Amy Davidson’s post about the WikiLeaks Guantanamo release is an excellent example of writing short, with feeling—and meaning. One reason so many of the New Yorker blogs work well with the magazine’s content is that they give its readers what they expect: quality. Viewpoint. And that essential (and rigorously effortless) literary-ness. We like what Davidson did here because it makes us want to read her more, and also reminded us to look behind her references.
An excerpt from her post reads:
Here’s another question: why didn’t Obama declassify these documents himself? His Administration has professed to be frustrated at its inability to convey to the public, early on, why Guantánamo should be closed. (See Eric Holdier’s press conference last month for an example.) Might it have helped if Obama had pointed to close-up pictures of the fourteen-year old, or the taxi driver, and really told their stories? He can be good at that, after all. Maybe it wouldn’t have been enough; maybe, clumsily handled, it could have backfired. But it could have shifted the narrative, and it would have been true. Instead, Obama never effectively challenged the image of Guantánamo as a sort of Phantom Zone of super villains, rather than the humiliating hodgepodge it is. When confronted with scare tactics, his Administration, as the Washington Post recounted in a long piece Saturday, retreated again and again; and then it just gave up. The White House feared the fear itself.
“The White House feared the fear itself” is true, and the line’s reference—to FDR’s first Inaugural Address, and having “nothing to fear but fear itself,” is a perfect not-hot link. It is a phrase with meaning for most, but maybe not all readers, but certainly for the ones that matter: those who voted in the last election. Getting the reference, they will think of FDR, and maybe they’ll re-read what he said that day, and then reconsider the meaning of the phrase, now almost dull with overuse.
The Lesson: A Wise Reference Is Better Than A Cool Link
Here is the entire quote from Roosevelt’s speech:
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
History will teach us a lot. When a writer makes a point with a perfect historical reference, it resonates. It is memorable, like the finest speeches are memorable. They are not only recorded in our history books but also repeated around many of our dinner tables. We are grateful for being reminded of this one now; what was said then still applies.