For the last many years, I’ve thought that the word “relevant” was one of our most bogus. “How do you make Beethoven relevant?” people will ask. Things like that. Now I’m thinking that “relevant” may be the most bogus, the most specious, the most abused word of all. A nonsense word, nothing but.
Over the weekend, I was writing about Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist. (Great, by the way.) The first sentence of his bio tells us that he is “one of the most relevant pianists of his generation.”
What the hell does that mean? I think it means (a) that the bio-writer regards Levit as cool and (b) that Levit has a taste for politics. He will make a political statement from time to time.
Who is an irrelevant pianist? I don’t know. The word “relevant” is an imprecise weapon in the hands of its user.
Day after day, Trump people say that anti-Trump conservatives are “irrelevant.” Anti-Trumpers are upset because they are no longer “relevant” and are longing to be so once more. At least, this is the line.
What in the world does it mean? I have a feeling that “relevant” means “popular.” Or “powerful.” Or “on the inside.”
I can tell you that my purpose as a journalist, or as a person, is not to be “relevant” or “irrelevant.” My purpose is to pursue the truth as best I can. If my findings happen to be popular, hurray! And if not — oh, well.
In the summer of 2016, a famous conservative warned me that, by not jumping on the Trump train, I was at risk of “marginalizing” myself. I responded that I had long lived on the “margins”! Seldom have I been in the bosom of the mainstream. (It can feel pretty good in that bosom, by the way.)
How about you? Marginal or mainstream? Popular or un-?
Glancing through the Bible, people may see the admonition to come out from the world and be separate and think it’s cool. But it’s very hard to do. Very, very. Coming out from the world and being separate is more comfortable as a notion. People, in practice, tend to run in herds, I think.
In my mind, “relevant” is a cousin of “the right side of history.” People are always saying that you’re on the wrong side of history (while they are on the right side, of course). I wrote an essay about this once (here). The truth is, history doesn’t have sides, though people do.
I say, forget the “right side of history.” Ask, instead, “What is right?” And go looking for your answer. If that leaves you a Trumper, for instance, great. If it leaves you an anti-Trumper, also great. But “history” and “relevance” have nothing to do with it.
Are irrelevant, so to speak!
‐“Send it back to the states!” can be a punt. It can be a dodge. It can mean, “I don’t want to take a stand, so I’ll say, ‘The federal government should have nothing to do with it. Send it to the states, and let them come up with 50 different policies.’”
For years, Republican politicians have said this about abortion. “What do I think about abortion? Well, I think the matter should be returned to the states. Utah will be different from California. Idaho will be different from Massachusetts. So be it.”
I was thinking of this in the context of health care. What if Washington simply kicked the matter to the states? Said to the 50, “You know, this is too hard to do, nationally. You 50 should work it out. If you come up with 50 different solutions, well and good”?
This is perhaps a dodge, a punt. But it has a certain appeal to me, I must say. I believe that markets can handle health care (and other things) a lot better than central planners can. But if there is to be governmental policy, let it be on the state level, rather than on the federal.
Could the state governments do worse than the federal? I doubt it. Maybe the “laboratories of democracy” should be allowed to cook up their stuff.
(Mitt Romney said this in the ’12 campaign. Didn’t do him much good.)
‐South Korea’s National Assembly impeached the president. The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment. The president has left office.
Ho-hum, right? Except that democracy was supposed to be incompatible with “Asian values.” And think of North Korea. Think of the difference between the two Koreas.
They are one people. One ancestry. One language. One everything. But they are governed by two very different political systems. In the south, people are free to govern themselves; in the north, they are under the boot of a hideous dictatorship.
A lot of people think that blood and DNA and all that are destiny. But politics — rights (and the denial of them) — can play a big, big role.
Also, I believe that the United States should take a bow, where South Korea is concerned. The lion’s share of the credit should go to South Koreans themselves — they’re the ones who have implemented their state. But that America has done good in the world, you should have no doubt.
