Whatever the satisfactions of the liberal view of the world, simplicity is not among them. I do not mean that liberalism has a corner on complexity: there has been altogether too much liberal vanity of that sort. I refer, rather, to the liberal picture of existence. The picture is not of the one but of the many. Liberalism is a grand retort to the dream of oneness, which was a beautiful philosophical fantasy with sordid political consequences. From Parmenides to Marx—mystics and materialists have both propounded such a vision—the monist temptation flourished.
One expects to discover, as one’s experience of the years grows great, that life is too short, but it is disagreeable to discover that life is also—I do not want to say too long, because only a fool would want the light to go out, but long enough for one to suffer the marginalization, and even the disappearance, of values and causes and of course people that one loves. The world does not care about anything forever. Its forward movement will not be broken. The relentlessness of time is a condition of progress, but even when it does not bring progress it is relentless.
There are many ways to prop up a currency artificially. “We’re wrestling with the same stuff as Rilke,” Bono recently told The New York Times about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the hapless Broadway wonder for which he collaborated on the music. More specifically, “Rilke, Blake, ‘Wings of Desire,’ Roy Lichtenstein, the Ramones.” I was not previously aware of the Rilkean elements in “Rockaway Beach.” Those elements Bono characterized as “the cost of feeling feelings,” which throws the Blakean dimension into question, but never mind. Precision is really not the point.
Can one be for democracy in some states and against democracy in other states? As a matter of principle, of course not: democracy is universalism as a political order. It is premised on a certain conception of the individual and society, on an understanding of dignity and freedom that would be meaningless if it did not apply to all people. By bringing all people under a single philosophical description, it ignores, without regret, the social and economic and cultural distinctions among them. It equalizes.
This post is from our new In-House Critics blog. Click here to read more about it. Sometimes, Leon Wieseltier’s eloquence disguises a murky argument. “Political conviction cannot be indifferent to events,” he writes in his last Washington Diarist, “but not every event is an occasion for new thinking.” The Iraq war turned certain liberals (unnamed) who once believed “in the responsibility of American power to do good in the world” into Obama-admiring realists. They would be wiser, he counsels, to stick to their “fundamental beliefs.” And to grasp those, “The study of history should suffice.
“LET’S PUT IDEOLOGY aside; that’s so yesterday.” Those memorable words were uttered by Hillary Clinton in Santo Domingo, on her way to the Summit of the Americas. I wish to parse them. They may be read charitably and uncharitably. I will begin with charity, since in this case it goes against my grain. There are two ways in which the abdication of ideology by the Secretary of State seems understandable.
Is it really possible that in a Democratic administration the championship of human rights and the promotion of democracy will no longer figure conspicuously in the foreign policy of the United States? It is really possible. Oh, the stirring words will be spoken; the stirring words are always spoken. But in the absence of policies one may be forgiven for not being stirred by words. And so far even the language has been wanting in ardor. Idealism in foreign policy is so 2003. After all, the opposite of everything that George W. Bush believed must be true.
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.
My kids sniggered a little nervously when I came home with The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. They lost interest when I turned to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, a collection of columns by Salon contributors. Catching up on recent reportage from the Anglo-American home front (an antidote to tales from the battlefield), I also dipped into Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Lisa Belkin’s Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom.
Everywhere I turn, I meet opinions about Islam. I confess that I do not have one myself. I am not sure how to form one. The notion itself seems a little fatuous. Since I know what it is to know a tradition, I know what it is not to know a tradition. I read the Koran a long time ago, and like all scriptures that are read as if they are books this scripture left me respectfully bewildered.