Friday, August 29, 2008

A Contender

If the first night of the Democratic convention left me uneasy, the last night left me hopeful. In Barack Obama, the Democrats have a candidate who will carry the fight to the Republican Party and John McCain. No more Mike Dukakis riding in a tank, no more Al Gore missing the point about the Florida recounts, and no more watching John Kerry stand mute while the Swiftboat campaign derails his candidacy.

All of these candidates were good men, but they (or at least their campaigns) lacked the combination of strategic and tactical sense to fight the Republicans effectively. Obama's sense of history, his dramatic timing, and his ability to come through in the clutch--plus a combative spirit on display last night--will all make him a far tougher campaigner than any Democrat the Republicans have faced since Bill Clinton. Best of all, Obama does not have the personal weaknesses and vices that made Clinton a vulnerable leader against determined opposition.

Looking back, it does seem that the convention followed a narrative structure that lifted up Obama. First, the convention introduced Obama's family in as likable and non-threatening a way possible. Then it healed rifts in the party. Then it sent the presidential nominee out to fight.

So far, Obama has painted McCain as a decent man who is simply out of touch with the needs of the times. Republicans who put their faith in McCain's war record as the antidote to all Democratic charges should remember something: Bill Clinton ran against two distinguished veterans of World War II and beat them by framing them as yesterday's men. Obama has the capacity to do the same thing to McCain.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rallying 'Round Obama

Sounding chords from the past and future of their party, Democrats joined hands last night to acclaim Barack Obama as their nominee. While this may be the end of the Clinton era in Democratic presidential politics, it was fascinating last night to see how much the party has absorbed commitments and lessons from the Clinton years--particularly in the areas of values, the military and patriotism.

Last night's hymns to family values, the appreciative video on veterans, and invocations of patriotism all echoed Bill Clinton's efforts to govern from the center. Of course, the Republicans attacked him as a philanderer and peacenik who did not share the virtues of ordinary Americans. While the first charge was true, the rest were part of a Republican strategy of demonization and polarization.

This time, the Democrats are doing all they can to neutralize those tactics. If they succeed, they will owe something to Clinton's success at making the Democrats a party who could appeal to moderate-minded and traditional voters. (Clinton's centrism on these issues never bothered me. I was troubled by his inability make lasting inroads against economic inequality, especially on health care. Clinton was no FDR.)

For all their differences and rivalries, Bill and Hillary Clinton each gave Obama a big boost. Commentators chatter endlessly about whether they are sincere in this, but in her Times column today Gail Collins got it right: "The Clintons did everything they were supposed to do here and in politics, like so much of life, feelings are irrelevant to everyone except the persons doing the feeling."

Both Clintons delivered speeches that will help Obama. (I thought Joe Biden's speech last night was workmanlike but not his best effort.)

John Kerry, on the other hand, ventured into tricky waters for the Democrats and mentioned the Sixties. He spoke with a passion and a righteous anger that I have rarely seen in him. He also invoked his antiwar days and cited a phrase that got much attention in the Sixties: "My country, right or wrong."

That phrase was often rolled out to silence critics of the Vietnam War. Last night, Kerry's speech offered a fuller version of the statement: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." This version of the phrase is attributed to the German-born Republican of the nineteenth century, Carl Schurz. It still bears repeating today as an example of the highest kind of patriotism.

On a night when Democrats were building on the foundation of Clinton years to erect a new kind of party in the image of Obama, Kerry's speech recalled older Democratic causes that are still worth remembering. Obama will need to draw on the best of the Democrats' distant and recent pasts if he is to win in November.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Clinton's Speech

In an age when political partisanship is routinely dismissed as a vice, Hillary Clinton's address to the Democratic Convention was an example of healthy partisanship at its best. She argued convincingly that her cause was not her own career, but the good of her country and its people. And that cause, she made emphatically clear, is best served by electing a Democrat, Barack Obama, president of the United States.

Clinton's address was surely the product of her own judgment and character. But it was also the product of a political party working at its best. The demands of the party, the convention and the election pushed her to subordinate her own career to the highest demands of a larger good. Eighteenth century Americans called that virtue. Then and now, virtue is something rare in politics,

Like other great speeches, it looked to the future with a firm sense of history. She invoked the women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and her own experiences on the campaign trail.

