Saturday, October 01, 2005

Iraq's Bright, Shining Liars

Even today when Washington admits to the great discrepancy between its prolonged optimism and the obviously serious existing situation, it talks in the most superficial terms about increases in terrorism and post-coup command changes, rather than facing squarely the substantive factors which, step by step, determine the pattern and rythm of defeat.
          —From The Making of a Quagmire, by David Halberstam (1965)

“That’s when it hit me,” Specialist Firth, 29, said the next day. “To feel the weight of one of your comrades, to lift the dead body of a fellow American, you can never prepare yourself for that.” For a moment, he fell silent. “It wakes you up to reality, you know?” he said as tears welled up in his eyes. “There are people dying here.”
          —From a Juliet Macur report in today’s New York Times.

So back in August Rosemary Goudreau, the Alka Seltzer-tempered editorial page editor at the Tampa Tribune, is tizzing over this e-mail she’s received over and over for the last couple of years, as have so many of us in the trade: “Did you know that 47 countries have reestablished their embassies in Iraq? Did you know that 3,100 schools have been renovated?” Did you know that 22 million Iraqis woke up this morning? And so on. You know the sort. Anonymous. Panglossian. Impossible to verify. Most of all, irrelevant: Who gives a shit if fifty thousand schools have been renovated if the neighborhoods around them are still getting cluster-bombed à-la-Anbar Province, if their teachers are getting executed and their students getting kidnapped, raped, mowed down or enrolled in the early-draft plans of one of a few dozen militias running the country’s after-school programs, if cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Tal Aafar, Mosul and Fallujah and the near-totality of western Iraq are as good as no-go zones for American patrols and their Iraqi shadows? Not to risk feeding into the perception that the media only report the bad news — and splendidly pandering to the perception that most of our media generals are pandering fools — Ms. Goudreau shoots off the email to Mike Silverman, managing editor at the Associated Press, to see if maybe, well, the AP’s reporters “in country” could do something about these wonderful happenings in the best of all possible Iraqs the anonymous emails are referring to. (The emails are not anonymous of course but collated shards of Pentagon propaganda a year and two year out of date, from the same administration that buys and packages fake news with our tax dollars but that’s another story.) Silverman’s quote to the New York Times in the Aug. 15 story that reported this little exchange: “We’re there to report the good and the bad and we try to give due weight to everything going on… It is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news.” I’m sure the fatalities think it’s unfortunate they dominate the news too, when there should be at least equal time given over to the infinitely important daily news that while, say, fifty-five Iraqis and maybe six GIs got clobbered, twenty-two million Iraqis and one hundred thirty-nine thousand other GIs did not. Time and space should be given over to the fact that the sun rose on a hundred muezzins in Baghdad yesterday too, and if the sun set on only ninety-nine of them, well, that’s ninety-nine better than the “negative” media have been willing to report. A suicide bomber takes out half a police station and orphans a dozen families? Report those traffic jams all over Baghdad, a sea of cars shimmering in the normalcy of unregulated exhaust fumes. It is, it really is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news. A few more pictures of smiling Iraqi children on their way to school, thumbs up, would only be fair to the photo editors who can use a live shot of the next day’s morgue gallery.

The AP has never been off the optimism bandwagon though. Its reporters, like those from every news organization covering the Pentagon’s Five O’Clock Follies in Baghdad and Washington, are always ready to fill inches with the face-value fantasies of starry-eyed briefings. A few weeks before Goudreau’s fizz over those mass emails the AP was happy to report that “U.S. and military forces have ‘mostly eliminated’ the ability of insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity attacks in Baghdad,” according to Maj. Gen. William Webster, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad (and the latest in a revolving-door show of  commanders). “There are more threats ahead,” he said. “I do believe, however, that the ability of these insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity operations as they did last year, we’ve mostly eliminated that.” It’s July 8. On July 10, a suicide bomber kills forty people. By the end of July 58 Americans are dead. By the end of August another 85 Americans are dead. By September the insurgent attacks, the suicide bombings, the no-go zones have all multiplied. A Time cover asks, two years too later, whether any of this is winnable anymore. It ought to wake you up to reality. But editors, like little Thomas Friedmans scurrying after imaginary silver linings, want to give you the good news out of Iraq. At what point does impulsive objectivity become rank distortion? That point was reached in Iraq more than two years ago when Jessica Lynch’s blond highlights became this war’s bright, shining lie.

