Author: John Brenkman

9/11, 2001 – 2021

Something rang false back when President Biden announced that the final withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan would occur on September 11, 2021. Twenty years to the day since al-Qaeda hijacked UAL 175 and 93 and AA 11 and 77 and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania rather than, thanks to the action of passengers, the White House. What sort of commemoration did he have in mind? Not the defeat of the Taliban. Not the restoration of sovereignty to Afghanistan. What was the withdrawal to be a completion of? Not the so-called war on terrorism. Not a peace agreement among Afghans.

As the Taliban advanced last month far more quickly than anticipated, Biden defended his decision to carry out the Trump administration’s de facto surrender to the Taliban. “I inherited a deal.” Such strange fealty squared with his belief in his own rightness twelve years ago. He now could disinherit nation-building, recalling his oft-publicized opposition as vice president to Obama’s 2009 troop surge: “I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation-building. That’s why I opposed the surge.” He went even further, as if rewinding history all the way to the original 2001 Afghan mission: “get those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that.” Did we? The falsehoods of Trump’s justification of his deal with the Taliban, namely, that al-Qaeda was all but defunct and that the Taliban would no longer harbor it, have been amply exposed. Biden parroted these claims in justifying his own commitment to unconditional withdrawal.

The consequences of the precipitous, ill-planned withdrawal will cascade through the coming months and years. Most immediately it has left the fate of hundreds, more likely thousands, of American citizens and permanent residents prey to the Taliban, as well as even more Afghans who allied with the U.S.-NATO forces. More permanently, and appallingly, it has turned the fate of Afghan woman and girls over to this fanatical ultra-misogynistic vengeful theocratic regime that already terrorized Afghan society from 1996 to 2001.

As the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 loomed, it provoked memories and reflections well before Biden linked it to the Afghanistan withdrawal. I lived in Brooklyn and taught in Manhattan at the time of the attacks, and then I was on a teaching exchange and a sabbatical in France during the ensuing build-up to the invasion of Iraq. The historic tensions that pitted the U.S. and Britain against France and Germany became a palpable everyday presence. My first impulse toward writing what eventually became The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11 (Princeton, 2007) was to challenge Robert Kagan’s caricature of the U.S.-Europe tensions in his slogan, Americans are Hobbesians, Europeans are Kantians. He associated Hobbes’s “war of all against all” with the hard-edged realism of the neoconservative faction in the Bush administration and Kant’s “perpetual peace” with European resistance to interventions and over-reliance on the United Nations and international consensus. He got Hobbes and Kant all wrong. Hobbes imagined that civil society arises when individuals give up their natural right to self-protection and survival by any means necessary, yielding the means of violence to the sovereign to secure their mutual protection and thriving. The sovereign assumes the responsibility to protect subjects or citizens from internal and external violence; civil society supplants the state of nature’s (hypothetical) war of all against all. Kant thought the relations between nations existed in just such a state of nature, each neighbor a potential deadly antagonist; he neither presupposed nor expected perpetual peace but believed that the only way to reduce the prospect of war between nations was for them to construct lawlike relations with one another. Neither pacifism nor world government figured in his thinking.

Kant and Hobbes are not symmetrical opposites. For Hobbes, the sovereign is defined by the responsibility to protect and is thus inhibited from reckless bellicosity. For Kant, sovereign nations’ inherent rivalries risk war and need the inhibitions of agreed-upon rules. The Iraq debates, especially among scholars and theorists, frequently concerned the justifications of armed intervention and under whose auspices it should occur. The model tended to be humanitarian intervention, shaped by the debates over ethnic cleansing and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. When does a nation, a coalition, or an international body have the right to intervene by force in the affairs of a sovereign nation? The right to intervene and violate a nation’s sovereignty could be justified on the basis of a humanitarian duty to protect. To draw on more Hobbesian  terms, the ruling-power in such circumstances —the sovereign—has in effect abdicated the duty to protect and hence sovereignty itself.

In the event, neither the Iraq nor the Afghan intervention was a humanitarian intervention. The American-led “coalition of the willing” unjustifiably intervened in Iraq on the false pretense that Saddam Hussein colluded with al-Qaeda and possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” American-led NATO forces intervened justifiably in Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda, which was harbored and protected by the Taliban. The overthrow of the Taliban regime was the necessary means to the end of crippling or destroying al-Qaeda, while the overthrow of Hussein and his Baathist regime was the primary goal and based on various false, dubious, and mistaken premises. The neoconservatives believed, naïvely and recklessly, that simply toppling Hussein would give rise to democracy in Iraq and set in motion democratic movements throughout the Muslim world. The tragic irony of the Iraq intervention was that the overthrow of the sovereign set in motion the Hobbesian nightmare itself, a splintering of civil society into warring factions that left the population unprotected by either its own government or the occupying power.

At this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the duty to protect unexpectedly asserts itself again. But in an altogether new light. Not does the duty to protect justify an intervention, but rather: When does the ending of an intervention and the withdrawal of armed force constitute an abdication of the duty to protect? It’s one kind of tragedy not to intervene in a humanitarian crisis because lacking the means or considering it too costly or dangerous. It’s another kind of tragedy not to intervene out of callousness when the means are there. The Trump-Biden tragedy lies in causing a humanitarian crisis by ending an intervention. “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago,” Biden insisted the day after the final planes left. “Then we stayed another decade.” That second decade was not empty of accomplishments. Even as governance and exaggerated hopes for democratization faltered in Afghanistan, liberalization made significant gains. The most significant liberation from the Taliban rule that was suffocating Afghanistan in 2001 was the education that millions of Afghan women and girls were able to enjoy. We—and I turn to the first-person plural because I’m speaking as an American citizen not just an analyst or theorist—we had a duty to protect the institutions and humanitarian gains we enabled. In claiming to eschew nation-building and humanitarian intervention in favor of “vital national interest,” Biden renounced our national responsibility for the consequences of the occupation of Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt put it succinctly: “The 39 million people who may now be subjected to brutal, fundamentalist rule. The little girls barred from school and imprisoned in forced marriages. The people of the wrong faith prevented from worshiping, or killed for it. Are they not an American interest?”