Clinton described the proud but battered Americans she met in the primaries and asked her supporters a vital question: are you in this for them or for me? With that question in mind, the only honorable response from a Clinton supporter is a vote for Obama. Again and again, Clinton made that point clear.

As my late professor Carey McWilliams observed, politicians should remember that the causes they serve are more important than their own careers.

Perhaps defeat makes that clear to a politician, because the only other political speech that I have heard that was moving as Clinton's was Ted Kennedy's speech before the 1980 Democratic convention. In that speech Kennedy ended his own candidacy against Jimmy Carter but reminded the delegates that the Democratic party's dream would never die.

This convention's televised sense of stagecraft can make the party system seem like an empty shell. Clinton's speech, however, was a testament to the value of political parties that bring people together, discipline their ambitions, and direct them towards larger goals.

I voted for Obama in the primary, but with the exception of a few episodes retained respect for Clinton. Her speech raised my opinion of her. It also roused in me an emotion that I hadn't anticipated: pride in being a registered Democrat.

The Gums of August, Flapping in Denver

I’m sorry about no new postings for a while,a nd letting Rob carry the blogging ball. I guess I have been somewhat preoccupied with some personal concerns, but now that the convention season is here, let me adjust my focus to concerns political. So I watched most of the convention last night, and I learned that Michelle Obama neutralized her image as a person with sharp edges by downplaying his personal politics (and her extraordinarily successful career), by talking of her marriage and parading her cutesy-pie kids. Despite what Hillary said many years ago, the only role still accepted for a presidential candidate’s wife is to stand by her man. I always feel incredibly uncomfortable that contemporary politicians and their handlers think that it is politically crucial to focus so much on a candidate’s personal life, but of course the whole point of modern presidential politics is to elect a first personality

Presidential conventions feel a lot like the Olympics, with stage-managed spectacle in the bird's nest obscuring whatever hard news there is, lying somewhere underneath. Even if their function has changed, conventions still enable observers, if they look carefully to see the clanging gears and widgets of party machinery interacting fitfully with the greater populace and democracy outside, and it always is an interesting spectacle. I tried to prepare for the convention by reading some classic convention reportage, Norman Mailer on 1968, and an anthology of H.L Mencken’s reports on conventions from 1904 to 1948. H.L Mencken, I am happy to report, holds up just fine, acidulous personality sketches, the drumbeats of his pleasingly bombastic rhetoric, and the occasion genuine insight (though these are out-numbered by observations several barn-lengths wide of the mark.) Still, its hard to pick up Mencken and not realize why he was so popular in his time, and why I would, had I been around in the 1920s and 1930s, once I had gotten over my “institute the dictatorship of the proletariat in Soviet America now” phase, would have read him avidly too.
As for Norman Mailer, I can only ask did he really exist? Or rather, why did anyone ever bother reading him? The thing about bombastic rhetoric and over the top metaphors is either you can bring it off or not, and whenever I read Norman Mailer I read someone trying so hard to achieve writerly success that it makes me cringe, and it generally doesn’t work, and once you get past the rhetorical patina there’s not much underneath. Does Norman Mailer have the most over-inflated reputation of any 20th century American author?
Anyway, I agree with Rob's posts, the only advice I have for the Dems is that the seams between Hillary and Obama are still showing, and it is clear that there is a good deal of bitterness remaining on both sides, some legitimate, some not. There is no hope of party unity being forged by these two incompatible forces on their own; the only chance there is to unite the party is to attack their common enemy, John McCain, hard, often, and convincingly.

The Democrats' Opening Night

If the purpose of the first night of the Democratic convention was to introduce us to Barack Obama as a human being with a loving family, a strong work ethic, and faith in the American Dream, it was a success. If it was meant to go after the Republicans and tell us how Obama would govern, it left a lot of work unfinished.

Perhaps the opening night was part of a grand plan: introduce the man, then unify the party, then proclaim a vision. Obama is often accused of being inscrutable and abstract, and the first night was clearly aimed at helping voters get to know him.

