When Edward Said died in September 2003, after a decade-long battle against leukemia, he was probably the best-known intellectual in the world. Orientalism, his controversial account of the appropriation of the East in modern European thought and literature, has spawned an academic subdiscipline in its own right: A quarter of a century after its first publication, it continues to generate irritation, veneration and imitation. Even if its author had done nothing else, confining himself to teaching at Columbia University in New York--where he was employed from 1963 until his death--he would still have been one of the most influential scholars of the late twentieth century.
But he did not confine himself. From 1967, and with mounting urgency and passion as the years passed, Edward Said was also an eloquent, ubiquitous commentator on the crisis in the Middle East and an advocate for the cause of the Palestinians. This moral and political engagement was not really a displacement of Said's intellectual attention--his critique of the West's failure to understand Palestinian humiliation closely echoes, after all, his reading of nineteenth-century scholarship and fiction in Orientalism and subsequent books (notably Culture and Imperialism, published in 1993). But it transformed the professor of comparative literature at Columbia into a very public intellectual, adored or execrated with equal intensity by many millions of readers.
This was an ironic fate for a man who fitted almost none of the molds to which his admirers and enemies so confidently assigned him. Edward Said lived all his life at a tangent to the various causes with which he was associated. The involuntary "spokesman" for the overwhelmingly Muslim Arabs of Palestine was an Episcopalian Christian, born in 1935 to a Baptist from Nazareth. The uncompromising critic of imperial condescension was educated in some of the last of the colonial schools that had trained the indigenous elite of the European empires; for many years he was more at ease in English and French than in Arabic and an outstanding exemplar of a Western education with which he could never fully identify.
Edward Said was the idolized hero of a generation of cultural relativists in universities from Berkeley to Bombay, for whom "Orientalism" underwrote everything from career-building exercises in "postcolonial" obscurantism ("writing the other") to denunciations of "Western Culture" in the academic curriculum. But Said himself had no time for such nonsense. Radical anti-foundationalism, the notion that everything is just a linguistic effect, struck him as shallow and "facile": human rights, as he observed on more than one occasion, are not "cultural or grammatical things, and when they are violated...they are as real as anything we can encounter."
As for the popular account of his thought that has Edward Said reading Western writers as mere byproducts of colonial privilege, he was quite explicit: "I do not believe that authors are mechanistically determined by ideology, class or economic history." Indeed, when it came to the business of reading and writing, Said was an unabashedly traditional humanist, "despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated post-modern critics." If there was anything that depressed him about younger literary scholars it was their overfamiliarity with "theory" at the expense of the art of close textual reading. Moreover, he enjoyed intellectual disagreement, seeing the toleration of dissent and even discord within the scholarly community as the necessary condition for the latter's survival--my own expressed doubts about the core thesis of Orientalism were no impediment to our friendship. This was a stance that many of his admirers from afar, for whom academic freedom is at best a contingent value, were at a loss to comprehend.
This same deeply felt humanistic impulse put Said at odds with another occasional tic of engaged intellectuals, the enthusiastic endorsement of violence--usually at a safe distance and always at someone else's expense. The "Professor of Terror," as his enemies were wont to characterize Said, was in fact a consistent critic of political violence in all its forms. Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, a comparably influential intellectual for the previous generation, Said had some firsthand experience of physical force--his university office was vandalized and sacked, and both he and his family received death threats. But whereas Sartre did not hesitate to advocate political murder as both efficacious and cleansing, Said never identified with terrorism, however much he sympathized with the motives and sentiments that drove it. The weak, he wrote, should use means that render their oppressors uncomfortable--something that indiscriminate murder of civilians can never achieve.
The reason for this was not that Edward Said was placid or a pacifist, much less someone lacking in strong commitments. Notwithstanding his professional success, his passion for music (he was an accomplished pianist and a close friend and sometime collaborator of Daniel Barenboim) and his gift for friendship, he was in certain ways a deeply angry man--as the essays in this book frequently suggest. But despite his identification with the Palestinian cause and his inexhaustible efforts to promote and explain it, Said quite lacked the sort of uninterrogated affiliation with a country or an idea that allows the activist or the ideologue to subsume any means to a single end.
Instead he was, as I suggested, always at a slight tangent to his affinities. In this age of displaced persons he was not even a typical exile, since most men and women forced to leave their country in our time have a place to which they can look back (or forward): a remembered--more often misremembered--homeland that anchors the transported individual or community in time if not in space. Palestinians don't even have this. There never was a formally constituted Palestine. Palestinian identity thus lacks that conventional anterior reference.
