The barbaric killings of unsuspecting civilians in Israel on Oct. 7 and the current devastation of Palestinians in Gaza are all President Biden’s fault. Haven’t you read? He went soft on Iran. He’s soft, period. He has exposed the United States as something even flimsier than a paper tiger — we’re a Kleenex pussycat. As long as he’s nodding off at the Resolute Desk, it’s open season on our allies.
No, wait, that lesson is all wrong, as you discover the minute you travel from the right to the left. There you find groups taking the silhouette of a Hamas assassin paragliding into Israel as an inspiring symbol of resistance to imperialist oppression. You find a similarly simplistic narrative: The powerful have been exploiting the powerless, who courageously rose up 12 days ago and valiantly fought back. Never mind that they slaughtered babies. Never mind that they abducted grandmothers. Marginalized peoples of the world, unite! Paraglide to justice!
I wish I lived in a universe as politically reductive and morally stark as some other Americans do. How clarifying that must be. And I wince at the way in which the deadly tribalism of the Middle East has been met with the dreary tribalism of American politics — with lazy and self-serving responses to harrowing circumstances that are ill served and grossly demeaned by them.
“Pure, unadulterated evil” — that’s what President Biden rightly called the Hamas assailants’ massacre of hundreds upon hundreds of people in Israel that bloody weekend and such gaudy tortures as the parading of a half-naked female hostage though the streets of Gaza, where she was spat on. Oct. 7 was the greatest single-day loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust, and was so profoundly outrageous, so distinctly awful, that it should have been off limits for appropriation by politicians and activists intent on pressing their own agendas, amplifying their own grievances.
Instead, it was an opportunity. We watched the marketing of a massacre.
Much has been written and spoken about some progressive groups and many progressive students (and faculty members) at American colleges, who reacted to the hunting, the shooting, the slashing, the burning of all those people in Israel by blaming … Israel. They were referring, obviously, to a conflict larger and more complicated than Hamas terrorists’ treatment of that music festival as a shooting gallery, the torching of Israeli villages and the kidnapping of 200 people, an overwhelming majority of them civilians. They were looking at a longer history.
Still, their inability to distinguish the hours of Oct. 7 from the decades that preceded it — and to look squarely and with proper condemnation at a given sequence of events — was unsettling. As Ezekiel J. Emanuel wrote in Times Opinion just days ago: “It is possible to condemn the barbarism of Hamas and condemn the endless Israeli occupation of the West Bank. So, too, is it possible to condemn the treatment of women and the L.G.B.T.Q. community in Arab lands and the attempt by right-wing Israeli politicians to neuter Israel’s Supreme Court.”
But it is impossible to do that if you navigate all events, all disputes, with a prefabricated compass, a preformulated message that you graft onto everything, no matter how awkward the fit. It is impossible to do that if you are taking your cues from a political or ideological tribe and making sure that you utter the lines it seems to want you to say.
That’s what many of those students did after Oct. 7. It was a version of virtue signaling. I know that from my own conversations with young men and women at Duke, where I teach, who conceded that they felt a vague pressure to make some kind of statement, take some sort of stand. Many looked to see what their friends were doing. Then they brought themselves into conformity with it.
Why should they be any different from the so-called adults in this country? A few of the grown-ups with chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America or Black Lives Matter hastened to stress that the Palestinians’ plight in Gaza and in the West Bank was their plight in the United States. They were all joined in a universal struggle.
But what the activists presented as a crucial gesture of support can as easily be seen as a clumsy intrusion into the narrative, an insistence on snatching some of the spotlight. And I have a question for them: Are they untroubled by how many of their oppressed brethren oppress women and gay people?
I have a question for Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina: What is gained, other than favor with MAGA extremists and the attention that you so desperately crave, by declaiming that “we’re in a religious war”? Are you saying, sloppily and recklessly, that all Christians and all Jews are in combat with all Muslims? Have you not met antisemitic Christians in the MAGA fold? You need to get out more.
Across the political spectrum, in ways big, small, galling, comical and by no means equivalent, Oct. 7 and its aftermath have become fodder for whatever various figures and factions want it to be fodder for. On Fox News, it prompted a fresh round of ranting about our “open border” and immigrants streaming from Mexico into the United States.
Last time I consulted a world map, Central America and the Middle East had an ocean between them — the Atlantic, I’m pretty sure it’s called — and the Rio Grande didn’t feed into the Dead Sea. But in feverish precincts of the not-so-far right, “open border” is the answer to every question, the font of all woe, and no major news development is complete without a mention of migrants and a denunciation of President Biden.
As Oliver Darcy noted in his Reliable Sources newsletter for CNN, Laura Ingraham began her Fox News program on Oct. 10 with “AMERICA NEXT?” on the screen and this alarmism: “What better way for a terror network to disperse and disappear into the general population than amidst hordes of Venezuelans and Hondurans?”
I’m not saying that the death and destruction on and since Oct. 7 forbid political debates and pointed questions. They demand as much. It’s imperative to wonder and worry about the sweep and consequences of an Israeli invasion of Gaza, about the desperate conditions there now. It’s necessary to acknowledge all the victims of all the violence. It’s important to note Benjamin Netanyahu’s grave failings. It’s fair to evaluate the pros and cons of Biden’s decision to travel to Israel this week.
But all of that is most constructively done through an earnest, honest examination of the situation at hand. When you insist on looking at it through a single preferred lens, you’re only warping your view. And you’re perpetuating an intense tribalism from which no good can come.