I'm an imperfect judge of television politics. I always want to learn more about how the candidates will govern, and I suspect that I'm less interested in their personal lives than the average American.

As much as I dislike the personal stories that candidates trot out, they do have impact. I watched George Bush prevail in 2000 on a platform that amounted to little more than "I'm a regular guy."

The key to the Republicans' success, though, is this combination of presenting their candidates as ordinary folks (however implausible that is for Bush and McCain) while vigorously attacking the Democrats and proclaiming their own vision of government.

In a formula that goes all the way back to Nixon, as Rick Perlstein points out in his new book Nixonland, Republicans stoke the fires of division and then present themselves as the only party that can unify the nation and govern.

For Obama to win the election, he'll need to borrow a few pages from the Republican playbook and master the art of going after the opposition.

Obama's speech in Illinois, where he introduced Joe Biden as his running mate, shows that he can hit the Republicans hard and proclaim his own vision of government. But he needs to do it at the convention, too.

For Obama, the key to winning the election is defining the issues in such a way that McCain ends up on the defensive, always explaining and always responding to Obama. Last night, I got a worried suspicion that much of the evening was devoted to defusing Republican charges that Obama is alien and elitist. A bit of this may be necessary, but it will work only if Obama follows later with a strong and specific statement of his own vision.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Second Act for Local Agriculture

In the United States, you know that a movement is gaining strength when you see people attempting to piggyback on it for profit. The effort to promote local agriculture as a way of conserving energy and farmland is no exception. Over the last few weeks, I've seen a New York City supermarket advertise "local peaches" (from Georgia) and a Rhode Island store selling "Eastern blueberries" (from Nova Scotia). But in northeastern Connecticut, I recently found evidence that small farmers can survive high energy costs in ways that give them a competitive advantage over agribusiness.

I learned this lesson recently in the village of Hampton in northeastern Connecticut, where my wife grew up. Hampton is a beautiful southern New England village of rolling hills, wetlands, and rocky soil. When my wife lived there in the 1960s and 1970s, there were still plenty of local dairy farmers and also mill workers who labored at textile mills in towns like Willimantic. The mills have since closed down and ever more farmland is being given over to the construction of new homes.

I thought farming in the Hampton region was an endangered way of life, but a conversation with an organic farmer in Hampton made me see things a little differently. With the rising cost of oil, he explained, big agriculture can't beat farmers who raise high-quality produce and sell it locally.

Admittedly, the newer face of farming that he described is something of a niche
market: hay for horse farms, organic tomatoes, and buffalo meat. And a many of the farmers are people embarking on second careers after first making money elsewhere. Still, he described to me an active world of agriculture that is emerging in a region where I thought farming was a fading presence.

Farmers from southern New York State and eastern Pennsylvania are a regular presence in Manhattan green markets. And at least one farmer from the Hampton region sells cheese at the green market in Union Square. I'm glad to see them all. They bring our region good food and a green future.And in New York City, farm products from Connecticut are surely more local than peaches from Georgia.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biden, Obama and a Democratic Rising

When I first heard that Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate, I thought: Nice way to bring some expertise in foreign policy to the ticket, even if he does have a reputation for gaffes. But I just watched Obama and Biden speak in Springfield, Illinois today on C-SPAN. And I saw a running mate who can hit all the themes of work, family, and economic inequality that the Democrats need to hammer to win the election. After an August that was rough on Obama's candidacy, I'm suddenly a lot more optimistic.

Up until now, I knew Biden as a senator who was a sound voice on foreign policy with an unfortunate tendency to make stupid remarks. Today, though he sounded like a Democratic warrior. He ripped into the Bush's economic and international policies and relentlessly argued that a McCain presidency will mean more of the same. He hit all the themes of work, family and the American Dream that resonate with working and middle class Americans.

Biden may represent Delaware in the Senate, but today he played up his Pennsylvania roots and his modest origins. At the same time, he reminded listeners that he is a Senator with decades of experience under his belt--especially in international relations.

As my wife, Clara Hemphill, observed, Biden could bring to the ticket all of the strengths of Hillary Clinton with none of her liabilities. If that turns out to be the case, and if Biden spares us too many of his verbal missteps, the Democratic ticket will be strong.

