By happenstance, I visited Madrid a few months after terrorists blew up its commuter trains in 2004, and London a few months after terrorists blew up its subway trains in 2005. These are vast, ancient cities that had been through much worse, and I found them existentially unchanged by the brutal crimes. Life went on and so did civilization, its hair lightly mussed.
Not quite by happenstance – I have a brother in the area we’d been wanting to visit, and this struck us as the perversely perfect time to do that — our family just spent the Christmas holidays in Galveston. We were there about 100 days after Hurricane Ike ripped through, and that little city has barely begun to recover. There is plenty of debris all around, but what had the kids reaching for their cameras were the anomalies – the big boats tossed up on their sides in parking lots, the living room open to inspection from the road because for some reason it was the beach house’s leeward wall that Ike peeled away, the hotel built on stilts on the Gulf side of Seawall Boulevard that’s abandoned now because the ramp out to it collapsed.
Old Galveston, which is the tourist area with the shops and museums and little train, is pretty much still all shut down, except for the Starbucks. Handfuls of tourists wander around, looking for something to go into.
The rugged modern buildings, like the 24/7 Kroger’s on the inland side of Seawall Boulevard, shrugged off Ike, but when I drove to the Kroger’s late one night for supplies, a storm had knocked out power in that part of town and the stock boys were idling at the front entrance waiting for it to come back on. One was saying that he’d looked out over the Gulf and was amazed at how quickly this storm came up. Another was discussing Hiroshima, which apparently he’d just seen a documentary on, and explaining how some victims were atomized while with others the clothing literally fused to the bodies. Ike figured in the conversation, I decided, as the unspoken context: these were people who’d reached a certain conversance with disaster. And of course Galveston had come through far worse: a handful of old people died in Ike, but the 1900 hurricane took some 6,000 lives, and it, like the 1871 fire to Chicago, had become central to the local creation myth. Although a visiting journalist might feel obliged to report that Galveston is “reeling,” the larger truth is that people do not “reel.” They get about their lives; and in tiny Galveston, just as in Madrid and London, that’s what I found people doing.
This brings me to my subject.
It is “Roger Ebert’s Journal,” the blog Ebert writes for the Sun-Times. Ebert adds to this blog occasionally, so it’s likely that his last word on 2008 will be Ebert’s December 28 posting, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” He’s not exactly whistling the year out. He begins:
“It’s all coming to pieces, isn’t it — the world we live in, the continuity we thought we could count on, the climate, the economy, the fragile peace. The 20th century was called ‘the American Century,’ with some reason. I do not believe the 21st century will belong to anybody, and it may not last for 100 years of human witness. There are nuclear weapons in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent, and if one is used, more will follow and who can say when the devastation will end?”
It’s not so much that I disagree with Ebert as it is that he wrote this in one mood and I’m in another. A few nukes could blow the center to smithereens, but it’s not given to slow crumbling. The American center tends to be so ferociously stable that it is — to use a word usually meant as an insult — practically inert.
Ebert writes: “in less than a month Obama will be President. What a daunting situation he will face. How well can he possibly ‘succeed’ when so many of the problems, starting with the climate, cannot be cured by the actions of man? How can he lead the economy back from a pit of unbridled, unregulated greed–when we learn that CEOs protected their own $100 million bonuses as part of the bailout package we all paid for? How will he bring world peace between peoples who have hated each other for decades?”
If I were Obama reading this list of mournful queries I’d think, “If only it were that simple!” Let us accept Ebert’s diagnosis. Problems that cannot be cured by the actions of man obviously won’t be cured by Obama, so he’s out from under all of those. And no one expects him to bring world peace, so that’s not on him either. As for the economy, nobody takes the side of those rapacious CEOs, giving Obama a freer hand than any president has had before.
But I can’t accept Ebert’s diagnosis. The actions of man today will have a bearing on the climate over the next few centuries. And Obama’s job isn’t to bring world peace but simply to manage a world of ancient hatreds. And we all know our economic problems are too complex to be cured by a war on greed. So Obama does have plenty on his plate. But it’s all there because the world is not really so hopeless as Ebert felt it was the day he last wrote in his blog.
Now that I have introduced my actual subject, which is Roger Ebert’s blog, and argued with it, the time has come to say what I actually want to say about it. A blog can be one thing or it can be another, of course, but “Roger Ebert’s Journal” is the highest form of blogging: it’s occasional, rather than pounded out in a ceaseless rush like an AP trunk wire; it’s meditative; it’s personal; and it’s deeply intelligent. Behind every fine mind we get to know and admire in the papers there’s a much broader fine mind not certain how far it can afford to wander off topic, Ebert’s journal lets him do that, and it’s the only blog whose readers alert me to posts that I can’t afford to miss — such as Ebert’s long consideration this November of his wayward physiognomy in the context of The Phantom of the Opera. Blogs such as Ebert’s etablish a new realm of the public intellectual.
I’d been meaning for months to tout Ebert’s blog. I guess I was waiting for an opportunity when I could debate him too, and wondering if that day would ever come.