New York Stories

There’s a scene in “25th Hour,” the Spike Lee joint, where Montgomery, the hero who’s spending his last twenty-four hours as a free man tying up what ends he can in New York, is at his father’s Irish pub, in the bathroom. He looks in the mirror, sees the words “fuck you” penned there, stares. He has a conversation with himself, unleashes a tirade of fuck you’s about New York, fuck the Korean grocers who arrange their melons in pyramids, fuck the Upper East Side geezer woman who still thinks she can fool the world with her dozen face-lifts, fuck the Pakistani and Sikh cab drivers who are fucking up the town and warming up as future terrorists, fuck bin Laden (of course) and his cave-dwelling motherfuckers, fuck uptown brothers who sweat and play basketball on public courts and never pass the ball, fuck Wall Street brokers and their Gordon Gekko complex… and on he goes, fucking everything that crosses your New York sight, in Artemio Cruz fashion, almost better, but not quite as brilliant as you want it to be. It’s my favorite scene in the movie because it captures all those images of New York as we knew it in its grinning grimy gruesome grumpy granular grandiose self, and because it’s all the things I loved and hated every day, even after leaving it, when I would get the chance to walk its streets and smell its grime all over again. When the house is sold and there won’t be a place to call ours anymore I might get the chance to make it up there. I might even spring for a hotel room if necessary, or stay in Princeton and cross over for a daylong visit. But it won’t be the same. I won’t feel as if it’s home, as if I could linger anywhere I please because I knew I could take a train or a cab any time of night and be home within forty five minutes at the latest. Not just home, but walking that stretch of streets between the subway stop and the park, across the street from the co-op, cussing the icy air that grabs at your skin as you walk down 52nd, walking at that clip that gets your legs going only in New York. So what if I can visit? Half the pleasure of those walks in Manhattan were embedded in the thought of the return home, of the Number 7’s emergence from Hunters Point Avenue into the Queens air, with Manhattan at its back and your sense of good riddance just then (the city having taken it out of you yet again), of the stop at Courthouse Square where the station sways, at Queensboro Plaza where the cold air rushes in from Astoria, at 40th Street (I’ve never figured out why it’s called Lowery), where memories of those seven years on 42nd Street flooded in every time, and finally at 52nd Street, Billy Joel Street, the total emptiness of the place late at night, its busyiness any other time of day—the commuters, the street-side vendors, the shops, the traffic on Roosevelt Avenue, the late-middle-age tenants sitting on their stoops or stooping from their seats and watching us walk by, the dog-walkers shitting up the place and the battling invalids with their metal walkers and the future street-walkers flirting with the tank-topped toughies and the invisible night-stalkers following you with their gaze as you make your way home, home from Kerouac’s “whorey smell of a big city” to the familiar smell of a lifetime’s security, the smell you will never smell again. They have a smell in their apartments at the internment camps. But they’re mostly the smell of antiseptics, or of the place itself, or of their own individual things. In New York it was the mingling of the smells that made their smell, and that mingling is gone for good.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Partisan Loyalties

David Brooks today explains the pitfalls of loyalty: "Politics is a team sport. Nobody can get anything done alone. But in today's Washington, loyalty to the team displaces loyalty to the truth. Loyalty to the team explains why President Bush doesn't fire people who serve him poorly, and why, as a result, his policies are often not well executed. Loyalty to the team is why I often leave meals with politicians thinking ‘reasonable in private,’ but then I see them ranting like cartoon characters on TV."

