Take No Advice from One-Armed Paper-Hangers

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Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. (matthewlee171/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Tuesday, a newsletter about politics, culture, language, grievances, enthusiasms, major crimes, and minor annoyances. You can subscribe here to get it in your inbox, because we are not going to keep giving it away for free on the homepage forever. That being said . . .

As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger . . .

There are many dumb genres of American journalism, and it is difficult to say which is truly and finally the dumbest, unless we consider Jonathan Chait’s output a genre unto itself. But, short of taking that drastic step, the “As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger” essay may take the booby prize.

The “As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger” essay is based on a claim of special standing to speak to a particular issue. That special standing is based on an experience, usually traumatic or familial, that is in no way related to actual expertise. “As Someone Who Is Dying of Leukemia, Here Is What I Think About Health-Care Reform,” “As the Mother of a Child Who Died in a Horrifying School Shooting, Here Is What I Think About Gun Control,” “I’m a Very Very Rich Guy Who Supports Higher Taxes on Very Very Rich Guys,” etc.

In fact, having leukemia doesn’t give you any special knowledge about the economics of health-insurance subsidies or insurance regulation, losing a child in a terrible crime does not give you any special insight into crime prevention or Second Amendment jurisprudence, and being a very very rich guy doesn’t make you an expert on anything, necessarily, though a very very large share of very very rich guys seems to think otherwise.

The “As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger” essay is almost always a sympathy play, with politicians and newspaper editors exploiting the victims of horrible events or awful diseases in the service of the ideological orientations under which they already are operating. (The other kind of sympathy play is the authorial-martyr model: “Look at me heroically endorsing something that is superficially against my own interests!”). It is relatively rare, for example, to see an essay in a big liberal newspaper headlined “As the Mother of a Child Who Died in a Horrifying School Shooting, I Support the Second Amendment,” although you do see an essay like that every now and then. (People also see Bigfoot every now and then.) “As a Latino, I Support Building a Dozen New Natural-Gas Pipelines” is every bit as intellectually sensible a headline as “As a Latino, I Oppose Building a Border Wall,” but it doesn’t have the same dumb emotional appeal.

Never mind that sick people have as wide an array of opinions on health care as healthy people do, that people come away from violent experiences with very different opinions about gun control and much else, that there are poor people who think taxes on the rich are too high as well as rich people who think taxes on the rich are too low, that Latino people have different views on immigration, etc. The range of expression in the typical American newspaper’s op-ed pages is like paint-by-numbers for people who can’t count past four.

A particularly stupid variant on the “As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger” essay is the distant-relation essay, for example Monday’s New York Times column by some jabroni with a name that sounds like a bad amateur parody of an old National Review byline: Lucian K. Truscott IV. Thank goodness he puts both the K and the IV in there so as to distinguish him from all the other Lucian Truscotts out there.

(And it really is too bad that the guitarist who styles himself Yngwie J. Malmsteen is not Yngwie J. Malmsteen IV.)

If you have come across the byline of Lucian K. Truscott IV in the past, then you may know that he is a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson’s. In fact, almost every article that I can remember having seen from him (not a huge sample, I admit) mentions that connection. Being a distant relation of Thomas Jefferson’s is, in part, the profession of Lucian K. Truscott IV. And that is sufficient to get him into the pages of the New York Times with an exercise in pointlessness headlined “I’m a Direct Descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Take Down His Memorial.”

As any direct descendent of Adam could tell you, being a distant relation of Jefferson’s gives no one any special insight into the contemporary controversy over Washington’s monuments. Does Lucian K. Truscott IV have anything interesting to say on the subject of the Jefferson Memorial? No, Lucian K. Truscott IV does not have anything interesting to say on the subject of the Jefferson Memorial. The Times knows that he has nothing interesting to say, but the Times thinks it is interesting that he says it. The Times is wrong about that. There is not one original thought or interesting sentence in the essay. But Lucian K. Truscott IV still would very much like you to join him on his stroll down memory lane, complete with some truly banal scene-setting that I will be obliged to interrupt at a few points:

When my brother Frank and I were boys visiting our grandparents at their home in Virginia, just outside of Washington, we used to heckle [sic; that isn’t what heckle means; what, did the Times opinion page fire its editor?] our grandmother until she would drive us into town so we could visit the Smithsonian museum on the Mall.

As we crossed the Potomac River on the 14th Street Bridge [speaking of memorials, the 14th Street bridge was renamed in 1958 for Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, who helped Americans win the Revolution, and then renamed again for Arland D. Williams Jr., who died in an airplane crash] the Jefferson Memorial stood off to the left, overlooking the Tidal Basin. [It still does.] I don’t remember ever visiting the memorial, even though it was just a short walk from the museums. It was located on the Mall, along Jefferson Drive, naturally. [It is in West Potomac Park off Basin Drive.]

We were surrounded by the history of Thomas Jefferson when we made those visits to our grandparents. We would drive down to Charlottesville with our grandmother to visit our great-aunts and our great-grandmother — and they would take us up the mountain to Monticello and drop us off to play in the house and on the grounds. They treated Monticello like it was the family home, because in a way it was: They were great-granddaughters of Jefferson. They had been born and grew up only a few miles away at a family plantation, called Edgehill.

I guess that’s why my brother and I, the great-grandsons, took the Jefferson Memorial for granted.

It goes on in much the same elderly-Washington-tour-guide-indiscriminately-verbalizing-his-field-of-vision mode until Lucian K. Truscott IV musters, if not quite an argument, then a little bit of rhetoric

It’s a shrine to a man who famously wrote that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence that founded this nation — and yet never did much to make those words come true.

that is rather less fleshed out than Frederick Douglass’s indictment of Jefferson. And here I do not even mean the real-life Frederick Douglass but the joke version in Epic Rap Battles of History, who has a much pithier take on Jefferson’s failures but who is not — poor fellow! — distantly related to an 18th-century historical figure in the news.

Naturally, it never occurs to Lucian K. Truscott IV or to the editors at the New York Times that Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” was not put forward as a promise that might one day in the future be made to “come true” like a fairy tale but instead was a statement of something believed to be true at the time Jefferson wrote it — which is, in fact, more damning for the Founders than the clumsy interpretation of Lucian K. Truscott IV. That is another reminder that people who cannot write clearly cannot think clearly, and that elevating sympathy plays over actual argument invariably produces mush.

I have spent many years writing about free trade and tariffs. And I am, if the family Bible is to be believed, distantly related to William McKinley, who backed a very stupid tariff scheme in 1890 and ended his career by managing to get himself murdered by an anarchist. But I must resist the urge to start shopping around my “As a Distant Relative of William McKinley, I Think Tariffs Are Pretty Dumb” essay.

The times being what they are, I calculate that I am less likely to sell that essay than I am to be murdered by anarchists.

Words About Words

Celibate does not refer to someone who abstains from sex; celibate describes someone who forgoes marriage, usually, but not always, in accordance with a religious vow. (Note for Millennials: It once was assumed that to forgo marriage was also to forgo sex — quaint, right?) We tend to associate celibacy mostly with the Catholic priesthood, but it turns up in interesting places. Oxford tutors, for example, were under a rule of general celibacy until 1882, even though the Church of England had abolished mandatory clerical celibacy way back in 1548. English household servants were subject to a norm of celibacy, a practice that was replicated in English settlements in the New World. As Professor Kathleen M. Brown of the University of Pennsylvania writes, “servile celibacy” was thought to be necessary to prevent conflicts within the household — ensuring that there was no question of whether a servant in any given situation was subject to her employer’s authority or to her husband’s.

For questions of sex as such, as opposed to the question of marriage, we have the word chaste, although that one is a little complicated, too, with Christians writing of “marital chastity,” which doesn’t mean what it looks like it might mean. In its formal Christian sense, chastity means sexuality in its proper context, which is different for the married and the unmarried. That leaves us with abstinence, a word that acquired a slightly bad odor after a mighty campaign to give it one, and the dusty sounding continent. C. S. Lewis, writing about a naturally virtuous race of aliens in Out of the Silent Planet, wonders at

a species naturally continent, naturally monogamous. And yet, was it so strange? Some animals, he knew, had regular breeding seasons; and if nature could perform the miracle of turning the sexual impulse outward at all, why could she not go further and fix it, not morally but instinctively, to a single object? He even remembered dimly having heard that some terrestrial animals, some of the “lower” animals, were naturally monogamous. Among the hrossa, anyway, it was obvious that unlimited breeding and promiscuity were as rare as the rarest perversions. At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle.

But the English have left that all behind. Americans, too. And so “celibacy” remains mostly a Catholic thing, one of the most misunderstood of all Catholic practices, leading to some amusingly incoherent anti-Catholic stereotypes: that they hate sex and have too many children.

Rampant Prescriptivism

William F. Buckley Jr., like Lucian K. Truscott IV, used a middle initial and an adjective that were not, strictly speaking, necessary: Everybody knew who Bill Buckley was, and though his father was a notable man in his own right (the editor of the Cactus yearbook!), WFB was not likely to be confused with his father in his public life.

It once was the custom to drop “Jr.” after the death of one’s father. “Jr.” is used only for a son with exactly the same name as his father; every now and then, you will meet someone with the same name as his grandfather or great-grandfather, but not the same name as his father, who may call himself John Smith II, which is correct, even if it can’t help looking like a movie sequel. Initials are useful when you have a common name (I know of four working writers named Kevin Williamson), or if you go by your middle name and enjoy the Main Line affectation of C. Montgomery Burns, F. Lee Bailey, or J. Edgar Hoover.

It is a short walk from distinctive to pretentious.

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Home and Away

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the “Real America,” here. It’s mean. You’ll like it.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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History

A Timely Renaissance History Lesson

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Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1494 (via Wikimedia)

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about politics, culture, language, and more. To subscribe and get “The Tuesday” in your inbox, follow this link.

And away we go. Meet the star of this week’s show . . .

Sfortunato

It takes only one.

That is one of the terrible lessons of history. To build up a community, a city, or an empire can take generations of concentrated effort by wise and prudent men. To wreck one takes about five minutes. All you need is the right fool in the right place at the right time.

For Florentines at the end of the 15th century, the right fool was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, sometimes known as Piero il Fatuo — the English cognate “fatuous” only partly captures the range of denotations at work there: vain, conceited, superficial. Piero was all those things and more, but men of his kind and rank rarely think of themselves as arrogant clowns — instead, they think of themselves as the other epithet eternally attached to Piero’s name: Sfortunato, “unlucky.”

Bad luck often is enough to destroy a man. Our lives are more fragile than we think. But short of an asteroid or an act-of-God disaster on the level of Pompeii, destroying a community usually takes work. Vladimir Lenin did not sleep in on weekends and then take a three-hour brunch — he was hard at work building the great dystopian nightmare that was 20th-century socialism. Adolf Hitler tried to figure out a way to give up sleep entirely — Europe wasn’t going to just murder itself. History’s worst monsters were driven. But laziness can do a lot, too, in the way the Colorado River can carve the Grand Canyon if you give it time enough. Laziness can be its own kind of neutron bomb, especially if that laziness is abetted by arrogance and stupidity.

Piero il Sfortunato brought all of those qualities to the table.

Piero represents a familiar type: the heir of a worn-out family, the waste of space who is born with everything a man could want except brains and character. Cosimo de’ Medici, his great-grandfather, represented the generation that really brought the family to power in Florence, converting the vast banking wealth piled up by his own father from a mere fortune into a power. He held a few public offices over the years, as was ordinary for a man of his station, but with no crown and no grand title he ruled Florence like a king, relying not on brute force (not usually) but on patronage, negotiation, and the careful management of the city’s factions and interest groups. He gave Florence its first public library and commissioned magnificent works of art and architecture, and made an art of turning other men’s ambitions to his will.

Cosimo’s son and successor lacked his father’s charm and suavity — his terrible gout made him irritable — but he only had five years to rule, and did not do a great deal of damage. His greatest offense against Florence in his short sick years may have been an unintended undermining of its republican manners: Because he often was confined to bed, he began conducting state business from his home, summoning the men of the city to his personal residence like the prince that he was but was obliged to pretend not to be. His son, Lorenzo, styled “the Magnificent,” stopped pretending almost entirely, and his home became the effective seat of government.

Lorenzo presided over Florence’s golden age. To borrow a phrase from Clarence Thomas, he was educated to be his grandfather’s son. He wasn’t especially handsome (his strapping brother, Giuliano, on the other hand, is said to have been the model for the war god in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars) but he had everything else going for him, including the best education that could be had. That education was supplemented by wide experience in public affairs from the time of his youth, with Lorenzo being deputized to help carry out certain diplomatic and commercial affairs. He was disciplined, intelligent, and discriminating, although not so much that he was above the fraudulent spectacles associated with politics in his time. Just before he took over for his father, he won a celebrated jousting competition in front of adoring Florentines; Niccolò Machiavelli, who observed the match, felt obliged to report that it was totally, completely, in no way rigged.

But Lorenzo also won victories when the outcome was far from certain, the most important of which was negotiating a lasting cooperative peace among the major Italian powers through a pact that just happened to endow Florence — and so Lorenzo himself — with the greatest share of real power. The creation of the Italic League was Renaissance realpolitik: Lorenzo was smart enough to understand that while none of the other Italian powers was strong enough to dominate Italy on its own, neither was Florence. But the threat of France gave the Italians a mutual enemy and a powerful motive for cooperation. It was l’arte dell’affare.

Peace and prosperity, and Michelangelo and Leonardo — not a bad legacy.

But the kid. The kid was an idiot.

Lorenzo is said to have remarked that of his three sons, one was good, one was clever, and one was a fool. The good one died young, the smart one became pope, and the idiot inherited his father’s role in Florence. Why? Lorenzo knew Piero was a fool, but also described him as a “fighter,” and Lorenzo thought of succession as binary: It was either the Medici or their enemies — who were, as far as Lorenzo was concerned, also the enemies of Florence. From the Medici point of view, Piero may have been an idiot, but he was their idiot. And that was enough.

Not only was Piero an idiot, but he was an insecure idiot: He was rich, but not as rich as some of his rivals and extended family, and being a rich man with a famous name was almost all he really had to offer, lacking as he did the intelligence and public-mindedness of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Living up to a father bearing the sobriquet “the Magnificent” would have been difficult for a better man than the fatuous and low-minded Sfortunato, but Piero was simply unfit for the position he held. Kenneth Bartlett describes a familiar enough set of details in his short history of the period:

It soon became apparent exactly how limited Piero was. His distrustful nature alienated him from a great many of his father’s supporters and even members of his own family. His princely arrogance — really a sign of his own fear and insecurity — further angered the old republican patrician families who saw the roots of a monarchy developing. Any advice that counseled accommodation with the old elite or wide cultivation of the less privileged citizens Piero interpreted as a threat. He saw conspiracies everywhere, which resulted in his closing his circle of advisers and officials to a small group dependent completely on him, restricting his administration to those who expected favors and honors. He raised personal servants and insignificant guildsmen to important positions.

Piero had been a brawler and a braggart in his youth, and, like many would-be tough guys, he turned out to be weak and easy to roll when faced with a fight that wasn’t fixed. (Piero won his jousting tournament, too.) When King Charles VIII of France decided to march across Italy to claim the throne of Naples, the powers of the Italic League, in the absence of Lorenzo’s leadership, began looking to cut deals, and some of them even welcomed the invasion for their own narrow reasons, believing that their own political ambitions could be advanced with the support of a foreign power.

Piero did not know what to do. King Charles asked (“asked”) for Florence’s support, and needed to march across Tuscany to reach his destination. Piero dithered and then declared neutrality. In response, King Charles invaded, beginning with a massacre of Florentine troops at Fivizzano. And so Piero decided to visit the French king in person and negotiate with him, man-to-man and prince-to-prince. He immediately knuckled under to every French demand — and these were both costly and humiliating demands — and then brought the news back to his people, who were infuriated and took to pelting him and his entourage with rocks. Piero had not only shown himself a coward, but he also had negotiated without proper authorization.

As King Charles prepared to march his army through the middle of the city — for no real military purpose, just to dramatize proud Florence’s powerlessness — Piero tried to put together a military response. But he already had lost the confidence of his people, and they would not fight for him.

Many of the people of Florence had turned instead to the great and fraudulent moral awakening led by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who entranced the people with fake but very exciting prophecies and denounced the Florentine political and intellectual leaders for their privilege. Savonarola went about systematically destroying the visual testimony to that morally offensive privilege in the city’s great public and private places. Lorenzo’s patronage and cultivation had endowed Florence with a truly magnificent patrimony of humanistic art, and woke Florentines soon were burning those treasures in the streets — paintings, tapestries, musical instruments, and, of course, any books that offended the prohibitory new sensibility were consumed in a “bonfire of the vanities.” Botticelli is said to have put a few of his own problematic paintings on the pyre.

Piero was run out of town, and Savonarola took his place, promising to bring moral leadership to the long-suffering people of Florence, just as soon as he was done destroying all the offensive art. And the long-suffering people of Florence, after being disappointed by the friar’s unfulfilled promise to perform miracles and irritated by his decision to close down the brothels, hanged Savonarola and burned what was left of him.

Poor Piero! Of course, he couldn’t help being an idiot. He might not even have been able to help being arrogant, a bully, and a coward. He was just born that way. And he didn’t make King Charles VIII invade Tuscany! He didn’t create Savonarola! He couldn’t help it if the other Italian powers wouldn’t come to his aid! What did they expect him to do? It wasn’t his fault! He was just unlucky. And he was treated very unfairly. (No doubt he thought so.) Piero tried to rally his declining supporters a couple of times, and his attempts were pathetic. So he did what he thought he had to do and allied himself with his erstwhile enemy, the French, offering to help them win Naples in exchange for their aid returning him to power in Florence. The French were routed at the Battle of Garigliano, and Piero — oh, Sfortunato! — drowned in the Garigliano River while running away.

Words About Words

An epithet is not an insult or a term of abuse. Often, though not always, an epithet is a term of praise. An epithet is a byname — something more than a nickname but less than a title — a kind of description that attaches itself to a name or becomes a substitute for it: Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero il Fatuo, Piero il Sfortunato, Piero the Gouty (Sfortunato’s grandfather), Alexander the Great, the Man of Steel, He Who Must Not Be Named, Richard the Lionheart, Gray-Eyed Athena, the Gray Lady, Vlad the Impaler, the Prince of Peace, the City that Never Sleeps, “the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.” A personal favorite is Idi Amin’s epithet train: “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

Henry Fowler long ago noted that epithet was acquiring an “abusive imputation,” and he rightly interpreted that as euphemistic, employed by people who did not want to characterize ethnic or religious slurs as slurs. Euphemism is an enemy, a cunning one.

Rampant Prescriptivism

An epithet is distinct from a formal title, though we usually capitalize both. A title that a person holds in a unique and personal way, such as a royal title, is generally capitalized because the title is used as a proper noun itself, in place of a name, e.g. the Prince of Wales, the Patriarch of Antioch, the Duke of Normandy. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the mustelid collaborator is not identified in the text as Henry Stafford but as Buckingham, he being the Duke of Buckingham. Richard himself is Gloucester in the play, because he is the Duke of Gloucester. The president of the United States, in contrast, holds his position for a defined period of time, and the office is not attached to his person. But because our national manners have taken a turn toward ersatz monarchism and at times something very close to idolatrous deification of presidents, “President” on its own sometimes ends up being capitalized, especially in the prose of the worst of us. Nancy Pelosi, for example, wrote this over the weekend: “The questions that arise are: was the President briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed.” Pelosi gets it all sorts of wrong here — president should not be capitalized, but was should be, and the questions should end in a question mark: The questions that arise are: Was the president briefed? And, if not, why not? And why was Congress not briefed?