The Post’s Afghanistan Papers reporting has revealed countless falsehoods that have been proffered all during these twenty years by every president and scores of generals, policymakers, and national security officials. The skein of misrepresentations and lies is so dense that it became virtually impossible for citizens, indeed for political leaders themselves, to assess the political, civic, and military situation in Afghanistan. Judgments and decisions have been made based on layer upon layer of fictions concerning earlier judgments and decisions. It is understandable that the lack of a reliable grasp on the reality, whatever the reality is, lends the aura of validity to Biden’s decision to end the so-called forever war. And as Biden performs sincerity and straight talk as well as, or better than, any modern politician, and as Republicans, billowing at whichever end the Trumpian wind blows, condemn the withdrawal they applauded under Trump, it is little wonder that the underlying national consensus is, Thank God, we’re out of Afghanistan.

Yet, Biden’s judgments and decisions are not as clear and just as they sound. He evokes a set of crisp but questionable distinctions and intentions that are meant to inaugurate a more realistic vision or “doctrine” of foreign policy. But each one is flawed:

Antiterrorism is to supplant nation-building and counterinsurgency. But nation-building and counterinsurgency easily become a part of antiterrorist actions, or a consequence of them. Afghanistan was proof of that! The antiterrorist goal of getting at al-Qaeda required overthrowing the Taliban and then dealing with the resulting humanitarian and governing crisis in Afghanistan. Targeted strikes, effective policing, financial controls, special forces, and assassinations are unlikely to suffice in every instance. Ten years after the Taliban were defeated, the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was hailed as, finally, the defeat of al-Qaeda but turned out not to have defeated al-Qaeda after all.

No more forever wars. Biden has taken up this rallying cry and views his Afghan withdrawal as ending the forever war. This repeats a fundamental error in thinking about the conflicts that erupted with 9/11. Despite its departure from Afghanistan, the U.S. remains caught up in an ongoing war with no end in sight. That the U.S. was in a war in Afghanistan and now is not, and that a proper war is one that is won or lost within clear boundaries of space and time, are misconceptions. The Muslim world is engaged in a geo-civil war which implicates the West but does not conform to the conventional vision of wars as nation-bound conflicts won or lost on a single territory. It is a geo-civil war in the sense that it is a civil war among Muslims in shifting antagonisms (Sunni/Shiite, Arab/Iranian, Islamist/nationalist, tribal, fundamentalist/pluralist, pan-Arab/pan-Islamic, ISIS caliphate/al-Qaeda Wahhabism), but at the same time this civil war has geopolitical causes and effects, from tensions between Muslim countries, including nuclear armament, to terrorist attacks in Europe, Israel, and the U.S., and the succession of refugee crises. The “war on terror” or “war on terrorism” is an empty metaphor that has failed to describe this geo-civil war, a war from which withdrawal is impossible.

Leaving Afghanistan to put resources and attention to Russia and China. Biden echoes Obama’s declaration ten years ago that the U.S. was going to “pivot” to Asia, reinforcing the illusion that the U.S. could pivot away from conflicts in the Muslim world. But the geo-civil war did not, and does not, go away. Its metamorphoses and metastases in the decade since the promised pivot have included ISIS’s violent “caliphate” and crimes against humanity, the Syrian civil war and Bashar al-Assad’s crossing Obama’s chemical warfare redline with impunity, the Libyan civil war after Gaddafi’s overthrow and execution, the illiberal evolution of Turkey’s democratic Islamic regime, and radicalization and self-radicalization among Muslim youth in the West, especially in Europe.

Twenty years is indeed a long time, especially for electoral and news cycles, but Muslims’ geo-civil war endures in all its shapeshifting ambiguities and contradictions. Biden’s foreign policy vision of America’s long-term vital interests may be very shortsighted.

On 9/11, I must have been among the first few thousand New Yorkers to glimpse the unfolding catastrophe. I had just finished my morning run several minutes before 9:00, a loop through Williamsburg’s Northside and Southside, and turned onto Richardson Street to cool down. I saw smoke on the horizon, and in that fraction of a second where the mind runs ahead of perception I wondered how that could be since I’d just been through that part of the neighborhood and there was no fire, and then as my eyes refocused I realized the smoke was coming from a tower of the World Trade Center. I scurried home and turned the TV on.

A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was not at first presumed to be a passenger jet or suspected of being a terrorist attack—until, several minutes later, the second plane crashed through the north tower. Our upstairs neighbors’ apartment had a clear view of the towers. My partner and I had lived in that apartment for a couple of months while ours was being completed. In those months my political and architectural prejudices against the twin towers of global capital had steadily dissolved. I could see them from my desk and became fascinated by the play of light and shadow that continually danced across them as clouds came and went and as the sun coursed from dawn to dusk. Now they were burning. From the neighbors’ deck we watched the unnaturally white smoke against the pure blue sky. Our neighbor was still shaken because her husband had flown on United that morning from New York to Boston, from which both AA 11 and UAL 175 had departed; he had called upon arriving saying something was going on at the airport. The three of us watched in horror as the towers burned and wondered how people were getting out. And then the one collapsed and then the other. TV transmission was lost, public transportation shut down, schools closed, and the regular flow of passenger planes to-and-fro LaGuardia and JFK was replaced by a couple of fighter jets that kept circling the five boroughs.