In consequence, as Said tellingly observed just a few months before his death, "I still have not been able to understand what it means to love a country." That, of course, is the characteristic condition of the rootless cosmopolitan. It is not very comfortable or safe to be without a country to love: It can bring down upon your head the anxious hostility of those for whom such rootlessness suggests a corrosive independence of spirit. But it is liberating: The world you look out upon may not be as reassuring as the vista enjoyed by patriots and nationalists, but you see further. As Said wrote in 1993, "I have no patience with the position that 'we' should only or mainly be concerned with what is 'ours.'"
This is the authentic voice of the independent critic, speaking the truth to power...and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority: As Said wrote in the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram in May 2001, "whether Israeli intellectuals have failed or not in their mission is not for us to decide. What concerns us is the shabby state of discourse and analysis in the Arab world." It is also the voice of the free-standing "New York intellectual," a species now fast approaching extinction--thanks in large measure to the same Middle Eastern conflict in which so many have opted to take up sides and identify with "us" and "ours." (To its lasting credit, Columbia University withstood considerable internal and public pressure to censure or even remove Said because of his public interventions on the Palestinians' behalf.) Edward Said, as the reader of these essays will discover, was by no means a conventional "spokesman" for one party in that conflict.
The Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung headed its obituary of Said Der Unbequeme--"The Uncomfortable Man." But if anything, his lasting achievement was to make others uncomfortable. For the Palestinians Edward Said was an underappreciated and frequently irritating Cassandra, berating their leaders for incompetence--and worse. To his critics Said was a lightning rod, attracting fear and vituperation. Implausibly, this witty and cultivated man was cast as the very devil: the corporeal incarnation of every threat--real or imagined--to Israel and Jews alike. To an American Jewish community suffused with symbols of victimhood he was a provocatively articulate remembrancer of Israel's very own victims. And by his mere presence here in New York, Edward Said was an ironic, cosmopolitan, Arab reminder of the parochialism of his critics.
The essays in this book cover the period December 2000 through March 2003. They thus take us from the end of the Oslo decade, the onset of the second intifada and the final breakdown of the "peace process," through the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the massacres of September 11, 2001, the American retaliation in Afghanistan and the long run-up to the US attack on Iraq--a distinctly turbulent and murderous twenty-eight months. During this time Said wrote copiously and urgently about the alarming state of affairs in the Middle East, contributing at least one article a month, often more, despite his worsening medical condition (to which there is no reference in these writings until August 2002, and then only a casual, passing allusion).
All but one of the pieces collected here were contributed to Al-Ahram. These writings are thus an opportunity for Said's Western readers to see what he had to say to an Arab audience. What they show is that Said in his final years was consistently pursuing three themes: the urgent need to tell the world (above all, Americans) the truth about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians; the parallel urgency of getting Palestinians and other Arabs to recognize and accept the reality of Israel and engage with Israelis, especially the Israeli opposition; and the duty to speak openly about the failings of Arab leadership.
Indeed, Said was above all concerned with addressing and excoriating his fellow Arabs. It is the ruling Arab regimes, especially that of the Palestine Liberation Organization, that come in for the strongest criticism here: for their cupidity, their corruption, their malevolence and incredulity. This may seem almost unfair--it is, after all, the United States that has effective power, and Israel that was and is wreaking havoc among Said's fellow Palestinians--but he seems to have felt it important to tell the truth to and about his own people, rather than risk indulging the "fawning elasticity with regard to one's own side that has disfigured the history of intellectuals since time immemorial."
In the course of these essays Said recounts checklists of Israeli abuses, a grim, depressing reminder of how Ariel Sharon's government is squeezing the lifeblood from the quarantined Palestinian communities: Abuses against civilians that were once regarded as criminal acts even in wartime are now accepted behavior by a government ostensibly at peace. In Said's account these abuses are not the accidental, unfortunate byproduct of the return to power of a belligerent, irredentist general, but rather the predictable--and, in Said's case, predicted--consequence of the Palestinians' engagement in the late, unlamented "peace process" itself.
For those of us who welcomed the Oslo process and watched hopefully as it developed over the course of the 1990s, Said's disenchanted critique is depressing. But in retrospect it is difficult to deny that he got it right and we were wrong. As imagined by the Israeli peace party and welcomed by many others--Palestinians included--the Oslo process was supposed to build confidence and trust between the two sides. Contentious issues--the governance of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the problem of the Jewish settlements--would be dealt with "later," in "final-status negotiations." Meanwhile, the PLO would gain experience and credibility in the administration of autonomous Palestinian territory, and Israelis would live in peace. Eventually, two states--one Jewish, one Palestinian--would live in stable proximity, their security underwritten by the international community.
