been watching with bafflement and disgust the "buy-outs" at major American newspapers, which are subsidized purges (better than unsubsidized ones, I know) of memory and judgment and all the other qualities that cannot be acquired without time. I recognize that younger journalists are cheaper and hipper, if hipness denotes an inability to distinguish between writing and posting. But why would intellectual institutions--I quaintly persist in counting newspapers among them--chop off their own heads? A few days ago I opened The Washington Post, the paper version, the one I will never give up, and found a mocking piece about the anxieties of the baby boomers, who "have once again spoken [and] what they have said is 'Waaaaaahhh.'" We are, it asserted, "a bunch of whiners." I will not rise to defend my generation, because we have made a muck of many things, and because we do linger long over ourselves, and because the analysis of life in generational terms is idiotic. Every generation holds every variety of individual. But I will not be given lessons in self-abnegation from Facebookers. The history of vanity has never seen anything quite like them. And I must morbidly warn them that connectivity will not protect them from the way of all flesh. When they come to bury a father or a friend, when their beauty begins to wither and their vigor to wane, when they awake one morning to the fear that they may have more to look back on than to look forward to--when the inevitabilities poke them, may their eight hundred "friends" stand them in good stead. I promise not to call their shudders whines. For if spring comes, can winter be far behind?
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic