I’ve just completed the first section of Lawrence Weschler’s delightful collection of essays, Vermeer in Bosnia. One essay, “Aristotle in Belgrade”, follows protests in the face of rigged elections. He describes the Serbian political mindset as being able to support seeming opposites — “they could simultaneously feel that their neighbors were affording them no threat and exult at a visiting demagogue’s promise that he wasn’t going to let those neighbors ‘beat you anymore,’”” — and of not being cognizant of consequences — “They saw no problem in roundly despising a leader and simultaneously planning to vote for him.”
Weschler explains the origin of such puzzling thought as “state propoganda, [which] had blithely spewed forth all manner of contradictory positions simultaneously.” His tone, however, is a bit condescending — as if it’s a Serbian problem that he just cannot understand.
I read that passage the day I read Louis Menand’s piece in the latest New Yorker, “The Unpolitical Animal.” It’s a roundly depressing piece, filled with evidence that people make political decisions without the slightest concern for ideology, issues, and consequence. I’ll quote the passage that connected me to Weschler’s work:
Repeal [of the estate tax, which effects the wealthiest two percent of the populations] is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it’s supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes. Most Americans simply do not make a connection between tax policy and the over-all economic condition of the country.
Americans are, clearly, just as contradictory as Weschler’s Serbs. I suspect Weschler’s condescension toward the Serbian mindset has likely lifted, given an editorial he penned for the LA Times, “He’s The Picture of Racial Compassion,” about how President Bush employs photos of himself with black people in an attempt to demonstrate his “compassion” toward them, though his policies have only served to hurt them.
Weschler is the head of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, though it’s not clear that the institute actually does anything.
He’s also trying to get a magazine titled Omnivore off the ground.