This was the premise behind the Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn in September 1993. But the whole thing was deeply flawed. As Said reminds us, there were not two "sides" to these negotiations. There was Israel, an established modern state with an awesome military apparatus (by some estimates the fourth-strongest in the world today), occupying land and people seized twenty-six years earlier in war. And there were the Palestinians, a dispersed, displaced, disinherited community with neither an army nor a territory of their own. There was an occupier and there were the occupied. In Said's view, the only leverage that the Palestinians had was their annoying facticity: They were there, they wouldn't go away and they wouldn't let the Israelis forget what they had done to them.
Having nothing to give up, the Palestinians had nothing to negotiate. To "deal" with the occupier, after all, is to surrender--or collaborate. That is why Said described the 1993 declaration as "a Palestinian Versailles" and why he resigned in anticipation from the Palestine National Council. If the Israelis needed something from the Palestinians, Said reasoned, then the things the Palestinians wanted--full sovereignty, a return to the 1967 frontiers, the right of return, a share of Jerusalem--should be on the table at the outset, not at some undetermined final stage. And then there was the question of Israel's "good faith."
When the initial declaration was signed in 1993 there were just 32,750 Jewish housing units in settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. By October 2001 there were 53,121--a 62 percent increase, with more to come. From 1992 to 1996, under the Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the settler population of the West Bank grew by 48 percent, that of Gaza by 61 percent. To put it no more strongly, this steady Israeli takeover of Palestinian land and resources hardly conformed to the spirit of Oslo. (Article 31 of the Oslo II agreement, signed in 1995, explicitly states that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.")
Meanwhile, even as the PLO was authorized to administer the remaining Palestinian districts, Israel was constructing a network of "Jewish" roads crisscrossing those same regions and giving settlers and other Israelis exclusive access to far-flung housing units (and scarce aquifers) protected by permanent military installations. (This had the paradoxical consequence of segregating Jews and Arabs even as they became more economically interdependent: Israelis relying on cheap Palestinian labor, Palestinians dependent on Israel for jobs and access to markets.) The whole exercise was driven forward partly by an anachronistic Israeli conflation of land with security; partly by a post-'67 irredentist eschatology (with the Old Testament invoked as a sort of real estate contract with a partisan God); and partly by longstanding Zionist enthusiasm for territorial enlargement as an end in itself. From the Palestinian point of view the effect was to make the "Oslo process" an agonizing exercise in slow strangulation, with Gaza in particular transformed into a virtual prison under Palestinian warders, the Israeli army standing guard just outside the perimeter fence.
And then, in the year 2000, came the long-postponed "permanent status negotiations" themselves: first at Camp David and then, desperately, at Taba in the Sinai. Said, of course, had no time for the conventional American view that President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak virtually gave away the farm and that even then the ungrateful PLO and its leader, Yasir Arafat, refused the gift. This is not because Said had any sympathy for Arafat but because the original Camp David offer was--as Tanya Reinhart described it in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot on July 8, 2001--so palpably a fraud. The Palestinians were to get 50 percent of their own land, chopped into separate and often non-contiguous cantons; Israel was to annex 10 percent of the land; and the remaining 40 percent was to be left "undecided"--but under indefinite Israeli rule.
Six months later, at Taba, the Palestinians were offered an improved territorial deal, certainly the best they could ever have hoped for from an Israeli government. But the resulting Palestinian state would still have been utterly dependent on Israel and vulnerable to its whims; the grievances of Palestinian refugees were never fully addressed; and the contentious issues of sovereignty over Jerusalem remained unresolved. Indeed, even the last-minute Israeli concessions were still encumbered with what Said nicely terms "conditions and qualifications and entailments (like one of the endlessly deferred and physically unobtainable estates in a Jane Austen novel)."
Meanwhile Barak had continued to expand the population of the very settlements that his own negotiators recognized as a major impediment to agreement. Even if the PLO leaders had wanted to sell the Taba discussions to their constituents, they might have had difficulty doing so. The second intifada, which burst out following Sharon's meticulously timed visit to the Temple Mount, has been a disaster for the Palestinians, but it was born out of years--the Oslo years--of frustration and humiliation.
Taba, and especially Camp David, were the bitter fruits of Oslo, and in Edward Said's view the PLO's error in engaging the process in the first place was well illustrated by its inevitable rejection of the outcome, retroactively discrediting the whole strategy of negotiations. In an Al-Ahram article of June 2002, Said is scathingly unforgiving of the PLO apparatchiks and their leader, who for a while did rather well out of the power they exercised as the "Vichyite" governors of occupied Palestine under Israel's benign oversight. They were and are "a byword for brutality, autocracy and unimaginable corruption."
