I reviewed Sophie Pedder’s excellent new book Revolution Francaise for today’s WSJ. It’s about the rise of Emmanuel Macron and the state of modern France. Macron and Trump are vastly different characters, but in their way expressions of similar political forces: discontent with the political establishment; anxiety over the effects of globalization and technology on work; the abandonment of many small towns in favor of a few big cities. They both ran highly original campaigns to win office. So perhaps it should be no surprise that they have struck up an intriguing friendship.
This is a photo of my grandmother, Sylvia, my uncle, Ronald, my mother, Marcia, and aunt, Victoria, standing in front of their home in Rangoon in 1966 shortly before Ronald left to study in America. Since 1958, Burma had been slowly strangled by the Socialist military dictatorship of Ne Win. Many who could leave subsequently did. Most of my family scattered across the world, to the east and west coasts of the US, the UK, Australia, even Norway. There’s a mood of regret in this picture, but also looks of fierce determination.
Just reviewed Amy Chua’s Political Tribes for the Evening Standard. I liked how she described America as the rare super-tribe, in which the idea of American-ness both binds and permits vastly disparate sub-groups. And how that unique concept has then blinded America to the importance of tribes during its overseas adventures. I was less convinced by how this applies to America today. But it’s a tautly written and provocative book.
Tom Hodgkinson, the British founder of The Idler empire, has written a satisfyingly frank account of running a small business. It’s introspective and at times very funny. A million miles from the gauzy WeWork visions of small enterprise as all post-industrial lofts and coffee machines. Hodgkinson’s experience is struggling with cash flow and hung-over employees. I reviewed it here for the Wall Street Journal.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.
I’ve been thinking a bit at that window. I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one — a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.’
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I…
…The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.