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Washington Diarist


Was I alone a few Sundays ago in thinking that the photograph of Sanford Weill on the front page of The New York Times was much too small? I mean, it took up only about a third of the page, though it was nicely centered, above and below the fold, so that the news of all the other kinds of people in the world that week, the worried and the hurting kinds, could revolve condignly around the image of the money man smiling in self-congratulation beneath the beatifying halo of the ceiling lights at Carnegie Hall. If ever there was an emblem of the Manhattan cosmology, this page was it. And there is more to come: The page announced that this glorification of the grotesquely rich was only the first installment in a series excitingly called "Age of Riches: The .01 Percent. " No doubt this latest bath of pluto-porn at the Times will be partly justified as an interest in the philanthropic consequences of the new fortunes; and while it is true that the generosity of some of the new rich is extraordinary, it is also true that charity is not economic justice. (It is the absence of economic justice that makes charity necessary.) I wonder how the largesse angle will handle the obscene Stephen Schwarzman, who is very bad for the Jews.

Then, a few days ago, though not in this series, the Times delivered another piece that would have made Veblen giggle. It was called "ceo libraries reveal keys to success," and it disclosed that corporate success is linked to the reading, or at least to the collecting, of great books. "As soon as a book enters our home it is guaranteed a permanent place in our lives," one venture capitalist preened. "I have never been able to part with even one... ." Amazing! Another CEO "has stocked his cabin in the woods with the collected works of Aristotle," which is very nice for Aristotle, especially in the summer. Michael Milken has created a whole library on Galileo, "the renegade who was jailed in his time but redeemed by history." My favorite pseud of all was Sidney Harman, who remarked with serene idiocy that "poets are our original systems thinkers" and, to give the measure of his mental seriousness, boasted that "[f]or two years [he] would take down from the shelf The City of God by E. L. Doctorow, read the novel slowly, return it to the shelves, and then take it down again for his next trip." It is that good.

I know that the rich will always be with us, but they can be unbelievably tedious. (I recall a wealthy acquaintance of mine who once pronounced to his table that "Beethoven is, in my judgment, a great composer.") Since, in our tacky gilded age, only the rich seem to be getting richer, the comedy of the fascination with themselves and their deals and their toys is not altogether hilarious (it is, I hasten to add, a bipartisan fascination: There are many conservatives who pray to capitalism, but nobody slavers over mammon like the Clintons); and since the rich tend to live like lemmings, the most expensive conformists in the annals of mankind, they are not particularly stimulating to humanistic observation. What sort of sympathy or solidarity is one supposed to have for such people? Of course there are exceptions, and those are my friends. But for moral and imaginative reasons, I will stand with the 99.9 percent. I will even dig out my crumpled old copy of Michael Harrington from my mother's garage, the one I bought at the Eighth Street Bookshop (on the same day, I weirdly recall, that I first heard Gene Clark sing "For a Spanish Guitar") many years before I discovered a place called "poolside." After all, the gilded age is very partially gilded. I understand why Americans are interested in winners, but I am developing a lively interest in losers. I want to know what they know. Their anxieties seem more fundamental. No, I do not intend to idealize the poor. I am not unsophisticated! I intend only to remember that the poor exist; and to dream about a Democrat who cares equally about national security and social insecurity--to dream on ...

But back to genocide. If I were a Janjaweed, and could read as well as rape, I would be quite heartened by reports of the latest brilliant idea about the suffering in Darfur. The idea to which I refer is that the cause of the atrocity is climate change. This grandiose hypothesis has been popularized by Ban Ki-moon, who wrote last month that "[t]here is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification, and conflict in Darfur. Northern Darfur-- where exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflict to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal, and ethnic differences-- can be considered a tragic example of the social breakdown that can result from ecological collapse." I do not doubt that there is some distant truth to this analysis. I am not a close student of ecology or of Africa. But the question of the causality of evil is not only an empirical matter, it is also a philosophical matter; and I do not believe that evil, which is to say, human identity, can be explained entirely by reference to material factors. The secretary-general's view is just another helping of the economicism of our day; and it accords nicely with the greening of the Western mind, for which global warming amounts to a unified field theory of all the world's ills. A few years ago nobody knew about carbon, and now carbon is all anybody knows. Intellectually, this has a certain desertifying effect. For well-fed people are as capable of savagery as ill-fed people, though more people should certainly be fed. The underground lake that has just been discovered in Darfur will not nullify the cultures of the place, which sooner or later, and no doubt with the assistance of Western troops, will have to find reasons for co-existence on their own grounds, consistent with the fact of the self-interpreting character of human life. There is also a practical problem: to defer the ending of a genocide to a rectification of the Earth's climate is to become indifferent to it. There are many types of causes, as the Aristotelian tycoon in the woods will tell you, and not all of them are similarly hospitable to political correction, to the efficiencies of foreign policy. The only thing that will save the wretched of the Sudanese desert is for humans to act directly, not for the Earth to act indirectly. We are not the Earth. We have a reason footprint.

By Leon Wieseltier