THERE ARE MANY ways to read legal opinions, and not all of them are investigations of law. For many years I have been reading Supreme Court opinions not in the lawyerly way, because I lack the competence and the interest. The lawyerly standpoint misses too much about life, and even about law. It can become an obstacle to a full understanding of social developments: in the study of the Internet, for example, significant concerns about copyright and privacy have overwhelmed more significant concerns about the psychological, cultural, moral, and even spiritual effects of our plague of screens.
IT TAKES ONE to know one, as we used to say in Brooklyn. Jeff Bezos, one of the most powerful gatekeepers in the history of gatekeeping, had the effrontery to rhapsodize not long ago about “eliminating all the gatekeepers.” The eliminationist rhetoric was consistent with the monopolistic inclinations of his company. “I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” he hypocritically declared, referring no doubt to his fellow Internet oligarchs, whose codes and algorithms and policies and interests have broken new ground in the manufacture of gates.
WHAT A SPELL of cultural miseries. Oprah Winfrey commended “Pierre de Chardin” to the graduates of Spelman College and exhorted them to “let excellence be your brand.” Yale University elected to have its commencement addressed by Barbara Walters. Al Sharpton appeared in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, which warmly noted that its reviewer has lost a lot of weight and eats fish twice a week and many vegetables. And Daniel Bell was made responsible for the Iraq war.
The problem with a moral vocabulary about politics and policy is that it not only makes politicians and policymakers feel bold, it also demands that they act bold. Eloquence creates expectations; and so in Washington, even for America’s first black, Jewish, and gay president, the goal is often to separate the high ground from its practical imperatives, so that an aura of rectitude may be acquired without recourse to significant action. Washington is the capital of idle talk about justice.
“Even though I am still very shy, I find myself able to project a quiet but unmistakable self-confidence, whether I am meeting world leaders like Barack Obama, speaking to a large audience, or dealing with a traffic police officer. ... In most situations, when interacting with people, I let my ego become small, humble, and mostly irrelevant, while focusing on bringing kindness and benefit to whomever I am interacting with. ... I am amazed by how much my simple aspiration for world peace has resonated with so many people.” The man who wrote those words must be insufferable.
By the standards of contemporary atrocity, Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner’s striking Andreas Ias in the face with the butt of his M-16 was a trifle. Eisner was the deputy commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade of the Israeli army, and Ias was a Dane on a bicycle who supported the Palestinians. The video of the incident depicts Eisner screaming in Hebrew to a group that does not understand Hebrew to go home, and holding his rifle horizontally, like an instrument of crowd control.
Thirty years ago I wrote a tiny book in defense of nuclear deterrence. Against the nuclear freezers and the nuclear war-fighters, deterrence was not hard to defend: my argument was drearily sensible. But I was nervously aware that I was urging good sense about a strategic situation that was senseless, because it was premised upon the credibility of a threat of holocaust. I was careful to note my discomfort in my book: deterrence, I said, may be supported but not celebrated, because it is another term for an unprecedentedly lethal danger, which it elects to manage rather than to abolish.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so the other day I read Rachel Maddow’s new book. It is called Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, and it is an anthropologically useful document of the new American disaffection with American force.
The oldest book in my library was published in 1538. It is Sefer Hasidim, or The Book of the Pious, the first edition, from Bologna, of the vast trove of precepts and stories, at once severe and wild, of the Jewish pietists of Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Next to it, and towering over it, which is as it should be, stands Moreh Nevuchim, or The Guide of the Perplexed, the handsome Bragadin edition from Venice in 1551.
When the sordid Sergey Lavrov demanded to know “the endgame” of the Security Council’s attempt to interfere with Bashar Assad’s atrocities against his people, Hillary Clinton replied that “the endgame in the absence of us acting together as the international community, I fear, is civil war.” According to many press accounts, there is already a civil war in Syria.