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Beam of Energy Wrap
Never tires, never ages
In 1992, I was a registered Democrat, and, in the Democratic primaries, was basically an anyone-but-Clinton voter. I supported Bob Kerrey, then Paul Tsongas, then Jerry Brown. A harbored a visceral, instinctive loathing for the man from the beginning, one that couldn’t be reduced to any single cynical move. At bottom, it may just have been that I believed Senator Kerrey when he described Bill Clinton as an “unusually good liar.”
But, as a Democrat, I voted for Bill Clinton in the general election. I regretted it almost immediately. I regretted it so much, in fact, that in 1996 I voted for Bob Dole for President.
I voted for him knowing he would lose, and believing he wouldn't make a particularly good president if he won. George Will articulates some of the reasons why in this lovely tribute, but he also articulates some of what made him appealing as a contrast to Clinton, in spite of the fact that both were consummate creatures of politics and both were, fundamentally, pragmatists rather than ideologues. Phrased simply, unlike his opponent, Bob Dole was not an unusually good liar. In fact, for a consummate political animal, he was a strikingly bad one.
So it was certainly interesting to watch Bob Dole, in his last years, throw what remained of his weight firmly behind Donald Trump for president, both in 2016 and in 2020.
His choice in 2016 wasn’t actually surprising if you think about it. One of Trump’s signature policy stances in 2016 that distinguished him from his primary rivals was opposition to immigration, but even though that stance put him to the right of the rest of the Republican field that year, it put him to the left of Dole in 1996, who wanted to kick American citizens who were children of undocumented immigrants out of school. Another signature Trump stance was opposition to nation-building efforts like our war in Iraq; in that, again, Dole might have heard an echo of his own grumbling about the human toll of “Democrat wars” in a 1976 vice presidential debate. Trump also dissented from the Paul Ryan orthodoxy that had become dominant in the GOP during the Obama years, promising not to cut Social Security or Medicare but to focus on rebuilding American infrastructure and manufacturing. Dole, who had lost his bid for the GOP nomination in 1988 largely because he would not adequately pander to anti-tax right, agreed with him there too. Finally Trump described himself as a dealmaker, and deals were the essence of Dole’s understanding of politics.
So I understand why Dole opted the way he did in 2016. I just don’t really understand how he didn’t come to regret it.
Nonetheless, while I regret many choices in my life, and some of my votes, I don’t regret my vote for him. And now that he’s finally transformed into a beam of pure energy, I hope he’s content.
The Real Linkage Between Taiwan and Ukraine
A great many observers have tried linking the possibility of war in Ukraine to the possibility of war in Taiwan, suggesting that we must fight Russia in the former to deter China in the latter. I kind of can’t believe we now live in a world where pundits casually entertain the prospect of war between nuclear powers, but that’s apparently where we are. That having been said, I don’t think the notion that the two conflicts have a connection is entirely specious. I just don’t think the connection has anything to do with American credibility; rather, it’s that the two conflicts are quite analogous, because both conflicts are driven by deep currents of nationalism in ways that implicate the legitimacy of the aggressor regimes.
Midway through my undergraduate career, in the fall of 1990, I took a course titled "Russian Imperialism from Ivan the Terrible to the Formation of the U.S.S.R." At the end of the course, the professor turned, uncharacteristically, to current events. The accelerating collapse of Soviet power had already led Lithuania to declare independence, and other Soviet Republics were agitating to join them — including Ukraine. Sensing the hopeful, even heady emotions touching his students half a world away from these events, the professor, though anything but an apologist for the imperialism he studied, addressed the class with a word of caution.
The republic now known as Ukraine, he reminded us, was once the cradle of Russian civilization, and Ukrainian history was tied to Russian history for centuries afterward. Even the 17th-century national hero of Ukrainian independence himself pledged fealty to the Russian Tsar to win Russian support for his uprising against Poland. Founded by Catherine the Great, Odessa was one of the most important cities for imperial Russia's culture and economy; the Crimean port of Sevastopol was home to Russia's Black Sea fleet; and a sizable minority of the population of Ukraine considered themselves simply Russian. Considering all of this, it was inconceivable, he said, that Russia would ever accept the idea of a truly independent Ukraine.