Edward Abbey of course put it more elegantly and accurately in The Monkey Wrench Gang in 1975: "One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity there ain't nothing can beat teamwork." So it’s been in this era of militaristic infatuation with the mere idea of teamwork: Teamwork as ideology, as an end in itself, as a cult. Which is what makes partisan loyalty a social and cultural phenomenon as much as a political phenomenon. It's not restricted to "today’s Washington." It’s lived and breathed every day in the corporate workplace, where presumptions of teamwork and loyalty don’t even have the advantages of political partisanship. In politics partisanship for the team is something of an investment in self-promotion. Corporate loyalty is one-sided. It is assumed and demanded of workers at the expense of personal freedoms on every bill of rights extant, but without guarantees of job security, promotional or intellectual rewards in return (some of us being luckier than others: the luxury of being immune from Wall Street expectations and shareholders’ grasp). The demand for loyalty to the corporation is an implied threat: Absent loyalty to the corporate mission statement’s warm and fuzzy team-workish terms (and any amendments managerial neuroses improvises along the way), you’re as good as a past tense file folder in "human resources"’ morgue. An Aug. 4, 2003 headline in the Wall Street Journal: "Six Degrees of Exploitation? New Programs Help Companies ‘Mine’ Workers’ Relationships For Key Business Prospects." Sounds like the Pentagon’s supposedly defunct Total Information Awareness project. "The goal," the article explains, "is to identify people within the company who have potentially useful contacts elsewhere and could make a personal introduction, say, linking a salesperson with a potential customer, an attorney with a prospective client or a fund-raiser with a likely donor." But make sure your company has in place what Circuit City, Waffle House and Labor Ready, among others, do with, or to, their employees: they force them to sign away their right to go to court. From Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism: "The prevalent mode of social interaction today is antagonistic cooperation (as David Riesman called it in The Lonely Crowd), in which a cult of teamwork conceals the struggle for survival within bureaucratic organizations." Or as Lewis Lapham writes in this month's Harper's, "Who doesn't know that the corporation is immortal, that it is the corporation that grants the privilege of an identity, confers meaning on one's life, gives the pension, a decent credit rating, and the priority standing in the community? Of course the corporation reserves the right to open one's email, test one's blood, listen to the phone calls, examine one's urine, hold the patent on the copyright to any idea generated on its premises. Why ever should it not? As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true American knes that it is his duty to protect the brand."

The difference between politics and the workplace? Politics is at least played out as a cartoon on the evening news. The workplace is off-limits. No First Amendment saps, and not too many other rights, need apply. Washington looks so much more transparent in comparison.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Middle School Dance and Other Epidemics

Sadie’s first school dance a little while back, not just for her sixth grade class, which would have been a no-brainer of Friday night indulgence, but for her entire middle school brood, all thousand little gorgons—sixth graders still so out of range of puberty’s Antietams that they might as well be nostalgic for the good old days of separation anxiety all the way up to (up being a relative term in the slouch of early adolescence) eighth graders busting at the pimples, and the occasional miniskirt quoting 1980s streetwalkers on Park Avenue and 34th. It’s enough to put the fear of crabby Old Testament deities in parents’ hearts that the Taliban’s last surviving ambassador to America—Dr. Phil—was right when spoke of “the oral sex epidemic” to our Lord and Savior President and Mrs. Bush last October. That Dr. Phil is full of shit, as mullahs always are, is besides the point when the rumor of a hint of impropriety lurks within polluting distance of one’s daughter. Whenever the news cycle goes limp or middle-age editors get horny they commission the usual stories wedding sex and teens, a surefire way to get readers frothing over morning coffee and daylong judgments, although the slews of stories at the beginning of the decade about seventh graders enacting their own versions of one hundred brushtrokes before bed[1] gave way to the equally sickening anti-trend, the Bush-era stories about “The New Virginity” (Newsweek’s oxymoron of a cover story in December 2002) and “Young Love, New Caution,” The Times’ reliably Presbyterian take on the subject in March 2004, though that one didn’t last, quite. By May the Times was enlightening us about how “friends with benefits” and hooking up had replaced romance. Big deal. I don’t think there’s much difference between sex in the time of Charlemagne’s back-alley middle schools and our limousine kind today, although back then parents must have panicked a tad less about their children’s romps, being too busy enjoying the fact that the occasional tyke could make it past early childhood’s bog of pestilence.
None of that applied, none of it worried us much when we were trying to decide whether to let Sadie go or not. What we weren’t interested in are the rank but usual vulgarities of children of these varied ages, in these environments of children setting rules for themselves and their parents, let loose in a feedlot sort of setting. Mass-produced, little-supervised, scatterbrained and overcrowded dances tend to be that way (I wasn’t disappointed). But we weren’t interested in playing Stalin to Sadie’s discoveries either. I’m thinking of the last perfectly ironic line of a Maureen Dowd column on Elian Gonzales (who must be going to his first high school dances by now): “And we must do what’s best for the child.”[2] Well, a three-hour dance couldn’t possibly be that much worse than everyday school—which, as Clausewitz would have it, is dancing by other means anyway. She’d go, but I’d chaperone.