The first day the university reopened I had an evening class of advanced undergraduates at Baruch College. It was our first semester in a new building. Students moved through the lobby and hallways, quieter and sparser than the normal throng. Solemnity and uncertainty replaced the anticipation and excitement of just a few weeks before. The Armory that hosted the famous 1913 show of European art sits diagonal from the Vertical Campus across Lexington and 25th. Now it was the center where desperate friends and relatives gave and sought information about their missing loved ones. I had no idea what to expect in this first meeting. A majority of the class were in their seats; I silently worried about those who were absent. We shared various experiences and observations. One student reported that three of her friends perished at the World Trade Center. A young police detective who was back in college pursuing a bachelor’s degree said he was working twelve hour shifts six or seven days a week. Another student was the son of a fire captain who knew many of the lost fire fighters. So many of these individual stories would reverberate in the coming weeks. Most Baruch students pursue business degrees, so how many students or alums were interning or working for companies and firms in the World Trade Center? I unsuccessfully pressed a senior administrator to have the college identify victims with a tie to the college. I thought of the fire captain’s son and the detective many times in the following months as memorials sprang up on fire trucks and at fire stations in neighborhoods throughout the city.

I asked the class what they wanted to do with the rest of the evening. We could cut class short and resume next week. Or we could discuss the issues that were emerging regarding the attacks, terrorism, and America’s response. Or we could take up the readings assigned after our last meeting. Spontaneously and unanimously the class wanted to discuss the assignment. I had the sense that gathering in this space separated from all they had seen and done in the last several days was a respite. Not an escape from reality but an opportunity to regain equilibrium and autonomy in relation to that reality. My surmise was tested immediately. The assigned readings were Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, a handful of poems on the death of a girl or young woman, a fictional figure through whom Wordsworth probes the experience of death, loss, youth cut short, grief, and missed possibility. The students were insightful and engaged. They touched on the poems’ themes, speculated on the poet’s motives and feelings, questioned the fictionality of Lucy, and entertained the structural and formal features of these short poems. It was a great discussion. It was one of those moments when the everyday commitment to teaching suddenly, often unexpectedly lights up as conviction and vocation. That feeling was all the more intense because in the midst of all the death and grief of 9/11, which my students were living in the most immediate ways, these poems did not offer consolation. They did not soften loss. They did not wrap death in any redemption, afterlife, or compensation. The shortest of the Lucy poems is at once “but a vision of reality” at its starkest and one of the most powerful and complex poems in English:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

  I had no human fears:

She seem’d a thing that could not feel

  The touch of earthly years.

 

No motion has she now, no force;

  She neither hears nor sees;

Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course

  With rocks, and stones, and trees.

To have that evening’s discussion of Wordsworth with my fellow city dwellers affirmed anew the meaning of learning. The classroom is a space where mind and sensibility can exercise themselves without coercion or dogma, where reality can be confronted without a loss of autonomy or courage, where consolation can be questioned without loss of hope.

Jill Biden has devoted her life to teaching community college students, so the president must know teachers’ visceral conviction that education is the surest path to individuals’ freedom and society’s enlightenment. The more socially oppressed, denigrated, or excluded the individual is, the more essential is his or her access to learning, inquiry, and freedom of thought. There is nothing more horrifying and heartbreaking than seeing young persons being deprived of the education they want to pursue. Is this not indeed a vital American interest anywhere in the world where it can be fostered or protected?

the poetics of hockey

The poetics of hockey has suffered a terrible blow. Doc Emrick retired at the end of last season after forty-seven years as the most expressive and eloquent of sports announcers. He called an NHL broadcast on TV as though he were still on radio, delivering a nonstop monologue of every pass, every shot, and every collision as ten players on skates sped full tilt and swung a five-foot stick as they swirled back and forth on a walled-in ice rink, a rectangle with rounded corners measuring a mere 200-by-85 feet. Players play with such intensity that they rotate to the bench every forty-five seconds or so. Doc Emerick spoke each one’s name and every action in real time. Anyone else would be breathless, but he could keep it up, his voice steady or modulating or eruptive as fit the action, through every minute of play.

His signature phrasing included a verb and a preposition or adverb: dropping back in, feeds it on through, wristing one ahead, given back across, rattled it on around, lifted back along.

I am an occasional hockey fan, so much so that I probably don’t deserve to be called a fan. I didn’t acquire even a basic understanding of the game until teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose hockey tradition is so deep and fans so fanatical that season tickets are often a hotly contested item in divorces. A friend took me to a game and explained the rules and action as I watched in wide-eyed wonder and confusion. In the last several years I have sometimes followed the NHL playoffs. At some point, I simply wanted to watch a game if it were being called by Doc Emrick.

An alchemy occurs in English when a verb combines with an adverb or especially with a preposition to create meanings, idioms, metaphors, and images that are lacking in the verb itself. Check in, check out, check up on, check up. Often the preposition has an object: I came to a fork in the road, but the same verb and preposition without the object means something else altogether: a few seconds after my fall, I came to. Yet another meaning arises in I wasn’t sure how I came across. Idioms are spawned when to bring is yoked to around or down or up. Or take the most basic monosyllabic obscenity, fuck. Its meaning changes as soon as it is followed by up or over or off.

