Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.
The first part of this week’s editorial conference digressed, with a sort of melancholy passion, into analyzing the Biden-Trump debate; the second part – very much event-driven – took a Shakespearean turn.
Just one of the five editors is a US citizen, but of course this election has a certain global significance. We don’t have a vote but we do have a stake in the outcome – enough of a stake for three of us to have stayed up half the night to watch the debate.
The policies to be debated were pertinent and pressing, but it is, alas, a truth now universally acknowledged that policies never had a look in. The thing was all about projecting personality.
One candidate exuded swagger and resentment. (‘A tale told by an idiot’ Rami remarked. She didn’t add ‘sound and fury’ and ‘signifying nothing’, those being understood.)
The other aspired to empathy and optimism – though ‘shut up, man’, (the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ of another age), infused the genial persona of the happy warrior with an understandable but nonetheless off-message tetchiness.
‘Those who will not reason, are bigots,’ Dimitri said, ‘those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves – that popped into my head in the first half hour, but I had drunk quite a lot by then, so other things popped in too.’
‘That’s a good one!’ Rami said. ‘Coleridge?’
‘Look at CNN!’ Patrice said.
‘Patrice!’ I struggled to assume the gravitas required sometimes of an editor-in-chief (or, indeed, a debate moderator), ‘We’re in a meeting. You shouldn’t be watching CNN.’
‘Trump has Covid!’ Patrice said.
The figures on the screen in front of me did that thing that people do on such occasions. All eyes looked away from the camera, and the spell of the virtual meeting was shattered. Everyone reverted to the actual reality of their physical space, visibly scrolling through the news options on their home pages.
‘He will portray himself as the victim now,’ Kim said.
Kim is the only one of us who has a vote in this election, or, more correctly, who has had a vote, as she has – she told us at the beginning of the meeting – already posted her ballot.
‘One man in his time plays many parts!’ Dimitri said.
‘It’s hard to play that part when you’ve made a virtue of swagger,’ Rami said.
‘And there are so many more victims,’ Kim said. ‘People who got sick and died because others wouldn’t wear a mask.’ Her tone betrayed, I thought, an uncharacteristic bitterness.
‘What did Camus say about the plague, Patrice?’ I asked.
‘Quite a lot,’ Patrice replied.
‘Something about not being on the side of the contagion.’
‘Il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes, et il faut refuser d’être avec le fléau,’ Patrice said. ‘There’s the plague and there are the victims – all I can say is don’t be on the side of the plague.”
‘But no one is on the side of the virus,’ Rami said.
‘Downplaying the threat doesn’t help to contain it,’ Dimitri pointed out.
Kim’s eyes darted across the screen as she skimmed a new report. ‘We’ve conflated government with personality,’ she said. ‘As long as we make decisions based on personality instead of policy, we will have a soap opera instead of a government.’
‘Soap operas are a window on the world,’ Rami said, ‘though an unreal world, of course.’
‘Such stuff as dreams are made on,’ Patrice quipped. (Patrice has a very French – and bracingly independent – perspective on US politics and appears sometimes to take the matter less seriously than the rest of us.)
‘We are the problem,’ Dimitri said. ‘Soap operas – and this particular presidential soap opera – are merely the symptom. The fault, dear Kim, lies not within the stars, but in ourselves.’
‘Shall we return to the business at hand,’ I asked. But by then the news had entirely hijacked our collective concentration.
‘He will make mischief, even from his sickbed,’ Kim said.
‘The fool doth think he is wise,’ Rami said. ‘but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’
Which was a rather gloomy conclusion, but undoubtedly a pertinent one.