President Trump, who produces a great deal of illiterate prose, is a random capitalizer. He defended himself on that score in a tweet, claiming that the media likes to “pour [sic] over my tweets looking for a mistake.” He meant pore.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Home and Away

Joe Biden does not have a very promising field of potential vice presidents. (Not Vice Presidents.) And I wonder whether his insistence on choosing a woman makes him appear less creepy than he actually is or — incredibly enough — more creepy than he actually is. More in the New York Post.

Cancel culture and the newsrooms, an article by Megan Basham in World.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It’s the empathy-free reading you’ll want come election season.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Not everyone thinks Piero was a total tool. That is a conventional view, but it may not be entirely accurate. A very different account of Piero’s life can be found in Alison Brown’s Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Crisis of Renaissance Italy. Professor Brown of the University of London describes a Piero who is much more cultivated, intelligent, and engaged than he often is given credit for being. If you are inclined to dig into that question — and why wouldn’t you be? — Brown is a very engaging writer and one of the leading scholars of the period. And the world of the Medici and Savonarola is not very far from our own. When the great Tom Wolfe decided that journalism was no longer sufficient to tell the American story and turned his hand to fiction, the classic novel he produced was The Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola may have a new habit, but he’s the same old fraud.

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Politics & Policy

Managing Violence

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People walk between concrete barriers as protesters demonstrate against racial inequality and occupy space at the CHOP area near the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct in Seattle, Wash., June 16, 2020. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about politics, culture, language, and more. If you would like to subscribe to “The Tuesday” and get it in your in-box, follow this link. And now . . .

After the Police

The recent run of violence inside the hot zone of militia-occupied Seattle — a teenager has been shot dead, another man suffered life-threatening gunshot wounds, etc. — is the least surprising development of the episode. Of course there’s violence: You can call your dopey little Champagne Radical playground the Republic of CHAZ or the more Jacobin-aligned CHOP, but those are Americans in there — somebody’s going to get shot.

Every bad shooting by a police officer (and many of the justifiable ones) is taken to be an important and indisputable indicator of the corruption and racism of the corporate cultures of police departments. Will the militia in Seattle apply the same thinking to itself and the community it has created? If not, why not? Autonomy brings with it responsibility.

A state, as Max Weber defined it, is a geographically defined monopoly on violence. A state operates over a given territory, though the borders may be disputed, and it claims for itself the sole legitimate use of coercive physical force, though this monopoly may be violated by criminals or challenged by revolutionaries. A state has the power to tax, to impose fines, or to seize assets, actions that would be understood as robbery or extortion if undertaken by a non-state actor; a state has the power to arrest and incarcerate; i.e., to legitimately engage is what would otherwise be understood as kidnapping and hostage-taking. A state can put people to death through capital punishment, though relatively few modern states choose to do so, and states claim the power to legitimately put to death the citizens of other countries and destroy their property in war.

The word violence has taken on pejorative connotations. We are nice people, and we do not like to think too much about violence. And perhaps it is the case that violence is a lamentable means even when it is used toward desirable ends. It wasn’t persuasion that freed the slaves, and it wasn’t the Emancipation Proclamation — it was men doing violence under the flag of the United States, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, a statue of whom was just pulled down by the illiterate cretins in San Francisco. (What we are not talking about: More than a third of San Francisco’s black population has been driven out of the city since 1990, and it wasn’t General Grant who did that.) It was not rhetoric that ended the Third Reich and stopped the Holocaust — it was violence on a massive scale. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where you are secure in your person and your property (which is to say, not in Seattle), then you should know that it is not the milk of human kindness that keeps you so — it is violence and the threat of violence.

For libertarians, this provides a useful if very limited heuristic for judging limits on state action: If you wouldn’t be willing to walk over to your neighbor’s house and stick a gun in his face over the issue, then maybe you shouldn’t deputize the state to kick in his door and stick a gun in his face over the issue on your behalf. This is, of course, a very rough rule of thumb, and in the real world legislation and regulation are necessarily (really, it can’t be helped) far too complex to satisfy the more simplistic kind of moralistic demand. For example, I myself do not think that the state has any business sticking a gun in my face and telling me that I can’t buy a Toyota because it comes from Japan and competes with American (put a big ol’ asterisk there) companies employing American workers — if Americans want to sell me a car, let them build a better one at a better price. But the actual implementation of trade is complex: For example, the United States, Germany, and Japan do not have precisely the same automotive-safety regulations or the same emissions rules, and these are not in all cases unreasonable impositions. Coordinating complex design and production across multiple complex legal environments multiplies complexity by complexity. There is nothing as simple as Thou shalt not steal that will do in that situation.

Some of us may dream of one-sentence free-trade pacts (“There shall be free trade between x and y”) rather than the thousands of pages found in our actual trade compacts, but that ideal does not stand up to very much investigation: Are we permitted to impose restrictions when it comes to military equipment or sensitive intelligence technology? What about local reservations when it comes to materials for publicly financed infrastructure projects? Are programs that privilege veteran-owned businesses in government contracting a violation of free trade? Decisions have to be made, compromises have to be worked out, the fruit of those negotiations has to be written down, and, presto!, the USMCA runs 1,809 pages (1,572 pages for the text of the treaty, 237 pages of supporting material). Somewhere in all that mess is probably a footnote about the grading of soybean derivatives enshrining a regulation that I would not choose, in isolation, to see enforced at the point of a federal bayonet. But enforcing the terms of the treaty is a necessary function of the state, which necessarily acts, in extremis, through violence.

The violence-based model of organizing community life (or at least certain aspects of it) requires the employment of men with a capacity for violence. American Sniper popularized the “wolf/sheep/sheepdog” formulation, but there is a lot of wolf in a dog. (Canis familiaris is directly descended from Canis lupus.) Some of the things that might make you a good police officer or a good solider are also things that might make you a good criminal: capacity for violence, openness to risk, physical courage, aggression, etc. These are also characteristics that might make you more likely to resort to force, including deadly force, in a stressful and dangerous situation. Police forces disproportionately employ members of the prime criminal demographic: young men. Young men account for about 73 percent of all arrests and 80 percent of the violent-crime arrests.

Given the demographics, it is no surprise to find that police officers commit a lot of crimes both on and off the job. The total arrest rate for the general population is about 31 per 1,000, according to the FBI; the arrest rate for property crimes is about 3.6 per 1,000 and the arrest rate for violent crimes is about 1.6 per 1,000. (The bulk of the arrests are for things classified neither as property crimes nor violent crimes, from drug possession to unpaid speeding tickets.) By way of comparison, the rate for officers of the New Orleans police department is 44 arrests per 1,000 officers; in Milwaukee, it’s 37 arrests per thousand; in Norwich, Conn., it’s 62 arrests per 1,000 officers; in Hackensack, N.J., it’s 77 per 1,000.

This information comes from a report titled “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested,” by Philip Matthew Stinson, John Liederbach, Steven P. Lab, and Steven L. Brewer Jr. There are some caveats about that study that will be obvious to you if you read it, largely having to do with how incidents are compiled. As the authors themselves complain: “There are no comprehensive statistics available on problems with police integrity, and no government entity collects data on all criminal arrests of law enforcement officers in the United States.” The authors continue:

The lack of data on police crime is clearly a problem, since the development of strategies to mitigate police crime in the least requires that they be documented and described in some sort of systematic and generalizable manner. From an organizational perspective, more comprehensive data could provide comparisons among agencies on rates of police crime, and subsequently contribute to the development and implementation of policies to deter police crime and lessen damage to police-community relations in their aftermath. From a scholarly perspective, the collection, analysis, and dissemination of more comprehensive police crime data could instigate studies designed to identify significant correlates, explore relationships between police crimes and more general forms of police deviance, and provide information on how police culture and socialization potentially contribute to the problem. Scholars have yet to fully pursue these and other important issues associated with the problem of police crime because we lack any sort of comprehensive data on the types of crime that police commit and how frequently they commit them.

You can tell a lot about a society by what questions are not asked.

The authors of the study posit that police criminality is rooted partly in culture and partly in demographics. For example, a substantial share of police crime is alcohol-related: “Excessive alcohol consumption is certainly due at least in part to demographics and the over-representation of young males among police officers, in particular patrol officers. Men are more likely to have problems with alcohol than women, and alcohol use disorders are most prevalent among 18-24 year-olds.” Partly, the issue is situational: How many opportunities have you had to extort money from a drug dealer?

Most police crime happens off-duty, but, as the authors report:

The data demonstrate that the source of a significant portion of these so-called off-duty crimes also lies within the context of police work and the perpetrator’s role as a police officer, including instances where off-duty officers flash a badge, an official weapon, or otherwise use their power, authority, and the respect afforded to them as a means to commit crime. More broadly, the data show that police crime is not solely or even primarily the product of deviant or defective people; but rather, deviant or defective people who work within an occupational context that provides them unique and unprecedented opportunities to perpetrate crimes whether they are on or off-duty.

Another word for “deviant or defective people” is “people.”

Human destructiveness is not a problem to be solved; it is a problem to be managed. From the world of Leviathan forward, we have attempted to manage the problem of disorganized violence with organized violence in a framework of imperfect and imperfectly enforced rules and formal procedures of accountability. If the people who are calling for abolishing police — “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” as activist Mariame Kaba put it in the New York Times — succeed to any extent, they will face the same basic problems. Whatever innovative public-safety models they dream up (and I am open to many of these) will be handicapped by the same shortcomings that characterize current police practice, i.e., the presence of human beings in the system and the centrality of human judgment to that system’s operation. Kaba is selling the usual utopian horsepucky, a promise that the same people who have proved unable to reform police departments can reform the whole of human life, building “a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all?” We can answer that question, in a way: As a result of the so-called Great Society, we did put many billions of extra dollars into housing, food, and education for all. The result? Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland . . . Tinkerbell may look dead, but keep clapping! “This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately,” Kaba writes — you don’t say — “but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.” Perhaps they do show that.

And the murders in militia-occupied Seattle show that they can’t have it.

Incidentally . . .

About the foregoing, I will say this: If I were betting my own money on it, I would not bet on Donald Trump’s being reelected in November. But if there were an exceedingly clever conspiracy to get Trump reelected, it would look like what’s happening in Seattle right now, like Mariame Kaba’s daft New York Times essay, all these panicked Vox readers being stampeded into promising to disband the police departments, etc.

Words About Words

I suppose I should make it clear that when I publish a Q-and-A here, the Qs come from correspondents, and are not my words. One of last week’s exchanges seems to have caused a little confusion. My in-laws speak very good English, having the advantage of being Canadian.

Last week, I wrote about bombast and pseudo-intellectualism. If you work in journalism, and especially if you work in conservative journalism, and especially especially if you work at National Review, you will from time to time experience a very particular kind of bombast: the bad William F. Buckley Jr. impersonation. The temptation to try to write like Bill Buckley is very different from the temptation to try to write like (ahem) Tom Wolfe or David Foster Wallace, and it usually follows a predictable convention: consulting a thesaurus and inserting far too many adjectives and adverbs into a sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are the easiest thing to fake: You just write a regular sentence and then pile on some modifiers taken from Roget. That isn’t how Buckley actually wrote (far from it) and the deficiency of the method is obvious in the final product. This is a sample of prose sent in by a correspondent, who says it was written by a person with a doctorate, presumably in psychology. Enjoy:

Patient displayed a debonair nonchalance but otherwise displayed a consistently if prosaically invariable equanimity. . . . the case manager engages in a sedulous search for a parsimonious explanation for the patient’s vast array of phenotypically divergent behavior and intervenes accordingly . . .

Ye gods. There’s a lot more, but that’ll do.

Rampant Prescriptivism

From the headlines over at Slate: “Bob Dylan’s New Album Is His Best in Many Years, Maybe Decades: The Nobel winner’s latest is a masterful (and crude) collage from our greatest remix artist.” “Masterful” does not mean “masterly.” “Masterful” means in the manner of a master —  controlling and domineering. Bob Dylan is many things, but I do not think he is that. When it comes to “masterful,” think “taskmaster” or “overmaster” rather than “masterpiece.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

The Christian Science Monitor on the upheaval in America’s newsrooms. My best quotes never make it into the final cut, but you may enjoy the article.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Prepare to be outraged.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Yesterday was the feast day of Thomas More, a Christian martyr put to death by King Henry VIII. Kyle Smith and I discussed the famous film about him, A Man for All Seasons, in a recent National Review online event. (We are doing a lot of online events in lieu of our usual busy schedule of live events, with the plague and all.) The Thomas More story is familiar, as indeed it should have been to King Henry VIII: It essentially repeats the story of King Henry II and the martyr Thomas á Becket — two Kings Henry, two Chancellors Thomas, an unjust death, and ultimate triumph for the martyr and failure for the politician. Thomas Becket, who is my patron saint, got the slightly better film with Becket — it is hard to beat Richard Burton.

To subscribe to “The Tuesday,” follow this link.

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier draft of this newsletter was originally posted. It has since been replaced with updated copy.  

Politics & Policy

A Cloud of Possibility

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(Rudenkoi/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

I  do not surf, but I sometimes read The Surfer’s Journal, which contains beautiful photography beautifully printed and oddball little stories that provide a glimpse into a different world, as with Scott Hulet’s recent travelogue on surfing through cartel country in Sinaloa.

Similarly, I am not currently in the market for a €1 million-plus wristwatch, but I enjoyed Jack Forster’s recently republished Hodinkee essay on an incredibly complicated timepiece made by Vacheron Constantin, a piece of clockwork made with the goal of creating, as Forster puts it, “a single, harmonious mechanical representation of the astronomical cycles that dominate the human world from our perspective as inhabitants of the Earth.” I can just about conceptualize the mechanism by which a mechanical clock tells time, but I do not have the three-dimensional imagination to put together how a wristwatch only 43 millimeters across and not very deep can be built to calculate and display the time, the day and date in a perpetual calendar that never needs correcting, the phases of the moon, the tides, the relative positions of Earth, moon, and sun, the progress of the lunar day and lunar month, the tropical year (the time it physically takes Earth to orbit the sun, as opposed to a “civil year” of 365 days), the changing times of sunrise and sunset and the relative hours of light and darkness of the day, solstices and equinoxes, the “Equation of Time” (“the difference between a mean solar day of 24 hours, and an actual solar day, which thanks to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and the eccentricity of its orbit, can vary by as much as −14 minutes and 15 seconds, to +16 minutes, 25 seconds, at various points during the year,” Forster explains), sidereal time (time as indicated by the stars), and much more, including such relatively mundane calculations as how many hours of power the watch has remaining before it needs winding — this is a mechanical instrument, it bears repeating, not an electronic one. If you are planning on taking your €1 million-plus timepiece on a jet ski, it is reasonably water-resistant.

(The vagueness of the pricing, “more than €1 million,” I noted in an earlier edition: There is an infinity of sums greater than €1 million.)

This is, incredibly enough, not even the most complex watch ever made, having a mere 16 complications vs. 57 for another made by the same company, a pocket watch that, among other things, calculates the date for Yom Kippur on the Hebrew calendar.

These are not objects made with practicality in mind, and practically everything they do could be done as easily with a 99-cent app on your telephone. They are not useful in the sense that surfing is not an efficient means of travel. Mechanical watches and clocks are archaic technology, and like many such outmoded tools, they live on as luxury goods. In fact, it often is the case that the more outdated a piece of technology is, the higher its ranking as a luxury good: Classic cars are for people with a little bit of money, but horses are for people with a lot of money. Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, has been buying up West Texas ranchland.

What is the value of “a single, harmonious mechanical representation of the astronomical cycles that dominate the human world from our perspective as inhabitants of the Earth”? I am generally in the camp of George Mallory, who was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest and famously replied: “Because it’s there.” Dazzling displays of human ingenuity are of interest and value in their own right, as illustrations and reminders of just how it was we dragged ourselves up out of the primordial muck and landed on the moon. Oscar Wilde insisted that “all art is quite useless,” and I mostly agree, though I reject the generally overlooked part of that formulation: “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” I know a surprising number of men whose passion in life is not classic sports cars but classic tractors, and there are few things more useful than a tractor. But why do we admire those little machines that Forster writes about so lucidly? They are, in themselves, only gears and springs and such, and we have grander reifications of human intelligence and ambition than these, if we want them.

A few years ago (the article seems to have disappeared into the mists), I wrote a piece for National Review about orreries, which are little clockwork models of the solar system that were items of fascination in the Middle Ages and still are collected today. A famous early one was built by a man known as Giovanni Dondi dell’Orologio. (Lest you think that agnomen was merely an honorific given to him for his advances in clock design, know that he was the son of Jacopo Dondi dell’Orologio, a doctor, astronomer, and clockmaker of Padua, author of De fluxu atque refluxu maris, an influential work on tides.) Human beings love models: Little boys (and many grown men) play with model railroads, little girls play with dollhouses, adults with modest ambitions may sketch out floorplans of houses they would like to build, adults with less modest ambitions design model cities, and the worst sort draw up plans for model societies, clockwork utopias in which everything is rational and orderly.

Orreries and other complex clockworks speak to something very deep and ancient in us. What was original sin after all but that the idea that we “should be as gods,” and hold the universe in our hands like a machine of our own creation, that we can wind or modify at will — that we can perfect? We cannot perfect ourselves, but we can perfect a trivial bit of machinery, and that gives us the illusion of omnipotence. It’s magic: In the old legend of Roger Bacon’s “Brazen Head,” the line between mechanical engineer and wizard was blurry at best.

The simplest model of the atom could be displayed accurately as a relatively simple piece of clockwork, a very simple orrery-like model in which one spherical body orbits another. But the model is not the real thing, with the electron in orbit around the nucleus like a little solar system but existing in

a form that can only be described as a cloud of probability. The electron possesses both kinetic energy and momentum, yet there is no motion. The cloud is perfectly static. The electron does not “orbit” the proton at all — it surrounds it like a fog. The most critical difference between a real electron and a classical particle is that a real electron does not exist in any one place. All it has is a certain probability of being here as opposed to there, which the illustration shows with darker and lighter colors (darker means more probable). If you decided to catch the electron using some kind of hypothetical scoop, then you could wave your scoop through the probability cloud and an electron might appear inside it — and then again, it might not.

The planners and designers need, for their purposes, a universe that looks like a machine, but the actual universe more closely resembles a cloud. This is true (or so my physics teachers assured me) at the quantum level, and it is true at the social level. A machine universe can be tuned, reconfigured at will, and endlessly engineered. The movements and development of clouds can be projected only in a very general way and managed only in a general way. Some people have a gift for blowing smoke rings, and that is about the best we can do.

A political orientation that accounts for the genuine complexity of human social life (including the physical reality on which our social structures are built) must be modest in its expectations and forgo grand plans to reorganize community life along purportedly rational lines that, properly understood, are not rational at all. Testimony to our hubris is everywhere around us, from the coronavirus epidemic to the failure of our city police departments and the crisis of unfunded liabilities in pensions and entitlement programs.

There is not a single, harmonious mechanical representation of the forces that dominate the human world. The belief that a government (or a nation or a community) can be made into a well-oiled machine compounds the error of believing that any of these things is a machine in the first place.

Words about Words

Q: “If “golf” is not a verb, then how do we get the word “golfer?”