Anglo-Saxon verbs seem the most inclined to such creative transmutations. Occasionally, in a furor of attentiveness I have written down as fast as I could Doc Emrick’s phrasal creativity:

 

sped across                                                       nudged around behind

rattled along                                                    dropped it along

canceled out                                                    dealt along behind

handed back across                                        tipped back at

jammed on further                                        dished away

peeling it off                                                    whistled that one back down

drags it along                                                   tried to chip it on by

connected back behind                                 poles it in on goal

twisted it on                                                     played it along to

feathered along                                                popped it out of play

stepped back in                                               brushed on further

grabs it off there                                             shrugged it away

worked outside                                               spiked back out

forced along                                                     walks it across

directed back on                                             poked along

seeing it knifed away                                      skidded down the ice

elevated over                                                    shoveled on to

shaken back along                                          slopped it to

scaled it back along                                        sailed back out

floating one around                                       wound it around

forced back out again                                    lobbed on

lobbed back in                                                shoved off by

pitchforked on back                                      poked around

swept back along                                            punched away

skittered on to center                                    jammed back up the boards

floated up high                                               popped back up in the air

steers it away                                                   feathered forward

 

The “it” that all these expressions refer to, or silently allude to, is the puck. The verbal wealth surrounds the most mundane object in all sports. It can’t be dribbled or passed like a basketball, it does not spiral toward its target like a football, it is not made with the multiple materials and artful winding of a baseball; it requires no animal hide like all of the above. It is at once the essence of the game and the hardest thing for the spectator to see, especially on television. Hence it is the referent of nearly every of Doc Emrick’s turns of phrase.

He draws on another arsenal of verbs to describe the skaters: burrowing into the corner, wedging his way, gliding on in, the jostling continues, he was bumped off, swirls, slams on the brakes.

The ability to summon up a stream of verbs and their prepositions and adverbs at the speed of the puck’s movement up and down the ice, from player to player, off the boards or the glass, deflected away from the net, must have required, I imagine (hope!), disciplined preparation. Perhaps Doc Emrick habitually jotted down verbs and phrases and studied them long enough to create a reliable cache to tap during the game, just as he would memorize each player’s name and number before each game. Such carefully prepared and honed spontaneity has a similar but distinct manifestation in the announcers who call horse races, often a dozen in a day. They must memorize the colors of each jockey’s silks and attach it to the horse he or she is riding, and the jockeys wear different silks in every race, since the colors belong to the horse not the rider. A race lasts for three minutes give or take. The dozen or more horses change positions several times, and the announcer, watching through binoculars, resets the entire field every fifteen seconds or less, from front to back with all the changes in between while keeping attention on the contest for the lead. As seamless and enthralling as the call of the race is, the lexicon is limited, except for the horses’ tongue-twisting names: Improbable, Tiz the Law, Maximum Security, Shekky Shabaz, Sistercharlie, Shancelot, Got Stormy. To call a hockey game, the broadcaster must be able to immediately identify 36 skaters, 18 per team, via their jersey number or physical characteristics, as they come on or off the ice, pass, receive, shoot, rebound, or foul in uninterrupted 45-second intervals.

Doc Emrick had a poet’s verbal scope, facility, and depth. His trough of Anglo-Saxon verbs and alchemically combined adverbs and prepositions could aid even the most accomplished English-language poet.

But his call of a game was poetic in a more fundamental, less recognizable respect. If you closed your eyes and listened to Doc Emrick’s call of the action on the ice, you’d have no way of visualizing the action on the ice. Compare baseball. Any fan who listens on the radio to a skilled broadcaster call a game can imaginatively follow and visualize nearly every moment, every pitch, every hit, the trajectory of every foul ball or pop-up or ground-out or flyball or home run, every fielder and runner involved in the play. Not so listening to Doc Emrick. His language refers to but does not represent the game’s action. The rhythms—pitchforked on back, feathered forward, skittered on to center—give the feeling of movement not an image of the moves. The vivid palpable concrete phrases arise from intense observation of the game but do not produce a picture of it. Just such a connection-disjunction between attentiveness to reality and creation in language is at the heart of the art of poetry.

a note on mike pence

A NYT headline online today announced “Pence Reached His Limit with Trump. It Wasn’t Pretty.” Reached his limit is an interesting phrase. Pence, we will no doubt be led to believe, was in there resisting all along, like the once-anonymous, so-called senior official who assured Times readers in 2018 of the resistance to Trump: “many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

I remember not being reassured. At the very beginning of my academic career I was teaching in a very troubled and divided department whose senior members were uninhibited in putting pressures on nontenured faculty to do their bidding on this or that issue. The threat of a lack of support when you came up for tenure hung in the air in every conversation. A colleague who was also nontenured but a few years ahead and well-experienced in the ways of our elders and ever more anxious about his future, would self-mockingly announce a resolve to stand up to the bullies by puffing up his chest and declaring, There is some shit I will not eat!

Mike Pence was comfortable with his diet for 1,447 days of his 1,461-day vice-presidency. Only after the boss incited a white nationalist mob to storm the citadel of the world’s longest-standing democratic legislative body did he lose his appetite. Or did he? Today he didn’t simply resist but outright refused to initiate a 25th-amendment removal of our seditious president.