When we got there a mass of lambs were pressed up against the single entrance to the gymnasium, trickling in with their four dollar cover charge (“all proceeds for Katrina relief!”) and eight dollar lipstick-and-gravy makeovers and very effectively warming up their vocal chords for the screaming to come. I thought of the sounds of 220mm shells whistling and crashing around us in 1978: murmurs in comparison. And this was the dance’s antechamber. I was surprised by the subdued wardrobes. The school’s dress code (which attempts to revive the burquah fashion going out of style in Afghanistan) seemed to be exercising after-hour influences here. Britney wannabes were not much in evidence—no dangling bellybuttons, no linguini tops, only a few slutty bottoms, but slutty fashion is every mama’s norms these days of democratized bad taste, compliments of Wal-Mart and subhuman wages. So you can’t really blame the lambs. I had a brief chat with the chaperone-in-chief, a personable coach who, woman though she was, gave you the impression that she’d have managed very well as a commander in Patton’s tank battalions. The rest of the chaperone crew, me and Sadie’s geography teacher included, was not nearly as impressive, our overhanging guts being more show than tell. The middle school’s student population was our very own Lake Ponchatrain, and at 6:30, the levees broke. The lambs didn’t quite go in the desired direction. Most of them massed in the darkened half of the cafeteria for what passed for dancing and what looked like more like a mosh pit on speed, but tributaries led constantly down corridors, especially to a set of bathrooms—every dance’s favorite Vegas lounge—and any pair of doors that looked like they led somewhere, anywhere, especially the restricted and proscribed. One boy was outside on the grass, not far from the cafeteria but not where he was supposed to be, gathering a small mob, mostly girls, because he’d managed to discover a pigeon who couldn’t fly, and was holding it in his hands like a one-man PETA committee, insisting that he couldn’t go back inside because then no one would take care of the pigeon (and the girls would lose interest in his inoffensive but otherwise wingless face). A chaperone with a gut three times the size of mine barreled down on the scene, picked up where I left off (“you can’t babysit the bird for three hours”) and gave me a chance to go check some other minor disaster. Actually, there weren’t any. There were flushed faces, sweat, the back-and-forth ebullience of discovering that a corridor can be an entirely new world for six second, the desperate speeches about having been just dumped, the constant looking-for-so-and-so, the urgency of just going somewhere different, even if it’s the other end of the dance floor (you wonder why none of this urgency ever applies when you ask them to take out the garbage), the mussing and messing and security-blanket-caressing of their own hair (the older ones muss, the younger ones caress, the ones in between mess), and that constant, constant grab for the cellphone, which has become every other child’s pacifier. On the dance floor there was something meant to resemble music but it was more evocative of an oil tanker’s boiler-room cadences sampled with whines and grinds of sound that made everyone, judging from the deflagrations of squeals at the end of each bunch of tam-tams and the beginning of another, absolutely joyous for a shit-faced Schiller. Then again, there’s something as programmed in those squeals as in the programmed music that elicits them. Sadie assured me that she plugged her ears every time rather than join in. I have my doubts, and in any case I’d rather she did join in. No sense in playing the artistocats. I kept as much distance from her as I could bear, which became easier as the evening wore on, especially when it seemed as if she wanted less distance, even wanted me to commit that cardinal sin of parenting—intercede and mediate in her boy-chases—from which I begged off, substituting one of her girlfriends for the errands. By seven thirty the kids had been allowed into the gym to give their eardrums a rest and their legs a different drum to march to (basketball for the boys, conferencing for the girls), and by eight Sadie was as ready to leave as I was. No brawls, no punching festivals, no stabbings. The most that had happened, that I could see, was the expulsion of one girl from the dance floor (but not the dance itself) for having, allegedly, danced too “inappropriately” with someone else. It’s a given that no place in America is ever safe from the word inappropriate, it would have been a miracle of Fatima proportions had I spent two hours in that setting without once hearing the word. The miracle spared, it was time to leave, pick up our Mongolian beef and mei fun at China King, and retreat to a Carlsberg and Dave Chappell with Cheryl.