A: Only the Ancient Mariner knows.

Q: Why has the phrase “more importantly” been almost wholly replaced with the incomplete sounding (to me) “more important”? Example: “Capitalism is generally a good thing.  More importantly, it is better than any other system man has come up with throughout history.” If I substitute “more important,” it sounds wrong to my ears.

A: “More important” is usually what you’re looking for, because you are talking about the fact rather than the action; capitalism isn’t superior to socialism in a way that communicates importance, but the fact that capitalism is superior to socialism is important, as the 100 million people who perished under socialist experimentation and brutality in the 20th century attest. As a guide, just ask yourself whether you are looking for the adjective important or the adverb importantly. Anthony Fauci does important things, and Donald Trump does things importantly.

A related issue:

Q: When did it become common practice for people to say, “I feel badly,” rather than “I feel,” as in “I feel bad about the way things worked out.” I regularly grit my teeth when I hear this, particularly from new extended family members. I want to say, “I feel badly” actually means “I am not very good at the action of feeling say, the difference between an orange and a baseball.” Trying in the gentlest way possible to point this out only leads to blank stares. Someone once created a kind of compound term for this kind of peculiar, grandiose, and inflated type of incorrect expression, but I cannot track down the descriptor.

A: I think that one is a straightforward consequence of the fact that we do not educate students in grammar; if you deny them the formal tools of understanding English (such concepts as adjective and adverb) then they cannot think clearly about the language. Maybe the word you are looking for is “bombast,” a much-misused word that some people use to mean highly emotional speech but which actually refers to speech that is artificially formal or elevated in its style, affected in the hope of making a good impression. The textbook example is “thusly,” which apparently was first used as a satirical example of bombast (thus already is an adverb and requires no -ly) but quickly made its way into widespread usage.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Last week, I wrote about stray apostrophes, sometimes used illiterately to make (rather, in an attempt to make) plurals or even present-tense verbs: “Love Trump’s Hate,” the sign read. A reader writes to ask about the case of single proper nouns ending in s. There has long been a convention of using only the apostrophe rather than both the apostrophe and the s in such circumstances; I believe the Associated Press stylebook used to specify it. My own practice is to use apostrophe-s in all circumstances unless there is a strong idiomatic reason to do otherwise, as in “for Jesus’ sake” or “Achilles’ heel.” But “the Court of St. James’s.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

Home and Away

Tom Wolfe wrote of “mau-mauing the flak catchers.” And now we are Mao-Maoing them, too, in our little half-assed Cultural Revolution. More in the New York Post.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Prepare to be outraged.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

A little bit from “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”

To sell the poverty program, its backers had to give it the protective coloration of “jobs” and “education,” the Job Corps and Operation Head Start, things like that, things the country as a whole could accept. “Jobs” and “education” were things everybody could agree on. They were part of the free-enterprise ethic. They weren’t uncomfortable subjects like racism and the class structure — and giving the poor the money and the tools to fight City Hall. But from the first that was what the lion’s share of the poverty budget went into. It went into “community organizing,” which was the bureaucratic term for “power to the people,” the term for finding the real leaders of the ghetto and helping them organize the poor.

And how could they find out the identity of these leaders of the people? Simple. In their righteous wrath they would rise up and confront you. It was a beautiful piece of circular reasoning. The real leaders of the ghetto will rise up and confront you . . . Therefore, when somebody rises up in the ghetto and confronts you, then you know he’s a leader of the people. So the poverty program not only encouraged mau-mauing, it practically demanded it. Subconsciously, for administrators in the poverty establishment, public and private, confrontations became a ritual.

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Media

Ochs-locracy

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People line up for taxi across the street from the New York Times building in New York City in 2013. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The case for firing New York Times opinion editor James Bennet was the almost unrelieved mediocrity of his pages. Instead, they fired him for cooties.

The Times’s opinion pages have long been the worst thing in a very good (by no means perfect) newspaper, America’s RDA-exceeding daily dose of insipid liberal conventional wisdom. It is where you go to watch Charles Blow’s long, slow slide into a journalism of exclamation points (“Stop Airing Trump’s Briefings!” “No More Lynching!”), though the Times’s style guide presumably will prevent his descending into the all-caps Facebook Dad mode of very very angry typing. From the intellect of Paul Krugman, who is famously in possession of a Nobel prize in economics, the Times has managed to extract only the shallowest and lamest kind of barstool partisanship (“Republicans Don’t Want to Save Jobs,” “Good People Can’t Be Good Republicans”). Jamelle Bouie? Elizabeth Bruenig? I like avocado toast as much as the next guy, but that’s an awful lot of the stuff.

(There are a few bright spots and individual writers worthy of praise, but I don’t want to damage anybody’s career over there.)

The purported cause of Bennet’s forced resignation was his decision to publish a guest column by Senator Tom Cotton, in which the Arkansas Republican called for the use of federal troops to quell riots in U.S. cities under the terms of the Insurrection Act. To publish such a thing was to endanger the lives of black Times employees, according to staffers who came for Bennet’s scalp. That is, of course, preposterous.

Here’s the thing: There actually exists in our federal law something called the Insurrection Act, which really does empower the president to deploy federal troops in certain situations, and there really was a national debate about whether the recent riots originating roughly in Minneapolis provided a legitimate occasion for invoking the Insurrection Act, which has been relied upon in convulsions ranging from desegregation (President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to deal with violent defiance of Brown) to the Los Angeles riots that were underway back around the time Maureen Dowd wrote her last interesting column. Tom Cotton is a U.S. senator and a former infantry captain who sits on the Armed Services Committee. He is also a graduate of Harvard College, where he was on the editorial board of the Crimson, and a graduate of Harvard Law, so his spelling at least is probably pretty reliable.

I do not agree with Senator Cotton about the Insurrection Act; my belief is that the act is dangerously permissive and an invitation to abuse, and that it would be better to reform or repeal it than to invoke it at this time. Senator Cotton has a view that is different from mine and, presumably, different from those of most of the Times’s editors. But he is precisely the guy from whom you would commission a guest column on the Insurrection Act if you were interested in publishing an opinion section in which the relevant national issues of the day might be read about and debated, something that a newspaper with national aspirations would do — if it were in the journalism business.

But what appears in the Times opinion pages mostly is not journalism. It is half-assed political speechwriting with better pay and less accountability. The thing about good advocacy journalism is it’s still supposed to be journalism, intellectually honest and intelligently engaged with the events of the time and the arguments touching them. The Times opinion pages are full of advocacy but contain very little journalism. Most of the Times’s opinion writers seem to operate under the assumption that putting the word “opinion” at the top of a page is a license to abandon intellectual standards and honesty.

That is what was so maddening about watching Bennet attempt to grovel his way out of being fired by appending a groveling editors’ note to the Cotton column, denouncing its purported factual inaccuracies (none of any substance are cited) and its “needlessly harsh tone.” The Times’s editors do not give a fig about factual inaccuracies or needlessly harsh tones in the opinion pages; about this we can be fairly confident. Professor Krugman, for example, makes things up — specifically, he assumes the existence of facts that bolster his prejudices. When these fictions are shown to be fictions — for example, here — the Times makes no effort at all to correct the record or to acknowledge that the claims presented as fact are fabrication.

The intellectual laziness, dishonesty, and flaccidness of Times opinion writing on Bennet’s watch ought to have been addressed some time ago. (My own occasional offers to help the Times out with that problem have not been fruitful.) But the bosses at the Times were perfectly satisfied with that sad slop bucket of mediocrity — and why shouldn’t they be? In spite of the president’s wishful sneering about the “failing New York Times,” business has been pretty good over there. On the Times opinion pages, providing comforting constituent service is the business model. What got their attention was publishing a perfectly ordinary column on a live issue written by a sitting senator whose position and résumé put him at the center of the national debate — it was interesting and relevant, and, therefore, unbearable.

The basic problem was not what Senator Cotton wrote — the problem was Senator Cotton.

This only makes sense if you understand that the Times staffers who forced Bennet’s firing understand themselves to be a political operation rather than a journalistic operation. Senator Cotton is a Republican — you will not find the Times firing anybody over publishing a guest column by a Democratic senator. Senator Cotton is, like practically every Republican in the Senate save Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, a very enthusiastic supporter of President Trump and his policies. He is, therefore, The Enemy. And why would a partisan political operation give voice to The Enemy? The role of an opinion section is to foster debate; the role of a political operation is to win the debate, not on the merits but by simply excluding The Enemy from the debate in the first place. The strategy is to try to make certain ideas unspeakable and to make certain unwelcome speech into a “safety” issue. Of course, that forces one to defend such nonsensical propositions as the one that a senator from one of the two major political parties is somehow not only outside the mainstream (though what in hell is wrong with publishing something outside the mainstream from time to time?) but so far outside the mainstream that it cannot be published in the pages of the New York Times.

This is only partly a question about “platforming” and “deplatforming.” It is not the case that Senator Cotton’s purportedly dangerous words would not be able to infect the mind of the public without the cooperation of the New York Times. He is a senator, and so he has a pretty big bullhorn when he wants one. The ritual denunciations of Joe Rogan and J. K. Rowling are not limiting their reach. At a much less rarefied level, when The Atlantic fired me for what currently passes for moral turpitude, I wrote about the experience in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, considerably larger forums than The Atlantic, and then published a book about contemporary ochlocracy. There are more people paying attention to Senator Cotton today than there were a month ago. This is not about reach: This is about who sits at what table in the great junior-high cafeteria of American public life. Senator Cotton has cooties, and the idiot children of all ages at the New York Times live in terror of such cooties.

James Bennet published great heaps of pap in his days at the Times. He lost his job for publishing something moderately interesting and potentially useful. That is the sort of thing that happens when an institution such as the Times abandons self-respect in favor of self-importance — a lamentably common avenue of degradation in contemporary American life that diminishes everything from the newspapers to the universities to Congress.

You know who could probably write a really good column on that? Tom Cotton.

Words About Words

Here is one that is new to me: Apparently, there is some controversy about whether golf can be used as a verb. On this question, the blood is running hot and the dudgeon is high, with one correspondent insisting that the expression “going golfing” is illiterate, that the only permissible form is “playing golf” rather than “golfing.” A little snooping around suggests that this is, dictionaries be damned, a live dispute among golfers, who are an odd bunch.

A little grammar review.

There are three “verbal” forms in English: participles, gerunds, and infinitives.

Participles, which are verbs that sometimes act like adjectives, come in two flavors: the present participle and the past participle. The present participle usually ends in -ing: Burning Man, the woman riding the bicycle, “The Vanishing Pavilions.” The past participle usually ends in -ed or -en: Broken Spoke, beaten path, forgotten realm, debased currency, mashed potatoes, Burnt Norton.

The -ing present participle form is the same in the gerund, which is a verb used as a noun: Texting in a theater is bad manners; Walking is good for you; I am bored by talking to lawyers.

The infinitive form in English consists of the word to and the base form of the verb. It is used as a noun (To be or not to be; To err is human), an adjective (not a man to be trifled with; “A Time To Kill”) or an adverb (To win, he needs 270 electoral votes).

So golfing looks like a pretty straightforward gerund: Golfing is something Republicans used to do. But that begs the question. (To beg the question is to assume facts not in evidence; it does not mean to raise the question, although someone who points out that you are begging the question may be raising the very question that is begged.) If golfing is a legit gerund, then golf must be a legit verb, which is the proposition some golfers deny: They insist that you do not golf but play golf. The answer to the question of whether golf is a bona fide verb of respectable vintage is not straightforward, because the etymology of golf is uncertain. The etymologists say that golf probably is related to the Dutch kolf, meaning club or bat, which is used as a verb (kolf, kolfen), though the oldest English uses of golf is recorded in Middle English, before the existence of the game of kolf. What we do know is that the use of golf as a verb goes back centuries, whereas the objections to its use as a verb seem to be relatively new, and the kolf/kolfen pattern suggests a parallel in golf, golfing. And we use similar words similarly: club/clubbing, bat/batting, etc.

One interesting read on this is that in English we use -ing forms with going to describe experiences, often recreational activities, that are to be comprehended as a whole. For example, going shopping doesn’t just mean the transaction that happens at the register, going hunting doesn’t just mean the shot, and, presumably, going golfing refers to more than whacking little white balls — the whole experience of getting dressed up in ridiculous clothes, the social aspect of the game, etc. So we do not go pokering (even if “This Is How We Vegas”) or backgammoning, but we do go golfing and balling, except that we usually pronounce the sport of balling Romantically rather than Germanically and go bowling (from the Old French boule).

Rampant Prescriptivism

A much more straightforward issue is the rampant abuse of apostrophes, which properly are used to form possessives and contractions, not plurals or present-tense forms. The formulation “Love Trump’s hate,” for example, does not mean what the sloganeer meant it to mean.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

The gentlemen at Bournbrook, a British conservative magazine, have very charming accents that you might enjoy, and you can listen to my conversation with them here.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Prepare to be outraged.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

It is interesting that, in our time, the self-proclaimed partisans of diversity and inclusion are those who practice the most ruthless politics of conformism and exclusion, in much the same way that the cretins in Portland who claim to be worried about “fascism” feel compelled to . . . dress up in black uniforms and boots and roam the streets committing acts of violence against members of political minorities and, occasionally, members of racial minorities. Because we are in the thick of it, it is sometimes difficult to remember that hatred and pettiness will only carry these miscreants and grifters so far, because going farther requires something more than hatred and pettiness — and they don’t have it.

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U.S.

Justice and Neighborliness

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Law enforcement officers stand guard as protesters hold up signs during a rally against the death of George Floyd in Washington, D.C., May 31, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

For reasons that do not bear going into here, the mostly forgotten novelty singer C. W. McCall came up in conversation with my brother the other day, and I ended up watching the 1978 film Convoy, which was inspired by the McCall song of the same name. In the late 1970s, truckers were the new cowboys, and Convoy is a kind of slapstick Western that pits admirable but law-breaking truckers against corrupt police officers. It ends with Kris Kristofferson’s antihero (known by his CB handle, “The Rubber Duck”) attempting to perpetrate a suicide bombing against a bunch of cops and soldiers blocking a border crossing into Mexico. A silly movie like Convoy can’t end like that, so instead a deus ex machina contrivance delivers the cops and the soldiers and the Rubber Duck, too, to safety. Even so, it is a rousing ode to lawlessness and terrorism — and the most popular film of Sam Peckinpah’s career.

Speaking of movies . . .

When Harvey Weinstein was sued by several women who claimed to have suffered sexual harassment or sexual assault at his hands and put some tens of millions of dollars on the table to settle the complaints, some blockheads denounced the accusers as women who “just want money” rather than genuine justice. The same thing was said about people who reached settlements with Michael Jackson after accusing him of sexually abusing them as children. The criticism begs the question. Who says that justice cannot take the form of money? Who says justice cannot take the form of other kinds of compensation?

Consider a less emotional kind of offense: Imagine that a powerful business executive had defrauded me of $100,000. That’s a lot of money. Now, imagine that I also had him dead to rights on the fraud and was ready to go to the police, when he made me an offer: What if he returned my $100,000, plus interest generously calculated for the time I was deprived of my money, plus $1 million in further restitution. Would I, the victim of the crime, rather have my money back plus $1 million, or spend months and years watching an uncertain criminal case build to a climax that might — might — end up looking something like six months in jail plus probation? I’d take the $1 million. Some people would look at that as the rich being able to buy their way out of criminal accountability; I’d look at it as the victim of a crime getting justice in the form of something that left him better off, rather than justice in the form of something that did not leave him better off. If one of Weinstein’s victims would rather have a check than add a little to his prison time, who are we — who are any of us — to tell her that she is wrong?

I am an optimist with a generally libertarian view of the individual’s relationship to the state, and for a long time I had very high hopes for private justice, by which I do not mean the abolition of the state and its legal mechanisms but the supersession of it by more fruitful alternatives in some circumstances. Many good-faith disputes already are better handled in voluntary arbitration than through the traditional courts, especially when they involve highly specialized matters with which judges and juries are sure to be unfamiliar. Many kinds of hurt and suffering cannot be undone, simply locking offenders away in cages is not always the best course of action for the victim or for society at large (and those interests may not be identical), and other alternatives often are preferable. There is a question of balancing restitution, rehabilitation, and deterrence. But there are also the more fundamental questions: Does this leave the victim better off in real terms? Does it make the general society safer?

Private justice can go wrong easily and dramatically, as events in the past few weeks have shown. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with laws permitting citizen arrests in certain circumstances, but that can quickly turn into bloodthirsty vigilantism, as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery. For a less lethal example, think of the case of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper and that now-infamous Central Park confrontation. Christian Cooper was practicing a form of private justice: People are supposed to keep their dogs on leashes in the Ramble, Amy Cooper did not comply, and Christian Cooper, who had prior experience with this problem, was carrying dog treats, promising Amy Cooper that he was going to do . . . something, and “you’re not going to like it.” (I disagree with my friend Kyle Smith that this was an obvious threat to poison her dog; the threat was vague and might have meant any number of things.) Christian Cooper was practicing a pretty benign form of private justice in lieu of calling the NYPD every time somebody failed to leash a dog. Amy Cooper, who clearly did not like being called out on her petty offense, threatened to call the police and say that she was being threatened by an African-American man. Many of her critics insist that this was her in effect seeking to have him assassinated; if that really is the case, then the problem is the NYPD, not Amy Cooper, and it is not going to be solved by the personnel department at Franklin Templeton, with its uneven sense of justice.

(Franklin Templeton is much more forgiving of much more serious offenses if you happen to be the son of one CEO and the brother of two others.)

The case for private justice is, in part, that if we can resolve a private dispute without dispatching men with guns to the scene, then we are better off doing so; but if we are better off doing so because our law-enforcement authorities cannot be trusted to behave in a less than willfully homicidal fashion, then we have a problem that private justice is not going to solve.

Which brings us to Minneapolis and beyond. My friend and colleague Andy McCarthy believes that it took too long to arrest and charge Derek Chauvin in the case. (Indeed, Andy was registering this complaint on a National Review podcast when the arrest was announced.) I do not have Andy’s criminal-justice background (he is a former federal prosecutor, of terrorists among others), but it did not seem to me that the few days it took to arrest Chauvin was an unbearable delay of justice. One wants the authorities to move with some deliberation in these matters.

We might consider the rioting and the arson, then, as another attempt at private justice. One theory of the riots is this: Believing, with good reason, that the police will seek to protect their own and that officers who break the law will enjoy considerations that that typical offender would not, that racial injustice is systemic, and that reform is unlikely or impossible in the foreseeable future, the disorder and destruction is understood as a kind of fine on society at large. These riots fail as an attempt at private justice on the fundamental grounds: They do not leave the specific victim (or, in this case, his survivors) any better off, they do not actually advance the project of reforming police practice, and they leave society worse off, especially in the case of many of the communities on whose behalf the protesters purport to agitate. Of course it is the case that most of the looters and hell-raisers are not thinking things through in these terms, but I am not sure that really matters to our understanding of the situation.

