Ernest Gellner was a very well known and widely read Czech-English philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist who made a big name for himself in 1958 with the publication of his first book, Words and Things, an excoriating attack on the so-called Ordinary Language Philosophy that was then all the rage in England, and was leaking over into the United States. Shortly after the book came out, Gellner spent some time in Cambridge, MA [and, if memory serves me, went out briefly with my big sister, Barbara, who was then taking a doctorate in Biochemistry at Harvard.] I got to know him, and we became friends. For years, we corresponded and on rare occasions saw one another.
In 1964, when I went to Columbia University, one of my new colleagues was Charles Frankel, a student of Ernest Nagel who did social and political philosophy [tragically, some years later, Frankel and his wife were killed in their home in Westchester during a robbery.] Charlie was pretty far along in organizing an international conference for the Social Science Research Council, to be held at a posh villa in Italy, when he was tapped by LBJ to be Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Educational Affairs. He asked me to take over the last few organizational chores for the conference, which I did. On my way home from the conference, I passed through London and took the opportunity to visit Gellner and his wife and family in their Cottswald cottage. The date was March 31, 1966, which just happened to be election day in England, so after dinner was over and the children were put to bed, Ernest, his wife, and I sat down in the little living room and watched the results on an old black-and-white television set. I had not the foggiest idea who any of the candidates was, and aside from a general preference for Labour, no clue what the election was about. And yet I watched mesmerized as the results came in and were put up on chalk boards by the commentators. It crossed my mind, as I sat there, that I must really be a hopeless political junkie if I could be fascinated by election results in a contest I knew nothing about.
All of which brings me to last night, which was Super Tuesday in the Republican Presidential Primary race. I have been following every up and down of this seemingly endless process with the obsessive attention appropriate to a political junkie. I watched in horror as Bachmann rose and fell, as Trump wafted into the stratosphere like a child's balloon slipped from its fingers and then popped, as Perry self-destructed, as Cain had his moment in the sun, as Gingrich did his best to steal Christmas. Good grief, I even read the man's doctoral dissertation. How much deeper in the weeds can one go?
But as the weeks have turned into months, and a year and more has gone by, I feel like a little boy who has finally been taken by his parents to a Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus, only to discover that it is clowns all the way down -- no trapeze artists, no lion tamers, no jugglers, not even a pretty lady equestrian, just one clown after another with a silly grin painted onto his face hitting his fellow clowns with a slapstick and staggering around the center ring in oversized shoes. I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but at long last, I just don't care. Last night, I watched Rachel Maddow and John Heilmann and Michael Steele and Chris Matthews vamping for hours until the first results dribbled in, and as the numbers started appearing on the screen, I gave it up and went to sleep.
Oh, I will watch the conventions -- both of them -- and I will settle in for election night with a pizza and a bottle of good red wine. But for the moment, I have had about as much of Romney and Santorum and Gingrich and Paul as I can stomach. Will someone please pile them back into the tiny car they tumbled out of and drive them off stage?