In Springfield today, Obama and Biden presented themselves as the ticket that can lead the Democrats and American to a better future. That's a winning formula in American politics.

I couldn't help noting that they were playing Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," a song about 9/11 with themes of strength, sacrifice and resurrection, before Obama got up to speak. The themes addressed in "The Rising" have been twisted an abused by the Bush Administration to gild its disastrous policies at home and abroad. Yet the best of Springsteen's songs, and the best of the Democratic Party, summon Americans to live up to the demands of their highest ideals.

The Obama campaign, with its intelligence, idealism, and sense of history, has long needed some muscle and a growl to fully make its case. Today, it introduced a Joe Biden who could bring all of that and more to the ticket. If it works out, "come up for the rising."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Raquette River Reveries

Drawing on memories more than 25 years old, I have long extolled the joys of paddling the Raquette River in the Adirondacks from Long Lake to Axton: you start in a small town, I told listeners, paddle down an ever-wilder lake, and eventually find your way down a twisting channel that rambles toward the High Peaks. I returned to the Raquette recently with my son Max and two friends to find more houses than I remembered on Long Lake--and abundant wilderness once you get beyond them.

The northern end of Long Lake has been built up over the last two decades. While no one would mistake it for a suburban subdivision, the houses that you see every half to quarter mile maintain a relentless human presence. All that changes, though, once you leave the lake for the river that flows out of it.

The Raquette was running high this year, maybe five feet above normal, according to a ranger. Heavy rains--some of which fell on us--made for a full river and damp camping.

With Max and me in one canoe, and our friends Brian and Connor Taylor in another, we paddled down the Raquette and camped in a lean-to on our first night. Our second day brought bright sun, blue skies, and a short side trip to the mouth of the Cold River. Throughout the day, the Raquette's current pulled us onward.

With the lake behind us we found deep forests, friendly paddlers, and plenty of quiet. It was all fine with us.

On this stretch of the river, the east bank is protected state land and the west bank private land. The private land is posted against trespassing, but along the shore it otherwise looked untouched. I hope it stays that way.

We grunted our way through the Raquette Falls carry, paddled to Trombley's Landing, and made camp on a bluff overlooking the river. (Ernie LaPrairie at Blue Mountain Outfitters, who rented us out canoes, told us that the nearby state launch ramp on Route 30 was the best place to leave our car for the takeout. At the more remote Axton, cars have been damaged by vandals.) The next morning, we took our canoes out of the river just as rain began to fall.

In some 28 miles of paddling we saw one heron, a pair of otters, birches, and evergreens beyond counting. We joked with Connor and Brian. And we were reminded that the hardest effort usually yields the best scenery.

I'd like to get back to the Raquette and ascend the Cold River. Long Lake may not be quite what it used to be, but it's still the entry to a Raquette River of wild beauty.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Whitehall Gig

I long ago gave up my childhood dream of voyaging on a time machine, but tonight it came true when I rowed an eighteenth-century-design rowboat, a Whitehall gig, up the Hudson River. The trip was made possible by the Village Community Boathouse of Pier 40 at West Houston Street, an organization that works to "restore safe, universal public access to our city's largest public space--its waterways". They run free community rowing sessions from April to November on Tuesdays and Thursdays after 5:30 pm and Sundays at noon.

I first saw a Whitehall gig on the Hudson when I was kayaking. It was a choppy day, and the gig bounded over the waves like a happy stallion. I promised myself to row in one someday.

All you need to participate with the Village Community Boathouse is to be reasonably fit, willing to wear a life jacket at all times, ready to take instructions, and willing to help clean and stow your boat after your trip. Thankfully, I met the requirements.

There were six of us in our boat altogether, under the command of coxswain Dave Clayton.

Our gig, the "Nonpareil," was some 25 feet long. It easily accommodated our coxswain and four rowers. We took turns being a passenger so that we all got a chance to row.

Under Dave's amiable but careful command, we rowed north from Pier 40 and back over about an hour. The "Nonpareil" easily handled the waves we encountered and sped along with the strokes of our oars.

It was great exercise. And when I wasn't watching my own oar and the stroke rower who set the pace, it was a great way to see the Hudson.