Criminal violence as social sanction is not an unfamiliar idea: The theory of the riot is a lot like the theory of lynching, another violent crime that once was excused as rough justice. Lynching is a stain on American history, but there are other examples of criminal acts used as social sanction that were and are generally tolerated and sometimes even celebrated. In his famous essay on animal-trespass law, “Of Coase and Cattle,” Robert Ellickson found that the ranchers of Shasta County, Calif., rarely sued one another for damage caused by stray animals. Rather than sue one another or file legal complaints, the ranchers generally engaged in forms of private justice that had almost nothing to do with the formal assignment of rights and obligations under the actual law. This was made possible by a norm of “neighborliness,” reciprocity, and long-term relationships with repeated personal interactions, which make pettiness socially awkward. When there were actual legal disputes, Ellickson found, those cases normally involved newcomers who had not been habituated to community norms or situations in which one of the parties believed the other to be acting dishonestly and dishonorably, for example with one rancher going to law because another “had not only deliberately trespassed, but had also aggravated the offense by untruthfully denying the charge.”

But legal means were not the only means, and they were not the preferred means. These law-abiding, neighborly ranchers would also resort to unquestionably criminal acts.

Another common response to repeated trespasses is to threaten to kill a responsible animal should it ever enter again. Although the killing of trespassing livestock is a crime in California, six landowners — not noticeably less civilized than the others — unhesitatingly volunteered that they had issued death threats of this sort. These threats are credible in Shasta County, because victims of recurring trespasses, particularly if they have first issued a warning, feel justified in killing or injuring the mischievous animals. Despite the criminality of the conduct (a fact not necessarily known to the respondents), I learned the identity of two persons who had shot trespassing cattle. Another landowner told of running the steer of an uncooperative neighbor into a fence. The most intriguing report came from a rancher who had had recurrent problems with a trespassing bull many years ago. This rancher told a key law enforcement official that he wanted to castrate the bull — “to turn it into a steer.” The official replied that he “would have deaf ears” if that were to occur. The rancher asserted that he then carried out his threat.

This is roughly the equivalent of someone vandalizing your car for being illegally parked in front of their house. We had some neighbors’ guests pull accidentally into our driveway instead of our neighbors’ over the weekend, and we would have been perfectly happy to have them park there — we like our neighbors, and we have reciprocal ongoing relations with them that smooth over the little frictions that proximity brings. But much of modern urban life, with its institutional attitudes and endless bureaucracies, is not very well suited to cultivating the neighborliness that Ellickson wrote of, and that is especially true of relationships across cultural, racial, and class lines, which, given the fallen nature of human beings, are almost always more difficult than relationships among people who are like us.

Which brings me back to Convoy: It was made less than a decade past the worst bout of political violence and civic unrest the United States had seen since the Civil War, and almost exactly ten years after George Wallace had prefigured Donald Trump’s promise that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Convoy was itself part of a cinematic convoy, a little peloton of films such as Smokey and the Bandit glorifying charismatic outlaws who triumphed over wicked cops, fat old white men played by such actors as Ernest Borgnine and Jackie Gleason.

Many conservatives have noted accurately that the same progressive media figures who had their dresses over their heads about the anti-lockdown protests engaged in practically yogic exertions to put the violence and looting in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the best possible light and to give the most sympathetic possible account of it. These same progressive solons heaped abuse on the Tea Party protests, which were portrayed as a lynch mob in waiting, and every other episode in which a Republican has stepped into his penny loafers and raised a placard, back to the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000. They are not wrong to note the double standard.

At the same time, it surely is the case that if Convoy were a 2020 film about black outlaws or pissed-off Arabs, it would not receive the kind of welcome it did when it was a cri de cœur from white (mostly) truckers, and poor old Sam Peckinpah would be run out of town as an America-hating so-and-so. Bias isn’t a plot against the public good — it’s a consequence of the fact that we all live inside the scanty space of our skulls.

We are not an entirely orderly people, we Americans. We live by a shared idea rather than shared blood, and more than any other people in the world are defined by a group of legal and political documents rather than by ancient consanguinity. We salute George Washington, but there’s a little Whiskey Rebellion in us, too, a little John Brown, a little Patrick Henry, a little μολὼν λαβέ — and we are a lot more tolerant of that among white people than among others, especially among African Americans. I want order in Minneapolis and elsewhere. I want people to be safe and secure in their homes and businesses. There isn’t any liberty without peace. The riots are not leaving anybody better off, but consider that video of George Floyd’s death: Does that look like peace to you?

We are looking for that peace, and the justice that sustains it, in different ways. As Ellickson wrote, one of the most common means of “self help” for people seeking justice through private means is gossip, which is, essentially, what those Twitter mobs are: weaponized gossip. One of the many shortcomings of weaponized gossip is that gossip need not be true: Ask Brett Kavanaugh, or the Covington kids, or the University of Virginia, or the Duke lacrosse team . . . A kind of private justice is what Christian Cooper was after with his dog treats, and then with the video that led to Amy Cooper’s losing her job for an incident in her private life that had nothing to do with her work. Destruction of property as a means of sanction? It is happening in Minneapolis and other cities right now. But it happened before, on a smaller scale, among those Shasta County ranchers, too. Why did they resort to that? It wasn’t a lack of courts or lawyers or police officers.

It was a lack of mutual respect, honesty, honor, and neighborliness — the priceless things that cannot be had for a sum of money or drilled up out of the ground but can only be cultivated, slowly, painstakingly, with great effort and in great humility.

Words About Words

A very enjoyable article by horology writer Jack Forster describes the price of a certain exotic wristwatch as “over €1 million.” I understand leaving a lot of room on the upside for a shocking price like that, but — and pardon my English-major math here — my understanding is that there is an infinity of sums “over 1 million.” €1.1 million? €11 million? A more irritating version of this is the combination of “more than” or “over” with a very specific figure: “Senator Snout has voted to raise taxes more than 23 times.” More than 23 — like 24? Or like 23 trillion? 

Rampant Prescriptivism

“Enamored with or enamored of?” asks a correspondent. Generally of, because enamored means “to be filled with love.” In American English, we often write with, probably under the influence of the phrase “in love with,” though in British English it is almost exclusively of. You can also write enamored by, but that means something different: If Paul is enamored of Susan, he is filled with the love of Susan. If Paul is enamored by Susan, he inspires love in Susan.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

Home and Away

About that Amy Cooper story: Franklin Templeton, the firm that fired her after being bullied into it by a Twitter mob, says it does not “tolerate racism.” It is more tolerant in other cases. Franklin Templeton went out of its way to see to the well-being of a scion of the firm’s founding family, who was named to the company’s board of directors after doing time for a felony assault that left his wife with broken facial bones. You can read all about it in my New York Post column. It is good that there is grace and forgiveness for wayward financiers and sons of CEOs. Perhaps some of that could be spread around a little more.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Prepare to be offended, outraged, shocked, appalled, vexed, irritated, and, I hope, entertained.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

The terrifying truth that we must keep in mind in troubled times such as these is that the world is what we make of it, a vast structure that we build one brick at a time with our own decisions. We can proceed with charity and grace, or we can proceed with violence and the threat of violence. The choice is yours and mine, as it always has been.

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World

Governance Envy

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New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern in Sydney, Australia, February 28, 2020 (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

On policy questions, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern is mostly on the naughty list.

Ardern is a Labour goober and former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, a kind of improved Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, although she has foresworn implementing a capital-gains tax, which puts the New Zealand socialist to the right of Senator Marco Rubio on at least one issue. In fact, a conservative looking at the New Zealand tax code — no capital-gains tax, lower top income-tax rate than in the United States, no inheritance tax, no payroll tax — might reasonably ask why it is that the Republicans in Washington can’t manage to be as pro-business as the crypto-socialists down in Wellington.

On the other hand, the Ardern government is implacably hostile to what we Americans understand as civil rights. As stated, mostly naughty.

But there is more to life than the tax tables, and I suspect that I was not alone in experiencing a moment of rueful admiration when Ardern, in the middle of a live television interview from the capitol, began to shake, or, more precisely, to be shaken, by an earthquake — and calmly continued the interview. She even made a quick little self-deprecating joke, noting that the “Beehive,” the executive building that houses her government, “moves a little more than most.” Wonderful sangfroid. At about the same time, the president of these United States was on Twitter claiming (it is a ridiculous fiction) that a talk-show host with whom he is feuding murdered a woman, another reminder that even in times of great national crisis — 100,000 dead in the epidemic and counting — Donald Trump cannot be trusted to stop himself from descending into pitiful buffoonery.

One of my little pet theories in life is that the Republican Party has been one of the most effective advocates for socialism that our country has seen since Jack London. It works like this: Republicans look at other liberal democracies abroad and denounce the ones that have higher tax rates or larger welfare states as “socialism,” and then young Americans visit Stockholm or Copenhagen or Amsterdam, discover that these are charming and generally well-governed cities in affluent happy countries with much to recommend them, and say, “Well, then, give me some of that socialism!”

There are three errors at work there: The first is that those “socialist” European countries that give Republicans the willies are nothing of the sort, and many of them have economic regimes that are in fact more robustly capitalist than our own. The second is that tourists generally see cities and countries at their best, and there’s a lot more to Amsterdam than the Rijksmuseum and the White Room — and not all of it is glorious. The third error, related to the second, is a kind of confirmation bias, in which our understanding of a foreign country, often vague and based on very limited experience, causes us to treat Denmark or Switzerland as a screen upon which to project our own desires and anxieties.

It is a different kind of Stockholm Syndrome.

Americans visiting the great tourist centers of Europe see people who are not as fat as we are, who aren’t screaming at their children, who are capable of riding bicycles without wearing spandex, who make us embarrassed about our general lack of facility with foreign languages, and cities that are cleaner than ours and generally less dangerous, trains that run on time, effective public administration, and other things that we must envy.

And that is not only true in Europe: The eight or ten minutes it takes to move from taxicab to the far side of the security screening at Hong Kong’s airport, one of the world’s busiest, provides just enough time to wonder why we do it so poorly at DFW or JFK. This is the stuff of one thousand Tom Friedman columns, and it is not the whole story, but it is part of the story. The current president of the Swiss confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga, is not a screaming crazy person (she is, I think, a kind of improved Elizabeth Warren) but, if she were a screaming crazy person, we probably would not hear very much about it, for the same reason that the eyes of the world are fixed on Saint Peter’s when there is a papal vacancy but the Methodists cannot break the front page (not even below the fold!) when they choose a new leader.

What do you do with a problem like America? Population 328 million or so, many of them bananas, GDP north of $20 trillion in a good year, about 800 military bases in foreign countries and territories, 3,800 nuclear warheads, Apple, Facebook, Coca Cola, Hollywood, Wall Street, a murder rate considerably higher than Pakistan’s and 30 times Singapore’s, possibly ungovernable and at any rate governed by criminals, but also the people who went to the moon and invented most of what is cool and useful in the modern world, the oldest democracy going with the oldest constitution.

We are the Cadillac of nations — which is to say, we can look a little creaky next to an Audi.

The so-called nationalists of the Right denounce progressive Europhiles as “rootless cosmopolitans,” resurrecting a ghastly phrase. But the neo-nationalists have more than a little in common with them — beginning with exhaustion. They talk American “greatness,” but they endorse American retreat. The Little Americans, like the Little Englanders before them, recoil from the outsized role the United States plays on the world stage, and they believe that the United States is in fact being victimized by its own ambitions and expansiveness. How many times have you heard some variation on this: “The Europeans couldn’t afford all that health care if they had to pay for their own defense!” That isn’t really true, but that doesn’t really matter. That is one of the stories we tell ourselves.

My friend Jay Nordlinger likes to quote President George H. W. Bush, who put himself in opposition to those who would prefer that the United States be only “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” Of course there is a financial burden to what the Pat Buchanans and Ron Pauls of the world, and quite a few of their notional antagonists on the left, call the “American Empire,” but there is also an emotional burden, a psychological burden, and a moral burden. When things go sideways in this unhappy world, nobody cries out in the dead of night: “For the love of God, somebody call the Dutch!” The allure of a non-interventionist or less-interventionist foreign policy is in no small part that it promises liberation from that burden. And that, too, is part of why some of us sometimes wish the United States could be a little more like Germany or Norway or New Zealand, a more “normal” country, one that does not have a finger in every possible pie, one that is not always the center of attention. It is easy to make too much of our troubles — Tom Wolfe dryly observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” But he was born in 1930, and I wonder if those born in 1990 are as confident or have reason to be.

Thomas Jefferson was famously enamored with the French. There was a very tense exchange between King George III and the first U.S. ambassador to his government, John Adams, in which the king suggested that Adams does not share that attachment to the “manners of France.” Adams replied that he had no attachment to any country other than his own. (The scene is beautifully dramatized in that famous John Adams series from HBO.) But, then as now, the French mode of life and government shed very little light on American affairs.

We Americans often compare ourselves to Canada and the United Kingdom and other countries with familiar Anglophone cultures. But Canada has fewer people than California. California and Texas have more people together than the United Kingdom. New Zealand has less than half the population of Los Angeles County. The United States has more illegal immigrants than Greece has Greeks or Belgium has Belgians. We think of the teeming populations of China and India, but the United States is No. 3 on that list, and No. 4, Indonesia, has a population that is 22 percent smaller.

Big. Rich. Bonkers. Does that sound to you like . . . Jacinda Ardern?

Words About Words

A correspondent asks: “What’s the deal with the ‘ins’? Why does ‘inflammable’ mean the same thing as ‘flammable,’ and ‘invaluable’ mean the same thing as ‘valuable’? ‘Infamous’ is neither used as an antonym for ‘famous,’ nor as an unqualified synonym. An infamous person is famous, but in a bad way.”

Here’s the deal.

Invaluable does not mean the same thing as valuable. Both valuable and invaluable things are precious, but valuable things are value-able, meaning you could assign a value or a price to them, whereas invaluable things cannot be meaningfully valued — they are priceless. A Vacheron Constantin wristwatch is valuable; the Notre-Dame cathedral is invaluable.

That which is inflammable is liable to inflammation, from the Latin inflammare.

Fame and infamy are another occasion of drift. Fame has long had a dual character, meaning both renown and, in some contexts, reproach. Fame in the sense of celebrity is pretty old, going back to the 13th century in English. The perceived need to have different words for good reputation and bad reputation goes back to the Latin infamis, meaning disreputable, which came to English through the French infamie.

Famous and infamous split in much the same way as notable and notorious, the latter of which did not acquire its negative connotation until fairly recently in English, from the 17th century on.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A request for a that/which refresher includes the sentence: “Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a practice (that? which?) ought to be avoided.”

On that/which, the relevant standard is the pertinence of the following clause, and a pretty good rule of thumb is that if you could end the sentence before the clause, then you usually use “which” after a comma. But it matters how hard you want to hit that latter clause.

E.g.:

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a practice that ought to be avoided. Fine.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a practice. Nope.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a dangerous practice, which ought to be avoided. 

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a dangerous practice that ought to be avoided.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a dangerous practice.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with danger, which ought to be avoided. 

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with danger that ought to be avoided. Also works, but means something slightly different.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with the kind of danger that ought to be avoided. 

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with the kind of danger. Nope.

The issue is restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause provides information that you need for the sentence to make sense, and a nonrestrictive clause doesn’t. A used car that you can rely on doesn’t come cheap. My car, which I bought a couple of years ago, is blue. There are three seats open on this flight, and the one that’s in first class costs twice as much as 37B, which is a middle seat. Or: I have one suit that is blue vs. I have one suit, which is blue.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Home and Away

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,here. Prepare to be outraged.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Elon Musk and Grimes have changed the name of their child. It was X Æ A-12, but California law requires that names be composed exclusively of letters. And so the world greets X Æ A-Xii.

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Law & the Courts

The Supreme Court Gets a Little Less Awful

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(Bill Chizek/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lyle Denniston, a legal journalist who began covering the Supreme Court in 1958 for the Wall Street Journal, is not happy about how the Supreme Court is conducting its business during quarantine, insisting that the current turn-taking arrangement “harms equal status of each justice, gives the [chief justice] arbitrary power, diminishes cross-bench exchanges, promotes wool-gathering by lawyers, prizes order over depth, lets technology triumph, [and] looks amateurish. If it is thought that this is the wave of the future, I’ll take decisions based solely on the briefs. To call this ‘argument’ is to impoverish the word.”

Each item on that indictment is worth considering, but one is of particular interest: the charge that the procedures put in place to allow the justices to work remotely — the traditional open format has been supplanted by a system in which the justices ask their questions one at a time in order of seniority — “looks amateurish.” (It certainly is not a triumph of technology; technology here has won by default.) The inclusion of that purely aesthetic criterion among the substantive political and procedural complaints is not by any means trivializing. The appearance of amateurism may be the most consequential entry on Denniston’s list.

Part of our political debate is over relatively straightforward things such as who gets taxed how much and what the money is used for. Some of our political discourse is simply the noise generated by the intellectual violence of complex issues being forcibly oversimplified. But much of our disagreement is about things we rarely speak to directly, including the cultural character of the state, what it looks like and feels like, how it sounds when it talks, what its manners are like. Among the many great fault lines in American life is the one that runs between small-r republicans such as myself who, for example, see the State of the Union address as a contemptible pseudo-monarchical spectacle unworthy of a free people, and those on the other side, including members of both parties, who desire majesty in government, who can’t imagine a free people managing their own affairs without a great deal of “oo ee oo aa aa, ting, tang, walla walla bing bang.”

This is a debate as old as the United States: Poor John Adams was savagely ridiculed for his often-caricatured belief that the president of the United States should be addressed by some exalted title. Adams had entertained “His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.” His preferences later escalated to “His Majesty.” (On this and much more, I recommend Richard Brookhiser’s great America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735–1918 and the very interesting The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality, by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein.) Adams’s worry seems quaint in retrospect: That the president would not be a sufficiently strong national figure, that he would get pushed around by the legislative branch, that his want of pomp and majesty would render him pitiable and impotent among the world’s princes.

The modern American presidency is the love child of Caesar Augustus and P. T. Barnum, no longer an administrative post but a sacral kingship. That is why our fights over it are so bitter. It isn’t that we don’t care about internal bureaucratic debates over interpretation of Section 4(b)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act or things of that nature, but it isn’t the question of due process under Title IX sexual-harassment procedures that causes some people to hate Betsy DeVos. They already hated her, they hated her from the moment they saw her, and 99 percent of the Left’s tantrum about the Department of Education under her leadership is simply backfilling in a rationale for that hatred. Democrats were wrong in their insistence that conservatives’ revulsion at Barack Obama was a matter of race, but they were correct that it was not primarily a matter of policy. Barack Obama, like Donald Trump after him, was a cultural totem and a signifier. If American democracy is Lord of the Flies as presented by C-SPAN, then the presidency is the conch — the power to dominate the conversation, the power to convene, a symbol of legitimacy. While one tribe glories in possession of that bauble, the other cannot bear being deprived of it.

The need for majesty is obvious from the king’s point of view. A kingdom is what you get once organized crime becomes a monopoly and by dint of age attains a patina of respectability — Mancur Olson’s “stationary bandit.” Thomas Paine had nothing but contempt for the belief that kings should be treated with some kind of awe:

This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin: whereas it is more than probable, that, could we take off the dark covering of antiquity and trace them to their first rise, we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners of pre-eminence in subtilty obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenseless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.

That is the use of awe: ensuring compliance, obedience, and civil quietude.

The Supreme Court’s appearance of amateurism diminishes its carefully cultivated sense of mystery — it functions as a Greco-Roman mystery cult, complete with ceremonial robes and occult knowledge available only to initiates — and that thins the awe it inspires in the American people.

Without that awe, certain previously unthinkable thoughts become thinkable.

