Monday, September 05, 2011

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Oh, Frank Rich, I've missed you.

Rich, the former theater critic at the New York Times, went from writing about stories on stage to writing a Sunday NY Timess column about American political culture. His reaction to the week's events often turned the back-and-forth snark of politics into the stark relief of a morality play by Henrik Ibsen. George Bush was bumbling, flawed, dangerous because of his thoughtlessness. Dick Cheney was much darker.

Wikipedia says Rich stopped writing his Times column just this year. It seems longer ago than that. My Sunday mornings have been less bracing. Sitting down at the computer to read Frank Rich before hurrying off to church was like stepping into a head-clearing autumn chill. It woke me up, to the bottom of my brain and back of my lungs.

Rich  now writes for New York magazine, which I aspire to read but don't. Ultimately I'm not a New Yorker and the "New York is the center of the world" raison d'etre of the magazine is too exotic to be part of my regular reading. But this morning I followed a link to Rich's column on the 9/11 anniversary and gosh, yes, he still tell a tale of the decade he wrote about on the Times op-ed page: terrorist attack, tragedy, misdirected war in Iraq, no sacrifice at home, tax cuts, squandered patriotism, political mess, fiscal ruin.

Was it a decade worse than any other in American politics? Or is this what inevitably happens--all things lead to greater chaos? The sacrifices of the Civil War ended slavery, but the political deal that made Rutherford B. Hayes president ended Reconstruction a dozen years later, leaving African-Americans emancipated by the blood of Union armies to be newly enslaved by Jim Crow laws, written by the men who lost the war. A century later Nixon's "Silent Majority" political strategy harnessed the white backlash against the civil rights movement, and the country turned right, to Reagan and Republicans and eventually the mess we have now.

Rich's rhetoric steps back from the moment to take the longer view of a culture critic. But his writing is full of verbs and long muscular active sentences. He is a man of the theater, outlining a Shakespeare-sized epic. But history has no end, no final scene. In a play, and in Rich's commentary, the telling of the story is what appears to matter most, how you wrestle with the material, how you craft the narrative, how you tell the story.

The story is important. We humans hold onto much of what we know in stories we incorporate into our own. We let politicians, self-help writers, pastors, philosophers, friends and teachers tell us stories, some more worthy than others. We go on gut-sense and absorb mostly the stories that affirm what we alrelady feel. And sometimes we're right to do so.

But the universe is paradoxical and much, much bigger than our little minds. Frank Rich's push and pull rhetoric of American culture and politics is not out there with cosmology, but it's a reminder that the news cycle's won-loss scorecard adds up to something bigger. In his column on 9/11 it adds up to a heightened sense of loss, a nation whose leaders have lost their sense of direction.

In college and graduate school, when I was reading lots of plays (a play a day for a while), I learned to draw a distinction between two kinds of tragedies. There were tragedies where bad things happened and innocent people suffered and it was pitiful and sad. In other tragedies bad things happened to someone because of his own flaws (and yes, these characters were inevitably men) so the character's suffering was his own damn fault but at the end before expiring at center stage he achieved some kind of insight--understanding that was shared with the audience. The implication always was that this second type of tragedy was the higher, better sort--more interesting plays. (The first type, however, tend to make good librettos for opera.)

Looking at the week ahead, with its ten-year commemorations of 9/11, I wonder whether our tragic sense will tend more toward telling the first type of stories or the second type. We crave meaning and insight, so I fear we are in for a fair amount of myth and meaning-making. Rich's New York column, however, is a reminder that recent American history looks a lot more like the first kind of tragedy. Innocent people suffer, and the mighty and powerful profess to care, but learn little.