Friday, 18 April 2008

Two gangly outsiders from Illinois

I dread the arrival of the New York Review of Books every fortnight. There is always at least two stupendously written and well-informed articles that are completely humbling. In this edition there are two.

1. Gary Wills' 'Two Speeches on Race' compares Abraham Lincoln's address at the Cooper Union with Barack Obama's at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The political lives of these two men, these two brilliant outsiders, is well-documented and will draw fierce analysis over the coming months. That Barack Obama's speech, given as response to criticisms of him over the Jeremiah Wright affair, should be an echo of a speech given by Lincoln in some similar circumstances is quite mind-blowing. Both had to contend with awkward associations, both chose to confront their critics head-on, and both placed the constitution at the heart of their analysis. Whenever the John McCain-Hillary Clinton hydra-headed beast cries lack of experience at Barack Obama, all he need say is 'Abraham Lincoln.'

2. The Review moves from historical echoes to historical ignorance in Tony Judt's impassioned analysis of how we are losing our connection with the past which leads us inevitably to our mistakes of the present. In the most brilliant passage he compares the 'War on Terror' thus:
But the most serious mistake consists of taking the form for the content: defining all the various terrorists and terrorisms of our time, with their contrasting and sometimes conflicting objectives, by their actions alone. It would be rather as though one were to lump together the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof gang, the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, Switzerland's Jura Separatists, and the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica; dismiss their differences as insignificant; label the resulting amalgam of ideological kneecappers, bomb throwers, and political murderers "European Extremism" (or "Christo-fascism," perhaps?)...and then declare uncompromising, open-ended armed warfare against it.
I look forward to his forthcoming book on the 'forgotten twentieth century.' But this article is incredibly powerful, humane, and salutary.

Until his book comes out in a couple of weeks, do yourself a favour and take out a subscription to the New York Review of Books now!

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