You can read this series from the beginning here.
"Don’t do it, Justin," Polly said.
"How did you get this number?" I asked. I hadn’t remembered ever giving her my cell number.
"It doesn’t matter," she said. "Look. Where are you right now?"
"In my office," I said. "Well, you know, your office. From before."
"I know where my office was," she said. "They still have you doing my job now? That’s what I was told."
"Who told you that?" I had been the intern coordinator for all of two days, after former Secretary Clinton’s people had cleaned house at the organization and fired everyone who wasn’t a committed Clinton loyalist. Which I was. Kind of. Anyway, I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone.
"It doesn’t matter," she said again. "What matters is what you do here in the next few minutes, which is nothing. Or it should be nothing."
"I don’t understand what you’re talking about," I said. I reached into the drawer for an ibuprofen capsule, which Polly had, thankfully, left behind for me.
"The Shylock thing."
"What Shylock thing?"
"Justin, for God’s sake. Don’t tease me. It’s bad enough that you’re in my office, doing my job, without you teasing me."
"I am not teasing you," I said. "I wouldn’t do that. I don’t believe in teasing or bullying or saying mean things about people in general."
"For God’s sake, Justin."
"Except for Sean Hannity, but he totally deserves it."
"Justin, please. Will you listen to me for just one God-damned minute?"
"Of course, Polly. What’s up?"
"If I say the word Shylock to you, what do you think it means?" she asked. "I am asking this for a reason."
"I know it’s Shakespeare," I said. "But I haven’t read that much Shakespeare. My mother was kind of vigilant about keeping dead white males out of my reading list. I can tell you anything you want to know about Toni Morrison, though. Did you know she wrote children’s books?"
"Shylock was a character in The Merchant of Venice," she said. "Okay? He is the villain in the play. He loans money to people. And he’s Jewish, and he has traditionally been portrayed in a very broad, stereotypical way. With me so far?"
"And Vice-President Biden just referenced him in a speech."
"So you knew, and have been teasing me all this time," Polly said.
"Oh. No. I just checked my Twitter feed real quick while you were talking, that’s all. So what do you want me to do? Or not want me to do?"
"The Vice-President isn’t anti-Semitic. At all," she said. "There’s no reason to make him out to be just because he referred to a Jewish character in a play that was written five hundred years ago."
"More like four hundred and twenty years ago," I said. "I looked the play up on Wikipedia just now."
"Aren’t you clever. Look. All I want you to do is to not go after the Vice-President on this one. I’m not asking you to defend him. He made a stupid mistake and it’s going to hurt him, but I would hope that at least someone in the Clinton organization would give him just enough respect and consideration not to jump down his throat on this one."
"I didn’t realize you’d gone to work for Biden," I said. "Because this is what someone who is working for Biden would try to do."
"I’m not working for the Vice President," she said. "If you must know, I’m not even in Washington. I’m in Wilmington. I’m living with my parents, and working part-time doing social media in the Attorney General’s office."
"And the Delaware Attorney General is the Vice-President’s son," I said.
"Did you look that up on Wikipedia?" Polly asked.
"No. I just remembered. Look, I’m still just an intern. I don’t have any authority to go after the Vice-President, or any other Democratic politician, for that matter. Once the primaries start, and we know who is running and who isn’t, I expect that will change. But for today, I’m not even going to bother."
"Thank you, Justin," she said.
"Of course, if it were a Republican who said it, that would make a difference," I said. "We’d hang it on him and never let it go."
"Of course. Goes without saying," Polly said. "I’d want you to. I’d expect you to. I’d be disappointed in you if you didn’t. There just isn’t a reason to go after the Vice-President. Joe being Joe and all that."
"Of course," I said. "Not yet, anyway."
"I gotta go," Polly said. "I need to be at work here in an hour. Just… just do one thing for me, will you?"
"Sure," I said.
"Be careful what you say on cell phones. You never know who is listening, or what they’re listening for. OK?"
"OK," I said, not understanding at all what she was talking about. She hung up, and I went back to monitoring my Twitter feed.
I had been trying to read Secretary Clinton’s new book right before bedtime, but I still hadn’t gotten past the third chapter, because I kept falling asleep. I felt a little guilty about this, but I needed my rest, and reading her book worked better for me than Ambien ever did. Except, that night, I woke up at three in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. I tried looking at e-mails and Facebook, but that just made me more restless. I found an online Shakespeare site and went looking through The Merchant of Venice.
I wish someone would have given me a more thorough trigger warning about stuff like pounds of flesh. Having said that, it was largely enjoyable, and I didn’t have as much trouble as I thought in understanding the Elizabethan language. (It turns out that anyone who’s tried to make sense of a Harry Reid press release can make their way through Shakespeare without much difficulty.)
I was struck by this passage:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
For a few minutes, after reading that, I thought that maybe I had gotten it all wrong, right from the start.
I had spent my life seeking social justice. I had worked for it as a baby, strapped to my mother’s chest as she handed out flyers for Bill Clinton in New Hampshire in 1992. I remember crying myself to sleep over Al Gore losing in 2000. I’d gone to the most progressive schools that my mother could find. I’d read deeply into writers whose commitment to justice blazed forth from every page. I was working in a lonely, unpaid internship in Washington D.C. solely to train to be a social justice warrior. Justice was my weapon and my mission.
But, according to Shakespeare, perfect justice isn’t obtainable or even desirable. What we should be seeking, instead, is mercy, and what we should be doing are "the deeds of mercy."
I understood that part perfectly. What I had done in declining to mock the Vice-President for the "Shylock" reference was, looked at objectively, an act of mercy. (What Biden said was a "reference," not a "gaffe," because only Republicans make gaffes.) I certainly could have put together a couple of Photoshops of Biden looking as though he were mocking Jews, and I doubt anyone upstairs would have complained one little bit. The only reason not to do that was mercy.
But was that kind of mercy more important than social justice? Had I gotten everything wrong all along? Should I be a social mercy warrior instead? What would that even mean? Who would I be merciful towards?
I had told Polly that if a Republican–any Republican, really, no matter what their rank–had so much as breathed the word "Shylock" out loud that I would do my best to hang it around their necks forever. But was that right? Was that appropriate? Was that merciful?
Certainly it was right to oppose Republicans. I would never doubt that. Republicans were opposed to tax increases on the wealthy and strict enforcement of civil-rights laws and environmentalist policies. Not to mention the war on women, the war on education, and the war on Rachel Maddow’s hairstyle.
But did that mean that it was right to spend quite so much time attacking Republicans for every little verbal misstep? Couldn’t we fight for social justice and social mercy at the same time? And isn’t social mercy more important anyway?
No, I told myself. You are here to make a difference. And the Republicans are committed to stopping you — not only that, but reversing all of the gains that have been made by everyone else who has tried to make a difference. There’s a differential between what we do and what they do, and it’s significant.
"The ends justify the means," I said, and I was startled to find that I had said it out loud. I said it again, rolling my tongue around the syllables. "The ends justify the means." And then again, slower, and a little deeper, until I sounded like a movie villain. "The ends… justify the means. HA HA HA."
I resolved to go back to work the next day as a confident and strong social justice warrior. Mother, I decided, had a point about not reading stuff written by dead white men.
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