The trip was also a bit of a history lesson. Whitehall gigs, supposedly named for the street in Manhattan where they were built, were first used in the eighteenth century to ferry people and goods around the harbor. In the nineteenth century they were raced.

Today, the Whitehall gigs of the Village Community Boathouse are part of an effort to restore public access to our waterways and to introduce people, above all young people, to the joys of messing around in boats.

I can't think of a more worthy endeavor or a better way to pass my time. I'll be back.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cold War Echoes

The Russian assault on Georgia, and reactions to it here in the USA, bring memories of the Cold War--especially the echoes of Hungary in 1956.

A report from Georgia in today's Times by Andrew Kramer and Ellen Barry conveys that Georgians feel betrayed by the USA. Hungarians felt similar emotions in 1956.

In that year, they rose against Soviet domination. Many of them, trusting in American Cold War rhetoric, believed that the USA would come to their aid. They were wrong.

For people in small countries near powerful nations, the case of Hungary in 1956 is a good example of the risks inherent in provoking a big, nasty neighbor. (Although it might be argued that 1956 pushed the Soviets to dominate Hungary with a lighter hand than might otherwise have been the case.)

For the USA, though, the lesson of 1956 is clear: don't encourage the fantasies of small countries that we are in no position to help. It raises expectations that we can't fulfill, and pushes other people into bloody confrontations.

There are limits to US power in the world. We should work for a stop to the bloodshed in Georgia, but there is no military role for us in this conflict.

Professing History

Last week I went to Buffalo to take a course on how to be a legal guardian for my mother, who is suffering from dementia. I sat in a room with a bunch of lawyers for about six hours, watched a number of CDs filled with pertinent information, had a few slices of pizza that they brought in for lunch (though its odd that in western New York pizzas are divided into squares, not slices of a round pie, for cultural reasons I cannot fathom.) All very well and good, and at the end of the session I was given a paper that notified to all who were interested that I had just earned six continuing legal education credits. Lawyers need to earn a certain number of continuing education credits to remain a lawyer in good standing. They have to demonstrate that they are up to date on current developments, recent laws and court decisions, and methods of practice. This makes eminent sense. Many professions require continuing education. Nurses, I know from my wife, have a similar requirement, and no one would want to have a lawyer or a nurse unfamiliar with recent innovations in their professions.

Professional historians have no such requirement. You get you degrees—my Ph. D from NYU is now almost two decades old, and you get to call yourself a professional historian in good standing, without, as far as I can tell, ever having to crack the pages of a history book again. But there are a number of oddities about professional historians. First, there are relatively few of us. Most so-called professional historians are really professional teachers, and while it would be unfair to say that producing history is incidental to their careers, it is part of a mix of broader responsibilities. I am a professional historian, whose career has largely consisted in the writing of history; I have nothing against amateur or popular historians, or historians who teach, but that’s not what I am. I have spent my career being paid for producing, either directly or through highly directed editing, what amounts to academic historical prose. I do try to keep up to date, and if I don’t follow every flow and ebb of historical interpretation with the avidity I did in graduate school, I subscribe to professional journals, and try to continue to read what I take to be important or path breaking books. But there is no test, no place for historians to get certified on recent developments. Anyone who wants to hire me as a professional historian could verify, if they chose, my NYU Ph.D. Other than that, I am a professional historian because I say so.

There are those who are uncomfortable with the openness of the historical profession. Many of the best known, and certainly the best compensated historians do not have a Ph.D. Professional historians often gripe at their treatment in reviews in widely read popular journals, where complex arguments and researches taking years to complete can be vetted by someone with no real grasp of the literature of the field. I have recently read of efforts by some historians to get journals to use only historical professionals to review the work of other historical professionals, or to develop some means of certification, whereby I could call myself, Peter Eisenstadt, C.E. (Certified Historian.)