 

doctoring the record

The outcry over the recent WSJ op-ed on Jill Biden’s use of the honorific “Dr.” is laughably out of all proportion to the offense. The author took the no doubt painful occasion of having to recognize that Joe Biden has actually been elected president of the United States to unwind one of his typical witty denunciations of academic life. Joseph Epstein’s aspiration to be a pimple on the ass of academia popped a long time ago. He has written so many outré essays in a long career of synthesizing, often quite eloquently, the snide and the stuffy, the reactionary and the impish, the self-deprecating and the self-aggrandizing, that the only explanation for the outcry over this one is that that same election has for many instantly elevated the First Couple-elect to the status of beyond satire. For that is all that Epstein’s address to Jill Biden—“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo”—is. It’s the occasion to satirize the pretensions of academics who want to be addressed as Doctor when they’re not an M.D. (a view with which many academics, myself included, largely agree), the supposed lack of rigor and discipline to acquire a Ph.D. today (a view with which I heartily disagree), and the doling out of honorary degrees to celebrities and potential donors (a practice that might more fruitfully lead to an interrogation of state legislatures’ disinvestment in the education of young Americans).

Northwestern University’s response is especially hyperbolic and hypocritical, turning Epstein into a target of symbolic violence (to use a term he would undoubtedly find leftist gibberish). The English department, in which Epstein ended a three-decade stint almost twenty years ago, now denounces his views without naming him; meanwhile, the university has removed the Emeritus Lecturer from its website, erasing his decades-long contribution to the institution. Namelessness and erasure. Because of this op-ed?!? Nothing about the op-ed is any more egregious than the various homophobic, racist, misogynist, and anti-intellectual things Epstein has written over the decades—always of course in the name of the highest moral and intellectual values. For two decades, overlapping his time at Northwestern, he indicted the dogmatism of academic political correctness while dogmatically editing The American Scholar. His prose, like his persona, is soft-spoken, lighthearted viciousness in a bow tie.

The one sentence in the controversial op-ed, embellished with a fake quote to boot, that most reveals how shallow and callow Joseph Epstein’s views of the contemporary university, Black people, and women are is a gratuitous add-on to his mockery of the honorary doctorate degrees Northwestern awarded in recent years to Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Billie Jean King: “Political correctness has put paid to any true honor an honorary doctorate may once have possessed. If you are ever looking for a simile to denote rarity, try ‘rarer than a contemporary university honorary-degree list not containing an African-American woman.’”

(Full disclosure: I was a colleague of Epstein’s at Northwestern, 1982-89; did not know him well; was obliquely alluded to in one or more of his diatribes against leftists in the university; and do not have, nor ever have had, any ill will toward him.)

election eve

Are we in our Weimar moment? is not an unreasonable question. But the apparent parallels can disguise the deeper difference. Unlike the Weimar Republic, whose unraveling opened the way to Hitler’s rise to power, we are not attempting to found and stabilize a democracy where one has never existed. Germany in the 1920s needed to establish a democracy in a country that had never been democratic and had to make the attempt in the wake of a lost war and crippling armistice and in the midst of brazenly anti-democratic movements of Soviet-inspired revolutionaries and rightwing extremists. Our existing democratic institutions and norms have been shaken by a regime already in power. The U.S. in the 2020s is faced with preserving and reinvigorating a democracy that has persisted and evolved, regressed and stagnated, reanimated and reformed, across nearly two and a half centuries.

Let’s revise the question then: Are we in our Weimar moment?

January 20, 2016, the Inauguration inaugurated a real-time stress test of American institutions all the way down to the integrity of the electoral process, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, the balance-of-powers, and a fact-based press. The damage will continue irreparably if Trump is re-elected; if Biden-Harris win, the damage will persist and roil their every undertaking.

Many hope that a Democratic victory will restore the status quo ante, a kind of reset to the end of the Obama administration. This hope is a terrible illusion. The ante is never as stable as the term status quo suggests, and the changes wrought and the wreckage done over the past four years cannot be magically waved away. History is filled with regressions but never permits do-overs. Biden’s campaign has been built on the promise of a return to normalcy, a promise clothed in the charisma of his personal steadfastness and longevity, but he will have to govern in a country that will remain, whether or not Democrats attain the majority in both houses of congress, deeply divided and agitated by an angry mass of Trump supporters ever more convinced that the political system is conspiratorially rigged against them.

Trump stubbornly stuck to his most extreme positions and egregious behavior during his campaign to a degree that many consider bizarre and self-destructive. There is, however, an alternative hypothesis. At some point, consciously or unconsciously, Trump realized he was unlikely to get reelected, so he went whole hog on all that garners him the most adulation from his devoted followers. He made his habitual calculation that fomenting confusion and chaos will sooner or later fall to his advantage. The strategy is aimed at delegitimating the election and keeping his most avid supporters filled with resentments and prejudices, embracing conspiracy theories and concocting conspiracies, enamored of militias and celebrating vigilantes. The shape the Trump movement might take during a Biden presidency is uncertain and worrisome.

Our Weimar moment will unfold on the domestic and the international front.

Our severely frayed democratic institutions and democratic values need not just restoration but radical renewal. The vision of the needed renewal is inseparable from the struggle against racial injustices, as the Black Lives Matter movement and protests have brought to light. It is the third time in American history that Black freedom and participation are necessary to rejuvenate the Republic, as in the 1860s and again in the 1950s and 60s. Democracy was dying and fragmenting in the 1850s, as legislative compromises and Supreme Court decisions expanded slavery to the West. Lincoln on the Dred Scott decision in 1857: “our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if the framers could rise from their graves, they could not recognize it at all.” It took the Emancipation Proclamation, the South’s defeat in the Civil War, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to renew democratic possibilities. But the undoing of Reconstruction and the institutionalization of Jim Crow quickly decimated those possibilities in the South. By 1896 the Supreme Court gave outright legitimacy to apartheid for another half century in Plessy v. Ferguson; not until the Civil Rights movement won Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 did de jure segregation end. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 finally redeemed the broken promises of the 1860s. And yet—mass incarceration, police violence, de facto segregation, voter suppression, and intractable inequalities of schooling, income, and wealth plague society and polis today. A Biden administration will have to turn the protest and rage into tangible policies and achievements that successfully equate African Americans’ gains with national revitalization.

