'He is barometrically interesting." This was Irving Howe's judgment of a professor of literature whose prominence we were mischievously discussing. We were praising the guilelessness of barometers. They come right out and say it. The same candor about the weather is gained when a writer unexpectedly expresses himself in a way that requires no interpretation, and thereby exposes the Geist in the Zeit. It is always satisfying to see the errors of one's time clearly stated. I am grateful to The New Yorker for this satisfaction.
One of America's quadrennial rituals is liberal shock. Again the Democrats are surprised by the brutality of the Republicans. They are lying. Yes, they are. They want very much to win. So should we lie, too? "We" already have. (John McCain did not say that America should stay in Iraq for a hundred years.) The Democrats believe that, by running roughly, "we" become like "them. " More grandly, the objection is that the moral character of a campaign is a premonition of the moral character of an administration. I do not see the correlation.
Once upon a time, before the panicked society-wide attempt to expel contingency from American life, existence was organized, or left sufficiently unorganized, for the refreshments of serendipity. The domination of the days and the years by logistics had not yet gone from authoritarian to totalitarian: interventions of experience, and island paradises of idle time, still got through. There were walks, and on those walks, finds.
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.
So there is historical memory in America! In fact, the American discussion of the Russian war on Georgia seems to consist mainly in remembering, or misremembering. The most pressing question of all is not how to stop Putin's vicious attack on an independent democratic state with a dream of the West, but whether or not we are witnessing a repetition of the Cold War. Who wants a repetition of the Cold War? Welcome back to the analogists' ball. If you are disgusted by Putin's war, then you are a grandchild of rollback and the sort of liberal lemming who would invade Iraq all over again.
I'm empty. No, not really empty; I was trained not to be that. The battle of ideas is never over, is it? The responsible citizen, the responsible critic: they are sleepless creatures. Last week I was in Jerusalem for a few days, and I am brimming with impressions and ideas. Obama and Clinton and McCain continue to inspire thoughts, and of course witticisms. A few days ago a friend of mine published a miserable piece on a matter about which I care deeply, and I am of a mind to be withering about it.
For a long time I did not hear the beauty of church bells; or more accurately, I did not wish to hear it. They sounded only like Christianity, which in my early years was a vexing triumphalist sound--the pealing of history, from which my honor as a Jew required me to recoil. When the tintinnabulations of the Church of St. Francis Xavier on Avenue O reached my ears, they brought the message that I was a member of a minority.
Obama and the Jews: you thought maybe you could get away without this discussion? If you did, then you misunderstand the quadrennial ceremony in which constituencies parade their fears so that candidates may adjust their pandering. It was Tim Russert who introduced the inevitable controversy into the "national conversation," at the debate in Cleveland. In his style of interrogation, Russert has evolved from a small-town prosecutor with a Google search in his hand into a game-show host with a trick question up his sleeve.
What you think of a presidential candidate is in large measure determined by what you think of the world. Different circumstances call for different talents, different sensibilities, different approaches to power. "Leadership" comes in many forms. A sterling individual may be historically inappropriate; and a person whom it is impossible to admire may accomplish significant things. The question of whether Barack Obama will make a fine commander-in chief finally depends on your view of the direction of history in the coming years.
So far the rocket-burst of Barack Obama has verified that Hillary Clinton has no obvious claim on the presidency; and that liberals, after seven lean years, are happy to lose their heads; and that excitement is exciting. Obama is certainly rinsing American politics of its over-ideologized and over- professionalized (they often go together) lassitude; his campaign has all the ardor of an insurgency but none of the anger. In November it may even be an honor to vote for him. But his astounding rise imposes a certain obligation of skeptical calm. Change: fine. A new generation: fine.