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Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish was hauntingly beautiful, and his style often borders on the elegiac. Sometimes, though, he risks being smug, which considering his talents is both understandable and infuriating. His current piece in the New Republic reflects all of this. It strikes me as important, trenchant and timely, but also a bit too quick in the move to certain judgments. In any event, however, an essential read.
On the day that Clinton pragmatically announced that “the era of big government is over,” liberalism forgot itself. Pragmatism has a dark side. The allure of pragmatism was lost on the conservatives, of course. They sought power so that they could act on what they believed. And when they got their chance, they ran the republic down in almost all its aspects. We must not draw the wrong conclusion from the rubble. The problem was what they believed, not that they believed.
Of course Clinton’s embrace of aspects of the Reagan mantra was driven by pragmatism, and looking back from our current economic pit it does seem appropriate to call this a “dark side.” But Wieseltier forgets that the rejection of big, intrusive government was also a part of the American liberal mantra from the early age of the Republic–a part that seems to have gone lost around the time the Depression arrived and the modern commitment to experimentation arrived. And as for the self-described conservatives of the Bush team, the problem surely is what they believed—but also that it was a comic book version of the conservatism that has formed the American political culture.
Wieseltier is right to be concerned about the cheapness of the current political dialogue, especially on the conservative side. The tone of modern discourse lacks reflection; it’s demagogic, even violent—just the sort of talk which can destabilize a democracy in time of crisis. We are in a crisis. It should give rise to some deep introspection as to how we have come to this low point and how we can climb out of it. Those who brought us here in particular bear this moral obligation. And we see no evidence so far of any intention on their part to discharge it.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”