“If you have ghosts, then you have everything.” Those are the words of a tender and demented rock legend of Austin, and they have stood me in good stead for years. Ghosts are a solution for loneliness. One needs someone to talk to. I mean about the old themes, if one believes that they are still the right themes. Ghosts are the natural companions of anybody in estrangement; the invisible officers of tradition, of all the valuable things that have been declared obsolete but, in some stubborn hearts, are not obsolete. It is one of the fundamental properties of the human that the absent may be more significant than the present. I have the best ghosts. My revenants will never utter the words “Mark Zuckerberg.” In their company I may continue the conversation that was begun long before me and will last (since I will not shirk my own ghost-service!) long after me. And the ghosts have a public role to play, too. They possess a certain shaming force. They spoil the adoration of the new with the suggestion of a decline, or at least with an unflattering comparison. I do not mean to exaggerate their authority: in the recurring quarrels between the ancients (who, by our velocity, lived just the other day) and the moderns, there are no clear winners. But the triumphalism of our moment, and its e-millenialism; its idiotic belief in the complete transfiguration of human life in our time, in the final banishment of opacity and obscurity, by means of data and the quantification of inwardness, or by the expansion of genetic and evolutionary necessities—all this is not supportable. Is it conservatism to say so? Perhaps. I think of it more as a custodial feeling about the many attainments that made it, quite improbably, all the way across time to me, and for whose fate I am, whether I like it or not, responsible. (I like it.) Too much is slipping away too easily. This is also the quintessential Washington sensation now. The capital is busily diminishing itself. I sense this every time I run into one of its ghosts. At lunch, for example: in the dining room of the Hay-Adams, the black arts of influence are practiced on the very spot that Henry Adams produced the greatest book ever written here, in which he foresaw “the acceleration of history,” where text messages now fly. Or another phantom, this one a more recent ancient: in Steven Weisman’s rich and riveting compilation of the letters and journals of Pat Moynihan, I read this, in a letter to Louis Henkin in 1989: “If we are somehow to keep our tradition alive for the next century, we are going to have to return to Trilling.” This, from a United States Senator. Whether or not we are going to have to return to Trilling, it seems incontrovertible that in our politics we are becoming trash.
The degradation of politics takes many forms, not all of them tea-soaked. One of them is the valorization of entertainment. The spirited defense of liberalism has become the work of comedians. But there was nothing funny about Stephen Colbert’s testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration on behalf of migrant farmworkers. It was tiresome and exploitative and insulting to the chamber’s ghosts. This time the fake blowhard was a real blowhard. When John Conyers sagely remarked (did I just type that?) that “I would like to recommend that now that we’ve got all this attention that you excuse yourself,” the putatively hilarious witness pointed out that he was there at the invitation of the chairwoman, a Democrat who lauded him for “walk[ing] in the shoes of migrant farmworkers” and serving as an “example of how, using both levity and fame, a media figure can bring attention to a critically important issue for the good of the nation.” And promote himself, too, which is all these people ever do. Their true cause is their own celebrity. Colbert—eternally trapped in the dungeon of his character—had spent a day on a vegetable farm at the invitation of the United Farm Workers, and so he was an expert on agricultural adversity. I was reminded of the few freezing hours that Martin Sheen spent on a grate with the homeless near the White House a few decades ago, after which he returned to his hotel a survivor of homelessness. And having turned the Capitol into a ratings opportunity, Colbert will do the same to the Mall later this month, when he and Jon Stewart hold a rally in response to the rally that Glenn Beck, another conscience with audience share, held last summer. The moral authority of Jon Stewart is a baffling phenomenon. “He’s Cronkite,” proclaims New York magazine, “the most trusted man in America.” He is plainly a likeable man, and always good for intelligent laughter, though an air of genial sanctimony clings to his every joke. But it is not exciting that people glean their understanding of the world from “The Daily Show,” it is discouraging. Better Stewart than Beck, sure; but the Lincoln Memorial deserves a break from all this political vaudeville, as do we from the notion that amusement is a basis for commitment. I omit Bill Maher from my complaint, because no moral authority can plausibly be imputed to him. He has the look of a man who mainly wants to get laid.
“‘Ghosts,’ Obama whispered.” This, in Bob Woodward’s telling, was a scornful response to an allusion to
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.