Within a year, of course, Russian President Boris Yeltsin did just that, precipitating the final disintegration of the Soviet Union. But my professor — and President George H. W. Bush, who echoed his sentiments in his infamous "Chicken Kiev" speech — may yet be proved right.
The Yeltsin era is now widely viewed within Russia as a shameful period of national humiliation at the hands of an American-led west that must be redeemed by being reversed. Ukrainians themselves may overwhelmingly cherish their independence, and increasingly view Russia as a threat rather than a potential partner. Many Russians, though, refuse to believe them. With Russian troops massing at the Ukrainian border, they may prefer to imagine not only that a war would be easily won, but that a reassertion of Russian dominance would ultimately be welcomed.
These are good reasons for both the United States and its NATO allies to prepare for the possibility of such a war. But are there equally good reasons for us to get involved, either to try to deter a Russian invasion or to repulse one if Moscow attacks regardless of our warnings?
As they say, read the whole thing if you want to know my answer.
The Real Linkage Between Hanukkah, Spinoza and Antiracism
That may sound like a bit of a stretch, but it’s what my only post On Here is about this week. I start not with Hanukkah, though, but with Purim, because of the story of Amalek:
Amalek is the name of a desert tribe described in the Pentateuch as attacking the Israelites from the rear. On the Sabbath morning before Purim, the traditional reading includes a section in which the Israelites are commanded never to forget what Amalek did to them, and to blot out their name forever. The section is read on Purim because Haman, the villain in the Purim story, is a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalekites, who was (briefly) spared by King Saul, in defiance of the command to wipe out the Amalekite nation entirely.
In any event: the command is a funny one: to remember to blot out memory. It’s a bit like the instruction to not think of an elephant, isn’t it? And, in fact, according to the rabbis the command to physically wipe out Amalek is obsolete, because since the Babylonian captivity and the intermingling of peoples, there is no distinct nation of Amalek to be wiped out (a neat way of escaping a horrifying command to commit genocide). The command to blot out their memory remains in force, though—but at this point the only people who actually remember Amalek are those who are reading the book that contains that commandment. In other words: Amalek’s memory is being kept alive only by those attentive to the commandment to cause them to be forgotten.
This is not a new irony. There’s a Hindu story I love about an atheist who, to fortify his conviction, repeated as a mantra, every day and all day long: there is no God. Thus he persisted until he died—and was immediately united with Brahman. Why? because, by his mantra of negation, the atheist had kept God constantly in mind.
Once again, I encourage you to read the whole thing.
From the Archives
I have told old pieces that became suddenly and depressingly topical this week. So, at the risk of being ghoulish, I thought I would dig them up and share.
The first, from 2017, is a column about taking my then-15-year-old son to a shooting range immediately after the Las Vegas massacre. I imagine it’s obvious why that one came to mind. (I want to reassure those who read it that I actually have no worries whatsoever about my son, regarding guns or, really, anything else. He’s a profoundly sane, careful and wonderful kid. The larger culture . . . not so much.)
The second, from 2004, is a meditation on adopting that same boy. I hope it’s not obvious why I’m bringing this one up, because that means that few of my readers are aware of some of the vitriol that is going around regarding adoption in the wake of Justice Barrett’s comments in oral argument. I hope the piece pushes back a bit against the cruelly binary thinking that seems all too prevalent all over these days, and which is singularly inappropriate for this topic.
The World Elsewhere
Harper’s Magazine published an extraordinarily long, complicated and at times willfully difficult article this week by Will Self about the ubiquity of trauma in contemporary self-understanding, and how that condition may have come to be. Quite apart from its substance, the piece might be aiming, by its mere publication in all its density and relentlessness, single-handedly to vindicate the idea of a magazine as such. For that, I applaud Harper’s wholeheartedly.
For the piece itself, I’ll be perfectly honest, I think I need to read it again before offering coherent thoughts. Which is probably a good thing, because it means that while I do that, you can read it too.