First, dozens of people have told me I should rename the awards the Sidneys instead of the Hookies, so they will sound less puerile. Second, thousands of writers, motivated by the chance to win this career-capping and soul-fulfilling prize, have worked unstintingly to refine their thinking, thus raising public discourse to a level unmatched since the age of Pericles.
I've now read a pile of essays for the second annual awards, and noticed that while many of the ideological essays don't seem as interesting on second reading, many of the biographical ones do. Here are some of this year's Sidney winners (available in full on their magazine Web sites):
- "In a Ruined Country," by David Samuels. The Atlantic Monthly. If anybody thinks impersonal forces shape history, consider Yasser Arafat. No foreign policy doctrine could have conceived him, no great power could alter him, yet he transfixed the Middle East for a generation.
After his death, Samuels interviewed Arafat's intimates and put together the pieces of the man. Arafat was part earth mother, spooning food from his plate into the mouths of his lieutenants. He was part willful child; he loved "Road Runner" cartoons and lied constantly and transparently.
He bragged about saving time by shaving only every fifth day, but spent an hour each morning folding his kaffiyeh into the shape of Palestine. He was narcissistic about other people's deaths. Once when Bibi Netanyahu refused to call him, he set off a round of street violence until the call came.
He annihilated his private life for his cause, and had a pre-modern understanding of money. As a friend said, he saw money as power, so he hoarded it. Personally ascetic (he slept on a cot and wore army surplus clothing), he stole $1 billion to $3 billion of the $7 billion in foreign aid given to the Palestinian Authority. His cronies diverted most of the rest, so only 9.5 percent of the money reached regular Palestinians.
Samuels is sympathetic but damning, and reminds us that the character of peoples and leaders matters most.
- "The Inventor of Modern Conservatism," by David Gelernter. The Weekly Standard. This has been the year of the conservative crackup, and many essayists have tried to imagine where the right might go next. Gelernter, a Yale computer prof, offered this advice: Be like Dizzy.
Benjamin Disraeli was an urbane novelist, and yet, being fiercely Hebraic, he also defied the elite opinion of his day. "Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life," Lord Salisbury said. He created a modern, nationalistic conservatism, transforming the Tory party from the rich man's party to the party of patriotism.
National conservatism meant caring for the whole nation, rich and poor. It also meant feeling a mystical attachment to his country's exceptional character, and promoting reforms consistent with the distinctive customs of his people, not according to abstract principles about humanity. Disraeli worried more about what his forefathers would have said about his foreign policy than about what his allies would say.
Karl Marx and Disraeli were both 19th-century Jews whose fathers had them baptized, who worked in London and died two years apart. Marx, Gelernter argues, created the modern left and Disraeli the modern right. One was atheist, materialist and transnational. The other was religious, romantic and national.
- "Missionary," by Louis Menand. The New Yorker. The literary critic Edmund Wilson began his career, Menand writes, believing that an educated journalist could deprovincialize American culture and lift the national mind. He was the best of the heroic intellectual performers with grand visions for literature and the arts.
Then, in midcareer, Wilson realized that the movement he dreamed of was never going to happen, and that literature was receding from the center of national life. He settled into a life of messy disaffection.
He still hated the things he had always hated: bourgeois smugness, philistinism, prudery and commercialism, but his life was no counterargument, filled with feuds, drinking and divorce. When he fought with Mary McCarthy, he'd retreat to his study. She'd light piles of paper on fire and shove them under the door.
Menand describes an entire cultural shift in a sad, brief portrait, and yet makes it clear that Wilson was the sort of writer who deserved multiple Sidneys. Tragically, he lived too soon.
David Brooks writes for the New York Times.