Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, perhaps the first novel in English, never seems to grow old. It led to Gilligan’s Island after all. The actual title is this – The Life and most Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, lying near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself
That sums it up nicely – now you don’t have to read it. But the whole thing is available online should you care to. This fellow, an English castaway, spends twenty-eight years on a remote tropical island, but not exactly alone – there are the natives, and especially his foil, Friday.
The book was wildly popular of course, and for good reason. According to J.P. Hunter, Robinson is not a hero, really, but an everyman. He’s us. He begins as a wanderer, aimless on a sea he does not understand, and ends as a pilgrim, crossing a final mountain to enter the Promised Land. Maybe so – Robinson gets closer to God, but not through listening to sermons in any church. He spends time alone in nature, as it were, with only a Bible to read. Karl Marx had another view – in Marxist terms Crusoe’s experiences on the island represents the inherent economic value of labor over capital. You can see that. Crusoe does realize, quite quickly, that the money he salvaged from the ship is worthless on the island – his tools matter. Sure, money has no intrinsic value and is only valuable insofar as it can be used in trade. Thanks, Karl.
Be that as it may, anyone can see why the book was seminal, and why the narrative device is reused again and again (see Tom Hanks in Castaway, where his Friday is a soccer ball). It’s not the pilgrim thing, or the Marxist thing. We all feel like Crusoe – it’s the human story. We can relate to the guy alone on the beach with no clue, trying to figure out where he is, and why, by examining the detritus left by the receding tide, a footprint here and there, a shell, what might have been a campfire – anything that leads to some sort of understanding, some way to piece it all together. And you have to figure out some way to survive – there’s no one there to help you. You not only want meaning, you want direction, you want advice – and you get silence. Your only book is a Bible, not Castaway Survival for Dummies. There’s no instruction manual for anything. And to compound matters the few people you meet talk funny and have odd values (in the book they’re cannibals). You don’t understand them and they don’t understand you. It short, it’s all a bit like life – Defoe came up with the master metaphor.
But what does that have to do with the here and now, on Wednesday, February 13, 2008, in the United States? We are a nation sort of at war, just not here and just not involving many of us, with a disintegrating economy, a nation full of people with wildly different ideas of how things should be, and the most powerful nation on earth, but sometimes seeming powerless and certainly both mocked and feared around the world, in the middle of trying to choose a new leader through a haphazard process that puzzles everyone, here and abroad. And like Crusoe, we stroll along the social/political beach, trying to figure out where we are and why by examining the detritus left by the receding tide, a footprint here and there, a shell, a tin can or condom wrapper – anything that leads to some sort of understanding, to piece it all together. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
So let’s stroll and see what we see. Maybe what we find will help us make sense.
The movie is Deep Impact (1998):
A comet is on a course to collide with Earth, and people must cope with the fact that they will die. The President (Morgan Freeman) has devised a plan to keep as many humans alive as possible. Scientists have built giant caves big enough to hold a million people, and the government is going to have a lottery to pick 800,000 people to live in the caves along with 200,000 scientists, artists and doctors.
This comment is from Kevin Henry:
Have we learned nothing from the tragic events of 1998, when, under the watch of President Morgan Freeman, this nation was plunged into chaos, and hundreds of millions of people died at the hands of the deadly Wolf-Beiderman space rock? The mere fact that this country is even considering putting another black man, Barack Obama, in the Oval Office proves that we have not.
Victor Hanson speculates regarding the Republicans:
For McCain to win in this current anti-incumbent, anti-Republican climate of war and economic uncertainty, everything will have to break right – the base will have to make a choice for the better, not the best, alternative and soon cool the rhetoric; the VP choice will have to be inspired; independents and moderates will have to be convinced that McCain’s unique life-story and national security fides trump all else; and he will have to wage an effective campaign, hope his opponents don’t, and trust that Iraq will continue to improve while the economy is stabilized.
He could hope for a comet too.
Megan McArdle on an Obama speech:
I’m watching his speech now, and it’s inspiring. But it’s also saddening, because deep down, I don’t believe that Obama is going to change Washington, eliminate lobbying, etc. I wish he wouldn’t tell me things that I can’t possibly believe–and moreover that I can’t really understand anyone believing. He might be the best president; he might even make Washington work a little better, though I kind of doubt it. But he isn’t going to transform American politics in the utopian way his speech implies. No one who has dried out behind the ears could reasonably believe that he has this power. So why is he saying he does?