The Supreme Court has handed down many illegitimate decisions over the years — Dred Scott, Roe v. Wade — that were illegitimate not because they produced horrifying outcomes (though many of them did) but because they were preposterous as legal arguments. But for the Left, the only time the Supreme Court’s legitimacy is in question is when the Left thinks it may not get its way. It has become an amusing media cliché, like “Republicans pounce!” It is never the Left’s policy agenda that is in peril, but only the Court’s legitimacy — or John Roberts’s reputation, as preference dictates. Justice Kagan has argued that the Court suffers from a “legitimacy deficit” and that the proper response is to frankly politicize the Court and move it in her direction, which she of course calls “the center.”

(The center of what, exactly?)

Roe is a textbook example of outcome-oriented jurisprudence, the Queen of Hearts model of legal reasoning. And yet we are expected to abide by it — and Supreme Court nominees are expected by Democrats to affirm the sanctity of it — even though it is, as every honest person knows, legally indefensible, a purely political decision. But purely political decisions are the order of the day, especially when it comes to the so-called liberals on the Supreme Court. John Roberts and Clarence Thomas may surprise you from time to time. The late Antonin Scalia often followed the law to places where his political preferences would have preferred not to wind up. But will Elena Kagan ever surprise you on anything of real consequence? Sonia Sotomayor? To ask the question is to answer it. They are party-line voters, and they might as well not even show up at the courthouse. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has in recent years abandoned any pretense of being anything other than a bare-knuckled political operative and a tribune who understands her role on the Supreme Court as making good on policy deliverables for the Left at every opportunity.

So, the question is: How many illegitimate decisions can a court make before we question the court’s legitimacy?

And that is where awe is really, really useful to people who would rather not talk too much about that sort of thing.

Words about Words

Some of my conservative friends have been mocking this passage from a Washington Post profile of Stacey Abrams, one of the women under consideration for the vice-presidential spot on Joe Biden’s ticket.

Pandemonium ensues as she walks to the far left of the stage, like a runway supermodel, stops on a dime, poses, tilts her head slightly and smiles. Camera flashes explode. She next pivots and walks slowly to the center of the stage, freezes there and repeats the pose. Again, the flashes explode. Abrams is summoning her inner actress, and she is both enjoying the moment and getting through it to get to the conversation.

Stephen Miller asks, rhetorically: “How is every journalist employed by the Washington Post not named Jennifer Rubin not completely embarrassed by this Stacey Abrams profile. [sic] How does something like this even make it past editors who care about their reputations?” Well. The profile, by Kevin Powell, is indeed friendly. But what, exactly, is wrong with the passage above? As an editor, I would have taken out “pandemonium ensues” and “on a dime,” but such clichés are not unusual for American print journalism. As for the rest of it — that’s what happened, no?

I suppose Powell could have written, “Before being seated, Abrams stood on stage and briefly posed for photos.” But would that have been accurate?

Public events have moods and emotional resonances of their own, and communicating those is part of good reporting. I’d have made some edits, but from what Powell wrote I can see in my mind’s eye exactly what happened. Powell’s livelier prose probably offers a better feel for what actually happened than a blander account would have. The Post and the Times generally prefer dry, dull prose in the mistaken belief that such boring writing denotes seriousness. But the people who come out to rallies and campaign events mostly are not bored — they are excited. The reporters may be bored, and the political professionals may be bored, but if the crowd was hopping and if Stacey Abrams was doing a supermodel impersonation on the stage, then that’s what actually happened.

It is in fact very difficult to write an accurate and complete report of a campaign rally or similar event without including one or two things that make the star of the show look good — these events are designed to do just that. That is one reason many reporters do not spend very much time writing about such events. (I like to cover an event like that every now and then, because sometimes you actually see something worth writing about.) But if you are going to write about what happened, then you are going to write about what happened. If you are going to ask people questions, then you are going to report what they said.

Most of the objections and criticism that one hears of these pieces amounts to, “But I hate that person! And they’d never be that nice to somebody from my party!”

Alrighty.

The Washington Post writes from a generally progressive (and much more specifically Democratic) point of view. It is going to have bias problems whether its writers are aggressively boring, as so many of them are, or interesting, or if they are just trying to be interesting, as in Powell’s case.

One of the many downsides of the current situation in which American journalism has been almost completely colonized by opinion and commentary is that media partisans are obliged to adopt and defend ridiculous positions. Donald Trump Jr. can smear Joe Biden as a pedophile and it is all good fun, but a Washington Post writer doing a magazine profile tries to write what he saw at a public event, and we’re all supposed to be shocked and outraged by it.

And so the moronization of our political discourse continues.

Sometimes, young people ask me what they should do if they want to go into opinion journalism. I tell them to go cover the police beat in Philadelphia or the school board in Albuquerque for a couple of years, and hold off on the commentary writing until such a time as they know something about something. But much of our professional commentariat has skipped that step.

Maybe get off the sidelines and off your asses and try doing some journalism.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Several correspondents ask for a vitriolic denunciation of “should of,” “would of,” and “could of.” Do not write these. The mistake is understandable: We like to use contractions, and, in spoken English, should’ve is indistinguishable from should of. If you cannot tell which of those a person is saying, then assume it is the right one.

Speaking of spoken English, that’s oral English, not verbal English. Those words do not mean the same thing. Verbal applies to words in general, oral to words that are spoken. An unwritten contract is an oral contract; every contract is a verbal contract, i.e. a contract composed of words.

Speaking of composed of — it’s never comprised of. The parts compose the whole, the whole comprises the parts, and comprise can generally be used interchangeably with include — and you’d never write “included of.” The musicians compose the orchestra; the orchestra is composed of musicians; the orchestra comprises many different kinds of instrumentalists.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

Home and Away

The Obama administration’s abuse of counterintelligence powers in the service of parochial political interests follows a familiar pattern from his administration, e.g. the abuse of the IRS for similar ends. The curators of Barack Obama’s legacy insist that his administration was free of scandal — but what it was free of was accountability. More in the New York Post.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America,” at Amazon and other retailers.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Sarah Vowell has written one of those “Woe is me, a Democrat in a red state!” columns in the New York Times. It is a pretty good exemplar of the genre. Vowell begins: “The only reason to be a Democrat running for statewide office in Montana is that, alas, you are one.” About that: The two highest statewide offices in Montana currently are held by Democrats, Governor Steve Bullock and Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. Presumably, reelection is a reason to run, too. The governor before Bullock was a Democrat. So were the two lieutenant governors before Cooney.

Montana’s state house is Republican, but it’s a 58–42 split, not a Republican fief. Vowell is unwise to suggest that Democrats “assume that everyone you talk to is a Republican or an independent.” Democrats had a majority in the state senate as recently as 2009.

John McCain beat Barack Obama by about 2 points in Montana in 2008; Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, barely managed to get a third of the vote there in 2016. Maybe Mrs. Clinton was the problem. That certainly was the view from much of the country.

Ross Perot did pretty well in Montana in 1992 and 1996, getting 26 percent of the vote and 13 percent, respectively. Montana likes third-party candidates: Fighting Bob La Follette got a bigger share of the vote there running against Calvin Coolidge than Mrs. Clinton did running against Donald Trump.

Maybe Montana isn’t that Republican.

But that’s the power of the totemic presidency. Like Montana, Kentucky is a “red state” in the popular mind even though Democrats ran the state house from 1921 until 2017, even though it has a Democratic governor, even though it has a Democratic lieutenant governor, etc.

All that matters is fealty to the Big Kahuna, His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Snout, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Arkansas in General and Toad Suck in Particular.

Economy & Business

It’s Destruction, Yes — But Is It Creative?

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A worker cleans an empty hall in Industry City, N.Y., where the shops have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, March 26, 2020. (Stephen Yang/Reuters)

“I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine. I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine.” So sang Tennessee Ernie Ford in his recording of Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons,” a surprise hit in 1955.

That song is an interesting mess of elements that shouldn’t work together: Travis’s semi-autobiographic miner’s lament delivered in Ford’s smooth, classically trained baritone, the singer’s tough-guy posturing complemented by a pretty bad-ass riff played on the . . . clarinet.

Merle Travis came from coal-mining people in Kentucky; Ernest Jennings Ford was a man of the middle classes, a former radio announcer who studied singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. The arc of his life is a familiar one: He went away to war and came home to seek — and find — his fortune in California. “Tennessee Ernie” was one of his radio personae, a stereotypical hillbilly. (The cheerful contrivance of these personalities was part of the charm: Louis Marshall Jones became “Grandpa Jones” when he was in his twenties.) Ford lived the American Dream: If you have a decent off-road vehicle and a few jerry cans of gasoline, you can camp out at his former retreat in the Nevada wilderness, well past where the blacktop ends. He died of liver failure after a state dinner with President George H. W. Bush.

The working-man hero of “Sixteen Tons” was and is a staple of American popular culture. From Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” to the Dropkick Murphys’ “Boys on the Docks,” the poets of the American scene have long sung of the heroic virtues of work, perseverance, and endurance. Merle Haggard’s working man liked to “drink a little beer in the tavern,” while the Dropkick Murphys’ battered hero finds peace in sobriety — and more work, summing up his program in “Paying My Way”: “Wake and pray, work all day.”

Work is the original curse — “the curse of the drinking classes,” Oscar Wilde called it, inverting the proverb. That tradition is very old: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” an unhappy Adam is informed on his way out of Paradise. The workers of the world, Karl Marx informs us, are in chains.

Or maybe work is the original blessing. When asked about the secret of his success, there is a chance of about 94.6 percent that any celebrity will answer: hard work. They will forswear possession of any special talent and insist, with a great deal of pride, that they simply outwork the competition.

Will Smith: “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. You know, while the other guy’s sleeping? I’m working.” Louis C. K.: “I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work.” Lucille Ball and a thousand thousand other entertainers have said much the same thing. Entrepreneurs, too. Ray Kroc: “Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.” Thomas Edison (perhaps): “The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.” And politicians, e.g. Margaret Thatcher: “I’ve got a woman’s ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it.”

You hear less of that happy talk from coal miners. Merle Travis’s narrator in “Sixteen Tons” won nothing for his labors: “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Noel Coward insisted that “work is much more fun than fun,” but he belonged to that class of people who, in P. J. O’Rourke’s memorable formulation, are seldom seen to “lift anything heavier than money.” And lifting 16 tons of that is a labor of love.

“The lot of man is ceaseless labor,” T. S. Eliot wrote. “Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder.”

Idleness can be very enjoyable, provided three things: (1) It is voluntary; (2); it is temporary; (3) you have all the money you want.

My sometime National Review colleague Kevin Hassett, currently serving as White House economic adviser, tells Face the Nation that he expects unemployment to hit something “north of 20 percent.” This is the result of — what do we call it? Is the coronavirus epidemic a “natural disaster,” or is it a public-health crisis made far worse than it had to be by the incompetence and corruption of the government in Beijing and by imperfect policy choices in capitals from Washington to London to Stockholm? The idleness enforced by the coronavirus shutdown is not voluntary, and most of those affected need income. It will be temporary — but how temporary?

In mid March, I suggested that the federal government adopt a policy of directly subsidizing the wages of lower-income workers for the duration of the shutdown. This appealed to me as an emergency measure for several reasons: For one, having idled workers able to rely on their regular paycheck (or something close to it) for the duration of the epidemic seemed likely to be more effective than sending “stimulus” checks willy-nilly; maintaining the relationship between employer and employee would make it easier to return to normal when — if — such a thing became possible; recognizing that this mass unemployment is the result of necessary government action rather than organic economic changes and addressing that situation in a full and forthright way would help to achieve popular buy-in for what was always bound to be a controversial set of policies; and, finally, the most likely alternative is spending the same money or more in the form of unemployment benefits, which are paid to people who become unemployed — the very thing we are trying to minimize.

Should we be trying to minimize that?

Many progressives have held up Denmark as a counterexample. (Denmark is a very popular counterexample for progressives: It is a happy, healthy, well-governed country with high taxes and a relatively large welfare state, a useful if limited datum to bring into conversation with conservatives who sometimes talk as though it were impossible for such a thing to exist.) Denmark’s strategy was to put its economy into a kind of hibernation for the duration of quarantine measures, with the national government subsidizing up to 90 percent of the wages of workers who might otherwise have been laid off, while offering struggling firms direct assistance to meet other costs while their usual revenue streams are dammed up by artificial but necessary barriers to doing business. The United States has spent trillions on stimulus and other measures, and the unemployment rate still is expected to hit Great Depression levels. Denmark’s unemployment rate at last measure was about one-third the U.S. rate. Denmark, too, has spent a ton of money, but if unemployment is our metric, then there is a lot to say for the Danish model, at least with the evidence that we have at hand right now. The usual caveats — the United States is not much like Denmark — apply here.

There are two ways of looking at this. One would be to embrace the Schumpeterian “creative destruction” with which we are faced: There is a new reality, no amount of wishful thinking will change that, and the genuinely humanitarian approach would be to let businesses and industries adjust — through failure — as quickly as they can to this new reality, while providing support for the unemployed and newly incomeless through the ordinary instruments of social welfare, from unemployment benefits to food stamps. A second view would be that we have adopted an unprecedented set of emergency measures in the face of a genuine national and worldwide crisis, that there is a big difference between businesses that have been shut down by government order and buggy-whip makers on the eve of the automotive revolution, and that what our economy is faced with is not “creative destruction” but destruction pure and simple.

There are millions of Americans who want and need to work but cannot find it. We need them to work, too, not because of some abstraction called “the economy” but because of the millions and millions of real-world daily tasks and exchanges that we talk about when we talk about “the economy.” It is important that people get paychecks, but it also is important that the work be done — jobs are a means, not an end. The point of hauling up those 16 tons of coal wasn’t to produce a paycheck for miners — it was to produce energy from coal, for heat and power and for all the things that come from heat and power.

Unemployment north of 20 percent is going to be very hard on the unemployed. But it is going to be hard on everybody else, too. That’s the paradox of capitalism, the vicious cutthroat arrangement by which we learn how best to serve one another, in which we talk about competition as though we were hyenas fighting over the last scraps of a wildebeest but act like people who are working together to provide for ourselves and one another. Adam Smith did not write a book about marketing, management, or entrepreneurship — he wrote A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Words About Words

A correspondent asks: Why isn’t there an adjective form of integrity, in the word’s sense meaning good character?

There are two common adjectives related to integrity: One is integral and the other is integrated. Neither of these is normally used to describe someone having a good character, though integrated is sometimes used to describe a positive aspect of someone’s character or personality. Carl Jung wrote of the desirability of having an integrated personality, and in the Catholic world one sometimes hears about priests or seminarians having an integrated vocation or, alas, a poorly integrated vocation, commonly in respect to celibacy. Integral touches on the edges here, too: Certain New Age cranks used to speak of integral psychology and still speak of integral theory and integral yoga.

Integral is attractive to cranks because it sounds science-y, like macrobiotic or homeopathic, two great big flashing neon signs advertising quackery. Larry Niven wrote a science-fiction novel called The Integral Trees, which, if I remember correctly, was about a race of aliens who lived in gigantic trees floating in space rather than on a planet as such.

What we have here is a noun that has evolved from its literal sense of intact or whole when applied to physical characteristics into a metaphorical sense of upright or correct when applied to someone’s character. The word has in fact shifted back and forth over the years, and not only in English. The Latin in tangere, meaning untouched, is the root, and the Latin adjective integer meant both whole in the physical sense and upright in the moral sense. So, we do have an adjective, just not in English.

The melding of the physical and the moral senses of similar words remains pretty common in English, as in the dusty (and maybe even now offensive in many circles) characterization of a young woman “with her virtue intact.”

Rampant Prescriptivism

Another correspondent asks: In what way is a preexisting condition different from an existing condition, or a pre-order from an order?

Preexisting, I’ll grant you. And it is related to one of the great nonsense phrases of our time: “insuring against preexisting conditions,” which is like placing a bet on last year’s World Series.

Preorder may be a little irritating, but I think it serves a legitimate function, describing a situation in which you can order something before it is available for delivery (see below!) or ordering something in a way that is otherwise out of turn, for example preordering a dessert soufflé in a restaurant that needs extra time to prepare it, as diners sometimes are asked to do, or preordering an airplane meal rather than ordering from the . . . dare I write stewardess? . . . on the plane. I think the pre does some useful work there.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

Home and Away

Speaking of (pre?)orders: You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America,” at Amazon and other retailers.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Wednesday is the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. As Franciscan Media puts it, during that famous visitation “Mary asked the children to pray the rosary for world peace, for the end of World War I, for sinners, and for the conversion of Russia.” I think it is almost safe to say that World War I has come to an end. Maybe not. If it is the case, as some historians say, that the two world wars were in effect one big war with a long intermission, if the Cold War was in effect a continuation of World War II with the victors fighting for postwar dominance, if, as David Frum argues, the Cold War never really ended . . . . History is very short, looked at the right way, and the work of prayer is never done.

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Politics & Policy

Some Free Advice for AOC

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Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, N.Y.) in Washington, D.C., July 10, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is feeling a little blue. One sympathizes.

In her first year in office, Representative Ocasio-Cortez showed all the signs of someone making the callow error of believing her own publicity: She was arrogant, vain, petty, foolish, and vindictive, to say nothing of embarrassing and ignorant. You remember: “We’re in charge — and you’re just shouting from the cheap seats,” it’s more important to be “morally right” than “being precisely, factually, and semantically correct,” her cocksure illiteracy on Middle Eastern issues. Perhaps you would have done a great deal better if you had taken a seat in the House at 29. I am not confident that I would have.

Since then, she has suffered a one-two punch: She arrived in Washington thinking she was going to be a force for radical change but ran into the immovable object that is Democratic complacency, discovering that she was an idealistic young Latina representing the Bronx and Queens in a party run by Nancy Pelosi and other rich old white people who like things the way they are — politicians second, socialites first. And then she learned that a great many of the non-white middle-to-lower-income voters she believes to be her semi-private fief do not share her taste for socialism and boutique radicalism on the Bernie Sanders model and threw their support to Joe Biden instead.

She was the only Democrat to vote against the $484 billion coronavirus bill. This troubles her.

“Our brains are just designed to experience a lot of excruciating pain at the idea of being alone,” she tells the New York Times, in an excellent profile written by Mark Leibovich. “When you cast those lonely votes, you feel like your colleagues respect you less, and that you are choosing to marginalize yourself.” Naturally, she lapsed into her self-romanticizing mode, imagining herself starring in a movie called The AOC Story: “I walked home in the rain,” she said. Of course she walked home in the rain. “I was very in my feelings, big time, and I felt very discouraged . . . . I was just, like, heartbroken,” she said. “I have, like, existential crises over it.”

Those final “likes” make mockery all too easy. But take her seriously for a moment.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holds an elected office, but she is not a creature of politics — she is a creature of media, from cable news to Twitter. She has much more in common with fellow New Yorkers Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly than she does with such House predecessors as Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill. And even as she imagines adolescent little cinematic vignettes for herself, soulfully walking home through the rain and all that silliness, she is not the lead writer on The AOC Story — only an actress. She cannot control the media story arc any more than anybody else can. “I felt like my colleagues were making opinions about me based on Fox News,” she told Leibovich. “It almost felt like instead of them actually talking to the person who was next to them, and physically present in front of them, they were consuming me through television. And I think that added a lot to the particular loneliness that I experienced.”

Like most people in the media business, I am familiar with what she is trying to talk about.