[A more Catholic version of this entry was published today in the Daytona Beach News Journal.]


[1] There was that story in The Times about suburban seventh and eighth graders who “rent limousines to take them to clubs in Manhattan, where they get drunk, grind on the dance floor and have oral sex in dim corners” and the from-the-frontlines reports of a suburban psychologist who sees “girls, seventh and eighth graders, even sixth graders, who tell me they’re virgins, and they’re going to wait to have intercourse until they meet the man they’ll marry. But then they’ve had oral sex 50 or 60 times. It’s like a goodnight kiss to them, how they say goodbye after a date,” or the one by Liza Mundy in the Washington Post three months later (“They say, ‘What’s up with the dome?’” the [eight-grade] girl continues, explaining that this is an invitation to perform oral sex, as is the more familiar: “When are you going to give me head?” She tells them never. She laughs. Whatever it takes to put them off. She has not done much more than kiss, though she and her female friends talk about sex a lot, especially oral sex. “They’re like, ‘It’s not that bad once you do it. But it’s scary the first time.’ I guess they’re nervous that they won’t do it right. They said they didn’t have any pleasure in it. They did it to make the boys happy, I guess.”), the “Risky Business” cover stories of the newsmagazines (“Teens are having more sex—and getting more diseases,” US News told is in May 2002).

[2] The Times April 2, 2000.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Yes, The New Yorker

