To the Barricades
August 31, 2012

Cover of "The White Album"

Cover of The White Album

I recently read Joan Didion’s The White Album, which was my first real extended contact with Didion, and my first experience with her explicitly political work. Predictably, it was excellent. Didion can do with remarkable consistency what only the best writers do: cast a sort of shroud of enchantment over the mundane and everyday, making it weird and dreamlike yet still wholly recognizable. You look at the Hoover Dam, orchid breeding, even shopping centers through Didion’s eyes, and sometimes it’s like you’re in the Grimm Brothers’ black woods. (Regarding shopping centers: “If I had a center I would have monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourine.”)

The force is clearly strong with Joan, which is why I feel slightly embarrassed for thinking of The White Album as a disappointment. It seems like some personal inadequacy on my part, some inability to rise to the book’s challenge. Maybe it’s just my failure to immerse myself in the book’s time and place, to see through my post-Cold War baby narcissism and into the past. Or maybe the climate of 1968 and its immediate aftermath is just something beyond my comprehension. But I can’t read sentences like this and not feel a little let down: “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.” (more…)

Down the DC Rabbit Hole
September 13, 2010

Thanks to this latest contribution to the ongoing online discussion on what political journalism could learn from political science, I spent some of my train ride back from DC (where I spent the weekend looking at apartments) reading this fantastic essay on the 1988 campaign by Joan Didion. I’ve been meaning to dig into Didion’s work for a while now, and it turns out that this was a particularly good place to start.

Didion wrote this essay from the perspective of a political outsider immersing herself in the life of The Process. She renders politics as an insular, arcane observance with its own set of rituals, carefully observed conventions and hierarchies that are both chillingly alien and wholly irrelevant to those standing outside it. While much has changed in the 22 years since she penned “Insider Baseball,” I think the basic substance of that criticism has not.

In about two weeks, I will be living in that world. I’ve been preparing myself for that possibility since high school, and it’s true that in some ways I’m already a part of it—or, at the very least, a compulsive observer of it. But soon I will be living in America’s (indeed, the world’s) political capital, working full-time in political research and communications, socializing in my free time with political journalists, operatives, Hill staffers and other people who have devoted their careers to The Process.

I don’t know if the sensation of strangeness that comes with that knowledge will ever wear off, but I hope it doesn’t. It clearly does for a lot of people—and these are the ones who think The Process consists of unyielding physical law. Didion rightfully argues that the opposite is true: these laws and tribal codes are really deeply idiosyncratic ideological propositions. You can’t engage with them without having them warp your perspective to some degree. Of course, no one’s perspective is more ideologically warped than he who takes his position to be fundamentally non-ideological.

I don’t write this as an endorsement of the “Real America” fallacy—the idea that political outsiders alone are uniquely qualified to evaluate what occurs in the political process because they stand apart from it and are therefore objective. I’m not a fan, by any means, of newspaper columnists who think the best way to address complex policy problems is through interviewing random cab drivers named Joe. Rather, I think the lesson here is that human subjectivity is ubiquitous and overwhelming. This is hardest to see when you’re embedded in a world like DC, with its robust and convoluted internal logic and mythology; but losing sight of it means failing to meet some of the fundamental ethical obligations of the career I’ve chosen. My ability to grow as a political commentator and observer depends largely on how well I can engage and participate in this culture while recognizing both its subjectivity and its oddness.

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