We are all caricatures in the monkey-minded discourse of social media and cable news. The human brain has only so much processing power, and so we tend to shove people into categories and then to treat them categorically rather than understand them as individual human people with individual human minds, just like us. (That is the subject of my book The Smallest Minority.) The first category we are inclined to push people into is “Enemy.” If you are on the enemies’ list, then that is all we need to know about you. Everything else can be tailored as necessary. As William Makepeace Thackery put it in Vanity Fair: “One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.” That’s the root of the Left’s “Everybody who disagrees with me is a racist!” canard. Ocasio-Cortez, who indulges in that sort of thing herself all too often, should give that some thought. She is part of the problem.

A very few politicians are the sort who do not need politics. Senator Ben Sasse, for example, seems to enjoy politics, but he does not seem to need it. You get the sense that he could be happy doing any number of other things with his life. George W. Bush would have had a great life if he’d never been a governor or president. Condoleezza Rice has made it very clear that she does not need politics. Daniel Patrick Moynihan never quite gave himself over to elected office. But much more common are the Lyndon Johnson type, the Hillary Rodham Clinton type, the Al Gore type, who desperately need to act out their dramas in the theater that politics provides for them. They are the sort of people who fear that they will stop existing if people stop paying attention to them — tedious in a party guest, crippling in a political class.

“Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth,” Mohandas Gandhi advised. Some people find that advice easy to accept but difficult to live. To be alone can be hard. It is difficult to learn to be appropriately indifferent to criticism, but it is even more difficult, and even more necessary, to learn to be appropriately indifferent to praise. Representative Ocasio-Cortez has obviously enjoyed her 15 minutes of Warholian celebrity and has developed a mild addiction to praise — not from the people dying in droves in her district in New York City, but from the man on the television, the faces on social media, the New York Times, the celebrities. She liked doing those fashion spreads with Kerry Washington. And who could blame her?

But unless she learns to meet praise and criticism with exactly the same scorn, she will never be of any real use to the people in her district, who have been dying of COVID-19 in shocking numbers.

And surely they deserve an occasional thought, too.

Words About Words about Words

My friend Bruce Wolf writes: “Kevin Williamson has a section on usage (or is it diction, or both?) in his Tuesday newsletter. Of course this is snobbery. And everyone wants to be a snob.”

Does everyone want to be a snob?

What do you think of when you think of a snob? Thurston Howell III? “David Choke” in Upload? William F. Buckley Jr.?

Maybe. But the true sense of the word communicates something a little different. Think Madonna or Kanye West, or any orthodontist in Scottsdale with a coat of arms on the gates of his home, men who monogram the cuffs of their shirts, and, above all, those who have very strong objections to the tastes and interests of other people.

Snob comes to us from an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning shoemaker. A snob is not a member of the aristocracy who lords it over the little people but an arriviste, a person from a common background — a person who, angels and ministers of grace defend us, worked for a living! — who, having acquired some wealth or status, apes the manners and tastes of the class into which he imagines himself to have been newly incorporated. A snob is a person who, having been invited for drinks at a club to which he almost certainly will never himself belong, turns up his nose at Veuve Clicquot with the words, “How pedestrian.” (True story.) A snob cannot believe that you like that music or that television show. A snob takes no pleasure in cultivation or refinement except to the extent that these separate him, in his imagination, from the lower classes.

Some of you may remember Madonna’s awkward period of affecting a British accent or may roll your eyes at the artistic-aristocratic pretenses of the West-Kardashian clan. More recently, we witnessed the excruciating efforts of Donald Trump to associate his family with the British royal family. Michael Jackson named his first son “Prince,” whereas Trump went down the ranks of nobility and settled on “Barron,” which is also the surname of the president’s imaginary friend and sometime press agent, John Barron.

Washington is a city of snobbery down to its literal foundations, with all that ridiculous overblown architecture meant to help Americans reassure ourselves that we are every bit as good as the Belgians. (Brussels really does have some grand public spaces.) People with no particular gift for architecture who design their own houses often end up being misled by snobbery.

So, I do not think it is correct, as Bruce writes, that everybody wants to be a snob. Many people want to be what it is a snob wants to be, not what a snob is. But he is correct that you would have a much easier time indicting someone like me on charges of snobbery than you would, say, Bill Buckley.

One last thing on those shoemakers: If you want some truly choice language-snootery, consult Wired’s interview with Jacob Ferrato, a sneaker-customizer turned designer. Ferrato takes issue with being called a cobbler, telling the interviewer: “A cobbler repairs shoes. I’m a cordwainer: somebody who makes shoes.” It is worth being precise in describing the work of a man who can successfully sell a pair of sneakers for several thousand dollars.

Also: There is a folk etymology holding that the word snob comes from the Latin sine nobilitate (“without nobility”) but that is not the case. 

Rampant Prescriptivism 

Well, well.

As predicted, many of you nun-haunted hobgoblin hunters got your snoots crooked over the sentence, “That suitcase weighs more than her.” “She!” came the chorus, fevered and mad, strangely angry.

As most of you know and many pointed out, we typically use the nominative case in sentences of that kind because of the implied verb: “That suitcase weighs more than she [does].” And if you were to see a 120-pound woman struggling with 150 pounds of bag in the airport, you would be perfectly correct to exclaim: “Look at the size of that suitcase! It must weigh more than she!” Perfectly correct, but perfectly preposterous. Correct in the sense that a dinner jacket is correct evening wear, but as preposterous as wearing one to a 6:30 p.m. dinner at Denny’s. If you say, “That suitcase probably weighs more than she!” I am going to expect you to be wearing an homburg, if not a monocle.

(And to say, “an homburg.”)

There are instances in which the implied verb needs to be considered: “He talks to Jason more often than me” does not mean the same thing as “He talks to Jason more often than I.” But there also are many instances in which a superfluous verb adds nothing to the sentence or even confuses it: “That suitcase weighs more than 100 pounds weighs” would be a very strange sentence. “He finished the race ahead of him — he’s faster than he” is an example of Perfectly Correct Bad English, the kind of goblin talk that gives rampant prescriptivism a bad name.

If you really want to dig into the underlying question (which is the use of than as a preposition), then I recommend starting with this 1949 article from The English Journal.

This is rampant prescriptivism, not preposterous prescriptivism. Of course, I am happy to acknowledge that there are many authoritative sources you may consult that are, in the great pecking order, above me, over me, higher than . . .

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com. 

Home and Away

On the horrifying events at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993, historical and dramatized:

One of the great losses at Mount Carmel, beyond the unnecessary and therefore unforgivable loss of human life, is that David Koresh and the others who died there were never put on trial — and neither was the ATF. (A handful of Branch Davidian survivors were convicted on charges ranging from voluntary manslaughter to resisting arrest; civil suits by survivors against the authorities have mostly come to nothing.) Instead of the gold standard of a criminal trial under American law — imperfect but nonetheless one of the great unsung achievements of American life — we got the Danforth report, a dozen competing narratives warped by political allegiances and motivated reasoning, paranoia, myth, self-reinforcing biases, and a great deal of dishonest bureaucratic ass-covering. And so the wound remained open, and festered.

From the print magazine: Why does homeschooling bring out the inner tyrant in so many nice progressives?

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America,” at Amazon and other retailers.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

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In Closing

Funny thing about snobbery: The insecurities that cause it very often exist only in the mind of the person afflicted. In that Times profile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says this about her time at Boston University: “The first week everyone was asking each other, ‘What school did you go to?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, public high school.’” Public school! Her anxiety was unfounded: The great majority of BU students, about two-thirds of them, come from public high schools. The great majority of freshmen admitted to the Ivy League colleges come from public schools, too. But The AOC Story needs some drama, and she is committed to the character she has chosen for herself.

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U.S.

Rashness and Revolt

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President Donald Trump arrives to lead the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 23, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and revolt.
— Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Manifesto of Futurism,” 1909 

For years, I wrote that the American Right has a philosophy, while the American Left has only an enemies list.

The Left’s enemies list has mutated as the socioeconomic center of American progressivism has shifted from labor unions and poor cities to the commanding heights of businesses and culture, from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and “Which Side Are You On?” to the American Bar Association and Fleabag. A generation ago, radical feminists and gay-rights activists were quite frank in their desire to destroy the institution of marriage, the traditional family, and the culture built on top of those arrangements. Contemporary progressives instead have settled into rank and comfort, secure behind the walls of their invisibly gated communities. Defining the limits of respectability is, in fact, the central mode of contemporary progressive politics. Contemporary American progressives do not engage with conservative ideas or nonconforming political opinion — they simply attempt to define those as infra dig and outside of the boundaries of that which polite intellectual society is obliged to consider.

The Right has reciprocated, in its way. And that is a big part of what the Trump phenomenon is all about: so-called nationalists who despise the commanding heights of American culture, politics, and business, along with the institutions associated with them. Hence the bumptious anti-“elitism” of contemporary conservatives whose creed is “American Greatness” but who sneer at the parts of the country where most of the people and the money are, who sing hymns of national glory while abominating the East Coast, the West Coast, the major cities, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the major cultural institutions (and, indeed, high culture itself as effete and elitist), the political parties, trade associations, broad swathes of the economy (“financialization”), newspapers — even the churches, as conservative American Christians (from Catholic to Evangelical) embrace a new antinomianism based not in religion but in the politics of cultural resentment.

None of this really comports with the facts on the ground in that “Real America” we hear so much about on talk radio. In the real America, rural farmers are part of a very large and complex network of industrial and scientific innovation, international trade, and business innovations made possible by the “financialization” dismissed by populists Right and Left. American farmers rely on scientific work done at elite universities, on technology from Silicon Valley, on high finance, and — horrors! — on international trade, not least trade with China. Some of them employ a fair number of immigrants, too. The American farmer is as much of a “rootless cosmopolitan” as any Connecticut hedge-funder or California code monkey.

If your project actually were “American Greatness,” then these facts would have to be taken into account. (A bit of humility would help, too: Do you really think you know what share of the U.S. work force should be engaged in manufacturing vs. finance vs. everything else? How did you come to know that?) The real world is complex, and it is not neatly fitted to either ideological notions or tribal allegiances. But if your project is takfiri politics — creating an enemies list and casting your antagonists into the outer dark — then all that matters is denigrating Harvard or the New York Times or Facebook or Elon Musk, because what you are involved in is not nation-building but only a status game.

There is much that is in need of reform in American life. But reform is not very much in fashion among populists, who are ensorcelled by the much more exciting prospect of revolution — and destruction. (Conservatives should be suspicious of excitement.) These remixed Jacobins are part of King Henry VIII’s “mass that . . . follows anything that moves.”

(That’s King Henry VIII the character from A Man for All Seasons, not the historical English king.)

And we have seen their kind before, for example in the Italian Futurists. The Italian Futurists were contemptuous of institutions and tradition — and of their ancestors and heritage — eager for epoch-defining conflict, big on he-man “alpha male” posturing (“contempt for women” was one of the virtues listed in the “Manifesto of Futurism”), cultishly nationalistic, partisans of “energy and rashness,” Year Zero thinkers dismissive of all that came before them. The Futurists engaged in sophomoric romantic posturing (“Our hearts were filled with an immense pride at feeling ourselves standing quite alone, like lighthouses or like the sentinels in an outpost . . .”), celebrated conflict (“We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world”), and pledged to “demolish museums and libraries.” They asked, rhetorically: “Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?”

Familiar stuff, as was their adolescent rhetorical climax: “Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!”

The stars, I cannot help but notice, are still there.

Human progress and American greatness stand on a foundation of much less exciting work: amending a law to make it a little bit more just, improving crop yields a little bit year after year, the monotonous grind of fundraising and committee-sitting for worthwhile things, teaching literature and history to one callow teenager at a time, raising good children, doing jobs that are difficult, thankless, and obscure.

These are things done by grateful people. Revolutions are hatched by the other kind.

Words About Words

Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet, translated by M. A. Crawford, contains some wonderful old English words. The story concerns the competition for the hand of the titular heiress. A scene: “He kissed Eugénie on both cheeks and offered her a workbox with fittings of silver-gilt. It was a trumpery enough piece of goods, in spite of the little shield bearing the initials E. G. carefully engraved in Gothic characters, a detail which made the whole thing appear more imposing and better finished than it in fact was.”

I cannot recall another instance of trumpery being used as an adjective. The noun trumpery, which means something that appears to be of value but is not, has gone through several iterations. As you might guess, it is derived from the French root trompe, meaning “deceive,” as in trompe l’oeil, a style of decorative painting that creates an illusion (e.g., painted-on paneling or millwork, or a painted landscape seen through a painted window), or the great Pixies album Trompe le Monde (“fool the world”). Its subsequent sense of superficial showiness is based on that underlying sense of deceit. Merriam-Webster defines trumpery as “worthless nonsense” or “trivial or useless articles” or “tawdry finery.” The last of these is described by the Merriam-Webster editors as “archaic.” To my eye, the word is archaic in general — but very useful nonetheless. It is due for a comeback.

Because trumpery suggests the name of the current president of the United States, some fun has been had with it by the president’s critics, to the extent that Snopes felt obliged to create a “trumpery” entry in which it affirms that, yes, that is a real English word that means showy, deceitful, worthless, and fraudulent. Snopes really leans into it, in fact, listing these synonyms: balderdash, baloney, bilge, blather, claptrap, codswallop, drivel, foolishness, garbage, hogwash, humbuggery, stupidity, tommyrot, and twaddle.

The need for words such as trumpery will outlive the political career of Donald J. Trump. This is a golden age of trumpery. A word I write frequently is meretricious, meaning “superficially attractive or impressive but having no real value.” Meretricious comes to us from the Latin meretrix, “prostitute,” and its oldest English meaning was “pertaining to prostitutes and prostitution.” It came to mean something like trumpery in that it describes that which is painted, done up, and adorned in a superficial way. In a more general sense, it means pretentious. Both trumpery and meretricious carry a denotation of tawdriness but emphasize the deceptive and superficial character of the attraction.

We need honest language for deceitful times, precise language for vague ones.

Rampant Prescriptivism

I received a full bouquet of complaints about my use of incentivize last week. “Isn’t that the kind of pretentious corporate managementspeak you criticize?” Yes, it is. It is possible to write about language, and manners, and morals without implicitly offering up oneself as a model of perfection.

In other news . . .

I’ve been asked to address then vs. than. I am not entirely sure this is a question of rampant prescriptivism: Most literate English speakers know which is which, and my impression is that this is more often a simple typo than a genuine misuse of words. But, that being written: Then is an adverb having to do with time, meaning next in order or in a sequence. It also is used to mean consequently, usually following a clause introduced by if: “If you can’t afford it, then you shouldn’t buy it.” Both of those uses are related to its sense of following. Than is a conjunction or preposition having to do with comparisons: “He writes more than I do” or “That suitcase she is dragging through the airport weighs more than her.”

There is some controversy here. From Merriam-Webster:

After 200 years of innocent if occasional use, the preposition than was called into question by 18th century grammarians. Some 200 years of elaborate reasoning have led to these present-day inconsistent conclusions: than whom is standard but clumsy • T. S. Eliot, than whom nobody could have been more insularly English — Anthony Burgess; than me may be acceptable in speech: a man no mightier than thyself or me  — William Shakespeare; why should a man be better than me because he’s richer than me — William Faulkner,  in a talk to students; than followed by a third-person objective pronoun (her, him, them) is usually frowned upon. Surveyed opinion tends to agree with these conclusions. Our evidence shows that than is used as a conjunction more commonly than as a preposition, that than whom is chiefly limited to writing, and that me is more common after the preposition than the third-person objective pronouns. In short, you can use than either as a conjunction or as a preposition.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com. 

Home and Away

Sun Tzu wrote that spurning the use of spies out of pride, or because the sovereign resents the expenditure of a little amount of gold, is the height of cruelty — because it leads to more bloodshed than is absolutely necessary. My own view of U.S. foreign policy is that a rich country such as ours ought to get what can be had in exchange for mere money, and that direct if discreet bribery presents what might be in some circumstances an excellent option for dealing with something like, say, the powers that be in North Korea if Kim Jong-un should in fact be dead or disabled.

I argue the point here in the New York Post.

You can buy my new book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America,” at Amazon and other retailers.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support the National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Wednesday is the feast day of Catherine of Siena, saint, mystic, and doctor of the church. In a rare poetic moment, Wikipedia describes her as dying “exhausted by her penances.” There are many bumper-sticker inspirational quotations attributed to her, but her actual writing is much more interesting.

Avarice proceeds from and feeds pride, the one follows from the other, because the miser always carries with him the thought of his own reputation, and thus avarice, which is immediately combined with pride, full of its own opinions, goes on from bad to worse. It is a fire which always germinates the smoke of vainglory and vanity of heart, and boasting in that which does not belong to it. It is a root which has many branches, and the principal one is that which makes a man care for his own reputation, from whence proceeds his desire to be greater than his neighbor. It also brings forth the deceitful heart that is neither pure nor liberal, but is double, making a man show one thing with his tongue, while he has another in his heart, and making him conceal the truth and tell lies for his own profit. And it produces envy, which is a worm that is always gnawing, and does not let the miser have any happiness out of his own or others’ good.

Ezra Pound wrote, “Literature is news that stays news.” You could probably put together a pretty good column for Anno Domini 2020 out of bits of Saint Catherine of Siena written in the 14th century.

Some news stays news.

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Culture

The American Alloy

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(Pixabay)

“Beyond parody” is a tedious cliché, but I admit I would find it very difficult to parody this report from Slate on judicial appointments in Washington State.

While the federal bench grows more homogeneous by the day, Democratic governors are diversifying their state judiciaries to an unprecedented degree. On Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, elevated Grace Helen Whitener to the state Supreme Court. Whitener is a disabled black lesbian who immigrated from Trinidad. She joins Inslee’s two other appointees: Raquel Montoya-Lewis, a Jewish Native American who previously served on tribal courts, and Mary Yu, an Asian-American Latina lesbian who officiated the first same-sex marriages in the state.

(If you were attempting parody, you’d be tempted to give the name “Whitener” to one of her evil conservative opponents.)

I have no reason to doubt that each of the jurists above is competent and highly qualified; Justice Whitener is, after all, a graduate of the 122nd-best law school in the country.

(If you are around my age, you may remember a good deal of organized sneering at Vice President Dan Quayle for his “night-school law degree,” at Sarah Palin for her modest educational attainments, etc. Justice Yu went a more elite route — well done, Notre Dame.)

Progressives have hated the idea of the United States as a metaphorical melting pot for a very long time. I was in high school, in an American-history class taught by a very left-wing teacher (we get those in Lubbock, Texas, too), the first time I heard about the “salad bowl” vs. the melting pot. You know this one: The melting pot implies that immigrants come to the United States and eventually lose their distinctiveness, becoming fully incorporated into the great American amalgam. The “salad bowl” model, on the other hand, insists that immigrants come and retain their distinctiveness — all in the same dish, but everything separate. Fondue vs. salad — that’s a pretty American way of looking at things.

And fondue wins. Fondue always wins.

In the United States, we mix it up and mix it good.

We have people with names like Maureen McNally Singh. Here, “Eddie and Sally Obermueller” can be a Korean-American man and a Vietnamese-American woman. Marriage drives much of this amalgamation: Raquel Montoya-Lewis was born in Spain to an American father (serving in the Air Force at the time) and an Australian-born Jewish mother, who presumably is not the parent who provided Montoya-Lewis her membership in the Pueblo of Isleta, a federally recognized Native American tribe. Mary Yu of Chicago has a mother born in Mexico and a father from China, and hence boasts of being the “first Asian, the first Latina, and the first member of the LGBTQ community to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court.” Kamala Harris, had she been elected president, would have been, as the Washington Post noted, “the first woman, the first African American woman, the first Indian American, and the first Asian American” in that role.