Here’s a riposte from Obama fan Andrew Sullivan:
No, he will not transform politics. He won’t abolish our problems. He won’t eliminate our enemies. He won’t disappear partisanship. That’s not the point. He’s a decent, reasonable human being prepared to tackle these problems outside the depressing template of Morris-Rove politics. One way he can begin to do that is to bring a wave of support with him, to appeal beyond Washington to Americans who know this country is in a terrible mess and want to fix it. That’s what Reagan did. He wasn’t perfect. But we still remember the difference.
From Texas, where Hillary spoke didn’t even mention her landslide losses in the Potomac primaries that same night:
When Clinton mentioned having differences with Obama over health care and the mortgage crisis, she was booed.
David Wilhelm, Bill Clinton’s ’92 campaign manager, now backs Obama.
Shaun Mullen at the Moderate Voice suggests this:
Clinton has been a lackadaisical campaigner with a muddled message, nowhere more so than about the deeply unpopular Iraq war. Her husband alienated and did not attract voters at a crucial juncture. There are the aforementioned money woes. She waited too long to dismiss a campaign manager who was valued for her loyalty but lacked political smarts, while a deputy campaign manager has now resigned in what looks to be a full-blown shakeup as Clinton’s viability hangs in the balance.
But she did the right things, or so says Matthew Yglesias:
Obama’s put together a string of impressive wins, but it’s still the case that in the Democratic Party women outnumber men, whites outnumber blacks, working class people outnumber college educated professionals, and senior citizens outnumber under-thirties. Under the circumstances, Clinton continues to be in a strong position.
Maybe so, but Erica Jong – yes, she’s still around – is considering moving north:
I give up. If I have to watch another great American woman thrown in the dustbin of history to please the patriarchy, I’ll move to Canada – where they live four years longer than we because they have universal health care. Or Italy – where Berlusconi played at being Mussolini but life is sweet anyway and people take vacations in August and at Chanukah (Christmas or Diwali or Kwaanza) and Passover (Easter).
People get thrown in the dustbin of history for reasons other than that one – to please the patriarchy. And sometimes there’s no reason. Keep walking down the beach.
Ah, but there is another burning question hanging about, about whether a certain someone should be in that particular dustbin. Does John McCain have enough foreign policy experience? McCain had said that “anyone who worries about how long we’re in Iraq does not understand the military and does not understand war.” After all, McCain further explained, we have troops in Kuwait and no one is worried about how long they will be there, and we have had troops in Germany for more than a half century.
Jonathan Zasloff says this is really laughable and says this is the best retort – “If John McCain doesn’t understand the difference between protecting a country and occupying it then he doesn’t understand foreign policy.”
That’ll do. File that for future use. Keep walking down the beach.
But who really knew anything about the difference between protecting a country and occupying it? See Spencer Ackerman with this critique of George Packer’s essay on Iraq in the premiere issue of the new World Affairs journal. We needed another journal? Perhaps we do, and here Packer says we’re all just too removed from things in Iraq. It was that way all along:
So the lines were drawn from the start. To the pro-war side, criticism was animated by partisanship and defeatism, if not treason. This view, amplified on cable news, talk radio, and right-wing blogs, was tacitly encouraged by the White House. It kept a disastrous defense secretary in office long after it was obvious that he was losing the war, ensured that no senior officer was held accountable for military setbacks, and contributed to the repetition of disastrous errors by the war’s political architects. Meanwhile, the fact that the best and brightest Iraqis were being slaughtered by a ruthless insurgency never aroused much interest or sympathy among the war’s opponents. The kind of people who would ordinarily inspire solidarity campaigns among Western progressives – trade unionists, journalists, human rights advocates, women’s rights activists, independent politicians, doctors, professors – were being systematically exterminated. But since the war shouldn’t have been fought in the first place, what began badly must also end badly.
Matthew Yglesias wonders about that:
War supporters, invested in the idea that they were right when they were, in fact, wrong blinded themselves to actual developments on the ground in Iraq. War opponents were, by contrast, what? It’s hard to say. Not blinded by denial that terrible things were happening in Iraq. But, I guess, not affected by these terrible happenings in the way Packer thinks would have been appropriate? Insufficiently surprised that a war they’d always regarded as ill-advised turned out to be ill-advised? It’s not clear.
Still, Packer wrote the seminal book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq – “almost certain to stand as the most comprehensive journalistic account of the greatest foreign-policy debacle in US history” (or so says Gary Kamiya, and most others). Now what is he saying?
Yglesias says Packer probably cannot say much now:
The reality is that the American political debate from 9/11/01 to today has been enormously complex. A once-popular war has become highly unpopular. A great many people, myself included, have not only changed our minds about the war but changed our minds about a larger set of concerns. The market for the sort of serious, thoughtful reporting and analysis Packer has brought us from the region has actually been very large. People from differing political perspectives came together to contribute essays to a new journal called World Affairs. Howard Dean rose and fell then kinda sorta rose again to become DNC Chair. Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic nomination, but secured election as an Independent.