American power and international standing are weaker than at any point since the end of the war in Vietnam. Unlike then, and unlike Weimar, the problems are not the result of recent defeat. To be sure, the Trump administration inherited the tangle of mistakes and miscalculations stretching from Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq to Obama’s capitulation to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. A Biden administration will inherit Trump’s abandonment of global leadership and allies, erratic diplomatic and trade policy, succor to autocrats and antagonists of U.S. interests, and disregard of global energy and health policy. Roger Cohen’s commentary on the final Trump-Biden debate detailed all the areas of foreign policy that the presidential candidates and their parties have failed to debate. True, foreign policy seldom is central to electoral politics, but this year the absence of debate underscores the fact that, despite Trump’s outrages and neglectfulness, there is no consensus on the direction American diplomacy ought to take. A new vision will be required. Biden’s views have largely been derivative rather than visionary. It will not be enough to sound tough on North Korea, tell Putin what-for, and coax China to play nice. Whatever diplomatic, economic, and military strategies a Biden administration undertakes, they will be met with an array of objections and oppositions—and the inevitable unforeseen events that foreign policy must respond to.

The pressure of time will weigh heavily on these domestic and international tasks. The Republican Party has scarcely accepted the legitimacy of a Democratic President for the past three decades. A defeated Trump and his supporters will be a formidable opposition. QAnon will churn away. Biden-Harris have but four years, perhaps only two, to put American democracy on a new path. Can infrastructure initiatives, health care reform, and coherent trade policy help Democrats rebuild in so-called red states? Can the conflicts among traditional liberals, progressives, and academic and BLM activists become a creative rather than destructive strife? For it to be creative Biden-Harris must discover, in policy and rhetoric, a stance at once idealistic and pragmatic. To reverse the cliché, Biden and Harris campaigned in prose, they will have to govern in poetry.

Scholars of the Weimar Republic have drawn a significant distinction between the experience of constitutional crisis in Weimar and in American history, according to which the U.S. has tended to resolve its political problems with reference to the constitution rather than letting politics overthrow the constitution (see Arthur J. Jacobson and Bernhard Schlink (eds.), Weimar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis). The emergence of a conservative federal judiciary, now led by the ultraconservative Supreme Court that Trump has put in place with the appointment of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, poses a rather different question, defining our Weimar moment: Will the newly minted Supreme Court majority embrace the lineage of Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson or that or Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade?

joe & bernie

The sad absurdity of the Sanders left: Holding what the campaign billed “a racial and economic justice town hall” in Flint, Michigan, to rejuvenate his candidacy among African-Americans, Sanders set aside the speech he had written. Although he wants to be president of the United States, he apparently didn’t want to presume he could speak about black people’s aspirations and needs, so he yielded the stage to local activists and Cornel West. Dubbing Biden a “neoliberal centrist,” West decried the results of Super Tuesday: “The neoliberalist who all of a sudden now is coming back to life, and the catalyst was my own black people. Oh, I’m so disappointed.” He worried to the largely white audience, “What has happened to our black leadership? Some have just sold out.” Sanders’s own role was reduced to lofting softball questions to his panelists.

The sad absurdity of the liberal left: We are now consigned to supporting Joe Biden, whom I admire and would be delighted to have as my neighbor or drinking buddy—but president? His record as a former vice-president and senator has the sinewy complexity that any responsible politician’s decades of decisions and service ought to have. That in itself is admirable. It makes him vulnerable to the applause-lines in the Flint town hall regarding crime bills and housing laws and at the same time draws endorsements for his effectiveness with health care reform, women’s rights, and foreign policy negotiations. Ideological purity is the currency and piety of the Sanders left, and Bernie has maintained his by posturing and hectoring rather than legislating and leading. Biden, though, needs to get beyond gestures to the past, whether the good old days of reaching across the aisle to good ol’ boys or his partnership and friendship with Barack Obama. That played an important role in solidifying support of various segments of donors and voters in the primaries thus far. It will be nearly irrelevant in the general election. O’Biden Bama will not do. Trump, his team of rivals (the surviving conniving rivals: Pence, Barr, Pompeo, Miller), and the increasingly rightwing and religious judiciary have already rendered the Obama years an object of nostalgia not the launchpad for the future.

So: Sanders peddles a vision of the future he cannot deliver on, while Biden evokes a past he cannot recover. Two terrible misunderstandings of political temporality. Can Democrats intuit the kairos of 2020 and act with vision, shrewdness, and inspiration?

tiller…tiller

Heidegger’s fourfold ignores the sea as part of the earth, looking exclusively at the agrarian world and preindustrial farming to flesh out his symbolizations of earth. But seafaring, too, has preindustrial origins. There are uncanny analogies between farming and sailing, as though these opposite vocations, along with their respective implements and activities, are transformations of one another and evoke a latent identity:

tiller and sailor

soil and sea

crop and catch

ox and wind

plough and keel

ploughshare and sail

harnass and rigging

reins and…tiller!

lost in-laws

I have had three long-term relationships with women I deeply loved. They all ended in divorce, two de jure and one de facto. One involved children and two the lack of children. Infidelity played a role each time, two times on my part and once on my partner’s, a role far more oblique than it seemed at the time, less a cause of the marriages’ dissolution than the effect of their inner disintegration, at once tangible and invisible, invisible because unfaceable.