No matter what the Poli-Sci Department says, and no matter what the anti-Americans of Left and Right say.
‐Erdogan, in Turkey, is cross with Germany and the Netherlands these days. He has accused both of “Nazism.”
Erdogan is a strange kind of NATO member and ally. An Erdoganist Turkey is not fit for democratic alliance. That is a big problem, whose solution is … um … lemme get back to you …
‐For years, Jon Huntsman, the Utah Republican, was a bête noire of the Right. Now President Trump has made him his ambassador to Russia.
That’s interesting …
‐One of my favorite members of the Reagan administration was Clayton Yeutter. (His name rhymes with “fighter.”) A Nebraska farmer, he was trade rep in the Gipper’s second term. Then, under 41, he was ag secretary. Then chairman of the Republican National Committee. Etc.
Working with Reagan, Yeutter was a father of NAFTA. He died the other day, and you can read an obit here. NAFTA is still kicking — for now.
Mrs. Yeutter says that her husband was distressed at the direction of the GOP. His views are not very popular at the moment. But popularity, it comes and goes …
‐A couple of weeks ago, I had a post on Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader. He is a favorite of many on the American right. He gave a speech to his country’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, saying that “ethnic homogeneity” is key to economic success and that “too much mixing causes trouble.”
He also said, “I would not like to see the country drift toward a situation where lower-skilled work would only be carried out by foreigners.” (I agree with this entirely, by the way.) Then there was this interesting sentence: “We ourselves have to do the work required to keep our country going, from scrubbing toilets to nuclear science.”
I thought of Orbán when I read a much-noticed tweet by Congressman Steve King (R., Iowa). He, too, is a favorite on the American right. Referring to the Dutch politician Geert Wilders — another favorite — he said, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
What I would like to see is an honest, open debate on all this, because these issues are of highest importance. The essential question is, What is America? and What ought it to be?
‐Above, I mentioned toilets. Let me stay with the subject. (Sorry.) Some of us NR-niks were sitting around yesterday, talking about issues. And someone said, “What about toilets in Texas?” My mind immediately went to environmentalism — and “Al Gore toilets,” as we used to call them. These were toilets with a weak flush; toilets with a stronger flush were judged un-environmental (or whatever the word is).
Remember all that?
But the issue in Texas turned out to involve trans kids, etc. I must keep up.
‐I was talking with a bona fide intellectual, a Ph.D. student in philosophy, now writing his dissertation. He told me he knew nothing about music. I said, “That’s all right. You know about so much. [He does.] You can’t know about everything, for heaven’s sake.”
He talked about Hobbes, and the subject of the English Civil War came up. I pointed out that I had just reviewed a performance of I puritani, the Bellini opera. It is set in the civil war.
My friend said, “I love ‘A te, o cara.’ It’s one of my favorite tenor arias.”
This aria is indeed from Puritani. It’s far from obscure, but it’s not really famous, like “Nessun dorma,” let’s say, or “La donna è mobile,” or “Vesti la giubba.”
I looked at my friend and said, “Right, right. You know ‘nothing about music.’ I know your type. I know exactly your type.”
And his type is someone with very high standards, where knowledge is concerned. My colleagues David Pryce-Jones and Mike Potemra are the same way. They say they don’t know very much about music. The truth is, they know a lot about music. It’s just that …
Well, let me tell you a story. I learned it from Norman Podhoretz. A man succeeds in business and buys a yacht. Then he buys a captain’s uniform to go with it, for he is the captain of his yacht. He shows up at his mother’s house, wearing the uniform.
“What is that?” she says. Her son explains. She says, “My dear boy, I am your mother — and by me you’re a captain. And by you you’re a captain. But let me ask you: By a captain are you a captain?”
These friends of mine: If they don’t know as much as George Grove — the father of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians — they say they don’t know.
Fair enough, but by me they’re captains, or at least lieutenant commanders …
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.