Worldly Note:
24 November 2014

On Sunday, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan published “the column I never wanted to write,” about the newspaper’s coverage of Israel and Palestine. This coverage upsets a lot of people on both sides of the conflict, and Sullivan gets a lot of mail accusing the Times of favoring the complainer’s opponent. She writes wrenchingly well about the difficulties of trying to couch news stories in appropriate contexts, and the awkward (and irrelevant) demands of political correctness.

It wasn’t a column that I’d have expected to read. I pay as little attention to the actual fighting as possible. Since I have no palpable stake in it, the warfare is simply stupid. (This is not to say that one side or the other ought to stop fighting. But warfare as such is always stupid, and that’s the best thing that can be said about it.) As for the political argument, there is little real engagement between the parties. But the problem of adequate coverage caught my attention. It is a problem here in New York, not in Jerusalem or Ramallah. I hadn’t grasped the meaning of that.

A curious asymmetry infects the coverage problem. Whereas most of Israel’s supporters appear to be Jews, few of the Palestinians’ supporters even speak Arabic, much less claim tribal ties. (The Times does not deploy a reporter fluent in Arabic, which is rather shocking.) And the problem has to be worked out in the cosmopolitan setting of New York City, which nobody identifies as the center of a national or religious culture. The annoying but vibrant persistence of this problem, which will last as long as the fighting, together with its locus in Margaret Sullivan’s office, indicate that the contenders — the people complaining about the Times’s coverage — all inhabit the same world.

As the Israelis and the Palestinians do not. They may inhabit the same territory, but they argue, violently, about the right to inhabit it, and no world can contain disagreement on that subject. The world of Margaret Sullivan’s correspondents, in contrast, is centered on the shared understanding that the newspaper speaks to and for “the other side.” The fact that nobody asserts a better right to address the Times signifies that nobody asserts a better right to live in New York.

The problem of adequate coverage is a conundrum about “objectivity.” Objectivity supposes a neutral observer who simply describes what he sees. It is generally conceded by intelligent people that objectivity is a chimera, for no truly neutral observer can exist. The uninterested observer will not pay enough attention, while the disinterested observer, being only human, will inevitably discover an affinity for one side or the other. Nevertheless, objectivity remains the goal of serious journalism, if only as a vanishing point.

But let’s unpack another implication of objectivity: it objectifies. Objectivity transforms fluid life into a fixed form. When I objectify a group of human beings, I force every member of that group to possess the same characteristics, while at the same time reducing every member to the sum of those characteristics. To use force in support of any objectification is the essence of domination. It is a kind of killing that sometimes leads to real killing.

So we ought to be grateful that Margaret Sullivan does not seek an objective solution to the coverage problem. She wants an expansive one. “Include more,” she says.

As coinage goes, “expansify” is not very attractive, but it might be useful. To expansify something would be to bear in mind not only that it is larger and more complex than we need to think it is in order to manipulate it, but that it exists in its own time frame, subject to alternative objectification by others, including those others who have not yet been born. To expansify something would be to respect its essential otherness. (I want to say “otherliness.”)

Respect might be the word that I’m looking for, if it were not quite so tired, and if it more powerfully suggested the enlargement of the world.

The world is a complex thing. It consists of artifacts, such as buildings or texts, that embody human significance, and it also consists of human beings and the principles that they share. It consists of history, the story that people tell about their past; to a very great extent, the quality of the world is determined by the quality of this story. We now understand that the world consists of a concern for the well-being of human beings to come.

The world is always bigger than we think it is. There is only one world, and each of us sees a small part of it. The refusal or inability to recognize that the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary are completely the same (and only incompletely different) is tantamount to destroying the world.


As I write these small essays on making a better world, I become more painfully aware that my ideas presuppose and depend upon a condition of material affluence and a freedom from pervasive anxiety that are unseen in most of the world, and in practically all of history. They require patience and peace. (They also mirror the ever-quieting temperament of an ageing man.) Readers in another era may regretfully have reason to think me colossally naive. But I write in a world where many enjoy greater health, wealth, and safety than has ever been known to man. I write from the conviction that it is these very ideas that justify the pursuit of peace and prosperity. Without them, we’re liable to fall into a boring materialism that is not worth saving.

When I began writing for the Internet, nearly fifteen years ago, I assumed a conventional posture, and blithely pointed out the ills of the world to my readers. Gradually, and perhaps unwisely, I have shifted my attention to the ills of my readers, which are making the world a worse place. My readers are educated and thoughtful, but if they’re at all typical of the educated, thoughtful people I see when I look around, they’re doubtful of the efficacy of generosity and decency, seeing them as well-meaning aspects of polite behavior, and not as animating spirits of great power; and they take far better care of their bodies than they do of their minds, appearing almost to believe that rude physical health will straighten the crude tangles of mortal mentality. Yet how difficult it is to pay attention!

This entry was particularly difficult to write. It’s true that I drank too much cabernet at dinner. But it’s also true that in the final stages of moving house. Beyond the wear and tear of toting boxes of potential mess, there are constant encounters with the shape of a younger self, an undisciplined fellow beset by a barely-contained wildness. No brooding, romantic charmer, this former me was obstinate, impulsive, and scary, and I am amazed that he survived the torment of his demons. At the same time, I know how he did it: he wrote. He wrote and he wrote and he wrote, until, no longer young, he began making sense to himself.

Still, he was very lucky. I hate to think how lucky. But then, we all do.