["Here Are Some Thoughts I Had For America!" is a column that grinds up only the very finest American punditry and pontificating of the past week through a complicated process of recombination in order to create a fulsome catechism of bourgeois thought.]
Foreign tourists are coming up to me on the streets and asking, "How do you construct such wonderful anecdotal ledes?" And I tell them, "We just did it. Now you know." Then I typically get a long, non-plussed reaction.
But I understand. The average person doesn't see the world from my perspective. See, the people I meet on the streets and abroad are of great interest to me. Not because the nitty-gritty details of their lives are of any particular meaning -- I am not so small-minded. But there's something about ordinary people that fires my imagination. I find that it's the way the light in their eyes captures my reflection. I see myself in that radiant halo and understand that I am connected, my place in that moment in time verified. If you ever have the occasion to watch a clown make balloon animals for a group of children, you'll notice how their laughter drives the clown's performance by affirming it. In this way, I am like a clown, who makes balloon animals out of journalism.
This is something I noticed a long time ago, and it got me thinking about the world in a new way. Now, when a taxi driver asks me, "Where to?" I understand that he's not really asking for my destination on some street map. He's asking me where I think we -- this world, our people, this great experience -- is headed. When a hotel clerk welcomes my reservation, I know that she's not really merely welcoming my custom. She's welcoming my culture, my nation. The other day, while driving to the covered bazaar in the exotic western Indian town of Jodhpur, my Indian guide paused to point out the only stoplight in town. I immediately fell into a reverie.
My other Indian companion said, "Hey, pay attention, goreh, he's pointing out the one intersection you'll maybe be able to get across without dying," but by then I was lost in thought. As you might expect, the subject was leadership. Who is deciding? What decisions are they making? What sort of hotel suite have they booked in Doha?
And I lament our leaders. Here we are in America again on the eve of a major budgetary decision by yet another bipartisan super committee, and does anyone know what President Obamas preferred outcome is? It seems to me that he doesn't have one.
And I know, it's been pointed out to me that it's actually widely available on the Internet, and that it actually dovetails precisely with my own policy prescriptions. But these criticisms miss the point. When I ask, "Does he have one?" I mean, "Does he Have One." Does he walk into the Grand Bargaining Chamber with merely a plan on paper? Or does he walk into the room with command of the Great Tides of History and a sense of how interconnected the world really is? This is the difference between wondering if the taxi driver merely wants to take you to the Upper West Side, and knowing that what he's really asking for...is direction.
If President Obama came to these meetings -- like a leader, so armed -- the knobby recalcitrance of his political opponents would not even be an issue. He would see himself reflected in their eyes, the way I see myself in the eyes of the man who fixes the elevator in my building, and know that the time was ripe. He'd know that the House Republicans would simply be swept up in the meaning of that moment in time, recognize its grandeur for what it is, and simply say, "I'm ready to cross that street in Jodhpur with you. I'm ready to duck. I'm ready to dive. I'm ready to say I'm glad to be alive. I'm ready. I'm ready for the push." (It's no coincidence that Great Men in these moments often sound as if they are reciting U2 lyrics. Let's recall that U2 created one of the most dynamic private equity firms in the history of the world.)
If we fail in these tests, we fall short. And I see this every day. Take, for instance, this Jerry Sandusky scandal. I see this matter being pressed each day by members of the press -- the sporting press -- who have a relentless focus on statistics and replaying that last false start penalty, as if that's the moment to literally stop time and reflect upon in slow motion is simply not geared to the overall understanding of the calling of this moment. If you've been watching this coverage, you would think for all the world that this is a story about some one-off child predator who was sheltered by his colleagues out of expedience.
But again, where's that connection to the sweep of things? What this moment calls for is for someone to say, "You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here." We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don't have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it's wrong, but they've been raised in a morality that says, 'If it feels all right for you, it's probably okay.'"
Everyone is saying that this Bob Costas fellow did an excellent job in his interrogation of Sandusky, that he put Sandusky on the spot, made him look guilty, and potentially contributed to some infinitesimal portion of something that men who lack ambition might call "justice." But what if Costas had had the presence of mind to look into Sandusky's eyes and ask, "Consider Country Joe and the Fish's set on the final day of Woodstock in August of 1969. It was right about the time you returned to Penn State from Boston University. What does that tell you?" Surely this would have told us so much more.
Oh, hey, you can let me off right at the corner here. And you're welcome!
The Inequality Map [David Brooks @ NYT]
Who's the Decider? [Thomas Friedman @ NYT]
Failure Is Good [Paul Krugman @ NYT]
Meet the Press transcript for November 13, 2011 [NBC News]
Our Mrs. Brooks, Douthat, and Keller: At It Again... [Charles Pierce @ Esquire]
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