As a ferocious naval battle raged off Jutland during World War I, the German High Seas Fleet seemed to dish out more punishment than it received from Britain’s vaunted Grand Fleet. With battleships exchanging fusillades in the background, Admiral David Beatty, the Royal Navy’s second in command, bellowed from the bridge of HMS Lion: “What’s wrong with our bloody ships today?”
Don’t fret, I’m not about to indulge in retrospectives on sea battles, although they certainly deserve their due. I will, however, use the following paragraphs to offer my take on issues graduating from the broken-shoelace variety all the way up to those I see as contributing to an increasingly broken, exhausted world. In other words, from my own minor, self-absorbed vexations to what’s wrong with our bloody planet today.
Broken-shoelace situations seem to come in bunches, so let me dispense with them quickly. My wife’s car had a flat tire; my losing streak at online chess reached double digits; a fairly steep postal money order went missing; my new lawnmower conked out; the kitten my wife and I we were going to adopt went to someone else. Dayenu. Lo and behold, the flat tire stayed afloat (more naval imagery) long enough to drive to the shop where it was promptly fixed. My chess fortunes changed for the better when I began limiting myself to two opponents at once instead of six, and I know that the 50-50 law of averages will soon assert itself. The money order finally arrived after weeks in postal limbo. The mower roared to life after I was chided at the repair shop for trying to cut wet grass. And another adorable kitten turned up for adoption — that kitten is now happily exploring the nooks and crannies of our home.
The broken-world issues, however, seem to be pressing down with increasing urgency. Their form, focus, and intensity have changed from what I’ve been accustomed to for most of my life, and the feeling goes beyond pandemic fatigue. Toxic politics, generational divides, culture wars, racial, economic, gender, and educational inequality, global warming, cybercrime, voter suppression, and gun violence are in full boil, kept percolating by social media, 24/7 news outlets, and the chattering and conspiracy classes. Now add to that lugubrious list the recently provocative vote by the U.S. Conference of Bishops to press ahead with a study of the Eucharist expressly for the purpose of denying communion to President Biden because of his pro-choice beliefs. This despite the pope’s warning against doing so.
I can well understand the angst and anguish of my Catholic friends. Loving your religion while questioning or disagreeing with certain of its directions or doctrines is to be in a very uncomfortable place. Indeed, I have had to face the reality that while anti-Semitism is ascendant in my own country, anti-Zionist feelings are festering within my own tribe — in addition to the usual hate-spewing, fact-denying suspects on campus, in politics, and under the nearest rock. As a diaspora and secular Jew, I’ve long grappled with “outsider” emotions toward the state of Israel. I’ve never made any secret of my distaste for Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda while at the same time marveling at his political agility. And I’ve also tried to balance my pride in the nation’s remarkable history with skepticism over some of the policies it has pursued. I remain little assuaged or reassured by the new governing coalition (including the first Arab party in the mix) presided over on a rotating basis by Naftali Bennett and Yapir Lapid. Will they be up to handling the next provocation by Hamas? Can this conjuries of personalities and ideologies muster enough unity to deal with any of the seemingly intractable and endless challenges confronting this bespoke yet divided nation?
As a retired copy editor, I salivated at the prospect of composing the headline “Bye-Bye Bibi.” But the funny thing about Israeli politics is the funny thing about Israeli politics (with a nod to Abba Eban), and I could just as soon be writing “Bibi’s Back” or “Bibi’s Convicted” or “Coalition Collapses.” As a Jewish American, I continue to view Israel in a global context and cling to the hope (somewhat naively?) of a two-state solution with a relatively reliable Palestinian partner. Right now, though, I feel considerably uncomfortable with Israel being embraced more vociferously by evangelical Christians than by many tribe members in the United States.
For decades, the Cold War dominated my worldview and that of many Americans. When the Soviet Union collapsed and slipped to third world filling-station status, it also lost its potency as America’s existential threat and go-to bogeystate. Despite Mr. Putin’s increasingly ham-handed efforts as kleptocrat-in-chief in trying to reassert Russian influence, a rising China clearly poses the biggest challenge as a geopolitical adversary to pax Americana. Not that Russia has fallen off the radar by any means, but the recent three hour mini-summit between Messrs. Biden and Putin in Geneva didn’t even include lunch.
In retrospect, the days of confronting the Soviet Union as the lone bad global actor seem perversely comforting. Our fears and anger could be galvanized against one rigidly ruled country and its predictable political system. The soulless, godless, communists loomed large, from Stalin past Sputnik, a bête noire of the capitalist, God fearing, democracy-craving United States. A continuum of leaders, from Khrushchev past Brezhnev, seemed to originate in central casting. Remember the annual trooping of superannuated Soviet apparatchiks on the Kremlin reviewing stand as military hardware rumbled by? Western experts studied them diligently, scouring for hints of who was in, who was out. Where’s Kaganovich this year? Look, Suslov has moved closer to the center. When crises developed with the West, they were managed by both parties until they receded in an almost choreographed way. Think about the Cuban missile confrontation as overture, crescendo, and coda all going from fortissimo to pianissimo.
At least we knew where we stood back then. Though grim of visage and rhetorically reckless, Soviet leaders would never unleash the missiles. They believed profoundly in the policy of MAD, or mutually assured destruction, and so did U.S. leaders. It maintained the razor’s edge for years – and still does.
And now? A massive cargo carrier goes sideways in the Suez Canal and lodges against the bank, defying the efforts of tugs and engineers for days. Fully 10 percent of the world commerce is tied up before the vessel is nudged free. A Chinese rocket re-entering the atmosphere threatens a debris shower over populated areas. For four days, an eternity in the news cycle, networks breathlessly speculate on where the detritus might fall. Nobody is struck senseless, and the Chinese remain deafeningly mum on the subject, as they do on the Wuhan lab’s possible role in originating the pandemic. The Colonial pipeline is hacked and so is the largest beef processor in the United States. Gas lines materialize (shades of the 1970s) and meat prices spike. A Florida condo, long suspect of structural flaws, collapses and entombs the bulk of its residents.
What’s wrong with our bloody planet today?
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News.