According to Genesis, Noah was 600 years old when “the flood of waters was upon the earth.” Which is exactly how old I felt when I awoke to find boxes of my personal files limp and soggy with escaped papers floating about. As with many homes in Toronto last weekend, the heating had failed and my bedroom was a bracing 5° C. I ought to have known that water pipes would burst but I had forgotten that bit of common sense due no doubt to the cryogenic suspension of my thought processes.
The interesting aspect of the experience was actually having to look at material I had stored from 10 years ago or more. I find it perfectly easy to throw out or give away clothes, but decades-old copies of Commentary worrying about Natan Sharansky’s imprisonment in the gulag and pamphlets from various think tanks have a perpetual-care contract with me. They follow my life about in cardboard boxes waiting to see the light. Or in this case the water.
I appear to have had a bit of a preoccupation with Iceland. It seems that for years Iceland grew its own bananas in hothouses because of trade restrictions on imported ones. I thought that would be a good way into a column on free trade but then the European Union came along and set out rules on banana sizes and followed up with a cucumber classification system which seemed a more humorous way into the debate. I have no idea why I kept Hannes Gissurarson’s 2000 booklet entitled “Overfishing: the Icelandic Solution” with its analysis of demersal fisheries. I regret very much that I never found occasion to use a January 2003 paper in the American Journal of Sociology which analyzed the French Revolution in culinary terms. The three academics felt that the revolution of 1789 “undermined the institutional logic of the ancien régime cuisine” and replaced it with classical cuisine. They agreed that nouvelle cuisine was the outgrowth of the Sorbonne’s student protests in May 1968 and in it could be found a new institutional logic and identity movement. The paper was clearly written by deconstructionists with fine palates.
An old booklet on crime used the 1941 account of three young boys in the town of Sunderland in Britain caught smoking at the back of a shop to illustrate good policing. Two policemen marched them the mile home to their parents. The policemen smoked, the parents smoked, but 12-year-old boys were not allowed to so they were in trouble with their mums (dads being away at the war). All this was unremarkable at the time. That was the notion of consensual, zero-tolerance policing. Today, the policemen would be reprimanded or sued for forcing children to walk without permission from the parents. The parents would be charged with negligence of their children and have social workers all over them, and the children would be sent off to be counselled or, depending on the type of cigarette, put in rehab.
Actions soak up the spirit of the times and become subservient to it. What makes an action good or bad for a society is rarely its actual content but rather the culture around it. This 1941 anecdote is not irrelevant to the great celebrations surrounding the installation of President Obama. When, in his inaugural address, the new President of the United States called on Americans to sacrifice and to look after each other, he used notions that in practical terms have not been in the vocabulary of his contemporaries. For the generations that were most instrumental in electing him, the postwar boomers and their children, entitlement is a more familiar emotion than sacrifice. Not necessarily their fault: their parents worked hard to make it so.
The election of a president is a gamble in which voters place a bet based on performance and personality assessment made on little more than some news clips and the remarks of television pundits. Still, I’m not sure that matters. I’m busily putting clippings into new files for new boxes, clippings that take it for granted Obama will radically change American foreign and domestic policy, while I don’t think he has much chance of doing either. The legend is that King Canute could not roll back the sea. President Obama cannot change the realities of the Middle East or the expectations of American citizens. In the end, the centre rules and that centre is the spirit of the times. Even the best leader can only obey the best of the zeitgeist. At the end of Obama’s first term, the left may be disappointed and there’s a slim chance that just maybe the right will be pleasantly surprised.