Bad reviews are never fun, especially when written by someone you think unworthy of the task, but I think continuing education or certification for historians is a bad idea. What makes history so challenging is that it is entirely exoteric, without any hidden or special vocabulary or kinds of knowledge outside of what average intelligent people know. Unlike mathematics, or even the law or medicine, what historians write is generally intelligible to outsiders (Efforts by historians to develop their own arcane languages are invariably a failure.) We are naked before our readers. Anyone can think they can do our job better, they are welcome to try. What I bring as a professional historian is knowledge gained over thirty years, knowing how to research, how to write serviceable prose, and how to interpret a historical event and its immediate and more distant contexts. In many ways it is a subtle skill, but not a very mysterious one. The basic commitment of historians is that everyone should be well informed historically, and our job as professional historians is to help our readers (or students) to become better historians. In a society in which every citizen realized their own obligation to understand history and pursue historical learning, perhaps there would really be no need for professional historians.

Monday, August 4, 2008


I never saw Hair in its heyday, so I grew up thinking of "Let the Sunshine In" as a happy hippy anthem. But thanks to the recent revival of Hair by the Public Theater, I now hear it as a plea for to let the light cleanse a future shadowed by bleak possibilities.

I was born in 1955, and the play vividly brought back a chord of my adolescence that I had all but forgotten: just as we discovered that sex could make us feel fully alive, we faced the chance that we could seen be sent off in the not-too-distant future to kill or be killed in Vietnam. It was that juxtaposition of the best and worst possibilities for our lives, coupled with the conviction that a better world was possible, that defined my feelings in the Sixties.

The revival of Hair captures this conflicted mood beautifully. And while it confirmed my old hunch that the show didn't have that many great songs beyond "Aquarius," "Easy to be Hard" and "Let the Sunshine In," the total impact of the play is still impressive. In particular, the character Claude's acid trip conveys the terrible turmoil that many young men faced as they contemplated going to war.

(And old ones. When I saw a uniformed Claude stretched out on a flag at the end of the play, I could only think of my friend Frank Carvill---who marched against the Vietnam War in his youth, opposed the invasion of Iraq, and died fighting with the National Guard in Baghdad. Between engagements, he relaxed by listening to Grateful Dead songs.)

When "Let the Sunshine In" starts at the end of the play, it seems like a prayer. But it is more than that.

On the night when I saw Hair, the song was repeated as an encore. Along with scores of young and old folks, I bounded onstage for some exuberant dancing.

By the time it was all over, I wore a big smile on my face. I felt a little guilty for asking my long-haired teenage son to get a haircut. And I had recovered pieces of my own history.


I remember the electric impact when Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was released in the early 1970s. It washed away lingering sympathy with the Soviet Union in many quarters of the western intellectual world, including the quarter that I inhabited, the child of ex-Communists who had left the party but had never quite abandoned their philo-Sovietism. There really was no excuse before, but afterwards there was simply no excuse for thinking that the Soviet Union, from its founding, had not been rotten to the core, and that the Communist Party was wherever it thrived was based on an evil, damnable lie. (This last point hasn’t quite made it to many historians of the civil rights movement, who continue to pile excuse on excuse for the behavior of the American Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s.) But the power of literature to change the world has perhaps never been clearer than in the case of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

But a strange thing happened in the years after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, his years of exile in the United States, and his return to Russia. He largely dropped from public view. Part of this was his choice. Part of this was the mixed reception of his later works. (I still think his greatest work was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and the Gulag Archipelago.) But the bigger problem was the discomfiting discovery by western commentators that Solzhenitsyn was a fierce Russian nationalist, who refused to compromise his political stances for anyone or any reason. There are indeed problematic aspects of his political views—though I don’t think the accusations of anti-Semitism are accurate or fair---but the larger issue was that, despite Solzhenitsyn’s detestation of the Soviet Union, he was no fan of the west, or of the United States, or of the militantly aggrandizing anti-Communism that the United States tended to practice (and has now morphed into militantly aggrandizing anti-terrorism.) And once it became clear that Solzhenitsyn was not going to fit comfortably into western notions of how to fight communism, or deal with its successor states, he was largely marginalized and forgotten. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, was probably the greatest anti-Communist of them all, shoving posuers and pygmies from J. Edgar Hoover, Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley into the shade. But because his fierce anti-Communist was not pro-Americanism, he became forgotten in the United States. It was, in the end, not the United States, but the Russian people (and the Polish, Ukranian, Belarusian, Kazahistani peoples, etc), who won the Cold War.


