And So We Begin

by Sue Halpern

Greetings, People of the Dish. My name is Sue Halpern and I have been one of you for at least a decade, having followed this blog from independence to Time to the Atlantic to the Daily Beast and back to independence. When The New York Review of Books, my spiritual and intellectual home, was in the beginning stages of designing its own blog, I suggested to my friends there that that they take a page or two out of Andrew’s playbook because The Dish, it seemed to me then, as it does to me now, manages to combine the serious and the playful, skips the mean part (no comments, thank you very much), all the while trading on serendipity and engagement. That’s what drew me in as a reader, even though my own unrepentant liberal politics stood at a sharp angle from Andrew’s studied conservatism. But over time there has been an unlikely convergence and the angle has largely collapsed. Not completely, but more often than not.

Pransky At Work
Pransky At Work

Over those same years, though, I’ve found that my “belief” in politics, has diminished. If, before, I thought that electoral politics mattered—and I did; I was the one going door-to-door in swing states—now I have a hard time holding on to that belief. If I thought that government, our government, because it is of and by and for the people—that is, because it is us—existed to make our lives together more tenable, well, let’s just say that with my tax dollars going to support Gitmo, the militarization of the police, subsidies to oil companies, and on and on, I’ve become much more cynical. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when we paid our taxes we could tell the government where we wanted our money to go—to the National Parks, say, and not to those oil companies—but of course that’s not the nature of democracy. If faith is the belief in things unseen, then I guess I will continue to have faith in “we the people,” but it is, and will be, a faith sorely tried by doubt.

Did I say that I have a doctorate in political theory from Oxford? Or that I’m married to a man who has been manically trying to bring together people from all over the world into a concerted movement to redirect the trajectory of climate change? Or that I live in Vermont, where neighborliness is a good part of our politics? Scale, it turns out, matters. Scale things up and no one knows anyone, and decisions are made using algorithms and rubrics. Am I suspicious of big government? I guess by now I am. Are most Americans with me? Not as much as you might imagine. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books about Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and the NSA, in which I noted that when George W. Bush was in office, the majority of Democrats were opposed to indiscriminate government surveillance and the majority of Republicans were fine with it, while that under Obama, those responses flipped, and Democrats were cool with government spying. To my mind, we maintain a naïve understanding of the power of bureaucracy to direct government when we think it’s okay for one party to do something that we revile if the other party were to do the same.

I’ve been writing about privacy issues, and technology, for a long time, and not always in tandem. I appreciate technology—I am a sucker for the latest Indiegogo gadgetry and know more about the iPhone 6 than I care to admit—but I also appreciate the vigilance it should, but rarely does, inspire in us. Meanwhile privacy, which I have taken as a social good, and as a right, and as a part of my DNA and yours, no longer seems a given. Instinctively I think that’s bad, but I’m willing to consider the opposite.

So let’s talk about dogs. My most recent book, “A Dog Walks Into A Nursing Home,” is about the work my canine partner, Pransky, and I do, as a therapy team at our local public nursing home. (I did an “Ask Anything” about it when the book came out last year.) I am thrilled to be writing for a publication that has a baying beagle as its mascot, so be prepared, over the next seven days, to help me ponder the essential bond we have with our dogs.

I am thrilled, too, to be sharing this virtual space with the man with whom I share real, physical, tangible space. After decades of what the child psychologists call “parallel play,” career-wise, we have spent the past year collaborating on a series of pieces for Smithsonian that combine our passion for ethnic food with our interest in the immigration, and have found that we really like working together. So thank you Andrew and crew for this opportunity to double-team the Dish. And here we go.