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Jewish World Review May 30, 2002 / 19 Sivan, 5762

Michael Kelly

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Old, Old, Old. Tired, Tired, Tired. | I wonder how many people rang in Memorial Day this year sitting in a darkened room watching HBO's documentary of the slaughter of the World Trade Center and weeping. This was a different sort of Memorial Day; these are different times.

It is hard to always remember really how different they are, and that catches and sometimes trips up even people whose business it is to be sensitive to fresh rhythms. The other day, reacting to not much of a story about not much of a warning that President Bush was given before Sept. 11, Democratic congressional leaders went a-shrilling all over the place demanding to know What the President Knew and When Did He Know It, and Republican congressional leaders shrieked in response their horror that anyone would Question the Commander in Chief in a Time of War.

The Democrats' reactionaryism was a great deal more offensive than the Republicans' -- the latter merely stupid; the former obscene -- but the essential nature of both was the same. In each case, you saw people trying to translate the shock of the new into the comfort of the known. The effect was not merely cliched but as if out of another time. It was as if Gephardt and Daschle and Lott and Armey were speaking a dead language.

There is a lot of that going around. The early days after Sept. 11 produced an entire instant mini-literature in dead language as our public intellectuals sought to explain the new unthinkable in the terms in which they had been thinking for decades. The intellectuals intended, in the usual way of these things, to provoke outrage. And to some modest degree they did, which led to the usual rounds of "debate" in the pages of the usual organs; and Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky and Edward Said and Harold Pinter got their names in the papers again, which was the whole point of the exercise.

But did you notice how irrelevant and inconsequential it all felt? One's lasting reaction was not outrage at all but a mild embarrassment mixed with a strong sense of temporal dislocation, of the sort occasioned by catching a glimpse of Jerry Lewis on television. It is a sense of: You're still here? You're still talking? Why? The most obvious fact about the people who bravely -- oh, so bravely, so bravely -- dared to tell truth to power in the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, and the Cosmic Review of Blah-Blah, was how old they were.

Old, old, old. Also tired, tired, tired. These people -- precisely these people -- have been saying these things -- precisely these things -- since, in many cases, the early Dylan years (Bob, mostly, although in some cases Thomas). Even the young upstarts among them have been blathering on since the '70s. And what is it, exactly, that they have to say that we haven't grasped by now?

Reading, say, The New York Review of Books, you are increasingly struck with the realization that it is simply reactionary; this is our Old Guard now. For an inquisitive and engaged person in his or her twenties, the effect must be akin to what a bright young thing of the World War II generation felt when contemplating the political musings of, say, a Gilded Age bohemian. How interesting, gramps, how interesting; did you really know John Reed, and can I get you another slice of cake?

What is ahead will involve more of the rediscovery that is already obvious around us. When Memorial Day means remembering the dead who are still yet fresh in the ground, and with the sure knowledge of further dead, people come to terms with things again. You can take seriously, or pretend to take seriously, the likes of Chomsky -- or the likes of Gephardt -- when you can afford to. But that sort of thing is a frivolity, of a grim sort, for a frivolous time.

We are now entered into a serious time, a time of protracted conflict. To some degree, we will be engaged in this alone; certainly in the sense that a leader is alone. And we must lead. No one else has the capacity to direct what will become a fluid and shifting alliance between the nations that wish to promote democracy, trade and order arrayed against the nations and extranational forces that wish to promote fascism, gangsterism and smash-and-grab anarchy. We have a president who seems to understand this, which is helpful. We have a people who seem to understand it too, which is essential.

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© 2002, Washington Post Co.