The very strange anthrax case, on which the combined efforts of the FBI and the US counterintelligence services have spent seven years without producing a credible suspect, took another strange turn this week, when a new prime suspect, evidently about to be indicted, took his own life. His survivors have my deep condolences. And the press, which has minimal restraints in this regard to begin with, took the occasion of his death to flood the news with all sorts of articles about his warped, split, personality; intimating that he was the sort of person who might have mailed the anthrax.

I have no idea who spread the anthrax in September 2001. All I know is that it was used by the Bush administration in the weeks after 9/11 to ratchet up the fears of terrorism even higher than they already were, and while I have no opinion on the various conspiracy theories that are floating around the web, it is certainly possible that the Bush administration has something to hide in all of this, if not in direct complicity, then in how bio-weapons were being stored or tested. My suspicions are only increased by the difficulty that the current administration has had in laying out a case against a plausible suspect. (The difficulties evidently continue. The Times suggests today that the evidence against him was largely circumstantial, and this only heightens my suspicion that there is more here than meets the eye. ) I don’t know if the person who took his life this week was the culprit. I do know that the fact he committed suicide, by itself, means nothing one way or the other in terms of his guilt. You don’t have to be a bio-terrorist to take your own life.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Race Cards

I would love to play a race card, if I knew how to play one. Is a race card as black as the ace of spades? This is connected to my theory on where the term come from. In card games like whist and bridge, that have a trump suit, spades are the highest suit, which would make the ace of spades, with its commanding dark luster of blackness dominating the card, the race card par excellence. The OED doesn’t help. All it has for race cards are programs for horse races, with its earliest use dating back to 1834.But there is no definition for the other sense, when it went from being a day at the races to, as it were, a day with the racists.

I guess it was in 1988, with Lee Atwater and the Willie Horton ad, at the beginning of the begrimed Bush era of American politics, that “race cards,” so-called, were first played. Race cards, as the recent film “The Dark Knight” reminds us, as jokers, profoundly disingenuous from the get-go, a way for whites to race monger while piously claiming that, of course, they are not racists, or a way of attacking anything a black person says that gives some indication that not all Americans share the same phenotypical skin pigmentation, and the best way to play it is to accuse someone else of playing it, at once attracting white racists to your cause while giving your opponents the task of disengaging from the accusation, and as we have seen this week, with McCain’s accusations of Obama’s race card playing, notwithstanding the utter flimsiness of the accusation, it becomes, to use term that race card playing has forced to the margins of acceptable vocabulary, a tar baby, that once touched, adheres tightly to the sticky fingers.

I don’t really think Obama is in trouble, but I guess like many Democrats, I am just sort of paranoid after the swift boat attacks of ’04. Why is that risible attacks only seem to stick to Democrats? Where is the Obama ad with some of McCain’s former fellow POWs that makes up unflattering lies about his time in North Vietnamese captivity? The problem is that Democratic attacks ads that impugn the patriotism of Republican opponents really do not work, because Democrats aren’t patriotic enough to care, and for Republicans the only real meaning of patriotism is that only real patriots get to define the term and get to decide who belongs to or is excluded from the club. The genius with the Republicans is that they have learned that any candidates’ strength is really their weakness. Anyway they seek to define themselves can be defined negatively, and all you need to do is convince a relatively small sector of voters in a relatively small handful of states. They are Hegelian masters of the dialectic; with enough study, everything becomes its opposite. Obama’s weakness is that he is immensely popular and charismatic, a brilliant orator, and a person without very evident character flaws. This is proof of his vapidity and superficiality, and if this seems like a silly argument, Mencken’s immortal dictum about the impossibility of underestimating the intelligence of the American people comes to mind again and again.

I guess what I am trying to say is that if Obama spends too much time trying to define himself, he becomes vulnerable to alternative definitions. Obama needs to attack Bush, again and again, run against Bush, wave the bloody shirt, go for the solar plexus or the jugular. And Obama has to know that race, now that the race card has been played, will remain trump. And it will not take much for Americans to misplace their newly found racial tolerance. We have become big enough to forgive Obama for the interracial marriage of his parents, but does anyone think that if Obama had a white wife, he would be a presidential candidate?