It arrived a couple of days ago in an Amazon box no thicker than the one used to send Shalimar the Clown and no heavier than a pound of Georgia peaches: The complete New Yorker, on eight CD’s. All of it. All four thousand-odd issues going back to the first one on February 21, 1925, with Mr. Lilly (drawn by Rea Irvin, the magazine’s first art editor), on the cover, a Parfums Caron (10 rue de la paix, Paris) ad on the inside cover, and “Of All Things,” a forgotten feature that preceded the unforgettable “Talk of the Town,” starting things off with this paragraph: “Right next door to the Follies, some young adventurer has opened a penny peep-show where you can see five hundred and fifty glorified young women for what Mr. Ziegfeld charges for his much smaller collection. Well, competition is the life of the party, as Mr. LaFollette might have it.” In his introduction to the CD set David Remnick, only the magazine’s fifth editor after Harold Ross, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown, describes the substance of the magazine’s beginning as “all meringue,”  its pages flowing with their “over-all mood of gaiety, even if that gaiety seems a bit forced and, now, antique.” Sure enough, but even that first paragraph is like a strand of DNA right out of cultural and political history. Follow the code through the magazine’s very pages and it’s as if you’re flipping through the 20th century all over again. Who remembers Robert LaFollette, whom Wisconsin had just been elected to the Senate to fill his dead father’s seat and who made Republicans turn green? Speaking of whom: where’s today’s LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee? The New Yorker didn’t have anything to say the week LaFollette blew his brains out, in 1953, 28 years virtually to the day of serving as the magazine’s first punch-line. E.B. White—of Strunk & White, to all of you victims of that tyrannical little white book—opened that week’s “Comment” section with a characteristically anal plaint about word usage: “We’ve noticed that in his speeches Secretary Dulles uses the word ‘Democrat’ instead of ‘Democratic’ in such phrases as ‘the Democrat administration’ and ‘the Democrat Party.’ We haven’t discovered whether Mr. Dulles worked out this usage on his own, as his personal rhetorical device, or whether it is to be standard usage in all departments of the new regime.” White also mused about a United States Customs Court Judge inventing the word “caprew,” “constructed out of letters taken from ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant’ and ‘Jew,’ and it means ‘an American.’” This isn’t to deny the issue’s happy devotion to the noble and the serious that week, with a Brendan Gill review of Simone deBeauvoir’s The Seconde Sex, a typically bare-knuckled piece by A.J. Liebling, the last of a three-part piece by Rebecca West that became, eleven years later, The New Meaning of Treason, a book that, judging from Sidney Hook’s review in the New York Times eight days after I was born, could have been written yesterday: “With rare courage and independence of judgment, Miss West gives us a complex, nuanced and highly knowledgeable account of a dreadful phenomenon that inspire, in many minds, an aversion so deep as to prevent understanding. She believes that the new forms of treason in a thermonuclear age constitute a vastly greater danger to the peace and survival of the open society than previous varieties. This is not only because of their grave menace to security at a time when the sudden death of cultures is possible. To some degree, danger also lurks in the measures a free society may be goaded into accepting when, in frenzied reaction to laxness in its security season, it hunts for scapegoats and paralyzes its own defense of an impossible quest for total security.”

One paragraph, and I’m already lost in the thick of the century’s hearts of darkness. But it’s all here. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (“There was onmce a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings…”) Hanna Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Jonathan Schell’s “The Fate of the Earth” and its opening paragraph packing twenty billion tons of TNT, which I remember as much for its hair-raising feel as for the time and place when I read it, sitting in an uncomfortable recliner-type chair in Gabriel or Robert’s Columbia University apartment, the view of a Manhattan being obliterated in front of me; Janet Flanner’s 1936 profile of Hitler (this one is among the many pieces excerpted in the preview pages of the boxed set, itself worth the money: “Dictator of a nation devoted to splendid sausages, cigars, beer, and babies, Adolf Hitler is a vegetarian, teetotaler, nonsmoker, and celibate. He was a small-boned baby and was tubercular in his teens. He says that as a youth he was always considered an eccentric.”  Would anyone have dared write even so vaguely personable an opening to anything führeroidal two, three years later?); the original version of John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” (where for some reason he has Jim and Irene Westcott living “in the East Seventies between Fifth and Madison Avenues,” before moving them, for the hardback edition, to “an apartment house near Sutton Place”); Lewis Mumford’s three-part piece on “The Roaring Traffic’s Boom” in 1950. Those cartoons (from 1947: An Arab has just been shown to his hotel room. He looks at the bellhop and says: “One last thing. Which way is east?”). Those covers, which I’ve been saving since the late 1980s. All those pieces I’ve been clipping since the mid-1980s. (My first one is a Letter from Jerusalem by Amos Elon, from 1985, with this bit that could also have been written yesterday: “If Peres has recently been speaking of a new era in Israeli politics, many still live in the old one. A lot of people here—perhaps excluding the zealots of the far right—seem to be tired. The tiredness may be the result of their having lived for so long—for some, an entire lifetime—in what seems an interminable emergency. Or it may be a result of this country’s being so overextended, both emotionally and physically. There was a time when it was said that Israel had too much history and too little territory. Since 1967, the opposite has been true. The strains are showing.”) Finally, even that famous three-part piece on corn that took too much New Yorker-bashing over the years, and which I remember, if not reading, then at least relishing, for its mere existence (and which I will now gladly read and relish for what I assume is its deserved permanence). Whose work was it, E.J. Kahn? Sure enough. June 18, 1984: “The Staffs of Life,” the first in a series that saw Kahn write a profile of the potato later that year, then one of rice and one of soybeans in 1985, before he settled down to the less esoteric topicality of the world’s fair in Japan and something about Mali later in the year. What unfair bitching he reaped for so much harvesting on our behalf.