The passionate denials, deceptions, accusations, retributions, demands, and refusals that fuel a break-up all testify to the fact that separation is limned and lined with attachment. But since there is no impartial judge to hear and weigh that testimony, neither party can admit that separation cannot be separated from attachment. Just as no one can bear to hear I still love you but I’m no longer in love with you.

Admitted or not, the mourning of lost love is permanent, for the one who leaves and for the one left. At rare moments the mourning can be embraced so fully that it affirms what’s lost, affirms it purely and blamelessly. Only for a moment, though, even though one of the great poet-singers of brokenheartedness could make such a moment seem permanent:

I loved you for a long long time.
I know this love is real.
It don’t matter how it all went wrong.
That don’t change the way I feel.

Leonard Cohen, master and prophet of contradiction, also sings loss in a more ironic vein:

I loved you, baby, way back when,
And all the bridges are burning
That we might have crossed.
But I feel so close to everything we lost
We’ll never have to lose it again.

These lines could only be delivered in the Tower of Song. For those of us not born with a golden voice it is well-nigh impossible to express to the one we abandoned or the one who abandoned us that our love is intact and the loss unique.

Another unique loss and intact love also haunts a break-up.

I was deeply attached to my second in-laws. From the beginning Bernie and Roz welcomed me with undeserved respect. I was their daughter’s new lover, who had mysteriously displaced her husband less than a year after her marriage to him. They had raised her in the spirit of liberation; she needn’t explain anything to them. No questions, no justifications. In time, I felt I earned their respect. Not by effort, but from our spontaneous and continual mutual affection. Children of the Depression, idealistic University of Chicago students in the late 40s, latter-day fellow travelers in the McCarthy era, and anti-Zionist Jews, they instinctively embodied many values I had acquired through inchoate rebellion and a lot of reading. Bernie quickly recognized the depth of my aggressively skeptical relation to the Protestantism in which I was raised and played up to my delight in jokes about the goyim. There were differences. I was the only Zionist in this leftwing Jewish family! And while it was in their home that I participated in my first Seder, albeit modified by a self-styled progressive Haggadah in which the plagues and locusts descending on one’s enemies were replaced by images of universal emancipation and compassion, my own fascination with religious rituals and practices pressed Bernie and Roz to attend a synagogue at High Holidays. I sat next to Bernie throughout the proceedings as he squirmed, fidgeted, and sighed with the scarcely contained heebie-jeebies of a teenager tormented in mind and body by the pew. I enjoyed his rebellion and questioned his revulsion. No matter how enthusiastically I waxed about the aesthetic and symbolic grandeur of rabbi and cantor, he just as vociferously waned in retreat from the authoritarian mumbo jumbo of the same. His rejection of his religious upbringing matched my rejection of mine.

To belong, thanks to happenstance rather than birth, to a family that rebelled against its religious heritage and yet embraced its ethnic origins, that rejected Zionism and yet identified with the suffering that brought about the State of Israel, that mocked observant relatives and yet celebrated religious holidays with them, that voiced hard convictions and yet delighted in contentious conversation, that despised absolutes and yet demanded universalism—to be granted such an experience was for me an unfathomable gift.

I later realized that despite Bernie’s antireligious spasms he was a militant Lévinasian without having read a word of the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas: No witnessed act of injustice shall go unremarked and unresisted, voiced to whomever might listen and in whatever manner short of self-destructive martyrdom. I once fell shamefully short of Bernie’s ethic, and it still haunts me decades later. His daughter and I were attending a celebration dinner at my ex-wife’s house; her elderly father, after several years of widowerhood, was accompanied by his new eighty-something “girlfriend,” a woman cruder and far more talkative than my deceased former mother-in-law had been. In the course of an otherwise innocuous story about the solicitudes of the doctor who had served her small town, she peppered her narrative about the doctor, quite possibly the only Jew in Postville, Iowa, with stereotypes that were increasingly anti-Semitic. My partner, Bernie’s daughter, passed from uncomfortable to agitated. She glanced at me to say something. I, anxious to avoid conflict that would unsettle my ex-father-in-law at my ex-wife’s table during our son’s graduation dinner, hesitated. She fled down the hall to a bedroom. I followed, but by comforting her instead of confronting the anti-Semitism at the table I had already failed her. I had balked at the very moment where Bernie’s Lévinasian ethic demanded stepping forward to witness and speak.

Whether and how that episode left an unhealed wound in our relation I never knew. Bernie knew something about that day, and he knew from me that my father and the world in which I was raised were racist and anti-Semitic. Years later, when I refused to reconcile with his daughter, he rejected me in absolute, uncompromising terms. We talked on the phone one last time; I listened as he consigned me to oblivion. He voiced his agony by imagining that my father must be celebrating my break from his daughter the Jew. Cut off, I had no contact with Bernie and Roz after that. I occasionally searched the internet for news about them with little result, and eventually looked less and less. Late one night I googled name and town. Up flashed Bernie’s obituary from a year and a half earlier, and then Roz’s from a year later. They were in their nineties. The obituaries were studded with details undoubtedly supplied by their daughters, vital nodes in the family’s history and legends.

Reeling from this news, thinking of the years of excited discussions of politics, religion, and cooking I had missed with Bernie and Roz, imagining how they might have suffered the frailties and conquered the ailments of their seventies and eighties, hoping their impassioned minds had stayed lucid and articulate to the end, I spiraled into a reverie on in-laws.

Three marriages, three sets of in-laws. I always loved my in-laws! And enjoyed their company, their singular histories, and the affection we were able to forge across differences of culture, belief, tradition, and even language. Marion and Margaret, my first in-laws, grew up in the Norwegian communities of northeast Iowa. Seed-corn salesman and housewife, they were upright and reserved to the point of seeming severe and cold until you got to know them.