In other contributions to the same newspaper, Said writes that Arafat and his circle "have made our general situation worse, much worse." "Palestinians (and, by extension, the other Arabs) have been traduced and hopelessly misled by their leaders," who have neither high principles nor practical, pragmatic strategies. "It has been years since Arafat represented his people, their sufferings and cause, and like his other Arab counterparts, he hangs on like a much-too-ripe fruit without real purpose or position."
What, then, is to be done? If the Palestinian leadership is corrupt and incompetent; if Israeli governments won't even keep faith with their own stated commitments, much less the desires of their interlocutors; if there is so much fear and loathing on all sides, how should the two-state solution be implemented, now that Israelis, Palestinians and the international community--even the Americans--all at last accept it in principle? Here, once again, Said was at odds with almost everyone.
In 1980, when he first publicly pressed for a two-state solution, Said was attacked and abused from all sides, not least by Arafat's own Fatah movement. Then, in 1988, the Palestine National Council belatedly conceded that the best possible outcome was indeed the division of Palestine into two states--one Israeli, one Palestinian--echoing Said's insistence that there was no alternative to reciprocal territorial self-determination for Jews and Arabs alike. But as the years went by, with half of the occupied territories expropriated; with the Palestinian community a shambles and the putative Palestinian territory a blighted landscape of isolated enclaves, flattened olive groves and ruined houses, where humiliated adults were fast losing the initiative to angry, alienated adolescents, Said drew the increasingly irresistible conclusion.
Israel was never going to quit the West Bank, at least not in any way that would leave it in a coherent, governable condition. What kind of a state could the West Bank and Gaza ever constitute? Who but a criminal mafia would ever want to take on the task of "governing" it? The "Palestine" of PLO imaginings was a fantasy--and a rather unappealing one at that. For good or ill, there was only going to be one real state in the lands of historic Palestine: Israel. This was not utopia; it was merely hard-headed pragmatism shorn of illusion. The genuinely realistic approach lay in accepting this fact and thinking seriously about how to make the best of it: "Much more important than having a state is the kind of state it is." For the last decade of his life Edward Said was an unbending advocate of a single, secular state for Israelis and Palestinians.
What grounds did Edward Said have for his faith in a single-state solution, a nonexclusive, secular, democratic alternative to the present impasse? In the first place, the status quo is awful and getting worse: two peoples, each sustained by its exclusive victim narrative, competing indefinitely across the dead bodies of their children for the same tiny piece of land. One of them is an armed state, the other a stateless people, but otherwise they are depressingly similar: What, after all, is the Palestinian national story if not a reproachful mirror to Zionism, a tale of expulsion, diaspora, resurrection and return? There is no way to divide the disputed "homeland" to mutual satisfaction and benefit. Little good can come of two such statelets, mutually resentful, each with an influential domestic constituency committed to the destruction and absorption of its neighbor.
In the second place, something fundamental has changed in the Palestinian condition. For four decades millions of Palestinian Arabs--in Israel, in the occupied territories, in refugee camps across the Arab world and in exile everywhere--had been all but invisible. Their very existence was long denied by Israeli politicians; their memory of expulsion had been removed from the official record and passed unmentioned in history books; the record of their homes, their villages and their land was expunged from the very soil itself. That, as Said noted, was why he kept on telling the same story: "There seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear." And yet "it is very hard to espouse for five decades, a continually losing cause." It was as though Palestinians had no existence except when someone committed a terrorist atrocity--at which point that is all they were, their provenance uncertain, their violence inexplicable.
That is why the "right of return" had so central a place in all Palestinian demands--not because any serious person supposed that Israel could take "back" millions of refugees and their descendants, but from the deeply felt need for acknowledgment: a recognition that the initial expulsion took place, that a primordial wrong was committed. That is what so annoyed Said about Oslo: It seemed to excuse or forgive the Israelis for the occupation and everything else. But, as he wrote in Al-Ahram in March 2002, "Israel cannot be excused and allowed to walk away from the table with not even a rhetorical demand [my emphasis] that it needs to atone for what it did." Attention must be paid.
But attention, of course, is now being paid. An overwhelming majority of world opinion outside the United States sees the Palestinian tragedy today much as the Palestinians themselves see it. They are the natives of Israel, an indigenous community excluded from nationhood in its own homeland: dispossessed and expelled, illegally expropriated, confined to "bantustans," denied many fundamental rights and exposed on a daily basis to injustice and violence. Today there is no longer the slightest pretense by well-informed Israelis that the Arabs left in 1948 of their own free will or at the behest of foreign despots, as we were once taught. Benny Morris, one of the leading Israeli scholars on the subject, recently reminded readers of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz that Israeli soldiers did not merely expel Palestinians in 1948-49, in an early, incomplete attempt at ethnic cleansing; they committed war crimes along the way, including the rape and murder of women and children.