From the Post:

She calls herself simply “an American,” and said she has been fully comfortable with her identity from an early age. She credits that largely to a Hindu immigrant single mom who adopted black culture and immersed her daughters in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.

Two of the four sentences in Harris’s biography on her Senate web page are about her being the first African American or first woman in some role. Politico noted that she was the Senate’s first biracial woman and its first Indian-American woman.

This is not entirely new, of course. Many Catholics were gratified to see Roger B. Taney elevated to the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1836. Catholics had been the targets of serious discrimination: During the ratification debate in North Carolina, delegate William Lancaster worried that there was nothing in the charter ensuring that “papists” and “Mahometans” would be excluded from positions of high authority. The “Truth of the Protestant Religion” was written into the North Carolina state constitution, and established churches at the state level were an accepted part of American life. Massachusetts maintained an established church (Congregationalist) until 1833, only a few years before Taney became chief justice. Catholics, and Americans of all faiths, soon had reason to regret Taney’s appointment and to be embarrassed by it: He was the author of Dred Scott, one of the ugliest misadventures in judicial activism in the Court’s history. Taney the tribal mascot may have given American Catholics a sense that they had finally been accepted, at least by the Democratic Party; Taney the Supreme Court chief justice was a catastrophe.

I have no idea whether any of the Washington State justices mentioned in the Slate writeup will be any good. (My instinctive guess would be: No.) That is, in fact, my complaint with the piece: Surely there are a great many more disabled black lesbian immigrants who are utterly unsuited for a role on a state supreme court than those who are suited. But from a certain identity-politics point of view, those qualities are to be understood as self-recommending.

(Such considerations immediately are reversed for political nonconformists: Joe Biden sought to destroy Clarence Thomas because Justice Thomas is black, not in spite of the fact or with indifference to the fact; Democrats take an especial interest in eliminating Republicans who are black, female, gay, etc., because of those qualities, which challenge their self-declared monopoly on speaking for those groups.)

There is no sense denying that some people, especially those who have been excluded in some way, get a real sense of belonging and justice, and maybe even a bigger sense of their own possibilities, when they see someone who shares certain qualities with them elevated to a position of prominence. Barack Obama’s election was a Very Big Deal indeed for black Americans, and not without good reason. But his health-care program was still a mess from the get-go, and he still relentlessly abused the Constitution and aggrandized the powers of the presidency that he handed off to Donald Trump, still assassinated American citizens abroad and insisted that he had the power to do so on American soil, etc.

That matters, too.

Obama is a textbook example of the melting pot at work, gloriously: white hippie goofball mother from Kansas, economist father from Kenya, defenselessly abandoned to the ravages of a country so convulsed by race hatred that it made him, a nobody senator without even a full term under his belt, president for no obvious reason, choosing him over a deeply experienced, independent-minded war hero. (In fairness, Abe Lincoln himself could have come back from the dead and lost in 2008, which just wasn’t the year to be a Republican.) That’s one of the perversities of American life: The bitterest critics of American culture and American institutions often are those who most dramatically embody the virtues of the American way of life — and, at the same time, some of the most unyielding defenders of the American way are comfortable mediocrities who embody the worst of its shortcomings.

So, yes, disabled black lesbian immigrant — but is she any good?

Words About Words

A reader asks for a refresher on two different words that sound alike: “affect” and “effect.”

Effect is a funny word because it looks like it means the same thing as the word we often use as its opposite: “cause.” “Effect” as a verb means to cause something. “Effect” as a noun means a result that was caused by something else, e.g.: “The effects of the war were disastrous and incalculable.”

So, as verbs, “cause” and “effect” mean the same thing, but as nouns they mean opposite things, as in “cause and effect.” This is kind of irritating, but that’s the way it is. I am reminded of the word “cleave,” which sometimes means to stick to something (like “cling”) or to divide something from something else, which is what a cleaver does. The two senses of “cleave” apparently come from two different proto-Indo-European roots that eventually converged onto what looks like a single English word, in which two English words are hiding.

You could, in principle, “effect an effect,” and perhaps even do so effectively, but I do not recommend it. Wouldn’t be efficacious.

“Affect” means to influence something or someone, especially in the sense of touching someone emotionally: “The soldiers who liberated the camps in Germany were deeply affected by the brutality of what they saw.”

“Affect” also means to adopt some mannerism or style pretentiously, as in “an affected accent” or “an affected literary style,” something we know absolutely nothing about here at The Tuesday. 

Rampant Prescriptivism

“None” is singular. It is a contraction of “not one.” E.g., “None of us knows what the future holds,” not “None of us know what the future holds”; and “None of us is ready for it,” not “None of us are ready for it.” Just substitute “not one” in there, and it will make sense.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

Home and Away

I have a new book coming in October, available for pre-order now. It is called Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America.” It is a collection of reporting and essays for National Review dealing with poverty, addiction, and other troubles. I’d like to do something to incentivize pre-orders. What would you like? Send your suggestions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

The book includes expanded versions of some well-known pieces with new material, and some pieces that may have escaped your attention. Stormy Daniels makes an appearance, as do eviction courts, lottery scratchers, Colorado marijuana entrepreneurs, Bernie Sanders, Texas separatists, California separatists, West Texas oilfield roughnecks, der Apfelstrudelführers, and much more, though I suspect there may still be a little bit of shuffling around what makes it into the final text. I hope there is room for the Flat Earthers.

My report on casino gambling begins in Atlantic City and opens:

We are the Silver Horde, and we are descending — on chartered buses, on Chinatown buses, and on the Greyhound “Lucky Streak” express bus we come, on crutches and canes, lapping obesely over the seats of mobility scooters, adjusting oxygen tubes, discreetly nursing Big Gulp cups full of tequila and Pepsi through bendy straws at three in the afternoon, doing serious damage to complimentary troughs of Cheez-Its and Famous Amos cookies. We are getting comped. Free passes to the all-you-can-eat buffet? Whatever: We have our own dedicated train, Amtrak’s Atlantic City Express Service (read: ACES), and we come rolling and thundering down the tracks bearing our Social Security checks, our welfare checks, and quite possibly our rent checks. We are the blue-rinsed, unhinged, diabetic American id on walkers, and we are scratching off lottery tickets the whole way there as we converge from all points on the crime capital of New Jersey — because we are feeling lucky.

Funny thing about Atlantic City: Nobody feels really obviously lucky to live there. Its population is declining (it has lost 40 percent since its peak), and among the foot soldiers of the gambling industry — blackjack dealers, scantily clad cocktail waitresses, cab drivers — it is difficult to find anybody who actually lives in it. One lightly clothed entertainer working at a particularly gamey establishment along a row of empty commercial buildings, video stores, and the occasional storefront mosque, all within a couple minutes’ walk of the casino district, snorted derisively at the notion of living in the city. “Oh, hell no. Too dangerous.” That’s AC: It’s a great place for a visiting go-go dancer, but she wouldn’t want to live there. Touring the local landscape of decay and disorder, it is hard to imagine why a whole range of American politicians — from such likely suspects as Ed Rendell and Andrew Cuomo to lots of otherwise conservative Republicans who really ought to know better — look at the city’s depressed and depressing precincts, its sad coat of glitz (Sinbad! At the Tropicana!) and say to themselves: “My state needs to get some of that action!”

I’ll have more book news coming.

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In Closing

In this difficult time, please keep in mind the sick and the grieving — and also, especially, the unemployed, for whom much can be done without any specialized training or medical equipment.

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World

The Passive-Aggressive Superpower

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President Donald Trump speaks during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House, April 10, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The leadership of the World Health Organization is awfully eager to please the junta in Beijing. Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) writes in National Review:

In December, the WHO refused to act on or publicize Taiwan’s warning that the new respiratory infection emerging in China could pass from human to human. In mid January, despite accumulating evidence of patients contracting what we now know as COVID-19 from other people, the organization repeated the [Chinese Communist Party’s] lie that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. In January the WHO, at Beijing’s behest, also blocked Taiwan from participating in critical meetings to coordinate responses to the coronavirus and even reportedly provided wrong information about the virus’s spread in Taiwan. These actions are unacceptable and should not be allowed to continue.

National Review editor Rich Lowry writes:

Without China’s deceit and WHO’s solicitude for Beijing, the outbreak might have been more limited, and the world at the very least would have had more time to react. China committed unforgivable sins of commission, affirmatively lying about the outbreak and punishing doctors and disappearing journalists who told the truth, whereas the WHO committed sins of omission — it lacked independence and courage at a moment of great consequence.

All true. What to do?

The Trump administration is calling for cuts to U.S. support for WHO. This is typical not only of the Trump administration but of the U.S. temperament in general when it comes to multinational organizations — and it is especially true when our policies are informed by the populist sensibility. And it is not going to produce the results we want.

The populist Right has long been contemptuous of the United Nations and its affiliates — and not without good reason. (The populist Left is less a bit less hostile, focusing its anti-globalist energies on an enemy it holds in common with the populist Right: multilateral trade accords, trade organizations, and affiliated agencies.) The UN is generally ineffectual and frequently corrupt. Some of its agencies are nakedly left-wing political projects designed to oppose the United States and its allies (e.g., UNRWA), others are centers of boutique radicalism (UNICEF), abortion mania (Commission on the Status of Women), etc. Conservatives cheered when John Bolton declared that we could take the top ten stories off the UN building in Manhattan without its making any difference to the world.

But instead of pursuing a program of genuine robust reform, we have pursued a program of passive aggression — heavy on the passive.

When it comes to the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, there are basically three possible avenues of progress.

We could simply declare these organizations beyond redemption, pull out, and go it alone. Conservatives have long dreamed of abandoning the UN. President Trump has spoken often of his desire to pull the United States out of the WTO. The calculation there is that the United Nations needs the United States more than the United States needs the United Nations, and that the same goes for the WTO — and that without the United States, these organizations would become incoherent and, eventually, inactive. The United States, this argument goes, would be in a better position to pursue its own interests unilaterally. Those are some pretty big assumptions; but, in any case, the United States has never shown any convincing willingness to pursue reform through exit.

We could work to reform these organizations. That would mean engagement with a level of energy, intelligence, and capacity for sustained long-term action that our federal government has not shown in some time. That would also mean weathering the populist passions on both sides of the aisle in the pursuit of an agenda that is the one thing our so-called nationalists cannot abide: authentically national, meaning a consensus program defined by genuine broad national interests and not by our desire to hand out favors to special political constituencies (e.g., zombie firms such as General Motors) or to use the international stage to act out dramas rooted in domestic tribal rivalries.

We could abandon these organizations and attempt to replace them with new ones, preferably in alliances of liberal-democratic countries with a shared commitment to basic principles including procedural democracy, freedom of speech, property rights, the rule of law, minority rights, etc. One immediate challenge would be forging an American consensus on freedom of speech, property rights, trade, etc., which has at least partly unraveled. This, too, would demand of us a level of activity and commitment that the U.S. government may not be able to muster.

Or we could go with none of the above.

Instead of one of those options, we bitch and moan and complain, we make toothless threats, and we sometimes dickey around with tariffs, as though that were going to bring Beijing to heel. That’s a joke: The Trump administration, whose trade warriors present themselves as the tough guys when it comes to China, got bought off, and cheap, with some easily broken promises about increasing U.S. exports to China in the future.

Getting real reform out of Beijing would take something else entirely. It would be nice to have, say, a leading voice in an Asia-Pacific economic bloc that includes every major economic power in the region except China, one that was designed specifically to counteract the outsized influence Beijing has in the area — which is exactly what the Trans-Pacific Partnership was supposed to be. That instrument was scuttled by so-called nationalists who couldn’t figure out which end of that shotgun to point at the target.

If we really want to see change in China — and don’t want to go to war in pursuit of “regime change” — then we have to be willing to use the tools that will actually get that job done, which isn’t a national sales tax on imported flip-flops. And it isn’t the United States threatening to leave the WTO: It is the United States, Canada, Mexico, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia threatening to expel China from the WTO and impose economic sanctions on the Beijing government, and doing so with a united diplomatic front. “Globalism” is precisely the instrument with which to bring Beijing to heel. Unilateralist tough-guy talk (and we’ve been hearing that since Bill Clinton in the 1990s — remember the “Butchers of Beijing”?) has got us nowhere and will get us nowhere.

Complaining is not going to get it done. Neither is cutting our contribution to this or that international agency — do you really think that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus et al. are going to start flying coach if we short them a few hundred million, or do you think that money will come out of actual operations? We already know the answer to that.

If you want to be treated like a superpower, then act like a superpower.

Words About Words

“Choate” is not really a natural word; it is a lawyers’ neologism of relative recent vintage. Though it mostly appears in legal contexts, choate was first popularized, controversially, by a young man who did not attend law school: Winston Churchill, who was an uneven student, easily bored, and who was pushed in the direction of a military career early on. “For years I thought my father, with his experience and flair, had discerned in me the qualities of military genius,’ he wrote. “But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar.” Churchill, one of the great writers of his time as well as one of the greatest statesmen, once wrote of a “choate and integral conviction” and was roundly mocked for it, including in the pages of the New York Times. The word “inchoate” looks like it should mean “not choate,” but it does not; it derives from a Latin word, incohāre, meaning “to begin” or to make a first effort at. Something that is inchoate has been begun but not fully developed: an inchoate political program, an inchoate plan for a course of action, etc. The faulty back-formation “choate” has worked its way into the legal lexicon.

But not without a fight. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was known to stop lawyers using the term and lecture them about its illiteracy. National Review contributor Bryan Garner, editor of the Dictionary of Legal Usage and a widely admired authority on general usage, authored a book with Justice Scalia (Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges) and told Ben Zimmer of the New York Times that the justice was “disgusted” by the word. Zimmer writes:

A lawyer named Randolph Barnhouse learned this lesson the hard way in November when he appeared before the Supreme Court as counsel to a company selling tax-free cigarettes over the Internet. Barnhouse said the opportunity to recover taxes on the cigarettes was an “inchoate” interest, not yet fully formed. “Any recovery would not be property until it became choate, until there was an amount of money assigned to it,” he explained.

Scalia stopped Barnhouse cold. “There is no such adjective,” he declared. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as choate. There is inchoate, but the opposite of inchoate is not choate.”

Not willing to let the matter go, Scalia went on, “It’s like gruntled,” noting that some people mistakenly think that the opposite of disgruntled is gruntled. (Tell that to P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote in one of his “Jeeves” novels, “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”)

This isn’t the first time that Scalia has publicly assailed choate. Back in December 1992, when hearing the oral argument for I.R.S. v. McDermott, he told a hapless lawyer, “You know that there is no such word as choate,” arguing that “choate is to inchoate as sult is to insult.” When it came time for Scalia to write the majority opinion in that case, he had to do some creative editing when quoting a 1954 precedent, United States v. New Britain, in which Justice Sherman Minton used the dreaded word.

Some of these innovations are useful, and some are of such long standing that the erroneous derivation behind them has been almost lost to memory. (“Cherry,” for example, came into English as the false singular of the French cherise, which sounded to someone like it should be the plural of “cheri” but is not.) Some novelties simply accrete into our decadent language with no aesthete there to babysit English usage, contracept these abuses, or legislate against them.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader, Robert, writes in to give Peggy Noonan some well-deserved grief for writing that New York City is the “epicenter” of the 2020 pandemic. Epicenter, which I briefly touched on in an earlier edition of The Tuesday, is one of those words that have a feeling of importance to them — why write about a plain old center when you might write of a fancy new epicenter? — but it does not mean center. The center of an earthquake is below the surface, and so for convenience we speak of the epicenter, which is the point on the Earth’s surface above the actual center of the earthquake. A surface phenomenon such as an epidemic (or pandemic, which really means the same thing but sounds more intense) does not have an epicenter — it has a center. “The epicenter of the world is any point on its surface,” Robert writes. That is true, and the Wall Street Journal headline atop Noonan’s column, “New York Is the Epicenter of the World,” is nonsense on stilts.

Send your language questions to thetuesday@nationalreview.com.

Home and Away

Reviewing an excellent new biography of Michael Bloomberg in Philanthropy, I write about the former mayor’s success as a political plumber — seriously, he applied his data-nerd thing to grease clogs in the city’s sewers and was successful at it.

As a libertarian-leaning conservative, there is much about Bloomberg — his views and his style — that doesn’t exactly fill me with warmth. But while I’m not pro-Bloomberg, this book reminds me there are reasons to be anti-anti-Bloomberg. The nerdy omnicompetent manager we meet in its pages did some profoundly useful things in New York City. And he could be powerfully helpful to his country in the future as a private fixer of public problems. If he can locate the right clogs in the system to focus on.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

This is the beginning of the Easter season, when Christians celebrate the redemption of the world through the Resurrection. At the same time, Jews celebrate Passover, commemorating their delivery from slavery in Egypt. In March, Hindus celebrated Holi, their spring festival, and in late May, Muslims will conclude a month of Ramadan fasting with Eid al-Fitr. The sense that the world requires renewal, moral and physical, is very close to universal. Perhaps there is something in that worth meditating on in these difficult times.

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Law & the Courts

Dungeons and Dragons and Jurisprudence

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(Pixabay)

I suppose that for the rest of my life my name will be invoked every time The Atlantic publishes something controversial, as any good magazine does from time to time, or something dopey, as even the best magazines occasionally do, despite the efforts of their editors.

And so it has been with the case of Adrian Vermeule, the Ralph S. Tyler Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and one of those Catholic “integralists” we keep hearing about, a recent convert who recently took to the pages of The Atlantic to offer an argument that conservatives should abandon their “originalist” jurisprudence and, with it, “legal liberalism” in toto in favor of a jurisprudence of right-wing authoritarianism in the prescribed Catholic-integralist mode, one that “is not tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them,” one that does not understand “liberty as an abstract object of quasi-religious devotion,” one that “does not suffer from a horror of political domination,” etc.

He engages in a bit of rhetorical base-stealing that already is tedious and familiar, calling his program “common-good constitutionalism,” cf. Senator Marco Rubio’s “common-good capitalism,” Sohrab Amari’s call “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” et cetera ad nauseam.

Predictably, the usual people made the usual complaint — not mainly about Professor Vermeule’s views but about The Atlantic’s decision to publish them. This is how we talk about these things now: Professor Vermeule’s ideas must be bad, because Professor Vermeule is bad, which he must be, because only a bad person would hold such ideas. The conversation takes the form not of an argument but of an indictment, as is typical of our times. Professor Vermeule’s offenses include making jokes about making Mass attendance obligatory and celebrating Francisco Franco’s policy of arresting Communists and putting them on chain gangs as a form of rehabilitation through forced labor. I wrote to Professor Vermeule to ask about these, and he answered — and let me just say directly here that I do not believe him, even a little bit — “I don’t know what tweets you’re referring to.” He then suggested I should “find a better topic.” The pettiness of our new right-wing authoritarians is as reliable as the rotation of the Earth, if my fellow Catholics will forgive me for bringing up that sore subject.

Professor Vermeule’s holding certain views and communicating them in a journal that American progressives regard, not without some reason, as their own preserve of polite opinion is in these sanctimonious times to be understood as an offense against public morality. I suppose that Professor Vermeule must smile about that: Bringing back formal sanctions for offenses against public morality is central to the agenda of the sanctimonious anti-liberal project that he seeks to advance. I trust the irony is not lost on him. Reviving comstockery is a very amusing project for a man named Cornelius Adrian Comstock Vermeule.

