Washington Diarist: Out There
December 24, 2008
Counterfactuals are the inventions of logic or misery. The interest in an altered world is not born of contentment. But when the imagined improvement turns out also to be real—well, here is the most unlikely true story about Jews in modernity that I ever heard. It was told to me many years ago by a Jew, an American judge, who grew up in the Jewish community of Goa, in India. It happened during the partition riots in 1947. He related that rampaging gangs sometimes broke into his family’s house, armed with pistols and axes and torches, and of course with anger.
December 03, 2008
A few weeks ago, the prophet Elijah appeared to me. It was almost dusk, and he took the form of a comely woman on P Street. She wore a black dress that tightly clasped her waist and sky-high black shoes with formidable fastenings. Her dark hair was pulled back vehemently into a ponytail, and drops of sun-specked metal hung from her ears. Most remarkable of all, she was dancing. A man in a dinner jacket was her partner, but he acted mainly as a pivot for her ballroom brazenness on the sidewalk, which was executed with an admirable mixture of discipline and abandon.
November 19, 2008
The leaves were not all that was changing in Lafayette Park. I had never before seen a patriotic mosh-pit, but I was gladly trapped in one outside the White House in the hours after Barack Obama's inexorable but still unimaginable victory. I had also never seen young people march on the White House in the cause of joy.
November 05, 2008
I have never voted happily in a general election. In the 1980s I envied my conservative friends who drew the curtain of the voting booth over an epiphany, whereas I groaned beneath my philosophical complexity when I voted for Reagan; and when I voted for Clinton a decade later, it was not without an exertion of casuistry about the distinction between supportable and admirable. I have not yet been asked for my vote by a candidate who represents the entirety of my convictions. I am not dismayed by this. Politics should not provide the most complete or the most profound of life's satisfactions.
October 22, 2008
'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.
October 08, 2008
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.
August 27, 2008
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.
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.
The Analogists' Ball
August 11, 2008
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.
June 11, 2008
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.