Of course, Morris notoriously sees nothing wrong in this record--he treats it as the collateral damage that accompanies state-building. ("I don't think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes," he told Ha'aretz. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.") But this brings us to the third ground for thinking Said may be right about the chances for a single state. Just as the Palestinian cause has begun to find favor in public opinion, and is gaining the moral upper hand, so Israel's international standing has precipitately collapsed. For many years the insuperable problem for Palestinians was that they were being expelled, colonized, occupied and generally mistreated not by French colons or Dutch Afrikaners but, in Said's words, by the Jewish citizens of Israel, "remnants of the Nazi Holocaust with a tragic history of genocide and persecution."
The victim of victims is in an impossible situation--not made any better, as Said pointed out, by the Arab propensity to squeeze out from under the shadow of the Holocaust by minimizing or even denying it. But when it comes to mistreating others, even victims don't get a free pass forever. The charge that Poles often persecuted Jews before, during and after World War II can no longer be satisfactorily deflected by invoking Hitler's 3 million Polish victims. Mutatis mutandis, the same now applies to Israel. Until the military victory of 1967, and even for some years afterward, the dominant international image of Israel was the one presented by its left Zionist founders and their many admirers in Europe and elsewhere: a courageous little country surrounded by enemies, where the desert had been made to bloom and the indigenous population airbrushed from the picture.
Following the invasion of Lebanon, and with gathering intensity since the first intifada of the late 1980s, the public impression of Israel has steadily darkened. Today it presents a ghastly image: a place where sneering 18-year-olds with M-16s taunt helpless old men ("security measures"); where bulldozers regularly flatten whole apartment blocks ("rooting out terrorists"); where helicopters fire rockets into residential streets ("targeted killings"); where subsidized settlers frolic in grass-fringed swimming pools, oblivious of Arab children a few meters away who fester and rot in the worst slums on the planet; and where retired generals and Cabinet ministers speak openly of bottling up the Palestinians "like drugged roaches in a bottle" (former Israeli Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan) and cleansing the land of its Arab cancer (former Housing Minister Effi Eitam).
Israel is utterly dependent on the United States for money, arms and diplomatic support. One or two states share common enemies with Israel; a handful of countries buy its weapons; a few others are its de facto accomplices in ignoring international treaties and secretly manufacturing nuclear weapons. But outside Washington, Israel has no friends--at the United Nations it cannot even count on the support of America's staunchest allies. Despite the political and diplomatic incompetence of the PLO (well documented in Said's writings); despite the manifest shortcomings of the Arab world at large ("lingering outside the main march of humanity"); despite Israel's own sophisticated efforts to publicize its case, the Jewish state today is widely regarded as a--the--leading threat to world peace. After thirty-seven years of military occupation, Israel has gained nothing in security. It has lost everything in domestic civility and international respectability, and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever.
The newfound acknowledgment of the Palestinians' claims and the steady discrediting of the Zionist project (not least among many profoundly troubled Israelis) might seem to make it harder rather than easier to envisage Jews and Arabs living harmoniously in a single state. And just as a minority of Palestinians may always resent their Jewish neighbors, there is a risk that some Israelis will never, as it were, forgive the Palestinians for what the Israelis have done to them. But as Said understood, the Palestinians' aggrieved sense of neglect and the Israelis' insistence on the moral rectitude of their case were twin impediments to a resolution of their common dilemma. Neither side could "see" the other. As Orwell observed in his "Notes on Nationalism," "If one harbours anywhere in one's mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible."
Today, in spite of everything, there is actually a better appreciation by some people on both sides of where--quite literally--the other is coming from. This, I think, arises from a growing awareness that Jews and Arabs occupy the same space and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Their fates are hopelessly entangled. Fence or no fence, the territory now ruled by Israel can only be "cleansed" of its Arab (or its Jewish) residents by an act of force that the international community could not countenance. As Said notes, "historic Palestine" is now a lost cause--but so, for the same reasons, is "historic Israel." Somehow or other, a single institutional entity capable of accommodating and respecting both communities will have to emerge, though when and in what form is still obscure.
The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said's view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in "extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth." Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, "Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel's qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society." But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.
That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to "give" them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: "It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments' stupid or cruel policies." But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country's political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but "what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy."
Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America--with Israel--from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.