Professor Vermeule is an étatist in the most direct sense, who describes his political project as an effort “not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power . . . but instead to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.”

[L]aw is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them — perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

I suppose there is an ethical objection to be made to the extent that Harvard professors have a positive professional obligation to try very hard not to write stupid things.

It seems too elementary to need to be said, but: We write down laws for a reason. And if we are not to be bound by what the laws actually say, by what we have written down, then there is no law in any meaningful sense. There is only power and rhetoric — which, in fact, is the main contention of “critical legal theory,” which is founded on the familiar Marxian notion that everything is, when seen straight on, about the eternal class struggle. Critical theorists just dig out the ugly truth behind the façade of liberalism, democracy, human rights, whatever. I believe that Professor Vermeule has enough wit to understand that he and others like him have simply taken the intellectual apparatus of progressivism, with its contempt for individual liberties and its faith in the magisterial state, and proposed filling that box with right-wingery rather than left-wingery, albeit right-wingery of the anti-capitalist and anti-liberal kind: Not only will we have to do away with “libertarian assumptions central to free-speech law” but also “libertarian conceptions of property rights.” Another way of saying “libertarian conceptions of free speech and property rights” would be “free speech and property rights.”

This is a familiar kind of silliness, even sillier than Professor Vermeule’s dreaming of a fantastical “Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe” accompanied by “the world government required by natural law.” That is not politics — that is a right-wing Catholic fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons but slightly dorkier and much more sanctimonious.

But the less-exotic silliness is more immediately relevant. That silliness has a familiar source: It is the fact that specialists reliably overestimate the importance of their own fields. Lawyers believe that the way to reform the world is to change the law; it was a poet who thoughts poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; the self-aggrandizing character of journalists is well-known; scientists often take a utopian view of science and erroneously believe that science can supplant politics, relieving us of the burden of disagreement; members of Congress, who spend their time sitting on committees, reflexively propose to solve problems by convening a new committee.

The law is important and powerful — as are science, poetry, etc. But it is not powerful in the way Professor Vermeule imagines it to be. He gets the arrow of causality backward: We do not have abortion and no-fault divorce because the law professors forced them on the people against their will; we have them because the people demanded them — they were not taught, habituated, or formed by the law, but something closer to the opposite happened. (It is worth keeping in mind that no-fault divorce and abortion rights were brought into force in no small part by the efforts of the nation’s most right-wing governor at the time, Ronald Reagan of California.) The law did not transform the people, even when it was construed, as in Roe, in a way “that it is not tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them,” i.e., when the judges impose their own moral preferences on the nation under color of law. The people transformed the law. The notion that an authoritarian state, unconstrained by liberalism and “libertarian” notions of rights, is going to reflect the moral vision of . . . a few dozen crackpot Catholic intellectuals, mostly within 125 miles of the Acela tracks, is preposterous.

Professor Vermeule is practicing a kind of Ivy League Trumpism. He derides the “defensive crouch” of originalism and demands instead a more forceful approach “that refuses any longer to play within the terms set by legal liberalism.” That is Harvard Law for “He fights!” (Again, more role-playing games.) But the American Constitution is a defensive document — it offers defense against the princely powers that Professor Vermeule would unleash, and defense against ochlocracy, the mob politics that would in fact dominate the magisterial state Professor Vermeule imagines taking its direction from the Magisterium. Not that there is any mention of the Catholic hierarchy in Professor Vermeule’s essay — Pope Francis seems to have cured the Catholic Right of its ultramontanism, leaving the Holy Father with only two more miracles to go for sainthood.

But there are miracles and there are miracles. That “defensive crouch” is the best thing we’ve got going — long live the defensive crouch in all its expressions: the Bill of Rights, federalism, separation of powers, the rule of law rather than the rule of overexcited Catholic converts . . . .

Words About Words

Ben Southwood, formerly the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute, writes about my hometown: “Lubbock, TX, is a city of 250,000 souls. I can’t find a single high street in the entire city & the ‘downtown’ in its Wiki pic is a gas station and hotel parking lot. Is it the largest city in the world without a ‘downtown’?”

“High street” is a British expression not commonly used in American English. It means a commercial street with shops. “High street” has a connotation of “mass market,” as in “high-street fashion,” meaning the sort of thing that you could buy at an American shopping mall.

“Downtown” in the sense of a core urban business district comes to us from New York City, where the business district was in the oldest part of the city — southern or “lower” Manhattan, hence “downtown.” Downtown meant shops and offices, whereas uptown was more residential and much less densely populated — families were operating farms in upper Manhattan until well into the 20th century.

The uptown-downtown convention quickly spread from Manhattan to other cities (indeed, the oldest surviving use of the term in print refers to central Boston), even when it made no geographic sense — most cities lack Manhattan’s strong north-south orientation, because they lack its unusual geography, being an eyot. (Or ait, pronounced like “eight,” meaning an island in a river. This is a word you probably will not see outside of Middle English, a crossword puzzle, or a conversation with an old Londoner, who may refer to the aits in the Thames.) It does not have very many competitors, but it does have a few: In Philadelphia, the center of the city is called “Center City” because “downtown” long referred to South Philly and, by metonymy, to the Italian-American mafia that once dominated that neighborhood. To say that a New York businessman has investors from downtown means that he got money from Wall Street; to say that a Philadelphia businessman has investors from downtown means that he got money from the mob.

Or a different kind of mob, anyway.

Downtown Lubbock as it had been ceased to exist on Monday, May 11, 1970, when an F5 tornado stormed through the city, leveling about 25 square miles of homes and businesses and killing 31 people. As I understand it, no tornado of that size has hit the urban core of a city since then. The tornado that just tore up Nashville was an F3, for comparison. The destruction of downtown Lubbock coincided with the beginning of the golden age of the American shopping mall; when the South Plains Mall opened in 1972, there was little incentive for retailers to return to “downtown” or remain there.

Instead, they kept moving down: Continuing in the long history of ignoring the geographic implications of the term, “downtown” Lubbock is far to the north and the east of the city’s geographic center as the city continues growing in a southwesterly direction. 

Rampant Prescriptivism

“Enormity” looks like it should mean “enormousness,” but it does not mean that. An enormity is not something big but something evil — something bigly evil. Intentionally starving 4 million Ukrainians to death in order to make a political point was an enormity, one of the many great crimes of socialism. But to remark upon the enormity of, say, Taylor Swift’s music sales entails a moral judgment that may not be intended.

Please send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

Home and Away

On the subject of shopping malls and their long decline, see my National Review report here.

My work sometimes appears in Portuguese, a language I do not speak, because I apparently am a little bit popular in Brazil, a country I never have visited. Here I am, on our coronavirus response, in Gazeta do Povo.

The excellent people over at the Foundation for Economic Education reprinted my essay on manufacturing and the superstition of “job creation” here.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Professor Vermeule calls for a “substantive” right-wing jurisprudence, as opposed to a jurisprudence of process. This points to one of the fundamental differences between the classical-liberal tradition and the progressive position. For the classical liberal (the American conservative), justice as a legal matter is mostly a question of process: The parties are given their day in court, they present their arguments before an honest judge or jury, the law is followed, and a decision is rendered.

Hence Robert Bork’s rejection of “substantive due process,” which he rightly considered a contradiction in terms, a license for judicial activism “wholly without limits, as well as without legitimacy.”

In that famous flag-burning case, Justice Antonin Scalia did not rule according to what he wanted — to punish the flag-burners — but according to what the law says. The “substantive” model of justice says, Damn procedure and the letter of the law, I have things that I want, those things are good and just, and you must give them to me!

For progressives, the legal question is secondary to the political question: They will have their abortion rights, or their constitutional gay-marriage mandate, and they will take it on whatever terms they can get, simply back-filling in whatever pretextual legal “reasoning,” if you can call it that, serves for the moment. “Substantive” conservative jurisprudence is the same bad-faith model with a different policy agenda.

That is how advocates go about their business, of course: The defense and the prosecution both know what verdict they want when they go into court. What progressives — and Professor Vermeule — propose is to have judges take on the same role: Pick a side and put down on paper whatever hocus-pocus serves. That is why progressives fight tooth-and-claw to keep non-progressives off the Supreme Court — not because progressives are afraid that these judges will not give them a fair reading of the law as it actually is written but because they are terrified by the prospect that they will do exactly that. To reduce judges to the role of mere political factota undermines the idea of an independent judiciary and with that the possibility of responsible self-government. That kind of judicial politics already has done terrible damage to our republic and to the legitimacy of the very state that Professor Vermeule et al. would seek to aggrandize.

What Professor Vermeule is offering is not a philosophy of law — it is a temper tantrum: “I want! I want! I want!”

No, no, no.

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U.S.

‘Shane, Come Back!’

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A message on an electronic display inside a mostly empty 42nd Street subway station in New York City, March 20, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” where we are old enough to remember those weeks when the evening news began “America Held Hostage! Day 84!” This was when there were a lot of bumper stickers reading, “Kick the Shiite Out of Iran!” We also are old enough to remember when “the evening news” was a going concern.

‘Shane, Come Back!’

The Trump administration has extended its advisory against nonessential travel and social gatherings through the end of April. It would have been irresponsible to do otherwise, though that is hardly the same thing as saying that the Trump administration could not do something else. It is an irresponsible administration. It seems likely, at the moment, that the nation’s regime of self-quarantine through “social isolation” will extend past April. This will impose a terrible price on people — “the economy” is people — and looks likely to fall most heavily on those who are least able to bear the burden.

Meanwhile, we wait it out. Meanwhile, we hide.

One of the terrible things about the current crisis — beyond the obvious death and suffering — is the terrible passivity it imposes. After 9/11, an old friend of mine who had a pretty nice career in the entertainment business stopped everything and joined the Army, not something a lot of people do in their 30s. Our friend David French was a Harvard-trained lawyer pushing 40 when he was deployed to Iraq. The U.S. military is more discriminating than it once was, because modern American war-making requires more technical knowledge and complex coordination than it once did, but you do not have to have an Ivy League degree to join the Army. It is something an ordinary young man, or many ordinary young men, can do. And that was even more the case during the great national crises of the 20th century, when ordinary young men not only had the opportunity to go and fight but were expected to do so — and, in some cases, compelled to do so. There was a role for the ordinary man to play in the great drama of the time. An ordinary man could be a hero.

I am grateful not only to the medical professionals who are putting themselves at great personal risk in this crisis (nurses are dying in New York City already, and others are sure to follow) but also to the people who are stocking grocery-store shelves, driving trucks, making deliveries, and doing other ordinary work in extraordinary circumstances. (Complain all you like about “gouging,” I hope they are just ratcheting up their wages relentlessly. Markets work!) Honest work is respectable, in good times and in bad times, and our national tendency to sneer at any job that does not require an advanced degree or a mass-marketable talent in sports or entertainment is one of the worst aspects of contemporary American life. But, that being said, telling a man that the best thing he can do in this global crisis is lock himself up at home with a month’s supply of Hot Pockets and binge Netflix — or, if he wants to really live on the edge, sign up to deliver Amazon packages — is uninspiring.

Meanwhile, we wait it out. Meanwhile, we hide.

One of the great social problems of our time, related to the abovementioned sneering at old-fashioned work, is the social inutility of men — or, more precisely that of traditional masculine virtues. In Anno Domini 2020, the returns on technical knowledge are very high, as are the returns on certain kinds of social skills (organizational management) and (ahem!) a certain kind of verbal cleverness. But we have a lot less use for capacities such as physical strength and physical courage, endurance, the capacity for violence, and the many kinds of much more literal self-sacrifice that were absolutely necessary when the world was less connected and more dangerous. We have known this for a while: There is a reason beyond Loyal Griggs’s cinematography that Shane was a hit in 1953, when the nation was looking away from the battlefield and toward the boardroom for its sense of direction: The wounded gunfighter has to go riding off into the sunset — he is far too dangerous to keep around the homestead.

This is a great time to be Odysseus, and not a very good time to be Ajax. But relatively few men have the capacity, or any great desire, to be slick. My own guess is that about 99 and 44/100 percent of the Right’s illiberal neo-nationalism and the Left’s bearded shop-apron hipsterism is a reaction to this, a manifestation of the desire of men to obtain status through traditionally masculine means. The smart guys are selling these guys expensive straight razors and dietary supplements — which you can probably do pretty easily during an extended bout of social isolation.

Meanwhile, we wait it out. Meanwhile, we hide.

Words About Words

“Regime” is not a dirty word. Consider this from Slate: “‘The Wuhan model’ was definitely successful on one front: The extremely harsh containment measures that punished those who broke them worked in limiting spread, and now infections are on the decline in China. But China is a regime. Here, we focus on our own civic sense. Are Italians, French, Europeans, or Americans ready to show how strong their civic sense is, when it means giving up their personal freedoms?” (The author, Greta Privitera, is an Italian journalist.) “Regime” often is used to describe an authoritarian system, but it simply means a way of doing things, a program, the rules under which an activity or a process takes place. It is functionally similar in many uses to the word from which it is derived, “regimen,” the Latin word for “rule” that English borrows. Like the English “regimen,” “regime” also has connotations specific to health and fitness: “an exercise regimen” or “an exercise regime.” In political writing, “regime” often is used to describe a legal or regulatory settlement, especially one that is or may be contested: “Abortion regulation under the Roe regime,” “the deficiencies of the ACA regime,” etc. “Regime” in this sense need not be understood as necessarily pejorative, though one suspects that the odor of authoritarianism (and hence of illegitimacy) that has attached to the word makes it attractive to some writers for that purpose.

“Turbo” also is not a dirty word. “Turbo” is an excellent word, a lovely word, a word worth hearing, especially when it describes the right kind of automobile. A “turbocharger” is a device that enhances the power of an internal-combustion engine by forcing more air into the combustion chamber. (Fire needs oxygen.) It was natural for “turbocharged” to take on a metaphorical meaning, e.g. “the tax cuts were intended to turbocharge the economy.” (Intended to.) A grumpy man may be overheard to address an overexcited person: “Settle down, Turbo.” Etc. But English has a funny way of coming full circle, and now “turbo” is once again being used to describe cars that are extra-fast but, in a modern twist, cars that are not actually turbocharged at all: Porsche, to take the most prominent example, has decided to call its flagship electric vehicle the Taycan Turbo. The Taycan Turbo is not turbocharged — it cannot be turbocharged, in fact, because its electric motor involves no combustion and hence no intake of air. (I suppose it would be more accurate to say that with an electric motor, the combustion is outsourced to the power plant that produces the electricity used to charge the car battery; that fashionably green electric EV may in fact be coal-powered. Batteries don’t charge themselves.) And so in this usage “turbo” simply means “fast” or “faster.” I cannot say that I approve, but the branding departments of automobile companies are full of adjective-happy howler monkeys — remember when any car with fake-leather seats and power windows was described as the “executive” version?

Rampant Prescriptivism

The word that refers to the things that are unique to men or unique to women is “sex.” The word “gender” is a grammatical term (related to the word “genre”) that describes the classification of nouns in certain languages. And long before the choose-you-own-adventure approach to sex in our time, those famously progressive ancient Romans recognized three genders — not that they thought these grammatical conventions had anything to do with sex in the real world. Unlike modern Americans, who wet their pants with guilt and shame if they absent-mindedly refer to the head of the English department as its “chairman,” the Romans were perfectly able to comprehend, e.g., that the words for certain professions typically held by men had feminine endings: agricola (farmer), poeta (poet), nauta (sailor), etc. Nobody thought that men were subtly excluded from the agricultural occupations because the word for “farmer” was agricola instead of agricolus. (The stereotypical sexual plasticity of sailors, referenced by Winston Churchill when he dismissed naval tradition as nothing more than “rum, sodomy, and the lash,” is a subject for another time.) The abuses of English in the service of feminist sensibilities are well-known: “chairman” to “chairwoman” to “chair,” but, strangely enough, not “cowboy” to “cowgirl” to “cow.” What should be appreciated here is that the elevation of “gender” over “sex” — the elevation of the interpretative and metaphorical over the physical and literal — is an ideological project, one that should be resisted.

Home and Away

Some of you may have heard of this Jonah Goldberg fellow, who has a podcast. You can listen to my conversation with him on that podcast here. Generally, the lack of video on these audio podcasts is all upside, but, in this case, you don’t get to see my dachshund.

In National Review, I argue that the coronavirus epidemic is the first global crisis of the post-American era. The world is going to miss American leadership, I think. I am not sure if Americans will miss it as much.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

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In Closing

CNN’s Michael Smerconish and I have been a little bit acquainted for a long time. I was a suburban newspaper editor in Philadelphia when he was getting started in talk radio there, and I always have loved the story he told about convincing his children, very young at the time, that if they saw a billboard or a bus advertisement with his face on it (these were ubiquitous in Philadelphia for a time), then that meant that he could see them, too. That is precisely the kind of terrorism out of which Grade A fatherhood is made, right up there with an irritated Henry Jones Sr. demanding that an excited young Indiana count to ten — in Greek — before interrupting him in his study.

Smerconish’s insight into the infantile mind still serves him well: On March 18, he predicted on Twitter that Donald Trump would seek to put his own signature on any stimulus checks that were sent out to Americans as part of the coronavirus-emergency stimulus. On March 27, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump desires to do exactly that:

Mr. Trump has told people he wants his signature to appear on the direct payment checks that will go out to many Americans in the coming weeks, according to an administration official. The White House didn’t comment. Normally, a civil servant — the disbursing officer for the payment center — would sign federal checks, said Don Hammond, a former senior Treasury Department official.

There is an epidemic under way. Hundreds of thousands of people already are sick, and the number is likely to reach into the tens of millions before this is over. Thousands of Americans already have died, with many more sure to follow. There are shortages of everything from medical masks to ventilators, the U.S. government’s response has been a series of bungles (negotiations with GM have been a tragedy of errors, a typical one), and President Donald J. Trump, occupant of the highest office in the land and the most powerful political figure in the world, is thinking about how he might use this for petty personal aggrandizement.

Are the media unfair to President Trump? At times, yes. Are the Democrats awful? Of course. But it is not the media or the Democrats forcing President Trump to conduct himself in this clownish fashion. He behaves like a clown because he is a clown-souled man. The Right’s excuse-making (and its positive celebration) of this clownishness is well beyond what political necessity requires or decency allows. It is shameful, and it will come with a price in the end.

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Most Popular

The Fragility of the Woke

A TikTok video that recently went viral on social media showed a recent Harvard graduate threatening to stab anyone who said “all lives matter.” In her melodrama, she tried to sound intimidating with her histrionics. She won a huge audience, as she intended. But her video also came to the attention of the ... Read More

The Fragility of the Woke

A TikTok video that recently went viral on social media showed a recent Harvard graduate threatening to stab anyone who said “all lives matter.” In her melodrama, she tried to sound intimidating with her histrionics. She won a huge audience, as she intended. But her video also came to the attention of the ... Read More

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More

The Winds of Woke

Before Thursday morning I had not heard of Thomas Bosco, and I am willing to bet you haven’t heard of him either. He runs a café in Upper Manhattan. From the picture in the New York Times, the Indian Road Café is one of those Bobo-friendly brick-lined coffee shops with chalkboard menus affixed to the wall ... Read More

The Winds of Woke

Before Thursday morning I had not heard of Thomas Bosco, and I am willing to bet you haven’t heard of him either. He runs a café in Upper Manhattan. From the picture in the New York Times, the Indian Road Café is one of those Bobo-friendly brick-lined coffee shops with chalkboard menus affixed to the wall ... Read More