An unexpressed, never acknowledged sadness enveloped Margaret, and there were many sources to speculate on: birth in a North Dakota sod house, death of her mother when just a child, growing up in the affectionless home of the childless relatives to whom her father entrusted her and miles from the family who took her brother in, the death of her third child just a few days after his birth, the discovery of her next-door neighbor and friend having hanged herself, the return of her aged father who never cared for her and then demanded to be cared for by her in retirement while he regaled her children with tales of his life in the FBI, a life and tales he had never shared with her. I visited her on her deathbed, and the warmth of our meeting was the beginning of the end of my exile from the family.

My sons adored Margaret and Marion. Just a few days after I had moved out, my wife and the kids visited them. When I asked my five-year-old the next week how Grandma and Grandpa were, he answered, “I think Grandpa is on Mom’s team.” After Margaret’s death Marion was willing to resume at least the semblance of our original bond and easy conversation. We had had, way back when, a rocky start. He was scandalized by his daughter’s involvement with me, a blow to respectability in the eyes of friends and neighbors in a small everyone-knows-everyone town. Raising our firstborn outside religion disturbed Margaret as well; she secretly had him baptized when in her care one weekend.

My third set of in-laws—my ex-wife’s mother and stepfather and her father and stepmother—are French. And not much older than me. My ex-mother-in-law had long ago so scandalized her husband’s respectable family as to set a scorching scar across so many relations that only an utter outsider like me could feel at ease with all of them, across two remarriages, three extended families, half-siblings and step-siblings, devout Catholics and determined atheists, and the barely muted but essentially symbolic class conflict of bourgeois, ouvriers, commerçants, fonctionnaires. Our divorce created no animosities toward me, just the disappearance of the occasions to see the extended famille recomposée. I miss them.

And that is what the shock of Bernie and Roz’s obituaries brought home to me. Passion and marriage blessed me with three sets of in-laws I cherished and still cherish. Divorce tore me away from them. The hard-earned freedom of individuals to love, marry, and divorce—which even our society still struggles to embrace as a universal right—is also the freedom to expose ourselves to irrecoverable loss.

It don’t matter how it all went wrong.
That don’t change the way I feel.
… I feel so close to everything we lost
We’ll never have to lose it again.

afterlife

How do I know there is no afterlife? Because the inmates of paradise do not read. The promise of afterlife is the promise of transcending the knowledge of good and evil and of death that Adam and Eve brought into the world thanks to their disobedience of God in Eden. It is the promise of utter fulfillment, eternal bliss, uninterrupted pleasure. Eternal life eliminates knowledge, good and evil, death, and disobedience. Therefore, it eliminates reading. No Dostoevsky. No Shakespeare. No Racine. No Baudelaire, Whitman, Mallarmé. No Divine Comedy! No Iliad, no Odyssey, no Aeneid. No Aeschylus. No Sophocles. No Montaigne, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. No Goethe, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Keats, Rimbaud. No Hurston, Faulkner, Ellison, Morrison, Roth. The pearly gates open and Saint Peter, even as popes are still chanting and imbibing over his bones in the Basilica, rips the books from your arms and douses you with some celestial narcotic that leaves you to come unceasingly before the image of God, blinding your eyes to prose and poetry. How frightful, how destitute, how horrifying, to be bereft of books for all eternity.

papal equinox

Pope Francis visited Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, and New York City in 2015, September 22-27. Speaking to the General Assembly during the UN’s annual gathering of heads of state, he sounded three themes: poverty, climate, and migration. The coincidence of the equinox gave those themes the aura of a planetary-solar convergence which I’ve recalled every autumn since.

As I write today, the equinox has been crossed. Twice a year sunrise and sunset divide the day equally at every spot on the earth, from the polar caps through the equator, north to south, south to north. Prehistoric peoples built tombs, temples, and chronometers to capture the two moments. At no other moment during the year is the dance of the sun and the earth the same for every living being on the planet. As soon as the moment passes days grow shorter and nights longer above the equator and days longer and nights shorter below it, and vice versa six months later. Already today sunset has gained two minutes on sunrise in New York City. The farther north one is the faster the distance grows. In Paris it is four minutes and in Stockholm it is already nine! In Oaxaca, Mumbai, and Saigon the equinox crawls toward the solstice, in Reykjavik it races. The equinoctial is a fleeting, scarcely perceptible condition that occurs, with miniscule inexactness, but twice a year. Only at those two moments is the earth the same for all its inhabitants.

Poverty, climate, migration: Pope Francis’s genius lay in the fact that the universality of these three themes  requires a perspective uniquely focused on all of humankind’s sojourn on earth. These most secular of questions how to protect and lift the poor, how to preserve the earth as bountiful dwelling, how to honor every individual’s and every family’s search for a safe and viable place to live—these questions require a universalizing perspective on the human condition, a perspective that states and statesmen are hard-pressed to express or sustain even as intractable crises of poverty, climate, and migration impinge upon them with increasing intensity. The Church attains the universal perspective on humanity and earth not only because of its traditions, doctrines, and symbols but also because, unlike states and statesmen, it does not have the responsibility to sustain a body politic and protect the symbolico-institutional integrity of some historically particular ethnic or national group and its territory. Conversely, the states and statesmen who have that responsibility cannot ignore but neither can they embody the universalizing perspective that was articulated so forcefully that September by the head of the deeply undemocratic, illiberal, dogmatic institution which is the Catholic Church.

Another cluster of complexities in the folds of the ordeal of universalism.