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La Vie en Morose

The surge is working! Yikes. Stem cells can be harvested embryo-free! Boo-hoo. A recession in the offing? Happy days are near again.


Illustration by Darrel Rees  

Whenever I’m overseas for more than a week or so, I begin reacting to the news a little differently, like a global citizen rather than a parochial American; Zimbabwe seems more awful, Denmark less boring. After I passed 40, the obituary page took on new resonance. Wall Street traders I know first register every major news story according to what it might mean for their investments.

And every four years, as a presidential election looms, a more widespread warp of media perceptions occurs. It’s as if we each put on our own special pair of red plastic decoder glasses that enable us—force us, really—to read the news not as mere factual accounts of important events, but as potentially charged new electoral variables. For these next eleven months, in other words, I will become crypto-quasi-Jewish—that is, involuntarily asking as I scan each day’s headlines not Is it good for the Jews? but rather Is it bad for the Republicans?

I’m not talking about idle Schadenfreude, the fleeting, naughty satisfaction one takes, for instance, in Dick Cheney’s shotgun accident or his wife’s extravagant flirtations with a friend of mine over the years or even (forgive me, God) his atrial fibrillation last week. Rather, it’s a more instrumental, epistemologically problematic impulse to construe bona fide good news as bad and bad news as good. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Probably so, but it makes the brain hurt.

As presidential campaigns grow longer, and the national political discourse more partisan, I think this double-vision tic is becoming more chronic for more and more news consumers—particularly those out-of-power non-Republicans who’ve been cast most deeply into this Bizarro World. Consider the big stories of the past few weeks. Just before Thanksgiving, a front-page Times article about Iraq made it official: Under the headline “Baghdad’s Weary Start to Exhale as Security Improves,” two correspondents reported that “days now pass without a car bomb,” down from 44 car bombings during the 28 days of February. Throughout the country, there were 59 suicide bombings in March, versus sixteen in October, and insurgent attacks and civilian deaths overall have dropped by 60 percent. What’s more, only a few days later the paper reported that the withdrawal of U.S. troops has now actually begun.

All excellent news! And also worrisome news for those of us who don’t want another Republican elected president in 2008. The sudden pacification of Iraq is an October Surprise a year early. Last week, the Times followed the surge-is-working story with an A-1 article suggesting that while “the Democratic candidates are continuing to assail the war … they run the risk that Republicans will use those critiques to attack the party’s nominee in the general election as defeatist and lacking faith in the American military.”

How strange it is, then, that among the many dozens of posts on Daily Kos during the past two weeks there was only one citing this major and, for antiwar activists, inconvenient turn of events. No mention of or link to the Times piece, but simply an opportunity to rant once again about Joe Lieberman. Shouldn’t the online headquarters of the Democratic left be chewing over the issue like crazy, if not admitting they may have been mistaken about the surge then at least trying to figure out how to deal with the possible domestic political impact of the new facts on the ground? It seems like willful obliviousness, childish and slightly cowardly—not unlike hard-core Republicans’ four-year-long circle-the-wagons refusal to face the facts about the rest of the misbegotten war.

Then there was the other big piece of profoundly good news on the Times’ front page: “Scientists Bypass Need for Embryo to Get Stem Cells.” Two different scientific teams have managed a feat of real-life alchemy, reprogramming ordinary adult-human cells to become faux-embryonic stem cells, thus—potentially, eventually—eliminating the need to harvest cells from embryos for experiments and therapies. If the technique proves safe and reliable, the Christian right’s opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research will be moot.


Except, of course, it will also eliminate one powerful reason for independents and progressive Republicans to vote Democratic. That annoying buzz kill is suggested in the very same story that gave us the thrilling buzz. A White House spokesperson described the president as “very pleased” about the breakthrough.

One tends to be suspicious of almost anything that pleases George Bush. Last week, in an interview about the peace conference in Annapolis, he professed himself “pleased with the fact that Israel and Palestine have agreed to negotiate” and “pleased with the progress that was made.”


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