The issue that saw the inaugural piece in the staples quartet also had a curious, and now timely, Comment piece by—who else—Jonathan Schell, about the “striking—and, to some, infuriating—disparity between the reaction of public opinion to the United States’ intervention in Central America and the reaction to the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan.” The United States sends a few military advisors and a few million dollars to the Contras, and all hell breaks loose in Congress, in protests wherever Ronald Reagan appears, at the United Nations. The Soviet Union invades and ravages Afghanistan for—by then—six years, and it’s all quiet. “It seems that there is a double standard in operation,” Schell writes with that augury of a seems that hints just enough at its validity: “If there is, however, it is a double standard that we invented, and invited the world to apply. And—what is at times even more annoying—we find that we, too, must continue to apply it, and measure ourselves by it. To hold ourselves to a higher standard is to invite judgment by others according to that same standard—that is the price that anyone pays who wants to uphold any standard whatever. In this case, the standard is the standard of liberty. We cannot really expect the Soviets to offer the Afghans a liberty that they withhold from their own people. But we can and do expect our government to refrain from imposing repression on others which we would find hateful at home.”  Come to think of it, it would be a shame to leave these words buried in digital form on a CD or a library shelf when they could so easily be revived in print, at least for a bit, in an upcoming column.

Those Comment and Talk of the Town pieces were notoriously unsigned, back when The New Yorker upheld one of journalism’s nobler traditions, as only The Economist does now: Anonymity has its value—not because it affords the writer a chance to hide (how could he, when he has a magazine’s or a newspaper’s reputation to uphold?), but because it affords the idea a chance not to be outdone by its scribe. It is journalism. We are in the end just hacks. Let the ideas loose. But I find myself giddy at using the Complete New Yorker’s excellent search engine to finally put names to these anonymous pieces—to see what Schell wrote all those years, what Bill McKibben was writing (not what Updike was writing because the moment he went hardback with his non-fiction, he made sure to tell us), what William Finnegan, Ian Frazier, Lawrence Weschler and so many other exceptions (and still-working) to hackdom penned all these years.

If The New Yorker can do all this for, what, $120? Why not everyone else? But what everyone else? It’s not as if the quality is out there, begging to be archived. Time? Newsweek? L’Express? Might as well archive a trinity of landfills. Esquire? For the 1960s and 70s maybe, but beyond that, it’s been Maxim’s godparent. Playboy would be more interesting. Commentary or Le Monde Diplomatique, maybe, for the right-left markers. The New York Times? Well, yes, but that’d run to fifty CDs and $5,000, and why bother when Times Select, the newest way to put gates around the marketplace of ideas, is making the archives stingingly available (you’re limited to a hundred peeks per month). The Atlantic and The Nation, certainly, but then what? Fact is that the New Yorker has had no likes in quality or archival usefulness, nothing that packs so much literary and historical TNT in such density. Past tense, of course. Not even today’s New Yorker lives up to its archival value, though Remnick has been restoring some of the luster. What would Liebling say of all this New Yorker on CD? No idea whatsoever. But here’s the very last thing he said in the pages of the magazine for which he wrote for so many decades, the very last line of a review of Camus’ wonderful Notebooks, as apt today about the CD collection at hand: “But it is intensely enjoyable for its own sake—a long conversation with a companion who does not pall.”