The Midas Watch

One reason I love the Yale alumni magazine is that each new issue provides another compelling reason for any alumna or alumnus with a particle of common sense not to give a dime to Dear Old Eli.

The latest (November) number, for example, announces the new Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. It will be run by Strobe Talbott, Yale ’68. As deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, Mr. Talbott was one of the principal architects of the feckless and negligent foreign policy of which 5,000 souls reaped the whirlwind on Sept. 11. Now Yale is to have a foreign-policy sandbox to be run by a bush-league Kissinger. Imagine: a “center” in which those responsible for the mess are well paid to come together to stroke chins and ponder their handiwork. The mysteries of Academe never cease to dazzle.

Fortunately, there is more to Yale than this sort of foolishness. I spent last Saturday in New Haven, arriving too late to beat the early Saturday closing of the Yankee Doodle, where I had anticipated downing a pair of pigs-in-blankets, but in plenty of time to stroll the campus and contemplate what it is that Osama bin Laden and his like would sweep off the face of the earth if they could.

At the Center for British Art is a marvelous exhibition of British painting from Holbein through Hockney, drawn from American collections coast to coast. It was nice to see so many old friends, including one or two last glimpsed in the art trade that have since found good homes. I was especially taken by a Constable of the meadows near Dedham. I’ve walked those meadows with my dearest English friend. They’re also disposable in the Osama calculation, just as Kabul is in mine.

The main purpose of the New Haven excursion was a reunion of the 1958 delegation of my senior society or “spook house.” The mere existence of these institutions drives some people crazy, mainly because of the Bush–Skull & Bones connection. It’s hard to see why. Those who’ve belonged seem to value the experience, which varies from “tomb” to “tomb” (ours is actually a small white clapboard house), and those who’ve never belonged presumably have better things to do-or so one would think.

We were convening because one of our number died not long ago, and it seemed a good idea to assemble as many of the survivors as could make it before the old boy with the sickle got loose amongst us again. Besides, in the world we live in, who can say that there’ll always be a house to meet in-or a Yale, for that matter?

Nine of the 14 still alive managed to make it. After the fact, none of us there would have missed it. There was a very moving autumnal symmetry to the occasion. The last time so many of us were together in the house would have been our

senior year-the final time of innocence and idleness, if you will, the last time dreams were more or less intact. Now, at 65 or thereabouts, we’re returning to that blest condition when our time is again pretty much our own, and the grown-up life of getting and spending and achieving and making one’s mark is something that’s happening to other people. For better or worse, our marks are mostly made, and we can now chase after such dreams as still seem within reach before the curtain falls for good.

Obviously, much of our conversation was about how things have changed since that pleasant evening 43 years ago when we turned the house over to our successor delegation and went off on our own into the great world. Everyone around the table was bright and articulate and accomplished, and a lot was said that evoked nods and glances of agreement. If there was a broad consensus, I think it would have been that once upon a time, when we were young, there was a cultural and civic nexus in the United States that existed alongside, parallel with and complementary to the cash nexus, but that seems to have atrophied, even vanished. More than one of us remarked that he felt himself to be living in a different country, and of course we are.

I ask myself: Is there a reverse Moore’s law of civic culture that postulates a halving of the American spirit every decade? It would seem so. If Tocqueville were to come back now, how different would his book be? I suspect that the critical parts would still apply, but that the admiring passages would be fewer. What if World War II had broken out after a skein of fat years, on the order of the flabby Clinton house of cards, instead of the lean ones of the Depression? How would we have done? Hardship and deprivation-words many of us can hardly spell, let alone have any experience of-must toughen a society. And toughness is what is needed.

Sunday morning I got up early and drove back to Brooklyn. All the way down, I kept returning to the question: Is America tough enough to make it in the world as it is today? Once we were; now it no longer seems so certain.

When the bell rings, as it did on Sept. 11, this country comes out of the corner swinging furiously, but soon starts to circle out of range and punch selectively. This makes no sense. The doctrine that has sent us after Afghanistan should properly be: “You mess with us, or with Israel (to which I think we’re committed, like it or not), and you’re going to get stomped but good and permanently.” Which includes stomped nuclear, if necessary. Is that properly definable as “war,” or is it something else? “Punitive retaliation,” perhaps? Or possibly, in the case of Iraq, “prophylactic incursion”? I really don’t understand why we’re sitting around waiting for the other guy to make the first big move, for the next Mohammed Atta to blow up Newark. The theory seems to be that any counterpunch we throw will get the job done, which may have worked in the past, but the B-52’s didn’t get the job done in Vietnam and they won’t in Afghanistan, either.

Our Afghan opposition reminds me of the wiry little men who win the marathon year after year-men who are tough mentally and tough physically. Are we? In answer to that question, I took small comfort from Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker piece about our initial on-ground effort in Afghanistan.

I think we ought to get out of the Middle East, frankly. We don’t understand it; it doesn’t work geopolitically the way our wise men think it should, or does. It’s about tribes, religion, anger. The Gulf War was about the invasion of Kuwait, at least technically. But today, which parts of the map are pink and which are yellow seems beside the point.

And the big economic argument sounds specious the second you apply a modicum of common sense. Pundits who’ve never seen an oil well speak of the “loss” of the Saudi oil fields. But what loss? So what if the Saudi oil comes under the control of a new regime? That regime still has to sell the stuff, and to whom if not to us? Especially given the state of the world economy.

That question never seems to get asked, but in market economics as I understand it, you have to have a minimum of two parties to a transaction, a seller and a buyer. If we end up with no oil, they end up with no money. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette: let ‘em eat sand!

Maybe saying no to Exxon-Mobil takes a greater toughness of mind than bombing a desert. I hope not, but perhaps that’s the case with an administration which seems to think that the way to restart a wounded consumer economy is to give tax rebates to I.B.M. I’d like to believe that these men in Washington, these corporate types with their dull, dark suits, their grim poker faces under bad haircuts and their cumbersome, opaque locutions, know what they’re doing-but so far, the evidence seems equally persuasive that they haven’t a clue.

One way to inculcate toughness would be to restore to the national consciousness the images of what exactly happened on Sept. 11. We need to be taught to hate back. The President ought to go on TV and let the tapes run and tell the nation, simply, “This is what it’s about.” And he ought to do it every week. Lest we forget.

Thanksgiving is coming up. Within a 50-mile radius of where I’m writing this, there will be several thousand “festive” tables at which those present will wonder what they have to be thankful for. It’s a good question. They’re entitled to ask it.

This is my final column before the holiday, an occasion which, this year, must have special poignancy from sea to shining sea and for every one of us. Someone else caught the bullet Sept. 11, but the next one may have our name on it. And so, after prayers and the blessing of the meal, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves this one question: If we are not willing to do whatever it takes to protect what we have-

present, past and future-do we have anything, really, to be thankful for?