For the Love of Sentences
In a gutting re-creation of how Hamas terrorists turned an Israeli music festival into an abattoir on Oct. 7, Roger Cohen wrote in The Times: “If some sinister choreographer had sought a consummate staging of the failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reach beyond hatred and war, this savage meeting of two adjacent but distant worlds in idyllic undulating countryside came close, leaving at least 260 partygoers dead.” That nomination comes from me.
Andy Ayers of St. Louis recommended another passage in The Times, from Peter Beinart’s effort to envision some peace and progress following that slaughter: “It will require Palestinians to forcefully oppose attacks on Jewish civilians, and Jews to support Palestinians when they resist oppression in humane ways — even though Palestinians and Jews who take such steps will risk making themselves pariahs among their own people. It will require new forms of political community, in Israel-Palestine and around the world, built around a democratic vision powerful enough to transcend tribal divides. The effort may fail. It has failed before. The alternative is to descend, flags waving, into hell.”
In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank noted that at a juncture of grave uncertainty, “there is one eternal truth, one unwavering constant to steady us when all else is in flux: Every time the House Republican majority tries to govern, it’s guaranteed to turn into a goat rodeo.” (Ranga Parthasarathy, Emigrant, Mont., and John B. Jacoby, Cambridge, Mass., among others)
In Salon, Brian Karem took the measure of the Republican congressman angling to be House speaker: “Jim Jordan didn’t come to town to build anything. He came in a foul stench to tear it all down and piss on it, wearing a tie but no jacket, a perpetual sneer and the general demeanor of a waiter in a cheap diner surviving three-day shifts on speed and coffee.” (Pete Andrews, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Harriette Royer, Rochester, N.Y.)
In The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash deconstructed the results of the recent election in Poland: “We can see that many voters simply got fed up with the corrupt, petty, backward-looking, obscurantist rule of the party led by the 74-year-old Jarosław Kaczynski, who is a kind of one-man walking anthology of resentment.” (Scott Denham, Davidson, N.C.)
In The New Yorker, Daniel Immerwahr assessed America’s distance from its agrarian past: “The small farmer, standing on his property with a pitchfork, has been an endangered species for a century. Today, a leaf blower would be a better symbol for those who tend the land. As the economist Brad DeLong notes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts more landscapers and groundskeepers than people working on farms.” (Timothy Rake, Forest Grove, Ore.)
In his newsletter The Morning After, Mark Whicker captured the flavor of the Stanford football team’s astonishing recent comeback victory over Colorado by contrasting the pizazz and patience of the teams’ head coaches: “While Deion Sanders was creating a college football program in a microwave, Troy Taylor was using a slow cooker. While Sanders was gathering enough sideline celebrities at Colorado to film another Ocean’s 11-12-13 sequel, Taylor was losing to Sacramento State, the team he built before he left for Stanford, in front of 23,848 quiet patrons.” (Evans Witt, Chevy Chase, Md.)
And to return to and conclude with The Times, Melissa Kirsch described the appeal of Birkenstocks to those who are aged of foot: “Where once I might have suffered the rolled ankles, blisters, cramping and toenail mangling wrought by a pair of uncomfortable but aesthetically gratifying shoes, now I have more literally pedestrian concerns. I want to be able to walk. Not just now, but for the rest of my life, on the one pair of feet I’ve been issued. The fact that fashion has decreed cool a sandal with a cork-latex footbed that molds to the specific contours of one’s own barking dogs seems a massive stroke of luck for the ingrown-toenailed and the bunion-afflicted, for those of us with what I’ve increasingly taken to calling simply ‘bad feet.’” (Jeanne Breen, Old Saybrook, Conn., and Harriet Margolis, Wellington, New Zealand, among others.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note
When I think of my imperiled eyesight, I think of “pumpkin spice.”
I’m obviously going to have to explain that.
It was around this time six years ago — the middle of October, peak pumpkin spice — when I woke up one morning with blurred vision, realized that a dappled fog had settled over my right eye and learned days later that a stroke of sorts had ravaged my right optic nerve. Its occurrence meant that my left optic nerve was also vulnerable — and could, like the other one, frazzle in an instant. I could go blind.
I remember it all so clearly. And I remember that during that first frightful week, amid an array of medical tests and a flurry of phone calls to friends and relatives, I had a column due.
I could skip it. I had a damned fine excuse. But I remember how important it seemed to me to forge forward, to prove to myself that I had the requisite strength, to make a statement about obligations that would still be met, about routines that wouldn’t change, about a competence that wasn’t diminished.
I had to increase the size of the characters on the computer screen. (I still do.) I had to work more slowly, more carefully. (Ditto.) But I got the column done. Here it is.
And to this day, it’s a favorite of mine. I reread it every October. But that’s not because it’s particularly well executed (though I think it’s sufficiently clever) but because it’s a before-and-after mile marker, the sign of a new stretch of highway, a roadside testament.
I pressed on from there and, as wise acquaintances of mine promised, the journey became easier. I stopped worrying all the time about losing my sight. Then I stopped worrying about that at all. Living in a state of permanent vigilance is corrosive. It’s also almost impossible.
I share that because many of you write to me occasionally to ask me for updates on how, in terms of my vision, I’m doing, and the answer — very well — isn’t simply about my left optic nerve, which remains healthy, or my adjustment to monocular vision, a work in steady if perpetual progress.
It’s about being blessed with wiring that allows me to keep dread at bay. It’s about looking at and really seeing the infinitely greater sorrows and uncertainties that most people live with and through. It’s about gratitude and optimism, which in my case have their own dedicated season, their own stubborn perfume. They smell of pumpkin spice.