The distance between America and Iraq that Packer writes about is real enough, and it’s quite true that the war exists as a kind of abstraction – a faint presence. But the dumb and indifferent public senselessly processing information through fixed partisan blinders just isn’t there – the country wasn’t evenly split on the war in the summer of 2003, and it’s not evenly split today, either; a lot of debate has happened and a lot of people have changed their minds. Indeed, that changing of minds has in many ways been the central fact of American politics in recent years.
That’s why a string of political found objects are sometimes the best you can do. There no unifying theory that explains everything – we may get one on theoretical physics first. Keep walking down the beach.
John Strausbaugh, has a theory, however. It’s in his new book, Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps and Stoopits (Virgin Books, February 5, 2008) – it seems that creeping “sissitude” has rendered Americans incapable of thinking for themselves or acting as individuals. He doesn’t have much use for anyone these days – neither political party, most of the presidential candidates, the obese, global warming activists, people who use iPods, religious fundamentalists, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, George Bush or anyone else. See the Vincent Rossmeier interview with him in Salon – John McCain is running for sissy in chief.
Is there anything there? There’s his thesis:
We’ve become, I think, a herd of Holsteins. Soft, lazy, stupid, knee-jerk, head-bobbing, fundamentalist, high-brained, less-than-human humans now. We’re becoming that way. We’re not all uniformly and thoroughly sissified yet, but we’re working on it. The book is to raise my hand and say this is kind of a problem and we need to think about this. I think the genius about the American experiment in democracy is to create this social environment where each and every one of us has the opportunity as individuals to achieve what we can, to be as happy as we can, to live as fulfilled a life as we can, and we’re getting away from that by identifying ourselves by which pack of Holsteins we have to be members of.
There’s nothing much new here. He contention might remind you of Ann Coulter – one more tiresome negative rant. She mocks anyone left of the late Joe McCarthy and he picks on everyone. Still, in discussion of what we have before us now, he gets off some good lines wondering where all the giants are:
I remember a time that when you were running for president, you were relatively a larger-than-life character. You may have been an enormous scoundrel or an enormous idiot, but you were enormous. You were much larger than life. And these folks – Huckabee looks like he’s the type of guy you’d go into a Pep Boys to buy two radial tires from and he’d sell you four because he’s such a nice guy. Hillary just seems like a corporate lawyer. Barack Obama seems like a really nice guy, like your high school class president, but none of them seem like large characters, none of them seem to have large visions. The ones who do seem to have some vision, actually, are the outsiders, who don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere. The Ron Pauls and the Kucinichs. And I always like those sorts of characters because, since they know they’re not going to win and they’re just running to get their ideas out there, they don’t grovel for our votes, they don’t lie to us, they tell us what they think, because they know they’re not going to win anyway.
Yes, troubled losers with integrity are always attractive – see James Dean, or Don Quixote. Everyone loves a rebel, even if the cause is, in the first case, ambiguous, or in the second, foolishly idealistic (the only causes worth fight for are losing causes, and all that). At least they’re not sissies:
Politics has become almost entirely a politics of things that we fear, things that make us anxious, so it’s illegal aliens, it’s war, it’s terrorism, you know, I can’t afford my taxes, it’s healthcare, which I think is used more as a scare tactic than some socialized medicine vision of the future. And none of them, with the possible exception of Obama, because he does give good speeches, are inspiring us to take charge of our own lives, our own happiness, our own fulfillment, our own sort of being the best human being each one of us can be. I’m not saying that politicians have ever encouraged us to do that. But I think we have gotten to such a low point in our sissitude that we could really use someone to encourage us to think for ourselves.
Times change and were in the age of midgets:
Look at LBJ. Look at Richard Nixon. Look at JFK. I think the descent begins sometime around the time of Jimmy Carter and I remember thinking it then. Jimmy seemed much smaller than the guys who had gone before him. For all his flaws, Reagan was a larger-than-life character. That’s all he was. He was our logo. He was like having one of the Pep Boys for president, but he was larger than life. This president stupid we’ve had for the last eight years, oh my god, that guy, you wouldn’t even buy the radial tires from that guy.
And on it goes – in the end, not that useful or original. Keep walking down the beach.
No wait. What did he say? With the possible exception of Obama, because he does give good speeches, inspiring us to take charge of our own lives, our own happiness, our own fulfillment, our own sort of being the best human being each one of us can be… Ah, Obama read Robinson Crusoe.
If we’re stuck here on this island and have to get along with the strange natives with strange values, in some sort of existential silence, then that will do nicely.